Should a Small Business Owner Independently Learn SEO and Digital Marketing?
Do you like business horror stories where the good guy wins in the end? Then this story is for you. With a population of 31,000, Juneau, Alaska is the biggest city in its region. But physical roads to the outside world are practically non-existent. When you think of “global reach”, it’s not a city you would name. Then how did one small B2C business in Juneau ramp up and expand beyond domestic success?
New technologies allowed the brand, named Invisible World, to collaborate better. It let them import from Bolivia and Peru. And source in other countries. But technology didn’t automatically mean smooth sailing. Sometimes technology was a gateway to the company being exploited.
Still Thriving After 34 Years and Several Costly Blunders
Small Business Trends connected with Invisible World’s owner, Stuart Archer Cohen, to take a look back on what they did to grow, and to hear about what they wish they’d done differently. He also shared some raw thoughts about selling through Amazon. Founded in 1985, it wasn’t until 2003 that Invisible World started leveraging ecommerce to sell items.
In 2017, they closed the Juneau storefront to concentrate exclusively on the internet. Invisible World now produces in five countries and sells in eight others. While the company headquarters are still in Juneau, only 23 percent of their merchandise ever actually passes through Alaska.
According to Cohen, costly business mistakes were made in Invisible World’s early online days. Some of those mistakes stemmed from how they didn’t put in the necessary time and effort to understand digital marketing and SEO themselves.
Unfortunately they believed if they threw enough money at a problem, it would get solved. And we all know: Those roads don’t lead to success. But thankfully, Cohen says the success of Invisible World in 2019 has been directly proportionate to the effort they’ve made to understand the big picture.
image: Invisible World Stuart Archer Cohen is the owner of Invisible World, an apparel company that began as a small retail store. Invisible World now sources alpaca, cashmere and silk clothing in South American and Asian countries, and sells in North America, Europe and Australia. Cohen is also the author of four novels.
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In the Apparel Industry, Many Traditional Rules of Business Etiquette Still Reign
Small Business Trends: Hi Stuart, I’ll start with a curveball ask. Can you give some business advice that’s ‘not heard enough’ in the textiles industry, but still advice you live by?
Stuart Archer Cohen: My business is 100 percent dependent on my suppliers, and I never forget it. It’s often assumed in ecommerce that this ancient relationship of buyer and seller is as automated as everything else, but, in fact, your supplier can make you money or cost you money.
Suppliers can prioritize your shipment or someone else’s, they can let you experiment with products or require a high minimum order. I go to South America and Asia every year, sometimes simply to have dinner with my suppliers.
Mutual respect will preserve relationships when problems arise, as they always do. We started Invisible World before fax machines, and I am still dealing with some of the same suppliers. Treat suppliers with courtesy and interest and you’ll probably end up with some lasting friends that enrich your life. Conversely, I rarely buy from anyone I don’t like.
image: Invisible World Small Business Trends: Do you notice a lot of online struggles among apparel startups? What areas are they having trouble understanding?
Stuart Archer Cohen: You can’t hire someone to understand something for you. Internet concepts are not difficult, but there are a lot of them. The best information is all online and free and if you put in the time, you will do a better job than almost anyone you hire. Focus on one area at a time or you’ll be overwhelmed. Do the basics well.
Don’t get caught up in sophisticated techniques used by big-budget experts. Do your basic SEO, a couple of simple advertising tactics and perhaps one social media platform, and see what works. Have professional-grade photos and manage your email campaigns well, and you’ll survive long enough to get to the next level.
Burned by a Marketing Agency
Small Business Trends: But not everyone’s willing to do DIY. So are you saying to beware of marketing agencies?
Stuart Archer Cohen: I definitely caution against internet shysters. The right contractor, sourced through a reliable platform such as Freeeup, can be an incredible blessing for your business, but keep in mind that the internet is full of liars, charlatans and incompetents.
I know that because I’ve been fleeced by many of them. Imagine this situation. You’ve read about SEO, or Adwords, or social media, or whatever’s the latest “can’t-miss ecommerce strategy”, but you don’t understand it, plus you’re too busy running your business to become an expert on it. Along comes someone with all the right techy buzzwords, and you give them carte blanche to manage your SEO or Adwords or social. Six months and thousands of dollars later you realize sales are roughly the same despite all this and on top of that you notice Adwords has an average cost of $200 a sale when you’re selling $50 items.
And why do these situations happen? Perhaps the person you hired knew more than you, but was simply not very good at it, or else farmed it out to another contractor, or just didn’t care as long as you were willing to keep making those monthly management payments.
Small Business Trends: Yeah, that angers me, but quacks exist who are more horrible than that, sadly.
Stuart Archer Cohen: A cut below that are the various get-rich-quick internet schemes where fast-talking twenty-somethings pose in front of Lamborghinis while working four hours a week from a beach in Thailand. For just a few thousand dollars, they can introduce you to their secret 9-step formula for success on Amazon, even if you have no product and no business experience. Avoid these shysters and their high-pressure sales techniques. They’re ‘experts’ at identifying your pain points and playing to them, but their careful attention will end once you fork over the money.
“The mistake we don’t make is thinking someone else holds the magic key to success.”
Small Business Trends: It sounds like marketing agencies aren’t your favorite method of getting help.
Stuart Archer Cohen: If you have a big budget and are already making lots of sales, you can probably find a good agency. I have worked with three agencies and each one has been an expensive failure. Agencies like to bill you on a monthly basis, with no tracking of how many hours they spent or who did the work. In that situation, your interests in how many hours are spent on your account are in direct opposition to theirs.
I have found most agency work to be very standard versions of a Facebook or Google Adwords campaign, while most creativity was devoted to their attempts to convince me it was profitable. Excuses for failure always come back to you. You didn’t spend enough money. You didn’t wait long enough, etc. And just because a service is high-cost doesn’t mean it’s high quality.
Small Business Trends: Apart from the importance of avoiding charlatans, what advice do you emphasize when a startup’s new?
Stuart Archer Cohen: Ecommerce is full of hidden costs — shipping costs, subscription services, credit card fees, return fees. If you’re not on top of them, they will definitely get on top of you! Begin by controlling your cost with a detailed small business strategy. When you’re building a business, you tend to focus on the top line and its steady advance. However, most ecommerce entrepreneurs have a day of reckoning when they have to face the fact that their profits are a lot smaller than they thought. And not all survive.
Amazon is the worst offender when it comes to hidden costs. Access to top-line sales is instantaneous and fluid, but getting a handle on the 20 or so other costs that Amazon dings you with is almost impossible without deep digging or third-party software such as ManageByStats. For example, Amazon not only makes you pay for postage on returned items, they also keep part of their commission.
Beware of Opaque Fees and Costs
We discovered we were losing 7% just on items that were returned, and that’s just one example. Additionally, Amazon is extremely opaque in how they name and display fees, making it hard to understand what the fee was for. We pay commission of 17 percent. We discovered that other fees and returns brought our actual payout on gross sales down to about 60 percent. Always keep your eye fixed on the bottom line.
For businesses that haven’t yet built their website and are reading this, it’s been my experience that ecommerce requires a specialized website type which has many needs unrelated to other types of sites. It is not just things like a shopping cart — it also needs to function well as a sales platform. Platforms like Shopify, Volusion and BigCommerce are already optimized for ecommerce and for a single monthly fee will take care of everything. I say don’t build your site from the ground up; I recommend that companies or startups use a simple template and go for a clean design without too many added frills. Whatever you think you need, it will change as you learn more. We still make mistakes, but they are thoughtful mistakes and we learn from them. The mistake we don’t make is thinking someone else holds the magic key to success.
Images: Invisible World