“Lessons Learned” is a series where we ask ecommerce business owners to share their experiences and advice. For this installment, we interviewed Lee Wright, president of Ma Mi Skin Care, an Orlando, Fla.-based online store that sells all-natural skin care products. Ma Mi Skin Care launched in 2008, and the site currently takes in around $2,000 gross revenue each month.
Wright holds a master’s degree in organizational communication from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and did undergraduate studies at University of Florida with a major in psychology and a minor in business.
“I was doing change management and training at Coca Cola Enterprises and with a few consulting firms and then I taught some communication class as an adjunct instructor at Georgia State and University of Central Florida,” Wright said. “Once I began staying home with the kids, I did some small consulting projects on the side, but I wanted to see if there was a way that I could start my own business where I would be completely dependent on myself and creating my own schedule.
“I was trying a few natural skin products and I thought that new moms seemed to be a huge market for the whole natural product industry, and so I decided to focus on that niche and run with it.”
Online for Now
“We are exclusively online right now, but down the road we might attempt to do some retail. We’d like to get into some niche boutique type of stores to sell our products.
“With skin care, people like to sample the products before they try them. So, initially our strategy was to really try and be almost exclusively an online business, but we don’t seem to be growing as fast as we’d hoped, so we’re thinking that maybe adding some presence in retail stores would help.”
“There are actually only four of us on our team and we all went in together as kind of a partnership; so we don’t have any employees. We all just divvy up the work. Initially we had tried to do fulfillment with a fulfillment house but it wasn’t working well. We weren’t getting feedback. So one of us took on fulfillment, and another person on our team focuses on marketing. The third person works on public relations and customer-focus — writing blog posts, responding to emails that come in from the website. And then the last person handles our financials and helps with updating the website and so forth.”
“Initially our whole website was built on ASP.NET and we were using the ASP.NET storefront. For us that website platform wasn’t working well because nobody on our team knew how to use ASP.NET and we couldn’t go in and make changes on the fly. We weren’t happy with the design to begin with — for instance, we didn’t have a blog — so we decided to just scrap it and start from scratch. We got a new designer who recommended Drupal [the content management platform]. So we now have a blog and our shopping cart is Ubercart [the open source shopping cart], which is within Drupal.
“It’s very easy to use. Basically, it’s like going in and editing our Windows system. It has a few little quirks, but I can post a blog now in three clicks and it is up. It really is quite impressive for someone who’s not technical.”
“We manage orders internally. You can choose with our systems to have it charge-to-card automatically, but we review each order to make sure we’re keeping track of all the orders. We auto charge it, then we say ‘process’ and it’s sent to the person who does the fulfillment. So it’s all kind of a manual process, but at least for now it keeps us on top of everything. Since we’re so small, and we’ve got so few orders coming in each day, we all want to know about them.”
Inventory and Product Sourcing
“We pretty much use one manufacturer exclusively that has a whole slew of products. They’ve been around for about 20 years in this industry and they sell internationally and so they’re pretty well respected.
“Since we’re a natural skin care line, we looked at all their products and their ingredients. We made sure that there’s no toxicity or carcinogenic propensity in any of the ingredients in any of our products, and we chose a small subset of the products that they offer.
“We try and keep enough inventory for the next 30 sales of each product and so every few months we make a new order.”
“Initially we were using UPS and that was working fine, but it was a little more expensive. We found that, for the size of our products, a U.S. Postal Service Priority Envelope is only $4.75 versus like $6 for UPS. We had also used FedEx for a little while and those were like $6 or $7, on average.
“The $4.75 was important because we’re offering $3 flat rate shipping, and we’re eating the rest of the shipping cost anyway. We keep our shipping rate a priority and it has worked out very well and we haven’t had any issues with it. I like it a lot.”
“We have an email link on our website for contacting us or we have a number that goes through to my phone. We haven’t had many customer service issues. We haven’t had any complaints about the products.
“We just did one of those one-day deals, though, and more orders came in than we had anticipated. The shipping date timeframe went to six days versus three days to get the stuff out. So we had a few customers email saying ‘Where are my products?’ We should have proactively emailed them to say there would be a few days delay. But everybody has responded with understanding that we were kind of swamped. So that was probably our biggest customer complaint issue that we had recently, but otherwise we’ve had a pretty positive feedback.”
“We did that one day deal with a site called Eversave. It was our first deal-of-the-day promotion, and we had a really good response — about 40 new sales. The one-day deal sites are great to get your name out there and get some exposure. By the time you give the 50 percent off and then actually give a split with the one day deal site, you’re not making any money with the sale, but you’re just hoping that the customer will come back.
“We’re geared towards moms who are looking for a natural product, getting enough information to them so that they can trust us. Somehow, I don’t think building that trust online is working as much as we had hoped, so we’re looking at possibly incorporating some hosting parties like the whole Tupperware party concept. We could be a little bit more educational, a little bit more face-to-face, getting people comfortable with the products and trying them. That’s something we’ve explored a little bit and are starting to work on.”
Search Engine Optimization
“We do SEO by ourselves but I don’t know how good we do just yet. We’re working on that.
“One of our SEO plans is trying to get as many blog posts and blog links as possible. We use a website called Tomoson that basically connects products, companies with products to bloggers. You put out what you would want the blogger to review and if the blogger is interested they sign up and write about it.
“I also check ‘Help a Reporter Out’ [HARO] pretty regularly just to see if there’s anything on there that corresponds to our topic area that people want information on, and I try to respond to some of those requests.
“We put some of the basic [meta] tags directly into the code of our last platform. With our current Drupal site, we can get all the tags in place. But other than that, we have not done too much with SEO.”
“We’ve been doing a little bit of pay-per-click advertising for the last two months. With Google Analytics, we try and figure out which keywords are the best to focus on, the most cost effective, and that pertain particularly to our site. So, if we chose a keyword like ‘C sections,’ for example, then the click would take them directly to our C section related products.
“We’ve spent about $300 on PPC and, honestly, I don’t think it’s turned into much — one or two sales at most. So I think we might pause that for awhile and try and focus more on the SEO blog links.”
“We sent out an email to 250 subscribers with the new website launch but I don’t think we got any sales from that. Now, we’re working on a bigger email blast. We just bought a list of about 10,000 names for about $300 and I’m hoping it’s a high quality list.
“We are using MailChimp The initial email of 250 names was free, but now with the 10,000 names we have to sign up and pay. So, we figured we would sign up for a monthly subscription, send out the list a few times to see if it turns into anything, and then determine whether it’s worth it to keep doing the email marketing.”
“We’re trying to build up our followers on Facebook, and possibly run a Facebook contest by having people post a funny story or something, and the winner would win some of our products.
“We also have a Twitter account, and we have a decent amount of followers there as well. It’s one thing to have followers, it’s another thing to actually have them turn into a sale.”
“Our biggest mistake was building the website on the wrong platform with the wrong designer and with a design that we weren’t happy with. We should have spent that time researching websites for small businesses and finding a designer we liked, rather than just going with someone through word of mouth.”
“The most successful thing that we’ve done thus far is doing that one-day deal. We went back and forth on it because we weren’t really going to make any money with the sales. But, when you’re such a small business, just getting your products out there and getting people to try them is sometimes hard to do. Even if you give away samples, it’s hard to actually get people to buy. But once they’ve bought from your site one time, they’re comfortable putting their credit card in and buying again. So, when we sent those one day-deal-site customers their products, we put in a little coupon card for their next purchase. If they come back and buy again, I think that’s probably our best move thus far to grow a little bit.”
“Be very patient. It’s not going to happen overnight. No matter how prepared you think you are, everything takes longer and the sales will take longer. Don’t assume that [online selling] is going to be your source of income for a while.
“We all have other fulltime jobs. If you do need an income, don’t assume going out as an entrepreneur that it will put food on the table. Have some savings to rely on for a while.”