Testing a soap for dogs on herself was just one of the trials Jules Smith was prepared to undergo in order to launch her small business, but living in the Northland countryside proved a challenge too. However with a single laptop computer, good communications technology and a lot of hard work, she’s on her way and growing.
Last October, Smith set out to establish a national sales profile for Washbar, a natural soap for dogs which she developed. Switching from soap-making to marketing, she set up a website (www.washbar.co.nz) containing basic information about the product, then she started phoning and emailing pet supplies shops. The smaller operators were a better prospect than the larger chain stores, and focusing on the niche marketplace paid off.
Washbar is now stocked in 48 stores nationwide, and Smith believes she’s just scratching the surface. Already she’s making more than she’s spending, on a month by month basis. Her philosophy: don’t do it if you don’t feel passionate about it. "I start work just before about 7.30 and I’m regularly still working way after 6 o’clock, often seven days a week. I do it because I love it.”
With a website to keep up to date and emails to manage – not to mention plenty of phone calls – Smith needed to ensure speedy and stable connectivity. While being only 23km from Whangarei, her driveway is a kilometre long, and the cost of running hard-wire connections down to her house was prohibitive. A 3G phone/internet connection was a failure too; the internet only functioned at snail’s pace. The solution came from local company Ubergroup (www.ubergroup.co.nz), which specialises in point-to-point wireless. Smith now has a bundled package of two VoIP phone lines and broadband coming in at 3Mbps via a box on the roof, at an affordable price.
Having built a business from scratch in just over three months, using the web as a prime marketing tool, Smith has gained some sharable insights into how start-ups can make best use of the internet: using your domain name for your email address, for instance. Linking your emails to one service provider is "a bit naive”, Smith says. If you change providers, you’ll need a new email address, whereas Smith’s will always be firstname.lastname@example.org. Your email address, like your web address, is a unique identifier, but Smith says there are far too many businesses that never use their domain name. Another tip: always have an automated signature on your emails, and include your phone numbers in the signature, so correspondents can find them easily.
"Also, think carefully about what you name your business,” she says. "We named ours Washbar because we thought it was simple to remember and it didn’t tie us to soap per se. We felt there might be other opportunities and we wouldn’t necessarily have to stick with pet products.”
The website has a low-key, ‘natural’ appearance in keeping with the packaging of the product. Smith was setting up a Facebook link when we spoke to her and is keen to do some blogging as well. Future plans include adding video to the site (her nephew is a budding film director) and on the hardware side, acquiring an extra computer and a small server, to streamline the office work.
But above all, she advises, be sure you have a business plan. "I’m horrified so many people don’t have one. I know where I’m going, how long I expect to get there, and I have little goals: three months, six months, one year, two years, and so far I’m absolutely on target for all of them.”
Confident that she was onto a winner, Smith proved her dog soap by testing it on herself, as she doesn’t own a dog. After a fortnight, she had no skin problems and Washbar was pet-ready.
"I’ve got a nice glossy coat, but I don’t bark or wag my tail!”