Know Your Audience. There is no “one size fits all” in eCommerce. When you built that website, you’re going for a specific look and feel that will appeal to your audience. Know who that is and ensure that the site experience is for that group. I knew that I wanted to sell to women aged 35–65 that love their families and their pets. My site was built to that, making it less appealing to the 25 year old male looking for an e-liquid, but that loss is ok with me. It’s far more critical to stay true to my core audience, than gain that one time sale.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful E-Commerce Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brandelle Palmer.
Brandelle (Brandy) has been working in the hemp & world for about 6 years now and started her eCommerce site in late 2015. When she’s not helping people live healthier lives with hemp, she’s running kids to football, soccer, or theater or possibly hanging out with her 4 (that’s right — 4) cats. She’s confident that the fact that she has a husband and kids in the house keeps her out of the crazy cat lady lane. Or does it?
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Sure thing! I sort of fell into eCommerce, actually. My husband and I were both busy professionals working in manufacturing — he was an Automotive Engineer and I was a Program Manager for an aerospace company. He took a couple years off so that I could help my employer start a new facility out of state and we figured out what “other” families did that didn’t have to draw straws to see who would handle an appt or stay home with a kiddo. That focus and time was pretty great, so when he went back to work, I left my position in search of something that would be more flexible. I answered an ad for a part time Project Manager for a company that manufactured hemp and ran 3 websites selling their products. I thought it would be a fun summer gig and then I’d move on to a “real” job. But, I fell in love with hemp and loved the reach that e-commerce provided, so I stuck for 3 years. It was actually that company that encouraged me to start my own eCommerce business.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
It was more of an aha “shove.” I am not a natural entrepreneur. I didn’t have that burning desire to be my own boss or have an unlimited earning potential. Flexible scheduling was absolutely appealing, but perhaps not worth the risk. I saw a real need, though, to get information and product out on the market to people like myself. Moms who were searching for more natural alternatives for their families. When I looked at the competition in the hemp and space, they were mostly focused on a hip young audience that was into marijuana. That’s not me — I wanted to work with those moms. And there were not a lot of options out there 5 years ago. That, combined the data I was finding on projected earnings in the market, were the push I needed to put a plan together.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Oh my goodness. Definitely. When I started the site in 2005, it was very difficult to get and keep a merchant account. We didn’t have stateside options for credit card processing because the and hemp space were viewed as high risk markets. We had to use a UK based processor. That resulted in many, many declines. The UK based transactions even led to several customers having their cards shut down as “potentially fraudulent.” Cash flow is so critical when you start a business — having an inability to take installment like any other small business was a huge hurdle. I don’t know that I ever considered closing the doors, but I was concerned that this wouldn’t end up being a long-term endeavor. 5 years later, though, here we are. It seems like everything I’ve been close to calling it quits, that’s just the time that I get an amazing customer testimonial telling me that our products have changed their lives. That’s the motivation we need to keep moving.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
We are certainly in interesting times! We’ve (thankfully) not taken a hard hit due to Covid. We did close our retail store for a period of several months, but, our online presence has always been the bulk of what we do and it’s carried us through. Our products are becoming more mainstream and competition has exploded. It’s sometimes hard to know where we fit. Some days, we don’t feel up to taking on the major players in the industry, but, as a small business, we know that we need to keep moving forward — for our families, our customers and our community.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that? Just one?
Let’s see — there was the credit card charge that I entered incorrectly, overcharging the customer by 1,000 dollars. (Lesson — DON’T PROCESS IMPORTANT THINGS MANUALLY). Or the time I spent an hour tracking down a UPS shipment with USPS. Or the time that I ordered 12 units of a new product to try, but accidentally ordered 12 cases of that product. Oops! Thank goodness they sold! (Buy one, get one half off, anyone??) If you look hard enough, you’ll find both lessons and humor in everything!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We stand out for a couple of reasons. Our target consumer is not a kid looking for a buzz, but rather a mother or grandfather or pet owner looking to live healthier. That’s different from the norm in the hemp space. We don’t just focus on one company, but rather sell more than 30 different manufacturing lines. We also believe in educating first. We know that an educated consumer will be a better, longer lasting customer for us.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
That’s a great question. I volunteer with Junior Achievement, teaching kids about entrepreneurship. The advice that I would give colleagues is the same thing that I give those kids. Follow your passion. If you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you’ll do it better and longer. You’ve got to care to be successful.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There’s certainly more than one! My husband is always the “straight man” when I get anxious or overzealous. He keeps me centered. My nieces and girlfriends were fabulous product models who worked for free. Even my mom was a fantastic sounding board, always listening and affirming. I couldn’t imagine embarking on a journey like this without a support network. Yikes!
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that eCommerce businesses are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
Absolutely! Even though their popularity is not decreasing, eCommerce businesses still have to adjust — especially when there is so much increased competition. Flexibility really is paramount to building a successful eCommerce business. People enjoy the experience of shopping small, so you have to ensure that personal, small business feeling transfers to your online presence. People also want their products fast and they don’t want to pay for that to happen. That eCommerce business needs to be able to get product out the door right away, in a well packaged fashion, and incorporate that shipping cost elsewhere for the best customer experience. Lastly, they’ve got to be responsive — give the customer multiple options for communication and when they utilize them, respond! And do it quickly or they won’t be coming back any time soon.
Amazon, and even Walmart are going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition? I think that we need to recognize that US based eCommerce and retail stores will never be the cheapest. That can’t be the “platform,” if you will, so you’ll have to stake that claim elsewhere. Be the cleanest, most informative website — the smartest — the fastest — even the store that rewards consumers for coming back or includes fun “extras” with every order. Find a more personal niche than cost that you can make your “platform” — and be the best at it.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I think that you have to take something where you already have a skillset and expand upon it, rather than just looking for the next financial windfall. If you think that elephant dung coffee (that’s a thing you know) market is exploding, you better already be making coffee if you’re going to capture that market. You need expertise and passion. If you are going into a venture without them, you’re likely just looking to make a quick buck and there won’t be any longevity in the business.
In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
I think that customer retention is the most critical and one of the least discussed factors in running any business — especially one that is literally based on a tool designed to detract attention to any one thing. Any time that you’re on a website, you’re being bombarded by emails, notifications, even advertisements — all designed to take the attention of that customer away from you. Putting together a site and a process to keep them through that transaction AND bring them back again is both critical and super challenging.
Can you share a few examples of tools or software that you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?
Make sure you’re starting with a flexible platform that has built in reporting capabilities so that you can always track your performance. We use Woo Commerce and have added a number of platforms so that you can get really granular data. Make sure that changes down the road (and there will be LOTS of them) are data driven. Additionally, make sure that you’re implementing multiple points of communication for your customer — social media, email marketing, SMS texting — right out of the gate. Trust me — you’ll want them. A program like Zapier can tie things together if the plug-ins aren’t standard. We like Klaviyo for email marketing and communication automations, but it took navigating 4 or 5 other companies before we found that fit.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?
Definitely. Give customers a strong sense of security. That means utilizing a secured site that moves quickly. Make sure your sales process is streamlined and that there are not multiple (clunky) barriers to completing the sale. And then incentivize them, in as organic a fashion as possible, to come back. Reward them for their loyalty with better pricing, a library of research — any type of “extra” that is relevant to your industry. Everyone loves a perk.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
I think that taking care of people has to come first and foremost. Look at every aspect of your business through the eyes of a customer. If you wouldn’t be happy with it from the customer’s seat, change it. Go above and beyond — even when you don’t feel like it. That will not only assure you of that customer retention, it will get them to tell their friends and neighbors about the great experience that they had. Hopefully, they tell LOTS of friends and neighbors — and maybe even the guy at work, too! 😊
One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?
While it’s true that poor reviews can be damaging, they are also necessary in order to ensure that you run an honest, transparent business. Own the poor reviews and respond to them openly — not defensively. If you screwed up, admit it. If not, still own it and manage the customer expectations. Prospective customers will appreciate your honesty. If you’re seeing common threads in negative reviews, then you likely need to dig into that and make a change in your business.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.
Building any business is not a 9–5. If you’re ready to be successful and launch something new, recognize that it will be work. Even if you love it — perhaps especially if you love it, because you will care that much more. Commit to the stress, the work, and the idea. And make it happen!
2. Know Your Audience
There is no “one size fits all” in eCommerce. When you built that website, you’re going for a specific look and feel that will appeal to your audience. Know who that is and ensure that the site experience is for that group. I knew that I wanted to sell to women aged 35–65 that love their families and their pets. My site was built to that, making it less appealing to the 25 year old male looking for an e-liquid, but that loss is ok with me. It’s far more critical to stay true to my core audience, than gain that one time sale.
3. Serve That Audience
Once you know who your people are, make sure and take care of them. Provide unparalleled service. I mean it — unparalleled. Take care of people in the way that you always wished people would take care of you. Go above and beyond and ask them (nicely) to tell their friends!
4. Own Your Capabilities
You’re great at some things, I’m sure — but not at everything! I know my products and I know customer service. I don’t know much about graphic design, social media management, or building a website from scratch. That’s why I have a team. You’ll need a team, too. Whether that’s an outsourced project or a full time hire, ensure that you’re building a team of people that can own those capabilities outside of your wheelhouse.
5. Data, Data, Data
A new business has to be flexible and open to change. It’s important to make sure that those changes are data driven. Don’t spin 180 degrees on a “hunch” or a single customer complaint. Make sure that you have information on the reality of a situation, then absolutely be ready to change with your market and your customers. Your business is worth it!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Oh, I love this question! I would start a movement of presence. Put down that phone or even that laptop and be in the moment. Spend time every day living in that moment — and find a little joy in it!
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Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!