When entrepreneurs with a bright idea decide to launch their own business, they’re often aware that they’re signing up for hard work and long hours. But with the right technology, processes and partnerships, being chained to a desk is a thing of the past.
When Zoe Lea dreamt up her clothing brand Unempire, she had independence and flexibility on her mind.
“I had been working for other companies for just under ten years,” Lea recalls. “It was time to do something on my own and get complete creative control.”
Driven by a desire to do things on her own terms, she began designing socks with a decidedly artistic flavour, and soon launched her own self-funded online retail boutique. Now, just a few years later, she has a raft of clever products including socks, t-shirts and accessories that are also stocked in stores locally and overseas.
With international orders making up about half of the business and Lea the only Unempire employee, she relies on Australia Post to ensure her deliveries are on time and accurate.
“I do everything,” she explains. Working from home, she still personally compiles the package for each Unempire customer herself within 24 hours of receiving an order, and enjoys personalising the parcel with fun stickers and notes.
Her working hours, she says, are “all over the place”.
“That’s the benefit and the downfall of working for yourself. You’ve always got one part of your brain on the job.”
The biggest upside to her flexible work life, says Lea, is that it allows her to make the best use of the force behind Unempire’s success – her creativity.
“You can only be creative when you feel creative,” Lea says.
Alex Benton is another creative entrepreneur for whom flexible and agile working is a necessity.
She’s the founder of Whistle Dixie, an online retailer that sells handcrafted interior décor items for children and adults.
“I run the business on my own from a studio in my home and manage all aspects of the business including marketing, administration, finance and packaging, as well as the product design and fabrication,” says Benton.
“So even though I work seven days a week, they aren’t typical work days as I manage other commitments in between.” Those other commitments include looking after her young family, who helped inspire Benton to create Whistle Dixie.
To streamline the order fulfilment and delivery process, Benton combined the functionality of eCommerce platform Shopify with Australia Post’s API technology – which allows businesses to easily integrate functions such as online payments, stock management and shipping with their chosen platform. Benton’s online store gives her access to Australia Post’s Click and Send service, which she describes as a “game changer”.
“I am time poor being the only resource in my business, so I look at all avenues that can help my productivity,” she says.
“Prior to Click and Send, I was making numerous trips (almost daily) to the Post Office, which was becoming less and less feasible as the orders started increasing.”
With international orders on the rise, a well-oiled shipping process is vital for the success of Whistle Dixie.
“Without this technology, I don’t think I would have been able to start up Whistle Dixie as it has really provided the means to access a domestic and global market from my home,” Benton explains.
Both Unempire and Whistle Dixie prove that with the right partners, entrepreneurs can make the best use of their creativity and remain flexible and mobile. And while there’s no doubt that launching a small business takes a lot of hard work, these businesswomen and artists wouldn’t have it any other way.
When asked whether she ever second-guesses her decision to launch a business on her own, Lea has a simple answer: “No regrets.”
Your website may attract followers, but ensuring customers click through to ‘buy’ is another step altogether
It’s an exciting time to take a small business online in Australia and grasp the opportunity to go global. The lower Australian dollar, social reach and access to international marketplaces (such as the Tmall storefront for eligible businesses to sell into China) means you could connect with customers all over the world.
“International selling just gets easier,” says Dirk van Lammeren, General Manager Small Business at Australia Post. “Consumers are becoming increasingly confident and comfortable with eCommerce as an alternative, or complement, to traditional bricks-and-mortar retailing. This confidence is supported by greater security for payments and delivery, a broader range of available products, and anywhere, anytime smart phone technology.”
But while the environment is ripe and customers may be attracted to your website, there is no guarantee they will engage your products and services. It takes convenient processes, sophisticated delivery and a personal touch to ensure people take the next step.
A customer-first approach
To provide a great online service you need to understand your customers and anticipate what they want – often before they’re aware of it themselves, van Lammeren says. He recommends researching what motivates them, and knowing when and how they want to shop.
“Start small and test the market,” he says. “Be willing to experiment and learn fast to discover what works.”
The key is to deliver a great experience from the moment the customer discovers your store to the moment they receive their parcel.
“Customers like to see new [product] arrivals showcased. Make it as easy as possible to find and use the online store, and ensure that it’s backed by reliable checkout and delivery. Be very clear about what your customers can expect in terms of total cost, and shipping and returns policies. Online shoppers will go elsewhere if it’s too hard.”
One of the biggest challenges to overcome is the high rate of abandonment in shopping carts at checkout. He points to existing marketplaces, such as eBay and Amazon, which offer customers an easy-to-navigate checkout process, as examples for small businesses.
“Research shows that many shoppers identify free shipping as the most important option during checkout, and will even add more items to their cart to qualify. Flat rate postage options can help businesses factor shipping into overall sales costs.”
Post-sale care matters
Customer care doesn’t stop once a sale is transacted – every step to delivery will determine if they engage with your business again. A vital part of this is an easy returns process.
“Choose the right partners to fill any gaps – for example supply, fulfilment, payments and logistics…someone you can trust to support an overall positive customer experience.”
He says around 40% of returns are facilitated in the first week of a delivery, with over 50% of people preferring to drop their item off at a Post Office or street posting box. Often customers want alternatives to home delivery, with the option to reschedule their deliveries if their plans change.
Small businesses have the advantage of being able to forge connections with customers via email, social media or even handwritten notes. Done with the right audiences, this can lead to future conversion.
“Engaging content such as blogs, inspiring photography, videos and reviews can help inspire customers to purchase and keep them coming back,” he says.
With smart online retail, great products and streamlined delivery, this boutique Australian brand has service smoothed out
Consumers worldwide have truly embraced online retail and small businesses realise it’s time to be in the game or fall behind. Excitingly, savvy Australian enterprises who think “digital first” are leading the way, showing other companies how it’s done.
To appeal to customers accustomed to 24-hour service, interactive brand engagement and global access, these digital natives know it’s not enough to simply have a nice website with contact details. They have a sophisticated online retail strategy that encompasses everything from straightforward sales through to on-time delivery.
How we do it
Greg Lally, director of Australian online retailer The Infamous Gentleman (TIG) understands this. The boutique business manufactures and distributes beard-grooming products for men, including balms, oils and soaps via its stylish online store. The company has a small team across production, product and brand development, communications and administration.
“We want to give our customers the capacity to interact with us and our business 24-7-365, but ensure that TIG remains a fantastic place to work,” he says.
In the beginning
TIG launched when a close friend of Lally, who was growing a beard, realised he was “pretty unimpressed” with the available beard care products.
“He started looking into the formulation of balms and oils as a hobby at first, and shared them with friends,” explains Lally.
Lally stepped in to help, and the pair put in months of research, identifying a growing community of bearded fellows who were after high-quality grooming products.
“It became clear pretty quickly that beard products had the potential to transition from novelty goods to personal grooming staples.
Like many digital startups, TIGs first office was in a humble garage. The business began selling locally, but when TIG launched online demand “grew incredibly quickly”.
Having created their online store with Australia Post’s My Online Shop platform, TIG also uses PayPal and Click and Send to manage payments and shipping easily and efficiently.
“We have invested heavily to ensure the site is accessible, easy to navigate and interactive,” Lally says.
Ahead of the pack
As The Infamous Gentleman brand grows, the market around it is getting more competitive.
“We need to ensure we stay ahead of them [competitors] in order to satisfy our customers and maintain our market share.”
Key to this is an online retail site that facilitates easy navigation and sales. When a customer places an order on TIG, the sale is processed using PayPal, which has built-in reporting to protect both buyers and sellers.
“The order is then processed at TIG headquarters, and in many instances is processed the same day,” Lally explains.
Postage slips with tracking and scanning capabilities are produced with Australia Post’s Click and Send. The process allows customers “to have complete transparency of the transaction from its commencement until its end at arrival”.
“Australia Post has been core to our growth, they are the link which completes a sale in all instances. Without their ability to provide timely, efficient and reliable postage services, we wouldn’t be able to operate or be sustainable,” Lally says.
My Online Shop allows The Infamous Gentleman to distribute its products through multiple channels, including eBay. Thanks to the greater market reach this allows, TIG’s customer base is expanding globally.
The team’s ambitions have grown with the business. Online retail has enabled their initial goals to be “achieved and surpassed”, according to Lally.
“Now, we are endeavouring to diversify the product range we supply,” he says.
How creating a character around your brand gains customers
Before launching his wine spritzer business SOFI Spritz, Tom Maclean visited Italy and was struck by the different drinking culture to Australia. The entrepreneur was inspired by the outdoor piazzas spilling with people enjoying aperitivos.
Maclean came back to Australia and wanted to translate that classic Italian recipe into a modern Australian setting, and SOFI was born.
In this SmartCompany and StartupSmart video, brought to you by Australia Post, Maclean shares the story of his online retail success and the valuable lessons he has learnt.
With Asia proving a booming market for Australian products, local businesses have the chance to expand with a great online strategy
As SMEs get savvy with online retail, they need to think without borders. No longer are customers, staff or suppliers around the corner – they could be all over the world.
South East Asia is proving a developing market for Australian small businesses, as Frank Granziera, of Olive Oil Skin Care Co has experienced. The Olive Oil Skin Care Co launched in 2012, with its online store offering a range of soaps, body washes, candles and balms.
“We find that [international customers] buy our products at local stores [when visiting Australia] and when they go back overseas, they keep in contact through our website,” Granziera says.
“When we started, we were getting enquiries once a month. But now it’s two or three a day, asking us to send our products overseas.”
Sell with strategy
Selling products to international visitors is one thing – but making major inroads into a new market is another. If you’re looking at expanding into the South East Asian market, you need to have the right connections and platform to sell your products on, says Granziera.
“The most important thing with South East Asia is that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” Granziera says.
“There are some great trade seminars about selling in South East Asia,” he says. “Go to them and make connections.”
He says it helps to understand all the touch points in the selling process.
“It’s important to network with people across all facets of the process – from suppliers, to distributors to agents – you have to do the whole lot.”
China in particular represents an amazing opportunity for Australian companies to expand, explains Granziera. But with such a huge population, you need to identify your target audience.
“When you segment the market by age categories and requirements it’s staggering,” says Granziera.
“For example, we’re launching a baby range shortly and our figures show that in China there are [approximately] 16 million babies born every year. Our product is designed for children under the age of five, so at any one time we have a potential audience in China of 80 million people.”
Delivery to count on
Granziera says Australia’s reputation for quality and reliability is a boon to small businesses seeking to sell their products internationally.
“There is a tendency overseas to view Australia as a reliable country in every aspect – politically stable, with reliable products and pollution free – and you need a website that helps to project that image.”
Having a delivery partner to support this process is of paramount importance.
“You could spend millions of dollars trying to find the right segmentation, but you need to find the right partner to get it there,” he says.
This means an efficient website for selling, and prompt, transparent delivery operations.
“It’s the interface between you and the client, and you need to have reliable and informative system in place.”
Tracking door to door
Granziera is impressed with the sophistication of logistics now available to online retailers.
“We sent a product to Taiwan yesterday and we know through our tracking system exactly where it is in the process. That information is transmitted to the customer, and they can track it from the moment it leaves the warehouse, to when it’s on board an aeroplane, to when it’s on the way to their door.”
Granziera says his company have taken advantage of their partnership with Australia Post to gain exposure in South East Asian markets, while the reliability of the delivery service has helped foster repeat customers.
“We’ve been very fortunate with our partnerships in South East Asia and, in particular, with (Chinese online marketplace) Tmall and Australia Post,” he says.
“People have already moved the waters to help Australian businesses crack foreign markets – so take advantage of that.”
With sustainability on everyone’s lips, online retailers need to think about what they offer and how they share the message
Sustainability, responsibility and social awareness are key traits of ‘conscious consumerism’, and savvy customers with concern for the environment are seeking these factors from the businesses they engage with online.
Melissa Schaff and Michael Stroud, co-founders of Reusables Etc, a one-stop shop for environmentally safe, reusable products, are leading the charge when it comes to small digital businesses and conscious consumerism.
“One of our passions is sustainability and being more responsible in the way we live,” says Stroud. “We see there’s an opportunity to not only sell products, but also to change people’s behaviour.”
Stroud says the pair did extensive research before launching the online store, to ensure there was a market for a sustainable business.
“…people were looking for these solutions, but couldn’t find them in one place”, he says.
Share the story
As consumers become more aware of sustainability and seek more information, businesses operating in this space can help by presenting the message to customers in an easy-to-understand way.
The Reusables Etc create their own content, such as videos or blog posts, or share articles that are relevant and interesting. Stroud and Schaff invest a lot of time finding the best content for their consumers.
“One of the challenges is to sift through the information [about sustainable options], find the information which is credible and then simplify how it’s presented,” he says.
Social media is a great way for the business to connect with like-minded, potential customers and the pair discovered many interest groups locally and internationally.
“….we’ve had the good fortune of people shopping with us and sharing the experience with others [on social media].”
From clicks to sales
Getting known for being a sustainable business and having customers visit your online shop is one thing. But trust in the brand is what helps convert research into purchases, says Schaff.
“It helps that we have a noble branding message of sustainability all the way through our business,” she says. “That helps to convert interest to sales because customers can see that we have their best interest and the environment at heart.”
They have learned that keeping a consistent and regular line of communication with their customers reinforces their brand message and encourages repeat business.
“People who come through to our website are already engaged with the issues of sustainability,” she says. “I think it’s important to keep that communication going. We really focus on our emails to our customers, we introduce new products, and really try to engage in ways of being more sustainable.”
In addition to communicating its sustainable approach, Reusables Etc ensures its customers are well looked after from start to finish.
“We communicate our delivery fee prominently on the home page, product pages, and in the shopping cart. And a link to our shipping policy is displayed on all pages.”
The Reusables Etc site is hosted on the Shopify platform, which integrates with Australia Post. It means the business can show the calculation of shipping rates on site. Australia Post is also its key delivery partner.
“We use [Australia Post’s] Click and Send service… as their online platform provides a fast, efficient way to process, send and track orders.”
Can other businesses do the same?
In addition to Reusables Etc, other innovative Australian small businesses are finding their niche in sustainability. This is evident on The Good Spender online marketplace, developed in partnership between Australia Post and Social Traders. The online retail site connects consumers with sustainable social enterprises, and they can tap into a vast array of products and services. For SMEs keen to follow suit, Stroud says some simple first steps can be taken.
“We try and minimise waste in everything we do. We get a lot of day-to-day products or supplies that come in, so we reuse the packages and send them back out. We recycle in the office and reuse paper and supplies when we can.
“There’s a real behavioural change around how we live. People want to move towards being more responsible and we’re very excited that there’s a growing consumer market around it too.”
If you are a sustainable business that sells goods and services in order to generate community benefit, get involved and sell on Good Spender.
A great online experience means customers will be confident in your business and come back for more, but it takes strategy to get it right
A cutting-edge website, fantastic customer experience and spot-on delivery are vital for small businesses keen to thrive in online retail.
Paul Matthews knows this first hand. As founder of home interiors, gifts and party supplies store Lark, he says the Ballarat-based business would not be so successful without these factors.
“We couldn’t have grown the business without having all of Australia as our customer,” he says.
Matthews launched the store in 2007, when online retail was in its infancy. Here, he shares six expert tips for a great online store that customers will love.
1. Pick your platform carefully
There are many platforms to build a website on, but Matthews advises choosing one which doesn’t lock you into a long contract or set template.
“I would suggest going for one of the major more generic versions of software – Magento is what we used for example,” says Matthews.
“The advantage is there are two versions – a commercial version and community version. We use a developer to modify it to suit our needs.”
2. Easy to navigate, easy to use
Customers need a site that is easy to navigate and interact with. Achieving this comes down to your relationship with your web developer, says Matthews.
“Your developer is absolutely essential to your business,” he says. “When we started we were using plain html and hand coding every page. We switched to working with a developer and he was able to put our ideas into practice.
“I know a lot of people who have started a website and gone for something straight out of the box. They don’t have relationships with developers in place, and are unable to modify their sites to suit their vision.”
3. Customer experience is king
To build customer confidence in your site, it is vital to have a great website from the word go, Mathews says.
“I’ve seen some of our competitors do two or three different versions of their sites, and they have made a lot of their customers unhappy,” he says. “We prefer to make sure what we’re doing is right before we proceed.”
The shopping process must also be straightforward.
“You’ve got to make it as simple as possible to go from seeing a product, to getting it in the shopping cart and then checking out,” he says.
4. Relationships from start to finish
Online retail requires partnerships with credit transaction services and the hosting platform in order to operate. Matthews says establishing these relationships helps you identify and fix problems when they arise.
“With the web, things don’t necessarily go to plan,” Matthews says. “There might have been a technical error which you need to track and fix without the customer being aware.
“You need partners that know how to fix the back end problems.”
5. The key to customer confidence
A clear brand identity can go a long way in establishing customer confidence, says Matthews.
“We work very hard on social media to make sure people know who we are and what we do – but that’s only half the battle,” he says. “We have a back story and a social media presence and that gives people a lot of confidence.”
6. Delivering your product with finesse
A trustworthy delivery service keeps customers coming back, Matthews says.
“We’ve worked with couriers but we’ve found that working with Australia Post eParcel is the simplest and easiest option,” he says. “I can’t think of any time it hasn’t arrived when it should.”
If the customer misses the delivery they can pick it up from the local post office, Matthews says.
“We make it clear on checkout how long you can expect your parcel to take to arrive,” he says.
SmartCompany Plus interviewed co-founder Alex Zaccaria, along with head of growth Jess Box, to discuss how the company capitalised on the product's innate virality, and how the business needed to change as it scaled.