Editors Note – Qinnie Wang, the Founder of Oz Fair Trade shares some highly practical tips for newbie entrepreneurs on starting a social good venture. The learnings are based on the hard realities she faced on starting a fairtrade ecommerce venture.
I really had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I had to do it. A trip to Southeast Asia was supposed to be a holiday for me, but it became more than just a holiday. Having grown up in modern cities, it was the first time that I met people who lived in extreme poverty. I couldn’t understand why these hard working and talented people couldn’t make ends meet. I fell in love with beautiful local handicrafts, and I thought “surely people back in Australia would love these products?”
I had no business or web building experience, but I shopped a lot online, and I thought that the cheapest way to start a new business was e-commerce. At the time I knew nothing about how to build an e-commerce business. I stumbled upon Moonfruit, which is a drag and drop web building platform with e-commerce functionary, and I jumped at it. Within 2 weeks, I registered a business called Global Handmade and started selling products online. I got a Facebook page and a Twitter account, and I thought social media was wonderful.
Learning The Hard Way
Sales didn’t happen overnight. In hindsight, the website was very unprofessional and the product photos were pretty bad. But I got three things right. Firstly, I was eager to learn from other people so I read a lot. Secondly, I contacted local press soon after the website was alive, which brought me my first customers. Thirdly, I kept my full time job and ordered small quantities of products so I had limited financial pressure. Soon I learned that social media was not as “free” as I thought it was. I needed to spend money so that my Facebook posts would be seen and my Facebook page would gain followers. But it’s still relatively small amounts compared to a magazine advertisement as I soon learned. In mid-2013, 6 months since I launched, sales came to a halt and I gave magazine advertisement a go out of desperation. But it didn’t work for me. It was a blow and I felt really low. The only things that kept me going were supports from my partner and loyal customers, and my passion for making a difference.
Not Giving Up
Then I took a trip to Tibet and Nepal, where I met many wonderful people and Fair Trade suppliers. I also spent many hours reading business books and autobiographies. I came back with a list of contacts, a refreshed mind and many inspirations. I was ready to start again. I decided to change the business name to Oz Fair Trade and incorporate it so that it could potentially be recognised as a charity in Australia. I learned that a business needs credibility and professionalism. I also learned that a good business name should tell people what it stands for.
At the same time, I did an in-depth research into e-commerce platforms, and decided to switch from Moonfruit to Bigcommerce. It meant that I had to build a new website from scratch and forgo all my previous work. I knew it would be worth it, because a good website is essential to e-commerce, so I spent the next two weeks learning about Bigcommerce and building a new website. All these were done in my spare time after work, and everything from web building, copywriting, photography, etc. was done by me. I used my iPhone a lot to record ideas and to-do tasks wherever and whenever.
Now I have a website that’s easy to navigate and has functionality like Wish Lists, Gift Vouchers, and a single page checkout. I also brushed up my photography skills so the product photos now look ten times better than the previous ones. Since the redesign of my website, I have seen definite improvements in the length of time visitors spend on the website and sales.
Maybe I should have researched a lot more before starting the business, so that I could have avoided changing the business name and rebuilding the website. But for someone who has no experience, I think it’s a good idea to just jump and learn along the way, as long as you keep the costs down and keep your day time job.
I certainly learned a lot in the first nine months, and it would be impossible to learn that much just by reading and researching. Looking back, I don’t have any regrets.
I read a lot of stories of inspiring people, and I love Dutiee. I also love reading Renegade Collective, Peppermint, Dumbo Feather etc. Currently I haven’t found a suitable mentor, so I spend a lot of time reading how other people built successful social enterprises or charities, such as Blake Mycoskie of Toms, Dale Partridge from Sevenly, Safia Minney from People Tree, Nick Savaidis from Etiko, Malcolm Rands from Ecostore and Sam Prince from Zambrero. They are not just inspirations for me, but also great teachers.
In summary, things to keep in mind when starting a social good venture without any experience are:
1. Do what you are passionate about
2. Keep your day time job.
3. Put PR on the top of your priority list.
4. Know your strengths and weaknesses.
5. Connect with your early customers. Turn them into advocates.
6. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s better to make them early than later.
7. Keep costs down. Do everything in house until you can’t manage any more.
8. Remind yourself why you started it in the first place when you are feeling low.
9. Social media is not ‘free’. Find your most effective platform and focus on that.
10. Read a lot. There are wonderful business magazines/blogs that feature inspiring people. Learn from them.
11. If you sell products, make sure they are so attractive that people would buy them even without knowing the stories behind them.
12. Just do it!