True Interior’s Story: Part I
Editor’s Note: This is the first part in a series going behind the scenes at a brand new ecommerce website called True Interior. Co-founders Paul Rogers and Rob Carter are frank about the challenges (and successes) their ecommerce business has faced.
In this part, Paul tells the story.
Why We Started Our Ecommerce Business
Rob and I met when we both worked for a large online retailer. I’ve worked in digital marketing for around eight years, and was more on the organic side of things there, like SEO, social, and analytics as well. Rob has more of a commercial background and has also done a lot with affiliate marketing.
We got talking earlier this year and decided we wanted to do something on the side: start an online retail business. It’s something we were both interested in, and unlike consultancy and agency work, liked the idea of having a bigger stake in the company.
So we decided to start a business! Of course it wasn’t quite as simple as that. We were both working full-time and hadn’t even decided what we would sell. So we looked at a few different verticals: outdoor toys was one of them, because I had an existing relationship with a supplier. We looked at a couple of others and then came around to furniture, specifically repro furniture.
Repro furniture is basically modern reproductions of classic designer furniture. An original Eames chair, for example, would set you back many, many thousands of pounds, whereas a reproduction might be £100 to £1,000. There’s lots of different variations on the original classic furniture.
I had an existing relationship with a good supplier, who were only selling direct to customers at that time, and I thought they represented a good opportunity to get us to the market. The supplier was very supportive, and provided good imagery. So we agreed to work together. We now had one supplier with a range of different designers and product types, and our initial venture was starting to take shape.
Getting the Brand Right
Part of the strategy has always been trying to build a brand. We wanted to build a memorable brand that will generate a lot of volume in the long term, and help us to convert visitors just through those brand values.
It took us a long time to come up with a brand name and we went through a lot of different options. I’ve bought a lot of domains over the last few years, and wanted a premium domain like classicfurniture.com, but that kind of name is really expensive.
Domain name availability was a big consideration. We liked some of our competitors’ names, like Interior Addict and Made.com. Those are very good brands. We were trying not to get too close to them, but at the same time think about those kind of brandable words that we could buy a domain for.
So the original brand we chose was Caroge, which was a combination of our surnames, and we quite liked it at the time. But then we moved on to another one, another one, another one, and finally Rob came up with True Interior.
Maybe we should have had more basis to it, but in the end Rob messaged me on Facebook at 11pm with the name and I said, “Yeah, it’s a brilliant brand.” It just clicked.
We wanted it to seem quite natural, which is where we got the word “true”. Then we wanted it to define what we were trying to do, which was “interior”. We talked about other ideas which had the word “store” in them but in the end True Interior fitted exactly with what we were trying to do. We got some feedback and everyone seemed pretty positive about it.
The Long Term Vision
We wanted the brand to help define our long term goal: creating a place online where you could buy any type of furniture.
We were starting with repro furniture, but needed to think about how we would do it so we could scale towards our long term goal. We wanted to aggregate different products from different suppliers, but knew there were barriers for us. At some point we would need to pivot away from repro furniture.
Customer service was a big one, how would we do that so we could scale? The main barrier we saw was selling furniture online without speaking to people over the phone. We found that people were willing to make smaller orders anyway, and our original supplier agreed to take our phone calls. We weren’t getting loads of calls so decided to start listing other suppliers’ products, and found that worked quite well. If we need to provide our own customer service, we’re going to outsource it. Surprisingly, it hasn’t been a major barrier, although it does impact the conversion rate.
Shipping was another challenge. If someone buys a reproduction chair and a lamp, for example, they’d come from different suppliers and the chair would take four weeks to deliver whereas the lamp is probably ready to ship. We’d have to work that out.
We decided to go with a dropship model, which allows us to sell products but never have to touch them. We pass our orders to the supplier, and they ship them to the customer with our branding. It means we don’t have to think about the logistics side of things. We were also in full-time employment, so didn’t have time to ship orders during the day. We take a hit on margin if we are buying in bulk, but it’s a really good place to start. Longer term, we expect to source sections of our range directly, but dropshipping was definitely the best route to market for us.
Building the Site
By this point we were pretty happy with the brand and strategy and felt it was really coming to life. We moved forward: bought the domain, signed up for Shopify, and started building a site.
I’ve used Shopify a couple of times before. We also looked at Bigcommerce, WooCommerce and Magento to start off with. We decided we would have to pay quite a lot to get a Magento site developed. Shopify is the nicest platform to work with, and has a really good app store and developer backing. It’s also affordable. Shopify was a really viable option for us and we decided to go with it.
I was doing the design originally, and bits of development. Rob worked more on uploading products, sourcing content, finding copywriters, working on the supplier relationship side. I worked on paid SEO as well.
Furniture’s Not Always Boring
Content is a massive part of our strategy. After we launched, the plan was focused on creating and leveraging content that would generate links back to the site, reach a large amount of people, generate traffic and social coverage.
We sat down and brainstormed ideas for an infographic. We had a lot of ideas, but Rob came up with a really quirky one, something a bit out there: the best furniture to have sex on. We thought it could get us some good coverage. So we went to PeoplePerHour, which I’ve used before, and put a very, very specific spec together. We also made it clear that we only wanted designers who had worked on similar pieces.
So we had the piece designed. Rob did all the research, got all the products and, um, positions together. Originally we hired an external copywriter to write the copy, but Rob and his wife tried writing it and it just sounded better. We had created this data-driven piece of content, something really well designed and shareable. It just went crazy.
We got coverage in The Metro, the Huffington Post, My Daily, and many other publications. We were getting thousands and thousands of visits from it, and it went crazy on social too. We even had some celebrities follow us on Twitter, like the boxer George Groves. It brought in around 50,000 visits in total.
The coverage wasn’t an accident though. We did outreach to journalists at a lot of top tier publications. There was a lot of work finding peoples’ email addresses, and I asked for introductions through various people I know in the industry. We reached out and said, “Look, we’ve done this piece, we really want you to feature it etc.” A lot of them did, and in 99% of cases they also linked back to us and shared through their social channels as well.
So we were able to get some really good coverage, but there was quite a lot of legwork involved. And there were a lot of people who we wanted to cover it but didn’t. Overall the quality of the content made it a lot easier than it would have been otherwise. I’ve done this before with different companies and it’s almost impossible when you haven’t got high quality content.
If you’re thinking about content marketing, my advice is to get feedback on your ideas and think about the quirkiest possible angles. Our piece was quite confrontational and questionable, but that really helps. Of course you can’t always do that. Some people don’t have enough flexibility around their brand, but there’s always an angle you can use to make a product newsworthy.
There were also longer term benefits in terms of the link value that the piece generated, and it helped strengthen our domain overall. In the short term, we saw a lot of improvement in keyword rankings. It was only two weeks after the website launch this Summer, and we weren’t even ranking for our own brand name. After the infographic, we almost immediately went to number one for “true interior”. We also saw improvements for long-tail keywords. We had no other links into the site, but were starting to appear in search results for phrases like “quirky office furniture”. Our SEO visibility definitely benefited from the top tier coverage.
It was exciting, and there’s a lot more work to do, but the infographic gave us a huge head start. Today, we’re working on our second piece and taking our time because we want it to be equally newsworthy. In the meantime we’ve published lower-key blog posts which have done quite well.
Harder Times Ahead
So on the one hand, things were going fantastically. We had a great brand, a viable business, and our traffic and search rankings were improving dramatically. We’d come a long way.
On the other hand, we were starting to realize just how much further there was to go. Our initial supplier had provided fantastic support, but their prices weren’t very competitive and left only a little margin for us. We’d identified other suppliers we wanted to get on board, but most of them only sold direct to customers. We’d have to convince them to supply our online start-up business, and also to dropship for us. It wouldn’t be easy.
But that wasn’t our only problem. Organic search traffic was looking good, thanks to the infographic, but conversions were low. To be honest, they were really low. We needed to do a lot of work reassuring customers, making the site easy to navigate and checkout, and think again about customer support.
On top of that, we were having second thoughts about our technology choice. Our products are highly configurable, with many choices of color, fabric etc. We needed more back-end flexibility, and would have to spend a lot of money on Shopify developers to get the functionality we wanted.
But we were still both working full-time and tackling any one of those problems – suppliers, conversion or technology – would take a huge effort. It was make or break time: chose one problem and knuckle down hard, or chalk the whole thing up to experience.
Next time, I’ll tell you what we decided.