Biz Miss

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Worth Its Weight: StartupNation January 27, 2009

If you don’t already use StartupNation on a regular basis, you probably live under the same rock as I do.  I was a little appalled at myself to have just discovered the site this morning.  It’s extremely comprehensive and well-written, but what differentiates StartupNation from other entrepreneurial web resources is its integration of information and services.  For example, in an article about timing a good PR campaign, you can click right to a page that gets you quotes from pre-screened PR firms.  The best part?  Everything at StartupNation is 100% free.  You don’t even need to sign up for anything.  You just visit the site and use whatever you want, barrier-free.  I’m currently loving the ten-step plan for growing your business.

In addition to the web site, StartupNation also runs a weekly radio show, which you can download as a free podcast.  It’s great for commutes, though it admittedly has a “boomer emphasis.”


Worth Its Weight: Ponoko October 22, 2008

Apparently I’ve been pretty out of the loop lately, because I hadn’t heard of Ponoko until this week.  An article in ReadyMade piqued my interest, but it wasn’t written very clearly so I read through the Ponoko web site in order to understand how it all works.

Ponoko is similar to Etsy in a lot of ways.  Members have their own little Ponoko shops, where they can list items for sale, buy things from other members, request custom items, and contact each other.  Where Ponoko differs from Etsy is that you can only sell things that are made (at least in part) in Ponoko’s laser-cutting shop.  This is how they make their money.  They don’t charge listing fees or take a percentage of your sales, but they do charge you for the materials and laser time it takes to make your item (or item components).

Most of what gets sold on Ponoko right now is jewelry.  This is because the easiest and least expensive thing to make with their laser is a small, two-dimensional cut-out.  People mostly design silhouettes or etchings that get cut and/or carved into thin sheets of wood or plastic, and then turn them into pendants, earrings, jigsaw puzzles, coasters, and other flat design-y objects.  3-D objects like tables and lamps sometimes appear in people’s shops, too.  These are mostly put together using layering (to acheive a topographical map sort of effect) or a slot-and-tab configuration.  Unfortunately, this causes a lot of people’s products to look very similar to one another.  Additionally, some people also sell or give away products plans in their shops, so that customers can build items themselves, or have the Ponoko factory folks build it for them.

Because of the limits of just one process (laser-cutting) and a few, flat materials (basically wood and acrylic), Ponoko has a ways to go before it can become the small-manufacturer-to-the-masses it would like to be.  I would love, for example, to see them expand to vacuum-formed plastic or fabric-based manufacturing.  If there were a place in the U.S. where I could get on-demand plush toy manufacturing, it would solve a LOT of the problems inherent with my current business.  Luckily for me, however, another product line I’m working on can be made perfectly with Ponoko’s lasers and plywood.  I’ve already researched a lot of industrial cutting facilities for this project, but having one right here in San Francisco that can make them on demand is infinitely preferrable to having to buy and then store some huge inventory again.  I had all but written off this new line for that very reason, but I’m excited to think the possibility exists to move forward with it again.

Ponoko’s ultimate vision is to have dozens of little factories all over the world, so that no matter where you live, whatever you buy can be made nearby.  Making things only to order cuts down on waste, and having lots of scattered factories cuts down on the costs and emissions associated with global transport.  This is an example of one of those forward-thinking green businesses profiled in books like Cradle-to-Cradle, in which it is more profitable to be eco-friendly, not less.  They still have a lot of growing to do, but I really think Ponoko is onto something big.  If I were a venture capitalist, or if they offered stock, I would definitely be investing in these guys.


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 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 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 “” and used it to build my new site online.  When I was finished, I planned to have my old domain, “” (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, 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 to forward to, 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!


Black Magic September 21, 2008

I’m quickly moving forward with my web site re-design.  My husband’s somewhat valid opinion is that what I’ve come up with is not a full step up from the old site, but his suggestions thus far have been unworkable:

  1. Pay our friend $1,000 to do it, who is talented and fast (but who is also in rural France and often without Internet access).  I’d love to hire her but I don’t think it’s worth the money for a business I’m planning to shut down in a few months.
  2. Turn my online store into a WordPress site, and integrate it with this blog.  Not a terrible idea from an SEO standpoint, but I don’t really want every post about my nervous breakdowns appearing next to “Buy Now” buttons.  Also, the WordPress E-commerce plug-in can’t handle shipping physical goods in the United States.  I tried all kinds of work-arounds but until they actually install this totally basic and necessary module, the plug-in is utterly useless.

So I’m just going with the design I made months ago and using the Mal’s shopping cart.  It’s not perfect, especially in its integration with Paypal, but it works well enough that I can get all of my orders processed correctly.  I’ll have to log in to the cart whenever someone pays via Paypal to make sure their shipping address is correct, but I have to manually forward those Paypal notifications to my warehouse anyway, because they’re still functioning in the 1980s, technologically speaking.  Also useless.  It’s amazing how many things are more trouble than they’re worth.

I got my shopping cart up and running, and when my husband has a break in his paid work, he’ll help me program the site to look like my design.  In the meantime, I’m working on some black magic: Search Engine Optimization, otherwise known as SEO.

People call it “Black Hat SEO” because bumping up your Google ranking is really more of a dark art than a computer science.  There an aura of magic surrounding things like Google’s “PageRank” system, and search engines update their secret algorithms so frequently it’s nearly impossible to “beat” them.   It’s not all smoke and mirrors, however.  All search algorithms are based on keywords, and if you use them wisely, it can do wonders for your placement in search results. You might not reach number one, but you can move way up the page just by making a few common-sense changes:

  1. Forget the “keywords” meta tag.  Period.  No search engine uses them anymore.  Google stopped in 2002.  Everyone else was out by 2007.  If you hired someone to do your SEO and he/she’s billing you for hours spent on your meta tags, fire them.
  2. Make sure your keywords and key phrases appear where you want them.  If you have a page on your winter-wear website that is devoted to hats and scarves, make sure it says “winter hats and wool scarves” somewhere on that particular page.
  3. Put your most important keywords in your page title.  Who cares if it’s ridiculously long?  Nobody reads what’s in the grey part of the browser window anyway.
  4. Name all your files after what’s in them.  Don’t call your picture “product-00876.jpg,” name it “red-merino-scarf.jpg.”  Same with your pages.  Call it “scarvesandhats.html” rather than “wint-acces.html.”  Search engines read all that stuff, so unless someone actually types “wint” or “acces” in the search box, it’s doing you no good at all.
  5. Use headings for larger text.  Rather than say “font=4” in your page code, put your important text between <h1> or <h2> brackets.
  6. Buy another domain.  Or two.  You can get them from some places for as little as $1.99. If your domain name doesn’t say what you actually sell, like “,” buy one that does, like “” and link it up to your web site.  No one will ever have to type it in directly, but domains are the text on your web site that search engines give #1 preference.
  7. Update often.  You don’t have to change everything every time, but keeping your catalog and news pages current will keep those search spiders crawling back more often.

As a general rule, the best way to perform SEO is not to try to “beat” the search engines–in fact, if they suspect that you are trying to do this, they will remove your site from their search results completely–the best way is just to create and maintain a current, informative site.  To see how you’re doing, sign up for something like Google Analytics, which will give you exact statistics on really useful stuff (and is free!), such as how many people who visit your site actually end up buying something.  More details on that later.


Quality, service and low prices: pick two. February 27, 2008

(I saw that sign once in a print shop, but I think it’s infinitely applicable to all businesses.)

A couple of months ago, my Internet service provider, Covad, got bought out by a bigger company.  As happened with Cingular when they got bought out by AT&T, the service went downhill.  Not only did our connection speed get slower but their tech support is now based in the Philippines and consists solely of people with thick accents named “Hank” and “Jim” who read scripts out of binders.

Yesterday our Internet crapped out.  After some diagnostic testing, I concluded that either our modem had finally died or Covad’s service was down.  To eliminate the latter possibility I called tech support and spoke to “Owen.”  Now, I understand why so many companies outsource their tech support.  My friend Steve put it best last night when he said, “I used to be tech support for an architectural software program. I didn’t really know how to use the program but I was able to solve 95% of my customers’ problems just by looking them up in the help menu.”  Similarly, I’m sure 95% of tech support issues with Covad can be solved just by telling customers to restart their modems, routers and/or computers.  My problem is that I used to be a school network administrator, so I’m in the 5% who have already tried everything in the binder before I call.  All I wanted was definitive answer about whether Covad’s service in San Francisco was up or down.  Owen made me go through all the binder steps with him anyway.  Three times.  He then performed several “tests” for which he had to hang up and call me back.  Owen assured me the service was up and running, but we had heard this the last time our connection was down.  That time, it turned out the switch for just our area of the city wasn’t working.  So I asked Owen where he was and he said “I’m based out of San Francisco.”

“Great!” I exclaimed.  “You must be using Covad for your Internet service.  Is it working in your office?”

This made him mutter something about working for the San Francisco office, but actually being in the Philippines, so I asked him for the number of his San Francisco office to see if their service was working.  Owen said he couldn’t do that, because he didn’t actually have their number; he contacted them solely though some kind of internal system.  Now, I’ve never heard of a way to make “internal” calls across the Pacific Ocean, but I didn’t want to argue with the guy anymore.  It’s not Owen’s fault that Covad is such a shitty company now.  So I simply clarified the facts.

“You don’t actually know if service is working my neighborhood, because you’re in the Philippines, and there’s no way for me to contact the office that is actually located here in California?”

“Yes,” said Owen, with a heavy sigh.

In the end, I was left with three choices: wait an indefinite period to see if the service came back (free!), wait 3-5 business days for Covad to UPS me a new modem ($100) or have a technician come out to the house with a new modem tomorrow ($190).  Since I run a web-based business out of my home, I went with the latter.  At least then I would know definitively what the problem was and that it would be fixed within 24 hours.

Then I got a bright idea: I went to Best Buy.  It took a good 10-15 minutes to find a staff person who knew the difference between a cable modem and a DSL modem, but I eventually made contact with the sixty-something manager of Best Buy’s “Geek Squad.” He told me to try AT&T’s DSL modem, since Covad leases their lines from AT&T anyway, and what do you know, it worked!  Okay, it took about an hour of finagling to get it to work with Covad and my router, but I’m back up and running having only spent $70 as opposed to $190.

It took half an hour on the phone this morning to get Covad to cancel my service appointment and then another half hour to convince them not to charge me for it anyway (Owen had not alerted me to their 24-hour cancellation policy).  My next step will be to cancel my service with Covad altogether, but it often takes a couple of days to switch from one provider to another, so it will have to wait until the next time we go out of town.  I’ve heard good things about, another AT&T reseller (who isn’t?), and when I called them I got Mike in Santa Rosa.  Anyone else have any recommendations?  I’d be eager to hear.