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How Sally Obermeder built an online empire

Sally Obermeder is the best-selling author of ‘Super Green Smoothies’ and is the co-founder of SWIISH.com, a lifestyle blog and online store which she started with her sister Maha in 2012. The store is home to a collection of health products and books as well as home wares, clothing and fashion accessories. The story of her business is quite remarkable as it came from a potentially dark place that was made positive. The day before her first child was born; Sally was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.

Her first best-selling book ‘Never Stop Believing’ is a chronicle of her experience of being a new mother while undergoing treatment. After beating the disease, she turned to smoothies to make her feel better which gave her inspiration for the book that made her business what it is today.

Sally is also a well-known as the co-host of Channel 7’s afternoon show ‘The Daily Edition’ and was previously the entertainment and lifestyle reporter for ‘Today Tonight’ with over 200 celebrity interviews to her name.

We had a chance to sit down with Sally to talk about how she created her audience and the challenges of converting a blog to a store. She also gave us some insider tips for increasing sales, some surprising insights into working with big supermarket chains and more.

Sally will be sharing her full story at The Entrepreneurs’ Unconvention this March. Get your ticket here if you’re interested in coming along.

 

For anyone in business who is looking to grow their ‘tribe’ online, what are some core principles and strategies you can share to help them?

Be patient
There are few things to think about when it comes to building an audience. Firstly, you need to be patient and realise that it is going to take a while. It is rare for an audience to appear in a flood, it is usually a drop at a time in the beginning. Once you can get some traction, that’s when things start to speed up.

Actively engage with your audience
You also need to be diligent and communicative. You should reply to everyone that leaves a comment or sends you a private message. When you’re still small and starting out, you have time to add a personal touch and show your audience that you value and appreciate them. It is also vital because people want to connect and by talking with your audience you can build a community. Also, a simple ’Keep me posted’ or ‘Let me know how it goes’ can keep the lines of communication open and give people a reason to come back again and again.

Even just adding an emoji is enough, in some cases, so people know you’ve read their comment. You should always show your audience that they are valued and appreciated because without those comments, likes and feedback, you can’t build a community.

 

Plan ahead!
Another important aspect to building an audience is thinking about your content ahead of time. You can’t just wing it. If you’re a brand, you need to think about what you are posting, sharing or communicating and create a cohesive image for your brand. It is a part of the job. Social media is great for building an audience if you put the work in and take it seriously.

After building a large audience for Swiish, you then leveraged that audience to move into the retail space. Was it intentional to build the audience first with a store in mind for later?

Yeah, it was intentional. In the very beginning, the community was giving us constant feedback that we should start our own shop. Maha (my sister) and I discussed it and felt that, at the time, our audience wasn’t large enough to sustain a store and even if we did create one, we didn’t have anything to sell. It needed to be something that made sense to us and we had to feel the time was right.

It was 3 years later with the release of the book ‘Super Green Smoothies’ that we decided to expand the business. Our content was always about feeling good on the inside and out while discussing things that inspire a healthy and stylish life. The store became a natural extension to that idea and a second channel for our audience.

A lot of our readers own e-commerce businesses. Can you share 3 tips for increasing sales online?

Three strategies which worked well for us are:

1. Don’t wonder, ask the customer.
In the beginning, we stocked items that appealed to our personal taste but discovered they were not always what the customers wanted. Those were expensive mistakes to make but we learned from them and sought to better understand our customers. We reached out to customers on the phone and asked them why they purchased certain items and why they didn’t purchase others. We quickly realised even though people love to see the yellow dress or the orange bag, in the end, they buy basic neutral colours. They want black, white, navy and grey. We didn’t work that out by ourselves, our customers told us. Don’t wonder, ask the customer. That’s one of the best things that you can use.

2. Offer intelligent sales add-ons.
The second point is really important. You must have add-ons and they need to add value to the customer. You don’t want a store that customers visit once a year as you will need a lot of new people, all the time, in order to turn a profit. Design add-ons that made sense with the purchases that people are making and suggest them in a way that makes the customer feel like you are helping rather than pushing.

On the fashion side of the business, we might suggest a pair of earrings or a bag that would go well with a dress someone had in their cart. On the health side, we would notice they purchased powder and suggest a tumbler or a book on healthy living. We wanted to make the customer feel like they were getting the full experience. It is about increasing the size of the cart but if the add-ons don’t make sense, it is no longer of value to the customer. Offering discounts and free shipping isn’t enough; you need to be more creative than that. You need to make it easy for them and ask yourself what you can do so they feel they’re getting added value.

3. Share and give away free content.
The third thing is to share and give away things for free. This doesn’t have to be free products, instead create content that appeals to your audience and give it away generously. We share lots of recipes because that’s part of engaging and building our community. Once they’re engaged, the sales will come. You have to get in and engage with a long term view toward building a sales funnel. Generosity when it comes to content is a great way to buildsales long-term.

Swiish operates slightly differently to other e-commerce stores. You upload new items monthly, and then often don’t restock them after they sell out. Was this ‘scarcity’ element deliberate and how does it help you boost sales?

Very deliberate, it was intentional from day one. It was designed that way because it was more economical and it created a better experience for the customer at the same time. We are a bootstrap business, we can’t afford to buy a million dollars of stock and have it sit around. Since we need to have smaller volumes, it means that we can keep it fresh which, in turn, makes it more interesting for the customer. Each month they can look forward to a new range of stock with a couple of add-ons throughout the month as well. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Eventually, we reached a point where we had enough capital that we could have gone for a more traditional model but we didn’t because we find this way is more engaging.

The only drawback of our model is that it requires more communication with the customer because they’re not used to it. There can be some frustration with missing out on a product if it sells out quickly or expecting something to come back and waiting needlessly. It means that we have to work harder to educate the customer but this is how we work.

We’re sure there are many factors that have led to the success of your business but if you had to distill it down to its core factors what would they be?

It originally started from when I was sick. I’d finished all my treatments, felt terrible and wanted to feel better. I wanted to feel amazing again so I started drinking smoothies and it made a huge difference. From that, I decided to create a book to share my success with people but not a single publisher in the country was interested. However, I was adamant and believed in it strongly so we did it ourselves as an e-book. After it grew in popularity, Allan and Unwin wanted to publish it and the book went on to become a best-seller.

We came up with products to build on that by putting ourselves in our customer’s shoes. We were already leading them through the process of making smoothies and talking about benefits so the next step was to think about how to make it simpler. Our light bulb moment came when we realised that the boring part of making a smoothie is the preparation. Imagine if you could buy the frozen product and simply stick it into your blender. It was a simple idea but something no one had done before and became a successful product for us.

Similarly, last Christmas I was looking through our store for something to wear and was frustrated because I had to open each product to see if it was available in my size. Again, it was another light bulb moment. We needed to change how it works and allow customers to shop by size. It seemed so obvious once I thought of it but it was something that only could have happened by becoming the customer.

Super Green Smoothies are stocked by some of Australia’s biggest retailers, including Coles and Woolworths. Any tips for getting your product stocked by brands like this? Often for smaller businesses getting a foot in the door is the hardest part.

It’s really difficult to get in there and for us it was harder still because we had a frozen product which has so many more limitations. I would never do a frozen product again for that reason. As far as getting into Coles and Woolworths, once we made the product I had to go in and pitch them. I had a product no one else had, a popular book and a built-in customer base to back my product so it went well but it can be quite difficult for many companies.

However, the one thing I’ve learned from that experience is that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not a great business model when all of your distribution lies with one outlet. You need to be stocked in many independent, smaller stores as well. If you only stock at Coles and Coles decides to drop your product, you are done. Distribution is everything. If you don’t own your distribution channels, your business is at the mercy of someone else. Also, by stocking only in the big supermarkets, you are giving away customers that could have been yours to cultivate in your own distribution channels so it is risky and you have to weight up the benefits.

We have found that many business owners get so caught up in running a business that they don’t tend to make the time to prioritise health. What are some of the rituals that you do to maintain a healthy balance?

I have a routine now that the business is where it is but when building it up, I wasn’t taking care of myself as well as I should have. When your business is in its infancy, you are working on it 24/7. Maha and I both found that we were always working and we had no time for the gym or to do anything that wasn’t work related. I guess it’s a sacrifice that you make, and to be quite honest, I don’t feel like the business would have survived unless we made those sacrifices.

Both Maha and I now have morning training, it’s a non-negotiable, and we also no longer work on the weekends. We still work long hours, many times until 1-2am to make those weekends off possible but it is necessary. However, it isn’t something I could see us doing if the business wasn’t where it is today. Perhaps, the amount we worked wasn’t the healthiest option, but it was required and we did it.

That’s really refreshing because in the media you hear of people doing all these rituals, things that take time, like meditating and wellness which can make you feel inadequate.

I agree, I’d have to get up at four a.m. to meditate and that is not going to happen. I have three children and if I’m not working, I’m with my family. I’m always on. At one point, I decided to stop beating myself up about it. It is what it is. I needed to buckle down and work to make the business survive and once it is on its feet, then I can throttle back a little. I thought of the business as a child, the first zero to five years is intense, but once they’re on their feet you can free up some time. Now, I can train in the morning and have weekends off. It is still intense and the pressure’s not gone, but it’s not do or die every day like it used to be.

What would you say are three core traits of a successfully launched brand?

Number one, you have to be persistent because you will fail. I love the quote, “Success is going from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm.” You’re going from one headache to another, from one fight to another but you also wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Number two, you have to be commercially minded otherwise it’s a hobby. If you want a hobby, have a hobby but a business is a business.

Number three,  you have to be willing to hear some ugly truths, either about yourself, or your business. This one is hard but for it to improve and grow, you have to be prepared to hear good and the bad. If there are things that you’re doing wrong which hold the business back and you’re not prepared to hear them, you are not going to be able to improve.

What are some of the ugly truths you’ve had to hear in your business?

I’m quite fortunate that I have Maha to set me straight. We are 50/50 owners and run the business together. We have a very different skill sets and different strengths which work well together. One of my biggest problems is that I love ideas, I’ve got a million of them. Maha is quick to point out that my ideas are useless unless we can actually follow up on them. We don’t have a large staff where we can just throw an idea at them and have them work out how to do it. We have to do it all ourselves so unless an idea comes packaged with a plan to put it into action, it isn’t very useful. Maha and I are very opposite, she doesn’t like taking risks and I find it annoying and she finds my riskiness annoying. We have to try to find some balance in the middle. It’s good to have somebody to shine a light on you, no matter how successful you become, and remind you who you are and that you’re not as amazing as you think.

Finally, can you share with us a book you’ve read that’s had a big impact on your life?

I love Kelly Cutrone’s book ‘If You Have To Cry, Go Outside.’ It’s great. The book is all about how she got her business started and about being tough in business. ‘You are a Badass’ by Jen Sincero is also great, I love that book. Lorraine Murphy’s books ‘Remarkability’ and ‘Get Remarkably Organised’ – both have many light bulb moments in them as well.

Want to hear more from Sally Obermeder? Get your ticket now to the Entrepreneurs’ Unconvention now, where Sally will be sharing his story with 100s of entrepreneurs.

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