Practical Ecommerce

Lessons Learned: Two Blue Peas' Sarah Brown

“Lessons Learned” is an occasional series where we ask ecommerce merchants at varying stages in their business development about their mistakes and successes. For this installment, we asked Sarah Brown, Co-founder of to share her thoughts. The Nashville-based baby boutique has been business for two years and inventories approximately 500 unique product types. Here we offer Brown’s experiences and suggestions.

Third party business resources

“We decided early on that we couldn’t fully manage every last facet of our business, so third parties have become tremendously valuable to our start-up. If for no other reason, partnering with people who have already chartered waters new to you saves energy and valuable time that could be spent fine-tuning the areas you do manage on your own. When making a decision to outsource or not, we recommend starting by analyzing the pros and cons of the following: build, buy or partner.”

Sarah_Brown“For us, outsourcing the shopping cart infrastructure to was absolutely critical. While we consider ourselves experts at mapping out user-friendly information architecture, we had limited knowledge of how to smoothly take a customer from browsing to checkout, capture their payment and then manage inventory levels accordingly.”

“The second most relied-upon third party is our email service provider, Campaign Monitor. Managing a large database, including opt-ins and unsubscribes, can get a bit overwhelming and leaves room for error. Aside from maintaining a clean customer database, the tool allows us to test and compare split messages, conduct segmented campaigns, encourage viral spread with forward-to-a-friend functionality, stay in compliance with CAN-SPAM and of course measure, measure, measure.”

Shopping cart software

“Unlike many small businesses, we had web development and technical resources readily available to us. So instead of launching our site with a simple, free shopping cart solution, we were able to partner with a large scale hosted service ( Storefront and customize the back-end code. Pros: ease of control without an IT staff, simple interface and an information architecture tailored specifically to our customer’s needs. Cons: relying on a third-party for support, limitations due to the tool’s capabilities and paying for upgrades.”


“Hosting is crucial for web retailers, but it’s also expensive. In the beginning, we chose a shared plan but are already evaluating options for a dedicated solution. We’ve enjoyed the pricing benefits of our shared service, but during the holiday seasons and peak shopping periods speed can suffer. Changing hosts can be a tedious and sometimes risky process, so choosing a provider that offers both shared and dedicated options with a well-defined upgrade plan would be ideal.”

“We currently host our site with DiscountASP.NET. After a significant period of downtime due to an external attack on their server, we did look into changing hosts in the summer of 2008. The time and energy required to conduct the switch, plus the higher monthly fees assessed by other providers, is why we decided to stay with DiscountASP.NET for now.”


“Owning a business and pouring your blood, sweat and tears into it makes it incredibly difficult not to micromanage employees. But you simply can’t. Outside vision is invaluable for any business, especially a start-up. Otherwise, my management philosophy is pretty straightforward: always try to surround yourself with folks smarter than you, and create an ownership society where every employee has a true vested interest in your success.”

“Each of our four employees, including myself, has an ad agency background. Being part of that environment for years before venturing out on our own really turned us into jacks-of-all-trades. As a group, we consider ourselves a mini agency. Individually, we bring unique strengths to the table. One focuses on creative site design and brand management, the second on technology and web strategy, the third on industry research, merchandising and inventory management. I focus on PR, marketing, customer service and business operations.”


“I’m of the mindset that ecommerce merchants should spend 90 percent of their marketing dollars online, leaving only 10 percent for testing and supplementing with traditional channels. Especially for new businesses, traditional marketing is simply too expensive, hard to measure and the return rarely justifies the expense.”

“PPC advertising with Google is by far our most successful marketing channel. Clicks are cheap, ads are extremely targeted, and we have complete control over when, where, and how often our message is displayed. We also have experienced success with banner advertising on industry review sites and mommy message boards, where a very large and active community of moms gathers to talk about parenthood.”

“Email sponsorship with strategic, non-competitive partners in the industry has worked fairly well, although sharing lists can get pricey and finding messaging that adheres to branding guidelines of both parties can sometimes be difficult.”

“In the beginning, experiment often. Find the marketing mix that works best for you, and try everything online that you can possibly squeeze into your budget. Sure, you probably have a good idea how and where to best reach your target audience, but you never know. But be sure to track your online marketing as closely and as granularly as possible. Become a data guru—Google Analytics is your friend. Remember, you get what you measure. And if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

Pay-per-click advertising

“PPC search advertising is by far our most successful marketing channel. We use Google AdWords exclusively and put a lot of time into targeting, ad copy, offers and timing. Search engine marketing can appear to be very economical when clicks cost as little as $0.50, but you have to watch your conversion data. If thousands of potential consumers are clicking your ad but few are converting, you may be driving traffic and gaining awareness, but you’re ultimately wasting money if those clicks aren’t turning into sales.”

Search engine optimization

“We spend at least as much time on SEO as SEM. Many businesses don’t, and it shows when you can’t find them with a detailed search. Studies show that you’ll hit pay dirt if you can work SEO and SEM in conjunction to get your organic and paid listings both appearing on the same search results page. So be sure your website is loaded with pertinent keywords, give every page a detailed title tag, and spend time getting link-backs to your site across the web. There’s much more to SEO, but focus on these three areas and it will do wonders. And be patient. SEO takes time and is a more gradual win than SEM.”

Expense control

“In tough economic times, it’s more important than ever that business implement tight controls on expenses. We’ve always believed that no expense is too insignificant to monitor. Run cost analyses often on things like shipping and packaging supplies to make sure your profit margin is staying ahead of increased costs. Also, the more entrepreneurial your organization and the more employees are invested, the lower your expenses will be.”

“As a small business owner, your brain becomes wired to always look for ways to cut costs. Whether comparison shopping online for packaging materials, negotiating rates with third party providers or even clipping coupons for office supplies, tightening all the little budget screws can make a big impact on your bottom line.”

A good example of a way we successfully cut expenses to improve profit margin is our shipping strategy. In combination with offering free shipping on all orders over $100, increased rates from FedEx in early 2008 resulted in a net loss on shipping. We now divide our orders into two categories by order value to determine whether we ship via FedEx or USPS. While USPS has less reliable tracking capabilities than FedEx and takes slightly longer to process labels, we save an average of $1.50 per package with USPS. So smaller order values ship via USPS and larger order values with FedEx, resulting in a slight profit on shipping.”

“Also along the lines of shipping charges, freight-in on inventory can really eat into profit margin. Replenishing inventory on a quarterly, rather than monthly, basis helped us to significantly reduce charges paid on shipping the goods to our warehouse.”

Accounting software

“We’re like the millions of other businesses using QuickBooks, and it’s a great fit for our needs. I recommend becoming a QuickBooks pro, and if you’re not savvy in the accounting world, at least take an online course or class at a local community college to make sure you understand the big picture. Relying solely on your accountant only gets you so far. Having the accounting and financial skills to run and evaluate QuickBooks reports is enormously valuable as your business grows.”

“Our shopping cart does not seamlessly integrate with QuickBooks. This is one of the sacrifices we made when settling on our shopping cart. Ideally the process would exclude any manual steps, but for now we have a system in place that requires us to export reports from the shopping cart and import them into QuickBooks for processing.”

Order management software

“We keep a majority of our inventory in house and only drop ship items from a few key designers, so detailed order/inventory management is crucial. We currently use the tools available in our shopping cart software, and it works out really well.”

Shipping and order fulfillment

“We initially partnered with UPS for our shipping needs but quickly switched to FedEx after experiencing a relatively high percentage of damaged and lost packages. Back to cost cutting; we were able to negotiate lower rates with FedEx, so the decision to change was a no-brainer. As mentioned before, we also take advantage of cost savings with USPS on lower order value shipments.”

“One of our major differentiators is the speed at which we fulfill and ship orders. It’s a major priority for our business. We can spend our time on the core business in the morning and at night after the last FedEx pick-up. Why not spend the day ensuring all orders are processed and shipped as quickly as possible? We offer free shipping for orders over $100 and have made many happy customers with that one simple perk.”

Credit card payments

“Make your customers feel as secure as possible about their ecommerce transaction. A large segment of the population can still be hesitant about purchasing from unknown retailers, so give those potential customers no reason for pause. Prominently display your seal of authorization, and be versed on your security practices to handle customer calls and emails confidently.”

Social media

“Social media isn’t important for all businesses and brands, and we happen to be the type of merchant that doesn’t place much emphasis within the social space. Part of it is because we only offer goods for babies up to 24 months. We’ve got a short, two-year life cycle with customers. There are a couple of mommy message boards we’ve experimented with. We’ve tried to spend some time going in weekly and adding comments, and it took so much time for the little return we were getting. Many retailers are following the hype and trying to develop social media strategies even though it pulls time and resources away from existing, effective channels. It’s nearly impossible for small business to move the needle using social media, so why not focus on nurturing existing customers and reaching new ones via proven tactics rather than dabbling with every new social media tool for very little return?”


“I’m bullish on our blog (, as we have been blogging since day one. The blog allows us to reveal a more personal side to our business and develop a deeper, more frequent relationship with our customers. We started it about six months or so in. We’ve tried different strategies with daily and weekly posts, and now we’re doing twice a week with larger more substantial posts. It’s tough to find the time to write often, but I highly recommend that all businesses develop a blogging strategy. Connecting with potential customers and showing a bit of personality might just be the thing that makes them shop with you instead of a big-box competitor.”

Customer service

“We treat customer service as if it were another form of marketing. It’s easier to please an existing customer than it is to acquire a new one, but many retailers spend more time and money on advertising than customer service. I highly recommend reading up on and their customer service philosophy. I’m practically a disciple and urge any ecommerce merchant to drink their Kool-Aid.”

General business attitude

“It’s not a kill or be killed world out there, and there’s room for just about everyone. Do your research, and make sure what you plan to offer is unique or at least better than the next guy. Beyond that, just be proud of yourself and go for it. We’re extremely passionate, treat our customers like we’d treat ourselves and are good at what we do. At the end of the day, we work to live, not live to work, and we love every minute of it.”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

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Comment ( 1 )

  1. Elizabeth Ball February 4, 2009 Reply

    I was interested to read Sarah’s view that social media is not worth the time and effort for her website. I think there is a lot of media – if not peer – pressure to participate in Twitter, Facebook etc, but as she says, it is a lot of effort for not much return. But it’s good to read that she’s keen on blogging as I will be creating a blog shortly so I appreciate her honest insights.