Melissa Rowlston is the first female Shopify Expert in South Africa and the recipient of the 2018 Shopify Unite Fund. While watching the Unite conference via livestream at our offices earlier this month, we were so proud to see Melissa get a mention by Harley Finkelstein during the opening keynote presentations, we decided our next success story just had to be about Melissa, to showcase her dedication to Shopify and eCommerce in South Africa.
JH: When you built your first Shopify store, I love Stuff, how long did it take you to complete the journey from concept to launch?
My first store, I Love Stuff, was conceptualised just after the birth of my first child in 2009. I was a working mom, who loved shopping but no longer had the time to do it. I wanted a place where I could go and get the best stuff for my friends and family (and myself, of course) without having to get out of my pyjamas – and I knew internet shopping was the solution. However, online shopping was in its infancy in South Africa at the time. To put it in perspective, Takealot only launched in 2011.
In 2012, after a lot of research, I turned to Shopify and started developing my first store. These were the early days, before uAfrica had become established in South Africa and there was no local support. It took me more than 3 months to sort out the payment gateway through an Australian company and an integration into a local bank. Today, thanks to PayFast, it can be done in under an hour.
Then I started manually adding products. Taking photos, editing, resizing and uploading. Painstakingly writing descriptions until I had over 4 000 products online. It took me about six months to get my site ready to launch. I was ready and I started negotiating with suppliers, however, no one would work with me. There was this perception that online was not “real business”. It was a constant battle and breaking that perception was one of the toughest things I did. I wanted to offer my customers choice, quality and exclusivity. I had found 21 great brands, but suppliers demanded I buy every product that I listed on the site. (It’s a miracle I did not bankrupt myself.) Slowly I learned what sold and kept stock and what I could source fast. I did a lot of running around late in the afternoon to fulfil 24-hour turnarounds. But I grew and so did my suppliers. All the while, I was building and rebuilding the site. Redeveloping and redesigning. Advertising and marketing. I was constantly adding apps and improving the user experience. Basically, I had two businesses. One was running a retail store: sourcing and buying and delivering beautiful products. The other was building and marketing and developing an e-commerce website. They were deeply intertwined but completely separate and worlds apart in terms of skills and requirements. I started drowning, I couldn’t do both. I hired assistant after assistant. I even entered a partnership in an attempt to split the business. But in the end, I had to admit defeat. I wanted to shop at a shop like I Love Stuff – but I did not want to run it anymore. I wanted to build online stores. I wanted to market online stores. I wanted to put all my creative energy into making beautiful shops! So, I sold I Love Stuff.
Now I develop online stores for other people. I have been doing this full-time for the past two years. I have built more than 25 sites and I am South Africa’s first female Shopify expert. And I love what I do.
JH: What did you find was the easiest or simplest part of getting started online?
When considering what I do, I think about it as Before-I Love Stuff (B-ILS) and After-I Love Stuff (A-ILS). Nowadays (A-ILS), getting started online is so simple anyone can do it. You can have a Shopify store with a payment gateway and a shipping integration and a Facebook plugin up and running in a couple of weeks, give or take, based on your number of products, level of commitment and tech savvy. It no longer needs to take 6 months (however, it still can). Unfortunately, with this ease of getting started online fast, comes an increasing belief that Shopify is a DIY solution, which is a myth. I can say this after trying to run a business and a website by myself – it cannot be done by one person alone. As an e-commerce website designer, 50% of my work is rescue work. That is were I am pulled in by someone who has a great business, or potential business, and a flimsy website that isn’t responsive, isn’t getting any traffic, and when it does, doesn’t convert. Essentially fixing sites that don’t work for the customer or the merchant. Buy cheap, buy twice. Getting started online is no longer the issue, getting started online properly, is.
JH: In terms of marketing, what resources do you use for inspiration or functionality?
You can build the most beautiful store in the world, but if you don’t market it, it will sink into the obscurity of the world-wide-web, like a shell in a vast ocean. A marketing strategy is one of the most complex parts of your website business and online is only one part of that. My biggest inspiration for any of my marketing strategies is my client. Marketing internationally acclaimed custom-made gymwear to the global market requires a different strategy to marketing gears and clutch kits for the African taxi and truck market. (Yes, these are both real clients of mine.)
South Africa is a complex online market. (It is currently only 1% of the retail market). In the US you can throw a stone and someone is there to buy it online. Here, you need to make sure that all the conditions are perfect, so you can throw the perfect stone into the perfect hands.
My tips are think globally, act locally. Make sure your store functions like an international competitor, it must be beautiful and work without friction. But, only sell internationally if you can factor in the cost. I know people don’t want to hear this. We want to get rich quick with our I-dropship-while-watching-TV business. We want to be selling to India and Hawaii and Alaska. We want to be making 10 000 checkouts per minute (think Kylie Cosmetics!). But the reality is that our infrastructure for local postage and international shipping as well as a rather small local online population don’t bode well for these developments right now. So, we need to capitalise on what does work.
What does work? Leveraging your niche market. Converting retail shoppers to online shoppers. Building trust.
I also believe in paying close attention to visual design. Everything needs to be beautiful – beautiful sells.
There is a plethora of online marketing information and so many apps. I am all for automation – use systems that are smart and intuitive. Schedule posts and newsletters and blogs. Automate, automate, automate. I am the Queen of the App, ut, never lose sight of your core philosophy – the reason why you sell what you sell. If “YOU” shine through, whatever you do will be successful.
My favourite Apps:
• uAfrica (Hands down the best SA app! No store in South Africa can be built without it.)
• Kit (Its fun too – and there are some amazing new developments coming soon with the new Shopify messaging system – Ping. So exciting!)
• Mailchimp (Of course, for newsletters and email marketing)
• Klavio (Essential for pretty notifications)
• iZooto (Great web notifications!)
• Stock2Shop (ERP for accounting systems and B2B integrations)
• Order Printer, Bulk Tag Editor (standard, basic backend necessities)
New developments from Shopify due out in June this year (2018) are also going to be major game changers and replace many essential paid-for apps. These include:
• The BOGO (buy-one, get-one-free)
• Shopify’s messaging service – Ping!
• Retargeting and abandoned cart emails
JH: Wow! Thanks for all those app recommendations, that’s great! Which platforms would you then recommend for eCommerce (I think I know what you’ll say here), accounting, shipping, multichannel, etc. and how do you stick it all together?
eCommerce – Shopify all the way!
Accounting – Sage or QuickBooks
Shipping – Anything that uAfrica suggests
Multichannel – Anything that uAfrica suggests (bidorbuy, PriceCheck). Takealot if you can handle the hair loss! Makro Marketplace is another great one. The more the merrier.
Marketing – see all my favourite apps listed above and off course the staple go-to’s: Facebook, Instagram and Google Adwords. Don’t skimp on Adwords. I can’t say it enough – don’t skimp on adwords!
Then to pull it all together I recommend that you try use as few dashboards as possible. I know this can be difficult, but if it integrates into Shopify it is preferable as a system.
JH: What would you say are the current pitfalls of starting an online business in South Africa?
- Thinking it’s cheap.
Like every business it has overheads. An online store can rack up the same amount in running expenses as any brick and mortar store. Warehousing, shipping, tech support and online rent can easily equate to the same costs as shop rental. And then you have the same staff, packaging and daily running expenses. Setting up an online store can set you back tens to hundreds of thousands of Rands – just like shop fitting.
- It you think you can build it and they will come, you are setting yourself up for failure.
Marketing and advertising are crucial. Set aside money for this. At least with brick and mortar you have foot traffic. There is no foot traffic with online – SEO is a labour intensive art, not a position in a mall.
- Thinking it will work online even though it failed as a brick and mortar store.
Your business model has to be robust enough to withstand all trading conditions. If it failed in a mall, it has little chance of succeeding online.
- South Africa is a different online beast.
This is the biggest pitfall. In the US you can sell your homemade knitted socks on a cheap website, on the side and make a decent living. Not so in South Africa. The market does not exist yet. We are not a sophisticated online shopping population. Our trust levels are low, our penetration levels are small and we do not have the same culture of capitalism. We have to think differently.
- You cannot do it alone.
Building and running a website demands a totally different set of skills to building and running a retail business. I have tried and tested this, it limits your growth if you go it alone.
JH: Some very sound advice there, thanks. Moving on to uAfrica now – how long have you made use of uAfrica and what for ie shipping and/or multichannel?
I have been with uAfrica since the beginning. I Love Stuff was already trading when uAfrica started in South Africa, so I rebuilt my entire shop on the South African platform to take advantage of uAfrica’s perks (which at that time included 0% transaction fees as well as all the shipping and multichannel integration). Every South African Shopify store needs to be using uAfrica. It is the only solution for shipping and multichannel that makes logistical and economic sense. It is the first app I install on every single client store I start.
JH: What is your favourite feature on uAfrica at the moment?
What’s not to love? The bidorbuy and Pricecheck integrations are invaluable, as is the full shipping package. uAfrica also offers great support. You are dedicated to the South African market. uAfrica is integral to Shopify in South Africa.
JH: What would you like to see on uAfrica that isn’t currently available?
Cheap international shipping! This would rapidly expand the South African market. A Shopify integrated dashboard would be ideal. It would also be fantastic if fulfillment status pulled back into Shopify as well as shipping notifications going via Shopify rather than uAfrica.
JH: What in your view is the thing holding most companies back when trying to decide whether to sell online or in a traditional bricks and mortar store?
Money. In South Africa, everything comes down to money. Retail is not an investor industry, it is an entrepreneurial industry. But South Africans are hungry, which breeds an incredible entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurs will make a way.
When it comes to brick and mortar OR online, currently there is a choice, but in a couple years’ time, there will not be a choice – you will need to do both online and retail. This is what multichannel truly means and is the global trend. It is not a matter of which, but rather which first. Brick and mortar is going online and online is going brick and mortar. Shopify itself is so committed to this belief that they have opened their first brick and mortar store this year.
JH: So what advice would you offer someone that is considering starting an online business in 2018.
Do it! It’s not free, it’s not even cheap, but it will set you free! Online is the future. Entrepreneurs apply here. Oh, and get professional help, and by that I don’t mean a therapist, although it might help too.
So there you have it. Amazing advice for online merchants. Thank you Melissa, for engaging with us for our latest success story, the team at uAfrica wishes you all the best with your future plans for world domination! Read Melissa’s winning blog post that got her to the Shopify Unite Conference earlier this month.
Read the full article here