Friday, February 26, 2010

Distribution partnerships - The Swissôtel, Sydney



We've been working with the Swissôtel in Sydney for the last month and together we've put a package together that includes 2 Shoes of Prey gift certificates, a hotel room and high tea for two.

It's very exciting to be working with a brand like the Swissôtel as they're a great fit with our brand. And we're hoping women love the concept of a beautiful hotel, high tea and custom shoes. There should be some great PR and sales opportunities for both of us that come out of the partnership, and we're hoping to work the hotel to run some events in the future so we'll be working on these opportunities more over the coming months.

We're starting to put our minds towards partnerships that help us build awareness of our brand, and enable us to distribute our shoes. Lots of great businesses have used distribution partnerships to get themselves started. Eg. PayPal with eBay and Google powering Yahoo's search engine in their early years.

If you're running a business are you looking at distribution partnerships? Any more famous examples you know of where businesses leveraged distribution partnerships successfully to get themselves started?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Improving our conversion rate



Based on our offline retail experience to date, when customers physically get to see and touch our shoes they are 10 times more likely to make a purchase than a customer who only visits our website.

From our discussions with these customers part of the reason is that they get a much better understanding of the quality of the shoes when they see them in person. And at our price point that's important.

When I last visited our workshops I took some photos of the shoes being made and we've put this together to tell the story of how the shoes are made.

At the moment the link to this page is hidden away in our FAQs so I'd love to hear people's thoughts on this. Do the photos and the story assist in getting the quality message across?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Motivation (Part 2)

As we've mentioned previously, starting a business is a roller coaster ride, the lows are low and the highs are high.

The Chinese New Year issues we've had are certainly a dip in the ride and can make it that bit harder to stay extremely motivated, but then experiences like we've had with Jill and Brett and their wedding help to put us back up at the peak of the ride.

We first met Jill at Sydney Fashion Weekend and we had her and some of her bridesmaids around to Jodie and my place to try on our shoes and select the right materials and colours for their shoes from our leather books. Jill ordered her wedding shoes from us in shiny gold soft leather, and each of her 3 bridesmaids, Anastasia, Lisa and Claire came up with their own designs and ordered them in matching silver soft leather. Straight after the wedding they replied to say how happy their were with their shoes and sent us some of the wedding photos. And last week Jill sent us a CD with high resolution photos and has said we're welcome to use them in our marketing materials to help promote our business, and she's planning to order more shoes from us!

Receiving such great feedback and knowing that we helped Jill and Brett enjoy their wedding that little bit more is hugely rewarding. Following are some of the wedding photos. Thanks Jill, Brett, Anastasia, Lisa and Claire!













Credits: Photography by Justin Malinowski. And on a side note, like Jodie and I, Jill and Brett are a husband and wife team running their own business, the creative agency Pretty Pollution

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Springwise and TechCrunch Effect

Last week was an exciting one for Shoes of Prey. In addition to moving into our new offices we had the good fortune to be written up by two of our favourite websites in the same week, Springwise and TechCrunch.

As entrepreneurs in the tech space know, these are two good sites to get written up on and I always wondered what their effect would be on a website's traffic. If you've ever wondered this too we thought we'd share our data with you.

The chart below shows our visits over the past month. It shows up a little small in this post but we were traveling fairly consistently between 1,000 and 2,000 daily visits until Tuesday of last week when the Springwise article was posted. Tuesday was a new record day at 3,971 visits, Wednesday beat that with 10,009 visits and Thursday is our new record day with 17,092 visits. The TechCrunch article was posted on Saturday and that helped keep our visits high over the weekend.



So what were our top referring sites and how much traffic did Springwise and TechCrunch send to us? Below are our top 10 referral sites for the month ending February 15. The first thing you'll notice is that after direct traffic, the top referring site is web.rambler.ru, a Russian news site. They wrote about us shortly after the Springwise article went up, so we assume that's how they came across us as Springwise is widely read by journalists. The Russian traffic didn't convert so well, but there were still plenty of new referring sites in Australia and the US that popped up following the Springwise article.



Another thing you'll note is that the traffic from Springwise and TechCrunch isn't actually that high. Springwise have a huge email subscription list and most tech geeks who read TechCrunch do so via an RSS reader (Mike and I included), so both these sites actually sent us a lot more traffic than Google Analytics shows.

Twitter also reached our top 10 referring sites for the first time thanks to TechCrunch requiring uses to retweet their post to enter the competition to win the gift voucher. That got a lot of people talking about us on Twitter which was great.

Another interesting point to note, the number of referring sites in Google Analytics jumped from 560 in the month to Feb 8 to 890 in the month to today. While a lot of those are email servers, there's still a good number of new sites that have linked to us which should be a nice boost on the SEO front.

So if you have a startup all this begs the question, how do you get on Springwise and TechCrunch? Both site's readers are interested in innovative businesses, so you'll either want to have a product that is new and innovative, or be able to pitch it to those guys in that way. A good effort I saw recently was how Good Crush did a play on the recent Parisian Love Google Superbowl Commercial and got themselves written up on TechCrunch for their efforts. Our earlier post about our 5 lessons from Darwin Dating also shares some thoughts on this. Even with all that though it isn't easy as both sites have lots of people pitching to them. We first pitched to them when we launched 4 months ago and only just got written up.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Our search engine optimisation strategy - from two ex-Googlers.



Having worked at Google, Mike and I are often asked for search engine optimisation (SEO) tips and what our SEO strategy is for Shoes of Prey. So we figured it might make a good blog post.

The first thing we should point out is that we're not SEO experts. Google were very open with much of their information when we were working there, but one part of the business that is understandably kept tightly under wraps is what goes into the search algorithms. Even though we don't know what the 'secret sauce' is, to be honest I don't think that matters because there are so many factors that play into how Google and other search engines rank websites that it would be a waste of time to try and focus on gaming any of them even if we knew what they were.

So the basis of our SEO strategy is this (and apologies that what follow's is Google centric, but over 90% of Australian searches are done on Google so that's our focus, plus we liked working there so we're bias!):

Google's mission is to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. In order to achieve that Google ranks websites in it's search engine and it's going to rank websites higher that help it achieve it's mission. Those are websites that give the user the information they're looking for efficiently and quickly, and websites that lots of people find useful.

So we break that general SEO philosophy into 2 parts:

1. What can we do on our website to make it fast and easy for users to get to the information they're looking for?

2. What can we do to ensure lots of people find the site useful enough to want to link to us?

To discuss each of these in turn:

1. An SEO Friendly Website
Often you visit websites and there are lots of ugly links everywhere - and it's just a confusing mess. More often than not this is because the webmaster is a) too focused on building SEO at the expense of the bigger picture and b) disorganised to the point where it becomes a barrier to doing business.

We've taken the alternative approach that we want to make everything as easy as possible. The navigation for our site is fairly intuitive, and the site itself isn't that big. Everything is optimised towards getting the user to understand the concept and start designing a pair of shoes.

In terms of SEO, this almost seems counter intuitive - because we're giving up a lot of opportunities as far as search engines go. However, for us, building an intuitive product is more important because we're ultimately hoping our users will do the majority of our SEO work for us. By building the product primarily for them, and not the search robots, we'll ideally be making our users happy so they'll want to link to us, not to mention boosting our conversions.

That said we still employ some basic SEO strategies on our site. When we started putting the copy together on our website we wanted to determine what were going to be the major keywords for us. So we used Google Insights for Search and came up with some key, common search phrases we thought would be important for us like 'custom shoes', 'design your own shoes' and 'bespoke shoes'. Our website copy talks to those phrases, without going overboard and we try to use them in headings where it still makes sense to a user reading them.

We use Google App Engine for our hosting because it's fast which we assume Google likes. (There may well be faster hosting providers out there and from everything we learnt about Google, there would be no favouritism to Google App Engine users in terms of SEO, other than website loading speed algorithms which would apply to any website). And while we use Adobe Flash for our shoe designer, we didn't do our whole website in flash so the rest of the site loads quickly and there are no issues with search engines accessing the copy on our site.

2. Encouraging Links to Your Website
In terms of getting links to our website, our product goes a long way towards helping this. Following the viral marketing and SEO lessons we learnt from our joke dating site Darwin Dating, we decided to start a custom women's shoe business because we felt it was a buzzworthy idea, a product women wanted and because of this fashion websites and blogs would ideally want to cover us. This has helped bring a lot of traffic to the site and lots of links with minimal effort on our part. Furthermore, we've made it really easy to share your shoe designs with your friends via an Add This button. It's a simple thing, but people are motivated to share their designs and all those links on the web drive us traffic and tell Google that we're a useful site that people like to visit.

Another simple but key part of our linking strategy is our brand name. Google looks at the anchor text of links, along with the surrounding text, to determine what the website being linked to is about. In our case the anchor text people use is usually our brand name 'Shoes of Prey'. A key benefit of this is that Google realises our website is about 'shoes' and that keyword is actually our largest organic non-branded keyword. Had our brand name been 'Zappos' or something non shoe related, we wouldn't get the same benefit. Of course there are negatives to having a generic word in your brand name, as outlined in the brilliant Igor Naming Guide, but one of the reasons we liked 'Shoes of Prey' as a name is that it has both the generic word shoes, and conjures up a strong image, being a play on 'Birds of Prey' so as we see it we get the best of both worlds.

So in summary we don't try tricks like gateway pages, filling pages with boring but keyword rich copy, loading our meta tags with keywords, buying links or link swapping with other websites. In order to fulfil it's mission the engineers at Google are always on the look out for things like this that try to trick search engines. So these SEO approaches can take up a lot of your time and money for little or no benefit. SEO is important and we've made sure we've done some basic, key things, but we feel that the best approach for us is to focus on improving our product. If people love their Shoes of Prey experience they'll write about us and link to us and that's the best thing we can be doing for our SEO.

There are plenty of SEO firms out there that like to charge lots of money for all sorts of SEO strategies which we just don't think are worth the money. An SEO firm can certainly add value when a website is being built to ensure the site is structured in a user and therefore search engine friendly way, but using an SEO firm to gather links to your site or most other strategies pitched to justify an SEO retainer I really don't think add much value.

We'd love to hear your thoughts, do you agree or disagree? Are there particular SEO strategies that you employ that you think are effective, aren't dubious and don't take up too much time to implement?

Image Credit.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Anthill Event - Venture Capital by Design



Tonight I went along to the Anthill event 'Venture Capital by Design'. They had 4 (very good) panelists along and the event was moderated by Anthill's founder, James Tuckerman, who did a brilliant job.

Following our discussions about venture capital and bootstrapping our startup we're not planning to raise capital for Shoes of Prey at the moment, but it was great to hear the thoughts from the panel in case we decide to go down that path. I took some notes using the #Anthill tag on twitter and I thought I'd share them here.

Do
  • VCs love 'domain experts' or people who know the industry their startup is in back to front. Domain experts know who the key players are, who to do deals with and even though it's a startup they aren't learning and doing everything from scratch.
  • VCs and Angel investors love to see founders who are passionate about their business. They want to see that people are in it for the long haul.
  • They want to see that you have lots of skin in the game. Bootstrapping a long way and putting plenty of your own money into the business helps show this.
  • The same goes for other investors. Don't give someone a stake in your business just for their advice or for professional services. If they're lazy and don't contribute you'll be stuck with them as an investor anyway. It's better to pay them instead, or have them contribute money as well as their services so they have skin in the game too.
  • IP protection is important, particularly if you're looking for a trade sale or similar exit.
  • Having runs on the board makes it much easier to find investors. Paying customers who have been on board for a few months and are giving you feedback is a massive plus.
  • Interview your potential investors as much as they're interviewing you. Investors aren't all created equal, different investors will be able to add value to your business in different ways.
  • Ensure there's a good cultural fit between you and your investors.
  • A strong vision for your business and a good idea of potential exits is important when taking on investors.
  • To determine potential exit strategies think through who your business could add value to. Once you work that out, that can help direct your business strategy.
  • One way we hadn't thought of using VC money - hiring sales people. That could be an option for us if we want to push a wholesale sales strategy to fashion boutiques.
  • James asked the panel, 'What's more important, marketing or the product?' The panel felt that both were important but if you have to pick between the two marketing is more important. Knowing your customers and being able to build and pitch you product correctly is crucial.
  • The VC industry has not been a profitable one. There are lots of baby boomers in Australia reaching retirement age. It might be worth thinking about angel investors ahead of venture capital firms.

Do Not

  • Statements like 'all we need to capture is 1% of the market' don't go down well. 1% can be huge and it may not be that easy to achieve.
  • Don't go into negotiations with angel investors or venture capital firms with a set valuation for your business. If you negotiate with a few investors the market will decide what that valuation will be.
  • Don't approach investors with the line, 'I have a great idea but it's so good I can't tell you about it'. They won't be interested. It's not the idea that has value, it's how you execute. (See our previous thoughts on this).

It's the first Anthill event I've been along to and I was impressed. In addition to the great panel discussion I met some fellow entrepreneurs who are doing some exciting things including Alfred and Jin who are working on a location based startup, Matt from The Loop which is a job site for people in the creative industries, Luke from the brand/creative agency The Sponge and Chris from GetPrice.com.au who was one of the panelists. I'll be going along to more of these events.

Home sweet home



Monday 8 February was my first day full time on Shoes of Prey - what a brilliant day :)

As mentioned in a previous post, I'm continuing to do some freelance work with The Campaign Palace, because I couldn't bear to part with my advertising family :) In addition to this, we have taken up office space at The Campaign Palace in an unusually quiet corner of the agency. I'd debated strongly with Michael about decorating the space to stamp Shoes of Prey all over it but the very practical business parter that he is, reminded me that we're a bootstrapped start up... so, as you can see, I used our shoes as decoration and I am working on covering the walls with the press that we have had in the last couple of months - something that never ceases to motivate me to go out there and talk to more people about Shoes of Prey!

Michael and Mike have been working from the couch to date. Personally, I need an office environment to maintain routine and focus in my work. I fear that working from the couch would simply result in sporadic tidying of the house and making elaborate meals. Being at The Campaign Palace means that our distractions are minimised to looking at the amazing view and bouncing ideas around with some of the most inspired minds in the country.

Simply being in the same space as The Campaign Palace provides a great opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas and share learnings. Operating businesses side-by-side like this is a new experience for me and I am excited to see how it unfolds.

Have you 'worked from the couch' before? If so, how did it compare to working from an office?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Google products we use



On Wednesday night Mike and I did a presentation to a group of fellow entrepreneurs on how we use Google products to run our business. People seemed to find it useful so I thought I'd put the list of products and a quick summary of how we use them here in case others find new products they can use too. We're a little biased having worked at Google, but we really love these products so if you're not using them all they're worth checking out!

  • Google Analytics - We use this to track a whole range of information regarding our websites. Some of our favourite metrics include: number of visitors, traffic sources, countries visitors come from, conversions, time on site.
  • Gmail, including video chat - This is our most used product and so much of our communication is done here. I even have a slightly odd way of managing my to do list through gmail.
  • Google Docs and Spreadsheets - 99% of our document and spreadsheet work is done using Google Docs. The collaboration functionality is brilliant, particularly when working with Vanessa based in China.
  • Google Calendar - Pretty self explanatory but we use this all the time.
  • Blogger - 22michaels.com is hosted using blogger.
  • Google Search - I'm sure everyone has used Search but if you haven't played with some of the more advanced features check them our here. I use the currency conversion functionality nearly every day.
  • Google Image Search - I use image search to find most of the images used on 22michaels. There are copyright issues with just using any image from the web so I use the advanced settings in Google image search to find images labelled for reuse.
  • Google Insights for Search - This tool let's you peer into all the amazing search data that Google has, basically it lets you see what people are searching for. There are so many amazing uses for this data. Take a look at this video and if that piques your interest there are more linked from there.
  • Google Local Business Centre - We don't really use this as we don't have a physical location, but if you're business does make sure you list it here.
  • Picasa - We manage and share all our photos using Picasa, it's brilliant.
  • Google Translate - A helpful tool for translating blog posts about us written in languages other than English, and also for emailing and chatting with customers who don't speak English.
  • Google AdWords (the only one that isn't free) - We use AdWords to advertise our business when people search on Google for phrases like 'custom shoes' and 'design your own shoes'. Advertising doesn't get more targeted than that.
  • Google Website Optimizer - We use this to test different elements on our website to see what converts best.
  • Sketch Up Here's an earlier example of where we used sketch up to lay out our Fashion Weekend market stall.
  • Google Apps for your domain - We use this for all our @shoesofprey.com email addresses.
  • Google App Engine - ShoesofPrey.com is hosted on Google AppEngine.
  • Google Reader - Mike used to work on Google Reader when he worked at Google and behind Gmail it's probably my second most used product. I read all my news and my favourite startup blogs through Google Reader, mainly on my iPhone. It's such an efficient way to read the news.
  • Google Chrome - The fastest and best web browser, try it out if you don't already use it.
  • Google Webmaster Tools - A great way to see how Google views your website from a search perspective. Apparently the Yahoo version is very good too.
  • Google Maps - Invented in Australia and a fantastic mapping tool. I use the My Maps feature a lot when directing people places.
  • YouTube - The world's second largest search engine. We haven't started using YouTube as a marketing tool yet but it's high on our to do list. Blendtec do it very well!
  • Using Google on your mobile - The great thing about Google products is that they are web based so you can use them on any device. I use Google Reader and Gmail on my iPhone every day.
  • Google Wave - Another one that was invented in Australia. We're not using Wave daily just yet, the main issue is critical mass, it's only useful when everyone else is using it. But I really hope it takes off. It's a much better way to communicate than email.

For a less Google Centric list of products that we use check out this previous post. And one more that is worth a mention is Brizzly. While not a Google product there are a bunch of ex-Google Reader software engineers working on Brizzly and it's by far the best way to use Twitter.

So that's our list of Google Products that we use. Any that we missed? Any others you use?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Motivation



Working on Shoes of Prey is very motivating. It's extremely rewarding and satisfying to be working on a business where I am a joint owner, and the fact that we're happy with how it's going so far helps an enormous amount too.

That said, there are times when the level of motivation drops a little, and one of those times is now.

I've always enjoyed roles that involve customer service because I like making people happy. The flipside of this is I don't like disappointing people, so I don't enjoy customer service at all when I'm not making people happy.

So far our customers are very happy with Shoes of Prey, but Chinese New Year is throwing a few curve balls at us:
  • Our first ballet flats will be finished next week which is a little later than we'd promised our customers.
  • I love fulfilling special requests like sending leather samples to customers, or allowing customers to make changes to their shoes that aren't in our designer, but our workshops are about to close so we can't do these things.
  • And I've probably turned down about 10 customers in the last few weeks who wanted wedding shoes because I can't be confident we'll have them ready in late March or early April for their weddings.

It sounds ridiculous but I almost feel physical pain disappointing customers and turning down sales. And when something isn't enjoyable it's that little bit harder to be motivated to do it, the mind wants to escape and think of something else.

All of that said I'm still very motivated and this isn't a major issue, but I'd love to hear thoughts from others on how you stay motivated when times are tough.

Image Credit.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Jodie is joining us full time!



We're very pleased to announce that Jodie is going to be joining us full time on Shoes of Prey! When we started the business we figured initially there would be more for Mike and I to do in building the website and getting the operations up and running and that we could get Jodie's input on weekends and in the evenings. That also meant that Jodie and I weren't putting all our eggs in one basket in case things didn't turn out as we hoped.

We're very happy with how Shoes of Prey is going and we've hit the point where we need Jodie full time working on new shoe designs and on our marketing and PR efforts.

The Campaign Palace where Jodie works have asked her to stay on as a freelancer. She loves working there so she's going to do that, but for the majority of the week she'll be focusing on Shoes of Prey, hooray!