Never underestimate the power of a good makeover. That was the message behind the e-Business Boost Challenge, sponsored by Entrepreneur magazine and ProStores, an eBay company and full-service e-commerce solution for SMBs.
However, this makeover wasn't about fashion and grooming. Instead, the winners, who were announced on June 13 at the annual eBay Live! convention, held this year at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Convention Center in Las Vegas, received a complete overhaul of their online sales efforts. More than 500 entrepreneurs operating online or through brick-and-mortar stores submitted entries describing their businesses and products as well as why they needed an enhanced online presence.
"We wanted to [encourage] business owners to take advantage of a powerful small-business web solution designed to establish and build an online presence," says Julian Green, director of ProStores. "We are eager to educate entrepreneurs who want to further develop their businesses but don't know how to actualize their growth potential through online sales channels."
Over a five-month period, the six winning businesses were evaluated, and professionals from Entrepreneur, About.com, PayPal, ProStores and eBay provided consulting services to each business, teaching them how to ramp up their online and offline marketing efforts and business operations. In addition, each winning business received a website overhaul from ProStores, complete with integrated e-commerce functions and a one-year subscription to ProStores' Business tier service. Here's a closer look at the six winners, their online challenges and the striking makeovers.
Maggie Vasilyadis, 27
Essenceology.com, New York city
Projected 2006 Sales: $25,000
The Business: Maggie Vasilyadis knows all about makeovers. Working in the cosmetics industry for nine years, she noticed a distinct trend toward more natural beauty products. "I saw this big change coming, with a lot of demand for natural products, and wanted to start right away," she explains. So she downloaded a website builder from Yahoo! and created her website in less than a month, launching in January 2006 and sourcing products by turning to trade magazines and attending trade shows.
The Challenge: Essenceology.com is run on a very small budget, and Vasilyadis works on it part time while holding her day job. She wasn't thrilled with the design limitations of the site builder she chose and felt her site could be cleaner and easier to navigate.
According to ProStores business advisor Richard Lawrence, the online beauty products space is very crowded, and Essenceology.com needs some basics to survive. "Essenceology must have a sophisticated web design that will allow it to compete with the major beauty product sites," he says. "The company is focusing on a fast-growing niche in the beauty products industry: natural and organic products. Unlike her competitors, [Vasilyadis'] products are very reasonably priced. [She] has a good eye for the types of beauty products that are in demand, as she shops the world looking for the best values."
The Solution: The key word in the redesign seems to be clarity. The new site, says Vasilyadis, keeps the clean look of her previous endeavor but adds many new features for consumers' convenience, including clear descriptions of each product and its use, along with better organization of products by category. The site also captures more customer and sales information for future marketing efforts. Checkout is seamless, using ProStores' interface with PayPal, and Vasilyadis can easily add products as she finds more that fit her mix.
"I learned that I don't have to do everything myself," Vasilyadis says. "My expertise is in the beauty industry, not in building and designing a site. With help from ProStores, I was able to have control over the design and administrative options to build a site exactly as I pictured it. With more professional design, more consumers will trust the site, and there will be [fewer] abandoned carts."
Adding E-Commerce Capabilities
Patrick Coughlin, 45
American Diamond Importers, St. Clair, Michigan
Projected 2006 Sales: $1.8 million
The Business: In 1988, Patrick Coughlin carved out a nice niche selling diamonds at wholesale prices to insurance companies that needed to replace lost or stolen gems. When a local retail jeweler came on the market four years later, Coughlin saw a chance to expand and purchased the shop, entering the retail jewelry marketplace. Still, it took a while for customers to catch on that the store offered more than just diamonds, and the name, American Diamond Importers, didn't help. In 2005, Coughlin decided it was time to create a website to help spread the word about his business.
The Challenge: Initially, the site was just an informational website about the company with no e-commerce functionality. Changing that, says ProStores business advisor Jen Mouritsen, was the big challenge. "The first hurdle was turning his site into a full e-commerce solution and getting his customers to be able to find him and buy online without having to make a phone call," she explains. "As we move into the integration with eBay and getting ProStores up and running, we need to be sure that he has feedback and support to keep running the business effectively online."
The Solution: ADI's new website is fully optimized, and Coughlin has had a crash course in how to make his site rank higher in customers' online searches for fine jewelry. Now customers can immediately see the wide variety of offerings his company has and easily make purchases. Because the new site allows him to reach out to customers in other states--and even other countries--Coughlin says he'll be able to keep their business, even if they relocate.
"Optimization, spiders, sponsorships--it's like I've learned a whole new language," Coughlin says. But he expects that language to pay off in a big way. "When you turn on the news here, it's hard not to get depressed. Michigan's economy is in the dumpster because of all the news coming out of the car [industry]," he explains. "We were expecting to do $1 million in online sales next year, but now we expect to double that. We've already hired six new full-time people to handle the increase, and if all goes according to plan, we'll probably hire another six more. That's great news for our area."
Warren Tracy, 49
The Busted Knuckle Garage, Prescott, Arizona
Projected 2006 Sales: More than $300,000
The Business: When Warren Tracy stumbled out of bed in the middle of the night in August 1996 and scrawled a foggy idea on a piece of paper, he didn't realize he had just started his next business venture. A year later, Tracy refined and trademarked that late-night doodle to launch The Busted Knuckle Garage, a gift company that now offers 150 distinctive, branded items for car and motorcycle enthusiasts.
Tracy started getting the word out by promoting skin-care products for mechanics and other hands-on types, such as the river guides he worked with at the Grand Canyon. He began publicizing his products through back-of-the-book advertising in an automotive magazine, and sales increased. When the business picked up some momentum, he quit his job, sold his small collection of cars and motorcycles, and refinanced his house to get the capital he needed to grow the business.
The Challenge: Revenue growth has been steady since the company's founding in 1997--Tracy has licensed his trademarked name to other manufacturers and closed a 3,400-store distribution deal for a major automobile parts retailer--but Tracy knew sales through his website could be stronger.
"We created retail demand for [our] product and focused on wholesaling to stores and catalog companies," Tracy explains. "We didn't really customize the website to any great extent but watched it grow every year. Someone needed to come in with tools and bring it up [a] level. I raised my hand and said, 'I'm not the one.'"
The Solution: Spearheaded by ProStores director Julian Green, the team created a slick new look and a more functional shopping cart for the site, as well as back-end functions that capture more customer information and sales data, allowing the site to handle a greater volume of sales seamlessly. "Through ProStores, Tracy will be able to list items on eBay as well as other comparison shopping sites [such as Froogle and Shopping.com]," says Green. "Managing and updating those listings will help drive traffic to [his] products."
Tracy expects the site and other marketing will result in an uptick in referral business: "I believe we've built something so friendly and so inviting that new and existing customers will be extremely motivated to tell their friends and family what they've discovered."
Breaking into a Niche Market
Elena Neitlich, 39; Andrew Neitlich, 40; & Cari Whiddon, 38
Moms on Edge LLC, Osprey, Florida
Projected 2006 Sales: $55,000
The Business: Best friends Elena Neitlich and Cari Whiddon were discussing the challenges of teaching their children how to behave. How can parents be consistent with consequences? After all, it's not easy to make a little one take five in the middle of a shopping mall. Soon, an idea began to take shape: The Original Naughty Spot--a portable mat with a timer for timeouts.
Whiddon and Neitlich carved out time to develop that idea and others by parking next to each other at the local Wendy's with sleeping children in the back seat or taking their cordless phones into their closets for a few minutes of uninterrupted discussion. Soon, Andrew Neitlich, Elena's husband, came onboard as a partner and director of operations. The business officially launched in 2005.
"Our site was up in September, and we got our first order in October," says Elena. "When people placed orders, Cari sent out an e-mail that said we didn't have our products in yet, but people e-mailed back and said, 'We'll wait.' That's when I knew we had something special--when people wanted to purchase [our products] without us having them in our hands."
The Challenge: Because the company specializes in niche products--"products for peace, quiet and good behavior," says the tag line--educating customers and getting them to the site were key challenges. ProStores business advisor Angela Troy says, "Children's items are so competitive. There are numerous hits for 'place mats,' so we needed to be sure that the right keywords were being used."
The Solution: The redesign includes enhanced graphics and a cleaner look. The ProStores team added featured products to the home page, which helps educate customers on the types of products the company specializes in. Other additions include a shopping cart that's easier to use, an online retail order form and price list, more shipping options and free shipping promotions, and a much easier back-end interface. Links to eBay make managing auctions simpler, and a blog keeps customers entertained and informed and gives them another place to provide feedback.
"Revamping an e-commerce site is not just about web design," says Whiddon. "It is about a comprehensive strategy to attract prospects, convert them to customers, and manage the back-end order and fulfillment process. We have become much more aware of the importance of various online marketing options, as well as the potential [for] PR."
Marc Desrosiers, 50
RaceWax.com LLC, Waynesboro, Pennsylvania
Projected 2006 Sales: $100,000
The Business: Marc Desrosiers liked watching his son's ski team race but didn't like dipping into his pockets regularly for $50 bars of race wax and $100-per-bottle speed additives. As a chemist, Desrosiers recognized that the ingredients in those pricey products were actually relatively inexpensive.
When his son decided to test ski waxes for his science fair project, Desrosiers did some experimenting of his own. He purchased some of the ingredients and began creating his own ski wax, which he distributed to his son's racing team.
"They were thrilled that I was able to give them some of the stuff that they pay a lot of money for," Desrosiers explains. "Then they said, 'Hey, you should sell this stuff.' I had the idea that I would put up a website and send [prospects] a small sample [for free], and if they wanted more, they [could] buy some from me." Since that nondescript launch in 1999, Racewax, which specializes in affordable ski and snowboard wax products, has been featured in a ski trade magazine and has fielded orders from around the world.
The Challenge: Desrosiers felt that his lack of business training was holding him back. After reading about using eBay as a marketing tool, he gave it a try, and his sales volume steadily increased. However, there was no strategy or comprehensive approach to his marketing or branding, especially on his website, www.racewax.com.
ProStores business advisor Lin Shearer says this is another case where looks matter. "In the product line he's in, a cool logo is going to go a long way on patches [and] decals," says Shearer. "He needs to create a true corporate identity."
The Solution: Sporting a hot new logo created as part of the makeover, Desrosiers' new site is now far more functional, even allowing customers to accurately compute shipping from many countries. He's learned a great deal about search engine optimization from the consulting sessions and webinars in which he participated. Plus, the ability of the site to capture more customer data from both his eBay auctions and his direct sales will boost his ability to market his business. Says Des-rosiers, "One of my goals, along with the management of customer information and inventory, was just to be able to use information technology to do a lot more and make my busy life a little easier."
Making Your Website Cozy
Pamela Huber-Hauck, 46
Spirit Work Knitting and Designs, Rochester, New York
Projected 2006 Sales: $375,000
The Business: When Pamela Huber-Hauck left her management position at a telecommunications company to follow her passion and open a yarn shop, her well-honed business acumen served her well. Huber-Hauck's knowledge of what her clients wanted, as well as the fact that knitting and crochet were on the upswing, created an environment for explosive growth. The startup she launched in 2003 moved from a tiny, 400-square-foot storefront into a 2,400-square-foot facility by the end of her second year in business.
As Huber-Hauck explains, the store became the priority. "Our whole strategy around the brick-and-mortar store was finding what we could do that's different and innovative," she says. "We brought in couches and seating and coffee and spa music. We shifted our focus away from [the] website."
The Challenge: When business had fallen 40 percent by early 2006, Huber-Hauck knew she needed to find new revenue streams. However, the online yarn market was already dominated by a few sellers who were doing it well, and Huber-Hauck wasn't sure how to transform her website (www.spiritworkknit.com) from a place to learn about upcoming in-store events to a full-service online retailer of yarn and related accessories.
Even though Huber-Hauck was spending as many as 10 hours a week updating her site with new images and information, that time wasn't paying off in increased sales. ProStores business advisor Mike Miller says the problem was two-fold. "First, it was hard to tell when navigating if you could actually purchase products," he explains. "Second, we had to [take] the warm, fuzzy feeling of the retail [store] and put it in the online setting."
The Solution: The new site places the retail experience first. "My site was primarily a marketing tool for local customers," Huber-Hauck says. "The redesign placed the emphasis first on shopping, then on communication and community building." But that doesn't mean she's abandoning her commitment to the local market, adding, "The new site will allow us to leverage technology, e-mail marketing, etc. that will help us stay connected with local customers, communicate in a timely manner and drive sales."
Gwen Moran is Entrepreneur's"Retail Register" and "Quick Pick" columnist.