SO you want to start an online business in Ireland? I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Ryan – he co-owns LadyUmbrella with the amazingly talented Elena Montes who created the concept and does all the artwork and designing behind the brand. This is a business I’ve a lot of respect for; the business has a great story which can only inspire people to follow their passion. They’re also one of the best companies in the country (imo) at using the internet to leverage their brand and business. The interview below is essential for those interested in starting an online business in Ireland. This is a business with a personal touch. I added Rob on twitter months back as I had come across the business one day and was really impressed with their social media presence. He sent me a personalised tweet asking me how I was, if I had seen the UFC recently (he read my bio) and if I needed any help to give him a holler. When was the last time someone you followed on Twitter sent you a nice tweet like that?
Below is the unedited interview straight from Rob himself. He was a cool guy to deal with and took a lot of time to answer these questions which I really appreciate.
- How did you start the business/get it off the ground?
The business came about when I met up with the designer Elena and saw some of her designs featuring LadyUmbrella. At the time she wanted to get them printed for a mutual friend, just one or two as a present and so I started looking into t-shirt printing and what not then. As I was looking into it I whipped up a short online survey to gauge the opinion of the public “at large” regarding the designs to see if it might be something they’d be interested in, call it market research if you will..The response we got back was overwhelming and that’s when we started looking into setting it up as a business..That was about sometime in mid 2008 I think and the shoulder has been against the wheel ever since to try get it fully off the ground..
- How many people work in your business?
There are only two of us involved in LadyUmbrella thus far. There is Elena, the Spanish designer and the one with the skill and talent, who created the LadyUmbrella concept and does all of the artwork you’ll see anywhere for LadyUmbrella. I’m the other half of the team, Rob, the “spreadsheet” guy..My role is to try do everything else, marketing, promo, sourcing, deal with suppliers & customers and of course tweet up a storm..
- How much time do you spend a week increasing your followers/working on your business?
I guess it would be fair to say I spend most of my week working on the business. I’ve focused a lot on the online side of things as there aren’t as many barriers there and you can have many coals in many fires at the same time. I work from home and if I’m awake I’m more than likely trying to do something to spread the word of LadyUmbrella. It has gotten to the stage that even on rare occasions when I venture out to fond watering holes I always bring some badges and business cards with me and invariably wind up talking about LadyUmbrella (and here is the proof). Ultimately though the time spent on LadyUmbrella doesn’t seem like work. It is enjoyable and challenging and the notion of being ones own boss appeals to me so I’m content to put in the hard yards now and see what happens.
- What steps did you undertake in the early stages to build up a presence online?
In the early stages I experimented a lot. I really got into social media and tried to establish connections with some peers. I started to blog and interview some other people in the industry with my T-Shirt Strategy Blog. I was also part of a weekly podcast called Tees in a Pod which tried to dish out some insights that myself and the other hosts had accumulated which helped build up a presence. Both of those ventures have kind of ran out of steam (for now) but were a very helpful platform for getting fully engrossed in the social media world (prior to ladies t-shirts I was a band manager so had very little experience with facebook/twitter so had to crack the nut as quickly as possible – talking about it and trying to help people was invaluable). From the early days something that was always in the back of my mind was having something to talk about. I try to have one “news” story a day about LadyUmbrella so that I have something to talk about/promote on any given day and this will become the facebook update for the day and I’ll mention it a few times on twitter. Being consistent, from the early days right through to now, has helped get an online presence going I think.. Also, just being human about it and not too business orientated. No doubt we are a business and yes, I want you to buy our t-shirts, but, if you don’t no biggie..If it happens that you enjoy the LadyUmbrella ride and wind up talking about it I also consider that a result.
- When did you realise you wanted to be your own boss/in a partnership?
For me personally I’ve always struggled to be a good employee..I don’t mean that I was a hell raiser in the office but I quickly got bored of every job I had (with the exception of band managing but the wheels fell off there hehe). I’ve had a myriad of different jobs and studied polar opposite things in college (did a diploma in performance music and then followed it up with a degree in I.T.)..Job wise I’ve been a fund accountant, an IT guy, a door to door salesman, a barman, a band manager, worked in retail – just a plethora of unrelated things..I’d enjoy each job for the first few weeks/months but once the learning curve plateaued I lost all interest in that particular job. The accumulation of previous work experiences has, to a degree, dictated that I try get my own business up and running and when the opportunity arose with Elena that was a partnership I wasn’t going to say no to.
- What online marketing tools do you currently use for Lady Umbrella (Google AdWords, Facebook PPC etc etc)
We don’t spend anything on advertising so there is no AdWords or Facebook PPC or similar. In the past I played around with them a bit to try understand how they work but we don’t have the capital to invest in ads and prefer to do it “old school” and try to cultivate a strong positive word of mouth environment about our brand. That’s why Facebook and twitter are so important to us and without them we’d literally have no business now. In the past though, when we used PPC for a bit I found the Facebook ads to be better than Google – the CPC was very low and when set to CPM you could get a really great CPC, especially with a very defined and small target group.
- What SEO/Online marketing tools if any would you recommend people use as essential tools?
Kind of like the last answer there aren’t any that I use too much. For search engine optimisation I just try give our ladies t-shirts the best chance by creating a few back links now and again and whenever we have a sale/promotion I try get a few bloggers to mention it. This then helps with a lot of natural back linking. One site that I use is onlywire.com which is a nice tool for submitting pages to lots of different social bookmarking sites. Another nifty tool that I use is pingler.com which lets the guts of 90 search engines know about whatever page you ping.
- What other mediums have you found successful for your business? Radio/Print?
Well, would love to be on the radio someday and until we’re interesting enough for a radio station to interview or mention it will be a while before we’re on one. I find it hard to justify the costs of a radio ad for very unmeasurable results (and I guess I’m risk adverse). If the coffers were a bit deeper I’d like to have a punt and give a radio ad a go but at present it’s a bridge too far for our mini marketing budget. Same goes for print although we have been fortunate and have got a few mentions in papers in the past. The paper mentions we got resulted in some more traffic to our site and sales on the given day but if we had to pay for the mention then it would have been a pointless venture. So, to conclude, hehe, I’m a fan of free mentions/advertising
- What would you recommend to other small businesses when it comes to link building techniques? What worked best for you?
As I said I think the most effective thing we’ve done is to get in touch with bloggers in our niche when we have some “news” and ask them to mention it. If you get in touch with people and interact with them like they’re real people instead of a copy/paste e-mail that you’ve already sent to 20 people you’ll get much better results. Take some time to get to know the blogger and ask nicely and there’s a decent chance they’ll mention you. If you do get a mention then submitting their blog to a few social media sites via onlywire.com and pinging each one can be helpful. Any tips yourself?
- What business books would you recommend for new businesses to read if any?
Reading, a 2011 resolution for me..I don’t read enough..I’m currently reading “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert B. Cialdini and although his great name is biasing me it is a good read thus far. Another book on my to read list is Crush It by Gary Vaynerchuk. I find that with the web I read less and less books as I can just google what I what to know and get right to it.
- What did you find was the most successful way to get people to “like” your page? Did you/do you run PPC ads on Facebook
We don’t run PPC ads on Facebook – we did for a while and they were good but we only ran them for a brief period as a test really. A means to get people to “like” the page is to have a nice landing page but also try provide an incentive or reason for them to join..What is the benefit to them for joining the page? Running competitions and giveaways has helped attract new likers or if you can somehow tie in a giveaway to liking..A while back we did the Race to 6000 which proved to be insanely helpful. In one day I think we got over 200 odd facebook fans and a similar number on twitter. It was really mind boggling what unfolded. It was a different idea that took off and gained us a lot of fans..I think that is the key to getting new fans, try do something different and “recruit” your existing fans and try get them to help you spread the word…
- What in your opinion is the most effective social media tool in terms of revenue? Twitter or Facebook? (I assume it’s Twitter )
It’s a hard one to measure and I really think it’s a coin toss. No doubt, on twitter lots of times you get a tweet saying “just bought t-shirt X from you – can’t wait” and so that is measurable but I see facebook/twitter working in tandem, the beautiful duet in the social media symphony. I like to try get our twitter followers to become facebook fans and cross populate as much as possible. When we have “news” posted on facebook I like to try get the tweeps to go and check it out as they may interact with it there which can result in more exposure to their friends on facebook and a better chance of the facebook update persisting in the news feed. So, to answer your question in a roundabout way, I really think use of both of them is important for sales but with a gun to my head for strictly getting sales I’d say twitter (but facebook allows you to “grow” a brand).
- Any other useful tips you can think of for online businesses/young entrepreneurs looking to start a business?
Make sure you are committed to it and 100% passionate about your fledgling venture. I’ve found over the last year since we’ve launched LadyUmbrella (our one year anniversary is 20th January 2011 – exciting times hehe) there have been many peaks and troughs – be ready for both and try keep your head during both. It is easy to get carried away one day and be down in the dumps the next day. It’s business but it’s the most personal business you’ll ever be part of, for us each t-shirt is almost like a kid and we only want the best for them hehe..Have a positive attitude and believe that something good will come of it – if you don’t then don’t even try…Whatever your venture is make sure you enjoy it and be ready to commit 5 to 10 years (your life?) to it..Shoulder against the wheel and keep working away – fingers crossed 2011 will be a better one that 2010…
Thanks for the great questions and looking forward to seeing the finished piece – first interview of 2011 – ole..
So there you have it folks, every business in Ireland should do what these guys do when it comes to providing exemplary online customer service and interacting with their fans/tweeps. The beauty of starting an online business is that you can test everything before committing so get on it! Leave a comment and let us know what you think.