Management & Finance

Lessons Learned: Solarbatshades.com Owner Matt Mauldin

“Lessons Learned” is a biweekly series where we ask ecommerce business owners to share their experiences and advice. For this installment, we interviewed Matt Mauldin, owner of Solarbatshades.com, an Allen, Texas-based online retailer of roughly 50 types of sunglasses and accessories. Mauldin worked in online marketing before launching the site in 2006. He now operates the business himself and earns just under $100,000 in annual revenue. Here we give you Mauldin’s experience and suggestions.

Matt Mauldin

Shopping Cart Software

“We’re running on Zen Cart. It’s an open source cart with lots of customizable features. It has an incredible support community and quite a bit of open source extensions to allow you to customize. Before I launched the site, I had limited experience with osCommerce [another open source cart]. Zen Cart offered additional features, plus template options that make updating the site much easier. I haven’t had any problems, but it has a steep learning curve. Users should know HTML, PHP and MySQL.”

Hosting

“We use Liquid Web. We’ve been on a shared account before, but we’re currently on a dedicated server. Merchants need to look for good support and a quick turnaround in a hosting company. It’s worth paying for; attention from the company is definitely worth it. Liquid Web has incredible support. It’s rare when they don’t respond to emails within 30 minutes.”

Employees

“It gets a little hairy in the spring. We’re focused on the fishing market, which has its heavy season right now. During the rest of year I’ve got it pretty much under control. It’s been more enjoyable than anything.”

“We’re set up using drop shipping. I was going to hire an employee when I was considering warehousing my own inventory. Now I would consider expanding marketing first, increasing sales, my customer base and brand awareness. The decision to hire someone would be determinate on these things.”

Marketing

“The majority is paid search. It accounts for a good percentage of our orders. I also focus on SEO, making sure I’m available for people searching ‘fishing sunglasses’ and the brand name. I’ve never ever done any advertising off-line. I have visited some bass tournaments, set up booths, passed out info, but I never used any mass media advertising.”

“I did run a small amount of banner ads on fishing sites in the past. I’ve got the design software, so I made them myself. We’re currently not running any banner ads now. We ran quite a few back in 2007, an incredible year. So far in ‘08 and ‘09, the market’s been down. I found that paid search had, dollar for dollar, a better return.”

Pay-Per-Click Advertising

“I focus on having quite a few keywords, changing ads and testing them against each other on a monthly basis. I test different search providers, too. Obviously Google, Yahoo! and MSN, but there’s quite a few others you can advertise on to get a smaller amount of traffic that’s very targeted. When your campaign is set up and running well, and you’re getting a good return on your money, you still can find sources of revenue. Make sure your tracking is good. I’m currently using Google Analytics on the site. It basically does everything I want it to do. I can track sale amounts, which is ultimately the goal.”

Email Marketing

“I’ve done a little bit of that, mainly through my current customer base. It’s something I’d like to consider in the future, but I have not done it extensively.”

Search Engine Optimization

“There’s always on-site optimization, making sure it has good content and is coded well. I put info on the website fishermen will appreciate. Ultimately the content is going to get picked up. I also participate in forums about fishing, and I get requests on a daily basis to exchange links. SEO is a consistent effort over a long period of time. No one can guarantee rankings. If you have time and knowledge to do it yourself over a long term basis, I suggest you do it yourself.”

Expense Control

“I pay daily attention to my advertising. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t take a good look at it. On a weekly basis, I try to find where I’m spending the most money. Marketing is my largest expense.”

“In addition to that, I make sure to have good customer service and response to customer sales. Product returns are also a large expense if you don’t focus on customer requests. Daily attention really pays off in long run.”

Accounting Software

“I use QuickBooks Pro. It works very well, but there’s a little bit of a learning curve.”

Order Management Software

“Zen Cart has a real robust backend, including order management. I’m able to update the customer on what’s happening or if we need more info, [such as] if they haven’t put in their lens prescriptions, something like that. It also helps with tracking shipping.”

Product Sourcing

“Fishing has always been a hobby for me. When I got into ecommerce, I was introduced to the owner of Solar Bat Enterprises through my uncle who’s a semi-pro bass fisherman. He knew it was a great product, and it’s in a niche market, so I thought it would be a good bet. Within about six months we became their top dealer. The manufacturer is always thrilled to have more sales, so our relationship has always been really good.”

“For product sourcing, merchants need to find something that is not hugely competitive, especially on a first or second product line. If you’re fighting hundreds of competitors, you’re not going to do well. Choose a product you can really enjoy to help your energy and passion about the business. Then just stick with it. It’s not going to happen in a couple of months. Our first three [months] were really bad. We really lucked out as far as how quickly we could get our sales up. A lot of that is based on a good relationship with the manufacturer and my experience in web marketing.“

Credit Card Payments

“We use Authorize.Net. They have good security and good add-on abilities in terms of adding American Express or Discover. I also like their secure seal. Trust messaging is a comfort blanket to customers. They’re putting their information out onto the Internet, and you have to tell them, ‘It’s safe to do that on my site.’”

“We [also] use PayPal and Google Checkout. You’ve got people who really want third party interaction. Without PayPal or Google, our sales would go down 20 to 25 percent.”

Social Media

“I’ve done that a little bit, mostly on my personal pages. I have not opened a company page. It being such a niche market, I think it would work, but it would be a long-term thing. Even though we’re not using big social sites, we fulfill some of that community function on different fishing forums.”

Blogs

“There is a blog, but it hasn’t been updated in a while. That will probably change this year. The current blog is run on Blogger, not on the domain, which is why I abandoned it. I plan to put a blog on the domain to help with content and so people can link to it. It will be purely for SEO reasons.”

Customer Service

“You need product knowledge and a quick response. Doesn’t do you any good to have quick response then say, ‘I don’t know.’ I have an 800 number on the site, and people can send emails. I try to get back to them within 24 hours.”

General Business Attitude

“I love it. I like wearing the sunglasses down on the lake and showing them to other guys. I’ve got a passion for the project, and I’ve enjoyed it since day one.”

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

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