Selling Sunglasses online at:
Based in Columbia, MO
The Nuclear Entrepreneur
When meeting a group of business minded people for the first time, you often get a sense of who in the group might have that super heated passion to launch, thrive, and succeed in business. I got that impression very quickly from Ray when listening to him at an entrepreneurs meet-up here in Columbia, MO. Only later did I discover he had a Masters Degree in Nuclear Engineering and he was starting his PhD program at Mizzou. I’m not really sure what Nuclear Engineering is, but it seemed a good match with someone of Ray’s energy and drive. His website NineAPair.com is one among several opportunities he is pursuing, so I expect him to be a repeat interview as his ventures take shape.
When I was taking classes as a history major at Colorado State University, it was a Herculean effort for me just to get my assignments done on time. So it’s hard for me to imagine someone in a PhD program for Nuclear Engineering finding the time, and more importantly the energy, to run a business at the same time. How do you manage your day-to-day schedule and has the fact that it’s an online business been a key component to making the schedule work for you?
Brian, I am always busy. Always. I wake up at around 8-9 a.m. every day and I don’t stop moving until midnight. Every day. I like to get a workout in the morning and then off to work for the rest of the day. I think working out really gives me a boost to get through the whole day. I never drink coffee or pop, as it is called in Chicago where I am from, to get the extra energy.
The only business I could start was an online one and that was for many reasons. The biggest one was money. I funded the business myself, and I couldn’t afford retail space. Had I been constrained to a retail store, I would have to be there all the time, leaving no time for class. An online business was the only choice. Owning an online business was perfect because once a day for about 45 minutes I would fill orders. The website did all the work. I really have to thank my web developer Jeremiah Fish of Clearpage Interactive for working with me to create something that would save me time in filling orders and running the business.
I had to ask you three times what the name of your website was… NineAPair.com. I didn’t get it at first, but once I got the explanation that it was a website selling replica sunglasses at $9 a pair, the name has stuck… an odd coincidence as we both have companies with the word “Nine” in the name and I also tend to get asked three times what I said… (My main company is Beach Farm Nine). What was the thought process when selecting the name of your business and how much did finding an available domain name play into the choice?
I started this whole business as a sort of an experiment that might make me some money. The whole idea was to learn e-commerce and business. I knew nothing about both when I started. Nothing. I picked something to sell and that happened to be sunglasses. I had the idea to “Walmart” everyone and be the cheapest on the Internet and hopefully make up the losses in volume. I have no idea how the name was born; I can’t remember. I knew the price was my biggest selling point, so I thought that should be in the name. I wanted people to say they got them from nineapair. Since I was selling sunglasses, I thought the name was self-explanatory. Like anyone who creates something, I am biased, but I think nine a pair has a good ring to it. The legal business name is www.7apair.com L.L.C. and after rethinking some of my costs I knew I had to charge more. I wanted it less than $10, but 9.99 didn’t sound good, so 9 sounded best. The differences in the prices of the models of glasses didn’t deviate too much from each other so I got the idea of flat pricing. I picked a median price and then added my costs from there, which being new to eCommerce and business, I grossly underestimated. I realized it always costs more than you think.
I’ve run a few eCommerce operations selling various products. However, to date, I have always found a strategic partner to be my fulfillment partner… stocking, picking, packing, and shipping the product as we generated orders online. With Nine A Pair, you actually purchase and stock the product. Can you speak a bit about that process in terms of finding a supplier, negotiating product cost, price points, holding inventory and shipping costs? That’s a mouthful… I may need to buy more disk space for the answer, just let me know…
Finding a supplier was a bit of a journey. When I made the decision to sell sunglasses I started to look at the kiosks in malls where I traveled. There were two companies that I found, NYS Sunglasses and Toucan Sunglasses. Toucan was later bought by Solar X Eyewear. I also did an online search for wholesale sunglasses and got some other ideas. I sent emails to some companies to talk to them. Only one responded, Toucan. So they got my business.
In terms of negotiating prices I tried to get a better price but I do not do enough business to warrant a price break from Solar X. I just order off their website in wholesale quantities and then stock them in my room. Holding inventory is not a problem and doesn’t cost me anything other than inconvenience and space in my room.
Shipping is a totally different story. I have been through many ways to ship. Only until recently have I changed my shipping price. For the first 2 years of the business it was free shipping on any order. I felt that on the Internet there must be free shipping or the customer would feel they could get it at the store. It was no longer a convenience. Recently I needed to increase my revenue so I started to charge a small fee for orders under 3 pairs. I couldn’t start charging more for the glasses due to the name of the site.
For my first attempt at shipping I just bought a Dymo printer and had my web developer export the addresses from the shopping cart to a white adhesive label. I then used Endcia to print postage. I weighed each box and affixed the stamp. It worked ok but I lost a lot of packages because I found people don’t know their addresses or didn’t double-check them when entering. I then switched to the USPS API. It was awesome. It checked the addresses versus its database and made corrections when needed. It was also free, the best part. It also generated labels for me. From there lost packages went to almost zero. As the business grew it was taking more and more time to ship products so I switched again to Stamps.com. This is a great system because it allows postage to be put on the label right when it is generated. This was not available with the USPS system. I then weighed each pair of sunglasses, and I became familiar with the weights of the one pair box, the two pair box, the three pair box, etc., so Jeremiah wrote a program to calculate the weight and feed it to the Stamps.com API so the postage is correct on the label with no weighing. This saved me a lot of time as well as gave different options such as Priority and Express mail to my customers. I have been very happy with it.
International shipping is something that is brand new to 9apair. We just started it Feb 1. We used to do international orders by email only, but now we will be able to process the order normally, like a domestic order. We partnered with BongoUS, a freight forwarder, to provide our international shipping.
UPS is a different beast. I wanted a system from UPS like stamps.com where the label would be generated from the site so all I would have to do is print it up and put it on the box, then drop it off. UPS has a very strict authorization process to allow the website to generate labels. It is taking a long time to get this integrated but it is coming along. It won’t be long before UPS label generation is at nineapair.
The entrepreneurs group we both attended was focused on Web Marketing and Search Engine Optimization (SEO). What strategies are you employing for NineAPair.com? Do you market primarily online or are you also getting word out offline, and if so, in what ways?
Brian, I do not participate in offline advertising other than donations to organizations that put me in their literature or on the event tee shirt. Some of these are Alpha Chi Omega’s philanthropy, Newman Week, Mizzou Racquetball and Special Olympics.
I don’t advertise at all. I used to do Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising but my margins are so low, they were costing me money. I do believe it is a viable strategy if you do all the revenue and conversion calculations correctly. All my traffic is word of mouth or search engines. I am so surprised at how many people that I have never met type www.nineapair.com into their browser. I have quite a few return customers and I can’t believe the word of mouth generated from customers. It is so crazy that a person who knew nothing about e commerce 2 years ago has a business that people refer friends to.
As for specific things on nineapair, there were a lot of changes to the site for search engine optimization (SEO) from its inception in October of 2007. A list of SEO features for 9apair are: clean urls, content on all the pages, the ability to edit meta data on all pages, and 301 redirects. Both 9apair, nineapair, and 7apair all redirect to the home page nineapair. The content on all pages was the one that really helped.
The second is link building. I buy links from a company called Linkworth. It has really helped me on the search engines. May people don’t like the idea of buying links but so far it has only helped. If business goes well in the future I will be able to get away from Linkworth and get some higher quality link building strategies, mainly run from my friend JC. The problem with Linkworth is that if I stop I will drop in the search engine rankings, and a different link strategy won’t have this effect.
Thanks for making time for the interview Ray. I know you have some other exciting ventures in the pipeline; will you drop back in when you’re ready to share some information on those?
Brain, if you will have me, of course I will stop by and share my endeavors. I hope my interview helps someone out there because I want to help anyone, especially one who is an entrepreneur. Thank you for this opportunity and I look forward to working with you in the future!
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