Introduce your business and tell us your story: How did you decide on what to sell, and how did you source your products?
My partner and I, founders of Bloom & Give, are first-gen Indian Americans (guys!) living in Dallas, TX. Our inspiration for Bloom & Give is the timeless beauty of handmade goods, made by local artisans in India where the craft is often passed down 10s of generations. All our products are handmade using these age-old traditional techniques. Besides the scarves and cosmetic/toiletry bags we currently sell, we are adding a range of handbags and totes next month, and a line of jewelry by October, and handmade leather flats in Spring 2016. Our mission is to address the massive gender inequality in rural India by supporting girls’ education, which has been shown to be the most effective way to change these girls’ future. Every negative stat related to earning potential, health and self-esteem such as childhood marriage, teenage pregnancies, unemployment - all have been shown to go down dramatically if the girl stays in school. We have some fantastic partners on the ground that touch 8,000 schools and track nearly 500,000 at-risk girls each day and make sure they stay in school. Roughly every purchase helps us send a girl to school for a year. The idea for the product was seeded when we made an investment in an existing Shopify store - Graymarket Design that sold handmade scarves from India. We saw how customers loved the product. We knew that if we could expand the reach, this had legs. We then connected it with a near-and-dear social cause (girls' education). With this we know we can increase referrals through social media from our customers. We visited various makers in India and picked the ones that shared our values - high quality, fair trade, sustainably sourced and strong involvement of women artisans. Having roots in India we were able to find these makers. Currently we source scarves from block-printers in Jaipur, where there is a rich tradition of block-printing. We are adding handmade bags, made in Gurgaon, India next month. Handmade footwear from Athani next year.
How did you earn your first sales? Which channels are now generating the most traffic and sales for you?
We did a launch event in Dallas to test the product and our message. The event was a huge success - we got 100 customers and felt this was a strong validation of the idea. We spent most of the summer sourcing our products to gear up for the holiday season and on our website. We are now focusing on social media marketing (FB, Instagram). We recently launched an Ambassador program where like-minded yoga instructors, who love our products and cause, spread the word. We have 25 ambassadors signed up and expect this to be a major sales channel this holiday season. Friends and family, existing customers through email CRM campaigns are our biggest source, 4 months into the business. We expect this to shift to Ambassador-referred sales by end of year.
Tell us about the back-end of your business. What tools and apps do you use to run your store? How do you handle shipping and fulfillment?
We love Shopify, obviously! It gives us a near complete platform. More importantly, we share our product catalog for scarves with our partner, graymarket design, also a Shopify store. This is an amazing feature because we were able to launch our product catalog in a day! And any new products we onboard from them can also be done in minutes. I think this is a tool that e-tailers, who work with multiple designers, will find extremely helpful! The apps we use are Shipping Easy (love how postage labels can be printed in seconds), MailChimp, Xero. We use Buyable Pins on Pinterest, and a Facebook store, and are quite bullish about long term prospects of these tools. We have also close to finishing a custom app for referrals that will allow our customers to easily generate unique links to share with their friends and earn benefits. Overall, we are thrilled with Shopify, so much so, that we are happy stockholders of Shopify! Internally, using ShippingEasy. We print our own labels, tags.
What are your top recommendations for new store owners?
I think Shopify makes it so easy to launch your store that store owners can really focus time and money on the one thing that really matters - customer acquisition. Our top learnings/views are: (1) Do not sweat about losing money on the first transaction with a new customer. If you are confident of your product, the life-time value from the customer will pay for that investment. To that end, explore all distribution channels - referral bonuses, direct sales, retail, social media, and finally, careful and strategic online advertising. (2) Social media marketing is important - it does not lead to short-term sales but it builds your brand and gives you a canvas to tell a story that is as important as your website. In particular we have found Instagram to be a perfect platform to build an engaged audience. Facebook no longer offers the organic free reach that it did at the beginning of the year. With their new pay-for-reach programs like Boost and Targeting, you have to pay to build followership. If you can make Instagram and Pinterest work, do it. (3) College Interns are a very cost-effective way to generate varied social media content. We hired interns during the summer that worked out great for us. (4) Finally, always remind yourself why you started your store and confidently assert your identity in every online asset - site, posts, product descriptions etc. It is important to build a consistent brand message based on your initial objectives. For us, (a) we wanted to make our social cause front and center and decided to donate 50% of profits to girls' education and (b) don't want to take any shortcuts with the product so we insist on every component being "handmade". We are willing to stand by these values and believe that in the long run, our customer loyalty and enthusiasm is built on the consistency and longevity of core values.