Vance Selin founded Countrytradedays.com in 2003 to sell a variety of unique home decor items. The site was modeled after The McKinney (Texas) Third Monday Trade Days, a monthly fair hosting more than 300 vendors. Since its inception, Selin’s website has experienced steady growth, with 2008 revenues at $230K, and 2009 revenues expected to exceed $270K.
PeC: How did your business get its start?
Selin: “There’s a big event in Texas called Trade Days, where vendors come for a weekend with handmade or hard-to-find products. My original intent was to create a website to sell these vendors’ wares online. In the beginning, we warehoused everything, but the overhead was too much. Now, we use multiple drop shippers to get our products to our customers.”
PeC: Where did you get the idea to sell online?
Selin: “Well, I had no retail or website experience, it was just a real entrepreneurial venture. I did some research on how ecommerce worked and launched the first site on the Yahoo! platform. The platform itself was good, and the online forums and the user community were great. I was able to connect with other store owners, learn best practices, and bounce ideas around.”
PeC: How many employees do you have?
Selin: “I run the whole show, sort of. I’ve found third party vendors and have outsourced pay-per-click ad management and customer service for phone orders and returns. I still manage the business, identify new vendors and manage relationships, but a lot of the operations work is outsourced.”
PeC: How does that work from a financial standpoint?
Selin: “I pay a bit more to outsource, but also don’t have the overhead of office space, health insurance, or employment tax. For my situation, the expense is worth it.”
PeC: Tell us about your marketing strategy.
Selin: “We use the big three: Yahoo!, Google, and MSN [now Bing] for pay-per-click advertising. [In the past,] we used comparison-shopping engines a bit, but our type of products drove the cost up and the return wasn’t justified.
“We use an independent firm to manage our pay-per-click advertising. I do the organic search engine optimization myself. I also do the email marketing myself.
“We’re also in the middle of launching a new site, HomeAndOutdoorDecor.com, and we’re going to create a variety of social media channels like Facebook pages. We’ll also ramp up our email marketing from a bimonthly to a more regular communications when [the new site] launches. “
PeC: Why are you launching the new site?
Selin: “If you’re not from Texas or the surrounding area, Country Trade Days doesn’t really mean much to you. With the launch of Home and Outdoor Decor, we’re better positioned from a branding standpoint to reach a larger customer base. It’s really all about the return on investment. We have already seen a number of high-ticket orders come in without even doing real marketing.”
PeC: Does the new site carry the same products?
Selin: “Yes, and more. We already have great relationships with our current vendors, so it makes sense for us to have a lot of carryover between the products. The new site allows us to expand our offering beyond the typical Trade Days items and sell household items – for example, appliances.”
PeC: How do you handle accounting matters?
Selin: “Our accounting firm uses QuickBooks and we receive reports from them as needed.
“As the orders come in, we pass the orders through to the drop shippers manually. If our orders become excessive and we need it, we’ll look at an order management system, but the return on investment will have to be projected as positive.”
PeC: How do you handle your customer service, since your shipments are, essentially, outsourced with your drop shippers?
Selin: “We have very clear policies and provide our customers with that information in a courteous and professional way. We are a very laid back, traditional, southern hospitality-style store, and we have ensured that our agents, even though they’re outsourced, reflect that on every call. The key to our growth has been realizing that communication is the key to business–prompt replies and good phone reps are make or break.”
PeC: What about dealing with suppliers and vendors?
Selin: “Use your suppliers to gain knowledge and get good deals. Remember that suppliers benefit when you’re successful, and they should have a vested interest in you succeeding because of it.
“For vendors, find people who are smarter than you. You can’t know everything, but you do need to know your product line. We’re very successful because we’ve done our homework when it comes to outsourcing. A lot of people will promise you the world, but you have to be skeptical of any promise. Be careful, and seek multiple bids on everything.”
PeC: Any last words of advice or thoughts for other merchants?
Selin: “It’s been helpful for me to remember that my business can grow (or die) based on my attitude and decisions. I think a lot of businesses don’t last because people stop trying or are stubborn. I enjoy running my business and seeing it succeed, so I’m always open to new ideas and opportunities. That’s what’s worked for me.”