PUBLISHED: Wednesday, January 28, 2009, The Voice News

Creative entrepreneurs secure online customer base
Business owners work right at home

By Jeri Packer
Voice Staff Writer

As the World Wide Web continues to address consumer needs, a new window of opportunity has opened up for entrepreneurs - online businesses.

In this economy, where many conventional stores are being forced to close their doors, business owners are coming up with creative alternatives to connect with potential customers. Laurie Riehl of Algonac found a way to reach her clientele six years ago when she began an online jewelry-maker's supply store called FineDings.com.

"I'm not sure how it exploded like it did," she said, "but it's ballooned beyond my wildest dreams."
To get started, she tracked eBay sales for 20 different product items - paying attention to who was selling what and what was selling, she said. She also researched sources for inventory and made a spreadsheet to record her findings.

She started small, to keep her losses to a minimum, in case the business went belly up.
"I started out with $200 cash and eight inventory items," she said. "I thought, 'what the heck. If I end up losing the money, it's only $200.'"

Her gamble paid off.
"Everything sold, so I turned it around and added another product and slowly started growing," she said. "I had 700 customers in the first year on eBay and it's definitely growing."

She now has 4,700 mailing customers and has gone from eight to 2,100 inventory items, opening an online store through Yahoo.

Riehl advised any future online entrepreneurs to sell a product versus a service.

"More than likely, they'll have a better start," she said. "With products, customers can compare apples to apples. With service, nobody knows the quality of your work."

Riehl also said people need to be patient and keep expenses to a minimum at first, unlike a friend of hers whose business didn't make it.

"I had a friend selling gourmet salts," she said. "She did the whole thing - the logo, a business banking account - all right away. Don't do it."

Bookstore goes online
Jackie Wilson checks her online book and women's boutique businesses on her home computer.
Courtesy Photo

The small mom and pop stores seem to get hit the hardest when the economy takes a dive. Todd and Jackie Wilson closed their downtown Marine City bookstore, The Book Blues, after more than two years in the community and reopened the business online only - well, almost online only.

"We still want to maintain a community focus," Jackie Wilson said. "We plan to continue sponsoring book-signing events as well as offering free classes on topics including marketing small businesses and building Web sites. There's a huge audience for it, especially in this economy."

Wilson is no stranger to online sales, which made it easy for the East China Township couple to transition the bookstore online. For the last six years, she has operated an Internet business selling a rather unique specialty item centered on a sentimental theme.

"I have a trendy women's T-shirt boutique based on lips or a kiss," she said.

The idea started out one Christmas when she made gifts for her family, using her lips for the creative design. It was such a hit that her husband encouraged her to market the item - hence the birth of the Explosive Kiss Web store.

Wilson said there are businesses, called fulfillment companies, already in place that provide all the services needed to run an online store.

"They take care of everything," she said. "They set up the online store. They warehouse your items so you don't have to rent a warehouse, and take care of credit cards payments, even detecting fraudulent cards. It runs itself."

That frees Wilson to do what she loves best.

"I do the creative, artsy stuff," she said. "I create the product designs and the Web site that I link to the store."

Besides the lagging economy, there was another reason the owners decided to change the way they were doing business - daughter, Ella, who celebrates her first birthday next month.

"With a new baby, it made more sense for our family to close the physical retail storefront completely and go online only," she said.

Wilson also has a background in corporate education and operates a consulting business. She has some practical advice for future online entrepreneurs that began with - of all things - education.

"The biggest thing I can recommend is do the research for the industry," she said. "Great ideas are nothing if you didn't understand the business aspect. It's just not going to work out. Take a basic business class. It all might seem boring, but you have to go through all the boring stuff first. And it comes in handy later when the creative ideas run out."

Contact Jeri Packer at (586) 716-8100, ext. 302 or jeri.packer@voicenews.com.


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