10 questions to ask yourself before starting an online business

I have an entrepreneurial spirit. Always have. Always will. I love to come up with ideas for businesses, and some have materialized, while others, gladly, have not. Although I’m still kicking myself for not pursuing the idea I came up with for a container store 20 years ago–can anyone say The Container Store? My latest endeavor was Nicole Jane Home–an online home decor and gift store that I built and operated for four years.

I poured my heart and soul into the business and I thought I was going to take Canada by storm. At the time, there was very little available online here and it was so hard to get things shipped across the border from the States (still is really).

Imagine opening your online business the very same month the world economy takes a nose dive. That’s exactly what I did in October 2008. There were a lot of sleepless nights, and nail biting. The learning curve was steep and fast. Surprisingly, I exceeded my sales goals in the first year, but, it came at a huge cost. When the smoke cleared, I realized that I had nowhere near the cash flow necessary to really take off. I had to look for a more effective, less expensive way to promote the business, and to find smarter ways to manage my inventory levels.

april cornell

Promotions were my biggest hurdle. I’ve got one word for advertising: HIDEOUSLY EXPENSIVE!!!Β It wasn’t until I jumped blindly into the world of social media that I was able to build the business in Canada (Contrary to my business plan, the States turned out to be my biggest customer base, until the second wave of the recession hit that is.). Over the next three years, I devoted a huge amount of time and energy to mastering blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, and pinning. My marketing communications background came in very handy. Slowly I watched my Canadian sales start to climb as I interacted with more and more people. It really does pay off, IF you do it the right way.

Even with all that work and dedication, my business never came close to reaching its full potential. There is a mile-long list of things I could have done differently. I was wearing 10 different hats doing everything; I didn’t have enough cash flow; I wasn’t participating in my family life as much as they needed me; my parents both became afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and required a lot of caregiving; etc etc etc…shit happens. So I came to terms with the fact that I needed to close the business and sell the website, which is what I’m doing right now. I look at my business as a huge success in terms of the things I’ve learned, the people I’ve met, the opportunities is presented to me, and the life lessons I discovered. I’m even developing a social media consulting business for start-ups and small businesses based on all the expertise I’ve gained.

The reason I’m writing this post is to help the people who are coming up behind me, and asking for my advice on starting their own businesses, particularly online. I get asked at least a couple of times each week for my opinion or input about business ideas and strategies, and I truly love helping people with their plans. I give my honest opinion and what I hope is helpful direction. It’s only my opinion though, so if you’re reading this and it’s just not resonating, don’t let that stop you. Keep pursuing your dreams.

If you’re thinking about starting an online business consider these 10 things very carefully. This may sound brutal, but if you aren’t realistic, you could make some costly mistakes:

1. Are you ready to devote most of your time, day and night to this business (weekends too, baby)? Expect to do everything yourself. Your expenses will skyrocket with employees. Do you know what your sales need to be in order to hire employees?

2. Is this a hobby or a career? If it’s a hobby, consider something less expensive and time-consuming. An online business is NOT a perfect answer for stay-at-home moms who want to balance familly life and work life. Something always suffers. Believe me.

3. Are you committed to developing a thorough business plan (we’re talking multiple pages, including statistics to back up your plan)?

4. Do you have at least three times as much money as you think you need to run the business for the first year (not kidding)?

5. Do you have another source of income to cover your food, shelter, insurance, transportation, healthcare, etc.? Typically, businesses run on a loss for the first three years. If you have a spouse, partner, are they truly committed to sharing the burden financially and emotionally?

6. Free shipping is a nice thought, but can you afford it? I know that a lot of retailers offer it, but unless you’re an Amazon or Zappos, with gigantic sales volumes, you’ll be eating quite a bit of your profit margin on shipping.

7. Are you planning on shipping across the border? If you’re shipping from Canada to the States, be prepared to lose quite a bit of your profit, because customers in the States are used to much cheaper shipping. I used the postal system, and the U.S. rates are way lower, so my shipping charge didn’t come close to covering the actual cost. And don’t forget that you’ll be covering 100% of the return shipping if there’s a problem or defect, which does happen.

8. Is your website secure enough? The level of security required for a website e-commerce system is quite serious. It’s one thing if you have an Etsy store. It’s a completely different matter if you have an e-commerce website with a high traffic volume. It needs to be able to withstand attacks from outside systems (happened to me and could have shut me down for weeks if not for the quality of the team than ran the technical end of things). It needs to be secure, with gateways that protect customers’ credit cards and information. It needs to have multiple platforms for payment. It needs to be super easy for customers to navigate and process orders through. Don’t just jump at the first website company you see–do your homework and be realistic about how much it’s actually going to cost. I chuckle when people say to me, “Oh, you must have it way easier running an online business, because you don’t have the lease fees to worry about.” Couldn’t be farther from the truth.

9. If your inventory doesn’t sell right away, are you going to be able to afford to turn it over with fresh stock? You’ll need to stay up to speed with your competitors. Unless you’re manufacturing your own products, there are two main buying show periods: January and August, but your inventory will need to be updated at least four times a year: January (for spring), May (for summer), August (for fall), and November (for Christmas). Can you sustain that, even if a lot of it doesn’t sell?

10. Did you know there’s a big difference between a Canadian customer and a U.S. customer? It’s true. In Canada, we’re a lot slower to trust a retailer, especially online. It takes a long time for us to make a purchasing decision and quite often we’ll visit a website multiple times before actually committing to what’s in our baskets. U.S. customers have embraced online shopping in a big way and appreciate the convenience (and fun) of shopping on their computers. I’m not at all suggesting that my U.S. customers were willing to risk anything, they still expected my business to be attractive, efficient, secure and cost competitive. You have to work really hard to get your customers, and even harder to keep them, but it takes a little more with Canadian consumers, eh!

11. Bonus Question: What’s your exit strategy if the business closes? If you don’t have one. Don’t open the business. You need to know what you would do to liquidate leftover stock. What about your business partners and any accumulated assets, debts, etc.

My biggest piece of advice? Start small and learn your way up the ladder. Watch…you’re probably some Bill Gates type, who is about to launch into the stratosphere with some amazing product. If that’s the case, don’t forget the wee little people like me–I just want a swimming pool, please.

If this hasn’t scared the pants off you, and you still think you’ve got what it takes, you’ve got to listen to your own instincts. Some of the most successful businesses have happened even in the face of serious naysaying. I wish only the best for you and hope you achieve your dream. I’m rooting for you.

photography hipster wannabe

Okay, I admit it, I admire hipsters! Especially if they’re photography hipsters–those are my favourite kind. They’ve just got it all goin’ on, and I wish I could wear a look of indifference, a slouchy touque and a moustache that well (not really). I’ve got the funky bookish glasses, I’ve got the red hair, I look ridiculous in toques but I wear them any way, and best of all, I love having a DSLR camera slung around my neck, looking for my next digital conquest!

tabletop photography course
photo courtesy Nicole’s Classes

Which brings me to the point! I’m beyond excited (like Christmas-morning-excited) that I signed up for an online photography course all about tabletop photography. I stumbled upon this amazing website, called Nicole’s Classes, and lo and behold, they offer a plethora (hipster word) of awesome photography and design courses for nubes (a word taught to me by my 16-yr-old son) like me. Stay tuned in the weeks ahead when I’ll amaze you with my shots of cupcakes and garlands, felted forest animals and crocheted scarves…it’s going to be a mecca of photographic marvel, you mark my words…in faux chalk font!

Seriously…if you’re a hipster…I love you.

Pretty Little Birds

I haven’t always had the easiest relationship with my father (even at 48, I’m still an argumentative teenager when I’m around him), but a year ago, birds helped bring us closer. He’s a nature lover through and through, with a particularly big soft spot for the menagerie of birds that visit his well-stocked backyard feeders. He tends to all those little chickadees and finches with the same love and devotion you’d see at a Kindergarten Christmas pageant. He even set up a bat house for the dreaded black menace (ick).

Northern Flicker woodpecker (photo by Myles Green via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/78598560@N00/8097155338/)

I was touched by his connection to the birds and decided it might be something we could share in common. So I hung a bird feeder in my own yard and waited. And waited. Nothing.

I asked my dad what on earth I was doing wrong? Didn’t I have the most expensive super food? Was the feeder in the right spot for safety? Were the dogs bothering them? What was wrong with the ungrateful little wrens?

He offered me lots of advice and told me to just be patient (something I believe he may have mentioned a gazillion times throughout my life…see the pattern?).

Suddenly the birds found me! They loved the suet tubes I hung in front of my kitchen window and the seeds, fruits and nuts I put in the feeder hanging from the branches of a tree. It was amazing. I’d frequently spot eight at a time wrestling for spots on each of the perches.

At one point, we even had two northern flickers battling it out on the suet–unheard of!!

My favourite little visitors are the tiny black-capped chickadees, whose little legs look like they could snap in the wind. Adorable. The red and yellow house finches are plentiful too. I’m discovering a lot about bird behaviour, particularly their tendancy to duck for cover in the leafy tree whenever an eagle’s shadow crosses the back yard. They clear out pretty fast when the blue jays come swooping in too. Did I mention the humming birds? Fascinating birds to watch!!!

Black-capped chickadee (photo by Wolf Read via http://www.flickr.com/photos/wolfread/7279741176/)

It doesn’t cost much for some of natures most entertaining creatures! All I have is a simple tube feeder, and I buy a “no mess” bag of bird feed every few months (although right now they’re bulking up for the winter and eating like little pigs). I imagine I’m giving nature a little helping hand.

Best of all, I get to talk about it with my dad…doesn’t get better than that.

House finch (photo by TOTORORO.RORO via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/totororo-roro/6973457478/)

Win a Polished Aluminum Stag Head…

I’m celebrating my new blog, and giving away a polished aluminum stag head (retails for $159.99)!!!!! These are one of my top three selling products ever, and if you see one in person, you’ll know why. They’re gorgeous! One of my interior designer clients used five of them to line a hallway in a beautiful ski chalet – fabulous!

polished aluminum stag head

Polished Aluminum Stag Head

If you’re new to my blog, you’re going to find out that I LOVE doing giveaways!!! It’s so much fun, and always such a good way to meet new folks in the social media universe πŸ™‚ I try to make it easy, so

To Enter the Draw:
1. Click here to visit my new Facebook page (Coffee & Couch). Make sure you “like” the whole page, ’cause that’s how I pick my winner πŸ™‚

2. For extra chances to win, you’ll get one extra entry for each time you do the following…

– Share the giveaway post on your Facebook page

– Twitter about the giveaway by using “@coffeeandcouch is giving away a #silverstaghead http://ow.ly/en44s”

– Pinterest the photo of the stag and come back here to let me know you pinned it

3. Cross your fingers, eyes, toes…

Here are the gruesome fine print details:

To win, you must be 18 years or older and live in Canada or the contiguous United States. Only valid where it’s legal to participate (sorry Quebec looks like I can’t include you). Void where prohibited.

Draw Date: Friday, October 26

Happy Day πŸ™‚

Kitchen Garden Revival

Pioneer kitchen gardens intrigue me! When I mentioned that to my flinty 78-year-old mother last night, she nearly fell off her chair laughing and said that in her day, they just called them vegetable gardens! LOL. She’s got a point. Sometimes we try to make stuff sound too precious these days. Sigh.

pioneer kitchen garden green tomatoes

Anyhoo…today I visited The Stewart Farmhouse‘s “From Field to Table: The Pioneer Kitchen Garden Revival” exhibit in South Surrey, BC, with one of my besties, Richelle Lukacin. She’s responsible for my renewed interest in vegetable gardening and she thought it would be good for us to learn more about farming for the dinner table.

Richelle Lukacin AKA: best veggie gardener in the neighbourhood!

I was quite surprised with how many vegetables and flowers are still thriving in the gardens at the farmhouse. It’s the second week in October, and my own garden looks like the Haunted Mansion (sans the mansion part), but this garden is still all green and colourful. Hmmm…maybe I shouldn’t have stopped watering everything on August 31!!!

purple mums in garden

sweet peas

Kitchen gardens appeal to me because I’m tired of spending hundreds of dollars every year on produce that comes from places far from home. I’m not being protectionist, I’m just a fan of fresh homegrown veggies and fruit. It’s really satisfying to plant seeds, nurture the growing plants, and finally serve up the garden delights at meals.

The draw comes from knowing where our food is coming from; knowing it has been grown with love; knowing it’s not full of pesticides; and, knowing our carbon footprint is a just a wee bit smaller. I’m not creazy enough to say I want to forgo produce sections at my local grocery store ’cause I know how unrealistic that is–don’t post on Facebook that you saw me buying an onion at Safeway! I’m just saying that I’m going to try to be a little more self-sustaining. That’s all πŸ™‚

scarlet runner beans

apple orchard

garden turnip

I couldn’t get very many good pictures from the indoor exhibit due to the lighting, but I got a fuzzy shot of this kitchen advice. It’s true…waste an hour in the morning and you do chase it all day!!! Oh yeah…and apparently I’ve been ruining stews all these years.

pioneer kitchen advice

egg basket

Happy Day πŸ™‚

Organic coffee passion!

Organic coffee passion!

If you love coffee, like I do (ergo the blog name), you’re gonna want the organic coffee I found at Vancouver’s Latin Organics. Just so you know, I’m not getting paid any type of compensation for talking about this coffee, I’m just in good-old-fashioned love with it.

I visited The Gourmet Warehouse over the weekend, and a lovely man from Latin Organics was sampling the coffee. It had me at first sip!

It’s not just another-pretty-face coffee! The flavor is incredible; it’s BC certified organic; the company does direct trade with Colombian farmers; their family roots are Colombian; AND they work with farmers who are at greatest risk of losing their livelihood and ancestral traditions. What’s not to love?

I ground some fresh beans this morning, and I’m sitting here sipping an awesome cuppa jo! If you want some of this delightful black gold, you’ll need to visit one of their vendors in BC. They’re currently working on a website so they can sell it online. There are even opportunities to sell it yourself if you have a store.

Happy Day πŸ™‚

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