How does the owner of a home-based business manage to be successful in international eCommerce, moving a half million dollars worth of product through her living room each year?
With smart marketing and the right kind of help, that’s how.
Nicole Snow of Darn Good Yarn  has grown her business from nothing in 2008 to a successful international business in six years. And it’s still growing.
The company sells yarn — but that mundane statement hardly tells its story.
Darn Good Yarn is a socially-conscious business with a mission and reflects the owner’s passion to change the world “one exotic, beautiful texture at a time.” Darn Good Yarn employs over 300 poverty-stricken women in India and Nepal. The company collects and recycles silk from waste fibers collected from sari manufacturing factories. The yarn is then individually hand spun and dyed into unique yarns.
The women who help create this yarn from recycled waste fibers are able to make enough money to keep their children in school and to feed their families three meals a day. Snow notes that they perform “a very tedious job to ensure the quality of our yarn.” Without the added income, they and their children would be reduced to begging in the streets, Snow says.
Partners and Technology Help
It’s not just about the dedicated workers in India and Nepal. It’s also about the technology used and the advice and support she received while growing her business.
Snow moved her website platform to Shopify, a cloud-based eCommerce platform, and says she was surprised at how easy it was to move to cloud technology.
But that was just the start. She then integrated her website with shipping options from FedEx, her shipper of choice. “I was able to call up a tech assistant to get my FedEx account working with my Shopify account. I had a FedEx employee working with me to make my Shopify account work with FedEx.”
But the biggest bang comes from using FedEx as a strategic advisor. Snow has regular calls each quarter with her representative to discuss regular quarterly reviews of her progress and to do brainstorming for future expansion. “I look for my FedEx account rep to give me strategy help. For example, we’ll look at our domestic ground shipments. We’ll break down the data and my rep may recommend how I could use a certain type of shipping and save money next quarter.”
That help from FedEx was important when expanding internationally. As a result of advice from her FedEx rep, she says. “We were able to test a bit as to how best to get my products into new geographical markets. I’m saving about $100 on every single shipment to my distributor to Australia.” That $100 per shipment drops directly to the bottom line profits, and it’s enabled growth. Snow says she’s planning a similar strategy to improve shipping to the Netherlands.
“This year compared to last year we’ve nearly doubled our international business,” said Snow.
According to Adam Hamburger, marketing manager at FedEx, this kind of assistance is part of FedEx’s approach to working with small businesses. “We try to make sure we’re easy to do business with. We provide self-serve support online, but also provide someone a business owner can call.”
The company has free tools on its FedEx Small Business Center  to help small businesses manage and grow their business. For instance, the Global Trade Manager  has profiles of different countries including demographics, helps estimate customs and duties, and helps locate the necessary international documents for shipments to help them grow internationally.
Hamburger adds that FedEx views its mission not just as being about shipping from point A to point B, but also giving guidance and input in terms of how entrepreneurs run their businesses. By assigning the business a FedEx account rep and holding quarterly sessions with the business owner, the rep comes to understand the business and what the owner is trying to accomplish. That way FedEx can be of more help to the small business.
The story of Snow’s success is so compelling that Darn Good Yarn won a $25,000 FedEx Small Business Grant. “It was like magic that we won,” Snow said. She intends to use the money as a line of credit to close on commercial property in central New York. Without the money “it would have taken another 18 months to get liquidity.”
Smart Marketing, Too
Operations, technology, infrastructure and people are crucial to success, but it takes more than that. You need a thriving customer base.
Snow says her company has had to learn to get good at marketing. The company uses email marketing, has built a 13,000-subscriber email list and boasts an open rate of over 60%.
“We also maintain a strong social media presence,” Snow adds. Facebook, for instance, plays a key role. Darn Good Yarn’s Facebook Page has over 60,000 fans. Snow says they she will put out an email but then tie it into her Facebook strategy by asking people to come over on Facebook and interact with the business there.
Word of mouth also has played a huge role in Darn Good Yarn’s growth. Snow says she thinks word of mouth works equally well for an online business as an offline business. Of course, having great products and great customer service is important if you want to get people talking — but a small business can increase word of mouth simply by asking. For example, she includes a note with each shipment saying, “Packed with love by Nicole xoxo” and explains how the company got started, asking the customer to share with a friend.
4 Tips for Business Owners
Snow and Hamburger of FedEx offer four tips for other small business owners trying to grow and expand:
1) Develop a multidisciplinary board of advisors: These can include people who are paid (such as your bookkeeper). Others may be mentors who are not necessarily paid. But Snow advises not to simply rely on friends since they may not be as invested in your success. “Don’t be afraid to pay for advice,” she says. “I am not afraid to ask for help.”
2.) Build a network: “No one can know everything, so creating a network that can help you is critical,” Hamburger says. Don’t just think in terms of peers and colleagues. That network should include suppliers, vendors and manufacturers you use in your business. They may have tools and expertise to help.
3.) Work on your business model using the business model canvas tool : Snow is a big proponent of this tool to help clarify your business model and where you need to focus your time.
4.) Think through your strategy on the front end: “A business owner might not think through their inventory strategy up front,” Hamburger points out. But spending time on this early will pay off, because you develop a better direction to take the business in.
Image credits: Darn Good Yarn