Want to create a start up? Listen to this great advice


When looking for advice on how to throw oneself into the startup deep end and come out swimming, Erica Stewart is the perfect mentor. Juggling many hats including CEO, wife and mother to three children, Erica started her innovative online marketplace hardtofind.com.au in late 2008 as a hobby and used her maternity leave in 2010 to seriously develop the business. It was during this time that she realised the true potential of hardtofind and decided not to return to her job as a National Sales Manager at News Life Media.

Transitioning from a career in advertising and traditional media to the world of online and digital marketing was a huge change for Erica and she found herself having to learn fast. Working from home, she single-handedly managed everything from customer service to seller acquisition, marketing and strategy. Erica would work until the early hours of the morning after putting her kids to bed – responding to customers, curating products and planning marketing campaigns and promotions. Then the day would start anew, trying to balance her home life and kids with cold-calling and straight-up hustle.

Eight years on, Erica now manages 13 Sydney-based full-time staff, an office in Manila with 10 full-time staff and a multi-million dollar turnover with no outside investors. The company has a 295,000 strong customer base, and earlier this year Erica was listed as one of 7 entrepreneurs to watch in 2016 by the SMH.

Here are Erica’s tips on building a successful online business:

  1. Find your point of difference

Stay focused on your brand, be clear on your USP and don’t deviate from that. Try to ignore the competition and ‘white noise’ around you.

For us, finding a niche in the cluttered e-commerce market has been a key factor in defining our point of difference. hardtofind is a business that disrupts the traditional retail experience by connecting customers who are hungry for something genuinely different, with independent craftspeople and manufacturers from around the world – all hand-selected by us. As a brand we’re all about things that are fresh and new and interesting and remarkable, not only in the people we work with and the products we select but also in the way we run our business. We’re not afraid to show our personality either.

      2. Cash flow

Think carefully about your revenue model and how cash flows into your business. If you get it right, you can bootstrap for longer and not have to raise funds until you’ve built up equity.

  1. Data

 As the saying goes, data is king. The more you know about your customers, the better equipped you are to give them more of what they want and ultimately scale your business.

At hardtofind, we have an in-built data dashboard, which displays key metrics such as average order values, purchase frequency, customer segments, lifetime value etc. Google Analytics is also a great place to gain important insights about your audience including demographic profiles and on-site behaviour.

  1. Utilise social media

Focus on building up a strong social network. Having a Facebook page, Pinterest board or Instagram account is free, and a clever, engaging social content strategy can really help drive traffic. Our social reach is currently 300,000 and we’re the #1 ranked gift site (according to Brand Data) in terms of social engagement, so we understand the benefit of engaging with our brand’s followers.

Sponsoring a Facebook newsfeed post that your followers particularly liked/engaged with means you’ve already tested the content with your existing audience before spending money on advertising.

  1. Email

E-mail marketing is another low-cost way to increase sales. Entry-level platforms like Mailchimp or Campaign Monitor make it very easy for non-tech people to design and build templates and set up automated workflows. Email strategies such as ‘abandoned cart’ only need to be implemented once and then they just fire away in the background, driving revenue without having to think about it.

  1. Build an influencer network

Building an influencer network is something we’re very focused on for hardtofind. We’re lucky that platforms like Instagram are highly visual, so the fresh, fun and beautifully shot products available on the site are very influencer-friendly.

We generally look for influencers with at least 5,000 followers, and high engagement rates for their posts. With ‘fake’ followers rampant, engagement is key. An influencer with a huge following and virtually no engagement should send warning signals.

With around five million monthly users from Australia on Instagram and 70% of them using Instagram daily, now’s the right time for brands and businesses to be plugging into this new marketing channel.

  1. Keep evolving

With so much on offer in the market, retaining the attention of customers can be tricky, so it’s important to come up with fresh ideas for your business.

We’re constantly evolving and innovating, with a big focus on brand, technology and service. We continually look for ways to make the shopping experience better for our customers, the brand more engaging and our customer service even better than it already is (our feedback score sits at 95%+). Driving traffic and customer acquisition is only half the equation. Retaining those customers and making the experience so wonderful that they keep coming back again and again is key. Our repeat purchase rate is greater than 50%, which we see as pretty high.