Sometimes life throws you a curve ball. And sometimes, you hit that ball out of the park.
That’s what happened to Jennifer Gault-Varner, whose husband was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer three weeks after their honeymoon. Doctors weren’t optimistic about his odds for survival or the couple’s odds of conceiving a child.
Happily, the doctors were wrong on both counts. Three weeks after the diagnosis, Gault-Varner learned she was pregnant with their first child. And today, her husband is a healthy father of four.
Still, the experience was a catalyst for Gault-Varner’s entrepreneurial adventures. Ecstatic about that first pregnancy — but still uncertain about the family’s future — Gault-Varner launched an online maternity clothing store, Bella Blu Maternity. It was a success, and she sold it three years later. Call it a triple in baseball terms. But it was her next business — an online pajama store — that catapulted the ball over the fence.
Realizing she was tired of retail, Gault-Varner sold the pajama store, then threw in 40 hours of consulting because the owner had no experience running a business. That was the genesis behind Pure E-Commerce, a company that creates e-commerce websites, stocks them with merchandise, sells them to brand-new entrepreneurs – and provides one-on-one consulting to help clients succeed in their entrepreneurial endeavors.
Business for the 6-year-old company has doubled in the past couple of years, Gault-Varner says. She has 10 employees and is making plans to expand internationally. She is particularly aiming at Japan and China, where, she says, e-commerce is growing much faster than it is in the U.S.
Her secrets of success? A strong team and careful control over the growth of her business. For example, she says, “I didn’t use Google Adwords until I was ready.”
It’s the mistakes Gault-Varner made while getting her first business off the ground that guide her current business model – and the consulting advice she gives her customers.
Her advice for online entrepreneurs:
Sell a product you’re passionate about. “Your passion will show in how you market the product,” and that’s how you’ll get results, she says.
Set goals for yourself. Decide how much you want to make, then devise a plan to achieve that financial goal. Analyze what you’re doing now and what else you can do to increase your bottom line. Play with different marketing avenues to find out what works, she adds.
Don’t ignore the things you don’t like or want to do. “There are things you’ll love and things you don’t like in any business. You have to push through your reluctance and learn about them.” That’s especially true of social media. “People will go on your site and investigate whether you’re a company worthy of their business. They check Facebook and Twitter. So you need to keep up with them.” It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, Gault-Varner says. “I can do Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn in 15 minutes a day.”
Learn about SEO. Don’t just hire a supposed expert to do it for you. Learn how to do it yourself before you hire someone to help you. Gault-Varner knows whereof she speaks. When she started BellaBlu, she ignored SEO while spending tens of thousands of dollars on advertising. Had she learned SEO from the start, she says, she would have saved a fortune.
Your website has to look good to your prospective customers and clients, not just to you. If you’re selling baby clothes, show it to 10 friends who have babies. When she launched her BellaBluMaternity site, Gault-Varner knew that pregnant women are emotional, and she took that into account in her design. The result: “They loved the look and feel of my site,” Gault-Varner says.
In addition, make sure your website is clean, and that the majority of the information you provide is “above the fold,” so people don’t have to scroll down.
Give back. Gault-Varner has launched a nonprofit, Kilian’s Kids. Named after her fourth child, the charity donates laptop computers, iPods, iPads and DSI game systems to children fighting life-threatening illnesses.
Behind Kilian’s Kids is the latest curve ball that Gault-Varner, once again, converted to a home run. This time, Gault-Varner — then pregnant with her third child — learned she had breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy, all while carrying Kilian, who was born “perfect and healthy,” Gault-Varner says.
Gault-Varner raises money for Kilian’s Kids by auctioning retail websites and spending the money on her charity. The gadgets she donates are meant to give hospital-bound kids the ability to communicate with the outside world. As Gault-Varner says on her website: “If we can provide these families with something that allows them to keep up with their life and provide a little sense of peace while having to put life on hold, then Kilian’s Kids will be a success.”