January 17, 2011

Success Stories: 2BigFeet.com

Filed under: Case Studies,Success Stories — Tags: , , , , — Meredith @ 8:53 am

Brandon Eley, author of Online Marketing Inside Out, launched 2BigFeet.com to help men with larger feet find shoes that fit. The company has been growing at roughly 183% per year, year over year, since 2007.

What made you decide to start your business?
We saw firsthand how hard it was to find large size shoes locally. Most stores stopped at size 12, with very few going to 14. Above that, there was nothing to be found. We thought there was an opportunity to sell large shoes online, and we were right.

What factors do you think were most important to making your business a success?
First, we were frugal. We didn’t spend money on the largest warehouse or the nice office furniture. For the first 7 years our desks were folding tables and our chairs were $29 Staples brand office chairs. We still have second hand furniture and computers, and only spend money when it’s absolutely necessary.

We also reinvest a lot back into the company. Instead of pulling the profits out of the business, we reinvest in new styles, more inventory, etc.

Lastly, we never relied on traditional marketing tactics. We tried some print and radio early on and saw very quickly how effective (or ineffective) they were. Since then, we’ve done only online marketing — including email marketing, search marketing — which is far more effective.

What did you do to get the word out about your business when you first started and is this different than what you do now?
When we first started we did everything we could to get the word out. We used banner ads, tried radio, and even had billboards at one point. Most of the advertising we did wasn’t very trackable, but we knew it wasn’t working because we had no traffic.

Now we only do online marketing, which we can track the effectiveness of very closely. It allows us to quickly change our marketing messages to get the biggest bang for our buck.

What are some of your most important marketing tools?
Google Analytics (or any analytics package) is an absolute must. GA allows us to track each campaign independently using special URL’s so we know which ones worked. We also use Google Website Optimizer extensively to test and improve our home page, shopping cart and other key areas of our website.

What is one thing you wish you’d known when you started?
When I started 2BigFeet in 1999 I didn’t know anything about website development or online marketing. I spent the first several years learning as we went. I wish there were great websites and books about online marketing back then, but there weren’t. Fortunately for those starting up now, there are some great resources available.

Did you do everything on your own to get your business where it is today or did you hire help? If you hired professionals, what kind of professionals did you hire that had the greatest impact on your success?
To save money, we did just about everything ourselves. The two times we hired marketing professionals we got burned. The first was a search engine optimization firm that charged us several thousand dollars and delivered absolutely nothing. After six months we finally gave up and started learning SEO ourselves, but the time we lost cost us a lot.

The second professional we hired was a PR firm. We paid them a hefty retainer for 4 or 5 months in hopes that they could get us some media coverage. After paying them several thousand dollars we had not gotten a single article or interview, so again we fired them and did our own PR. Within a few months we were mentioned in several major newspapers, were interviewed on NPR, and were mentioned several times in John Battelle’s bestselling book “The Search.” (Editors Note: We had the exact same experience when we hired PR firms for our online retail business.)

I think one of the biggest reasons we got burnt was that we didn’t have a foundational knowledge of advertising and online marketing. We didn’t know what questions to ask or what to look for in a professional firm. We now routinely outsource tasks to several firms successfully.

What are your most important sources of information for growing your business? (A mentor, certain blogs, magazines, message boards etc)
There are some excellent online resources now that simply weren’t available when we got started. Blogs like Duct Tape Marketing and HubSpot’s Inbound Marketing Blog have excellent advice and tutorials. Associations like NFIB and the SBA can also be great sources of information.

I also recommend getting a mentor. Having someone to use as a sounding board for ideas can be really useful. If you don’t know someone who can help, check out your local Score chapter.

Are there any areas of online business you wish you had more expertise on?
I wish I knew more about online marketing when we started, but it just wasn’t an established field then.

Do you see yourself changing your opinion on business advice as you’re progressing in your own business?
I am constantly changing my opinions! While basic principles stay the same, the tactics change often. As our business grows and matures, we are constantly looking for new and better ways to do things. Something that worked well 5 years ago may not work at all today, and there are new platforms (like mobile) emerging every year.

Success stories is a new feature here at Smaller Box. I interview independent online retailers with over $100,000 in annual sales. If you’re an independent online retailer with over $100,000 in annual sales and you’d like to be interviewed, please contact me.


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November 8, 2010

Success Stories: InvisibleShoe.com

Filed under: Success Stories — Tags: , , , — Meredith @ 11:27 am

Steven Sashen launched InvisibleShoe.com in November 2009, selling “barefoot” sandals for walking and running. Within 4 months it was a $100k+ business. Below he talks about how he did it:

What made you decide to start your business?
I had made some barefoot running sandals for a handful of local runners. The coach said, “Hey, you should do this for real.” I said, “Nah, I’m busy with other things, it would be a distraction.” “Well,” he added, “I have a book coming out and I’d put you in it if you had a real business.” “Hmmmmm….”

I loved the idea of a simple business, offering a useful and fun product at a good price. And I thought I could make it work on the Internet without a lot of effort.

I came home and pitched this idea to my wife, who said, “We’re doing other things and this would just be a distraction.”

So, I waited until she went to sleep and built the website ;-)

Actually, it took about 2 weeks and it WAS a distraction. But the day after we launched, we started making sales.

What factors do you think were most important to making your business a success?
A combination of factors.

The most important seem to be that I stumbled into an easily definable niche market without a lot of competition, and I happened to have SEO and Internet marketing skills. Plus my wife’s and my lives allowed us to jump in with both feet once it became clear that the business had more potential than we thought.

Our combined skillset made things much easier. If it were only one of us working on the business, it would have floundered

What did you do to get the word out about your business when you first started and is this different than what you do now?
I got on the various forums and blogs that talked about barefoot and minimalist running and both announced our new business and participated honestly in the conversations.

I also made a number of videos that I posted all over the web, and did the same thing with articles.

I continue to do all of those on a regular basis.

Now, though, we’re expanding our reach well beyond those channels (I can’t talk about exactly what we’re doing until we launch the campaigns).

What are some of your most important marketing tools?
Participating in Social Media. Knowing how to do Search Engine Marketing (which isn’t the same as SEO).

What is one thing you wish you’d known when you started?
That certain technology hasn’t changed in 20 years (so I wouldn’t be frustrated when I found that out). That is, there’s still not a good, single, integrated solution for a shopping cart with CRM capabilities, a good email marketing component, built-in live chat and help desk, and membership site access controls.

There’s not even a good application that joins all the disparate parts that make up an ecommerce business. I’ve spent at least 100 hours trying to put together everything I need to run a growing company.

Did you do everything on your own to get your business where it is today or did you hire help? If you hired professionals, what kind of professionals did you hire that had the greatest impact on your success?
We got started on our own. We’re only now bringing in professionals in pretty much every domain, from marketing, to IT, to manufacturing.

What are your most important sources of information for growing your business? (A mentor, certain blogs, magazines, message boards etc)
We’re lucky enough to have found mentors with tremendous industry experience. Plus, having been around the Internet for as long as I have, I have lots of friends with great connections. Everyone we’re working with was referred by a friend. Their combined experience is a huge help.

Are there any areas of online business you wish you had more expertise on?
Given how fast we’re growing, I’m having to jump into a more managerial role, faster than I ever have. I wish I had more experience with start-up financing and creating appropriate compensation packages.

And since I’m in an industry in which I have no previous experience, it might have been nice to have more info about how the footwear business works (though, my naivete is probably more helpful since I don’t know what isn’t possible ;-) )

Do you see yourself changing your opinion on business advice as you’re progressing in your own business?
I’m sure that as we get further into the process, I’ll be more discerning about which opinions matter and which are merely opinions. And, if the business grows to the extent we think it will, I’ll be looking for a whole new level of advice, since we’ll be in situations that offer opportunities that are way beyond what I can currently even conceive.

Success stories is a new feature here at Smaller Box. I interview independent online retailers with over $100,000 in annual sales. If you’re an independent online retailer with over $100,000 in annual sales and you’d like to be interviewed, please contact me.


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November 1, 2010

Success Stories: ForTheFit.com

Filed under: Success Stories — Tags: , , , — Meredith @ 7:04 am

Consuelo Bova and her husband started ForTheFit.Com about their kitchen table 5 years ago. They’ve grown the brand into an empire that sources, designs and manufactures items that offer men and women of hard-to find sizes a better overall fit with modern style. Founded in 2005, the company initially focused on the needs of shorter men under 5’9″. Since then, the company has added other hard-to-fit categories for men and women, with more to come!

What made you decide to start your business?
We identified a hole in the marketplace that we thought we could fill. I was a newlywed when I discovered that I couldn’t find clothes for my new, 5’7″ husband at any mall or department stores that fit “off the rack”. Everything I bought required some level of tailoring and the results were expensive and often sub-optimal. I knew he wasn’t the only 5’7″ man out there and wondered how everyone else handled the problem. We researched the marketplace and decided this was a business we should be in.

What factors do you think were most important to making your business a success?
An open mind and determination. You need an open mind to first identify the “problem”- or the type of business you want to start and how you might go about doing it. It probably won’t be obvious, or there would be hundreds of other people with the same business. You also need determination. Just because your mind is open to this new possibility, doesn’t mean anyone else feels the same way. Expect push-back from the most unlikely places- such as vendors or manufacturers you approach to build you products or sample. Vendors we approached to sell us clothing, for example, refused to sell to us because we were online-only or because we were only interested in small sizes. They didn’t understand our concept at all and tried to “educate” us in the need to carry a variety of sizes or the need for customers to be able to touch and feel merchandise in a physical store location. Be prepared for resistance, but don’t succumb to it or your business will never get off the ground.

What did you do to get the word out about your business when you first started and is this different than what you do now?
We overspent on traditional marketing means like print advertising, that just didn’t suit our e-store model.

What are some of your most important marketing tools?
My customer service team and my customer list. Take good care of your customers and they will come back to you every time.

What is one thing you wish you’d known when you started?
I wish I’d had a crystal ball that could have confirmed we’d be going strong after 5 years- I would have slept much better that first year! I think a good dose of patience would have served me well.

Did you do everything on your own to get your business where it is today or did you hire help? If you hired professionals, what kind of professionals did you hire that had the greatest impact on your success?
I started this business with my husband. With our backgrounds in marketing, law and finance, we had most of our bases covered. As far as outside help that has really impacted the business positively, I would say 1) an accountant, and 2) graphic design assistance to build the initial website and logos. Learning to wear all the other hats necessary to make this business grow (fashion and design, web development, photography, customer service and sales, warehouse design and operation- you name it!)- that has been half the fun of growing this business! However, you do need help initially because you can’t learn it all fast enough to get the business off the ground, so it helps to identify the biggest gap in your knowledge that is essential to kicking off the business but would take you too long to learn on your own ad hire outside help (in our case, a graphic artist).

What are your most important sources of information for growing your business? (A mentor, certain blogs, magazines, message boards etc).
I read a book just before I started ForTheFit.Com called, ” Anyone Can Do It: Building Coffee Republic from Our Kitchen Table” (by Sahar and Bobby Hashemi, who founded the UK coffee chain by the same name). It was a funny and informative roadmap to the technical (and emotional) aspects of launching a new, entrepreneurial endeavor. In that first year, I referred back to it constantly, amazed at the parallels that kept arising between my own experience and theirs (and given their ultimate success, it gave me hope at every turn).

Are there any areas of online business you wish you had more expertise on?
Maybe the creative and technical side of things- programming and graphic design, for instance.

Do you see yourself changing your opinion on business advice as you’re progressing in your own business?
Well, sure! With every year, we see new successes, but also make new mistakes and we are constantly growing and changing the business around these learnings. Over time, I expect the advice I give (as well as the advice I take) will grow and change, too (hopefully, getting better with each passing year!)


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October 25, 2010

Success Stories: BlueBuddhaBoutique.com

Filed under: Success Stories — Tags: , , , — Meredith @ 9:06 am


Blue Buddha Boutique, is an online retailer of chainmaille jewelry supplies and handcrafted chainmaille jewelry. Rebeca Mojica started the business in 2003 and for many years operated as a sole-proprietor out of a spare bedroom. An emphasis on superb customer service helped generate a buzz on jewelry forums about Blue Buddha. For many years, Rebeca relied solely on word-of-mouth marketing to grow the business, although the business began advertising in 2008.

In the summer of 2007, Rebeca incorporated the business and hired her first full-time employee. The company saw amazing growth over the past few years–with sales are up 70% this year from 2009–and they now have a staff of 10.

What made you decide to start your business?
I had been making chainmaille jewelry as a hobby for a few months, and decided to start teaching classes in September 2002 to supplement my income. After teaching a couple of classes, I realized that students were looking for places to purchase jump rings (the small metal circles that are the main component of chainmaille). The beads stores where I taught were not interested in carrying jump rings–I don’t blame them, as it’s an entirely different world!

On a whim, I decided to bring some sterling silver jump rings to one of my classes to sell. I wound up selling $300 worth of supplies that day. At that moment I felt like I was on to something. I realized that these students, just like myself, were frustrated with the lack of high-quality product and accessibility of chainmaille supplies.

In February 2003, I officially started my business. At that point I still thought most of my revenue would come from the sale of finished jewelry, and teaching and supplies would simply enhance those sales.

What factors do you think were most important to making your business a success?
Paying attention to what my students and customers wanted was key. I quickly realized that there was a hole in the marketplace for high-quality chainmaille supplies, and so I stepped in to fill that niche. This means I changed my entire business model. I had to be flexible, and open to taking my business in a different direction. Once I started focusing on supplies, the business really took off. In incorporated in 2007 and hired my first employee. Now 95% of sales are supplies and design instructions for other jewelry artists. 80% of sales are online. We have a staff of 10 to complete orders and quality control our inventory.

Even though I kept the door of opportunity unlocked, I still knew I needed to do research when opportunity knocked. And, in some cases, I had to say “no” to what initially sounded like an exciting opportunity. A buyer for a large chain was very interested in Blue Buddha Boutique jewelry. I crunched the numbers and realized there was no way to deliver thousands of top-quality bracelets within their timeframe and pricepoint. I saw that taking on this order would literally run the business to the ground. So I declined, and sales continued to skyrocket.

Even back in the day when I was a sole-propreitor and shipping 4 orders a week, I was thinking, breathing and being business. I looked at other businesses to see what the successful ones were doing and what the faltering ones were doing. I balanced my books weekly and stayed on top of the numbers, always looking for ways to increase the bottom line.

What did you do to get the word out about your business when you first started and is this different than what you do now?
When I first started, I spent a great deal of time on online jewelry forums, sharing my expertise and getting a feel for what people wanted information about. I was careful to not simply use my posts as shameless promotion. Rather I worked to position myself as an expert, and then, when forum readers would visit my website, they would discover that I had an entire line of supplies, tools and resources to help them with their products.

I also taught as many classes as I could at local bead stores and craft shows. Many of the students from those “early days” are still customers today.

Finally, I also tried to go above and beyond for every single order and customer interaction, figuring that happy customers were far more likely to spread the word than simply “satisfied” customers.

Nowadays, I do not have too much time to spend on forums (with the exception of our page on Facebook and a new forum for my upcoming book). Our efforts now focus on me continuing to position myself as one of the few experts in this field–by publishing projects in jewelry magazines and books–and by advertising.

About two years ago we began advertising in jewelry-making publications, and those ads have really propelled sales. We usually feature one new kit or product, and sales of the featured item increase almost instantly when the magazine hits newsstands. We’ve ramped up our advertising efforts this year, and have seen our sales increase by 70%.

What are some of your most important marketing tools?
Our page on Facebook has been excellent for us. It allows us to connect with customers in a very personal and transparent way. If someone has a problem, we can address their concerns and offer solutions in a public way, so other customers can see our responses. Interestingly, though, many of the posts on the Blue Buddha wall on Facebook are unsolicited comments from customers, thanking us for our great products and outstanding customer service! We can really show our human side on Facebook, which makes us more approachable. People want to do business with other (friendly) people…not simply with a sterile web interface. Showcasing our personalities on Facebook helps people connect with us on that important, personal level.

It is also because of Facebook that I got a book deal. I was already writing a proposal for an instructional chainmaille jewelry book when the acquisitions editor of North Light Books found me on Facebook and suggested I submit my proposal to her. I did, and ultimately wound up signing with them over the other publishers I was speaking with. The book is expected to be an important marketing tool to drive our sales in 2011. Blue Buddha will be selling kits for all the projects in the book, making us a one-stop-shop for readers eager to create jewelry.

Our newsletter has also been an important marketing tool, especially because we have several different newsletters, depending on what customers are interested in and their geographic location. We don’t overwhelm customers with daily or even weekly updates, so when they hear from us (every 2-4 weeks), they know they’re getting good information or coupons they can use.

What is one thing you wish you’d known when you started?
I wish I would have realized that my business had the potential to grow to its current size. I set up a lot of somewhat convoluted systems, because they made sense to ME and it never occurred to me that someone else might someday need to use these systems. I mean, I’m happy that our company grew so organically–I’ve never needed to take a loan from the bank–but it means that even now, we are trying to recover from the “Rebeca systems” and implement newer, more user-friendly and integrated systems.

Also – this is a small thing – but I wish I would have known that when I incorporated the company would have to “purchase” the inventory from me, the sole-proprietor. Had I know that, I would have incorporated a LONG time ago, when my inventory was a lot smaller. I waited until we had about $60,000 in inventory, and since the corporation didn’t have that much money to purchase the inventory, it was considered a “loan” from a shareholder (me). So for years, I’ve had this $60K loan sitting on our balance sheet, and haven’t been very good at “paying” myself back. My accountant assures me it isn’t a big deal, but it still annoys me to no end.

Did you do everything on your own to get your business where it is today or did you hire help? If you hired professionals, what kind of professionals did you hire that had the greatest impact on your success?
I did almost everything on my own in the early days (except my taxes–I’ve always had a CPA do the taxes, and that was a great decision for me.)

The professionals that I hired that had the greatest impact on the business were web developers. Originally, I didn’t expect my website to generate much more than local sales. I figured my students would place orders and pick up the items during class. However, once I had a website, I started getting orders from different states and eventually different countries. The first developer I worked with helped me set up a site that was easy for me to update and maintain. Yes I *could* have put together something all by myself, but it would have been ugly and probably not user-friendly at all. Having a dynamic website was a major component of our growth.

To be honest, though, what made the greatest impact on the business was hiring folks to do the “grunt” work. Back in the early days, I did everything, from answering emails to cleaning/polishing jump rings, to assembling kits, to packing orders up and walking to the post office. As soon as I could afford to start delegating those tasks, I did. Because as a business owner, my time was better spent doing things that only I could do and focusing on growing the parts of the business that I wanted to grow. Every few months, I sat down do look at what I was doing on a daily and weekly basis. If there was something that was taking a great deal of my time (and I thought my time would be better spent elsewhere), I’d look at the skills required and see if it made sense to hire a professional or if it was more cost-effective–both in the short- and long-term–for me to do it myself.

What are your most important sources of information for growing your business? (A mentor, certain blogs, magazines, message boards etc)
I have learned so much from Entrepreneur and Inc. Magazine. Yes, many of the companies they feature are so much larger than my company, but the issues they face–marketing, customer service, human resources, pricing–are similar to what Blue Buddha encounters as well. Every single issue has multiple tidbits of information that I can use to grow my business.

Local business development centers in Chicago have been crucial to growing my business. I took multiple classes with the Women’s Business Development Center and also sought advice from their counselors several times a year. Those advice sessions were free, too…and you can’t beat free advice, that’s for sure!

In 2010 I obtained an advisory board through the ATHENA PowerLink program. This means that five times a year, I come together with a group of mentors who have expertise in the particular areas I want to focus on, and we brainstorm my business. Having an advisory board has been an incredible experience, and one that I recommend. These folks have asked me questions, poked and prodded me to look at my business with fresh eyes. They’ve made me admit things that I should have admitted a long time ago. They’ve made me re-evaluate what my role as business owner is if I want to take my company to the $2 million mark. I plan on assembling a new board when my ATHENA PowerLink program is completed.

Are there any areas of online business you wish you had more expertise on?
I wish I could have instant knowledge of the ins-and-outs and bells and whistles of all the e-commerce software programs out there. Every time I try to delve into this, I am quickly overwhelmed by all the options. I wish I could try out different programs and plug-ins every day (and intuitively “know” the programs, rather than having to spend hours learning the basics) until I found the ones that would work best for our business. I wish I could take a peak at how really large jewelry-compenent retailers (or even hardware store retailers, as they have similar inventory issues, of many really small products in various size configurations) manage their sales systems and integrate them with their inventory database and bookkeeping.

Do you see yourself changing your opinion on business advice as you’re progressing in your own business?
Not too much, actually. I have always been a big proponent of seeking as much advice as I can. The more perspectives I have, the better I can evaluate all the possible paths to see which is likely to bring me to my ultimate goal.

When I seek advice, I seek it from trusted sources, and I try to listen without interjecting. I may ask questions or present my concerns about following one particular path over another, but I usually try to let the advice sit in my brain for a few days. Sometimes I can tell right away that the advice is not something that would be best for my business, but other times it takes some analysis for me to see what, if anything, I should take away from that conversation.

Success stories is a new feature here at Smaller Box. I interview independent online retailers with over $100,000 in annual sales. If you’re an independent online retailer with over $100,000 in annual sales and you’d like to be interviewed, please contact me.

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