When Sara Shikhman was 10 years old, she left communist Ukraine with her parents on a one-way ticket across the Atlantic Ocean, and $5,000 hidden in a set of screwdrivers, to become part of the American Dream.
Unable to speak or read English, her motivated parents helped her to learn the language quickly and soon she excelled at school, outpacing her peers.
Earning a B.A. in Finance from Pace University in New York in 2003, Shikhman was one of the first Pace graduates to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2006.
“I thought that I wanted to be a corporate lawyer, and practiced for six years,” Shikhman said.
Living and working in Manhattan, she simply didn’t have time to shop for furniture for her new apartment, nor did she like being hassled by pushy salespeople in-store.
Around the same time, she was starting to find the world of corporate law too rigid and looked for another opportunity.
Shikhman, her fiancé, and two school friends who owned several brick-and-mortar furniture stores across the Eastern coast, saw an opportunity to use the friends' existing infrastructure of manufacturers and vendors to sell furniture online.
“The four of us launched our website, BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com, in 2010 with just $25,000 between us, generating $100,000 in sales our first year,” Shikhman said.
“By the end of 2011, our $3 million in online sales surpassed the sales of all of our partners’ brick-and-mortar stores combined, more than doubling again in 2012 to $8 million.”
Ecommerce Shopping Carts
Shikhman had no experience with online shopping carts and didn’t even know what that term meant at first. But she knew her company had to be highly specific with potential developers to get great results.
The four business partners wrote a 20-page specifications document describing precisely how they wanted their site to look, function, and link together.
Overall, it had to be as easy as possible for customers to use the website and to buy.
“We weren’t looking for a site that was going to win any design awards, nor did we have the budget to afford one. We needed to prove our concept before we ran out of money.”
The shopping cart had to work with one back-end and multiple online storefronts, it had be customized, and be inexpensive.
“Our first web developer suggested the open-source Magento Community Edition platform and this advice turned out to be spot-on as Magento, which was acquired by eBay in 2011, has become the leader in the web store platform arena.”
Shikhman’s other providers, such as LivePerson (which provides live chat and other dynamic user experiences) and TurnTo (which provides social Q & A), integrated seamlessly with Magento, saving her thousands in development costs.
BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com sought bids from five website design companies, awarding the development and design to Massachusetts firm Knectar Design.
“While Knectar wasn’t the cheapest provider and the process took longer than expected, we did receive a quality product for our budget of $20,000. Much of the structure and logic put in place by Knectar still exists today.”
Shikhman said her original site was pretty slow, taking several seconds for anything to happen. Moreover, the company didn’t advertise its phone number nor did it have a live chat function.
“Customers had no way to contact us quickly and by the time we answered via email, customers had already moved on.”
BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com is currently undertaking a redesign to make its website visuals more attractive and user-friendly.
Credit Card Payments
BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com’s average order amount is roughly $2,000, which is considered high risk by credit card processing companies who need to safeguard against fraud and chargebacks.
“Our provider, First Data, recently told us that they need to keep $650,000 [of our sales proceeds] in reserve at any time. The money is ours, but we can’t access it and we’re working with First Data now to reduce this reserve.”
BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com offers a variety of payment methods, including Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, Google Checkout, and it is currently integrating Amazon Payments.