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Turning on the E-Commerce Money Machine

 20130624_163456It all started with the Money Machine five years ago. David Okun was an established graphic designer and web developer, and Alicia Soret, had embraced her stable job as a teacher. The Great Recession was beginning and there was no telling how long and painful the economic downturn would be for small businesses.

So, what did the Jacksonville couple do? They started a business.

Both had come from entrepreneurial families, so it was natural for them to plunge into their new venture while others scurried for cover. “It wasn’t a matter of if I was going to have my business, it was when and what,” Soret said.

Enter the Money Machine.

The couple had purchased a vinyl cutter in early 2007 so that they could make decals for motorcycles from home. “We pooled all of our combined credit cards to invest in our first machine in hopes that we could pay it off in a couple of years,” Soret said. They began selling decals through Soret’s shop on Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade goods, in March 2008, and business revved up quickly. 

“After a while, I noticed that a lot of the people who were purchasing were not Etsy people,” Okun said. In fact, customers searching for decals online were registering on Etsy just so they could buy from Soret’s shop. So, the couple expanded their ecommerce business by launching a website, Dali Decals, in August 2008. Within 15 months it was the top ranked site for online searches for “wall decals,” and it has remained among the leaders for that term and others, despite competition from giants like

Okun and Soret quit their jobs to concentrate on Dali Decals. “We’ve expanded dramatically since we first started,” Okun said. He did not disclose revenue for the privately held company, but did note that it has grown by 50% over the last 3 years. It now has 10 employees operating out of its 10,000 square-foot facility off of Beach Boulevard near Interstate 295.

Almost all of the company’s business is ecommerce and it ranks toward the high-end of the middle market of the wall decal industry, which has tripled since Dali Decals started. Privately held Fathead, LLC is the industry leader.

“We’ve been a huge driving factor for the industry as a whole,” Okun said.

The company offered discounts through Groupon early on, but it has since moved beyond the online deal site. Okun breaks down the website’s traffic accordingly:

     Organic search (45 percent) — This includes terms like “wall decals” and “nursery wall decals.”

     Direct search (35 percent) — This includes visits by customers who enter “” in the web address box.

     Pay-per-click advertising (20 percent) — These ads run with searches for keywords like those already mentioned.

“A lot of the traffic we get we’re not paying for,” Okun said. The company prioritizes specific keywords like “cherry blossom wall decal” on its site and in its ads, over more general terms like “wall art.” The latter tend to be more competitive and visitors searching for the former have clarified their intent to buy.

“Winning the search is only the first part of the ecommerce process though,” said John Widdows, founder and CEO of AppSoft, a Jacksonville company that assists companies with search engine optimization and Internet marketing. “Only 2-3 percent of visitors to a site buy, according to leading research firms like Gartner Inc., Forrester Research, and Yankee Group,” he said.

Widdows recommends that companies have landing pages for specific keyword searches and related products and services so that visitors do not have to troll a site. Also, navigation should be easy to use. “Any time visitors have to use navigation to find their search term, they’re going to bounce,” Widdows said, meaning that a visitor will leave the site.

Going a step further, Dali Decals plans to launch niche sites specific to searches like “toilet decals” and “Christian wall decals,” emphasizing products for which is there is less competition. “It’s a matter of leveraging the investments we made into our production,” Okun said, referencing the numerous printers, cutters, and related infrastructure.

“Our main goal is to get our production facility running 24/7. That’s how you maximize ROI.” That is a far different goal than the one with which he and Soret started years ago. The couple’s initial goal was one order a day. The company now does 100.

“When it started, we just wanted to be able to treat ourselves to dinner,” Okun said. “It became really big, really fast.” Now, the original Money Machine rests in a place of honor, sitting in green crushed velvet, enclosed in a glass display case at the entrance to the company’s production facility, which hums with activity. “That machine still works perfectly, but it’s been retired,” Okun said.

A just reward for a job well done.


The Money Formula

francis abola Francis Ablola learned early in his online marketing career that just because it looks good doesn’t mean it works well. “Designers design for the aesthetic, not necessarily for how it performs,” said Ablola, a veteran copywriter and co-founder of Marketer’s Black Book.

Ablola’s formula for success online is simple:  traffic plus conversion equals revenue.  Or put another way, drive traffic to your site and make people buy. “As a small business owner you want to get to know your customer base,” Ablola said. He recommends using online research tools like Quantcast to learn telling details like where customers go to read news and what other sites they visit, as well as other important psychographics and demographics. Then evaluate ways to draw traffic, such as search engine optimization or pay-per-click advertising, based upon your customers’ preferences. “Find a traffic source that matches the proper message and audience,” he said.

Once you get people to your site, you need to give them a reason to buy. Conversion comes from having a clear message. “Most people sell features. They don’t sell benefits,” Ablola said.

“If, for example, you are trying to sell a car, don’t emphasize the side air bags. Emphasize how safe it is instead,” he said.

Ablola cited companies like Domino’s, Mercedes-Benz, and FedEx as strong brands with clear messages. “They sound like slogans, but they really define what the product is.” Businesses must articulate how they differ and convey the value that they bring. “Unless you find a way to make yourself unique in the crowd, you’re going to get lost,” Ablola said.

Create relationships before trying to sell by giving visitors something useful. For example, if you are a carpet cleaner, give visitors a free report on how to best clean their carpet in order to remove bacteria from their homes. “Too many companies are trying to get people to marry them on the first date,” Ablola joked.

Build relationships that allow you to sell at higher prices by using means such as automated emails to stay in touch with customers. “Those emails act as your salesperson, building trust for you,” Ablola said. “Track your results and then refine as needed. Find ways to test. That’s how you get bigger results.”

In the Now

If you want to sell more online, consider these sources for researching your customers and prospects. They come courtesy of veteran online marketer, Francis Ablola.



Say it with us: Conversion optimization.

Production PhotoThis new buzzword may be the key to obtaining more customers through ecommerce.

“Winning in search is still huge,” said John Widdows, founder and CEO of AppSoft Development, a Jacksonville company that assists companies with search engine optimization and Internet marketing. “But conversion is what matters now.”

Here are some best practices for setting up a web store, according to Widdows, whose company has set up more than 300 ecommerce sites.

  • Move upsells to the end of the checkout process.
  • Send a hand-written thank you note or free gift with a shipment. The buyer will immediately feel some sort of obligation with you for the next purchase.
  • “Add to cart” buttons should be on the top right side.
  • Use an auto-complete feature so that customers do not have to finish typing in keywords.
  • Avoid long navigation bars that run down the side of the page.
  • Create landing pages based upon your categories.
  • Be flexible. For example, allow customers to search by brand, price, or product type. Letting the visitor shop the way he/she thinks will help your conversions dramatically.
  • Note that an item is out of stock upfront and suggest a comparable product when possible. People don’t want to find out at the end of the process.
  • Eliminate distractions from the checkout page. When customers arrive at checkout, you need to focus on the conversion. That’s your sale.
  • Offer live chat.
  • Avoid duplicate copy. If you sell basketballs don’t use the same descriptions as the manufacturer and all of the other resellers online. If you really want to move up in SEO, make all of that copy unique.
  • Display online security certifications prominently. When people purchase online they’re looking for a credible, safe store to purchase from.
  • Design with mobile devices in mind. Purchasing using a tablet or mobile is staggering and rising dramatically.
  • If you sell a service, use industry leaders like, PayPal, or Google Checkout to process payments because they add credibility. This is important because getting approved for payment services can be harder since no tangible products are involved.
  • Trumpet price guarantees and other competitive offers because once a shopper leaves, they’re probably not coming back. These eliminate the need for the validation visit to the next site.


Doing It Right

Looking for ecommerce sites worth emulating? Try these:

BuckedUp Apparel (
mYfinal Inc. (
Office Furniture and Seating* (
Pilot Corp.* (
Sarge Knives (
Studio 71 Office Furnishings, LLC* (
Terra Vim* (
* Based in northeast Florida

Doing It Wrong

Most common reasons online shoppers give for not completing their purchases:

1. High shipping prices
2. Shipping costs were displayed too late in the checkout process
3. Comparison shopping or browsing
4. Changed mind
5. Saving items for later purchase
6. Total cost of items is too high
7. Checkout process is too long
8. Checkout requires too much personal information
9. Site requires registration before purchase
10. Site is unstable or unreliable
11. Checkout process is confusing
12. Did not display Secure SSL Certificates


By Jim Molis

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