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Creating an online business

A few years ago Irene Falcone, a mother of four who enjoyed a high-flying career in the film distribution business, started investigating her daily beauty and make-up regime. Irene discovered that she had been putting more than 500 chemicals onto her skin daily.

“I was shocked,” she says. “I threw away everything I had in the cupboard, and started writing a blog on natural alternatives.”

That was the genesis of her business, Nourished Life, which is now in a warehouse on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, and employs a staff of around 20. However for the first few years of the business, it was just Falcone working out of hours, picking, packing and fulfilling orders alongside her corporate job.

She said the blog, which was hosted on the WordPress platform, was the first step to taking her business online. The blog had an overwhelming response, with thousands of mums just like her asking where they could also find skincare, make up and childcare products using natural ingredients.

“The WordPress blog was free,” she recalls, “and the next thing I did was set up a Facebook page, where I shared the posts I was writing on the blog.”

The mothers who were already reading Irene’s blog responded positively, and shared her posts with their friends, organically growing her audience.

The demand for information on where to get natural products led Irene to look for shops that were selling them. She found very few, and those that did often didn’t make a distinction between the products that were natural, and those that used petrochemicals.

“So I decided to start selling the products myself,” she says.

Her first foray into e-commerce was with a WordPress plugin that cost her around $30 per month for a shopping cart application. When people asked where they could get her products, she pointed them to the blog, and most of the transactions were done using PayPal.

Once things started to get bigger she transitioned to another shopping application, called Shopify, which cost her around $100 per month. “WordPress is a blogging platform, it’s not really an ecommerce platform,” she says. “Shopify is a complete ecommerce solution, it takes credit cards and PayPal, and you can customise it with logos and branding.”

Irene emphasises how easy the process was, saying that there’s basically an application and a plugin for everything. “Nowadays I’ve moved to a custom website, but the great thing about Shopify was that you would press a button and it would generate the mailing labels and customer details for you,” she says. “It was simple.”

At this stage she was still packing orders herself and taking them to the post office in her car boot. Eventually the daily volume outgrew the boot of Falcone’s car and she opted to use Australia Post’s Click and Send solution, which was integrated with Shopify’s ecommerce platform via API technology.

Click and Send integrates functions such as online payments, stock management and shipping with a business’s chosen platform, including printing labels. The upshot for Falcone was this translated into a truck being sent each day by Australia Post to collect her orders.

“It’s really seamless,” she says. “We live in a digital age and everything is available at the click of a button. That includes stock control, barcodes and other plugins.”

One thing she has learned about starting a small business online is that you have to follow your passion, and you have to provide excellent customer service. “Every customer is a mirror image of me,” she says. “I talk to them in their own language and they respond to that.

“Your business won’t work if you are not doing something you are passionate about,” she continues. “If you follow your passion, it will come naturally to you and things will grow from there.”

It also pays to listen to the customer. Irene says they asked for next day delivery, and so Irene made sure she was able to provide that. They also wanted a greater variety in terms of packaging sizes, and so she also delivered on that request. “One person is the voice of many”, she says, in terms of customers who get in contact.

She’s also learned some significant lessons along the way, the most important of which is to do everything in-house. After the business took off she was unable to pick and pack herself, and so she outsourced it, something she says was a disaster.

Today 12 mums work in the warehouse, fitting in their hours around school hours. “I am a mum with four kids, and in my corporate life there was no flexibility,” she says. “So when things started to take off it was important to me to have a business that supported the local community and local mums. And besides, they’re all past customers!”

The other mistake she made was outsourcing bookkeeping, which she says was also a disaster because they never knew what the cashflow was, or what their profits were. “Now we do everything in-house,” she says.

Having grown into a medium-sized business, Irene is very conscious of the fact that it all started at her kitchen table in a bid to meet her own needs. From there, her passion grew it into the business it is today.