This is an interview with one of our clients, Jessie Senese, who runs Shop Sweet Lulu, a shop selling high-quality, on-trend partyware sourced from around the globe. Jessie shares her insights on sourcing and creating products, managing inventory and growing a company that is as fun to work in as it is to shop from.
Interview with Jessie Senese of Shop Sweet Lulu
How did you your business start? Did you do any kind of market research or business planning?
I opened Shop Sweet Lulu in the summer of 2010, but I really started my business in 2001, the year my daughter Olivia turned one. Being the daughter of an entrepreneur, I always knew I would work for myself, too, but up until that point, I was never certain what that would look like. I had planned to go to law school but instead I got married and had a baby right out of college. Planning that first birthday was exactly the creative outlet I needed. I had so much fun sourcing and creating products for her first birthday that I thought I could make a business out of it. I attended gift shows, sourced and photographed products, and pored over books on guerrilla marketing and following your passion. I cobbled together a little paper catalog in Photoshop… and fell flat on my face. This was before Etsy and Pinterest and blogs; I was a new mom living in the suburbs and had no social network to speak of. I had no one to share my little paper catalog with. So I moved on. But I kept crafting and making things.
When Etsy launched in 2005, I fell madly in love with the idea of selling my handmade wares online. I opened a shop selling little things I sewed for babies and children. I also started a blog, where I showcased the things I made and my “adventures in craft, thrifting, motherhood and life.” I never had very many blog followers, but I was actively involved in writing it – so along the way, I took classes in photography and later Illustrator, and learned how to style photos a little better. These skills would prove to be quite useful later on!
In 2010, I had a repeat client on Etsy that ordered custom fabric garlands for some elaborate parties she was styling. Candy tables and party stylists were a brand new concept, even though they were essentially what I had wanted to do so many years ago. After seeing photos of the events she styled, I fell back into the daydreams of party planning. Living even deeper in the suburbs this time, but armed with the internet, I decided to open up an online party store. I wanted to call the business Sweet Lulu (Lulu being a nickname for my daughter, Olivia), but that domain name was taken – so I added ‘shop’ to the beginning of it. I still planned on calling the business Sweet Lulu, but Shop kind of became part of the name itself… and thus, Shop Sweet Lulu was born. I remember being terrified at the prospect of getting ‘stuck’ with hundreds of dollars worth of striped candy bags from England, a few boxes of paper straws, and 15 spools of cotton twine… my first offerings in the shop!
How many people currently work with you, and what do they do?
There are eleven amazing “Lulus” working behind the scenes to help me run the business. Dana is in charge of shipping and customer service; Stevie runs all aspects of social media and the blog; Jena, Lisa, Pam, Melinda, and Jill fulfill orders and pack them up all pretty; Anna, Anneli, Suzanne and Amy work in our production room making custom items and packaging bulk products. All of the ladies are able to switch roles and help out where needed, so we’ve always got a rotating cast of characters here at the office. Finally, my husband isn’t technically on staff, but he’s the one unloading heavy pallets, sweeping the warehouse, and driving to FedEx after hours with last minute shipments – I absolutely couldn’t run the business without his help at this point.
How long did it take before your business started making a profit?
I started out with very little inventory and working out of my home office, so the business was profitable almost immediately. Instead of cashing out, however, I kept rolling the profits back into the business to amass more inventory – this is how I was able to scale up the business.
How are your products created? What have you learned about this along the way?
Most of our products are purchased wholesale through various vendors around the world. I try to source unique and hard to find products, as well as simple items that can be reimagined and used a million different ways. I also like to source products from handmade vendors. I attend gift shows in New York and Atlanta every few months to source new products. And I’m a pretty good googler.
How do you handle shipping and customer service and organize the back-end of your business? What tips do you have for newbies?
When I started the business, I handled every aspect of it, including customer service and shipping. Now I have Dana to take care of it, but the basic principles remain the same. We strive to handle customer service in the same way that we’d like to be treated, get orders out within one business day, and send out each package like a little present to its recipient. We use a custom blend of pretty pink and gold crinkle shreds and send a piece or two of taffy with every order to make our customers feel like they’re opening a gift when they receive their package.
For newbies, I would say that customer service needs to be your number one priority. It doesn’t matter how fabulous your product is if it arrives too late, gets lost in the mail, or arrives damaged. Your customer doesn’t care WHY, they just want you to fix it. They can be very demanding and unreasonable at times, but you need to be able to put yourself in their shoes and ask how you would like the issue resolved if the situation was reversed.
How does a standard day of running Shop Sweet Lulu go?
Either my husband or I will leave for the office around 8:00, before the first Lulus arrive for the day, and print orders from the night before. I try to catch up on my emails, which is a never-ending task. I’ve heard of the inbox zero phenomenon, but I’m at more like inbox 3700. We get tons of requests for product donations, sponsorship opportunities, and product submissions daily. I think people think we’re a much larger company that we actually are!
Throughout the course of the day, I may text Stevie, the social media director, 18 times – we go back and forth all day. If we’re really busy or understaffed, I will pack orders, answer the phones, or do customer service emails. I could be taking product photos, working on a postcard design, or ordering products – I spend a large chunk of every day just trying to maintain our inventory. I can hear the ladies packing orders from my office, so whenever they have a question about anything, I pop out and help them.
I’m so lucky to have such a wonderful bunch of women working for me – we laugh and sing and take the occasional dance break throughout the day. We work “mommy hours” since all of us have kids in school, so the office closes by 4pm to get back home to our families. If the kids are occupied, I usually work another hour or two in the evening or after they’re in bed. I basically live my job, so it’s a good thing I love it.
What mistakes or setbacks have you weathered?
My biggest mistakes have been related to ordering more inventory that we can sell. On occasion, we thought we were on to the “next best thing” and ordered it heavily. I’m still sitting on pallets of some of these products, which I will have to sell for less than I paid. It would have been wiser to order a small amount of the product first to test the waters before diving in.
How did you promote your business initially, and how has that changed?
Remember that blog I used to write, and all the women I ‘met’ through the blogosphere? I first started posting about the shop on the blog, and then I reached out to several of my blog acquantainces, for whom I thought my products would be a good fit (the young moms who could use party supplies for their children’s birthdays, etc). I offered several of them products to give away on their blogs. I also started joining social media groups. The one that had the most impact for me was group called Martha Stewart Dreamers Into Doers. I remember filling out their profile questionnaire and one of the questions asked “is this endeavor your full time job?” And I answered YES. And it was almost like my answering yes willed it to be so, because the next year was a whirlwind for my business!
How do you distinguish your business from other party stores in your niche?
When I opened Shop Sweet Lulu, boutique party stores were a concept that didn’t really exist yet. I’ve always just followed my gut when curating products the shop – so there will never be another store exactly like mine, because everything is very much my taste. However, now that there are so many party stores online, I try to differentiate us from other shops by the level of service we offer. I try to carry a lovely selection of products, ship superfast, and offer the best customer service we can.
How did you know it was time for a new website? What were you nervous about?
I’ve actually needed a new website not once, but three times! As my business has grown, we’ve needed more and more functionality. There were times, on really crazy busy days, that we were CTRL+P printing each and every order one by one, because that’s how we had to manage with that platform. We would try to jerry-rig the site to make it last as long as we could, but eventually we would have to call in the big guns at Aeolidia and upgrade to a new platform. My concern was always “am I going to have to re-create all of these product listings?” We now have over 4,000 different SKUs, so if we ever had to start over from scratch, it would be a disaster. Luckily, everyone I’ve ever worked with at Aeolidia has been skilled enough to write code to transfer my products over with a lot less work involved on our end.
What were the three biggest differences the Aeolidia-designed website made to your business?
When I first opened my Etsy shop, all those years ago, I remember an online store called Mahar Drygoods that I browsed with admiration. I knew if I ever had an online store of my own, I would email the developer of that site, Aeolidia, even though I wasn’t sure how to pronounce their name. And when I did open my online store, they were the only developer I contacted. I knew they “got” me right from the beginning, because they took the time to ask me pointed questions and to understand my brand – possibly even before I did. I think the reason people assume we’re such a large company (instead of the mom-and-pop shop that we really are) is because we look like it. We have an incredibly designed, functional website to greet our customers, which contributes greatly to the success of our business. Being an online store, our website is our everything!
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