Celebrating the people behind British small businesses

Making your online small business a roaring success: the inside scoop!

The rise of eCommerce has probably been one of the best things to happen for small business owners. More and more people are starting their own business online, or start out online and then expand to the high street. One such independent business is Reef Knots, a luxury silk tie brand founded by Patrick Dudley-Williams. Over the course of just a couple of days he found himself jobless and the father to newborn twins – but thanks to the internet he was able to take a gamble on the business idea he’d been thinking of for some time. And it paid off!

What do you think is the secret to your success?

“When I started out I realised people sold ties as secondary products – nobody branded or marketed them as an item in their own right, and ties can often get lost in a clothes store. I wanted to sell ties that told something about you and your personality; perhaps you like sailing, or drinking cocktails with friends. The internet was an opportunity to get this brand message across, and help our ties stand out. Someone can see a person wearing one of our ties and go straight to the site – so the internet has really been fundamental to our success.”

What input did you have on the design of the website?

“I pretty much did it all – I had the help of a web designer to make my plans reality, but I had a really clear idea of what I wanted. I wanted the branding to have a coastal feel, to be fresh, bright and simple. The graphics and visuals, and even the item photography, is my own work. The site itself is a customised Shopify platform.”

Do you sell offline too?

“We’re just moving to small retailers now. We sell at events and shows too – we even go into City offices and set up a stall. Ties are touchy-feely and while most of our business is still online, customers like the opportunity to see something in real life. It’s also good for brand awareness, as we offer services such as custom designs for corporate gifting. We have three main sales avenues – ecommerce, wholesale, and direct to corporate.”

Would your business exist without the internet?

“I think if my grandfather had decided to open a tie shop it would have been much harder. Being able to sell your products to people without meeting them physically opens up your options a lot, and the internet means you can just have a go without the commitment of renting premises and all the costs that incur.”

What’s the biggest challenge about selling online?

“I’d definitely say SEO – it’s such a key part of marketing. If you’re on page 4 of Google, you’re nowhere. With things like this it’s important to take good advice, so I sought the help of an online marketing director who got me up to speed on the best ways to improve our SEO and rankings. You have to work out where you have a chance of competing and be smart about it. By focussing on the longer-tail searches we’ve skipped ahead of lots of big companies in the rankings.”

How are you coping with the Christmas rush?

“It’s hectic, but fun! The company’s grown so quickly and it would be great to have a chance to draw breath in January, but we might not be able to even then! We don’t want to miss opportunities at this time of year when people are willing to put their hands in their pockets, so it’s all hands on deck – even at weekends, when I do the rounds of shows and events.”

Do you have any top tips for people starting an online business?

“My first tip would be to get as many mobile devices as possible so that you can get away from your desk and work on the go. My second would be to make lists of everything – there are millions of things to remember constantly. Being a small business owner turns your life into one constant list!”

What’s the worst thing about running an online business?

“It’s difficult to get away from – there are always orders to be packed and shipped, phone calls to take, issues cropping up. An online business is open 24/7 – there’s no shutting up the shop and going home at the end of the day, which can make going on holiday and getting some downtime difficult. However, this is all part and parcel of running a small business.”

Do you find yourself struggling against bigger retailers online?

“I think our main struggle is competing with them for SEO, as big companies have dedicated marketing teams who work around the clock – we just can’t match that. However, our customers get a much better experience, so on that point big companies aren’t competition. Tie Rack went bust because they didn’t think about what their customers want, whereas we’re really connected to our customers and care about their experience. Work hard enough and you’ll get there in the end, whether your business is big or small!”

Want to know more about selling online? Read our series on small business eCommerce!