Jennifer Gault-Varner creates turnkey online retail stores stocked with merchandise, sells them to brand-new entrepreneurs--and provides 40 hours worth of consulting to help the newbies on their way to success.
Gault-Varner, founder of Pure-eCommerce.com, says she would still own her first business, BellaBluMaternity.com, if she'd had the kind of assistance she now offers to her clients.
Bella Blu Maternity was the quintessential overnight success. It brought in $7,000 in sales its first month and $100,000 by the end of the first year. Sales topped $1.5 million by the second year, but the economics weren't working out.
Gault-Varner was spending a fortune on pay-per-click advertising. "I worked very hard on creating a brand, defining my concept, having a very clear target market and offering products within that target market," she says. And she marketed "viciously," mainly through pay-per-click advertising.
PPC turned out to be Gault-Varner's downfall. "Pay-per-click was the vehicle that grew my company very fast, but it was also the same vehicle that almost made me lose my company."
The problem, she says: "I didn't have a clear idea of how pay-per-click campaigns work." She didn't realize how much she was paying to bring a customer into her store. "I didn't understand how to figure out the statistics. And I didn't have time to look into that because I grew so fast."
She sold Bella Blu, then went back online and created a pajama store. It took only a couple of weeks for her to realize that she was tired of retail sales. She sold the site, Pure Pajamas, to Melinda Felton, a stay-at-home mom who had never run an e-commerce site before.
"She needed a lot of help," Garner-Vault says. "That's when I developed this very methodical, step-by-step [consulting] process. I knew the steps we needed to go through to get her up and running the quickest. So she had this foundation of a great-looking site, a great domain name, great products and somebody to mentor her through the process."
That's when the light bulb turned on. "That's brilliant," Gault-Varner thought to herself. "That's what everyone needs who's going to go online and has never owned an e-commerce site before."
Says Gault-Varner: "Your barrier of entry to get online is so easy. It's easy to acquire vendors, design a site and pop it up. But the actual running of an e-commerce store is quite difficult. And if you don't educate yourself as to what needs to be done--and go do it--you'll fail."
Gault-Varner says the intent of her 14-step consulting process is to touch every area an entrepreneur has to know about to run a successful online business. "If you don't know these areas, you'll make the same mistakes that I made and that so many others make--and that tend to result in you going out of business."
Those mistakes include:
- Failure to understand search engine optimization. "If you don't know what search engine optimization is, you shouldn't be running an e-commerce business," Gault-Varner says. "What you do today for SEO is where you're going to be in the search engines three months from now. So you have to make that part of the daily running of your business."
- Not understanding how to run an effective PPC campaign. "If you want to pop up a site and you want traffic tomorrow--and you're ready for that traffic--and you can afford it, then pay-per-click is a great way to go while you're working on building up your rankings in the search engines," Gault-Varner advises. She notes that it take three months to six months for a business to show up on Google and Yahoo through SEO. "PPC allows you to start bringing in instant traffic. But you want to make the most valuable use of those dollars, so you need to educate yourself as to how PPC works."
- Carrying inventory. Gault-Varner learned this lesson from her own experience with Bella Blu, which had a warehouse with inventory. She goes a different route today: "All of the businesses that we sell at Pure e-Commerce are drop ship," she says. That means the business owner doesn't keep any inventory. When she gets an order, it goes to the manufacturer, who sends the product directly to the customer. "Had I known that at the time, I probably would have stayed smaller and leaner and more profitable," Gault-Varner says today. "And at the same time, I wouldn't have had to worry about this incredible overhead of inventory that I had."
So how does Pure eCommerce work? The company creates businesses in a range of industries, including baby, children, pets, home décor, furniture and eco-friendly organic products. "I come up with a great domain name, design the site, establish relationships with vendors and load up all the products." When the site is purchased, the consulting process begins. Clients also have the option of coming to Pure eCommerce with their own idea or concept. "We'll build them a turnkey business based on what they need," she says.
Gault-Varner says it typically takes about a year for people to get a site up and running on their own. It takes Pure eCommerce about three months to build a site.
She has about 15 to 20 sites available for sale at a time, ranging in price from $4,000 to $10,000. Each has a project manager who is responsible for building the site, establishing vendor relationships and loading the products. If the site doesn't sell immediately, Pure eCommerce will run the site until it's sold.
It's a self-limiting business. Gault-Varner can only take on a certain number of clients at a time. "As great of a concept as it is, it's a very time-consuming concept if you're going to provide very personal and valuable service to the client. You can't have 20 clients at one time."
But Gault-Varner isn't after a mega business. She appreciates being able to be home with her three children (a fourth is on the way), live a comfortable lifestyle and help other women start their own businesses--all while doing something she loves.
Gault-Varner says that success requires a lot of hard work and an inability to accept anything but success. "It's not a get-rich-quick scheme," she tells clients. "If you're not willing to work your behind off, you shouldn't be an entrepreneur.
"So many people go online, think they're going to pop up a site, sit back and the money rolls in. And that is a mistake."
Her advice to would-be entrepreneurs:
- Run your idea by other people. Make sure it's a viable idea. Too many people go into business based on an idea that they think is fantastic, Gault-Varner says. But they don't do any research; they don't search financials and reach out and discover who their target market would be.
- Have an open mind. "I find a lot of people sell things based on what they like, which is such a mistake. If you pop open a store based on what you like, you've really cut off your nose to spite your face. Because you're hoping that your target market is somebody that is exactly like you. The reality is, that's not going to happen.
"When I had my first company, I chose to sell some items I thought were unattractive. But I wanted to test them because I saw my competition selling them. And those unattractive items turned out to be some of the top-selling items.
"You have to keep your mind open. Don't assume that your way is the only way."
- Pick a business you like. You don't have to have experience selling a certain type of item. But try to pick an area of trade that you're going to have a personal connection to, that you're really going to enjoy selling, that you're going to be excited about selling. That's going to encourage your level of creativity when it comes to marketing.
"You're going to have low points. So if you believe in what you're selling and are personally connected to it, that's going to help you get through those low points. When you think about giving up, it's a whole lot easier to give up when you're selling something you can't stand vs. selling something you really believe passionately about, but that just hasn't taken off yet."