“Lessons Learned” is a series where we ask ecommerce business owners to share their experiences and advice. For this installment, we interviewed Luis Hernandez, Jr., CEO and owner of The Motor Bookstore, a DeBary, Fla.-based automotive repair, restoration and service manual retailer.
The Motor Book Store first launched in 1995 as an electronic version of a printed magazine that was mostly focused on motorcycle repair and restoration. Hernandez sold motorcycle books through the magazine and the book retail business grew organically from there. By 1997, the book business was strong enough for Hernandez to start an ecommerce website selling motorcycle books. It was called MotorcycleBooks.com.
By 2002 the business had grown into selling a wide variety of automotive books, too, and TheMotorBookstore.com was born. In 2007, the site recorded gross revenues of $2.2 million. Sales and traffic have decreased since; in 2010 the site saw $1.5 million in gross revenue.
“I still remember setting up the site, which was fairly easy through Viaweb,” [an early web-based application that allowed users to build and host their own online stores, later purchased by Yahoo!], Hernandez says. “The first order came in that same day, in the evening. I sold a Ducati book — MotorcycleBooks.com was a real business.
“From that point on, the store (as well as the inventory) grew considerably as we added the motorcycle and ATV repair manuals,” says Hernandez. “From time to time, customers would ask if we could locate a repair manual for their cars, trucks, boats, etc., and we started doing that as a favor to them. Well, we ended up doing so many favors every day that by 2002 we decided to expand the inventory to include cars, pickup trucks, outboard motor manuals, even tractor books,” Hernandez recalls of the early days of the online store.
“Of course we could no longer call ourselves MotorcycleBooks.com, so we changed the name to The Motor Bookstore and secured ‘www.TheMotorBookstore.com’ domain name.
“By that point, our house had become nothing more than a warehouse with a bedroom and a kitchen attached to it. So we purchased a ‘real’ office. Our new digs were a little office and some warehouse space — all 750 sq. ft. of it. I really thought we’d be okay for at least 5 years there. However, in 6 months we had to rent another unit in the same complex to house our growing inventory. After about a year there, I had saved enough money and bought some land in DeBary and had a warehouse and offices built. Not a huge place (only 4000 sq. ft.), but it was custom built for us, air-conditioned and spacious enough for us and our inventory.”
Evolution of the Web Store
“In early 1997 signed up with Viaweb, which a few years later was purchased by Yahoo! and have been using them ever since. We have a merchant, professional-level store, so the fees they charge are based on that package, around $8,000 per year.”
Employees and Management
“When we first started the magazine online, it was me, my ex-wife and one part-time employee. It was a little challenging of course financially, but since I am the kind of person who escrows for pretty much everything, I always had enough to cover all expenses and even save some money for future projects. That’s how I was able to purchase my first office.
“We kept growing and at one point we had six employees. We’re now reduced down to four. As far as management, I subscribe to the theory of hiring tough and firing easy. We are like a family, where everyone is respected and allowed to do their job. Our people contribute to our goals because they know what we’re about. The golden rule I’ve always had is to hire nice people. We can teach anyone how to sell technical automotive books, but we cannot teach them to be nice. That’s something you learn at home.”
Orders, Inventory and Shipping
“The Yahoo! store, as dependable and easy to use at it is, has some shortcomings as far as the back-end is concerned. So many years ago, I asked Don Cole, of Your Store Wizards, to write a program that would allow us to download and process orders. He did and we’ve been using it since. We also use Stone Edge Order Manager for Amazon Marketplace orders, and we may consolidate all programs into that one eventually, as it is a very robust program.
“Since we specialize in repair manuals (we work with about 35 different publishers and distributors), we try to offer as many related items as we can, and therefore, when one of our vendors releases a new title, we automatically add it to the inventory. As far as other automotive books are concerned, it is based on trends we see with searches within our site, and user feedback. Sometimes all it takes to see how a new item will perform is to order as little as one copy. That simple test will allow you to see if the demand exists and, if it’s there, we add it to our inventory.
“We monitor inventory levels on a daily basis and order accordingly. We usually receive product at our warehouse every day of the week (weekends excluded, of course).
“After an order is placed through our web store, it is downloaded to our custom order processing system. The program sorts orders by shipping method and then we print packing slips. Our warehouse and inventory is configured in a way that allows us to pick orders in a ‘flowing’ fashion. What I mean by that is that everything is organized so the picker does not have to walk from one side of the warehouse back to the other, over and over.”
“We display our phone number prominently on the site, and answer calls as they come in during our normal business hours. We are here to assist our customers when they have a question or problem with their orders and, fortunately, work closely with USPS and UPS liaisons so we can resolve most issues in an expeditious manner.
“We do make mistakes from time to time, but we own up to the problem and correct it to the best of our ability. Sometimes that means giving someone a full refund and allowing him or her to keep the product. We do what needs to be done. And anyone in our company can make those decisions without getting approval from management.”
Marketing and Social Media
“We sell repair manuals at great prices – that’s at the core of our marketing strategy and philosophy.
“We have a Facebook and Twitter account, like everyone else, but we’re still in the process of determining ways to using those channels for something that will be useful to our fans. We recently started a photo contest where we post customer photos — with their vehicles — to our website, our blog and our Facebook page. That seems to be working fine for us, as that audience may not be in the buying mood when using social channels. Instead, we have found a way to make it entertaining.
“We also market to customers via our email list. We use iContact for all email marketing and they have been great to work with. Email has been a great way to promote specials, sales, closeouts and such. We are very careful not to abuse that channel since it’s very easy to upset — and lose — customers with it.
“We also run Google AdWords and Bing PPC campaigns, but they are becoming quite complicated. So we are in the process of finding a company that will manage that for us for maximum effectiveness.”
‘SVO’ instead of SEO
“As someone who started surfing the web back in the day when Mosaic and Netscape 1.0 were the browsers of choice, and Eudora was the queen of email clients, I like to think in terms of ‘SVO’ instead: Site Visitor Optimization.
“And although I fully understand the purpose of SEO, if you’re not careful you can easily end up with an SEO that stands for ‘Snake E-Oil’ instead.
“As many people have said before, I’ve never had a search engine buy one thing from my site. So I optimize for people who actually have credit cards. I am fully aware that websites, mine included, depend on search engines for traffic, but I also know that the folks who manage these search engines are smart people who will spot someone trying to pull a fast one very quickly. So I do what’s right for my customers first. Then — and only then — I think about search engines. I know this goes against the grain, but as Mark Twain once said, ‘Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.’”
“The biggest mistake I made was thinking that growth would be never ending. So I got lazy as far as optimizing product pages and the store in general. When I use the word ‘optimizing’ I am not necessarily talking about traditional SEO. What I mean by ‘optimizing’ is making my site useful for the end-users: my customers. If they do not find the right book, then we’ve wasted their time. So for a while now, we’ve been working hard on making their shopping experiences valuable.
“Another mistake would be making decisions while in ‘panic mode.’ This has led to hiring the wrong ‘consultants’ that hurt us rather than helped. Also, not taking the time to write ultra personalized, unique product descriptions, something that seems daunting today because of the size of our inventory. We should have started that on day one. Of course back then who would’ve thunk this Internet thing was going to get so big.”
“Actually, making mistakes. Success does not teach us a darn thing.”
Best Advice for Other Merchants
“Find something that means something to you. This will keep things fun and exciting.
“Expect long hours and probably not a lot of money at first. I like to tell people I decided to work for myself in order to avoid working for a jerk.
“Read books, magazines, blogs, newsletters, etc. Learn, learn, learn.
“Visit websites that are similar to yours and do as Bruce Lee said, ‘Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is uniquely your own.’
“Don’t copy-and-paste from other sites. This is not only a bad practice but also bad karma.
“Early to bed and early to rise. I get out of bed at 5 a.m. every morning, and I use that time to read emails, magazines, etc., come up with new ideas, and even do a quick 5-minute session of kettlebell exercises before I shower.
“Exercise! Yes, I mean that seriously. Take care of your mind and body, and it will reward you many times over. I cycle approximately 5,000 miles a year, if not more. And when I say ‘cycle’ I mean road bicycle, the kind you pedal. That allows me not only to stay in shape, but also to clear the mind while doing something I love.
“Pay it forward. As corny as that may sound, it is rewarding. Don’t allow the irrational fear that ‘someone may steal my ideas’ keep you from helping others.
“And finally, as the Dalai Lama says, ‘Your prime purpose on earth is to help one another. If you can’t help one another at least don’t hurt one another.’”