Brother Business Ambitions: The mind of a mentor

In early 2011, Smarta teamed up with technology firm Brother to create a unique mentoring competition: Brother Business Ambitions. Each fortnight, a different entrepreneur mentor would take the reins and answer questions from troubled start-ups and bemused business owners. The best question from each session won a two-hour, face-to-face mentoring session with the featured expert.

In the penultimate fortnight, Simon Duffy, co-founder of Bulldog Natural Grooming (one of the leading e-commerce businesses for men's grooming products in the UK) fielded questions about online marketing, branding and boosting traffic.

The top question was posed by Joelle Seksum, founder of brand new online bag retailer Here is her query:

"My partner and I recently launched an online bag retailer - - and are keen to considerably boost visitors to the site. What's the quickest way of doing this?"

Simon's advice was this:

"I think you're doing lots of excellent things. Keep updating the site with new content and inbound links, and make sure you include lots of languages in the site that are relevant to the bags you sell.

Perhaps you could also start to offer your bags as prizes for other websites, start your own newsletter, or contribute to other websites or blogs with links back to your own site?

Search for as many ways as you can to get new people to learn about your site and give them a reason to visit you. I'm not sure there is a quick fix  - you need to dedicate time and effort to building your brand."

Joelle's question won the fledgling entrepreneur a mentoring session with Simon. They met at Bulldog HQ in Ladroke Grove to discuss her business in more depth. Here are some of the issues that Joelle discussed with her mentor:

  • Is the Josoblu business model sustainable?
  • How could the website be improved?
  • What are the best ways to secure overseas distribution?
  • And finally, how could Joelle start selling her products offline, as well as through the website.

Here are Simon's key points:

1. Develop a sustainable business model

Beware of holding too much stock or featuring too many products on your site. Always calculate necessary stock-holdings based on your current run rate of sales.

In the beginning, it's best to feature a much smaller number of products; it's far more manageable when you are controlling sales, branding, marketing and distribution all on your own.

Forecasting is a key skill for any business. As your business develops, you'll get much better visibility on the volumes you'll expect to sell direct to consumers through your website, or to any retail partner or distribution company you may come to work with. An ideal model would see you purchasing only the stock you need to fulfill your online sales and retailer commitments.

In the short term, managing your business to this strategy will require an entrepreneurial approach to clearing out your old stock. You're lucky that bags don't have a shelf life. You should develop a framework for how you partner with different companies to pursue this goal. I would focus on getting paid up front and trying to recover your initial investment in your stock.

2. Boost website performance

There's no silver bullet for jump-shifting performance. You're doing many good things already. Personally I would focus on the following things going forward to help your performance:

-Make your site as relevant to Google's search engine as you can by including lots of relevant content, keeping it up to date with new posts, and building as many links as you can.

-I believe there is currently too much choice on the site. Consumers may prefer a more curated collection of options. Currently the sheer number of bags may feel a little overwhelming to some of your visitors.

-I imagine that selling bags is difficult online as consumers don't have the opportunity to touch or see the bags for themselves. In my opinion it would be better to have a smaller choice in terms of variants, but for each variant to be presented in a more detailed and beautiful way. I would love to see several images for each bag. For example some close-up shots of key details, and some images styled with a person carrying the bag may be really helpful to converting sales.

-Product reviews by consumers are a good way for online retailers to build trust. Can you include some of these?

-I believe your url should match the brand name. Perhaps you should consider focusing on one brand from the three, or launching a different site for each brand. Either way, Josoblu is not going to be an intuitive search term for someone who becomes aware of one of your three brands.

-It's worth checking out "Big Commerce" as an online engine. It has loads of useful functionality and may provide a better solution than your current provider.

-We use a professional pack photographer - Rachel Pearce from Nohalide Digital Photography. If you would like me to introduce you, let me know.

3. Selling overseas

Sweden was a perfect way for Bulldog to start exporting. It's close enough to easily visit in a day so you can be hands-on in the first stages. It's an important market for skincare but certainly not the largest one. We liked this as we wanted to test and learn the first time through.

Work as hard as you can to find great people who you trust. Spend as much time as required to ensure that everyone fully understands what that expectations will be. Ensure you work with a legal expert to handle any contracts.

Check out UKTI's website. You should be able to arrange for a business development manager to come and meet you. "The Passport to Export" program is worth exploring if you're interested in building a strategy for overseas sales.

4. Getting on to UK high streets

We discussed how launching in a prestigious retailer such as John Lewis could overlap with your online strategy. Certainly getting some of your key products into this retailer would help build credibility and awareness for your brand.

Work hard on creating the best possible impression on the buyer as you can through all points of communication, be that email, phone, posted mail and samples. Definitely let them know all about those recent awards you told me about. They will be looking for something unique, fun and exciting for their customers. I'd certainly considering offering a partner such as this exclusive products in order to help secure a distribution deal.

Check out the Brother Business Ambitions competition page

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