The Internet provides the most vivid illustration the retail world has ever had of the meaning of infinity. There’s no end in sight—at least, not yet—to the number of businesses that can be painstakingly formulated and launched online.
Take it from Dr. Erik Brynjolfsson, the distinguished author, entrepreneur and professor at MIT: “There is probably no better time to be a talented entrepreneur… we have a thousand or 10,000 or a million entrepreneurs try different ideas. A lot of them are going to be really dumb and they are going to fail.” But, writes the co-author of the bestselling book, The Second Machine Age, “Some of them are going to be breakthroughs.”
Two Billion Combinations
My Eco Lips, the fully customizable lip balm line from Eco Lips is proof of that. “I knew the big challenge would be creating the algorithm that would automatically write formulas for more than two billion different combinations of ingredients and packaging.” It was a true marriage of the high-tech programming required and the artisanal craftsmanship needed to make such a wide array of handmade organic lip balms. “After nine months of coding, trial and error and scale up,” 42-year-old Steve Shriver of Cedar Rapids, Iowa - president and co-founder of the already very successful online startup, Eco Lips - told us, “our new product line was ready to launch.”
It struck the up-and-coming entrepreneur that many customers of the organic, petroleum-free, Fair Trade lip balm first invented by his wife, Andrea, might enjoy choosing their own custom ingredients, flavors, packaging and labeling options. Inspired by Nike and Addidas Custom Shoes, YouBar, Café Press, and other customization sites, Shriver pitched the idea for My Eco Lips to his brother Scott (who manages the Eco Lips website).
What are the chances that your great idea is going to be unique—or that your notions about making it stand out will attract enough buyers to make your business fly?
The visibility of a website or an online store depends on two key factors: being found (through search engines)—and, once found, proving attractive. Both these factors are part of the process of communicating the value of your product or service to potential customers for the purpose of generating sales—or, in a word, marketing.
“Marketing is the most artistic part of business and it is all about perception,” says.
Click through to the Eco Lips web site, and you’ll see immediately that Shriver puts his money where his mouth is (no pun intended). The site’s extremely appealing homepage video for their new product launch—a customizable, all-organic lip balm called My Eco Lips—features Shriver’s telegenic ten-year-old daughter Chloey, who one can readily imagine as a guest of Ellen or Oprah.
Glowing good health is part of the family’s culture, says Shriver, and just happens to fit in nicely with their company’s marketing goals. “If the market you serve responds to models,” he told Yahoo, “then you should use them. If it responds to mascots or critters, you should use them. You don’t need beauty or perfection to sell a product—you need imagery that will resonate with your customer.”
The imagery used by Eco Lips is resonating like crazy. Launched in 2003 by Shriver and a co-founder, the Eco Lips brand is now sold in all of the Whole Foods stores, in many of the country’s independent natural food stores and co-ops, and online in nine different territories around the globe. My Eco Lips, the company’s subsidiary—nominally headed by “CEO” Chloey—was launched ten years after the parent company was founded (again, no pun intended!), in 2013.
The Idea Behind My Eco Lips
“Chloey always had an interest in our lip balm business,” Steve Shriver told Yahoo. “She would talk to her friends and teachers, and then bring home lists of ingredients and label ideas.”
Yahoo Small Business wondered if it was a difficult decision for Steve and Andrea to make their ten-year-old daughter so central to the marketing campaign for My Eco Lips. Chloey’s dad demurred that “the decision was a no-brainer”—and rattled off a host of reasons why. “Besides the fact that the idea was born from Chloey’s wacky lip balm ingredient combinations, our first business was actually named after the other two kids (Hadley Rose and Lindsay Rain), so it was Chloey’s turn. She is also the most passionate of our children about Eco Lips.”
Are the other two children ever jealous of Chloey’s position in the family business? Shriver’s answer is an unqualified yes. “Since Chloey is the youngest, the older girls already think she gets everything she wants. This is like the icing on the cake. She gets even more attention than she did before.”
Although ten-year-old Chloey is not, of course, the legal CEO of My Eco Lips, her dad says that she acts sometimes as if she were. He describes his youngest daughter’s nominal position as head of the company as “a fun marketing campaign, meant to inspire creativity,” adding, “I would love for it to actually happen someday.”
Yahoo Small Business wondered about the take-away for Chloey and her sisters, in terms of how they think about making money and also being responsible environmental stewards/citizens. “This is a big question,” says Shriver. “We talk a lot about money as a family—about making money, spending money, saving money and giving money away. As a family we try to always measure the environmental impact of our purchases—from using reusable water bottles to buying clothing. I’m not going to make us out to be the perfect ‘green’ family, but we definitely try to only buy things we need. There are a lot of ways you can reduce your environmental impact, and they are mostly the accumulation of a lot of small things. The kids see us making efforts in all parts of our life, and we hope some of it sticks with them.”
He and Andrea are now supporting their family solely through the sale of lip balm. But things weren’t easy at the start. “There were consecutive months where we were losing so much money—and I was so stressed out—that I ended up in the hospital.” (He thought he was having a heart attack.) “We’ve been profitable now for five years. No one is getting rich here, but we have a unique work environment.”
Starting a Family Business
Shriver gave Yahoo four nuggets of advice for young families wanting to start their own online business:
- Do it now. You have time to recover (if you fail) and life will not get any cheaper.
- Persevere. Don’t give up too easily. Be strong.
- Believe in yourself. All kinds of people were questioning what we were doing. Bankers didn’t get it. Friends and family thought we were nuts. We just stayed on course, believed in what we were doing, set and achieved small goals and stayed positive about the future.
- Enjoy the ride. Don’t forget to have fun along the way.
The Shrivers only exhibit at four trade shows per year—which means that most of their marketing presence is online. “Our online business is 50 percent Eco Lips sales and 50 percent private label [putting other people’s logos on the lip balm].” Most of their Eco Lips sales are done at Whole Foods and other natural food stores. Only ten percent of their sales are online, direct to consumers. “Our primary focus is selling the Eco Lips brand. But other companies are always looking for high-quality promotional products—so we offer private label services.”
The Value of PR
They decided to bring in professional PR services from day 1.“It was the best money we ever spent,” Shriver told us.
We know that the price of PR can be daunting for any new business owner—and wondered if Shriver was shocked when he found out how much it was going to cost. “We eased into it with a small PR firm, so it wasn’t so bad. Once we got into some larger campaigns, I learned that you can’t get the attention of most PR firms without spending at least $10k/month.”
His advice to aspiring entrepreneurs thinking about retaining the services of PR professionals?
- Budget and plan PR from day 1. At a minimum, learn how to write and distribute a good press release.
- Understand that PR is everything and anything related to Public Relations. It’s not just press releases, press kits and media outreach.
- Earn it and promote it. Do interesting things, earn the media and then promote it within your own networks. “From my experience,” says Shriver, “good PR can give you the best return of just about any marketing dollars spent.”
What about that other key factor that determines success online: visibility? We asked Shriver his opinion about hiring professionals to help with search engine optimization.
“I believe in good SEO practices,” he told us. “The best thing you can do is to simply have relevant content on your site. The Google bots change strategy frequently and are getting better at knowing what’s real and what’s not. We don’t do anything other than have relevant content about our products and our industry. Deliver on your brand promise, and you will get a good ranking.”
Yahoo Small Business wondered if this value changes over time, as a business becomes more established. “Outsourcing SEO might be more applicable with a new startup, as opposed to an established business with a larger following. With My Eco Lips it’s interesting. Consumers aren’t necessarily searching for ‘customized lip balm’ just yet—so we have to reel them in with other things like digital display ads, Facebook giveaways and ad campaigns.”
Although the company makes and sells three million lip balms per year, they call themselves a boutique manufacturer. “We’re big enough to have some nice production equipment and an efficient operation,” says Shriver, “but small enough to maintain our superb quality. Our goal is not to be a huge corporation. Our goal is to be sustainable.”
Last year, Eco Lips became a certified B corporation. “The B stands for Benefit,” Shriver explains. “We focus on a triple bottom line: people, planet, profit. And we’re audited and measured by a third party on our performance.” The father of three says he wants the company to be a lasting entity that continues to serve not only his family but also their employees, their community, their customers and the planet.