Amy Ballon and Danielle Botterell, co-founders of Admiral Road, recognized that customers were increasingly buying their fleece baby blankets online.
The partners knew their Internet sales channel had even greater potential but they were not sure how to achieve it. “We knew how to convert customers if they already knew about us,” Ms. Botterell explains, “but we couldn’t get new customers to our site. We were completely unsearchable: unless you typed in our company name you wouldn’t find us online. We’d dabbled in (Google) AdWords but ultimately found them expensive in terms of bringing actual customers to us.”
Like many businesses, Toronto-based Admiral Road is a small, lean company with no IT staff. How could Ms. Ballon and Ms. Botterell get the specialized expertise they needed? The issue is not limited to search engine optimization (SEO). As customers increasingly want to buy online and through mobile devices, businesses are feeling pressure to keep up with technological changes and they often need help to do it.
Admiral Road produces handmade fleece blankets for babies and children, as well as other fun products carrying their original designs, such as T-shirts and winter scarves. Ms. Ballon and Ms. Botterell are that rare breed – best friends who can run a business together. They met at university, worked abroad, got their MBAs and had corporate careers on Bay Street before deciding to go out on their own.
When they founded Admiral Road, developing a professional image and a website was a priority. “Our website has always been our main interface with customers, and we wanted it to reflect our products: accessible, high quality and functional, with a great design aesthetic. We built it with the help of a talented web designer. It was a straightforward design and branding exercise,” Ms. Ballon says.
But once you establish an online presence, you need to keep it up-to-date, especially if you sell to end consumers. Ms. Ballon and Ms. Botterell were able to do much of the work themselves. They regularly updated their website, they sent quarterly e-newsletters to their customers, and they got involved with social media – starting a blog, a Facebook fan page, and an active Twitter account.
Their online photo gallery, depicting babies with Admiral Road blankets, provided great visuals. When it came to increasing traffic to their website through SEO techniques, however, they hit a wall. “Neither us nor our web designer at the time had the technological know-how to optimize our website for search engines. We were referred to local SEO firms, but initial research showed it to be costly – especially since we didn’t know if it would be effective,” Ms. Botterell says.
Entrepreneurial friends had told them they could hire technical expertise online and they decided to give it a try.
There are websites that bring buyers and sellers of technological services together in an online market, the way eBay does for products. As with eBay, the advantage of an online market is that a greater number of sellers are connected with a greater number of buyers.
For the seller, you can pitch your specialized skills to a much larger market. For the buyer, it’s easier and faster to find someone with the specific technical skills you need who has time in their schedule to do the work when you need it done.
Ms. Ballon and Ms. Botterell used elance.com because they’d heard good things about it from their friends. You post a job on the site for $10 and get proposals from freelancers telling you what they can do and how much it will cost. As with eBay, you can check out feedback from past jobs they’ve done. When they’ve completed the work, you can pay for it with PayPal or a credit card.
Ms. Ballon described the advantages: “Basically, the price was right. We paid about $600 for the project. If we wanted to get any traction with Google AdWords we'd probably need to pay about that each month, with no guarantees on conversion rates. You pay per click, not per customer acquisition. We also really liked the feedback component – it gave us a sense of comfort in choosing a supplier. Given the online nature of our business we were comfortable with a virtual relationship. It’s actually more convenient for us to communicate via e-mail than telephone.”
To gain the benefits of acquiring technical expertise through elance.com or similar online markets for services, Ms. Ballon and Ms. Botterell have four pieces of advice:
1. Know your objectives. If you want a website designed, for example, you should research the websites of other companies so you know what you like and don’t like.
2. Research the posted profiles of service providers. This will give you an idea of the typical backgrounds of people doing the type of work you want done and how much they charge. Knowing how past jobs have been described can also help you word your own job description.
3. Research the costs and time commitments of comparable jobs.
4. Communicate your requirements and expectations clearly, both in your initial job description and through the project. If you don’t communicate what you want, it’s hard for someone to give it to you.
Ms. Ballon and Ms. Botterell hired someone to do initial SEO work with two months of follow-up. Their elance consultant coded and tagged their website with key words that made their company searchable by search engines such as Google. The work was of high quality, the deliverables were on time and the cost was reasonable.
Best of all, they got great results in terms of the Google ranking of their home page. Now Admiral Road comes up in one of the top spots from a Google search, and this has resulted in an increase in online sales. “We’d definitely use e-lance again,” Ms. Botterell says. “And we know of other firms who have used it for jobs like data entry and graphic design. Online markets for services can be really cost-effective for small businesses.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
Becky Reuber is a professor of strategic management in the Rotman School of Management of the University of Toronto.
This is one of a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Your Business website.