I met Shirley Tan about 20 years ago when she owned a typical brick and mortar business fighting for customers in a very competitive market. Today, she is a survivor who has struggled through numerous downturns and the Internet (R)evolution and lives to share with us what it’s like to come back from “Ecom Hell” in her recently released book.
Shirley Tan was born in the Philippines to entrepreneurs on both sides of her family. Her father’s family was in the timber plywood business and her mother’s side was in the textiles industry. Her father moved the family to Guam to start a retail hardware store where Shirley helped out as teenager. She came to the United States in 1985 to attend Golden Gate University (my alma mater too) majoring in International Business with the intention of returning to Guam to help grow the family business which had branched off into real estate development as well.
“Working for your parents is like banging your head against a wall,” Shirley recalls who decided to return back to San Francisco after nine months to continue where she left off, taking control of the specialty gifts business she created while she attended GGU. In order to be competitive, she knew she had to find a niche and they offered high quality silver plated items with personalized engraving. She fondly recalls one of her repeat customers, Mayor/Speaker Willie L. Brown, Jr. who would come in often and browse a bit but ultimately always purchased picture frames with personalized messages.
The early 90’s Recession forced her to think outside of the four walls and she turned to mail order catalogs specializing in wedding items. This specialty became an expensive undertaking with little customer predictability. She then registered her domain name in 1996 and basically scanned in her product catalog online. The phone didn’t ring so she thought the internet was a phony. Then she discovered a Yahoo platform where customers could use a credit card to pay online for their products and business started to pick up. However, her internet sales business took back seat to her retail store sales until 2004 when she wanted a change of pace and freedom from the day-to-day operations of running a store and that’s when she dove head first into the depths of the E-commerce internet world and lives to tell about it today. In her book, she is very frank, honest and open and tells it like it is. She talks about What to Consider Before Starting an E-commerce Business, Getting Started on the Right Road, and the actual Business of E-commerce and even selling your E Commerce business…. if you’re lucky. Shirley wrote her book herself because she wanted to tell her story in her own words and debunk the myth that it’s easy to be the next Amazon…because it’s not. Here’s my interview with her.
I read your book cover to cover because it was really easy to read and I found tidbits that I could apply to my own business. How easy was it to write your book?
This is my first book. The concept was not hard but it was hard to organize all the contents to make it understandable to readers. It took me 18 months and I intentionally wanted to make it an easy-read because I read A LOT and I wanted the book to read like I talk. Lots of people are more interested in how to grow an E-commerce business these days and think it’s easy but it’s not because your competition is not within a 50 mile radius (like a brick and mortar business) but is now national and international and it’s hard to compete.
What is E-commerce exactly?
Electronic commerce or E-commerce, is a type of industry where the buying and selling of products or services is conducted over the internet. This has now expanded to mobile cell phones also known as mobile commerce as more and more people become comfortable with online security and are using smart phones like Samsung Galaxy or iPhones.
You’ve got a list of great Testimonials at the front of your book. Who are these people?
These are real people in the business; entrepreneurs who live it… inside and out. I gave them a first draft of my book to review and they responded and I’m honored to know them and work with them in our industry.
Do you believe brick and mortar stores need the internet to grow and survive today?
Yes. If a company is not on the internet, they are not on the map. Being online drives traffic to a brick and mortar store however the content needs to be engaging to get a customer to drive to a particular store. You need to create different sales, new product launches, birthday/anniversary gifts, or other promotions but make sure you keep your look and message consistent.
You spoke earlier about reading a lot. What do you read?
I read a lot of business books and magazines specific to the E-commerce industry. My favorite general magazines are Inc, Entrepreneur and Fast Companies.
Are you still running an E-commerce business?
From 2004-2008, my online business AmericanBridal.com grew four times and we went from a staff of 5 to 30 employees as we struggled to stay on top of orders. I sold my business in 2009 to a NASDAQ listed corporation and now I am consulting businesses with less than $20 million sales to help them optimize their business operations and leverage their online investments. I’m pretty good at getting to the root of the core issues to help solve a company’s problems and I specialize in Strategic Planning to help grow a business and expand channels and hopefully help them be profitable in the end.
One of your chapters is on Email Marketing and Campaigns and engaging with your customers. Do you have any “specials” for our AsianWeek readers?
Sure. I will offer a Free 30 minute consultation for readers of AsianWeek. The best way to reach me is at email@example.com. If you’re interested in reading my book, you can buy a copy on Amazon, http://www.amazon.com/Ecom-Hell-Ecommerce-Without-Getting/dp/0615786871 and if you have Kindle app, the eBook downloadable for only $3.99
Any advice to E-commerce hopefuls?
Starting and running a business is not easy but it can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. Know thy self and be honest with yourself. Focus on your strengths versus fixing your weaknesses. Celebrate success along the way and reflect on lessons learned from the mistakes that you made.