Career Roundtable: Opening an Online Shop

As we all doubtlessly know, success usually doesn’t come easy. And as much as we sometimes would like it otherwise, the individual glory of each triumph—whether ostensibly trivial or visibly enormous—reaffirms the broader joy in making dreams a reality.

New on The Everygirl, we’ll be bringing you monthly roundtables about specific career fields, via the perspectives of multiple industry women. These go-getting females come from different backgrounds, are different ages, and have, of course, experienced and overcome different bumps on their journey; they all have ambition, drive, and undeterred resolve for hard work.

First, we have three fantastic women who have a dream job for anyone who has a serious affection for retail: owning and operating an e-commerce shop.

Kathy Kuo, 34, is the CEO/president of Kathy Kuo Home, a luxury furniture and decor e-boutique based out of New York City. Jessica Lee is 28 years old and the founder and CEO of Modern Citizen, an online fashion boutique based out of San Francisco and Los Angeles. And last but not least, we have the 25-year-old Emily Benziger, the owner of Fine Life Co, an online shop that sells clothing, home goods, and accessories and operates out of Emily’s home in Tucson, Arizona.

Kathy, Jessica, and Emily gave us their respective and enlightening advice into how far they have come including their “Aha!” moments of the fateful decision to launch an online shop, why they opted for e-commerce versus a brick-and-mortar alternative, and that sweet spot: the most rewarding aspects of doing what they love.

Look around you! Where are you working?

Jessica: Our current office/warehouse is based in downtown Los Angeles, but I live in San Francisco where we’ll be opening our permanent office soon.

Emily: Although I still work at the family business, Fine Life Co is currently based in my home. The workspace is quickly feeling smaller and smaller, but it works!

And, if any, who are the lovely faces around you also plugging away at work?

Kathy: We have about 15 employees currently. I’m lucky to be surrounded by a team of design-obsessed talent who truly love their job. On-site, we have creative, customer service, merchandising, and finance, and we all meet with each other to discuss initiatives. Off-site, we have technical and contract workers.

Jessica: Our team is made up of a combination of full-time employees (operations and customer service), contractors (PR), and freelancers (photographers, etc.).

What was your “Aha!” moment? Or the significant point when you decided, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to open an online shop!”

Kathy: It was in 2007 when the Internet was just becoming (or already becoming) very important for online shopping—I realized the world of furniture and home decor was limiting for those who: a) didn’t live in a major city and b) didn’t have access to a great retail store to see and buy items for their home.

I was able to order groceries and clothing online, but what about a candleholder or a pillow? What? No one does it effectively? Let me try!

Jessica: My parents are both entrepreneurs, so I grew up knowing that I wanted to start my own business. My experience at Gap Inc. allowed me to understand a number of different facets of the fashion industry, and my time spent on the business side allowed me to look at the market in a more comprehensive, strategic way.

As someone who relies on e-commerce for pretty much everything, I’m continually fascinated by brands being built entirely online.

As someone who relies on e-commerce for pretty much everything, I’m continually fascinated by brands being built entirely online. What we’re creating is a lifestyle destination focused on a specific customer, the Modern Citizen—a woman who is creative and sophisticated in terms of her tastes but is leading a busy, ambitious life. So, what she needs are beautiful clothes that are also rooted in ease, versatility, and accessibility.

Emily: I think I, as well as all of my loved ones, were sick of me going on and on about the idea. So at the end of 2013, I finally set the goal to open early 2014!

How long did the preparation take leading up to the shop’s opening?

Jessica: After deciding on the concept behind Modern Citizen, I spent about five months in preparation for our e-commerce launch—everything from establishing our supply chain and factory relationships, merchandising, and developing product for our first collection, to developing the branding alongside our designer.

We originally housed product in our warehouse in Los Angeles and my home office in San Francisco, and shipped from whichever location had the product the customer ordered. Going forward, we’ll ship entirely from our SF-based office and potentially a warehouse space in the Bay Area.

If you’re operating an e-commerce store, you can either choose to manage fulfillment in-house (which we do) or outsource. We may eventually go the latter route as we grow, but in the meantime, because our packaging is carefully done by hand, it felt right to do it in our office.

Emily: Although I had pondered the idea for much longer, the initial process of preparing the site for launch took three to four months. During that time, I worked on setting up the website through Shopify, organizing my personal workspace/inventory set-up in our second bedroom, and began seeking out vendors for the shop. I was really lucky that many of the designers/companies I wanted to work with took a chance on me since they really had nothing to go on as far as our style, except for my personal blog and Instagram.

After that process, I took the next month or so to promote through social media with photos I took of product on friends, product set-up on tables, and product on myself (in the end, you’re your own best promoter!). The weekend before launch, we had a pop-up shop at a local event called the “Spring Bazaar” and launched the website the following Monday, on May 5.

Why e-commerce in lieu of brick-and-mortar?

Kathy: Initially, we had considered catalog as well as brick-and-mortar, but those two models have too many fixed costs and variables that are not controllable (USPS pricing, rainy days, etc.). We calculated risks based on traffic numbers to understand our consumer needs before we invested in those needs.

The benefit of an online shop is that the barriers to entry are low, and you’re immediately accessible to the entire world if you want to be!

Jessica: The benefit of an online shop is that the barriers to entry are low, and you’re immediately accessible to the entire world if you want to be! Even if you’re opening a brick-and-mortar, I think it’s table stakes now to concurrently have an online/e-commerce presence as well—it’s how consumers are shopping and likely how they’re going to find you in the first place.

Emily: During the rise of e-commerce/online shopping, I was working at a local boutique, so I really got a sense of both worlds. I became fascinated with online shopping (my wallet can vouch for that), and I think it just seemed right to start there first. The biggest downside for me is no face-to-face interaction with customers.

Will that change?

Kathy: Brick-and-mortar is definitely in the horizon, but it would really just be for marketing purposes as opposed to the traditional model.

Jessica: We’re considering it—perhaps putting a showroom in alongside our office so customers can visit us and experience the product in person. The benefit of talking to your customers on a regular basis can’t be overstated. You learn so much just by observing how and why they are shopping.

Emily: I’m really not sure, though I love the idea of having a studio that locals can come visit and play dress-up/hold workshops in.

How did you decide on your product(s) and your ideal customer?

Kathy: Since I had four years of experience in designing product and sales training on the products I developed, luckily I had firsthand knowledge of what states purchased what. We sought to fulfill what our customers wanted by listening to them first and then developing product to their liking—all while trying to stay on trend.

Jessica: For us, the woman we’re dressing is the centerpiece of it all. We’re thinking about what she’s looking for at each moment in time (from shape and silhouette to color and trend) based on what’s happening in the world she’s interested in and influenced by.

In the fashion industry, many products are made without much thought or meaning. We want the references we’re making to what’s happening in fashion and other cultural arenas to feel intuitively familiar but done in a way that surprises our customer. We focus on offering real clothes that you can live and work in—so you can have a closet with less stuff, yet more options.

Emily: The inventory process was a no-brainer for me. My market was for like-minded women that see the value and talent in local designers and brands. I had followed/been inspired by so many creatives via Etsy, Instagram, etc., so it was very surreal and exciting to ask them to be a part of the site!

How was your online store initially financed?

Kathy: I first started KKH because I was laid off in 2007 due to the recession. I know it sounds illogical—why would someone start a business when they recently lost a job, but I guess I didn’t have many choices then (though I ended up getting another day job later). I knew I didn’t have the luxury of investors, nor was my concept turn-key (an online shop isn’t exactly the next Tumblr!) though I knew I was pretty good at designing furniture and interiors and I had an eye for graphics.

What if my business doubled tomorrow—how would I support the growth? What if my business halved tomorrow—how would I support the decline?

Although I couldn’t put all my eggs in a basket initially, scaling the business was important. All of the processes and steps for order taking, fulfillment, and inventory management had to be conceived with the following in mind: “What if my business doubled tomorrow—how would I support the growth? What if my business halved tomorrow—how would I support the decline?”

Up to this day, I still don’t have investors, though I do have a partner in the business who put in four years of sweat equity and didn’t have earnings until 2012. He’s my chief technology officer now. “Paying it forward” and making sure he had invested in the right brand and company has always been a concern of mine; he’s a huge motivator and is my voice of reason when I’m exhausted and can’t read another email. I’ve also known him since high school (gasp!), and aside from being the left-brain to my right, I’m proud to say he’s one of my best friends.

Jessica: A combination of my own savings (I worked throughout college and saved while at Gap Inc. for this venture) and private capital from a few investors.

Any recommended tools and tips for building the website?

Kathy: In 2007, I designed my own site on Adobe Illustrator. Using a free template online, I posted a question to my Facebook to see if anyone wanted to help me with a weekend project. Can you believe someone responded? I designed every button, every navigation and experience on the site, and when my programmer (who is still my programmer today!) looked at it, he basically laughed and said—so you want a full custom solution, then? I had no idea what that meant, but I said, yes!

My tips for building an actual website: Start with whatever resources you have and ask friends/family to see if they can help; learn basic HTML if you can as it will help you make quick edits; buy a book on HTML and web design; search the Internet and bookmark sites that you like the look and feel of so you have a starting point for yours. What do you like about the typography, colors, look, and feel?

Jessica: Even though I worked in e-commerce prior, I learned so much by having to execute an online store from scratch. Given the level of complexity you can get depending on the platform you choose, I sought out solutions that were the most flexible from a design standpoint and would be able to scale with us as our business grew.

I couldn’t recommend Shopify more: We have had a wonderful experience working with them, and it couldn’t be easier to use.

Tell us more about growth and sales: How has your inventory changed since the start of your shop? 

Kathy: We did a full site re-launch in 2011, and I finally quit my then day job to truly launch KathyKuo.com. We launched three days before Black Friday (that was our goal), and our site crashed that very day—to my horror! We started to really see things evolve and stick in 2012.

We have enjoyed tremendous growth year over year, and are lucky to doing what we do in such a fun, creative context. Adding inventory is one the largest contributing factors to growth. Being the first to get behind a design trend or carry a specific item is crucial for us. We use Google Analytics to understand and test user response, but the majority of our reporting tools we made just for our business—such as what sofa frames do better in what zip codes—so we can better understanding of how to assort our product line.

I do still do interior design—and love it! Our bigger business model relates to the shop, but beyond that we are interested in leveraging our design solution services to a more mass market. Some of it is product based, some of it is design solution based, but mainly, we’re more interested in inspiring and solving as many decorating problems as possible. We’re currently working on a more moderately priced point collection as well, though it is a very competitive space. We’re trying to define that look and production right now.

Jessica: For any e-commerce retailer, data is paramount in tracking which items and categories customers are gravitating toward.

There is, of course, a certain amount of creative gut that goes into every inventory decision, but we also balance that with a strategic point of view—which categories we believe she’s looking for (and we can merchandise best!). Modern Citizen started out focusing on clothing, and, over time, our inventory has expanded to include pieces that complete the outfit—from jewelry to our signature shoes.

Emily: Since launch, I have been over the moon with the growth of Fine Life Co. I really thought it was going to take much longer to get to where we already are, and can only hope it continues progressing further every year! The number of SKUs (individual product) we carry has grown into a much larger amount than when I first started, and I was quickly able to introduce more variety in products, such as clogs and skincare.

Shopify Analytics has been a great tool to breakdown the business and see information immediately that would otherwise take too much time and too many Excel spreadsheets to figure out. There are several ways to breakdown reports through Shopify, but I consistently check and compare our month-to-month sales (even weeks) and product reports.

This helps me compare growth each month, what’s selling the best/worst, and what I should be reordering, whether that be a specific item or more assortment of a particular category. Once Fine Life Co. turns one in May, I’ll be able to compare last year’s numbers with 2015 and see what may have changed since.

Please share your insights into setting up finances, return policies and damaged goods, payment processes, contracts with suppliers—some of the many, and possibly less glamorous, aspects of your job.

Kathy: The logistics of moving our main product (furniture) from point A to point B is not for the faint of heart. It is costly (did you know moving a chair from your house down the block starts at $150?), and damages occur frequently without the right carriers/packaging and logistics. We started out very slow and learned quickly how to handle items able to ship as parcels and freight items, which are large, bulky items that can’t go through UPS or FedEx.

We take returns on most of our products—though they do come with a restocking fee. The primary reason for a stocking fee is because our warehouse requires it—they must stop their pick and pack process to receive a returned item, inspect it, repack it, and then run it through inventory again. This process typically takes a few hours, but more importantly, 90 percent of returned furniture/home decor can’t be re-sold as it will break while returning to the warehouse. This isn’t like returning a sweatshirt back to a retail store, where as long as it’s in a bag, it can be returned. Most packaging we use is designed for the item that it houses, and once it’s removed, it’s quite difficult to repack.

However, here’s the truth: The customer is always right.

However, here’s the truth: The customer is always right.

I believe that more than 99 percent of consumers purchase because they love the item and have no intention of returning it—so when there is a return, we’re always super supportive of the decision behind it. We use it as a learning experience to understand more about that particular piece.

Jessica: Take on what you can, when you can. While free shipping and returns is certainly the standard that’s been set by giants in the space, depending on the size of your team and how much capital you have, it just may or may not be realistic (especially in the beginning stages).

As a small business ourselves, this is one of the hardest challenges Modern Citizen faces—we sincerely want to give our customer the world, but, at the same time, to continue to serve her, we have to ensure we’re still in business a year from now. It’s a delicate balance, and one we’re working to figure out every day!

Emily: There’s a ton that goes into running an online business besides taking photos/selling beautiful products. Figuring out the different processes and policies that work for the company took some adjusting, but now that I’ve found what works, everything runs smoothly!

For starters, Shopify has been the perfect platform to start out. Posting product is simple and they handle all your credit card payments, making it really easy to get information to your customers regarding shipments, refunds, etc. Also, setting up Paypal was huge for us—most of our customers use this method for payment.

When I first launched the shop, taking any returns unless damaged in the mail was a scary thought. But once we started growing, it seemed necessary to extend our customer service abilities and make it easy for customers to exchange or return any item they weren’t 100 percent happy with. So far, it works out really well, and customers typically opt for exchanging the item or taking credit in the shop!

What has been a positive for us is working with independent designers and companies. You have such a different experience by connecting directly with the people behind the products, which is something I value more than anything. Typically, my questions are answered same day, damaged goods are taken care of the same week, and they help promote the shop on their end, too.

Speaking of possibly less glamorous: customer service. Any particular experiences (good or bad) you can share?

Kathy: Our customer service girls are the literally the sweetest design savvy girls on the planet. Kidding aside, their formal training in design/furniture combined with their natural ability to “hug our customers” over the phone is definitely a true talent and my saving grace!

As a small business, our connection to our customers is paramount.

Jessica: At Modern Citizen, we really believe that how you do something is how you do everything. Customer service is actually one of our top priorities—in fact, everyone on our team spends about 10 percent of the workday answering customer service emails personally; no automated or canned responses allowed.

As a small business, our connection to our customers is paramount. We really care to hear what they think, and we truly want to be helpful. We know she’s incredibly busy and has enough on her plate, so our mantra is to listen, offer solutions, and most importantly, be kind.

Emily: Customer service is one of my main focuses and I feel, one of the most important aspects of running a successful business. There are too many good experiences and I feel lucky to say I haven’t had an unpleasant one yet!

Walk us through a typical workday.

Kathy: Every day is different. After tea and eggs with my daughter, Mondays are typically a weekend recap and business touchbase. On other days, you can find me meeting new vendors to discuss products or new initiatives that we want to include into Kathy Kuo Home. Customer service and shipping is a large component so I check-in to see if there are any issues there.

A good analogy would be to picture a mechanic with a clipboard at a repair shop that goes through each part of the engine quality, checking to see that every part is oiled and running smoothly. That’s what I do.

Jessica: Lots of email and probably a few too many iced coffees!  As an entrepreneur running a small business, every day is different and presents a new challenge that is equally exhausting and exciting. I’m lucky in that I get to do a little bit of everything—from merchandising and product development to coding and decision-making on branding, operations, etc.

Emily: Currently: Work my other full-time job Monday through Friday and then afterward, ship orders/answer emails/order product and brainstorm promos. Saturdays are my day to get together with my friend/model Rachel and shoot any new products, promos, etc. And repeat!

There are quite a few shops on the Internet. How do you stand apart from the crowd?

Kathy: Assuming product and price are equal, we focus on site navigation, stellar customer service, and curated unique collections with a point of view. We also strive to be design centric in our offerings, such as asking ourselves how a designer (not just the end consumer) would shop.

Jessica: To me, the definition of luxury isn’t style or price; it’s what makes a modern woman’s life easier. I wanted to create something that reflected how modern women want to dress—in pieces that are stylish and interesting, but more importantly, that feel smart.

Emily: There is really a sense of community with other online shops out there (and we all have really good taste)! Although some overlapping is unavoidable, I try my best to work with designers and brands you may not find elsewhere. Finding your own style and ways to market product in interesting ways always helps.

Do you produce any of your products in-house? If not, how do you find manufacturers or artists to feature?

Jessica: Yes! We design many of our own products; we’re about to debut a line we’re calling our Namesake collection, which features more premium fabrics in modern but timeless silhouettes. We’re working with a local, women-owned factory in San Francisco to produce it by hand—we’re excited to be able to share their story as well at some point in the near future!

Emily: Right now, I leave the talent to the pros. I love collaborating with our vendors to create select products only offered in the shop. We’ve done several collaborations with Hackwith Design House, an exclusive bag for my city with Apolis, a beautiful piece with First Rite, mugs with Jujumade, and more. We’re currently working toward a couple of exclusives to celebrate our one year this May!

Care to share your magic formula for a successful product image and description?

Kathy: Lana, our product manager, makes sure that every photograph goes through the most rigorous standards of color correction to ensure that what you see on our site is what you will receive. Also, the more images the better. The “magic” behind our product descriptions is that every product has a story and is unique—personalities and function is shown in the product description.

Jessica: There are many different philosophies on how to best present product online, but I think the most important thing is that the presentation really reflects your values as a brand.

For us, that meant a very clean aesthetic that showcased the product on figure, so that our customer could understand the fit; outfitting and styling to showcase the versatility of each piece; and clear, crisp photography to demonstrate the item’s quality.

Emily: Lighting is everything and something I’m always working on. As far as descriptions, I try to be as detailed as possible while trying to keep it short and sweet.

How has social media/PR/promotions impacted on your company?

Emily: Social media has been everything for Fine Life Co. It’s the easiest way to keep your business in customers’ thoughts and to spread the word. By creating content that pops up in Twitter, Instagram, and/or Facebook, you’re reminding followers that you exist and have something to offer them.

My favorite is when customers post photos of their order on Instagram—seeing them excited (and not horrified by my packaging) is amazing, plus it’s great promotion.

Also, thinking of fun ways to get your customers involved through social media is a great marketing tool. On the website, we have a tab for the Instagram hashtag #finelifeco, so customers can tag their photos and can be seen directly on the site. Giveaways where customers regram a photo is an easy way to have their followers to check out your giveaway/shop and potentially enter themselves—everyone loves giveaways!

What are the biggest rewards of your job?

Kathy: My favorite part of my “job” is growing a team: Seeing them interact, watching them fight for design decisions they believe in, and collectively growing the business with their opinions, allowing them ownership of what they do best. Seeing how much they care about something that I thought only I would care about is incredibly rewarding/humbling.

What I’ve learned is that no single challenge is ever make or break.

Jessica: Growth. What I’ve learned is that no single challenge is ever make or break; it’s about figuring out how to get back up and move forward after every setback. With time, each new challenge feels like it’s easier to solve when you have the perspective that you’ll come out the other end—better and wiser.

Emily: When I’m packing up orders, I often catch myself smiling. This used to be a dream, and now, I’m living it! The support I receive is the biggest reward, and I can never thank everyone enough for making this possible.

Final piece of advice you’d like to give to our readers?

Kathy: Do it.

Jessica: Surround yourself with people who naturally balance your strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to have people in your life that can cheer you up when things get tough, or share critical advice at the time you most need to hear it; and most importantly, help you sift through the noise to figure out what success really means to you.

Emily: No dream is too big! Draw up a business model, and when the time feels right, go for it.

Follow Kathy of Kathy Kuo Home, Jessica of Modern Citizen, and Emily of Fine Life Co. on social media:

Kathy Kuo Home: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest
Modern Citizen: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest
Fine Life Co.: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest

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