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.


This content is copyrighted. See my content sharing policy here.

July 13, 2010

5 Ways to Stop Wasting Your Money!

Filed under: Growing Your Business — Tags: , , — Meredith @ 7:25 am

Back to the theme of time is money today. It’s a point I’ve tried to stress in several posts lately. Your labor has value and if you are trying to run a successful business, you have to start seeing it that way. This means that when you waste your time, you waste your money. So here are 5 ways you may be wasting your time, and thus, your money:

1. Complaining
It can be therapeutic, but, unfortunately, not very useful. We all indulge sometimes, but don’t let it eat away at your day. It doesn’t matter if shop X has a pendant with a swan on it and you think you invented the concept of swan pendants, because right now shop X is winning. They probably aren’t obsessing over your pendants. They’re spending their time marketing, or shipping orders, or trend spotting so they can direct the development of their product line.

It doesn’t really matter what other people are doing that you feel is unfair or hackish or stupid. It’s not useful to bitch about how slow your week has been in terms of sales. These things won’t help you sell more product or grow your brand. It makes you come off as a whiner, and no one likes that.

Feel free to get it out of your system over drinks at happy hour, but never let this kind of thing consume your day.

2. Being Disorganized
If you’ve been hoarding supplies like a pack rat and you can never find your packing tape, or you have all your inventory crammed into a too-small box, you’re probably spending more time drowning in your clutter and trying to find your products to ship than you are getting stuff done.

A streamlined, well-organized workspace is essential to running a productive business. This means streamlining your space and your processes. (I touched on this point a little when I talked about product packaging eating up your time/money.)

Make a list of all your tasks and think about how you can make them more efficient. Go through your workspace and get rid of stuff you’re not using. Go through your inventory and sort it in a way that makes products easy to find.

You should also make a list of conversations you have repeatedly with customers and find a way to reduce your call/email volume.

3. Message Boards/Blogs
You can easily waste your whole day reading blogs and forums and get nothing done. Worst of all, you may be getting crappy advice. Trim your feed reader down to the most useful business blogs and be critical of the advice you see on forums.

Is the person doling out the advice truly successful in your mind? How much product do they even sell — 50 units/day, 50 units/month? Does what they have to say even make sense for your business?

4. “Free” Marketing Endeavors
If running a successful business was free and easy everyone would do it. Sometimes you do have to invest money to increase sales, be it in advertising, PR help, a wholesale rep, an affiliate program, a web designer, etc.

You could spend all day long posting on Craigs List and flyering your neighborhood, and while this may not pull much cash straight out of your pocket, it may not put any in there either and now you’ve wasted your time, thus costing you money. Keep in mind that lots of successful businesses got that way by taking out business loans or working with investors, so they could afford to set up their operation properly, they probably didn’t rocket to success with zero budget.

It’s important to look critically at “free” marketing and see if it’s really free. If guest blogging takes up 10 hours/week and gets you only 5 orders as a result, and you think your time is worth $20/hour, you just spent $40 to get each order. You need to compare that with other marketing options like Adwords, where you can maybe get orders for $10 per conversion. You also need to track the lifetime value of marketing efforts and consider the true value of your marketing efforts so you can compare apples to apples.

5. Refusing to Outsource
Trying to do it all yourself may not be the most cost-effective way to run your business. Are there things you can outsource to a pro who can do a better job than you? Are there tedious simple tasks you can outsource to an unskilled worker?

Think about all the stuff on your to do list and see which items you might want to get someone else to do. Then see if you can get an hourly freelancer to take on some of your tasks, thus freeing you up to work on more important aspects of your business.


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July 9, 2010

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

Filed under: Link Love — Tags: , , , , — Meredith @ 7:40 am


Every day I check out the 100s of subscriptions in my RSS feed about marketing, PR, advertising, branding, social media, and a host of other topics of interest to small businesses that sell online. Most of what gets posted isn’t earth shattering but I reserve Fridays for the best reads of the week. So here you have it, the most valuable things I read in the business blogosphere this week:


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July 6, 2010

4 Conversions You May Be Underestimating

Filed under: Ecommerce — Tags: , , , , — Meredith @ 5:34 am

I’ve tried to make this point in past posts: marketing is a cumulative effort. When I read comments in the small business blogosphere, the comments I see over and over again are “where are my sales?” and “how can I get more sales?” and “I tried marketing activity X and I didn’t get a flurry of sales!” So many inexperienced online retailers think only about immediate sales, and not the activities that lead to steady business. Thus, I see them dropping an ad they ran on Adwords or a blog as soon as they don’t see an immediate jump in sales, totally discounting secondary types of conversions. I see them dropping the idea of sponsoring giveaways and contests, because they don’t immediately deliver buckets of cash.

Expecting people who saw an ad for your brand once to click-through and buy immediately is like expecting sex on a first date; sometimes it happens, but it’s NOT to be expected. Usually you see someone for a while and you score with them eventually, later, after they’ve gotten to know you and trust you. Getting ecommerce customers is the same way. This means you need consistent visibility and casual contact with prospective customers.

So how can you tell if your marketing activities are leading to the right kind of visibility and leading to relationships that will end in sales? Here are a few indicators you should look for as you’re running your marketing campaigns.

Increase in blog readership
Sometimes prospective customers start out by reading your blog or following your RSS feed. This is why you want to be consistent about posting to your blog and posting content your prospective customers find interesting.

Increase in social media connections
If a site visitor likes your brand, she may follow you on Twitter or fan you on Facebook. Maybe she’s waiting for you to announce a coupon code. Maybe she’s thinking she’ll buy later and wants to keep track of your brand in the meantime.

Increase in newsletter subscription rate
The great thing about newsletter subscribes is that you can actually track the source of your sign ups. This means you’ll know if a banner ad on a certain blog led to these sign ups or if they came from organic search traffic. When a site visitor joins your newsletter, that’s a strong indicator that she plans to buy from you at some point. Maybe next week, maybe at Christmas. This is still a very valuable type of conversion and should not be overlooked.

Increase in buzz
The more people that come to your website and take an interest in your product line, the more buzz you’ll see. This usually comes across as traffic from social bookmarking sites, web-based email clients, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. It basically means people are coming to your site and telling their friends about it. Maybe their friends are telling their friends, and so on. This type of traffic is a really important part of building a consistent presence for your brand and tends to result in an increase in business over time.

Final thoughts:
One of the top search terms that results in sales on my ecommerce website is my company’s brand name. That means the customer had heard of my company, sought it out, and came to buy stuff. There’s no way to know how they heard of us originally, but I attribute these conversions to the overall effectiveness of my various marketing efforts.

Facebook is my ecommerce site’s #7 source of traffic. Stumbleupon is #4. Twitter is in the top 25. This means people that visit our website share our URL like crazy. So each time someone visits our site, it’s okay if they aren’t buying today, there’s a very good chance they’re sharing our URL and getting our site seen by someone who will make a purchase.

Lastly, I’m able to maximize the effectiveness of my marketing efforts because I have my own website. If I sold on Etsy I wouldn’t be able to give people one-click access to my social media accounts, blog and newsletter. It’s extremely important to have a site that lends itself to these types of secondary conversions, so that you can get sales from late stage buyers later, after they’ve become more familiar with your brand or arrived at an occasion that necessitates a purchase.

Additional Reading: Tracking the Value of Your Marketing Efforts


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June 11, 2010

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


Every day I check out the 100s of subscriptions in my RSS feed about marketing, PR, advertising, branding, social media, and a host of other topics of interest to small businesses that sell online. Most of what gets posted isn’t earth shattering but I reserve Fridays for the best reads of the week. So here you have it, the most valuable things I read in the business blogosphere this week:


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May 25, 2010

Avoiding the “Noise” in the Small Biz and Marketing Blogosphere

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Meredith @ 5:52 am

Megaphone Bunnies Print by Frippy

Smaller Box is one of many blogs that talks about marketing, PR and other topics of interest to small ecommerce businesses. Above all things, my mission is to avoid fluff. What do I consider fluff? Posts that fill up space and don’t give you anything useful. Every week I share my favorite reads from around the web and I reiterate this point: “Most of what’s out there is junk.”

There are some highly celebrated marketing and business blogs out there you’ll never see me link and the reason is that I think what they write is total bullshit! It’s stuff that isn’t actually applicable to anything. In short, I have no time or respect for biz blogs that have insights like “build a relationship with your customers” or “trust your instincts” or “sell something unique.” It’s not that these statements are incorrect, it’s that they’re vague and common sense assertions. What I look for (and try to provide) is specifics and practical advice my readers can use today. I aim for specific actionable advice in lieu of food for thought.

So here’s my criteria for a good biz/marketing publication or article:

1. Something Specific
If a blog post’s entire premise is that you have a lot of options (and literally this the entire crux of a post in a very popular business blog) I don’t consider this to be a good use of my reading time. Thanks for the newsflash, fortune cookie. How about if I write a post that says candy is delicious? Would you find that riveting too?

An article that specifically detailed certain kinds of options and compared and contrasted them might be good. The same way an article about the various kinds of candy and what makes them delicious might be interesting. Specificity is what helps make advice actionable. Thus you won’t find articles by me or recommended by me that are vague and theoretical.

2. Something Original/New
I probably wouldn’t write or suggest an article that says “shopping carts with fewer steps have more conversions.” It’s not news, it’s something pretty much everyone knows. I might mention this tidbit as part of a larger article. I would definitely write or link an article with a specific A/B split test on a shopping cart design that increased conversions because that’s something more unique and it’s very specific. It gives readers a model to act on. You can read that article and extrapolate advice on how to change your own cart. There aren’t a million articles documenting that specific test and analyzing why it worked.

3. Something Practical
My audience is small ecommerce businesses; when I give advice, that’s who it is for. Thus I wouldn’t give you a suggestion that would cost a million dollars to implement. I wouldn’t suggest you do something that would necessitate having hundreds of thousands of mailing list subscribers or Facebook fans. There’s plenty of pie-in-the-sky advice to be had for big businesses with vast resources and bulging bank accounts. While my advice might have some resonance with a megacorp CMO, that’s not my audience. I only give advice you can actually implement with your resources and your budget, and I recommend reads along those lines.

Your goal for today:
Cut something from your feed reader. Take a critical look at the business reads you subscribe to and really think about whether that subscription is providing genuine value. Are they providing unique, actionable, specific and practical advice or are they just taking up space?


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May 10, 2010

Before You Accuse A “Copycat”

Filed under: Growing Your Business,Legal Issues — Tags: , — Meredith @ 5:55 am

Monochrome kids with red balloons from Banksy, Forever 21 and the silent film Red Balloon

This might be a bit of a controversial post, but I think it’s a good conversation to have. What exactly is a copycat? How do you define it? How fast are you to accuse someone of copying you? I’ve been on both sides of this story, and if you stick around in the creative world for a long time you probably will be too. It’s a bummer when someone is clearly ripping you off, but it’s just as infuriating to be accused of it when you aren’t actually guilty.

I personally subscribe to the opinion that there’s nothing new under the sun. Everything that’s been done has been done before. Thus, I’m very reluctant to call someone a copycat. Unless I see someone outright using my brand’s original illustrations, I don’t assume they copied my idea. Most of the stuff out there that looks similar is more of a reflection of an overall trend than one individual copying another individual.

All of that said, there certainly are times when people do copy. (The flap between Paperchase and Hidden Eloise is a clear example of it.) So how can you tell what’s a legit case of copying and what’s not worth getting your knickers in a twist about? Here are some criteria:

1. How original is your design?
There are a lot of young popular artists right now who are inspired by Margaret Keane. (If you don’t know your art history, Keane is known for her waifs. She painted pale waifish girls with big heads and big sad eyes. Sound familiar? It should, because it’s all over sites like Etsy.com.) Keane’s was creating her waifs long before a lot of her followers were even born.

To me, it’s no biggie. We’ve had impressionists who like to do landscapes before and after Monet. We’ve had people into splattering crap on a canvas long since Pollock. What gets my goat is people claiming that the 20 something artists on Etsy have some exclusive right to this aesthetic, like they invented it.

Before you accuse someone of copying your style or design, make sure your work is completely unique. Take a long hard look around and see how many other people are doing things that look similar. Think about where your ideas came from. Were you influenced by a trend? Were the other designers influenced by a trend? The fact is most of us are influenced by things that came before us and it’s not a bad thing. Design goes in cycles and the internet has certainly played a role in homogenizing design.

2. Are you being duped by superficial details?
Sometimes designs that appear to be similar really aren’t. This post was somewhat prompted by an email that came to my ecommerce business recently. A company accused us of using their logo as a source for our design. Their logo was a drawing of an animal and our design was a drawing of the same kind of animal. We’d never seen or heard of their logo before. Our design was based on a public domain nature photograph and aside from the coloration (which was based on the animal) and the fact that it was the same kind of animal, the designs had nothing else in common. The person accusing us was fixated on color and subject, not the actual details of the design.

Color schemes and subjects go in cycles in terms of popularity, so when you’re evaluating whether something is a copy it’s a bad idea to focus on the subject or color of the design. These superficial details are rarely the substance of the actual design.

3. Are you sure you actually did it first?
If you really want egg on your face, accuse a designer of copying your work and then find out they created their piece first. Oops. A popular website I sometimes peruse tried to argue that the hoodie in the image above (designed by Forever 21) was a rip off of the Banksy’s street art (also pictured above). It was then quickly pointed out that Banksy’s image was probably inspired by the silent film The Red Balloon (image also above). This is a perfect example of my point about everything being influenced by something that came before. So before you call someone out, consider whether they were maybe drawing from the same source of inspiration as you rather than drawing from you directly.

So where does this leave you, the struggling designer, trying to make a name for yourself and get your work noticed? Creating original interesting work is still your mission, but understand that you probably aren’t inventing the wheel. You may not be able to beat competition in terms of having designs unlike anything they ever imagined. And if you’re doing commercial work, you probably wouldn’t want to. Your ability to succeed depends somewhat on your ability to understand what consumers want, and what they want is usually influenced by trends. This brings you back to competing not just as an artist but as a business, in terms of marketing, branding, business development, etc.

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