1.I notice that you started your business during your MBA courses at Columbia. What inspired your decision to turn a class project into a business?
Well at the time in 1999 the first thing was that everyone was required to have a laptop in class. So it was the start of the proliferation of laptop in schools. Everyone was carrying the same boring black case no matter whether it was a man or woman, but I didn't want to carry that same black bag. It was depressing to me to carry it. I asked my sister Helena who had gone to The Fashion School of NY to make one for me and she did. When I started carrying it and everyone was asking where I got it a light went on and it inspired me to do some research on designer laptop bags. I found out that there was dearth in the marketplace for designer laptop bags. At the same time in my MBA class we were required to write an imaginary business plan, I so I just made it a real business plan. And this was right at the time when the dotcom bubble was growing so it was a perfect environment for us as well.
2. A lot of online stores sell products that are from off-shore companies, but you struck out on your own and are designing, producing, shipping, running b2b, b2c, online, etc. How do you manage your busy schedule?
It used to be very crazy and I think that um what I would recommend to people is to really focus and even if your product could work in multiple channels to really focus on just one at a time. With all those balls in the air at the beginning of a business it's really easy to drop the whole business by trying to do too much at once. You can't go after all the opportunities at the same time especially if you're just starting up because there is a finite amount of time that you have to do everything. So we had to narrow our focus down and find out where our best opportunities were and really dial into those. Its hard because you hate to leave any stone unturned, but you have to do so to reach a balance. All sorts of market factors will dictate what opportunities are the best and you have to let the others go.
3. Your brand has been featured in some top-notch publications like: MSNBC, FastCompany, InStyle, Vogue, Daily Candy, etc. How do you get your foot in the door with these companies?
the first thing I will say is that a lot of those people actually contacted us. So whether they saw us in other press or trader shows or just from business networking, it was great organic publicity. And we were able to seed one opportunity off another. So when we could let them know we were featured in other publications it was easy to get into others. In the NY Gift Show there was a lot of press there anyway and since we have a great product they naturally wanted to write about it.
We were very fortunate to have a lot of word of mouth about it as well. So in the beginning we were very lucky to capitalize on the need for our product. I will say though that to sustain it you have to keep active and there comes a point where you have to hire someone to do the continuous outreach. It's nice to enjoy the organic when it comes, but you still have to use a proactive approach to getting your products featured.
4. Since you design your own products, it stands to reason that you will run into inventory issues without knowing whether each item will sell or not. So how do you handle forecasting, inventory and the most important of all, Cash Flow?
That's a big one and the major issue that we constantly come up against. One of the driving factors of that is that we have been making our products overseas and the minimums from the factories are very high. So if you have to make a thousand pieces of each sku and you only need 200 you are kind of cornered by them. So we have had to negotiate aggressively. It doesn't make sense to have too much goods and run your company into the ground. So you decide what you absolutely need to have by your projections and if you have no history to go off you have to be very conservative. Once you have a good pipeline and history and get better projections then you can increase your orders accordingly. But if you can also add Pre-Orders into your sales, that helps a ton. When you can put your prototype up online to see if it generates interest and let people pre-order it, then you have some idea of how it will sell.
It will kill your cash flow if you are sitting on stuff you can't sell it prevents you from buying stuff you can sell. With that in mind we are considering moving our manufacturing back to the US so we can better control the whole process from design to product so that we don't' have to negotiate so aggressively and have those minimums hanging over us.
5. If you were to pick one feature or tool in UltraCart that you couldn't live without which one would it be?
UltraBooks. Absolutely. Being able to connect to QuickBooks was one of the main reasons we signed up with UltraCart in the first place. We didn't want to do double entry. When we were just using PayPal to capture payments and there was no UltraBooks connector we had to double entry everything and there was always issues and of course the time it took. So it's really increased our ability to free up time and do more in other areas.
6. Finally, you have the chance to say anything you want to your fellow UltraCart merchants, what would you like to tell them about how to use UltraCart for success?
The first thing I would say is that another excellent feature is the best customer support anywhere. A real human being will answer your calls and you can create rapport with the UltraCart support Reps. They know you and you find out that there can be a personal experience with a company instead of just being a user of their system, just a number to them. With UltraCart they always talk to us like we're valued customers. That is a big plus for us to feel like they know our business and if there is a need we discover that Ultracart will be able to hear us and deliver what we need. The other thing to know about UltraCart is they are always adding new things so we 're constantly finding new opportunities to move forward and grow our company.
There are so many partners that are integrated with UltraCart that you don't have to worry about outgrowing the system At first it is a little daunting but after a while it's very easy to use the system and that's good because we use it every day!
Just wanted to let you guys know that CenterForLit.com has been an UltraCart customer for nearly ten years. All it ever does is exactly what I want and more. I couldn't be happier.
Ultracart integrates nicely with our website, and handles all of the transactions. We've written a script that pings the UC API and gets us pertinent data for our CRM.
When we switched to UltraCart, we experienced a substantial increase in sales within two months which we attribute to the added capabilities that we obtained by using UltraCart.