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Ecommerce technology is improving all the time, but the retail market also grows more competitive.

What must it be like to start your own ecommerce venture from scratch?

Postcards Home founder, Lucy Coleman, has recently done exactly that. Her business offers homeware and gifts from independent designers around the world; Lucy describes it as 'products that transport us to our favourite places'.

I caught up with her to ask about her journey so far.

Tell us how Postcards Home started.

It began in Kerala, South India when I was living in Thiruvananthapuram with my partner for his work.

Anyone who’s been to Kerala will know that the state is full of shit-hot techies and completely fearless entrepreneurs, so I don’t think I had much choice but to start an ecommerce venture.

It all happened quite organically – I’d met a number of inspiring designers in India and Japan and I was struck at the lack of imprint these incredible creative teams had in the UK.

So, I built a site on Shopify, ordered stock and it started from there.

What was the most challenging part of launching an ecommerce site?

The hardest bit of launching the site was actually pushing the button to go live.

When you lack budget and staff, of course you’re not going to be happy with the initial site – you see a million things you’d tweak and optimise, but it is so important to start getting Google to crawl the site as soon as possible so you’re building authority.

Having said that, I think launching an ecommerce site is the (relatively) easy bit – it’s making that site perform that is hard.

I focused on UX, SEO and mobile during the build, but was painfully aware that this would not be enough alone to sustain the sort of traffic and sales I needed. Success post launch has been the real challenge for me.

postcards home

Has it been easy to navigate the world of ecommerce platforms?

Shopify's marketing is so strong that when I looked around and read up about it I knew I wanted to use it. Its ecommerce sites are safe, simple to build and impressively optimised.

I knew optimising for mobile was important to me and Shopify does that much better than the rest.

I have a basic understanding of coding which has allowed me to tweak a few bits in the template I chose, and Shopify’s live support is a life-saver.

At any time of the day and night I can instantly talk to a member of the team about anything from design tweaks to MailChimp integration etc.

[Note from the editor: other ecommerce platforms are available!]

What mix of paid, earned, owned media are you using in your marketing?

At the moment I’m heavier on paid than I will be in the future, but as I build more visibility organically I’ll be able to rely more on earned than paid to deliver a base line of traffic.

I do a fair bit of PPC and I’ve just started Facebook advertising. I try to be as responsive as possible with my PPC – focusing on campaigns around the designers I stock (including any coverage they might get) and niche design trends to drive CPC down and improve conversion.

I try and keep my owned platforms as content heavy as possible for SEO, and reach out to bloggers and other brands for collaborations (and backlinks!). I think social could be a great driver for me but having always worked on brands with talented community managers I am still learning the skills on that one! 

In terms of earned, I am currently reaching out to bloggers and influencers to collaborate on competitions and posts.

Generating sharable content for the blog has earned me social shares and I am slowly and steadily building up a community.

postcards home

What have you had to sacrifice because of lack of budget or staff?

I started my career in FMCG start-ups but moved on to Unilever, eventually working on their digital advertising, so I’ve been spoiled in the last few years with healthy budgets.

Dropping marketing spend down a couple of million has been a bit of a shock to the system, but it forces you to be reactive and nimble and so close to the campaigns you’re running, which is incredibly exciting.

Essentially, I've sacrificed the use of experts. I miss being surrounded by seriously talented planners, creative teams, designers and project managers who are focusing on your project.

When you are forced to jump into these roles you’re all too aware of your knowledge gaps, but you embark on a steep learning curve to learn to do everything yourself and there is real satisfaction in that. 

Did you previously sell offline? If not, how have you generated word of mouth?

I did not. I’ve tried to harness some word of mouth from my designers – some of them have a well-deserved, keen following in the design world so I build campaigns off the back of that to improve traction.

I also do a lot of flyer dropping across London and always have a pack of business cards with me to strike up conversion with anyone who will listen.

What is the end goal? How does the business scale with its current architecture?

World domination. Or at least design representation from all countries around the world. Same thing, no?

What one piece of advice do you have for SMEs who want to launch in ecommerce?

Do it and do it now. 

I truly think the key is steadily becoming a master of all trades – understanding at least the basics of online marketing, merchandising, finance and customer service. T

hat way you can either manage things yourself or outsource with conviction.

To plug your knowledge gaps, take advantage of free courses (of which there are so many good ones), read up online using resources like Econsultancy, HMRC and Start-up Digest, and build a network of people cleverer than you who can help you understand different fields and challenge your ideas.

Ben Davis

Published 16 February, 2016 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is a senior writer at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (3)

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Grahame Palmer, Marketing Director at All Things Ecommerce Ltd

Lucy's experiences and observations are typical of almost all online small business start-ups.

There is now the advantage of "cloud-based" eShops, like "shopify", which enable the start-up to get a functional site going in a very short space of time, and at reasonably low cost.

But these platforms are, by their very nature "one-size-fits-all" structures. They may be good at ensuring proper technical optimisation, from mobile responsiveness to validated HTML, but they can have some serious limitations in terms of true customisation and functional flexibility.

What a lot of start-ups realise - generally after a few weeks or months in business, is that additional functionality may be needed to either offer a better UX, or to facilitate an ordering process that is vital to the customer and shop owner.

In a lot of cases, it's just not possible to effect such changes, because the overall platform cannot be "adjusted". Doing so, would require major code and structure changes to the basic system being used by all shop owners. So while you may be able to "cherry pick" from a basket of function options, these are limited to a set of rather "generic" functions that apply more generally to "conventional" online retail.

This does not mean that these systems are inappropriate - just that a start-up MUST look at what these services can offer, and whether the spread of functional offerings is consistent with the business operations you are obliged to configure.

In many cases, it is better to go for a stand-alone platform, that offers the option of specific customisations, where coded modules and "plugins" can be built to accommodate the specific needs of the retailer.

I personally also like to have a much higher degree of control over the technical elements that relate to search engine and web discoverability and search enhancement. (I don't like the term SEO as it is largely redundant and archaic). I like to be able to evaluate new protocols, then consider how I get these coded up and embedded into my site.

My advice therefore, is not to LEAP into using one of these cloud-based systems. Full and very careful assessment of what they can offer, relative to the operations of your retail activity, MUST be made first.

If the platform appears not to be able to offer functions that are - or will be - critical to sales activity and revenue generation - then do not use it. Migrating later to a stand-alone system can be very complex and expensive - and sometimes not possible at all... requiring the shop owner to terminate the initial system, and start from scratch on a new one.

7 months ago

Ed Balcomb

Ed Balcomb, Solution Consultant at Bazaarvoice

An inspirational story, thanks for sharing, Lucy! I admire your can do attitude and wish you every success.

7 months ago

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Mark Matthews, Owner at Matthews Inc

@Grahame - While I agree it's important to consider your options, I think it' important to note that it's not just small businesses taking advantage of cloud platforms.

Budgets are moving from the CTO's office to the CMO's office right now and huge high-volume businesses are also flocking to cloud-based platforms like Shopify because marketers and business owners are sick of paying tens of thousands of dollars to an IT team and waiting weeks for small changes to be made or patches to be implemented. And most additional functionality you would need is waiting for you in an app store (I think Shopify's has over 1,000). People don't want want to play sys admin anymore, they want to run their business, and the legacy enterprise software platforms are in trouble.

7 months ago

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