Six years later reading Siddhartha in seventh grade, Greenwich, Conn.-born Kyle Tortora went on a similar search for significance, entirely supported by his devout Catholic parents.
He visited Chiang Mai, Thailand in 1995 to meditate at a Buddhist temple for a couple of weeks during his freshman year at the University of Richmond (Virginia), where he had been studying religion.
“After graduating, I spent three years backpacking around Southeast Asia, hungry for the adventures of foreign lands and people, after being enthralled by Siddhartha,” Tortora said.
Tortora’s first job after completing in the university was in New York City selling site development services to small companies.
“I heard about SEO, sites, and sales, which helped me to begin Lotus Sculpture a couple of years afterwards,” Tortora said.
Tired of Manhattan’s constant pace after two decades, he traveled to southern India in 1999, trying something which would enable him to make a living, traveling, and research Eastern religions.
“And then I saw my first bronze Shiva Nataraja statue in a glorious temple in a little town named Chidambaram, where the god Shiva was to have played his cosmic dance. Immediately, I wanted to meet the artisans and learn more,” Tortora said.
He heard about the extremely labor-intensive procedure for earning bronze figurines through the lost wax casting method, where a duplicate metal sculpture is cast from an original piece. Tortora recognized a business opportunity in assisting the artisans create and sell their handmade statues.
In 1999, Tortora’s parents loaned him $35,000 to fund his return visit to India to work with the artisans. He started Lotus Sculpture in October 2000.
1 year later, October 2001, Lotus Sculpture had grossed $60,000. Twelve years later, it currently grosses near $700,000 annually with annual growth of 15 percent or more.
Tortora launched Lotus Sculpture with a Yahoo store on his first site designer’s recommendations.
“It was simple to run and it cost $100 per month. However, after two years I discovered how restricted the platform was,” Tortora said.
He couldn’t add picture zoom performance, nor a UPS Ground shipping calculator. He also disliked Yahoo charging one percent of his sales.
Tortora stayed with Yahoo until 2010, when he relocated to California from New York, and found San Diego-based Miva Merchant.
“I’m constantly tinkering with my website, always trying to make things a little better every day. Miva gives me the flexibility to do this. I enjoy working with them.” Tortora said.
Lotus Sculpture was created in 2000 by Tortora’s buddies from his first job selling sites.
It remained unchanged for 10 years; during that time Tortora made”Band-Aid” changes to his site himself.
“In 2010, I paid Arizona-based Glendale Designs $250 for my new logo, which caused the appearance and feel of my new layout,” Tortora said.
Glendale Designs, which works with Miva Merchant, billed Tortora $2,000 for his brand new site design. It took one month to the design to be finished, and another month for Miva programmers, who charge $70 per hourto apply it in the new Lotus Sculpture site.
The new design allowed clients to zoom closer into art. The design also included a delivery quote estimator on every item page and other developments that increased conversions.
“By incorporating the category menu at which folks can filter statues by god, material, size, and price, my conversion rate went up instantly,” he said.
Credit Card Payments
Annually, Tortora invites credit card processing companies to bid for his company’s business.
“Right now PayPal processes my credit cards since it’s the cheapest pricing and its customer service is the best,” Tortora said.
Order Management and Hosting
Tortora handles his orders manually using Miva Merchant, which also hosts his site.
“When an order is placed, I print the receipt, add some promotional material and a description of the deity they purchased, and include it using the packed statue. I print the shipping labels from the Miva software,” Tortora said.
Tortora has hired three staff members in 14 years. His present, sole employee, Mark, has been with the firm for the last four decades.
Mark packs the orders and retains the 5,000-square foot warehouse in Oceanside, Calif. in order, although this distance will soon expand for additional statues.
“I’m adding an additional floor of approximately 1,400 square feet to house three additional containers from India,” Tortora said.
Search Engine Optimization
Tortora tinkers constantly using search engine optimization.
“I learned about name tags, descriptions, and H1 tags from my first job selling sites in Manhattan, so I applied what I knew,” Tortora said.
He’s always making subtle adjustments to name his or labels descriptions to determine if they have any effect.
“Everything I do to my site is linked to SEO. If I change anything, add a product, or alter text that I always completely optimize it for SEO,” Tortora said.
Tortora’s daddy used to assist him shred mountains of paper in the family’s basement when he launched Lotus Sculpture.
“I used to wrap every statue, which ranged from three inches to eight feet high, in bubble wrap, then cushion it with shredded newspaper,” Tortora said.
But after a lot of breakages, he discovered New Jersey-based Sealed Air, which made a special foam to mould to his figurines’ contours.
The hardware for the Sealed Air packaging system cost $5,000 and the foam substances cost $1,500 but this paid for the reduced breakage and packaging time.
Shipping is automatically calculated on the web site for smaller figurines under 150 pounds and is tied in with UPS so clients can automatically get pricing.
Clients email Tortora for shipping quotes on larger statues, which he obtains from his cargo carriers, such as R+L Carriers, Con-way, Roadrunner Transportation Systems, and many others.
Product Sourcing and Inventory Management
Tortora travels two months annually during Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Cambodia, and Bali to commission and meet artisans.
“Each artisan differs. Some have standing inventory; a few I commission everything they make. Some I order two bits from; others I purchase 500. Some take a month, others take 18 months,” Tortora said.
By dealing directly with the artisans, Tortora says that he saves money.
He doesn’t have an inventory management, selling just one-of-a-kind products. Once an item is sold, he removes it from the site.
Tortora utilizes a local bookkeeper for his company’s financial reporting. He doesn’t use any accounting software.
Tortora pays $400 per month to have daily postings composed on Facebook and Google+ to keep before his customers.
Lotus Sculpture’s largest social networking presence is on Facebook in which it’s 11,797 likes.
“Right now, I’m trying every social media and while most do not drive sales, all of them have SEO implications. So I’m present on them all,” Tortora said.
Tortora has veered from having $100,000 from the bank to being $100,000 in debt in the same year.
“When I have money I spend it on statues and when I do not have money, I borrow it and spend it on statues,” he says.
Luckily, every statue he buys, sells, as he purchases just attractive bits he would have in his own house.
Tortora personally replies Lotus Sculpture’s telephone and answers all emails, often instantly.
“The more obstacles you may take out of a individual’s decision-making process while she’s actively engaged with you the better chance you need to make a sale,” Tortora said.
In 2007 and 2009, U.S. customs inspected two of Lotus Sculpture’s wooden containers of statues from India. The containers lacked the stamps to prove they were fumigated, so they had been denied entry.
“The containers were really fumigated but since the boxes were not stamped, I had to send them back to India to be stamped and then returned again, costing $8,000 per container and four weeks’ delay,” Tortora said.
He endured similar importing problems with Thailand.
To protect Thailand’s ancient religious artifacts and antique Buddha images from being stolen and sold illegally, Thai customs restrict their export. But this law wasn’t actively enforced until 2010 on freshly made Buddha statues.
In 2010, among Lotus Sculpture’s containers full of Buddha sculptures was confiscated by Thai customs because it did not have the right documentation.
“My shipping agent in Thailand now works together with the Thai government to acquire the appropriate documents. He’s got to bring the statues to the authorities to acquire seals on them can export them,” Tortora said.
“After 14 years of hard work and gambles, I can take a vacation whenever I wish to, I travel as a part of my job, and I make my own hours,” Tortora said.
His loyal clients keep purchasing every year. While he sells Buddha sculptures to resorts, retreats, and temples, most of his clients buy statues when they buy new homes or landscape their houses.
Tortora estimates 60 percent of his clients officially worship the statues, while the rest need a sculpture of Buddha, Shiva, or Ganesh in their houses.
“Our growth has shown me that we’re doing the proper thing for our clients,” Tortora said.