Kelly Brough is no stranger to the online world. She worked for 10 years at AOL and Lonely Planet, the travel-guide company. Nonetheless, this high-powered working mother, with degrees in science and engineering, — and an M.B.A. from Harvard — found it surprisingly difficult to locate fun, attractive and unique children’s toys online. This led her to launch a toy website, Oola.com.au, in Melbourne, Australia.
“As a full-time working mother, I struggled to find the time to discover great toys. The best products were sold in small bricks-and-mortar boutiques. I have always loved toys and games, and could do puzzles, build things or play games all day long! Unfortunately, one of the hardest parts about being a working mum is that you can't do as much with your kids as someone who's not working or working part-time.”
After Brough left Lonely Planet in December 2010, and had taken some time off to spend with her family, her husband Andrew encouraged her to start her own business.
Armed with just $25,000 AUD, Brough was determined to launch her toy website before the 2011 holiday shopping season. From starting preparations in August, she launched Oola.com.au on October 31 — in time for Christmas. The website received over 1,000 visitors in its first month and achieved a conversion rate of over 4 percent.
Oola’s growth in sales, conversions and visitors continue to rise.
“Since January 2012, Oola has achieved 77 percent compound monthly sales growth, 30 percent monthly growth in conversion rate, and a 30 percent compound monthly growth in visitors,” she says.
Brough says Oola is on track to break even by 2012 year-end, following the holiday sales period, and anticipates her business will recover the initial investment of $25,000 AUD. She expects to quadruple sales in its second year, yielding the website’s first profit.
“Oola.com.au sells the type of stylish, fun toys-that-teach, which encourage open-ended play that are typically found in local boutiques. As we’ve grown, we’ve discovered that families want ongoing ideas to make playtime at home fresh, fun and interesting. Oola is becoming the most recommended destination for play-based activities to entertain young children. Our product offering is currently being expanded to deliver on this vision.”
One of the projects Brough led at Lonely Planet was a complete rebuild of its online shop.
“I was already familiar with many of the market’s scalable providers, having thoroughly reviewed their offerings. I looked at a couple of software-as-a-service providers because I didn't want to do my own hosting until I built up a sizeable business.”
Brough planned to use one particular provider but became concerned after a long gap in communication. Prior to this, she had read about Shopify on some tech blogs.
“I didn't consider Shopify seriously because it was based in North America. But I tested their 30-day free trial while I was waiting to hear back from my selected provider. I was hooked by the ease of use and super-helpful customer service. Within a few days I was ready to test transactions, which would have been sooner except that I was waiting for bank approval from my merchant account. Basically, Shopify has everything we need: a secure shopping cart with best practice checkout flow, best-of-breed user experience architecture and navigation, flexible design options, a clean, modern user interface, and robust customization potential via APIs.”
Brough said Shopify also reassured Oola that it could achieve the tight time frame with no external dependencies for hosted cart setup or design.
“Their APIs allow us to add features as our business grows, and the SaaS model means we pay only for what we use each month, avoiding costly development before launch. Plus they offer exceptional customer service. The passion for their platform comes through as they work hard to help shop owners like me, find solutions to our goals.”
Credit Card Payments
“I have worked with online payments since 2001 when I was at AOL managing business-to-consumer businesses. I knew we had to have a very secure and trustworthy payment gateway that would remain on top of all of the industry security developments like the PCI DSS. We were also delighted to find local provider eWay that could meet our needs in a comprehensive way.”
“Shopify includes order management capabilities as part of its software. There have been few things that I’ve needed to change, making this component of building an online retail business a non-issue.”
"Using a SaaS model for its shopping cart, Oola relies on Shopify for hosting."
“We are just looking for our first employee, in marketing. Ideally, I'd like to find another mother who wants a flexible, part-time role. Because I’m based at home, I need someone who could work from her home, but co-work with me one day a week. I found a local freelance designer at a local networking event who understands the Oola style. She works to my budget; we outline what needs to be done each week. It takes longer that way, but allows me to manage cash flow effectively.”
Brough tried using offshore designers, but prefers to discuss requirements and goals with the designer in person to get the best outcome.
“I was not particularly satisfied with the offshore designers that I hired. However, I use oDesk [a site to help locate contract services] for nearly all of my technical work and recently brought on a virtual assistant who is much more than an assistant.”