Starting and building a successful business can seem like an overwhelming task. All entrepreneurs have questions and concerns about how get started and stay on track. How do I choose my business direction? What resources or tools have worked well for others?
Here, Elaine Paduano of Elements Personal Design & Gift Services offers new business owners some of the most important lessons she learned as an entrepreneur.
LZ: Tell us a little bit about your background and the foundation for your business venture.
Elaine: I always had the bug to design, and when I left the insurance industry to be home with my first child, I took classes that fit into my schedule. By the time my youngest child was ready to begin school, I completed my Bachelor's Degree of Fine Arts in Graphic Design.
LZ: How did the business idea for Elements come about?
Elaine: Timing was everything. Both of my children were in school and it was time for me to return to the workforce. Originally, I was inspired to design a baby onesie for a friend's baby shower. I also worked on the gift wrap and both were a hit at the party. After the shower, I received a lot of inquiries about the gift and where I got it. With the help and support of my husband, Pete, I decided to use my love of designing for children and open an online boutique for babies and children.
I combined my two passions—shopping and designing—by offering my own designs and working with merchants to offer other necessities, such as artwork, furniture, décor, gifts, clothing, and other items.
LZ: What types of business registration and other formalities did you complete before you opened for business?
Elaine: Using Legalzoom, I set the business up as a Limited Liability Company (LLC), obtained a buyer's license with a Federal Tax ID number and a seller's license with a State ID number. Registering my business name and obtaining licensure was a little time consuming in terms of completing paperwork and waiting for responses, but it all went smoothly. I also opened up a business bank account and necessary merchant accounts.
LZ: Since a functioning website is so crucial to the success of an online business, what process did you follow in creating your website?
Elaine: I researched website development for e-commerce sites online to learn what was needed to operate a site and the importance of search engine optimization. I signed on with a web programmer and developed a wire frame. I designed the site and my web programmer incorporated the design into the site. I now have a database that enables me to maintain the website in-house.
LZ: What were your main business goals and plans of action to get your business up and running?
Elaine: My immediate concerns were figuring out a marketing plan and offering the right combination of merchandise. For me, it was important to incorporate a unique variety of items that were high quality. Once the [website] design and database were complete, I developed a line of personalized clothing for infants and siblings inspired by the original onesie. I took photographs and prepared all the images for the website and then carefully selected additional merchandise to offer. My main goal was to offer unique, high quality gifts, décor, furniture, toys, and other items. I contracted with selected merchants to carry inventory and/or drop-ship orders and obtained all [product] images and information to add to my website.
LZ: What types of marketing did you originally use?
Elaine: I advertised in a local kid's directory with both online and print ads and added online baby boutique listings. I also joined online baby forums and blogged consistently, as well as using Facebook and Google AdWords. I frequently updated my website, offered coupons, and emailed a monthly newsletter to my customers.
LZ: Have you found that marketing strategies have slowed down or changed as your business becomes more successful?
Elaine: My marketing strategies haven't changed much, and they're a constant necessity. For instance, getting links is a key factor in moving up in searches, so I always need to work steadily on gaining links. Consistent blogging and website updating is also necessary.
LZ: What resources, tools, or marketing strategies would you suggest to new business owners looking for inexpensive but effective marketing and ways to optimize an online business?
Elaine: There are lots of great resources. Hiring a marketing consultant is costly, but I felt I needed direction to help bring my business up in more searches and found it necessary to hire someone to help. My marking consultant also recommended the book Online Marketing Inside Out, which is a great resource. As far as strategies, I have learned that title tags on each page of your website need to include terms relevant to the content on that page, and each page should have its own title. Search engines read the page titles more than the product descriptions.
LZ: How do you balance your personal life with your life as a business owner? What tips can you give new entrepreneurs when it comes to balancing a new business with their everyday personal lives?
Elaine: Balancing family life and a home-based business is more difficult than I anticipated. But I'm finding more and more ways to make it work smoother as I go along. For example, I give myself structured timeframes to be in the office. During the summer when my children are home, I'm usually in the office early in the morning and late at night for several hours and sneak small amounts of time in between, when needed. When my children come home from school, I force myself to stop as if I had to physically drive home from the office. Sometimes it's difficult to make the transition, as I'm a bit of a workaholic. But staying true to where one role ends and the other begins is very helpful.
LZ: What final suggestion would you share with anyone who is a new entrepreneur or thinking about becoming one?
Elaine: I'm thankful for the opportunity to follow my heart and combine my love of shopping and designing into a successful career. If you're thinking about starting an online business, start with the necessary research (competition, marketing, search engine optimization), talk with other business owners, and make yourself a good roadmap. Most importantly, I highly recommend selecting something you're passionate about—you'll be spending all of your waking hours with it.