How this self-proclaimed “terrified entrepreneur” built a successful six-figure ecommerce business.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself, what you sell at Crab Terror Island and how you got started?

My main product I sell is custom hoodies I design in Anchorage, Alaska. The art is original and each design is limited in nature (never more than 100 are sold). I also sell decals, a limited edition design box, and other local products out of my brick and mortar store.

Such an interesting name. Is there a backstory behind it?

I grew up on a tiny Island in the Bering Sea called Unalaska. In the 1980s, my mom ran the television station there, and the community would make these movies. One was Crab Terror, where a giant crab was sinking the boats in the harbor.

My original idea was to use the name Crab Terror, design a crab for shirts and sell them. I wanted to find a way to make money with my art that was not just putting it on canvas.

I also wanted to do something for myself, and set myself apart from being a mom and wife, to being Sina again.

What did it take to get your first products in stock? Has that changed since you started?

I design and have all my products printed, so it took awhile. Now, since I have grown, it is sourcing new products and other avenues for my art to be attached to.

I had to research garments and screen printers. I had to educate myself on the printing process, tagging, commerce and more.

How did you get your first sale?

I did a pop-up shop. My first sale online didn’t come for awhile - I attribute this to not really knowing about selling online. Thinking it was easier said than done.

I think a lot of people think it is really easy to create a website and make a sale. But ecommerce is really hard. Selling is based on relationships. Selling online takes time, because you have to get people to trust you!

What obstacles and challenges have you overcome along the way?

Everything from low sales, to creating the wrong inventory, to spending money on uneventful marketing, self doubt and more! I think this is normal. What sets me apart, and the others who see success, is the sheer determination to not fail and not give up.

What influenced your decision to use Shopify?

Ease of use and cost. They have helped resolve issues quickly and at the beginning I liked all the free themes.

What was the process like to get started? Is there anything you wish you had known then that you know now?

Hire someone to build out your website. When we are first getting started, it is easy to just want to do everything ourselves. However, the more I have grown, the more I have found that at times you need to let things go and get help.

If I could, I would go back to the beginning and have someone build me a basic website and I would hire a business coach and bookkeeper. I believe I would be miles ahead of where I am now if I would have done that in the beginning.

What Shopify apps do you currently use? Which apps are most important to your business and why?

Smile.io - rewards program. This is a new one for me, but I am excited about it. I wanted a way that I could reward customers in-store and online.

Mailchimp - because building an email list is VERY important!

Pop-Up Builder - I wanted more control over my pop up than what my theme offered. Using it for promotions or to get emails is great.

BOLD Customer Pricing - I use a pricing app to give my VIP customers instant discounts.

What theme did you choose for your site and why?

Turbo - this was chosen by my website developer. At the beginning, I tried a number of different ones, and had fun building them out. But websites are tricky and having an experienced person build your platform is something to think about. Web design is not my strong suit.

What strategies have you used to attract more leads and grow Crab Terror Island?

I am really big on using social media. My main focus is Facebook, but I am branching into Instagram also. I don’t focus on selling to people, but more use it as a way to build trust with my customers. I post on a very regular basis, always reply back and use a strategy that allows all aspects of my business (both online and in my brick and mortar) to be shared. People start to feel that they know me, so when they come into my store, we already have the start of a relationship built.

I also use Mailchimp and focus a lot on getting people to sign up for that. I have a an average of a 40% open rate, which is really great for my industry. I always invite people to reply back and chat with me.

I have used the “buying the band’s t-shirt” thought process. I want people to visit my store, my website, follow me on social media, sign up for my email and see the process. Be part of what is going on  - then buy a hoodie, or shirt or decal to remember the party by.

I also use blogs as a way to educate and connect. This was a learning process, and I finally hired someone to help with that.

What are some of the most effective ways that you interact with your customers?

I am always there for them. I tell people I don’t take a minute off. My customers are able to reach me by messenger, email or phone - and I ALWAYS get back to them. I really let my personality shine through in all of my marketing. Sales is all about building trust and relationships. This takes time, so finding fun ways to interact with people is key.

I also do pop-up shops around the city where I live, which helps get my brand out to people.

When people ask me about marketing, I will always say video, LIVE video is the best. People like being able to hear you talk, and they they can interact right then and there with you! If you are not comfortable in front of the camera, well you need to get there.

I feel like not a lot of shops are leveraging live video. Do you have any advice or insight for getting starting and gaining traction?

Video is HUGE, both on websites and social media. Right now, I am working on creating videos for my products, so I can better talk about and describe them, as well as strengthen my relationships with my clients.

As far as social media goes, just do it. It is scary at first, but honestly it has so much power. First of all, Facebook and Instagram reward you when you use LIVE video, which means in their algorithms you will be a rockstar. But more importantly, what a powerful way to connect with people! I mean, you can interact with your customers in real-time while building your brand, answering questions and more.

I use LIVE video as a way to tell my story, show my emotion, update people, give them the behind-the-scenes view. I always start my video saying “Hey Guys, it’s Sina”, and then launch into store updates, product insights, things that are happening in life and more. I don’t keep it all business, because the basis of my brand is community - soI keep it very authentic, very in the moment. There are some that I am crying on, some that show I am excited about something, others that my kids are annoying the hell out of me.

The great thing about video is that it has tremendous reach. Don’t worry if at that moment only a few people are watching. If you do them during the day, people might not be able to log on and watch. BUT that doesn't mean they are lost! In fact, the power of the VIDEO will continue on and on and on.

My suggestions would be to just start doing them. Make a list of different things you can talk about - maybe educate your customers on something, show them a behind-the-scenes type video (what does your office look like), show them new product, promote another brand and then hit LIVE and do it! I try to post a video at least once a day - random times, kind of when the mood strikes. (I have tried to do at the same time every day, and that does not work for me).

Then - leverage that video and post to YouTube (I am just getting started with that, so all I know is that it is something you can do!)

Social media, especially video has helped me a ton. Daily I have people walk into my store who tell me they LOVE my videos, and I make them smile. I know that videos help them identify with my brand more!

Are there any metrics you can share in terms of order volume, monthly sales, increased revenue, growth %, etc.?

I sell close to $24,000 a month. But, honestly a lot of that comes from my brick and mortar.

To what do you attribute those positive metrics?

A number of things. I hired business coach in September of 2017, and had my website rebuilt. I began seeing more success. 3 months after hiring her, I decided to try a brick and mortar. That opened 5 months later, and has been amazing.

I would say that I am always going back to my white board. I have some really bad days, like crying in the corner bad days. My family depends solely on my income, so when sales aren’t where I want them, I panic. That prompts me to take a look at my white board again, map things out. I map things out for the month, quarter and year, and come up with a game plan. I am not one to sit back and wait for sales to come, but I am going to go after them.

Things are not where I want them to be yet. I like to say I am still hungry. So I educate myself, learn from others, try new things. I am not afraid to give something a chance, to at least try. I have had my share of heartbreaks - things sometimes don’t go how we want them. That is okay.

I also have slowly developed a team to help me. Not all are employees, but they help in other ways. I hired someone to write my blogs, a bookkeeper, a housekeeper, and someone will soon be taking over Instagram for me.

Any advice for finding good help?

Start with people you know and trust. I only have one part time employee, but I actually have a team of people that I hire. For example, I have a bookkeeper, someone who writes blogs for me, and soon someone to help with marketing and keeping me focused. These people are contractors, but without them I would not be able to do what I do.

My first employee was someone I knew and trusted to represent my brand the way I wanted. I kind of branded myself into my business, and more often than not, people want to come visit with me (I kind of treat everyone like my best friend). So I needed someone like that, to be in my store when I couldn’t be.

Ask for referrals from people - do they have people they would hire if they could? Start on a trial basis - and words of advice - hire slow and fire fast. If you bring someone on and they are just not the right fit, let them go and start over. Hiring people is tough. I have been lucky so far with people I have on my team.

What are you working towards now?

Developing other product lines, additional marketing and hiring employees! I am hoping to develop a separate wholesale line soon, and few other new businesses.

Are there any blogs or other resources that have been helpful for you?

There is a Facebook group, Shopify Entrepreneurs that has been great. So much problem solving happens there, I love it!

Based on your own success, what advice would you share with others who might be just starting out with Shopify (or with eCommerce in general)?

Ecommerce is hard. It is really hard. Do not listen to the overnight success stories. Most of the time they make it sound like it is better than it is. Be diligent and don’t try to do everything yourself. You need to focus on your passion and find people to help you do the things you don’t like to do.

There is a lot of competition out there, so find ways to set yourself apart. I don’t focus much on talking with other ecommerce people, but more I read books from entrepreneurs from all industries. The one thing they all say - stand out. Be different. Find ways to be memorable to people.

Put your blinders on, and focus on you. It is really easy to look at other people and feel like they are better than you. Focus on your brand, your store, and what you want to get out of it. Create a vision board; look at it all the time. Talk about what you hope to have in life.

Every day I would say that I wanted a job that allowed me to do what I wanted, where I could wear hoodies and leggings every day and I wouldn’t have a boss - and that is what i created. True, I decided to open a brick and mortar, and that might not be for you. However, I knew what I wanted and went about getting it. The same goes for an ecommerce store. You have to work at it every single day!

Any additional words of wisdom for others thinking about expanding to brick and mortar?

I knew nothing when I leapt into the brick and mortar scene, and now I feel like I am expert. First - does it fit with your brand and where you want to go? CTI for me is my own personal club, a place where I find and give support. So, a store front made sense. I could then do events, invite people over - because the relationships are important to me.  

Do research. Talk to a bookkeeper. Hire a business coach. What will be in your store? Just your product? Is that enough, or do you need to find other vendors? Where will your store open? Do you have a budget to advertise with? MOST importantly, find other store owners that are open and willing to mentor you and help educate you. DO NOT go it alone!

I have found great success in my brick and mortar, but it is also a lot of downward pressure. Rent, utilities, inventory, etc. There are alot of stressful days.

I guess if I was sitting across from someone and they were asking me about opening a store, I would ask to see their vision board. Where do they see their brand or business going? Is a retail store part of that plan? Do they want to be strapped to a store, or continue to just build online and retain that flexibility? Do they have capital to build out a store? How are they going to market?

I am a terrified entrepreneur - one who second guesses everything and I am not a risk taker. So opening the store was scary, to say the least. But, I had a huge support system and the determination to never work in corporate America again (I sold dental supplies before!). So I sat with my business coach. My bookkeeper. My lawyer. My dad (who loaned me some money), and my husband. Showed them my plan, and they said to do it. The day I signed the lease, I almost threw up - and had to call my mom (because sometimes you just need your mom)!

But seriously though, I LOVE walking into my store. I have had so many creative ideas in that shop, met so many amazing people, shed some tears, and learned just how strong I am - all in that little 1000 square feet that I have. (And I live in Alaska, so cost per square foot is not cheap!)

Take some time, give it some thought. Don’t just look at your product, but how you can cultivate an experience in a store, around your product. What is your USP? Why are you in business? Does a brick and mortar make sense for what you do?


That’s fantastic advice. Thank you so much for sharing! Where can we learn more about CTI?

My website is www.crabterrorisland.com. I have a great about me page. We’re also active on social media, including Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.

You are more than welcome to email me at [email protected], and I can answer any questions that you might have!

 

~ Sina Sena, Founder of Crab Terror Island

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