Lessons Learned: Forced Time Away Sews a Passion

With multiple sclerosis-like symptoms became a boon for Shelley Mitchell.

Born in Taiwan, she relocated to Melbourne, Australia with her meteorologist dad and music-teacher mum when she was 13.

Her grandmother had taught her to sew; Mitchell made her own clothes, such as gowns for college formals as a teenager.

After she attained her fashion design degree from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, she worked throughout the 1990s for wholesale clothing companies, developing home brand styles for department stores.

“Needing a creative outlet I started making patchwork quilts, which led to designing patterns and instructing quilt-making for a pastime,” Mitchell said.

In 1997, she joined a tiny family-run boutique style house, working on the design, sourcing, negotiation, and promotion of four fashion collections per year.

“One day in 2001 I could not move my left side. My doctors said I might have multiple sclerosis and advised me to take some time off and do anything I loved doing while I could,” Mitchell said.

While she was never officially diagnosed with MS, the time allowed Mitchell to recuperate from her symptoms and to concentrate on her priorities.

“Sewing was curative, and I credit it for my own recovery. Sewing is a lot more than a simple hobby. Individuals who like to sew are often not being looked after by retailers.”

Both she and her husband, Terry, who has worked for over 12 years in site development, wanted to create an automated, scalable company.

Shelley and Terry Mitchell

“Having seen his parents work long hours in their small New Zealand plumbing trade supplies company, Terry wanted to make a profitable online business with daily tasks taking under two hours we could run from anywhere in the world with Internet access and a notebook,” Shelley said.

The couple created two market Ebay shops in 2009. One sold sewing goods as well as another, because closed, sold vinyl life-size skeleton models imported from China, which people purchased for study and art installations.

As soon as they built a client base, the Mitchells launched the Sew Much Easier site in 2011. It sells sewing machines and accessories.

The business’s gross earnings were $67,000 in 2009, which quadrupled to $290,000 in 2011. Projected gross earnings for 2014 are $500,000.

Ecommerce Shopping Carts and Hosting

The Mitchells chosen Magento Go, a hosted version of Magento, costing approximately $25 a month for their site and ecommerce platform.

“The programmer in India took a month to make a customized template, with a further two weeks spent on template alterations, establishing the goods, and learning how the system worked,” Shelley said.

Shortly before the launch date, some pages took around ten seconds to load.

“We switched to Shopify in the eleventh hour, importing merchandise information from Magento Go with Shopify’s app, prior to going live,” Shelley said.

However, the U.S.-centric cart lacked an incorporated Australia Post calculator, which generated shipping cost inconsistencies.

In November 2013, Sew Much Easier migrated to Bigcommerce, another hosted cart, which has an in-built Australia Post calculator. Bigcommerce costs Sew Much Easier around $80 a month.

“We chose a hosted shopping cart so we do not currently need to think about the installation, maintenance, and safety of having our own servers. But we do want to get a self-hosted cart so we can find the source code to create customized changes,” Shelley said.

“We would love to personalize our discounts, and compute shipping accurately from multiple warehouse locations.”

Web Design

She found a regional Melbourne website designer who offered 7 to 10 days and $600 according to a thorough brief from Shelley.

After receiving the deposit, the programmer became unresponsive, taking almost seven weeks and lots of follow-up emails and telephone calls to deliver the finished layout, in Adobe Illustrator.

The couple used a website coder on oDesk, a outsourcing market, to convert the Illustrator layout files into HTML and incorporate them into the shopping cart for approximately $700.

Credit Card Payments

Sew Much Easier has employed just PayPal to date.

“It is fast and easy to get setup and can be plugged into Ebay, too. We’re establishing a merchant account on eWay, an Australia-based chip, to accept credit cards. We also accept direct bank transfers,” Shelley said.

Sew Much Easier home page.

Employees

Sew Much Easier has no employees apart from the Mitchells. They outsource picture editing, graphic design, coding, transcription, video editing, social networking, and data entry, mainly to the Philippines, through oDesk.

“Some of the builders are nearly full time. However, we have yet to get the ideal person to assist with ongoing coding and site maintenance,” Shelley said.

Their existing oDesk bill ranges from $500 to $1,000 a month.

Search Engine Optimization

Search engine optimization is on Shelley’s to-do list; their time was consumed by new product sourcing and copywriting. But that copywriting has yet helped with Sew Much Easier’s organic rankings.

“Our gigantic content has proven quite helpful in getting us found by organic search,” Mitchell said.

The Mitchells have analyzed AdWords, discovering that it is hard to achieve attractive returns. They continue to test, however.

Shipping

Sew Much Easier has employed since beginning a third party logistics provider, Next Logistics in Sydney, to keep inventory and meet daily orders.

“We are really happy with this arrangement overall because 99.9 percent of the time everything works out smoothly, though rarely orders can be discharged late, or to the wrong address. Then clients contact us, and we must contact Next Logistics,” Shelley said.

“It can be tempting to take back this in-house but we persist because this version fits with our vision of working from anywhere.”

Product Sourcing

The Mitchells source material, dressmaking mannequins, sewing machines, craft lighting, irons, rotary cutting mats, cutters, threads, quilt batting, haberdashery, and other sewing products from Australian suppliers.

Their main vendors are craft (task) lights, mannequins, fabrics, and quilt batting.

“We inventory 80 percent of it at Next Logistics. The remainder is fulfilled directly by local wholesale providers,” Mitchell said.

The Mitchells prefer not to import huge quantities of stock. But they plan on earning some independently printed sewing patterns from abroad by handling the designers directly.

Accounting Software

Sew Much Easier was utilizing the Xero cloud-based accounting platform from the beginning.

“The automated reconciliation capabilities help streamline the monthly accounting. We could also share access directly with our accountant and bookkeepers,” Shelley said.

Social Media

Facebook users respond to Sew Much Easier, which recently reached 3,000 Fans. The Mitchells utilize an oDesk builder to pin and post contents every day on Pinterest.

“We don’t have any clue what to do with Twitter. However, Instagram is unquestionably about the to-do list,” Shelley said.

Expense Control

The Mitchells keep overhead low by working from their two-bedroom beachside apartment in Melbourne rather than having employees.

Where the couple invests heavily is in their education and training.

They’ve spent up to $20,000 annually with a business mentor who also arranges events with different owners, to bounce off ideas and keep each other accountable on their objectives.

“Our mentor is largely about mindset, in addition to helping with direct response sales and marketing. We benefitted hugely from a copywriting program that he did,” Shelley said.

Customer Service

Most customer support problems are resolved within the first 24 hours.

“Managing people’s expectations early and communication frequently seems to keep most people happy,” Shelley said.

Biggest Mistakes

Their next Ebay shop, which offered anatomical skeleton versions and has since closed, appeared to be a fantastic match for selling imported blood pressure monitors, a popular product with great volume.

“We did not recognize that the red tape associated with the apparatus and this was a time consuming, money-wasting exercise,” Shelley said.

“We just didn’t do enough due diligence.”

Biggest Successes

Shelley reported that her greatest success was realizing the value of honoring commitments to clients, and fitting their enthusiasm for sewing.

“I had enormous clarity last year that while we market haberdashery, we are in the business of delivering promises,” Shelley said.

“People encounter our product listings in Ebay and in our site. They believe in us enough to deliver their hard-earned cash. So we have to honor our promises to care for those who chose to shop with us. Individuals who like to sew are a passionate lot. I match it with my own fire.”

After she knew this, getting out of bed every morning to run the company took on a new significance, and even the mundane parts did not look like a burden.

“I liked the work more, and sales went up. Curiously, I really did not do anything differently,” Shelley said.