Friday, November 30, 2007

Good bye, adios, au revoir

Today is my final day with Robeez. And my final blog post. It’s been very rewarding to hear each of your stories and offer insight where I can. I will leave this blog as an archive for future reference that you can come back to as your businesses grow and change over time.

Although this is the end of an era for me and I’m feeling sad, I’m looking forward to a nice, quiet time over the holidays with family and friends. But I guess life with a 15-year-old can only be so quiet!

I wish each of you the best with your businesses and hope that you find the experience as rewarding as I have.

Sandra Wilson

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Using tradeshows to find a sales rep

April is planning to attend her first tradeshow, Magic, this spring. If the event is a success, she wants to find a sales rep to help build distribution. Her question: Do I scout out the LA Mart and other large cities with this type of exposure or is there another way?

To find a sales rep, I have a single word of advice: network. (Well, actually I’ll say a little more!) I recommend using this tradeshow as an opportunity to speak with buyers, exhibitors, and sales reps to find the right person.

  • Store owners – Ask store owners or buyers for the names of sales reps who they have a great relationship with.
  • Exhibitors – Speak with other tradeshow exhibitors for recommendations. They may also be able to fill you in on who not to use.
  • Sales reps – Sometimes sales reps will walk right into your booth interested in selling your product.
  • Trade magazine listings – Many trade magazines have work opportunities posted at the back of the magazine. Look at the publication that is most appropriate for your industry and place an ad.
  • Customers – Something we experienced with Robeez: people who love your product can do a great job of selling it. Many of Robeez early reps were moms and grandmas who loved the shoes and wanted to bring them to their home market.
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Research and forecasting

Angelique is in the idea stage of her baby business. She has an idea for a stroller accessory and would like to determine the scope of sales potential.

When looking at market research, there is always a wide-range of options; from the Cadillac version all the way to build-it-yourself. When starting your company, the expense of such comprehensive research does not equal the return. I would recommend looking at your home market as a starting point. If you’re marketing a stroller accessory, look at the number of stores carrying strollers. What is their approximate volume? How many of your accessory do you feel could be sold for each stroller?

I also recommend speaking directly to store owners or buyers. Get their feedback. Ask them how many they think they could sell in a month. All this research will give you an approximate idea for forecasting.

Another option is to review industry stats. The Juvenile Product Manufacturers’ Association (JPMA) and various trade publications, such as Kids Today, should provide some insight into sales and distribution in the stroller market.add to sk*rt

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Testing the waters

Feedback has been a really important part of Robeez from the beginning so I’m really excited about this post. I received this email from a mom in the testing stage:
How did you find the courage to make a "go" of your product? You wrote that for the first five years, you had very little income. I have so many ideas for baby products but am afraid to fail. I've listed some of the items I've handcrafted on EBay but to no avail. When and how do you determine that your product is just not right and that's it's time to quit?

I commend you for starting here. You’ve got the right idea in mind. And with the advent of the internet, it is easier than ever to get immediate feedback on your creations.

Before jumping into my business with Robeez, I took the shoes I’d created to local retail stores and asked the store owner to carry the product on consignment. I would then go back a week later and discuss feedback with the store owner. This was a great way for me to measure interest in Robeez. And what subsequently gave me to confidence to kick start me into action.

You mention that you have a number of ideas. If this one hasn’t received the response you’re looking for, move onto another possibility.

You may also consider feedback through other sales channels, such as local retailers or consumer shows. By exploring all your opportunities, you will be able to make an informed decision about the reception of your product in the marketplace.add to sk*rt

Learn by doing

Billie is a new mom who is planning to open a children’s store in her neighborhood. She’s working on her business plan, taking an accounting course, and deciding what products to offer. But, she’s never owned a retail business so she’s nervous about starting the endeavor.

First or all, I want to say “good for you!” It definitely sounds like you’re on the right track. (Two big thumbs up for the accounting course; this is extremely important.)

Starting a new business is risky but even riskier is starting a business without experience. You say you’ve never owned a retail store but have you worked in retail? I would recommend getting some work experience in a children’s store. You can use the opportunity to learn as much as you can about the industry.

Not only can learn the basics of retail management but you get insight into margins, sell through, and vendor relationships that would be applicable to your business.

Another possibility is to pursue a mentor in the retail sector. As you’ll see from my last post, I think mentorship is one of the best ways to learn when you’re new to a business.

Best wishes!add to sk*rt

Friday, November 23, 2007

Ready to start selling?

This is a cool idea…folded plastic vases. I received an email from the creator, Jill Stern. She has gotten the vases into a few boutiques but wants to know how to get to mass merchandisers and large floral chains. Supplying the product

First of all, it’s important to figure out if you are able to supply a mass chain. If you get the contract but can’t fulfill the order, you risk losing credibility.

Find a contact

Get on the phone and find out the buyer’s name. Can you make an appointment? Send a sample and information package.

Put on your sales hat

Once you have the contact, sell your product. If you’re not comfortable with sales, finding an independent sales rep can be the best solution. There are many gift and home accessory shows where you can meet buyers face-to-face. (Here’s a great list.)

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Launching a new website

This email comes from a mom who wants to start an online store. Here’s her story: “If you Google ‘starting an online boutique’ you can imagine how much stuff comes up. I have no idea which sites are legit and which isn’t. I really just need some information on where to begin.”

Start at the beginning - What do you want to sell?

Online sales are extremely competitive. Price matching is just a few clicks away. You need to consider how your site will differentiated from the rest of the pack. What is your niche? How will your website service the market in a way no other does. Having a clear vision will keep you on track and allow you to put together a complete business plan.

Get educated - Take a course

Once you have determined what your business will be, a course at a local college can be very beneficial. You will learn the basics of web design and ecommerce and the behind-the-scenes activities such as accounting and purchasing that will be needed to make it all run smoothly. One course may not give you all the answers but it’s a great place to start. And a great place to network!

Good luck getting started.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Robeez case study

Lately, I’ve received a number of emails from moms wanting to know how to get their idea off paper and into production. I can best answer this question by sharing with you what I did.

A couple years ago Industry Canada did a case study on Robeez. This is a very detailed document and contains some valuable information about how I got started. I think it will be useful to many of you that are just getting started. Have a look at the case study.

One of the mom’s emails also asked specifically about patents. She states, “Almost a year ago I had an appointment with a patent lawyer to discuss and idea I had to improve baby bottles. He relayed all the steps I would have to take and the fees I would endure. This of course scared me off. I am thinking of just producing a small lot of bottles and trying to distribute them.”

First of all, this is what patent lawyers do. It may have scared you off but at least now you have a complete understanding of what is involved. Second, manufacturing a prototype or small production run may just be the place to start. This allows you to do some market research. Talk to moms who will give you honest feedback. Talk to store owners who you would like to carry your product and see if they feel it is a viable business idea. Armed with their feedback, you can make an educated decision about whether to take the chance and move forward with your business.

Thanks to Rochelle, Jennifer & Karen for their questions.add to sk*rt

The power of mentoring

I love reading emails from moms who have loved Robeez from the start! Thank you to Karen from Toronto for her recent email. Here’s a quick run down on Karen’s business: She has worked out the start of her business plan but needs to find someone with expertise in injection-molded plastics. In short, she’s looking for a mentor.

Benefits of a mentor for me

As a new entrepreneur, having a mentor can be extremely beneficial. I had a mentor from the very early days of Robeez. Now, I spend a few hours each month mentoring new entrepreneurs to pass on what I’ve learned.

  • Been there, done that – A mentor can be great to discuss long-term business plans. They have the experience of their successes and challenges and can help guide you in the right direction so that you don’t have to learn everything from scratch.
  • “Am I crazy?” – Sometimes you just need some feedback. You have a new opportunity that initially sounds like a winner but you can see potential for disaster. A mentor can be that person that you call just to bounce ideas off of and ask, “Am I crazy?”
  • Staying on track – With a new business, it’s easy to get very wrapped up in the day-to-day details. But it’s important to take the time to focus on what’s driving your business’ growth, which in the early days is revenue. A mentor can help keep you accountable.

What to look for in a mentor

  • It’s important to find someone that you are comfortable talking with. Your personalities need to click for the relationship to be successful.
  • For most mompreneurs, the best mentor will have a broad range of experience in business, entrepreneurship, and success balancing work and life.
  • Your mentor doesn’t necessarily need to have a background in your industry. Most business concepts can be carried over from industry to industry. However if you can find a mentor who has grown a business similar to yours, all the better!
  • You need someone who won’t let you off easy. If your mentor always thinks everything is “great”, they could be doing you a disservice. By challenging ideas or decisions where appropriate, a good mentor can help you think outside the box.

How to find a mentor

  • First and foremost, just ask. You’d be surprised how willing business people are to share their experiences. I don’t believe in sitting at the sidelines. If you really want to work with someone specific, make a phone call and ASK!
  • Look into mentorship matching programs. I work with the FWE (Forum for Women Entrepreneurs) where I have been matched with the founders of a children’s apparel company. The FWE works specifically in the Vancouver area but there are local business groups in each region with entrepreneurship programs. Google “mentoring” and you find thousands of results.
  • Check with local government agencies. The Government of Canada site has a great network of information, articles, and resources for business. Here’s a specific article on resources for finding a mentor.
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Thursday, November 15, 2007

This mom is calling it a day (for now)

Many of you who know me, know that this past year since the sale of Robeez has been bittersweet. When Stride Rite purchased Robeez, I agreed to stay on for a year to see everyone through the transition. And now 15 months later, my time with Robeez is coming to a close. I’m looking forward to a break, to spend time with my husband and son and family and friends. But I’m torn because Robeez is what I have known for the past thirteen years and it is very difficult to say goodbye.

As I wind down my time at Robeez, I will also wind down my blog. For those of you who have been waiting to ask questions, now is the time. I will accept questions until Monday, November 19 and then post all remaining answers before the end of the month. Write to

Thank you to everyone who has regularly read my blog. Over the next few months, I will take time to relax and explore new possibilities.add to sk*rt

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Disclosing your big idea

I received an email from a mom who attended my presentation at the Indigo Entrepreneurship Series. Angelique had the following questions:

  1. You talked a lot about getting help from other people (i.e. your pricing strategy). How do you get that help without the fear that someone is going to “steal” your idea?
  2. I’ve seen Robeez knockoffs in the marketplace. Did you consider a patent for your product?

I’ve met some entrepreneurs who were really concerned about their idea being stolen and others who want to tell everyone they meet. I have to say that I fell in the latter of these two camps. I’ve always wanted to see the best in people. When it came time to share my business idea with mentors, I gave all the details. However this also reflected the nature of my product. Apparel products are not eligible for patents. If you are very concerned about this, you could have contacts sign a non-disclosure agreement. I have signed a number of NDA’s when mentoring entrepreneurs. A non-disclosure agreement can be drafted by your lawyer.

And to answer your second question: yes, I did consider a patent however apparel products cannot be patented so I was out of luck.

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