Erica Stewart, the founder and CEO of online marketplace hardtofind, always knew she wanted to start her own business. With an idea to bring boutique products to a wider audience, she took a leap of faith and quit her job in magazines to pursue the dream.
Nearly 10 years on, she has surpassed her initial goal of making a $2 million turnover, and today Stewart’s site boasts over 2,000 sellers from 20 countries.
Retailbiz interrupted Stewart’s holiday recently to find out how she did it and what 2017 has in store for hardtofind.
Why did you start hardtofind in 2008?
I’ve always been very entrepreneurial from a young age and I knew that at some point I wanted to start my own business. The idea came from working in magazines and seeing all the beautiful products coming into the office for photo shoots but having no idea where to actually find them myself. It was the stylists who were finding gorgeous products in little out of the way boutiques.
Starting out, how did you convince sellers to join the platform?
We told them we wanted to aggregate the designers, artisans, and makers of beautiful products… These were products you couldn’t find in high street stores. We wanted to give small creative businesses a platform and help them reach an audience that they couldn’t reach alone. That was the initial concept and we haven’t deviated from that at all.
Now, supporting these creative businesses is at the heart of what we do and we’re able to reach millions of people online that they don’t necessarily have the budget or expertise to reach.
So the sell in is that they can set up a store on hardtofind for free—they have nothing to lose. They can live alongside likeminded brands in an ecosystem of cool brands and unique products.
You must have a lot of interest from sellers wanting to jump on board?
We do. We get approached by new businesses wanting to sell on hardtofind on a daily basis so a big part of the business is curating the sellers. We try to make life easier for customers who are looking for products that are genuinely different but that are also of high quality.
So the curation process is really important, we probably knock back about 90 per cent of people that approach us. In the early days we had to pound the pavement.
How many sellers do you have now?
We have more than 2,000 sellers on the platform. Our top sellers are making well over six figures with us. We’re also seeing a lot of sellers who have been on board with us for a few years consistently increasing their turnover with hardtofind, which is really gratifying.
What have been the main challenges of growing from a start-up to a business with thousands of sellers? Have the challenges changed over time?
There’s a different challenge every day. They do change over time because technology moves fast, digital marketing moves fast. You have to learn new skills all the time.
Just running a business in itself is a challenge. At the moment the challenge is attribution and trying to get down to a granular level of where we’re spending our marketing dollars—it’s not straightforward. Everybody says digital marketing is much more measurable but it’s not really. You still need to try and attribute your spend to a customer in a certain way and it’s not clear cut.
Does being pure play online retailer have some benefits?
I think so. Because we don’t have that face-to-face connection with our customers we have to be even more focused on the customer experience and ensure that it’s as good as it can be. That means not only having great customer service but ensuring the path to purchase is a smooth one and that customers are enjoying their experience of shopping online.
Aside from that, the benefits are that we can reach a much bigger audience than a bricks and mortar store. In fact, we can reach a global audience and we don’t have to worry about traditional retail overheads of rent, staffing, holding stock… There are many benefits to being pure play and it makes us as a business much more agile and we can scale in many ways much faster.
Why did you decide to go offline last year by holding the first hardtofind market?
It was really an opportunity to bring the brand to life and for our customers to experience hardtofind in a different way. If we can add an experiential element to what we do it will help stand our brand apart from others in this space.
It was a really nice day…Customers got to meet the sellers and chat to them about the products. The feedback from our sellers was really positive so we’re actually planning another one in late February at Moore Park Entertainment Quarter in Sydney. It may well be something we continue to do.
Would you consider opening a bricks and mortar store?
It’s not on the agenda but I never say never. I don’t want to say no and then be caught out doing it!
Back to online, do you expect mobile to grow a lot for you this year? What are you doing in this space?
I do. It’s grown so quickly in such a short period of time and we just can’t ignore those numbers. Desktop still plays a part in the buying cycle but more and more we’ll be turning to our mobiles to make online purchases. That needs to be the focus.
We’ll be focusing mostly on the user experience…looking at everything from the categorisation of products to ease of being able to look at images, to the checkout process.
As the owner of a thriving online business, what advice would you give to other retailers?
I’ve learnt that so much of our success is just tenacity, putting one foot in front of the other. It’s two steps forward one step back.
Apart from being tenacious, you need to build a good team around you and develop systems and processes. Think about where you might be in one, two or three years and consider if you have the systems and processes in place now to cope with ongoing growth…. We’re always looking for ways to create automation or efficiencies across the business. It’s amazing how that can help you scale faster.
Using data is also important… If you really look at the data you get—from Google analytics to your sales data, to what people are saying on product reviews or Facebook—and if you really look at what customers are doing, not just what they’re saying, it helps you make decisions that will ultimately help you grow the business.
Is the hardtofind of today what you envisioned when you started?
The initial goal I surpassed many years ago, so no, I didn’t think it would get this big. But I’ve learnt so much and I’m very focused on creating a hugely successful business. The initial goal was a turnover of $2 million. I’m not laughing because that’s a huge achievement, but I think I underestimated the costs of scaling a business. I was very naive early on.
So what’s next for hardtofind?
We’re about to launch in another country. I can’t talk too much about that, but that’s the plan. Ultimately I see hardtofind as a global brand. Australia is where we started but I’d love to enter other markets as well.
It’s been such a joyful ride. I’ve genuinely enjoyed every moment of it and I feel very lucky that I get to wake up in the morning and do something I love. Building a business is just so satisfying.
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