Leveraging SEO To Grow An Online Store To $1.8M Per Year

$150,000
revenue/mo
2
Founders
6
Employees
product
The Kewl Shop
from Michigan
started June 2012
$150,000
revenue/mo
2
Founders
6
Employees
425K
alexa rank
18.7K
followers
2.3K
followers
platform
email
reviews
shipping
payments
social media
customer service

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hi there, my names Sasithon, or Sasi for short and I run The Kewl Shop together with my husband, Charles. I’m Thai and spent my formative years in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. Charles is British.

Our flagship products are designer bandage and bodycon dresses, a style of dress made famous by a host of celebrities including the ubiquitous Kim Kardashian. Bandage dresses are form-fitting dresses that slim your shape and show off your curves. They work a lot like shapewear, and you honestly do feel like a million bucks wearing one.

We sell these stunning dresses worldwide although 90% of our orders are in the USA. Our customers range from 16 to 18-year-old girls wanting to look vibrant and turn heads to women in their 60’s and beyond with a zest for life.

We have quite a few men who love to wear our dresses. They value the time and effort we spend with them on live chat helping to find the right fit and style. These customers prove how universally favorite a well fitted high-quality dress is. And how happy we are to welcome customers from all walks of life.

It took us three and a half years to sell 10,000 dresses, our first $1m. In 2019 we expect to sell 10,000 dresses by September. It’s been an exciting journey.

leveraging-seo-to-grow-an-online-store-to-1-8m-per-year

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Our story starts with Charles who already had The Kewl Shop up and running when I met him in 2012. At the time he worked for a large investment bank and wanted a way out. The Kewl Shop was his dream (and his idea for the name), although it is the two of us that built the business into what it is today.

Today I’d say our biggest asset is consistency. It’s taken us seven years to understand what works and what doesn’t and now we do the things that work. Over and over again, every day, but each day growing a little bigger. Yes, it can be boring, but I prefer dull, safe and profitable.

Charles analytical skills and his ability to get under the covers of SEO, PPC, and SEM - ultimately to drive visitors to the website - and my product knowledge and connections into the dressmaking market in Asia are the ingredients that made it happen.

The Kewl Shop didn’t start sexy. It showcased everything from CD’s to iPhone covers before we realized we needed to slim down our offering, and become experts on what we sold.

This decision turned out to be a crucial turning point. It allowed us to keep the website small, manageable and to demonstrate to our customers that we know our products. It’s this in-depth focus on a reduced range that a lot of would-be entrepreneurs fail at, especially those in dropshipping.

However, we didn’t know what to sell.

I’m a bandage dress guru, I love them and have been wearing them since I was a teenager. At the time I was selling them to my followers on Facebook and had built up a few contacts in China with dressmaking factories. My little business wasn’t going anywhere great, so I discussed it with Charles as potentially a product we could sell into a broader more international market.

Charles did the research, and voila we had a product that we knew would work. And we knew then it was only us, our decisions and actions from that point on that would make or break us. Success was solely in our hands.

To backtrack - There are many reasons why becoming an authority on what you sell is essential. Displaying you know your stuff in product descriptions, blogs and generally on the website generates trust with your customers. Google also loves it because you are adding value and producing great content when you know your subject matter well.

You’re also not wasting money. With this approach, we could afford to take striking product images and invest in building a website with real depth, one that we loved, and knew our customers would enjoy. Finally, we could invest in paid advertising knowing that we were sending visitors to landing pages that they found desirable and in line with what they wanted.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

We’re in the dress market, it’s fiercely competitive and dominated by huge brands with budgets much more significant than ours. We needed to walk before we could run.

The solution was a two week trip to China, the City of Guangzhou, bandage dress making capital of the world. The city is dotted with dress factories and markets and with the right contacts a wealth of opportunity.

We left Guangzhou with agreements to take the excess stock off three or four factories, but only when we made a sale. These agreements worked for both parties, the factories now had the possibility of dress sales that they didn’t have before, and we had access to stock at no upfront cost. Yes, these dress styles might have been a little dated, but we considered them classics.

We brought samples back with us, hired a few models, made some striking images and had the beginnings of a range of bandage dresses to display on The Kewl Shop.

A set of branded packaging and labels was the next step. And these were sent to the dress factories that held “our” stock. From that point onwards, each time we made a sale we placed an order with our factory, they attached our branding to the dress and shipped directly to our customers. It has become a lot more complicated (and better controlled) since, but that was how we started.

Today we design and make approximately 40% of the dresses we sell - I try to keep the designs classic with only slight variations on previously successful styles. The remainder I select and purchase directly from factories in Guangzhou. Some of these dresses are excess stock in these factories, others they tender to us as new designs they’d like us to sell. We also employ a small team in Guangzhou to oversee the process and to ensure the quality is perfect.

And instead of shipping directly from China we hold our stock in a warehouse in Traverse City, Michigan. Holding stock locally allows us to send to customers much faster, and generally to keep better control of things.

Describe the process of launching the business.

I would call this morphing as opposed to launching. The business has had many iterations and becomes slightly more successful through each.

After our Guangzhou visit, we had the makings of a successful business. It was just a matter of perfecting our online offering and importantly getting some volume in our visitor numbers.

We hired an IT developer out of India and a graphic designer from the Philippines to develop the website. We worked with them for about three months to get our online presence to a state we loved. Not just looking pretty but executing with speed and simple to navigate.

Charles was in charge of conversion rate optimization (having mastered its nuances through multiple weeks of study), and I added the feminine touches and overall look and feel. We do continue to work with both Vicky and Amir to this day because this process never indeed ends.

Our approach kept things flexible and cheap. And although it took time, it gave us the breathing space to get it right. We were entirely in charge and on the line for what we delivered. And we outsourced nothing except raw IT and graphic design expertise.

Our approach to visitor numbers has always been to focus on SEO. Once again Charles became a student devouring everything SEO. We targeted keywords, developed uniqueness in our product descriptions and expanded our website content. We started a blog to showcase our expertise and authority in our dresses.

And we benchmarked ourselves regularly against everything Google, making sure we stayed within their guidelines. SEO is a long term game, and although we have seen considerable success (we generate a few thousand free visitors a day through SEO), it didn’t happen fast.

To fill the gap we looked at paid visitors.

Yes, you’ve guessed it. Once again my rock, my loving husband turned his hand to Google Ads and Facebook Advertising, after briefly looking at Pinterest and Twitter. He’s a bit of a math nut and one morning raised his head out of his 50mb Excel spreadsheet and said: “Baby I’ve got it.” And he did get it. Today we supplement our free SEO visitors with paid from Google Ads and Facebook with a monthly spend (during our peak season) exceeding $30k, mostly on Facebook. We outsource none of this spend to agencies.

If I timeline all of this, our first Guangzhou visit was in mid-2012 and from that point onwards I was full time employed by The Kewl Shop. Charles continued to work in his corporate role for another 18 months stopping in December 2013. The entire exercise funded from savings initially, some credit cards and then bootstrapped from sales.

We’ve been profitable since December 2013 but only nominally so. It took until December 2016 for us to be able to rely on the business to support us and there have been some extremely dark times in between.

I couldn’t put a figure on how much you need to start an online business because it just depends. But I think we did it with less than $100k (mistakes and all) and today own the company outright. In retrospect, we could have done it a lot cheaper, but that doesn’t count of course.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Our approach has always been to build value in our brand. And primarily we do this through a quality offering, not only in the dresses we sell but also the online content we produce and the way we deal with our customers. Because of our focus on the brand, we don’t do anything on Amazon, eBay or similar.

Stop believing in “expert advice” and instead start acquiring knowledge ourselves. In the beginning, we employed an SEO firm and ended up with a Google penalty for spammy links.

We believe e-commerce is a long term game, and we want to as far as possible own everything at the end of it.

So this is what we do to maximize the growth of our brand.

First and foremost we make sure our product is the highest quality we can offer for its price - our quality assessment team in Guangzhou is second to none, and I’m painful about everything being perfect. Then we support the product with exemplary customer service. A fast, efficient delivery, tracking of packages to the customer's door, 24-hour customer service, live chat, and regular email and SMS updates go a long way to accomplish this.

Secondly, everything online is in a constant loop. We capture email addresses and telephone numbers for SMS updates. We send abandoned cart and abandoned product messages to bring customers back to the site. And to an extent, we retarget customers through paid ads. For those visitors that aren’t interested in buying, we give them Adsense ads to leave our site, and this generates healthy gains.

We write blogs that are relevant to our dresses. For instance, we have detailed posts on “What is a bandage dress,” “How to choose a cocktail dress for your body type,” “Your guide on what to wear to a white party,” “Sultry dress styles to wear on Valentines Day” and “What to wear to Mardi Gras” as examples. These articles showcase our dresses, generating interest and broader brand awareness.

We’re reasonably active on social media, in other words, we post to Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter daily. Other than Pinterest we don’t see a lot of organic visitors through social media. Social is one area we are undecided about, particularly influencer marketing. We’re just not sure it can be done without overspending and so haven’t spent any time or money on it. I’ll let Charles do his research and come up with some answers, but at the moment it’s not a focus.

leveraging-seo-to-grow-an-online-store-to-1-8m-per-year

Lastly, we advertise, mainly on Facebook and Google.

On Google, we are only doing Search and target keywords directly associated with our dresses. This approach fills search demand - potential customers who are seeking with an intent to buy. We don’t do any Shopping Ads because they are costly for our product categories. We also don’t do anything on the Display Network, because rightly or wrongly we think Facebook is better for brand building.

Our Facebook ads are all prospecting. However, we allow Facebook to retarget visitors they have previously prospected (within our suite of prospecting ads). This approach is complicated to explain, but Charles believes that stand-alone retargeting or remarketing is loss-making, despite what the consensus is. And I think he is right.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Today I’d say our biggest asset is consistency. It’s taken us seven years to understand what works and what doesn’t and now we do the things that work. Over and over again, every day, but each day growing a little bigger. Yes, it can be boring, but I prefer dull, safe and profitable.

Our dresses sell for $130 on average. Our average order value is just over $200 and our customer lifetime value around $400. From this, we generate a gross profit of 40%. We spend a targeted 18% on marketing, leaving us with a net gain of 22%.

At the moment we are doing about 30 to 50 orders a day from approximately 3500 to 5000 daily visitors. Sales and visitor numbers are however seasonal, and we have some dry weeks. I’m writing this in January, and we are roughly double our January sales from 12 months ago. This trend is consistent for our peak periods but less so in our quieter months over the summer.

All our sales are through our online store. We either ship USPS from Traverse City or when necessary DHL or FedEx from Guangzhou. Delivery is a consistent three to five business days regardless, and we offer free shipping worldwide. Operationally I feel we are streamlined, with few recurring issues.

We have about 15,000 email subscribers, 50k Facebook followers, 20k on IG and 10k on Pinterest.

Our expansion plans are to do more of the same, growing sales and marketing spend in a sound loop. There is tremendous opportunity in our market, and we are genuinely a minnow compared to our closest competitors. Focusing on growing our base gives us the best return on our time and money, so this is what we primarily do.

Interestingly (and unusually for a small e-commerce business) we run Adsense on the site. Adsense was Charles brainwave after testing the impact on conversion and engagement rates. It’s not a vast earner but has potential (at the moment around $50/day) and provides additional impetus for us to expand the blog. It’s also opening up some ideas to monetize the blog through affiliate and referral sales. So in this respect, we feel the business is well balanced, with a few different sources of income we can tap.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

There are two critical points in the development of The Kewl Shop.

The first was the decision to reduce the product range to a single style of dress and become an authority on it. This down-scaling allowed us to focus on developing a meaningful presence that added value to our visitors. We just got better at everything from that point onwards.

The biggest mistake I see people making is thinking that e-commerce, especially dropshipping will make you rich, fast. And they are then buying into schemes offered by gurus and experts.

The second was to stop believing in “expert advice” and instead start acquiring knowledge ourselves. In the beginning, we employed an SEO firm and ended up with a Google penalty for spammy links. Around the same time, we hired a PPC specialist and got confused about how successfully their approach performed for us. We took huge losses from both these endeavors.

SEO is not complicated, and neither is PPC or SEM. My advice is to acquire these skills and implement them as you see fit. After all, you understand your business better than any consultant can. And if you ever need to employ a specialist, you’ll critique what they are saying.

Lastly, I would emphasize putting in place a plan. One that outlines what you’d like to achieve, by when, how much it will cost and how you will pay for it. Read your plan every day, benchmark yourself against it and amend where necessary. Discuss it with a mentor or your partners to ensure it is sound and then see it through to success.

Never give up. It’s true, the difference between success and failure is nothing more than grit and persistent although you must be following a sound plan.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We host The Kewl Shop on Shopify. It suits us at the moment although we are aware that it’s a dependency we probably want to remove at some point in the future.

We use the following apps:

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Anything by Rand Fishkin and Moz. His story is tremendous, and he has a no-nonsense, integrity-filled approach to SEO.

Google Quality Raters Guidelines for a deep insight into what Google wants.

Facebook Ads guidance for everything on Facebook Ads. You don’t need to read anything from any expert or self-proclaimed Facebook ad guru because Facebook explains it perfectly well themselves - and their advice is free.

Same for Google Ads. Go straight to the source of knowledge.

The demise of Nasty Gal because it's a lesson in how to manage success.

Fashion Nova’s approach to social media. They have built an empire off social media influencers.

Instead of wasting time on YouTube, immerse yourself in Tedx.

Any books on maintaining a positive mental attitude, and believing in yourself. Find one that resonates with you and read it over and over again. Eliminate all negative thoughts, stay positive no matter what. Develop faith and persistence.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

The biggest mistake I see people making is thinking that e-commerce, especially dropshipping will make you rich, fast. And they are then buying into schemes offered by gurus and experts.

This thinking is just not real. And I think I’ve answered why above.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  

Sasithon Bella,   Founder of The Kewl Shop

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