Stephanie Leffler says anybody who thinks a successful ecommerce business is about putting up a website in five minutes and counting the money in their pajamas is in for a rude awakening. To her, ecommerce is a real business that requires every bit the investment of time, energy, and money that any business does.
That attitude drove her to succeed in her first ecommerce business — one that she started while she was still in college. She launched an Internet sales company offering sun protection products. She (and partner Ryan Noble) wrote a business plan, invested capital, and grew a successful company.
Typically that would be the whole story. But there is a sidebar here. Shortly after her startup, Leffler hired a little web development company called MonsterCommerce, because they had what she needed in her startup — almost. This is where the sidebar becomes the big story.
Practical Ecommerce: Not many customers end up as CEO of one of their vendors. How did you become the chief executive of MonsterCommerce?
Stephanie Leffler: When I wrote a business plan and started my company in my senior year of college, I became a customer of a small company with about 10 storefront clients. I quickly became a vocal customer. I had a lot of suggestions as to what the company could do to improve its storefront service, and I didn’t hesitate to offer those suggestions. The owner and I got to know each other well, and one day he said, ‘Would you consider investing in my business since you’re interested in ecommerce?’
I told him, yes, in fact, I would be interested. After studying the business plan, it became obvious that MonsterCommerce had great promise. We decided to invest profits from our first company in MonsterCommerce and quickly thereafter devoted our full attention to MonsterCommerce. For some time, I was the vice president of sales, and then in September of 2004, we had a meeting and made the joint decision that we needed a clear leader for the company to grow. At that time we decided that I would become the CEO.
PEC: Here is a little startup company with flaws, which you pointed out. What attracted you to it strongly enough to put your own money into it?
Leffler: Well, when I first got involved in MonsterCommerce, it was early 2000. At that time, there weren’t many options for business owners who wanted to start an ecommerce business. Most people went to a local web developer who didn’t know about online selling, and the success ratio was probably 25% or less.
I tried to go that route. I found MonsterCommerce because I had trouble with a local web developer. After getting frustrated with my web developer’s lack of ecommerce knowledge, I sought a different solution.
I found a little company that built a system that small business owners could use themselves. I didn’t have to rely on a web developer to get my online store running. For me, that was the big attraction. I was driven to start and run my business, and I knew if I could build the store myself, my chances of success would be higher.
PEC: MonsterCommerce aside, you must have had high confidence in the fledgling ecommerce industry, even after the dot com crash. What made you think then that ecommerce would be a big business someday?
Leffler: Ecommerce was very young. It was a risky time to get into this business. We heard a lot of negative comments like, “Why are you guys going into that business?” Or, “The Internet is dying.”
I never subscribed to that philosophy. I had seen the power of the Internet firsthand with my own online store. I realized that the Internet was going through some major growing pains because a lot of people thought it would catch on more quickly than it did.
In 2000, most people didn’t have high-speed Internet access, and it was obvious that until the Internet became fast and convenient, it would not be used by the masses. I felt that we had only seen the tip of the Internet iceberg. I never doubted the tremendous promise and had a lot of confidence that online shopping would become a lot more popular than it was.
Everyone knows that small businesses struggle to find new customers. If you go to any small business in a small town and ask, “Would you like to expose your business to 10,000 new customers?” they will say yes. I knew that the Internet could offer small businesses the chance to grow outside of boundaries that were previously difficult to surmount.
I don’t think it was all that visionary on my part. I think it was just common sense that the Internet would not die.
PEC: There is another thing that has changed since then. It costs more to drive around and shop now than it did. Does that bode well for online shopping?
Leffler: It does. But it’s not just the energy costs but the sheer convenience. Once someone has gone online and purchased a gift, had it gift wrapped, and shipped in about 10 minutes, they realize the significant time savings and convenience. When the gift arrives to the recipient on time, the shopper has completed a satisfying experience and will return to online shopping over and over again.
The convenience factor, saving people time, will continue to drive this segment of our economy. There is no question that energy costs cause people to want to drive less, but my guess is that the convenience factor will drive growth.
PEC: From the entrepreneur side — assuming the business has everything put together, good products, a good website, and a shopping cart — what is the biggest challenge she needs to overcome?
Leffler: The first challenge is to get visitors to your site. But after that, the biggest challenge is running an outstanding business with outstanding customer service. Customer service is more important on the Internet than most people think — possibly it is more important on the Internet than in a brick-and-mortar store.
Customers are not as loyal online as they are elsewhere. For example, most people wouldn’t be able to tell you the name of the online store from which they made their last purchase. It is not a loyalty-based shopping experience but one based on price and convenience.
An online store owner has to go the extra mile to deliver an outstanding experience. That is not an easy thing to do. If a store owner can provide memorable customer service, it will boost their business by providing repeat customers and loyalty. For many businesses, this can be the catalyst that drives them to success.
PEC: What are the elements of superior online customer service?
Leffler: Doing what you say you’re going to do. For example, if you say you’ll have the product to them in two days, they better have it in two days. Answering the phone when somebody calls. Having a toll-free number posted clearly on the site. Make sure your customers know you are willing and able to take calls during normal business hours.
A lot of people think they can start an online store and not man that store — they think everything is automatic. You have to treat this business just like the brick-and-mortar business. Someone must be there to help the customers through the process if they need it or want it.
PEC: Perhaps there is too much hype from the promoters of get-rich-quick schemes telling people they can make tons of money in their pajamas.
Leffler: Absolutely. You will not get rich on the Internet without putting in the same time, money, and commitment as you would in any other business. There is nothing magic about the Internet. You need solid business principles and a lot of hard work.
There has been a lot of hype. I am sure you have seen the infomercials that make it seem like it can be done in a day. They give me a good laugh because it is the furthest thing from the truth I can imagine.
PEC: So, where did the name MonsterCommerce come from?
Leffler: WebsiteMonster was the original name of the company. It was okay, but we didn’t think it emphasized our ecommerce focus. We did, however, like the Monster part, and we wanted to focus on our commerce capabilities, so we put Monster and Commerce together, and here we are.
PEC: So what does the future hold for MonsterCommerce?
Leffler: From a software standpoint, we are very interested in improving our clients’ conversion rates. Conversion rate is the percentage of visitors to buyers on a given site. For example, if I get 100 visitors to my site and two buy, I have a 2% conversion rate. If I can get 4 of them to buy, I have a 4% conversion rate. This achieves the same goal as doubling traffic. We try very hard to help increase our clients’ conversion rates with each new release.
We have two goals: to save our clients time and to make them more money. So we are either adding administrative functions to save them time or improving the front end of the shopping experience to make them more money. Our most recent release went out on October 1, 2005. This release made the checkout process highly customizable.
In addition, MonsterMarketplace.com is our shopping site. This site allows consumers to access our merchant’s products in one location quickly. On any given day, we get about 300,000 unique shoppers to that site driving a ton of sales for our merchants. We intend to continue to grow that portal.
PEC: MonsterCommerce is growing pretty fast. You’re at about 5,000 ecommerce stores?
Leffler: It’s closer to 5,500.
PEC: Your growth rate must be tremendous.
Leffler: About 100% this year.