Surfdome.com founder Justin Stone talks to us about his wavepool-inspired business and explains why a change of tack can often be the spark that creates a vibrant online business.
Did you always plan to launch Surfdome online?
Surfdome as a brand was conceived back in 2002, whilst I was studying Economics at University College London. The vision was to create an indoor surfing venue with wavepool technology, retail, bars restaurants and special events. Although retail was planned as a major component of the venue, the aim had also been to grow a large online store to complement this.
The wavepool technology we needed never came to fruition but we had established great relationships with many action sport brands. So in 2005 we switched our attention to eCommerce and by May 2006 Surfdome.com was launched.
What drove you to start a business?
Probably the biggest driver was wanting to be successful in creating something new and exciting in a market that we were passionate about. When the original Surfdome concept never materialised there was no way we were going to stop there, we just diverted our energies.
Why did you choose this particular sector?
The founding team behind Surfdome.com all have a real passion for action sports plus the lifestyle and fashion that surrounds them, whether it be surf, skate, snow, travel or the outdoors.
This really fuelled the business and when you couple it with the fact that eCommerce had been booming and we were in the middle, buying online ourselves and experiencing what we felt was working and not, we believed there was a real opportunity to grow Surfdome.com into the ultimate lifestyle store, selling into all aspects of clothing, accessories, footwear and equipment.
What was the hardest thing you had to overcome?
In 2005 when we were placing our first orders most of the brands really didn’t understand online retail and were sceptical about working with internet-only accounts.
Ideally they wanted Surfdome to have a bricks and mortar presence, so having to prove that we were doing things differently and investing in customer services, studio photo shoots, content, fast and free delivery, etc was all key to helping them understand what we were trying to achieve.
With hindsight we were lucky though, we entered the market when the barriers were much lower. Today it’s far more difficult to get off the ground unless you have a unique concept, proven finance and established operations with decent warehousing and offices.
Ultimately it’s far more structured and brands are protecting themselves to ensure they are working with the right partners.
Outside of this, it was understanding how to generate decent visitor traffic and more importantly how to convert this into sales.
Did you ever fear becominganother dotcom bust?
It’s not easy because we have seen a lot of websites come and go. The question really is, are you doing things better than your direct competitors?
If you are, you’re going to gain traction a lot quicker, but it’s worth noting that you can’t sit still for a minute, the web and the way consumers are purchasing is changing faster than ever, so you have to keep up or you’re out of the game.
I would say it’s more expensive today than when we first kicked off but not necessarily harder.
We had an early mover advantage and quickly got our heads around SEO, PPC and the Affiliate market so it didn’t take long until we were building traffic levels and understanding how to convert this into sales with constant adjustments to the website layout and improvements in our stock mix.
What ideas did you come up with to increase sales?
Our vision was relatively simple “more brands, more categories, more choice”. If you can get visitor traffic, conversion rate and average order value simultaneously increasing you’re onto something big.
So we picked this apart and tackled each area one at a time. Ultimately we concentrate on getting the basics right and this has led us to investing in the most important areas – targeted marketing, better product and pricing mix, higher quality images, better customer services, improved site usability, faster delivery, and free returns.
What software did you use and why?
Our platform has largely been developed in house as we want to keep as flexible as possible going forward. This has helped keep costs down as well as improve operations, reporting and made 3rd party integrations easier.
What future plans do you have to grow your business?
We’ve managed to maintain close to 100% year-on-year growth since day one so we don’t want to slow down now. High on our agenda is international expansion and mobile commerce.
If you could have done anything differently what would it be?
Resource proactively rather than reactively. Although this helped to keep us super lean in the early years, the trade off was sleep!
What’s your best sales tip for other business owners?
While you always have to be mindful of the bigger picture, get you priority list organised and keep focused on delivering it