“Lessons Learned” is a series where we ask ecommerce business owners to share their experiences and advice. For this installment, we interviewed William (Will) Seippel, CEO and chairman of WorthPoint, the parent company of GoAntiques, a subscription-based information service for antique dealers based in Dublin, Ohio. According to Seippel, GoAntiques is the oldest antique mall on the Internet.
“GoAntiques was in some financial disarray and their owners had planned to close it down at the end of 2008,” said Seippel. “I thought I could get GoAntiques profitable and actually improve the quality of what they had to offer, and work on helping the dealers upgrade some of their image and products on the web. We’ve actually come a long ways to doing that, and it does generate a profit a year later.”
The main change was eliminating previously free services and initiating a subscription-based service. “We went from 1,200 dealers to a stronger, more focused set of about 800 to 900 dealers.”
Today, GoAntiques is one of the most popular and successful hubs for antiques, and it has generated approximately $1 million in revenue in the year Seippel has owned it. “It is just behind eBay as the most visited site for antiques and collectibles in the world,” he said.
Seippel talks below about the decisions he made that have helped GoAntiques achieve financial success.
“We have quite a complex data structure on our own servers that we host at Qwest in Ohio where we have our own hardware. Between GoAntiques and WorthPoint, we have about 60 million web pages, and we also have one of the larger WordPress implementations. We have about 200 million images in our database and those images are hosted on Amazon’s servers in what’s called the Amazon Cloud. All our prices and the actual text data is hosted on our facilities at Qwest, and we mix cloud computing with our own server data and text and bring the two together into one product on the website.”
Credit Card Payments
“We charge a base fee that approximates about $60 a dealer per month and, right now, we’re using VeriSign. It was more of a legacy item that we picked up in GoAntiques ecommerce, but we’re looking at more robust solutions today, especially for recurring billing transactions, which is what we do for most of our customers. We’ll probably make the switch over the next 30 days.
“[We haven’t made a final decision, but] the leading horse would probably be CyberSource. We currently have about four financial entities in our credit card processing and we want to go down to two. That’s important because the more people you get into the mix, the more things can get screwed up and the higher your failure rates get.”
“We have three Atlanta, around 14 in Ohio, one in Virginia, one in Maryland, one in Texas, and one in Argentina. I kind came to the conclusion that America needed to have more jobs in America so we stopped our work [tech support] in the Philippines and moved it to Ohio. The people actually cost more, but I’d say it’s much more efficient. The work is more integrated and we can get a quicker turnaround.
“One of the important things we offer employees is a great healthcare plan. That went a long way with the employees that we picked up from GoAntiques.
“We also bought people modern workstations to work on. We also implement programs like employee of the month. The result is our employee base is very loyal. They work hard. They come up with new ideas that make us money. They’re dedicated and we have no turnover.”
Search Engine Optimization
“We have a mathematician from University of Chicago who works on SEO. He is a brilliant guy that we inherited with GoAntiques. Search engine optimization is all math and it’s understanding Google’s algorithms and understanding what drives them. The fact that we are number 1,200 in the US for web traffic means we are doing real well for a very young company. Our web traffic grows at probably 25 percent a month, consistently.
“Antiques and collectibles have statistically long-tail search data. People look for very arcane things, so our primary landing pages are not our homepage. It’s more complex because we change the content every time somebody visits based on their cookies, and what we think they might want to see that’s connected to the item that they’re actually coming to. We call it dynamic page loading.”
“Our marketing group runs our social media campaign. We’ve done some marketing programs on Twitter with asking people to bring in their coolest antique finds, and we tell them what it is for free. I’ve got my own Twitter account, and I’m going to start going out in the field and offering special marketing promos and twittering where I’m going to be on weekends.
“The company is also on Facebook. We have a lot of hits there and it actually brings traffic on our site.”
“We have run PPC ads on Google and Yahoo just to get the name recognition. Today, we probably spend at most $4,000 a month testing some things on Google–how does that traffic behave or is this free traffic…”
“We have used good old QuickBooks all along. Parts of it are integrated with our system, and parts of it aren’t. We get a lot of our reports out of PayPal and move it over into Excel and then to QuickBooks. I do wish we were more automated.”
“I personally oversee every check that goes out, so nothing gets paid without me seeing it. I think that really helps in a small company if everybody knows the CEO is going to see every expenditure. [My employees] need to make sure they can explain why I need to write a check.
“I think it’s better to have the employees understand all the good things and bad things and have them part of the team on how to solve the problems and take advantage of opportunities. So, that helps in itself with controlling expenses.
“We also have to lead by example. For instance, I book my hotels on Priceline. It helps when employees see that you take the time to save money yourself.”
“We use Cerberus Helpdesk for customer service. It works for us very well and we keep track of what our people do. My customer service person is an American working in Argentina. She actually uses Skype to call our customers free around the world. We can track what she does every day on Cerberus because it logs all our calls.”
“I think that our biggest mistake was in the billing systems. From the beginning we made a wrong decision in not getting a billing system for a recurring transaction versus a one-stop purchase.”
“Obviously, anytime entrepreneurs are successful in building a company, that’s cool. I was told by a lot of smart people that we could never sell subscriptions, that people would never pay for the data, but we found out they’re quite willing to pay for the data, and that we have content that people need. I think we did a very good job narrowing our focus to doing something well.
“And, we got out of some services that just didn’t make money. For example, we got out of doing the auctioning for the dealers because it was costing GoAntiques about $10,000 a month in profit and was a drain on our time. It cost us some dealers, because unfortunately some people didn’t fit in with the fewer things that we were going to do, but [for the majority] it was still a great deal and at the same time it made the company money.”
“There are so many highs and lows that come every week, and you’re not always going to make the right decision. But make the best decision you know how to make and learn to recognize when something goes wrong in time to do something about it. Admit it if something did go wrong. Adapt, and get your people to help you fix it.
“I would also say have some extra money in the drawer because things more often take longer and cost more than you think.”