“I always wanted to be a pioneer coming across the plains in a covered wagon,” says Marion Keisling. However, there is not much need for covered wagon driving these days, so Keisling has done her pioneer thing in the ecommerce business.
She runs a company called Greatlookz.com and does about $1 million per year in revenue. She sells everything from red hats to lace parasols to tea towels. It’s a far cry from the corporate world, where she was a marketing executive for Castle & Cook Company, a real estate firm.
It would seem that selling homes is way different than selling tiger-stripped cowboy hats and beaded coin purses that look like watermelon wedges. Then again, maybe it’s not that different. It is still about market testing, customer service, and being cost effective.
You’ve heard this before, “I started in my living room six years ago.” For Keisling, that was in the Sacramento, Calif., suburb of Sonora.
“I got intrigued with eBay, so I started putting some things up for auction and then I put more things up on eBay and then I was a Power Seller and then I was launching 1,000 auctions a week. I learned how to sell on the Internet that way, but I couldn’t make any money, at least not with the products I was selling. Marion was selling things like fluttering butterfly hair clips.”
“I wouldn’t recommend anybody choosing that as a first inventory item. But, I did a lot of experimenting. I had a marketing background in corporate America, and I started doing this part-time on nights and weekends. Then, about three years ago, I switched to full-time.”
The auction route was not Marion’s only method of operations. She tried the storefront route first. _I made the gruesome mistake of paying someone $3,000 to set up a website for me. But, it was hard to use and hard to navigate. I had trouble with the pictures. I had trouble adding products and deleting products. It was just an unmitigated disaster. That was six years ago and it wasn’t as easy back then. I had originally wanted to sell only on my website, but it was hard and all my sales were coming in from eBay and I got sort of hooked. It is hard to get off your eBay check. It took me several years, but finally they were taking so much of my money that I said, “forget it, I have to learn to do this ecommerce thing properly.”
Marion had some self-education to accomplish. It has been said that Internet marketing is trying lots of different things. Marion was willing.
“I went out on the Internet and I read everything I could find about selling on the Internet. I tried all sorts of stuff—I’ll try anything once or twice, just to see if it works. I tried all the pay-per-click things; I tried all the marketplaces; I tried more eBay auctions and Amazon and Yahoo auctions. Some of the stuff worked and some of it didn’t.”
Eventually Marion hit the right combination and she got the right help from companies like Zoovy. She got on the path to profitability, which in itself is a sort of pioneer move, since profit can be elusive in Internet sales if any part of the puzzle isn’t in place. Her experiences, good and bad, and her persistence got her over the hump.
“My costs have gone down, and I buy better now because the suppliers come to me. My payroll costs are down, my advertising costs are down now that I’m not on eBay anymore. It was probably a year and a half ago that I thought, wow, this is really starting to cook. I hired more people, got more products up and started more websites. Little by little I’ve gotten more confident and it’s not just an experiment anymore. I am still doing a lot of experimenting on my sites. You never know what’s around the next corner and you have to stay ahead of what everybody else is doing.”
One of the things that Keisling did was adopt the letter “z.” She registered plenty of domains that end in “z.” She has domains like http://www.Greatlookz.com (the parent), http://www.Redhatz.com, http://www.Greatglovez.com, http://www.greatparasolz.com and about a hundred other domains that start with Great and end in “z”, more than 20 of which are now online. While they all seem different, they all have a common thread.
What they all have in common is that they have things that are hard to find. You can’t just run down to the store and pick up a pair of bubble gum colored opera gloves. There is no reason that any store in America would have to carry that much inventory. Every time I find a little niche, I start adding more of the same kind of thing. I wanted to have every single kind of dressy glove you can think of, so that when people get to my site they say, okay these people have enough inventory to do anything I want to with my outfit. So, all of the sites have that as the theme or base. The reason I have so many specialty sites has to do with the pay-perclick arena. Rather than have, for example, parasols as a part of my GreatLookz site, my theory is that a specific name like http://www.greatparasolz.com will attract more interest.
There is another common thread that runs through Keisling’s Great “z” sites. They display the product well and make it super easy for the customer to buy.
“I know how (now) to build sites that sell. I don’t do pretty sites, but I do build sites that sell and all of the sites have that in common. All the techniques that I use to sell parasols are the same techniques that I use to sell prom dresses (greatformlz.com).”
Keisling doesn’t mind sharing her hardlearned knowledge. In fact, she consults for other entrepreneurs and for Zoovy, the company that provides the hosting, shopping cart and auction automation for her sites. That so-called back-end is something that new ecommerce merchants tend to forget about.
“One of the things I didn’t realize and I didn’t think about when I was “little”, working out of my living room, is that the backend is very important. Everyone is concerned about how the website looks and how it works. I think it is sort of a given that you can make a website look good and you can make it sell. But, the back-end is important, especially for me because I don’t have large, expensive products. I have to efficiently process those orders to keep my costs low and my margins up. I now have a 12,000 square foot warehouse in Phoenix, and when you call me up, I can tell you everything about your order as if I were Lands End or L.L. Bean. In a bad month, I might have 800- 1,000 orders to process, and if I screw those up it is an absolutely nightmare.”
“Great order processing, intense customer service—you always get a live person on the phone and your questions answered at GreatLookz—are important. But, in the fastpaced Internet commerce world there is one more thing you must have.”
If you want to be in this business you’ve got to be able to change quickly. You have to be extremely flexible. The Internet has bad days and you end up with Internet problems and all sorts of unrelated issues. You have to keep your eyes open and be ready to adapt. Your customers will tell you what they want or need, but only if you’re watching and paying attention.