Biz Miss

Just another WordPress.com weblog

It’s Alive! October 20, 2008

It’s seems that no other project racks up delays quite like a web site.  There’s always something that could be added, or could use cleaner functionality, or doesn’t look quite right in Internet Explorer 18.3 for Windows WTF.  But after six months of such delays, I am proud relieved to announce that Sweet-Meats.com 2.0 has finally launched!  It’s as close to perfect (for my own purposes) as I’ve ever gotten a web site, so I’d like to share some of my steps with you, and review a few of the services I tried along the way.

Step 1: Evaluate. There were a lot of reasons I desperately needed a new web site.  I enumerated them on paper in order to be sure that each issue got solved in the re-design:

  • Not a clean design.  It was simple, and cutesy-clever, and some people liked it, but it was also pretty slap-dash.  And four years old.  It felt ridiculous that my own web site wasn’t good enough to include in my design portfolio.  The product photos also weren’t very good.
  • Hard to pay.  My old site only accepted payments via Paypal.  I calculated that I lost at least 25% of my potential customers because of this.
  • Not expandable.  The design didn’t allow for the easy addition of more products or pages.
  • Limited functionality.  It had no ability to handle discounts, gift certificates, shipping choices or product sizes with any grace.
  • Bad navigation.  It used pop-ups in an incredibly unattractive and repetitive way.
  • Hard to analyze.  Very minimal stats that provided few clues about how to improve sales and traffic.
  • Bad SEO.  Only appeared in Google rankings for very specific search terms like “Sweet Meats Plush.”

Step 2: Make lists. I wrote down exactly what features and functionality I wanted to have in my site, and what keywords I wanted Sweet Meats to be associated with in searches.  I decided what was important to have right out front, and what could be reached in a click or two.

Step 3: Research. With my list of features in hand, I searched for a shopping cart, and then a web host, that could accommodate my needs for a reasonable price.  I already have a merchant account and Authorize.net payment gateway through Thompson Merchant Services to handle credit cards.  I wish they were cheaper but they work really well.  As far as shopping carts went, I tried four:

  1. Zen Cart: completely free, open-source shopping cart software that is chock full of features and is theoretically fully customizable.  You have to be a really good PHP programmer and be able to handle hideously confusing file organization in order to make this work, though.  I constructed a passable wholesale site using Zen Cart.  It took three frustrating weeks and my customers hated using it, so I didn’t even try to make a retail site with this cart.
  2. Shopify: I downloaded the trial and started mucking around with it but didn’t get very far.  It’s not hard to use but I realized that the features I would need, like SSL security and the ability to do discounts, were only available with the “Professional” plan, which costs $59 a month + 1% of sales.  Way too expensive for my small business.
  3. WP E-Commerce: This is only for WordPress sites, but my husband is a wiz at programming these, so I thought I’d give it a try.  It’s not a good option for US vendors, because it can’t handle shipping physical goods with different weights, and doesn’t interface with UPS or FedEx.  After mentioning this in a previous post, one of the company owners offered to send me a working version of the cart, “personally,” but he never did.  I’m a little pissed I wasted $25 on the “Gold Cart” upgrade before I was able to figure out that the cart just doesn’t work.
  4. Mal’s E-Commerce.  This is what my last web site used, and what I ultimately went with again.  I had unfairly written off this cart because it was somewhat limited in its customization, but (naturally) it has changed somewhat in the four years since I last looked at it, and it handles quite nicely.  Here’s what I like about it:
    • It only costs $8 a month.  It would be free if I didn’t want to process credit cards through my own gateway (rather than use Paypal).
    • All of the code goes in your buttons, so it doesn’t change the appearance of your web site in any way.
    • It integrates with UPS and USPS shipping modules, so you can calculate shipping automatically based on weight and location.
    • It’s ridiculously easy to set up and works with graphic buttons, pull-down menus and text boxes, all of which I use on my product pages.
    • The shopping cart is hosted on Mal’s secure server, so I save money on not having to purchase my own SSL certificate.  The only downside to this is that the amount of customization you can do on the checkout pages is limited, but it looks integrated enough for my taste.

Step 4.  Design!  I laid out exactly how I wanted all of my pages to look in Photoshop, down to the pixel.  It took five drafts to get it just right and I got a lot of feedback from friends throughout the process.

Step 5.  Host.  I was getting a little tired of GoDaddy, with their limited stats and the bizarre way they handle permalinks and page titles, so I tried Lunarpages.  It was easy to set up, and reasonably priced, but they don’t handle domains very well.  I got a free domain with my hosting, so I chose “sweetmeatsplushtoys.com” and used it to build my new site online.  When I was finished, I planned to have my old domain, “sweet-meats.com” (which is hosted with GoDaddy) point to my new Lunarpages web site, and have that super long domain name just forward to the right place.  But as my “primary domain,” Lunarpages’ control panel wouldn’t let me forward sweetmeatsplushtoys.com, and consequently, my old domain wouldn’t point properly either.  Tech support was quick to answer the phone, and they took care of the “primary domain” problem for me right away, but they couldn’t figure out how to get sweetmeatsplushtoys.com to forward to sweet-meats.com, they could only “park” it.  My husband eventually fixed this for me, but I was annoyed that a web hosting company didn’t have the capability to do this themselves.

Step 6.  Program.  This was the tedious part, and required a lot of tutorials from my husband.  I haven’t programmed a web site since college, and a lot has changed on the web since 1999.  I also signed up with Google Analytics at this point (free!), so I can track things like “conversion” (how many visitors turn into buyers), and return-on-investment for pay-per-click advertising.

Step 7.  Test.  This was the REALLY tedious part, but it’s important to proofread everything 2-3 times and to test every link on every page.  Anything that doesn’t work right could cost you a sale or publicity.

Step 8. Launch!  I sent an e-mail to my wholesale customers, then to my newsletter subscribers, and then to family and friends.  This week I’ll be working on an announcement to send to the press.

If you like something I’ve done on the site and have questions about how I did it, don’t hesitate to ask!

 

Think Outside the Shop March 2, 2008

I made a couple of sales calls in the Upper Haight today and got the same response everywhere I went: “We’re not buying anything right now because it’s slow. Come back again in April and we’ll see.”

On the way home I lamented to my fiancé about how I wish there were stores in the Lower Haight that could sell Sweet Meats. After all, that’s the neighborhood we live in, and it would be really nice to have my products so close to home. There are no toy stores in the Lower Haight, however, no pet stores, no home accessories stores and only a couple of gift stores that do not have a decidedly ethnic slant. I sent an e-mail to the owner of Doe, my personal favorite neighborhood shop, but if I’m going to be honest with myself and with her, Sweet Meats are not really a good fit with her woodsy collection.

Then, as we were passing Costumes on Haight, my fiancé said: “Maybe you could sell them in some other random store, like a record store, or clothing store, or Costumes on Haight.”

“Costumes on Haight? But how are plush meats a costume? You can’t wear them.”

As the words left my mouth I saw the strangest, most wonderful thing. Taped over the crotch of one of the costumed mannequins was a paper t-bone steak, the exact size, shape and color of the plush one I happened to be carrying. I walked into the store and approached the register.

“Excuse me,” I told the man behind the counter. “I live in the neighborhood and was just walking past when I noticed your paper steak in the window. I think you can do a lot better.” And I plopped my plush t-bone on the counter.

“Oh. My. God.” said the clerk quietly, “How much is it? I’ll buy it from you right now.”

“Well, these are just samples,” I said (I still needed to show them to two more stores this afternoon).  “I’ve been showing them around for months and they’re a little ratty. But here’s my info in case you want a fresh one or the store wants some for display or prop purposes.”

The clerk took my info and I offered to come back in a couple of hours and drop off a sample that the store could keep for a while.  He said that would be fine and that he would show my info to the owner in the meantime.  Just then, I was spotted by my friend Christine, looking more natural in a hot pink bob wig than anyone I’ve ever seen.  We chatted for a minute, and when I turned back to the counter, the owner was standing in front of me, ready to order his first set of  meats for the front window.

Needless to say, I felt luckier than ever to have such a smart, problem-solving, future husband.  It just goes to show you, there are many unexpected, potential outlets for your stuff, especially if you’re a local. I thought I had enough to work with already, but beyond the usual suspects of gift stores and food establishments is a whole world of unexplored options.  So if you’re feeling frustrated that the well has run dry in your area, try hitting up those costume shops, video stores and record stores. Because anything on earth can be a display, and if it can be displayed, it can be sold.

 

Err on the Side of Entitlement February 9, 2008

Last night I was reading the November/December issue of the Brown Alumni Magazine. I have a real love/hate relationship with this publication.  Every issue seems to shout at me: “Hey, Jackass! Look at the dozens of people who used their elite education to achieve something great with their lives! What the hell have you been doing with it?” The BAM always makes me feel simultaneously inspired and ashamed to be associated with my fellow alumni.What struck me about this particular issue, (other than the ad on the back cover to share jets with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates) was how the protagonists in the two feature articles seem to have achieved their goals in life mostly with arrogance–to the exclusion of all else.  These are not bad people, mind you.  They are in fact very kind and generous.  Arrogance doesn’t necessarily equal selfishness–just overconfidence.

Take Lauren Zalaznick, for example.  She’s the network president of Bravo, which became famous for its hit show, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”  When she was made president, she was charged with taking the popularity of Queer Eye and parlaying it into network-wide success.  She did this, quite literally, by taking the five content areas of Queer Eye–fashion, home design, food, personal grooming, and culture–and made a separate reality show for each.  The fashion show, “Project Runway,” was the first to be released, and it bombed.  The company executives wanted it pulled off the air.  Zalaznick refused.  Against all evidence to the contrary, she insisted that the show was a winner, and rather than remove it from the rotation, she re-ran the first three episodes all over the schedule, throughout the entire holiday season.  By the time the fourth episode aired, Project Runway’s ratings had quadrupled.

By forcing the show down people’s throats and completely contradicting her bosses, Zalaznick forced everyone around her to become invested in a show that they initially didn’t care about or really like.  This is successful arrogance at its best.  You insist that something of yours has value until it does–by sheer force and repetition.  There’s a saying we used to throw around at the New York Aquarium when I was a volunteer there: “People will only save what they love, love what they know, and know what you teach them.”  This phrase was obviously used in the context of wildlife conservation, but it seems to work equally well in saving a television show from extinction.

The second story I read is about the last lecture given by a Carnegie Mellon professor named Randy Pausch on how to achieve your childhood dreams. The poor guy has pancreatic cancer, which is nearly always incurable, but he has accomplished more in his forty-something years than most other people accomplish in their entire lives. How?  By always believing that he deserved to have whatever he was striving for, and never taking no for an answer. Here are some examples: after being wait-listed and rejected by the admissions officers at Brown and Carnegie Mellon, respectively, Pausch talked his way into being admitted to both.  A few years later, he met a pretty grad student while visiting the University of North Carolina. She was out of his league and thought he was gay, besides.  But he blew off his UNC hosts and a guest speaker waiting for him back at Carnegie Mellon just to try to have dinner with her. He married her a year later. And what was his excuse to those he ditched? Nothing. He just told them the truth and didn’t care what happened to him.

So what’s the lesson in these stories?  Err on the side of entitlement to make things happen for yourself.  Not in the Paris Hilton way (i.e. “My daddy’s rich, so I deserve to be famous for absolutely no reason”), but in the way that makes others believe in your talents and hard work as fiercely as you do.  This is America, Baby!  Insist on your greatness until it becomes true.