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Melissa Foley: “Create champions, not customers”

Create champions, not customers. Customers are great, but champions buy your products and tell their friends about them. Go beyond creating a solid product and do your best to create an experience that will surprise and delight your customers. This might mean spending special attention to packaging, including a heartfelt note with an order, or […]

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Create champions, not customers.

Customers are great, but champions buy your products and tell their friends about them. Go beyond creating a solid product and do your best to create an experience that will surprise and delight your customers. This might mean spending special attention to packaging, including a heartfelt note with an order, or engaging warmly with folks on social media.


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 Melissa Foley, founder of Hopscotch Girls, a social enterprise focused on empowering girls. Hopscotch Girls has sold nearly a half million books online and their flagship book, I Am Confident, Brave & Beautiful: A Coloring Book for Girls will be available for purchase in Target stores in 2021.


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?

I’m originally from a tiny town in Northern California where my parents operated a local motel and bar. Inspired by their entrepreneurial spirit, I knew I wanted to own my own business someday.

I studied sociology as an undergrad — always very passionate about social change — and business and marketing in grad school. After that I managed digital marketing programs for brands like Old Navy and Kaiser Permanente, then took my digital skills to the nonprofit/social enterprise space, working with Al Gore’s nonprofit after he won the Nobel prize, helping with an advocacy campaign led by Jaimie Oliver, and more. My work in this sector ended up being incredibly helpful to my career as an entrepreneur — that’s where I learned how to use digital tools to do big things on a shoestring budget. I was mentoring nonprofit organizations when the idea for Hopscotch Girls first came to me.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

My “Aha Moment” happened on my daughter’s third birthday. She was still so tiny, and I was completely shocked when nearly every birthday gift she received had a princess theme. She even received a princess book with a pledge at the end for girls to sign saying they promise to “never, ever complain”. I was horrified. I couldn’t fathom why our family members thought princesses were what a three-year-old needs most. So, I asked them. They told me that they bought the princess stuff because that was what was available.

I started doing some research and realized that they were right. That’s when the lightbulb went off. I decided that I could make a difference for girls by creating products that are actually good for girls. And that’s the focus of Hopscotch Girls — we make books that feature positive female role models, encourage girls to be their true multifaceted selves, and use creativity and fun to inspire important conversations with family members.

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?

The beginning was so hard! When the idea for the business first came to me, I had a 3 year-old and a 1 year-old. The whole experience was crazy — I literally wrote my first business plan on my phone while nursing. I still had a full-time job working with nonprofits. So, when it came time to actually form the business, create products, etc., I was exhausted and had almost no time to do it. I would work on the business before everyone else got up, usually starting around 4 or 5am.

Sales were slow at first and I definitely thought about giving up. But I wanted more for my daughter and her peers, and my husband encouraged me to stick with it.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

This is a very exciting time for Hopscotch Girls. Target recently approached us about selling one of our books in their stores. In March 2021 our first book, I am Confident, Brave and Beautiful: A Coloring Book for Girls, will be available in 1700 Target locations nationwide. What a dream come true! That book has sold over 425,000 copies in the US and is being translated into four languages. We’ve had a ton of enthusiasm and support from parents, grandparents and caregivers for our newest coloring book and sticker books too.

I once heard someone from Eventbrite say that the harder they worked, the luckier they got. That’s just how I feel — I keep going, even when things get hard. Some really great opportunities have come from sticking with it.

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?

When I first started the business, I ran Hopscotch Girls from my home and stored all of our books in my garage. I live on a hill and my garage is set down below street-level. One day a truck showed up with 15,000 books on pallets, in the rain, with no warning at all. My driveway was too steep for the delivery truck and I had no forklift or way to get the books down to the garage on my own. My husband rushed home and I grabbed every tarp we had, a pop-up tent and some traffic cones from a neighbor. We processed and shipped 12,000 books that day, on the street. The neighbors thought we were nuts, but we got it done. That experience taught me that if you work hard and think creatively, you can find your way out of most jams.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think Hopscotch Girls stands out because we’re making a real, positive impact on girls and families. One of my favorite stories was shared by a grandmother who purchased one of our coloring books for her granddaughter because she was being bullied. The book includes positive affirmations, like “I Am Brave,” “I Am Strong,” etc. Her grandmother said she took to the book like a duck to water and that it really buoyed her spirit.

Another time a 12-year-old girl found Hopscotch Girls online and sent us an email because she took issue with the illustrations on a page in one of our books. My first instinct was to feel hurt by the criticism, but then I realized how amazing it was that a young girl would seek out a company and give us that kind of feedback unsolicited. We want our books to be thought provoking, and we had definitely gotten her thinking. Of course we ended up thanking her for being so bold and forthright, and sent her some goodies as an extra thank you.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

My best tip is to listen to other people’s stories and join a community of entrepreneurs if possible. I’m a big fan of business podcasts and interviews like this because they show what the real entrepreneurial experience is like — a roller coaster! So many amazing companies have gone through tough times, and even come close to closing. We just don’t normally hear those stories. My favorite podcasts include How I Built This, Building a Story Brand and My Wife Quit Her Job.

Joining or forming some kind of community of entrepreneurs can be incredibly supportive too. I was lucky to find a community of independent publishers on Facebook that’s been immensely helpful. Sometimes I’ve run into issues that someone else had already experienced and could talk me through. Other times folks have offered moral support, which is great. I’ve had a really good experience with a local female entrepreneur group online too. Beyond the usual business issues, it’s nice to have someone to turn to when issues come up with figuring out how to balance business and family, etc.

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?

I’m deeply grateful for my husband, who has been supportive of my business from the very beginning. When we first decided that it was time for me to leave my full-time job to focus on Hopscotch Girls, I shaped my schedule around my children — school pick-ups and all of that. But when the pandemic hit and demand for activity books rose, I found that I was struggling to get enough work done and run distance learning for my 5 year-old and 7 year-old. My husband suggested that he take on more child management duties and it’s been a huge help. He’s taking the lead with distance learning, and all of those little things that take up so much time and mental energy — organizing play dates, volunteering in class, cooking for the family, etc. Without that support it would be tough for me to take advantage of some of the hard-earned luck that’s come my way recently.

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?

One of the things many eCommerce businesses are doing well is changing up their offerings to ensure they’re still relevant. One of the best examples of this is fashion companies that are now selling masks and loungewear. It’s a great way to keep cash flowing through the door, make your brand visible, and help consumers.

Many businesses have also changed the way they get their products into the hands of consumers. Early on in the pandemic, some eCommerce businesses struggled because they were heavily dependent on Amazon. When Amazon temporarily stopped shipping select FBA (Fulfilled By Amazon) products so they could prioritize necessities, entrepreneurs found themselves in a tough spot. It was a good lesson though and companies are now thinking beyond Amazon FBA. This includes using Amazon FBM (Fulfilled By Merchant) so they can ship merchandise themselves, selling through their own websites, and taking advantage of emerging online marketplaces like Walmart.com.

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 there’s real strength in knowing your customer well, and that’s tough to do from overseas. Today more than ever, customers are interested in brands and values. They want to know that the product they’re getting is more than just cheap and available. They want to know that you’ve truly thought about their need or want, and have put care into giving them the best possible customer experience. That means creating a quality product, having company values that gel with their own values, and providing a superb customer service experience, should the need arise. I also think there’s opportunity right now for businesses run by women and people of color to share their stories with their customers.

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?

One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen is not putting enough thought and money into marketing. You can create the most incredible product ever, but it won’t sell if nobody knows about it. It’s not unusual for marketing to take as much, or even more effort than developing a product. One of the things you can do to avoid this is to think about marketing upfront — ideally before you’re done developing your product. When you think about marketing early on, you open yourself up to the possibility of making decisions during product development that will make marketing easier down the road (ex: designing the product or packaging so it looks good on Instagram, etc.). Then, push yourself to develop a full marketing plan prior to launch, with a clear budget.

In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Other than marketing, people tend to underestimate the amount of time required for operations and logistics. Even when you’ve been working with manufacturers, warehouses and other partners for years, things go wrong. Fires pop up that need to be put out and new hectic situations arise. Even though they’re based online, eCommerce businesses are not a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing.

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?

The tools available to entrepreneurs today are so powerful that even a tiny company run by one person can have an online presence that rivals that of huge companies. Three of my favorite tools are SquareSpace, Canva and Shutterstock. SquareSpace makes building a website so easy — anyone can do it, with absolutely no coding skills whatsoever. They provide beautiful website templates that are easy to use and can do all kinds of stuff–present galleries of products and images, sell products, collect information through forms, etc.

I also love Canva. I used to waste time trying to peck my way through designing ads with Adobe Photoshop or Gimp, but they never looked good enough. Canva’s templates make it so you don’t have to start from scratch and design everything yourself. Their Pro plan is very reasonable and lets you plug in your brand colors, fonts, etc, which I’ve found to be a big time saver. I really like Shutterstock too. When you see amazing ads and websites, most of the time the amazing part is from high-quality, beautiful photos. It’s not always practical for entrepreneurs to do regular photo shoots with a professional photographer, models and all of that. Shutterstock’s got a really nice collection of images, but isn’t as pricey as some other stock photo sites.

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?

I’ve had success focusing on my product images and description. There’s opportunity there to convey some of the brand personality and values I mentioned earlier. I like to use lifestyle images to show what the customer experience is like and help potential customers get a feel for how girls react to our products. Depending on your brand personality, you can do a lot with the description too. Word choice and tone can go a long way for communicating a brand — especially if it’s fun, playful or silly.

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?

One of the best ways to build your business’s reputation is by taking the customer experience seriously and creating brand champions. Entrepreneurs can create champions by going beyond creating a solid product and creating an experience that will surprise and delight customers. This might mean paying special attention to packaging, including a heartfelt note with an order, or engaging warmly with folks on social media. For Hopscotch Girls, we focus on conveying warmth and respect to our customers at every level — we take girls and their caregivers seriously, while being positive and lighthearted. We do this with every interaction — in our marketing emails, digital ads, social posts and conversations, responses to customer issues — everywhere.

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?

I believe very strongly that defensiveness has no place in a response to review, and that a company should always respond with kindness and respect. The opinions of our customers matter very much, even when they’re upsetting to us. In the case of unfair statements, the company response is an opportunity to show the brand’s values and commitment to other potential customers that are contemplating a purchase. People don’t expect to have a 100% perfect experience with a product or company all the time, but they do expect a company to make things right when things go wrong, and the company response is a way to show how your company handles those situations.

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.

1. You’ve got to get started.

When you’re getting ready to launch a business, planning is important. But it can hold you back if you get so bogged down with it that you never actually make it to launch. One great way to accelerate the launch of your business is by deploying a pilot project. I always recommend coming up with a scaled down version of your business that you can use to test the concept and gauge the market, and focus on launching that over the next one to three months. I created our test project, “I Am Confident, Brave & Beautiful: A Coloring Book for Girls” while I was still working full-time. Flash forward three years and it’s an Amazon bestseller with five stars and over 11,000 ratings. The success of that initial product made everything we’ve done since possible.

2. Make your startup look big.

There are so many amazing tools available online today that even the tiniest startup can look polished and professional. Use tools like Shopify and Squarespace to build a professional looking website that will make customers comfortable, and tools like Canva and Shutterstock to fill it with beautiful imagery. The Hopscotch Girls website is built on Squarespace. Many of our ads are made with Canva and we use Shutterstock images frequently on our blog.

3. Create champions, not customers.

Customers are great, but champions buy your products and tell their friends about them. Go beyond creating a solid product and do your best to create an experience that will surprise and delight your customers. This might mean spending special attention to packaging, including a heartfelt note with an order, or engaging warmly with folks on social media.

4. Always provide value.

Typically potential customers have to see your brand several times before they make a purchase. But marketers shouldn’t worry about being too repetitive or connecting with customers too often as long as they always provide value to the customer. This means putting yourself in the shoes of the customer and thinking about what they really want and finding a way to give it to them. We take this to heart with the Hopscotch Girls email list and Facebook page in particular.

5. Focus on momentum.

In the digital marketplace, the algorithm is king (especially on Amazon!). Most algorithms are designed to recognize trends and send more traffic to hot products. So plan marketing and PR campaigns to create bursts of momentum and see your sales snowball. For Hopscotch Girls we have some advertising running pretty much all the time, but layer on multi-channel campaigns periodically to give things a boost — especially if sales start slipping or we notice some natural momentum we can expand on.

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. 🙂

I’d love to see a movement to create a culture that truly values girls, prioritizes their growth and development, and recognizes them as future leaders. I believe the world could change in so many amazing ways with more female leadership in business and politics. Laying the groundwork for more women in leadership starts with the culture and world we’re sharing with girls right now.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can find Hopscotch Girls online at hopscotchgirls.com, and on Instagram and Facebook @hopsoctchgirls. For easy ways to empower girls, fun activity ideas, alerts about new Hopscotch Girls products, and musings from me, join our email list at https://www.hopscotchgirls.com/.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!


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