What we've learnt from starting a business

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This entry was written more than 2 years ago and the information may be out of date

If you're not sure exactly what Cutting Edge Knives is, take a few minutes to refresh your memory. Done that now?

Good. Then what follows is a sort of 9 (ish) month review of where we're at and what we've learnt about setting up an online business selling a physical, high value product.

It's certainly not been easy, but it has been a very educational process so far and we're roughly on target to meet our 12 month business plan so that's a good thing!

Setting up the business

I fondly recall one of the few mornings I got into work after Pete and him simply exclaiming that "we're going to sell awesome kitchen knives".

It's a pretty big departure from building Umbraco websites. However, setting up our own ecommerce business was something we'd wanted to do for a while. The idea being that often there are things we recommend to clients as best practice or logical steps they can take to improve their own websites and we felt it would be a lot easier to not only test a lot of these best practices we recommend but also try our own ideas out.

Setting up a business is relatively easy, you need to invest in stock and have a means to sell it. In the interests of brevity - we bought some stock, tested and reviewed it all, and built the Cutting Edge Knives website.

Our goals for Cutting Edge Knives

From the start, we had no interest in setting up a high volume, low margin company. This business is very much secondary to our main work which remains as it always has - we build websites. However, our choice of product and personal interests in cooking and well crafted, shiny things means we don't need to sell a million widgets to make £1.

On the flip side, we sell something that is very much a premium, luxury product which often requires our customers to make a long and considered decision before parting with (typically £100-£170 for a kitchen knife). That's a hard sell in anyone's book. We knew this from the start and planned for slower, higher value sales.

We wanted Cutting Edge Knives to be a living, breathing case study and demonstration of our web development skills as well as something tangible we could point clients to (and fellow designers/developers) to show real cases and examples of changes improving our goals.

One thing we always wanted to do from the start was to ensure we weren't one of those companies who use stock descriptions of their products and we went to a lot of effort to honestly write our own product descriptions and reviews.

How's it gone so far?

We're about 9 months in, our plan was to give it about 12 months before we expected to start turning any sort of profit (remember, this is a small side project company) and we're on target for that. Most of the stock we invested (a lot of money in) has sold successfully, some products better than others of course but that's usually the way.

As this is a bootstrapped effort, we know where we stand money wise, we don't have to pay anyone back and we're heading slowly but surely towards profitability.

Lessons learnt

So, onto the bit you've probably been waiting for, I'll try and make it brief so it's easy to scan and review but you're always welcome to get in touch or leave a comment if you want to know more about anything here.

Choosing what to sell

Some of our stock has sold better than others, it's always a bit of a gamble but for the most part we actually have only one range of knives that haven't sold well and they're the most expensive by far. They're good knives but perhaps we've strayed a little too far from the path (primarily handcrafted Japanese knives) we set out on by stocking uber Germanic engineered knives. Make no mistake, they're amazing but perhaps we missed the mark a bit there.

Our general plan is to keep adding a range or two when possible as well as replenishing stock of existing ranges that are selling. I should also note that we do get a lot of requests from people asking about specific knives and ranges as there are a lot of folks who collect ranges and we always investigate these options too. As you continue to grow, you should also get a feel for your typical visitors and what sells well. If you don't, you probably need to step back and take another look at your business.

Customer service / User experience

I can't stress enough that we place the highest possible expectations on ourselves when we're selling our products, we believe in the quality of the things we sell and as I mentioned above we're not selling something that you'd "take a punt on" for a few pounds, it's a very considered purchase and investment.

We've had great feedback from our customers including an actual handwritten letter of thanks from one who in this day and age of emailing and tweeting etc, took the time to write us a full page of A4 to say thanks for helping her choose the right knife and for getting it out to her so quickly. That is a personal highlight for sure!

We hope the website is something people enjoy browsing and it's certainly had some great feedback to date. We don't get the chance to optimise and test everything week in week out but one thing we do focus on is that if a user reports a bug, error or that something is broken - we jump on it.

That doesn't necessarily mean we drop everything and fix it then and there but what we do make sure of is that we thank that person for reporting it and reassuring them it's our fault something hasn't worked (not theirs!) and that we appreciate them taking time to report it.

One of the reasons we do this and we feel it's important is that we want people (whether they ultimately buy from us or not) to know we care! Often I'll write back to someone just to thank them and let them know a bug is fixed. It's engaging with potential (or actual) customers to know their time reporting something wasn't wasted.

I know for sure this approach has accounted for sales where for a few minutes engaging someone who could otherwise have left your broken website mumbling to themselves has infact had their interest piqued and have come back to check on the bug they reported and started asking questions about products - in which case you can start selling. Good customer service is easy but it's also hard work.

Advertising

By far our greatest success was being featured in Delicious Magazine as an "Editors Pick" which was an actual editorial recommendation. The range recommended sold out in a couple of weeks, as did the follow up stock we ordered. It stands to reason having an industry leading publication recommend your stock would be a good thing.

The Editor's review cost us one knife and led to a lot of sales (and newsletter signups).

We often approach food/cooking magazines as many people keep copies of old magazines for the recipies so there's a good chance your ad lasts a long time in this type of publication (something to consider - seasonal print ads vs more generic if you're on a budget). We actually took out a full page ad (paid) in the same Delicious Magazine and we still get sales from people who enter the discount code so we know it's still being seen 4 months after it went to print.

Many magazines are in need of editorial content and welcome contact from relevant companies who can help them fill a page and we have a "demo box" of 3-4 knives we aim to have in the hands of someone, somewhere at all times so they can review them and potentially feature us. There's zero doubt in our experiences that an editorial endorsement of a product is more valuable than any paid advert so get in touch with buyers/editors/bloggers etc and see if people want to write about your product in exchange for keeping one (as an example).

In 2012, we plan to have a stand in at least one food show/expo. The main difficulty we experience with our knives is that no amount of words and photos can convey the difference in sharpness between a truly great knife (and no, we don't count Global as being great knives btw) and a cheap one in most kitchens. We're confident that if we do a show where we can let customers demo the products, we'd sell them easily.

Obviously this is a commitment of time and money because we'd have to plan a lot, take time out on a weekend to work on this but in the interests of exploring this as an option it's something we feel we need to do because we might recommend a similar course of action to a client at some point.

We don't advertise with Google/Facebook any more. We tried both and frankly for what we're doing, we were just getting junk clicks and burning budget. Facebook was spectacularly wasteful and their bidding process appeared to be almost fraudulent. At one point, they tried to get us to outbid ourselves.

Running competitions

Early on, we ran a couple of competitions where we gave away a knife on Twitter and one on Facebook. There's a temptation to do this a lot, we got mixed results. Yes, we picked up hundreds of followers and "fans" but many of these are just "compers" who would never buy from you or engage with you and it's an entirely empty follow. We're still keen to give away a knife every now again (see above about getting people using and talking about them) but it's difficult to think of a way to do so while providing some "reward" for us in terms of getting people to our site and potentially buying.

Free postage

We take a bit of a hit on postage because we send everything free. It's not a massive cost but we personally hate the experience of adding a product to a basket and then getting 3 pages into some checkout process only be hit by a £6 postage fee or something similar. Simple, honest pricing is something we want to keep doing. That price on the product page is the same price you'll see on your credit card bill. (We also display prices inclusive of all taxes but show a breakdown in the basket page).

Prove you believe in your products!

We offer a no questions asked 30 day money back policy. Because we want our customers to be telling their friends about the awesome knife they bought from us rather than complaining about it we decided to follow the great example of one of our favourite companies - FogCreek in this respect.

In 9 months, not a single person has even enquired about sending a knife back let alone actually sent one back.

We can therefore assume we have done our job in helping the customer choose a knife they're happy with (by writing honest content and showing enough information) and that the quality of the product when they use it is what we've said and there's no reason to return it.

Make friends!

This is perhaps not for everyone but because of the nature of the product, it's a fairly small and specialist market and more so if you're going to appear at events.

We honestly couldn't have even got started if it weren't for the incredible kindness of Kevin Kent at Knifewear in Canada who helped advise us on so many things in the setup process and continues to be helpful and we count him very much as a friend (we're planning a Calgary trip later in the year!). We also sent a congratulatory cake the girls who run Kin Knives, another popular knife company here in the UK when they launched their new website.

We feel it's important to engage and be friendly not just with your customers but also your competitors.

Engagement

I wrote this rant about clients wanting twitter (see also. Every "social channel" ever) and I stand by it, now more than ever. We're on Twitter and Facebook and we actively engage anyone who speaks to us (as well as replying to every email). To avoid spreading ourselves too thin, we only have those two channels although we do upload the occasional video to YouTube we keep it simple.

If you make the effort to keep in touch with people they come back. As I mentioned above, we're selling something that to many is a considered investment and often people visit more than once before they commit to a purchase. Seeing that we're available to talk is important for getting any niggling doubts and questions answered.

Nice touches

We like the little touches, simple things done well float our boat and it's why we spend time wrapping our orders in a nice old fashioned brown wrapping paper and include a hand written thank you note (along with some blue plasters) that specifically mentions the customer and the knife they bought. Not just a "Cheers .. From Cutting Edge Knives". It creates a memory, something positive from the moment the package is opened.

Wrapping up

Thanks for sticking around this long, it's covered quite a lot but I suppose there's 9 months of a fledgling business to try and condense into something readable. I hope it provides some insight into how we work with Cutting Edge Knives and an insight into our general ethos for Offroadcode too.

If you have any questions, please feel free to fire them into the comments or to us on Twitter@CutEdgeKnives or on Facebook and we'd be happy to answer them!

I'm James

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