Entrepreneurial Success: how mom and pop shops can compete with the 800-lb. gorillas of the business world.
In an oversaturated online retail market, competing with retail giants is a tricky thing. What is a start-up or small business to do when consumers get used to free shipping and steep discounts from such household names as Amazon, Macy’s, and Zappos? As the Internet evolves with each passing day (and minute, and second), the competition to attract customers is fiercer than ever.
Although the path for small businesses is less clear (and often full of challenges), the eventual entrepreneurial success can still be just as sweet.
Entrepreneurs Bob and JoAnn Shirilla have put this theory to the test. They are the founders of the online gift stores Keepsakes-Etc.com—offering throws, tapestries, and personalized gifts—and SimplyBags.com—offering personalized bags, totes, and backpacks.
We sat down with Bob to discuss his path into entrepreneurship, whether he’d recommend working with a spouse, and how he balances work and family. He also shared his personal keys to small business and SEO success.
Entrepreneurs: born or made?
Both Bob and JoAnn already had successful careers prior to combining their talents and starting new businesses. Bob worked for a large consulting company as a project manager and strategic planner, and JoAnn ran and operated two traditional brick-and-mortar stores.
Bob had always wanted to be his own boss, with his daydreams of entrepreneurship dating back to childhood. Though he enjoyed his work as an engineer, he still hoped to one day run his own business. After 30 years of working for someone else, he finally got his chance.
Husband and wife entrepreneurial team: how it works.
JoAnn also has an entrepreneurial spirit, essentially building two profitable retail stores by herself. Over time, however, she found it more and more difficult to compete due to “constantly increasing rent and competition from big box chain stores, with their ability to heavily discount,” so she decided to close those stores in 2000.
Eager to find a way to liquidate the leftover inventory, Bob and JoAnn examined their options and determined launching Keepsakes-Etc.com would be most cost-effective.
Along with liquidating the gift inventory, the pair added cotton throw blankets and wall tapestries to Keepsakes-Etc.’s product line, with a Pokemon blanket being an early consumer favorite.
Launching a second site.
It wasn’t long, however, before they noticed the drop in the number of woven products made in the USA ; the U.S. textile industry was virtually disappearing. So, as an insurance policy, they launched Simply-Bags.com in 2008.
“Opening the second e-commerce store was fairly easy,” Bob said. “We already had our warehouse and all the order to cash processes were in place, so it took about two months from start to finish.”
Eight years later both dot-coms are successful, but thanks only to a great deal of hard work and attention from both Bob and JoAnn. Success did not arrive overnight.
“People think you can slap a website up there and it will run automatically,” Bob says. “But that’s not the case. We are constantly reassessing what we do and how we do it.”
Different venue and similar challenges: big box store competition.
Bob and JoAnn still find themselves facing the challenges of competing against the big box stores like Macy’s, JCPenney, Target, and Nordstrom. JoAnn, who experienced similar challenges in running her brick-and-mortar stores, knows that such corporate giants can provide advantages that small businesses often cannot.
So, how do the Shirillas hold their own against such widely familiar competition?
According to Bob, the first rule for success is “knowing exactly who you want to be.” In their case, that meant starting with a set of business rules to live by.
- Add value for every customer on every purchase. “One of the ways of adding value to the purchase is with our embroidered logo customization,” Bob explained. “This differentiates our bags from others, and also puts our bags in a different category. Instead of just something to carry, these bags have a company logo, crest, or group insignia, which makes them great for recognition, achievement awards or retirement gifts. “And we enclose each item in a gift bag and write a personalized card to go along with the order.”
- Pay close attention to branding. “One of my goals for 2016,” Bob said, “is to improve our presence on social media with an eye toward solidifying our branding. Branding is crucial. I can’t out-amazon Amazon. They’ve got free shipping. I can’t afford to give away shipping. “We’re on Twitter with 7,500 followers,” Bob added, “but I can’t attribute a single sale to it. Pinterest is better. We can see the analytics and the traffic showing up. With social media, you can’t just post a bunch of items for sale. That doesn’t work. You have to focus on a group of people who are your audience, and figure out how to become a catalyst to get them engaged.”
- Making customer service part of the brand. Besides promoting name recognition, another component of the brand for both Keepsakes-Etc.com and Simply-Bags.com is offering exceptional customer service to every customer, on every order. “We place a big emphasis on customer service and being customer intimate,” Bob said, “which we sum up as ‘take care of our customers as we would want to be serviced.’ We make it a point to ship most of our products the same business day, something we’re able to do by paying particular attention to inventory levels and reorder points. Our customers appreciate that.”
- Provide the best customer service. “One year, during our peak holiday season, we tried to drop-ship one of our highest demand items. It turned out our vendor wasn’t as focused on customer service as we were, and failed to deliver. As a result, we disappointed many of our customers. Lesson learned. We no longer drop-ship and instead warehouse all products sold on our websites, more than 2,000 of them.” And there’s more. “Our employees analyze each order to determine best shipping cost versus delivery dates between U.S. Postal Service and UPS to ensure timely delivery,” Bob said. Additionally, he continued, “When customers call us during regular business times, they get a real person answering the phone. No recordings. “Plus,” he added, “we’re very focused on product quality. Every item we sell gets a quality inspection when it’s received into our warehouse, and again when it’s packaged for shipment to the customer. Nothing goes out unless it is perfect.”
- Hire people or find service solutions to do it better than you can. “We’ve been able to hire great employees in large part because JoAnn has very good instincts about people. Our management style is laissez-faire. We train our employees, we engage them with the business goals, then we let them do their jobs.” “For many years,” he continued, “I felt like I had to know everything and do everything. I’ve discovered that other people and organizations can do things better and at a lower cost than I can do it myself. Letting go has enabled our business to grow and prosper, and as a bonus, made my life much easier.”
- Set aside time to keep abreast of the latest and greatest. “In 2007, I spent 60% of my time researching and learning, now I spend 25% of my time learning, but I’m more focused,” Bob said. “I would like to cut the time down further, but improve the results. The point is, you have to pay attention to what’s happening, especially relating to SEO.” “E-commerce changes every day”, he emphasized, referring to the fact that, on average, over 90,000 new websites are added to the Internet each day. Plus, every month, the Internet search industry refines and changes the strategies for searches, keyword recognition, and ranking in order to constantly improve the relevance of results for users.
- Work hard, but make sure family is the priority. It’s well documented that many couples have trouble owning and running a business together while trying to balance work and family. Bob and JoAnn have used this challenge as motivation. “I’ve got to say that working with my wife has always been a pleasure. We work well together and honestly never gave much thought to who does what. It just kind of gelled based on our different skillsets. “JoAnn has retail and customer experience, a great eye, and is very good at purchasing, merchandising and managing the day-to-day operations at our warehouse in Canfield, Ohio. I focus on the business plans and processes, the technology side of things and Internet marketing. “She takes care of the things she’s good at, A-B-C; I take care of what I’m good at, X-Y-Z. We’ll discuss all of it, we’re a team, but we don’t bump heads. And we learn from each other.”
The Entrepreneur Survey.
When Bob responded to the entrepreneur survey we published a little over a year ago, he told us the three traits he considers most important for an entrepreneur are passion, planning, and customer focus.
More than anything else, those three characteristics govern Bob and JoAnn’s approach to their businesses, and are in large part responsible for the success of this husband and wife team.
Let us know what you think are the most important entrepreneurial traits. And don’t hesitate to share your own insights into achieving business success.
If you’re facing cash flow challenges in your business, let us help you find the financial footing you need to prosper. Call 800-833-3765 Ext. 150 today, or fill out your invoice factoring application online now.