Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Photo shoots - it’s all about the people, not about the money

This was originally posted to Power Retail and is part 3 of a 6 part series by Mark Capps on his experiences of leaving Google to start up a new online retail company. Click for parts 1 and 2.

We’re an online company selling prescription glasses. It’s essential we have great photos of our frames as the website is the main way customers browse and purchase. We recently completed a 5 day photo shoot, successfully shooting hundreds of photos - on multiple models, from different angles, indoors and outdoors. I thought that getting professional images in this quantity would be an expensive exercise, however with the right people, some ingenuity and a bit of determination it doesn’t have to cost much at all. I’ve described below how Sneaking Duck (and Shoes of Prey) Photographer extraordinaire Susie Adams drove the whole project.

Do you have any tips on how to run a successful photos shoot without breaking the bank?

Prepare, practice, prepare again
Having a clear artistic vision and planning every step proved invaluable. Susie knew exactly the look and feel required and did the ground work to make the days effective and efficient. Time is money, so it was key to be efficient when the clock was ticking on models and stylists. We had a detailed briefing for everyone for each day - make-up and styling required, poses that worked, timeframes and run sheet timed with sun angles. This was all coupled with the right lighting and lenses, and countless test shots to tune things ahead of time.

Beg, borrow, steal
Ok, we didn’t steal anything. But we did beg and borrow all sorts from wonderful friends and contacts. Clothing came from our personal wardrobes, generous friends and relatives and the models themselves. Professional lighting was very kindly lent to us by Rob Palmer. Our intern, Emma Zavan, kindly gave up time on her weekend to help out.

We sourced all 9 models from Model Mayhem with excellent results at great rates. They all looked amazing, were professional and reliable and were fun to work with. The secret here was to invest the hours to get the right people. We didn’t have budget for a go-see, so instead Susie worked tirelessly through thousands for photos to find a set of options that we edited down to a short list. We’ll be sharing high resolution, professionally re-touched images to help the models build out their portfolios.

Make up and styling
Model Mayhem led us to fully qualified make-up stylists towards the start of their careers. They were happy to work on a cost-of-materials basis as we will be providing them high-res retouched images to add to their public portfolios to build their careers. We did our own styling, borrowing a bit of knowledge from friends and family.

Sticky tape and plastic

We needed to remove the natural light from where we were shooting. Hiring a professional studio would have been the expensive approach, however we got the same outcome by taping plastic bags over the windows and asking the office to work with the lights down low. Thank you guys!

Do it yourself

Holding a light reflector, smoothing hair, keeping an eye out for wonky frames - I never thought this would be part of my job when working at Google, but they are now!

And finally

At the top of this post you can see just one of the hundreds of professional quality images we created without breaking the bank - we hope you like the outcome as much as we do. The key learning for me was that getting the right person, Susie, to take the lead was the most important thing, not the budget.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Follow up Sydney friends and family sale - this Saturday

Last week's Friends and Family Sale was much more successful than we expected, and we've had quite a few people say they couldn't make it and ask if we'd hold one on a Saturday. So we're going to do that this weekend. Details:

Shoes of Prey is holding a friends and family sale. You’re invited to our Sydney headquarters to select from over 500 pairs of one-off, hand-made designs that we have on hand*, ranging from a size 2.5 to 15.

Ballet Flats: $220 $80
Heels: $275 $100
Ankle Boots: $375 $130

When? 10:00am - 3:00 pm, Saturday 3 September, 2011
Where? Shoes of Prey Headquarters - Studio 12, Level 1 285A Crown Street Surry Hills NSW 2010

Present this letter (electronically or printed) to gain entry to the sale.

*Please note that this sale is only of samples that we have ready-made in our headquarters. It does not extend to custom-made shoes.

Cash and EFTPOS available.

Wanted: Optical dispenser & lover of customers

Do you know someone with optical dispensing experience who would like the challenge and reward of joining an online retail start-up?

We’re looking to hire a qualified optical dispenser and customer support expert for Sneaking Duck. Their responsibilities will range from addressing customer questions to quality control to technical optical work. We need someone who is super-excited to experience an online start up where challenging norms is the norm.

If this is you, please get in touch at If you know anyone who might be interested, please forward this link on.

About us

Sneaking Duck is a new online optical dispenser and a new brand in eyewear. We’re an internet start-up looking to grow fast and have fun doing it. We love cool glasses and we love having a pair for every mood. We’re tired of one mega-expensive pair bought only because the last pair died.

We are about to launch a website where customers can browse and chose frames, upload a prescription and have their frames land on the doorstep a few days later. We’re looking for a qualified optical dispenser who loves people and who wants to live the start up journey with us. Our centrally located office is action driven, but casual and fun.

Attributes, qualifications and experience

  • A passion for going the extra mile with customers. No matter the issue raised, you need to love building a rapport and delivering a solution - whether it be a technical query, styling dilemma or complaint our customers deserve prompt, warm and knowledgeable service
  • Certificate IV in Optical Dispensing required (or equivalent)
  • Experience working in an optical dispensers - fitting lenses, guiding on lens choice, style advice, problem solving customer issues
  • A desire to thrive in a fast-moving, fun, occasionally chaotic, go-get but friendly start-up environment
  • Computer literate

Key tasks and responsibilities

  • Responding promptly to customer emails, calls and instant-messages in a super-friendly, enthusiastic, warm and knowledgeable manner. Going the extra mile on this aspect is the top priority.
  • Advising customers on technical queries about lens and frame choice
  • Answering any questions about our services, policies, terms and conditions
  • Managing complaints, returns and refunds
  • Anything else that customers need
  • Lens fitting and quality control of glasses
  • Packaging and dispatch of frames to customers
  • Inspection and diagnosis of issues with returns
  • Management of frame stock
  • Day-to-day management of suppliers (e.g. lenses, frames)


Full time position

Office in Surry Hills

Image credit

Friday, August 26, 2011

Doing business in China: How we hired our team

This article was first published to Power Retail.

We've been asked by numerous people how we've gone about hiring such a great team of people in our office in China. It's a story primarily of spending lots of time on the ground in China with some luck thrown into the mix, so I thought I'd share it in case it helps anyone else doing business in China.

Starting Out
In the months prior to launching Shoes of Prey, Mike and I planned to rent an apartment and spend a month each in China to get our processes and systems in place with our suppliers. Mike had spent 6 months in Shanghai working for Google and made the excellent suggestion that we should hire someone for 2 months to translate and assist us while we were in the country. When he was in Shanghai Mike had made a few local friends and one of them, Alice, was between jobs, so we hired her to come down to Guangzhou to work with us while we were in the country.

We quickly realised that having Alice work with us was critical to the business and making us much more efficient.

  • She could act as a translator when we were speaking with suppliers of things like shoe boxes, business cards, packaging materials etc.
  • She could then manage the process of receiving samples, ordering and paying for these products.
  • Prior to launching Shoes of Prey we thought we'd just have our suppliers drop ship our shoes directly to our customers. We quickly realised we needed to add in our own quality control step and if we wanted to do things like photograph our shoes for our customers we'd need to do this step ourselves, so Alice was able to take on these tasks.

Building the Team
Alice had always planned to head home to Shanghai at the end of 2 months so when we realised that having someone on the ground with us was so critical for our business we asked Alice to advertise for a permanent role with Shoes of Prey in Guangzhou. Alice used a Guangzhou based jobs site, similar to Seek in Australia. After reviewing 20 applicants and interviewing 5 people, we hired Vanessa, our first permanent employee. Vanessa proved to be an amazing hire. She was incredibly hard working, diligent and had excellent attention to detail and after only a few weeks training she was fine to take over our Chinese operations when Mike and I both returned to Australia. We used Google Docs and Gmail video chat to keep in regular contact with Vanessa.

5 months later our sales had grown to the point where there was too much work for just one person in China. We asked Vanessa to advertise to hire an assistant to work with her. We left this hiring process entirely to Vanessa and using some local job boards she hired Qun to work with her. Qun also proved to be a great worker.

4 months later Mike was in China again. He was having dinner with one of our suppliers and one of the waitresses impressed him with her attitude to her work, her friendliness and her excellent English skills. Jodie and I interviewed her over video chat and Penny became our third hire in China.

At the same time we hired Penny we moved our office about 150km from where it was located in Guangzhou. Qun was happy to make the move but Vanessa missed her friends to much so decided to stay in Guangzhou. To replace Vanessa he asked her to advertise on a local job website and through that we hired Holly.

The business continued to grow so we asked the team how we should go about hiring the next person. Penny had a good friend from school who was living in the area and spoke excellent English so we all interviewed Jophie and agreed she would make an excellent hire, so she joined the team.

Next we wanted a skilled shoe maker to assist us with our quality control processes and operations in China. We talked to a number of different suppliers we had worked with in the shoe industry to find out if they knew anyone who would make a good hire. After a number of interviews one of the manager's working for one of our suppliers recommended James who was an excellent fit and joined the team.

Finding the Right Manager
At this point managing our team in China was taking up a significant amount of Jodie, Mike and my time so we decided we needed to hire a manager for our China office. This proved to be a much harder hire to make. We tried contacts from our suppliers. We paid a recruitment firm to assist us. We interviewed about 6 or 7 excellent candidates who just weren't quite the right fit. A few weeks before we started this process a reader of our 22michaels blog, Matt Ho, had noticed that I was in China, as was a friend of his from high school, Ken Chan. Ken and I caught up for dinner and got on really well. As we were going through the process of trying to find a manager it clicked, 'What about hiring Ken as a manager?' Ken had grown up in Sydney but could speak Mandarin and Cantonese reasonably well. He'd worked for Accenture for a number of years in a management consulting role and had some great experience managing teams. And to top it off Ken was already living and working in China in the shoe industry! After a month or so of discussion Ken agreed to join us and now manages our team of 7 in China.

After having James on the job for a little over a month we realised that there were a lot more quality control and operational processes to work on than we had initially envisaged. Andy was working for one of our suppliers helping to train our team on a number of tasks and we loved his attitude and skill set. Our supplier was ok with us offering Andy a role with us which we did and he accepted.

Key Learnings
Hiring great people is challenging enough in your home city but becomes even more challenging when you're going it in a foreign country. The 3 key lessons to take away from our experience are:

1. Make the most of any relationships and contacts you have through existing employees, suppliers and even people you meet at restaurants!

2. Like so many things in business, networking is critical. Let people know what you're doing through your blog and your personal and professional networks. You never know who may know someone who might be a suitable hire.

3. Most of all, there's no replacement for spending time on the ground in the new city. Between Mike, Jodie and I we've spent a combined 10 months in China over the last 2 years and without that, we couldn't have hired the fantastic team we have based there today.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Introducing Sneaking Duck - Prescription Frames to Your Doorstep

Michael introduced me a couple of weeks ago, so it’s about time I shared more about our new business.
Working at Google I saw tremendous growth in online and witnessed many people finding opportunities and doing well. After 6 years watching others succeed, and seeing the scale of opportunity remaining, I decided the time had come to give it a shot myself.

I wanted to do something B2C and experience suggested that industries with a couple of large, offline players dominating the market potentially provided a good opportunity. This is because margins are likely to be higher, and customers are more likely to be keen to try out a new, interesting and innovative company.

Eyewear fits this perfectly. OPSM and Specsavers have well over half the market between them and currently only operate offline here. Michael, Mike and Jodie had spotted the opportunity on a previous buying trip to China, realising that the margins being charged by these giants must be significant, given manufacturing costs. Together we developed a more detailed plan, and became convinced that there was an opportunity to retail cool and distinctive eyewear at prices that allow people to own a collection to match every outfit and mood, not just a single expensive pair they own for years.

The name Sneaking Duck came from an evening with pizza and wine and the Igor naming guide - we wanted something cool and memorable, that would conjure up a fun and cheeky image in peoples’ minds. We steered away from ‘functional’ names, instead looking for something interesting that we could build our brand around.

In a few weeks we’ll be launching a well-edited range of frames to the Australian market - sign up for updates at or like us on Facebook. Every frame in our range has been carefully selected so that people can build up a ‘frames wardrobe’. Customers will browse and choose online before entering the technical details of their prescription. A few days later the frames arrive. As we tested the idea with friends, the most most common challenge raised was ensuring fit. It’s for this reason we’re creating a fun online retail experience where you can see yourself in frames before buying, as well as offering a very generous returns policy.

Price will be competitive and simple - every frame at $180, including prescription lenses coated against reflection and scratches. Buying multiple pairs is what we’re all about, so every additional pair on each order comes at half the price, again, including lenses. This puts our prices well below comparable offline products. The only ‘extra’ we’ll be charging for is ultra-thin lenses, but certainly not hundreds of dollars extra like on the high street. This simple approach is in marked contrast to the more common approach of a seemingly competitive advertised price to draw in customers, that then gets inflated by numerous lens, coating and multiple pairs options.

What are your thoughts on our pricing point and strategy?

Setting up a new company after 6 years at Google is an incredible journey. 22Michaels kindly invited me to share some highlights - you can read parts 1 and 2 of a 6 part series here.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Friends and family sale this Tuesday night

Prior to our launch we blogged about possible uses for our returned shoes. Since then we've been using them for PR and marketing purposes and we've donated 50 pairs to Fitted for Work, a charity that helps women get back into the workforce.

However we've managed to continue accumulating shoes at a higher rate than we have been using them so we're holding a sale at our offices in Sydney tomorrow night and anyone is welcome to come along.


You’re invited

Shoes of Prey is having it’s first ever friends and family sale. You’re invited to our Sydney headquarters to select from over 500 pairs of one-off, hand-made designs that we have on hand*, ranging from a size 2.5 to 15.

Nothing will be over $130.

When? 5.30pm-9pm, Tuesday 23 August, 2011
Where? Shoes of Prey Headquarters Studio 12, Level 1, 285A Crown Street Surry Hills NSW 2010

Present this PDF (electronically or printed) to gain entry to the sale.

*Please note that this sale is only of samples that we have ready-made in our headquarters. It does not extend to custom-made shoes. Cash and EFTPOS available.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Balancing growth in a startup

This article was originally posted to Nett.

How does a startup balance the trade off between being prepared to scale without over engineering too early?

It's a difficult issue to balance. On the one hand you need to be prepared for fast spurts of growth, if your business can't cope with growth you'll potentially lose customers and an opportunity to grow quickly. On the other hand if all you focus on is scaling, you won't have time to spend on marketing and sales and attracting customers to your product.

Getting this balance right is something we're constantly focused on at Shoes of Prey. We currently have 5 software engineers working in our business and we split their time between back end process/scaling improvements and front end website design/sales and marketing improvements. We've recently improved our order tracking processes and automated tasks that previously required a lot of manual data entry. The next process we plan to improve is automating the accounting of our gift certificates, however we'll hold that project off for a few months while we focus on some additional website improvements we want to make.

In an ideal world a startup would scale up their processes in line with a growth in sales optimising the time spent on both areas of the business.

How do you get this balance right in your business?

Image credit

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Global financial turmoil and startups

Great post on the impact of the global financial turmoil on startups here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Customer feedback

It's so rewarding reading customer testimonials like the one above which a customer left on the Vogue Australia forums. Congratulations and thanks to Susie and Jonaye for doing such a great job with our customer service!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Zalando TV ad

Fantastic TV ad by European e-commerce store Zalando:

They've been running quite a few TV commercials, clearly it's working for them.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Getting Your Ducks in a Row: The Buying Trip

This post was first published to Power Retail.
This is part 2 of a 6 part series by Mark Capps on his experiences of leaving Google to start up a new online retail company. Part 1 here.

I recently returned from a trip to China, the purpose of which was to buy a range of glasses frames, and find suppliers for cases, cloths and technical equipment for Sneaking Duck. My co-founders (Michael, Mike and Jodie) had built relationships on a previous trip, so we weren’t starting from scratch. Four of us set out on a two-day buying trip, but only two of us spoke Mandarin, which at times was challenging in-itself. We didn’t get everything done, so I ended up making a second trip with my colleagues, Ken and Jophie.

We met with suppliers, negotiated and placed orders. It was a successful trip, but I can’t help thinking we could have done it better. Below, I’ve shared what we learnt and things we’ll be sure to do next time:

  • Have a clear plan upfront – you can never be ‘too organised’. You need to think through every detail of what you want to do, and how these parts inter-relate. For example, you can’t choose cases until you know the exact size of every frame. This then makes a running order for the day. Surprises will come up and you’ll have to adapt, but at least you will have a clear view of what you need up front.
  • Communicate clearly with everyone – give people roles and autonomy. Having multiple people can lead to lots more being achieved. On the second trip, we split up in a really effective manner. I would go to talk to suppliers and make specific decisions with Jophie as translator, then Ken would follow up afterwards for price and volume negotiations.
  • Time will run out before doing everything you want to do, so make sure you prioritise and complete the most important tasks. On our second trip our key objective as to ensure orders were confirmed – however, we nearly didn’t achieve this as I become distracted by finding exciting new things to buy.
  • Technology can be an awesome help for cross-border communication. Although my co-founders weren’t with me, I was able get their input and make rapid decisions on a couple of surprises. I just took photos and emailed them back to our Chinese and Australian offices.
  • However, paper proved to be the greatest tool by far! The most useful tool was a well laid out list of what we needed to do, by location and with appropriate photos carefully arranged. It’s easy to see and discuss what’s done and what’s still to do. And its batteries don’t run out!
  • Buy lots of samples – make your decisions later. We tried to make too many decisions on the fly with suppliers looking on. We were trying to save money by not buying samples that we didn’t need. It’s best to buy a lot of samples (which are normally refundable), then make your final decision in the peace of your hotel room.
  • Suppliers don’t take you seriously until you place an order. Negotiating, especially in foreign countries and languages, could fill an entire blog – but I’d like to highlight one thing I learned: our suppliers became more accommodating after we placed an order. Stock appeared, prices changed, customisation became easy. In the future, we’ll make orders on dead-cert purchases straight away, instead of waiting to make every decision final.
  • Watch out for ‘fakes’. We don’t want to sell the fakes for which China is notorious, however with the bewildering array of choices it’s not easy to know if something is ‘fake’. Generally, the wholesalers knew and priced ‘fakes’ higher, however I don’t feel this is a fool-proof approach to this issue.
  • Have fun! A successful day buying can be an enormously satisfying experience and fun! :-)
Does anyone have suggestions or experiences on how to be more effective on a buying trip?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Raising capital - Do it in parallel rather than series

This blog post was first published to StartupSmart.

As we mentioned a few weeks ago, we've been speaking to a number of potential investors for Shoes of Prey. Something we've learnt through this process - if you're planning to raise money it's best to speak to a large number of investors at the same time rather than one at a time.

This is a mistake we made early on while speaking to potential investors. We initially spent a month negotiating with an angel investor. It was looking like we would get to a deal that would work for us and the investor so for that month we stopped speaking to other potential investors. In the end we couldn't quite agree on terms that worked for both us and the investor so the deal didn't go ahead. We then had to start from scratch with other potential investors. Our next stop was some friends who had been keen to invest in our business. Once again we spent a month speaking to them and it looked like we'd go ahead with the deal. In the end that deal fell through as well so it was back to step 1. By this time we'd learnt our lesson so we decided to explore a whole range of options at the same time in case any of them fell through. We had an angel investor who we thought there was a good chance we'd go ahead with, then we had multiple meetings with 2 Australian venture capital firms in case the deal with the angel investor didn't work out. At the same time we had discussions with some overseas venture capital firms and angel investors.

While we've not gone ahead with a deal yet, speaking to lots of potential investors at the same time got us to the closest point we came to taking on additional capital, a term sheet from one of the venture capital firms which we decided not to proceed with.

The lesson for us was if you're going to raise money, don't speak to just one investor assuming that deal will work out. Create some competition for your business and hedge your bets by speaking to a number of investors at the same time.

Image credit

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Why Entrepreneurs Should Never Meet VC's Unless They're Formally Pitching

A really interesting article that makes an excellent case for not meeting VC's unless formally pitching. This is certainly not the approach we've been taking but Allen's arguments make good sense.

1. What do you think? Others, including Mark Suster have made the opposite case well and not taking these meetings doesn't fit with the open approach we take to our business.

2. How would you go about politely declining a meeting with a VC in a case like this while still keeping the bridges open should you want to make a formal pitch in the future? I feel like having turned down an opportunity to speak in the past may make it harder to get a positive meeting in the future.

Image credit.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Shoe manufacturing in China v Australia

This article was originally posted to Power Retail.

We're sometimes asked, 'Why don't you make your shoes in Australian rather than in China?'

It's a reasonable question and there are 3 key reasons we don't:

1. There are no support industries for shoe manufacturing in Australia
In the city of Guangzhou there is a Westfield sized leather shoe wholesale market where you can purchase literally everything needed to make high quality women's shoes from the leather, decorations and heels, to packaging and factory equipment. Need shoe boxes? Visit one of the 20 shoe box wholesale stores which sit together on the ground level. There you can see samples, sit with a box designer and 1 hour later walk out having placed an order for a sample which you'll receive 3 days later. Once that's approved, 1 week later you can have 5000 shoe boxes delivered to you.

Can you imagine trying to do the same in Australia? If you could even find a company to make shoe boxes you'd need to make an appointment at least a week out to meet with them. Having a design made up would take another week and then the back and forward to get the design right would add lots more time. All of that would take less than an hour in Guangzhou as the industry is built for doing this quickly. And for the pleasure of this slow experience you'd be charged triple the price per box and your boxes would likely be made in China anyway. It's much more efficient to do business in a place with the appropriate support industries.

2. We couldn't hire the people we'd need to make shoes in Australia
Shoe making is a reasonably highly skilled task, it takes years to learn the entire process properly. The Australian shoe manufacturing industry is very small and there just aren't many people with these skills in Australia. To make our shoes in Australia we'd need to open our own facility as there is no-one we could outsource the work to at the scale we're doing it. Once we had the facility, who would make our shoes? We'd need to hire and train lots of people but given we're at close to full employment in Australia it's not going to be easy to hire people who are keen to learn to make shoes and even if we could hire them, it would take years to train them up properly, time we don't have as a fast growing startup.

3. Wages are high
All our shoes are handmade and labour is the most significant cost. The bulk of the world's shoes are now made in China, including over 1 billion pairs a year in the Guangdong province where our shoes are made. We simply couldn't compete if we were making our shoes in Australian when other companies are making their shoes in China. Even if it were possible to make our shoes in Australia, which points 1 and 2 above show that it isn't, we'd need to be charging more than double our current retail prices to pay Australian wages for manufacturing shoes.

Video showing how our shoes are made:

Is this a problem?
This begs the question, is this a problem? In my view it's not. The Australian economy is running at close to full employment. The mining industry in particular has created 10,000's of new jobs as the demand for raw materials from the booming asian economies has seen this industry expand immensely over the last decade. Agriculture and education are also major export industries for our economy. Given our economy is running at close to full employment, where do we want to be creating jobs? My view is that we're better off creating mining industry or University jobs that can pay $100,000 a year than to try to encourage a manufacturing sector competing with low cost manufacturing countries like China and India. We only have 22 million people in Australia, we're doing the right thing building competitive advantages in high value industries like mining and education rather than manufacturing.

In Shoes of Prey's case our business is a great win for the Australian economy. Despite having our shoes made overseas we're a net exporter. Over 2/3 of our revenue comes from customers living outside Australia, which is more than our overseas expenses. By utilising the incredibly efficient Chinese manufacturing industry and coupling that with the high level of skills in the Australian workforce we can create create a product with demand all over the world, resulting in high paying customer service, software development and marketing jobs in Australia.