May 25, 2012

Doing What Your Best At (A.K.A How Not to Fail in Business)

Filed under: Growing Your Business — Tags: , , , — Meredith @ 7:45 am


From time to time we get to chatting with our manufacturers and suppliers and we’ll hear “I really want to do what you guys do, start a label. Can you give me any tips on that?” or “I tried to start a label, it never worked out for me.” While I can understand the appeal of starting a label, it’s not the job description most people think it is and it’s not the job for everyone.

A surefire way to fail in business is trying to take on a job that doesn’t play to your strengths and interests. While some companies succeed in wearing multiple hats, it’s not what works for most businesses. When you are working with products you usually are going to fall into one of the following categories:

1. Manufacturer
My very first attempt at entrepreneurship mainly fell into this category. I liked making stuff for myself and thought it would be fun to make a whole bunch of stuff and sell it online. I pretty quickly realized that I actually hate making stuff. I enjoyed making one or two things for myself, but making hundreds or thousands of things didn’t interest me in the least. It was repetitive, it was boring, it was tedious. I failed because I’d taken on the wrong role for myself. What I really liked was product design, not manufacturing.

If you’re truly happiest chilling in your workshop all day listening to music and cranking out products manufacturing is for you. Maybe you enjoy working with your hands or find the repetitive nature of that work soothing. The world needs makers, so if this is your strength this should be the focus of your business.

2. Retailer
Having a storefront is an entirely different job description than being a manufacturer. To take on this role you’ve got to enjoy working with the public and have a knack for curating and merchandising products. People often ask me if I’m ever going to open a store for Ex-Boyfriend. The answer is probably not. We have no real interest in running a store of our own. We’ll do pop up retail events every few weeks, but we’re always glad when they’re over.

If you love the idea of decorating a space and filling it with your favorite finds and showing your space off to consumers and chatting with people all day, a retail store owner might be the perfect job for you. If those are the things you love, there’s no reason to get bogged down with tasks like product development or manufacturing.

3. Product Developer/Label Owner
This is what I do. My partner and I are most interested in designing and developing products and bringing them to market. We suck at making things, especially in high volume, but we love the design aspect and don’t mind the logistics of coordinating with manufacturers or finding stores to carry our line.

If your strong suit is design and you’re comfortable managing manufacturers and conducting business to business sales, this is the job for you. You can’t spend all day talking to consumers or making products, because you have to spend your time developing new products, coordinating their production and bringing on retailers to sell your wares.

You’re going to need partners…
While it’s possible to do two or more of these jobs, most business owners will find they are best suited to choose one or two at most. Your best shot at thriving is focusing on the role you’re best at and most passionate about. You can choose other businesses to work with to take on those other roles.

If you find yourself struggling with one of these roles, consider whether it’s really what you want to be doing. If you love making stuff but can’t stand sales and marketing, running your own label might not be the best fit for you. Consider working with other businesses that like that stuff and providing them your manufacturing services. If you want to start a store, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to fill it with your own exclusive wares, find labels you want to support and fill your store with those products. Think about what you enjoy doing most and excel with, that should be the focus of your business.


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March 2, 2012

Link Love: The Most Valuable Small Biz Articles Posted This Week

Filed under: Link Love — Tags: , , , , , , , — Meredith @ 8:54 am


Below are my favorite reads from around the web this week:


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February 23, 2012

Are You Just Another Jewelry Designer?

Filed under: Branding — Tags: — Meredith @ 9:02 am

 


I’m picking on jewelry today, but this isn’t actually about jewelry (so listen up if you sell bags, soaps, sock monkeys, etc.). I’m picking on jewelry today because it’s the most common product type out there in the handmade/DIY scene. Everyone seems to think they can make some jewelry, put it on Etsy and make a zillion bucks.

It’s totally possible to launch a successful jewelry business; plenty of people have done it. However, if you want to be one of the lucky few who makes it in a saturated market, don’t count on just doing what everyone else is doing — it ain’t gonna cut it. When you move into a crowded space you need to have a very clear answer to the question “Why should I buy from you instead of your competitors?” Here are some ways you can tackle that:

1. A Special Twist on Your Product Line
One way to set yourself apart from your competitors is by making an otherwise common product in a way that’s special for an overlooked customer base. Products with a special service, feature or target market can do well, even in a saturated space. There are a zillion diaper bags on the market, but maybe not so many specially designed for handicapped parents. There are tons of shoe stores out there, but not so many that focus on unusually big or small feet. There’s certainly a shortage of cute-looking orthopedic shoes.

Think about a niche audience you can serve with your product. If you can’t serve with a niche twist on your product, consider ways you can provide niche service. Zappos sells a lot of the products their competitors sell, but they offer free shipping, free returns, and a 365-day return policy. Their bend-over-backwards customer service helps them shine in a crowded retail space. If you can’t make your product stand out, find a way to make something about your service unique.

2. Killer Marketing
If you can’t stand out with unique products or unique service, you can stand out through brute force and clever marketing. Snorg Tees has become nearly synonymous with online t-shirt shops, mainly because their ads are everywhere. Overstock.com has become an online retail giant, despite lackluster customer service and pricing that’s not as awesome as they claim it is, simply because they advertise nonstop. TOMS shoes has tied charitable giving to their brand, making them attractive to consumers and the press. When you’ve got a brand story that’s tied to doing something positive, it’s easier to get people to talk about you.

Think about what you can do with your marketing to stand out. Can you saturate your audience with ads? Can you spin a story about your line that’s so interesting that the media and customers won’t shut up about it?

3. More Than a Product Line, A Lifestyle
Another way to make your product line special is to make the product line less of a focus for your brand. It sounds counter-intuitive, but sometimes this works. Plenty of brands have found success in selling a lifestyle. Sure, they sell products, but what they sell is almost beside the point. They’re selling an image and that offering is so powerful that the products sell simply because customers want to buy a piece of that lifestyle. Tiffany & Co is a terrific example of a brand that revolves around a lifestyle. They don’t just sell jewelry, they sell luxury, elegance and timeless good taste. They can sell a $125 keychain (and they do) because of the brand image they’ve cultivated. They reinforce this branding with their product photos, store merchandising, product packaging, etc.

Harley-Davidson is another great example of this kind of brand positioning. They don’t simply sell motorcycles; they sell the dream of appearing tough and rebellious, even if you’re really a middle-aged, suburban soccer-dad. They sell belts, jewelry, jackets, you name it! It all sells because it’s emblazoned with their logo and that logo is shorthand for a lifestyle their customers aspire to.

If you think this could be your brand’s ticket to standing out, think about what your brand can do for your customers’ sense of self. Can you position your brand to make customers feel hip, elite, eco-minded, or rebellious? What can you do with your product photos, web design, marketing copy, etc. to convey that kind of message?


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December 6, 2011

Using Exceptional Branding and Package Design to Sell Your Products

Filed under: Branding — Tags: , — Meredith @ 1:30 pm

In yesterday’s post I made reference to Blue Q’s clever use of product packaging to sell a mundane product. I wanted to talk about that a little more today because I think it’s a very valuable tool for selling your wares.

Creating a product that no one else is selling is extremely difficult, I’d be willing to bet the vast majority of my readers aren’t doing this. So if you can’t be without competitors, marketing, branding and package design are your next best options for standing out and appearing to be unique. There are too many people selling soap, bags, candy, necklaces, t-shirts, etc. to simply start another brand with products that are pretty or smell nice or taste good. To be successful, your branding and marketing needs to have something buzzworthy or unique about it.

Below are some terrific examples of companies that are selling completely unremarkable products. Stuff you can pick up at any Rite Aid for less than $5.00. These companies have turned the mundane into something awesome with clever packaging and branding.


So Stinking Sweet has done an amazing job of turning soap into a brilliant holiday stocking stuffer. People might not rush out to stick a bar of Dial in a stocking, but shape the soap like coal, add a cute little gift tag and snap a picture of the soap in front of a spring of evergreen and you’ve got holiday season gag gift magic.


You can get a good old Whitman’s sampler for a few bucks, but that starts to look a little less fun when you can order A Christmas Story themed fudge from Candy Crate. The deliciousness of the candy is almost beside the point, the product packaging is what makes this novelty item pop culture gold.


Archie McPhee is the master of making mundane products fun with great package design. They’ve turned something as clinical and dull as a tongue scraper into a terrific gag gift for a bachelor party.


DippyLuLu cleverly turns a book of matches into a novelty gift with great package design. You can usually get matches for free at your neighborhood bar, but add clever presentation and suddenly the same item becomes a fun little hostess gift.


The Pirate Supply Store is another great example of selling mundane products with clever packaging. Pictured above, is their monkey leash. The leash is literally a length of rope with a label on it, selling for $9.00!

Takeaway for you:
If you can’t create exceptional products, find another way to be exceptional. Product presentation is just as important (and sometimes more important) than the product itself. If you’ve been struggling with a way to make your products stand out take a cue from the examples above. Think about ways to reframe your products in a way that appeals to your customers’ sense of humor, sources of aggravation, personal style, etc.


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December 5, 2011

Your Baby is Ugly! 3 Important Things Your Friends Aren’t Telling You About Your Biz

Filed under: Growing Your Business — Tags: , , — Meredith @ 9:12 am

When you start a creative business it’s natural to ask your friends for input. The trouble with relying on their feedback is that it’s a little like asking them if your baby is cute. Even if it’s the ugliest baby they’ve ever seen, they’re not going to tell you. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. The fact of the matter is, sometimes babies are ugly, and sometimes there are problems with your business that are glaringly obvious to your friends. Here are 3 common things your friends are probably lying about (and what to do about it).

1. Your website
Creating an attractive, user-friendly website is not easy. There’s a reason people spend years getting a degree in graphic design. If everyone could make a great website, the internet would be a whole lot prettier. Those websites that look beautiful were anything but effortless. Most professional websites that you see were designed over weeks or months by a team of professionals. If you think a quick read through HTML for Dummies is going to get you the same results, think again.

The trouble is, when you finish your clashy, tacky, flashy, blinky monstrocity of a site and show it to your friends, they’re not going to tell you it’s bad. They probably aren’t design professionals and even if they know it’s bad, they don’t want to offend you.

The fix:
The best fix is hiring a design professional. There are lots of talented web designers out there who can give you a website to be proud of. If you sell online, that website is going to be the face of your business, so don’t let a bad first impression kill your sales. If your website is a hot mess, customers are going to think your products will be just as shoddy.

If hiring a professional is out, that doesn’t mean using their design work is. Sites such as Template Monster have thousands of pre-made web designs you can purchase. You can even have the themes professionally installed, so you can have a perfectly professional look to your website, without the steep price tag of a custom site. Template Monster has themes for most popular ecommerce programs like osCommerce, Zencart, and Magento. Most themes are under $200.00, and many are even under $100.00

2. Your product photos
The quality of your product photos can make or break your online sales. It doesn’t matter how amazing your products are, if the photos aren’t up to par, customers won’t be buying. Like an ugly website, ugly product pictures don’t engender trust in customers. They’ll think you’re unprofessional and that your products will be cheap and low quality.

Chances are your friends aren’t photographers or experts on selling online, so when they see your product photos they may not be able to critique them properly (and again, they don’t want to hurt your feelings). That doesn’t mean your photos are going to pass muster with customers.

The fix:
Hiring a professional photographer is going to be the safest way to ensure great product photos. They have the proper cameras, lighting and other equipment to get great shots and the experience to stage your products in an appealing way.

If you can’t spring for a professional photographer, get as educated as you can about product photography. Make sure you’re using a good camera. Take cues from professionals about staging product photos (look at catalogs for larger stores for ideas) and shoot with a light box or using natural light.

3. Your products and branding
With so many people trying to start a creative business these days, it’s really hard to compete. To succeed you’ll need terrific products and remarkable branding. You might enjoy stringing beads or knitting scarves, but that doesn’t mean you can start a business with it. Your friends don’t want to be the ones to tell you they’ve seen what you’re doing a million times before, even if they’re thinking it. They also might not be aware of the vast competition out there, so even if they think your items are perfectly nice, they may not understand that several other people are already doing the same thing.

The fix:
You need at least one of two things to stand out in the marketplace: exceptional products or exceptional branding. Ideally, you want both, but plenty of unremarkable products have been saved by clever branding.

Take product lines like Blue Q for example. They sell fairly mundane things like tea bags, but brand them as “Get along with your co-workers tea” and instantly a box that’s no more interesting than a $1.50 12 pack of Lipton becomes a great gag gift for the office that sells for 10 times the price it would fetch in an ordinary box.

If you’re selling something common like soap or mittens, that a zillion other people are selling, you may need to rethink your branding. You have to find some way to position your products in a unique way so people have a good reason to choose your items over the competition.

Take honest stock of what else is out there and really think about what makes your products better and more appealing than the others. Develop a list of benefits and features that your product provides that makes it stand out. If you can’t come up with anything, it’s going to be tough to convince consumers to shop with you instead of someone else.


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October 3, 2011

3 Reasons To Create Your Own Characters and Leave Other People’s IP Alone

I have some really strong feelings about intellectual property (IP) in the design world. On one hand, I think some people are too quick to claim they invented the wheel. On the other hand, it’s totally irritating to watch my competitors trying to make a quick buck off another artists’ creativity, when it’s a legitimate case of infringement.

Yesterday I stumbled across a crafty business who’d based their entire branding around very famous fictional trademarked characters. The characters were not old classics in the public domain like Alice in Wonderland’s crew, they’re characters created in the last 30 years by companies that are currently running their own businesses based on those creations. The designs couldn’t even be protected by parody, they were just blatant cases of infringement. Here’s why this is a bad idea:

1. It could ruin you financially
If you’re caught using someone else’s characters without licensing, you could be sued and you probably won’t win. Being on the wrong side of an IP lawsuit can cost you a fortune. You could be on the hook for your legal fees, the plaintiff’s legal fees and damages. These costs could ruin your business and your personal finances. If your plan is to fly below the radar and not get caught, think again. Anything can be found on the internet.

2. It limits your ability to license
Licensing can be big bucks for designers and illustrators. If you create you own world full of original characters, you can license your creations. The beauty of licensing your original creations is that all you have to do is iron out the licensing details and let the money come in. The licensee handles all of the product manufacturing and sales. This can be a terrific income stream for an artist. If your designs are based around other people’s characters, this option is off the table for you. You can’t license what isn’t yours in the first place.

3. It weakens your brand
Successful consumer brands often strengthen their branding with original characters. This is true of clothing companies (think Paul Frank and his monkey), fast food chains (who could forget Ronald McDonald and his friends?), Travelocity (think Roaming Gnome), etc. The list of brands that have benefited from creating original characters is endless.

When you base your all of creations on other company’s characters, it weakens your brand. At best you’re seen as a one in a million licensor of a famous brand’s creations. At worst you’re seen as an intellectual property thief with no original ideas.

Still thinking about joining I Shop Indie for the holiday season? We’d love to have you. Get your products seen with a marketing budget worth over $2,000.00! Today’s the LAST DAY to take advantage of early registration pricing. Details here.

 

 


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August 8, 2011

Brand Aid: Using Inspiration Boards

Filed under: Branding — Tags: , , — Meredith @ 5:25 am

When you’re trying to establish a loveable and cohesive brand that people go crazy for, it’s important to have a really clear and consistent aesthetic. You want your branding to be consistent through your product photos, web design, and marketing materials.

A great way to start thinking about brand cohesion is by using inspiration boards. Inspiration boards can be helpful in a variety of ways, such as:
- Communicating your brand aesthetic to a web designer you hire
- Keeping yourself consistent with products you design
- Keeping your marketing collateral consistent with your brand’s image
- Collaborating with another designer on a finished product.

We frequently use inspiration boards when doing new designs for Ex-Boyfriend. It’s especially important for us because I often generate the design ideas but my partner actually does the design work. It’s impossible to just download the ideas from my mind’s eye to his and I can’t draw so much as a stick figure. Inspiration boards allow me to easily communicate to him the ideas that I have for executing a design concept.

Contents of your inspiration board can be anything. You can look at fonts, color palettes, magazine cut outs, song lyrics, stills from movies, photos, advertisements — just about any visual elements you feel represent the mood and look you want to achieve.

Once you have an inspiration board, you can share it with designers you hire or collaborate with or just keep it at your own desk or workspace to keep yourself on track.

Not sure what an inspiration board might look like?
Check out Polyvore.com. Polyvore is a community of inspiration board makers, so you can get ideas on how to build an inspiration board for your own brand or product designs.


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June 21, 2011

Converting Customers from Marketplace Shoppers to Fans Who Shop on Your Website

Filed under: Branding — Tags: , , , , , — Meredith @ 8:10 am

Last week I started a discussion about how Etsy and other marketplace websites hinder customer relationships. For a couple of years now I’ve been trying to talk my readers into getting their own ecommerce websites, and not felt like I was getting through to people. I finally hit on a point last week that got some more people thinking. To reiterate, I said “when people ask your customers where they got products they purchased from you, they’re going to say Etsy, not your brand name.” If you want to build your own brand, this is a serious problem.

Last week I also talked about ways to emphasize your brand in the actual package customers receive, but today I want to talk about ways to actually get customers who found you on a marketplace site, to make their future purchases on your website.

Before we talk about this, let’s discuss the 3 things marketplace sites are good for.

1. Hobbyists
If you knit for fun and want to make a few extra bucks, sure sell on Ebay or Etsy. You aren’t trying to run a business and sites like this offer an easy way for hobbyists to make a few bucks.

2. Testing the waters
If you are thinking about starting a business, but not totally committed to the idea, marketplace sites are a great way to test drive the experience. You can see if there’s a demand for your product. You can see what it’s like serving customers, shipping orders, etc. These sites are a great place to try things out, before getting serious about a business.

3. Affiliates
Affiliate marketers are marketers that market products for other people. When the products sell, the affiliates get paid a commission. Traditionally, you would establish an affiliate program on a site like Shareasale, affiliates would join the program on their own, market your wares on their own, and get commissions as they referred sales.

Sites like Etsy, Ebay, Amazon, etc. can be thought of as glorified affiliates. Unlike traditional affiliates, you have to take a more active role in working with them. You pay them fees even if they don’t sell product. You have to list your stuff on their site. That said, they have a huge user community and by virtue of this, they are in a position to refer customers to you, and they do get paid a portion of your sales as a result.

Affiliates are great for customer acquisition, so if those marketplace sites are delivering sales, by all means, maintain a presence there. But don’t hand over your whole business to them. The thing they are doing for you is driving traffic to your shop. In exchange they are getting listing fees and sales commissions. That’s plenty. You don’t need to hand deliver them all of YOUR potential customers that you worked for with marketing, PR, etc. Why should they get a commission on those sales? They didn’t earn them.

So now that we’re clear on why you might want to use a marketplace site, let’s look at some ways to get customers who found you on a marketplace site, so become fans of your brand and users of your website.

1. Brand your products
I can’t state the importance of branded products enough. I’ve purchased more things on Etsy than I can remember. I can only name one actual shop I purchased from. Their name is XS Baggage. I bought a bag from them and their brand name is on a label sewn inside the bag. Every time I use the bag I open it up and see their brand name. That is why I remember them and not anyone else. Next time I need a new bag, I’m going to seek out XS Baggage, not Etsy.

Note that I say branded products, not packaging. Branded packaging is also important, but it is not the same as branding the product. The packaging gets thrown out. If you can find a way to permanently affix your brand name to the product, that is more effective. Some products are easier to brand than others. Earrings may be especially tough. You could get around it by designing a nice case or box to store the item in, like Wild Gems has done. The goal is to give the customer something they will keep that has your business name on it. You really want them to see your brand name every time they use your product.

2. Use Gift Cards and Coupons
Several small business owners reported success with using special offers in their product shipments to customers from marketplace sites. Brett from Scrubadoo says “One of the things we do to make sure our customers know that we appreciate their business is send them a hand written thank you note. We do this for everyone, no matter if they buy 1 item or 10… In those cards we include a gift certificate for free shipping at scrubadoo.com. We have had a decent amount of success with this strategy. In fact, in one of our “client feedback’s” on Amazon a client even mentioned how awesome it was to receive the note and gift certificate.”

Offering a customer a gift card or coupon code for your primary website is a great way to entice them to do repeat business with you directly, instead of a marketplace website.

3. Go Digital
Amber from XMittens says that when she gets orders from marketplace websites she sends “a personalized thank you email from my website’s email address that includes in the signature links to my regular website, to my email list sign up and to any recent press or a recent blog post. Many of my repeat customers originally found Xmittens on etsy and now shop at my ecommerce site instead!”

Following up a marketplace purchase with a branded email inviting the customer to connect with you via your blog, mailing list or social media accounts is a great way to get around the problem of marketplace sites disallowing direct links to your newsletter, blog, Facebook, etc.


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June 15, 2011

Branding in a Box: 3 Ways We’ve Created a Brand That Sticks

Filed under: Branding — Tags: , — Meredith @ 5:29 am

Yesterday I promised to talk about putting your brand experience in a box. This is exactly what we try to do at Ex-Boyfriend. We do tons of things to try to build brand affinity and keep our brand interesting to customers, but here are some examples of how these efforts carry over to the packages our customers receive:

1. Memorable Brand Name
The entire premise of our brand, is that we’re creating products that act as conversation pieces. We are deliberately creating things our customers can wear that make people want to talk to them. Our brand name is part of this, it’s a name that’s funny enough to get people asking “What the heck is that about?” Just the other day the UPS guy told us the staff over at UPS was all chuckling about our brand name and trying to imagine what sort of business we are. All that from seeing our brand name on a shipping label. These are guys that see thousands of packages every day, and our brand name got their attention. That’s a sure sign our brand name is doing what we want it to do.

Of course having a kooky brand name isn’t enough, we want our customers to remember it. That’s why every single thing that comes in our packages has our brand name on it. Every finished product we sell or give away has our company name labeled on it. That way, every time a customer puts on our tees they see the name Ex-Boyfriend in the neck label.

2. Freebies in Every Box
We always include a free, unexpected extra in every package we ship. We include things like stickers, buttons, postcards with a blank back, magnets, pens, etc. These freebies are designed to look cool enough that our customers will want to keep them and use them. The idea is that it puts another thing in our customers’ hands with our branding and helps them remember who we are. It also makes receiving our packages a little more fun, because you never know what fun free extra will be inside. If it worked for Cracker Jack, it can work for us. People might not buy what you sell just to find out what fun freebie is inside, but it does make getting the shipment more memorable.

3. Invoices That Stick
A few months ago I got on my partner’s case about our invoices. I didn’t think they were exciting enough, we’re a fun brand and I wanted everything about our shipments to be fun, including our invoices. I knew I wanted to re-design them but was having trouble getting ideas. I actually tried to do an article here on Smaller Box showcasing other companys’ cool invoices, but when I put out a call for examples, I didn’t get a lot of great stuff back. I finally settled on just taking a stab at a re-design and here’s what we came up with: (click to see an example).

We came up with a design that infused our brand’s graphic theme, took on a more personalized tone, reminded people of our friendly customer service and invited our fans to keep in touch with by sending us a customer photo. We used a conversational tone and graphic elements to add interest to something people usually throw away and never look at twice.

I know a lot of readers are big on detailed handmade package design. While these packages are always nice to get, these ideas don’t scale well when you start shipping dozens of orders every day. When designing a package your customers will remember, always think about cost and scalability (both in terms of labor to prepare the package and the materials used to create it). Try to think of ways you can make your package special for your customers, while maintaining efficient and cost-effective shipping processes.


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June 14, 2011

Is Etsy Hindering Your Customer Relationships?

Filed under: Branding — Tags: , , — Meredith @ 5:08 am

Last week I wrote about the difference between transactional and relationship-based business models. When Etsy mentioned this article in their round up, it drove some readers to Smaller Box who said they were focused on a relationship-based business model, despite having Etsy as their primary venue for an online presence. While you can make this your goal, marketplace websites work against this type of business model. Here’s why:

1. The relationship is with the marketplace
A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend who shops on Etsy but is not a crafter. She asked why we don’t run Ex-Boyfriend through Etsy. I said “You shop on Etsy a lot, right?” She nodded.

I continued, “Imagine you found the scarf you’re wearing on Etsy. If I said to you, ‘hey that’s a great scarf, where did you get that?’ what would you tell me?”

She looked confused and said “I’d tell you I got it on Etsy.”

And that’s why Ex-Boyfriend isn’t run through Etsy. I know when Ex-Boyfriend’s customers are asked where they got their tees, they’ll say Ex-Boyfriend. It’s the only possible answer. They won’t say Ebay, Etsy, Amazon or any other marketplace website. While we do sell some overstock items via Etsy, the hub of our business is through our website, and the main reason for this is that we want the customers to have a relationship with us, not a marketplace website.

I know as a consumer, I think the same way that my friend thinks. I buy stuff all the time on Etsy, Ebay, Amazon, etc. I couldn’t name a single individual seller who I actually bought from on those sites. The entire time I was seeing the marketplace’s logo, getting email from the marketplace website. Of course, that’s the branding that stuck with me.

If you want to build a relationship with customers, they need to know who the heck you are. If another brand name is stuck in front of their face during the transaction, how will they remember you instead of the marketplace?

2. The user experience is dictated by the marketplace
In my article about relationship-based business models, I talked about how these businesses place their emphasis on creating a unique brand experience. This starts the minute a customer steps into your virtual doors. The brand experience is communicated via the web design, product photos, website features (i.e. VIP customer clubs, virtual dressing room aps, etc.) and even on down to product packaging, customer emails, website copy, etc.

Sites like Etsy and Amazon do create a brand experience, but the experience is with Etsy or Amazon, not the people who sell products through them. Etsy looks like a modern indie website, if it had a storefront it would be in Williamsburg Brooklyn. That brand experience is conveyed through the site’s design, features, etc. If that’s not the brand experience you’re trying to create, and you sell there, you’re kind of out of luck.

Check out the different vibes cultivated at sites like Lochers vs Brooks Brothers. If the exact same products were for sale on Etsy or Amazon.com instead of those branded websites they might look like just a phone case or just a polo shirt. It’s the branding these companies have created that make their customers want their cases or shirts over the others. Those brands would be incapable of communicating their specialness if their products were featured on marketplace websites.

3. Marketplace websites inhibit lead-nurturing activities
In my article last week, I talked about how relationship-based business models focus on getting customers, not transactions. A marketplace website is designed to give you the opposite result. It might bring you sales, but since you don’t get to build a relationship with the customer and you can’t communicate the uniqueness of your brand, it’s very hard to turn one-time buyers or casual browsers into die-hard fans. Aside from the limitations already discussed, the technology is also a problem.

Marketplace websites don’t make it easy for your to direct the casual visitor to your blog, Facebook page or newsletter. There’s no single click access to any of these tools that would help you foster relationships with visitors. You certainly can’t employ banner ad re-marketing. Even if a customer makes a purchase, you can’t simply have them check a box to get on your mailing list. Repeated marketing communication with the person buying from you is almost discouraged. So how are you going to keep the conversation going with that person who was interested but didn’t buy today, or did buy today but may forget about you by next month?

What can you do about all of this?
People sell their products on marketplace websites for 2 reasons: either because those websites can send you customers since they have a large user base or because they’re easy/convenient to use. If you are serious about growing a real business, neither of these reasons is especially good. A profitable business can bring its own customers in the virtual doors, and after I talked about all the disadvantages of relying entirely on a marketplace for your online presence easy/convenient seems like a weak excuse compared to what you’re giving up for ease and convenience. So here are some options:

1. Get your own ecommerce website
Treat your business like a real business by investing some money in an ecommerce site. If you’re not ready to go whole-hog, consider ready-made solutions like Yahoo stores or Big Cartel. You will still need to invest in a web designer, but it’s still easier and cheaper than creating an entire ecommerce site from scratch.

2. Get your own website and leave the ecommerce where it is
If you aren’t ready to create your own online shop, you can at least create a website with a professional design and links to your blog, social media accounts, etc. Then you can direct customers to your marketplace store (Etsy, Artfire, Amazon, Ebay, etc.) to make their purchases. It’s not ideal, but at least the customers meet your brand before they meet the marketplace.

3. Have two online shops
If you can’t give up the traffic and sales that marketplace sites deliver, there’s no reason to leave them entirely. But treat them like an ad venue instead of the hub for your business. Create your own site and sink all your marketing efforts into that, then leave your Etsy/Amazon/Ebay shops where they are, so that visitors using those sites as marketplaces can still find you.

4. Create an experience in a box
If you are determined to stick to the marketplace entirely, you’ll need to work extra hard on product presentation. Make sure everything about the finished product that gets into customer hands reinforces you branding. You want to get your branding into your product packaging, inserts that go into the package (i.e. stickers, buttons, etc.) and the product itself. Make sure your logo is on the products, on your invoice, etc.

Your goal is to deliver a package that is so memorable and so branded, that the customer’s lasting memory about the transaction is your brand instead of the marketplace.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, I’ll show you some examples of how we try to do this with Ex-Boyfriend.

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