My name is John Sollars, founder of Stinkyink.com. On April 22nd this year my ecommerce site will celebrate its 10th birthday. That is ten years since my very first online order. I guess I was building databases for six months before then, but that first order was a real buzz – that kind of tingles down the spine, hair standing up at the back of your neck and heart pounding sort of buzz.
In the intervening decade we have processed (I would estimate) in the region of a million orders, but that first one still stands out. Even better, I can remember who the customer was and we still deal with him.
The question I get asked from time to time is what have I learned from my ten years in online retailing? And let’s not forget I also started and lost of couple of ‘traditional’ bricks and mortar businesses before that. It puts me in the position where I have the experience to compare the worlds of face-to-face selling and selling electronically.
Lesson 1 – Get the basics right
Whatever sort of business you are running, you have got to get the business basics right. Whether your business is in a shop a warehouse a factory or online you still have got to put the correct processes in place so that you are able to produce a profit and loss account, manage your stock and pay your suppliers and staff on time.
Lesson 2 – Customer service matters
For any etailer customer service is paramount. We currently have about a 50% return rate for existing customers and we work very hard to maintain that. From day one I have been totally focused on providing the level of service to my customers that I expect from my own suppliers.
Everybody who has joined me over the years has also subscribed to this creed and in a very competitive environment and marketplace this is one of the differentiators between the best businesses and the rest.
Lesson 3 – Plan for the future
Think long term and don’t just look at what is happening today. Extrapolate the business intelligence that you have and make sure that your systems can cope with the growth that can reasonably be expected. When we moved into our existing warehouse, we had two whole areas of racking empty, but within a year they were full to capacity.
Lesson 4 – Manage your cash
Whatever business you are in ‘cash is King’. Manage your cash and don’t let it manage you! I’m from the old fashioned business school; I like to make a profit and to pay my bills on time. It has probably slowed my growth, but I am still here ten years on, still making a profit and have a good reputation with my suppliers for being a good payer.
Lesson 5 – KISS
Keep it simple stupid. You can very easily get distracted into blind alleys, so keep focused on what is important and don’t let distractions become your driving force. I keep telling my team here: “we sell ink – it isn’t difficult or complicated – we just sell ink”.
Lesson 6 – Employ the best people you can
As you grow you will need to employ the best people (indeed we are up to 15 now at Stinkyink Towers), and this advice is even more important today, whether you trade online or off.
By this I don’t mean you need to recruit only people with first class honours degrees, but look at the job you have in mind and then make sure that whoever you actually recruit can bring something extra to that job. Then once they are on-board, stretch them, see how far out of their comfort zone you can take them and you will be amazed at the results.
So, what have I learned over the years?
Working for yourself can be the best of worlds and the absolute pits. To be successful, you have to remember that an online business is the same as any other. You need to maintain the same disciplines as an offline business and on top you must deliver absolutely first rate customer service to make up for the impersonal nature of the web.