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Lessons Learned: Trusting your Gut into Ecommerce Success

Summary

Imagine being told that you will never have a job or kids and you will be on disability for the rest of your life. That is what doctors told Kenyan-born Jini Patel Thompson when they identified her, at age 17, […]

Imagine being told that you will never have a job or kids and you will be on disability for the rest of your life. That is what doctors told Kenyan-born Jini Patel Thompson when they identified her, at age 17, with Crohn’s Disease. But the now-married mum of three proved them wrong.

She refused to accept that identification — that sort of life — and spent the next seven years researching and analyzing seemingly every organic stomach remedy. Patel Thompson, whose parents had moved to Massachusetts when she was five, then Alberta when she was seven, graduated from the University of Alberta with a degree in English and Sociology. She was employed as a journalist in Japan for two decades, as a singer/songwriter in London for three decades, and subsequently started a telecommunications company in Vancouver.

In 1995, Jini Patel was introduced via facsimile to the English-born Ian Thompson, who had an honors degree in chemical engineering. He had been working in Hong Kong as an advertising agency account manager.

Jini Patel Thompson and Ian Thompson

In 1997, she published an e-booklet of natural remedies she had made to help people overcome digestive issues without medication.

She then spent two years writing her first book, Listen To Your Gut, also started ListenToYourGut.com in 1999. This year, the couple set up their own publishing company after reading books about self-publishing. They set the publication on five affiliate advertising websites and paid 15 percent commission for each book sold.

The book sold 20 to 30 copies per month for the first six months, then climbed quickly to 150 books a month before the events of September 11, when sales dropped to 40 to 50 a month.

Fast forward to 2013, and the Listen To Your Gut ecommerce website — LTYG Shoppe — conveys an enlarged version of the first book, additional books by Patel Thompson, in addition to the brands and products she recommends. They now sell about 70 Listen To Your Gut books a month. Patel Thompson has since composed 15 other publications and ebooks; overall book sales are now around 200 each month.

Sales have grown steadily. By 2007 the couple was recording $20,000 a month in revenue selling 60 products. By 2012 their 300 products — nutritional supplements, books, tele-seminars, and water filters — had earned yearly earnings of $712,000, a 25 percent growth over 2011.

They have learned lessons along the way.

Shopping Carts

In 2006, the few moved their custom-built customer database to 1ShoppingCart. Com, which cost $90 a month. It interfaced with their custom-built storefront system and additional auto-responders and basic link monitoring.

“We soon realized we had a client database with more comprehensive features. We picked Infusionsoft [a small-business advertising platform], which also synced with our custom-built shopping cart. Infusionsoft, which we began using in July 2007, costs $297 a month. It took us just under one year to move over all our affiliate and authentic shopping cart information,” explained Patel Thompson.

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In 2012, they left their custom-built shopping cart and changed to Bigcommerce after reviewing online shopping cart features that provided better features and flexibility, while still utilizing Infusionsoft for backend marketing and direct capture.

“We love Bigcommerce’s sales tracking, ROI measurements, conversion prices, product sorting, featured products, wish lists, and only the general flexibility for users when they are shopping and checking out. Now, our site conversion rate per unique visitors is 9 to 11 percent, which is way higher than industry averages.” said Patel Thompson.

Credit Card Payments

During Bigcommerce, the couple uses PayPal’s Express Checkout feature, in addition to major credit cards.

“Our PayPal receipts have risen from $3,000 to $20,000 a month because of Express Checkout,” explained Patel Thompson.

They bunch uses Global Payments through the gateway Authorize.Net for credit card transactions, with 80 percent of the clients being U.S.-based, and 5 percent each for Australia, Canada, and the U.K.

Employees

The couple does not have any employees.

“We all had multiple workers in our previous companies, but we purposely set up this business to not have workers, but to sub-contract out to a excellent team of individuals who share our vision and values. They’ve been with us from two to ten years,” Patel Thompson

They subcontract graphic design, packaging, editing, publication layout design, social networking, search engine optimization, and computer programming. In 2006, when they started LTYG Shoppe, the ecommerce website, they included a virtual assistant to manage customer support, quality and inventory control.

Search Engine Optimization

After hearing stories of sites becoming blacklisted for using shady search engine optimization tactics, they learned SEO and created a very simple formula.

“First, produce excellent content with natural language. Don’t cheat. Do what you are good at and do it correctly. Speak about yourself in a true way. Our WordPress blog certainly improves customer relationships and drives sales and we use tags in the site, YouTube, and other social media,” explained Patel Thompson.

The couple did employ an SEO expert to perform the keywords, metatags, and descriptions for existing content, Kindle uploads, and Amazon product listings, ensuring that the expert doesn’t use black hat tactics.

“There are no cheats or shortcuts in SEO. Google will figure it out rather quickly and then penalize your website rank, or blacklist you. Google’s algorithm is constantly evolving to outsmart the cheaters. This is a fantastic thing, because most of us want to find quality content once we do a search for something,” said Patel Thompson.

Shipping

Recently the couple switched their fulfillment to ProPack’s new facility in Ogden, Utah, which permits them to offer faster shipping to the majority of their customers.

“In ancient 2012, when our volumes could warrant it, we provided free ground shipping for all U.S. orders over $99. This resulted in a rather swift 12 percent increase in earnings,” said Patel Thompson.

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In May 2013 they intend to launch free delivery for all refrigerated items in the U.S. states which may be achieved in 2 days, for all orders over $99. This will be a test, as they work to lessen the effect of shipping costs to their clients.

Accounting Software

Currently they don’t use QuickBooks or some other accounting applications directly.

“PayPal and Global Payments supply all of the revenue data we will need to give to our accountant. Ian provides expenses and any extra bits and pieces in Excel,” said Patel Thompson.

Social Media

The couple uses social media broadly, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogging.

In April 2013 they included Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+ and hired a social networking supervisor — sub-contracted through Elance. They’ll start a Facebook marketing campaign in June 2013.

But their main driver is the corporation’s blog.

“The challenge with social media is ensuring that you keep the same level of customer support and use the media as a communication tool as opposed to a selling device. Individuals always post questions on our website, Facebook, and YouTube channel. Our digital assistant answers whatever questions he could, and contacts me if he can’t answer or thinks I’d love to have a look at the question,” said Patel Thompson.

Expense Control

Ian Thompson regularly contacts all providers, such as merchant accounts, telephone and Internet services, and merchandise wholesalers, to shave dollars or percentage points away most of the expenses.

“Every time our sales volume rises by 5%, Ian picks up the telephone to determine if we can find a better deal from all our providers, due to increased volume. Even if a supplier is not willing to give us a price reduction, it may move us to free transport, or provide longer payment terms, such as web 60 days rather than net 30 days,” said Patel Thompson.

Customer Service

“We’ve been using the USB phone jack service Magic Jack and Grasshopper — a 1-800 number which call-forwards to some number — because 2007, which we love because it can be used everywhere and makes our company look bigger to our clients. And in 2013 we included Olark live chat to our site, which immediately improved customer service response, meaning that they could find a real-time answer to their queries, or help with putting their order,” explained Patel Thompson.

“We provide a 365-day, no-questions-asked customer satisfaction warranty. Our return rate is less than one percent. Customers buy when they are ready. When they buy, clients routinely discuss Listen To Your Gut to other people and feel a closer bond with who we are and what we provide,” explained Patel Thompson.

She considers word of mouth is core to the organization.

“When you heal yourself, you tell everyone,” she said.

The couple never raises the price of a product unless the wholesale cost goes up. As their shipping discounts grow, due to increased volume, they pass these savings to their clients. When Kindle came, they dropped all their banner prices on their site to match Kindle’s pricing structure.

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“If Ian is on the telephone with a client and they can buy something cheaper elsewhere, he tells them about it. Generally the customer decides to purchase from LTYG Shoppe since they say they need to support what we’re doing,” explained Patel Thompson.

Biggest Mistakes

One of the greatest mistakes was letting someone deal with the production of one of the products to boost distribution.

“They ended up screwing up the labels so poorly, with many mistakes on the ingredient listing and false claims, we had to return all of the merchandise to the manufacturer for relabeling. We never let anybody into our production process; we sign off on everything. If we permit you of our product formulas, the licensee must think of their own product name, tag, and can’t disclose our connection,” explained Patel Thompson.

She said the lesson learned was to be very careful of the ones you outsource to and to never give overall charge of the main elements of your business that influence your clients.

The couple also cited another error as purchasing and analyzing so-called guaranteed Internet advertising systems and techniques from”Jeff Walker, Yanik Silver, Internet Marketing Center, and Stompernet.”

“We even set up split-test sites, diverting traffic to various sites to check their techniques. Nothing worked and what we were doing and a few of the techniques led to mass unsubscribes from our email list and started to hurt our reputation, garnering negative scam-related opinions on forums,” said Patel Thompson.

Biggest Successes

Patel Thompson says customer service is the number one victory and they treasure mails from clients that say things like”My son graduated school thanks to you,” or”I feel like a new person and without medication.”

Another top achievement is maintaining the company completely automated and outsourced.

“This means we could live anywhere in the world so long as there is reliable web and phone. We make the same money sitting on the beach in Hawaii as we do when we are in our office. This has enabled us to co-parent our three kids and have the flexibility to deal with sleep deprivation, breastfeeding, training our child’s teams, cooking unprocessed foods, traveling frequently, and indulging in our own hobbies. We’ve set up our business this way,” explained Patel Thompson.

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