Patricia Elkins caught the ecommerce “bug” just like many people do – by successfully selling a few items on eBay. It wasn’t long before Elkins was building a dynamic niche business on eBay selling one-of-a-kind tapestries.
The business has grown to more than $500,000 in sales, and it’s evolved from an eBay-only store to one that incorporates its own website.
Treasure Beyond Measure faces the same challenges most businesses face – keeping overhead low, importing products from around the globe, managing a business in a unique niche and competing against low-quality products in that marketplace. The business also faces challenges presented by eBay itself as the auction site has recently altered its fee structure. Elkins has been forced to do a cost-benefit analysis each month on whether her company should continue to use eBay or work solely from their own website.
Elkins testifies that running an ecommerce business is hard work, even though many of her friends and family aren’t sure if she has a “real job.”
PeC: Why did you launch a business selling tapestries?
Elkins: The business actually started with a hard-to-find Christmas gift in 2000, the elusive pink Meow-Chi. I ended up buying it off eBay for twice the retail price. A few days later, I found the gift in a store and bought all of them and listed them on eBay—making almost enough money to pay for our entire Christmas. I immediately thought there has got to be a way to make money doing this.
On Sept. 10, 2001, I was at market with my mom, helping her buy for her art gallery. I noticed these beautiful tapestries and encouraged her to buy them. She was hesitant to purchase them; they had never carried tapestries before. In an effort to encourage her to carry them, I made the mistake of saying, “If you decide not to sell them, let me know, and I will do something with them.” As soon the freight came in my mom called and said, “Come get your tapestries. Your dad and I do not want to sell them.” I picked the tapestries up from my folks, listed them on eBay and they sold right away.
PeC: Did you go into business right away?
Elkins: As a birthday gift in November of 2001, my husband gave me a business tax ID. He encouraged me to come up with a business name and to start my own business. It was during my morning prayer time that the name for the business came to me. One morning as I prayed, I thanked God for all the blessings He had given me. I realized I had more blessings than I could count. I then prayed God you have given me treasure beyond measure. Then it hit me. That should be the name of the business. We checked to see if the domain was available and it was. We were also able to register the name Treasure Beyond Measure as a trademark. It was incredible because every other domain name and trademark we had tried were taken.
PeC: I notice you sell in multiple locations. What percentage of your company’s revenue derives from your eBay store compared to your own site?
Elkins: I would estimate around 25 percent of our sales are from eBay. Our eBay sales have dropped in recent years. A couple of years ago, our sales from eBay were around 50 percent. Early on, eBay was a great marketplace; It seemed almost everything we listed would sell. In recent years, eBay sales for our company have fallen. There are more sellers on eBay selling what we sell. There is also a resell market that wasn’t there five years ago. We also find that there are people selling second-quality merchandise on eBay. Each quarter, we have to evaluate whether we can continue to do business there due to the increase in eBay’s fees and the drop in sales. It may be that eBay will price themselves out of the market for us, and we will no longer be able to do business there.
PeC: Why did you decide to incorporate an eBay store into your business plan?
Elkins: Well, eBay is where our business started. We then incorporated a website into our business plan. Our customers were asking for a website, so we supplied them with one. Customers usually find our website easier to shop than eBay. We are able to offer features on our web store that makes it easier for them to find what they are looking for. We are also able to offer a wider variety of items on our website.
PeC: How do you market your store?
Elkins: We predominately use pay-per-click. We have found it to be the most effective. We also promote the website by placing the website name on our shipping labels, invoices and materials placed in shipments.
When we have tried other strategies, we just didn’t get a return on our investment. With our email-marketing campaigns to customers who purchased directly from us, it seems we had a high rate of customers who would ask to be removed from our mailing list and a very low sale conversion. However, we do use the eBay email marketing, and our customers who signed up for it do seem to enjoy it.
PeC: What challenges have you faced launching your business, and how have you addressed those?
Elkins: Our greatest challenge is keeping our cost of doing business low. Internet retail is a highly- competitive market. Mark-up on product is very low, so the profit margin is low. The lower you can keep your overhead—cost of goods sold and marketing—the higher your profit margin will be.
PeC: How do you find products to sell?
Elkins: We go to market. We have found our customers like for us to carry items in inventory rather than drop shipping. They do not want to wait for an item to be drop shipped from the manufacturer. We have also expanded into buying items from Europe and Asia. Recently we have had several companies approach us about carrying their products. They found our company on the web, really liked our website and wanted us to add their lines to the products we carry.
PeC: What research did you do prior to launching your site?
Elkins: When I decided to look into selling tapestries as a business, I checked the Internet to see how many tapestry businesses were out there. Six years ago, there were very few. I also checked retail stores in our area to see how many carried tapestries. I found that very few storefronts were carrying these items as they take up a tremendous amount of wall space. It appeared that there was a need for Internet sites to carry tapestries at that time.
We experimented on eBay, and things seemed to be selling well. So we gradually built the business. The domestic tapestry industry was very new when we started. As the domestic tapestry industry grew, so did our business. We were in on the ground floor. I remember when there were maybe 20 to 30 domestic tapestries. Most tapestries were manufactured abroad. Today, the domestic tapestry business is booming. I am not sure what the stats are, but there are hundreds of domestic tapestries available today. There may be more domestic tapestries than imports.
PeC: Any particular technology struggles in the early days you can share that can serve as an inspiration to young companies building a business today?
Elkins: Actually, our technology struggles have been few. Early on, instead of choosing to run our own systems (email, web store, file services, etc.) we choose to go with service providers. The only system we ran locally was our auction management software. There weren’t many online auction management systems to choose from in 2001. We are currently moving away from our old system and are evaluating options.
PeC: Why have you been successful?
Elkins: Hard work. Self-motivated. Tenacious. Stubborn. The ability to look at failure as a lesson learned in how not to do something. Never be content with where you are at. Always look for ways to be better.
Oftentimes, your customers will let you know where you need to improve. Always be open to their suggestions. We have also found customer service to be a great asset to our business.
PeC: How did you go about designing your website?
Elkins: The system we use has templates which makes basic web design fairly simple. It also allows for complete customization so once the store was live and online, we could spend time customizing it to better meet our market.
PeC: How did you decide on using NetSuite?
Elkins: We liked its Application Service Provider model and NetSuite was really the only company proving a comprehensive ASP solution to the small-business market. We sensed that NetSuite would survive the dot com bust due to the initial backing from Oracle, and given the enormous amount of time it takes to build an online inventory, we did not want to have to start over again with another company. Also, we knew one day we would most likely want to sell the business, and the fact that NetSuite had instant portability would help.
PeC: What advice would you give to an ecommerce novice trying to decide which direction to take?
Elkins: Ecommerce takes a lot of commitment. Oftentimes, a person thinks that ecommerce doesn’t take a lot of time, but it does. Make sure you have the time to commit to the business. Owning an Internet business is a 24/7 commitment. It is amazing the people I meet who think I really don’t have a job. When in reality, I work more hours a week than they do at a traditional job. Even when I am on vacation or out of town, I am working. The laptop comes with me as well as my cell phone.
Check to see if other people are doing what you are doing on the web. If the market is already flooded with other businesses, it will be hard for you to be successful. We have seen several tapestry ecommerce businesses pop up and then disappear during the last five years. I would imagine their biggest problem was that there were already a lot of successful businesses in the market, and they just couldn’t compete.
Find something new. Look for a niche or service that is not currently represented in ecommerce or find a unique and better way to serve customers in a market that is already populated with Internet businesses. If you can do it better, go for it.
There are a lot of great ecommerce business solutions out there that were not available five years ago. Research them all, see what is best for you. Look at the cost of the product. There are so many more options now than we were setting up shop. If you find something that meets most of your needs and falls within your budget, go with that product.
eBay is great place to get your feet wet. If you want to experiment to see if ecommerce is for you, try selling a few things on eBay. The initial cost of doing business is low. eBay is very user friendly and easy to run. If things go well, you may want to consider ecommerce.