Seller leaves corporate world, finds online niche in handmade items
by Auctiva.com staff writer
Nov 30, 2010
During the 29 years Deb Messina was in the corporate world, business travel frequently required that she spend many days at a time away from her Oregon home. "I found early on that wherever I was in the world, no matter how stressful the day, a cup of my favorite tea would bring me a moment of calm and home," says Messina, who successfully turned her fondness for tea into a cozy niche as owner of OneMark Creations on Auctiva Commerce.
The tea lover would take her favorite teas on the road with her, storing them in a small plastic baggy. It was a practical container but not an attractive one, admits Messina. "[I was] just a little embarrassed as I would pull that useful, but not pretty bag out in a restaurant, a business meeting or some other public place," she recalls. "It seemed to me that it would be much nicer to be able to pull out a pretty little wallet with my tea bags, instead of that plastic bag."
This gave Messina an idea, and being a sewer and quilter of more than 30 years, she began experimenting with designs for "tea wallets." After leaving her job with an alternative power generation manufacturing company in 2006, she had the time to perfect her design. The result was an original, copyrighted design for the Tea Bag Wallet.
She also made teapot cozies, having sewn virtually every type of these and noticing that none of them kept tea as warm or stayed as clean as she'd like. The wrap-around designs and handle holes allowed the heat to escape, she explains. So she made her own design square so it would sit flat on the table, and bypassed the holes for the handle and spout. She added loose-leaf tea travel wallets, as well as French press cozies, and covers for small appliances to her inventory on all her shops. “Cozies are a very traditional idea—and a good one at that," she notes.
Messina got her feet wet in e-commerce back in 2007 on eBay. There she learned that one-of-a-kind items like hers do well, she says. She also began a wholesale online store on Yahoo, where tea lovers could see her inventory, and e-mail or call in their orders. However, she wanted a fully featured online shop from which buyers could make purchases quickly and easily. A friend, who is an eBay seller and is in the process of setting up an Auctiva Commerce Store, recommended she give Auctiva's e-commerce software a try.
"I looked at several other options, but the features I was most looking for—cross sell, up-sell, coupon management and control over the layout of the store—were included with this solution, where they were not necessarily part of the basic plans for the other solutions I looked at," she says. "I also liked the fact that I could do all the development for the store myself using the tools as they are presented, without needing to hire a Web designer or learn to code myself."
She's been so happy with the software with her current OneMark Creations retail store that she plans to add another Auctiva Commerce store in 2011: a OneMark Creations store for her wholesale customers.
Having stores on different venues has helped Messina attract more buyers and sales, she says.
"Each sales channel has its own business/sales cycle," Messina explains. "By utilizing multiple channels to sell my products, I'm able to even out the sales and cash flow over the course of a year. For example, I shipped Christmas orders for my wholesale customers in August and September, when retail sales were a little slower. Having several channels in place provides a better base for the business." To further expand her enterprise, Messina recently began selling on Etsy, a marketplace for handmade goods.
Make it 'sew'
Running a business across so many channels keeps Messina busy adding inventory, fulfilling orders and creating new items, but it allows her to stay at home with her family and be in charge.
"I have always loved working on my own," she says. "Having an online business allows me to structure my own time and work schedule. I'm able to take the time to work on new designs and then see them through to a ready-to-sell product. I enjoy working on every part of the process."
Her business motto, "Make It So," helps her stay focused and continue to develop her stores. "As a serious 'Star Trek' fan, I love the positive, let's-get-it-done message spoken by Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in nearly every episode," she explains about her motto. "As a business owner, it reminds me to get busy and to work my plan every day."
The feedback she gets from buyers is also a driving force to continue working on her store. "The comments I get from my customers really provide validation that the path I've chosen to follow is worth the time and energy it takes," she notes.
She aims to keep good feedback coming by continuously checking out other sites, both competitors and non-competitors, to see what's working for them and what she could apply to her own sites. Sellers should always do this, she says.
"Take all of your observations, your knowledge of your own customers and products, and evaluate which features, layout, navigation, etc. you want to incorporate into your own site based on your research," she advises new sellers. "Research, apply, test, observe the results and then do it again. It's a never-ending, ever-evolving cycle and it applies to every part of the business."
Tips of the trade
Messina has faced challenges on her path to business ownership. One of the biggest is staying connected "in useful ways" with other business owners facing similar challenges. "It's easy to get tunnel vision when you are working on your own. That can slow things down or result in a decision that isn't as well informed as it could be," she says.
That's why she's made an effort to get to know other merchants and check in with them regularly. This helps them serve as a support system and resource, should a hurdle pop up. "It's important to choose people that are positive, focused and who have skill sets that are different from your own—that's the best way to get a different perspective on a problem that needs solving," Messina notes.
"To focus on the big picture, I also meet weekly with one particular colleague. Each week we select a specific task or part of our businesses we want to work on and focus our attention on that issue. We brainstorm ideas, do research or try out a new tool. It is a time commitment, but it's a commitment to improve our businesses each and every week—definitely worth the investment.
"Being a successful online seller is more work than anyone ever believes it will be," she continues. "To do it well requires discipline, focus, creativity, attention to details and patience. It's not for the faint of heart. That being said, the rewards are so worth it."
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