Startup stories – Girl Meets Dress

In this week’s feature, I interviewed Anna Bance of fashion rental Startup Girl Meets Dress.

Anna Bance  - Girl Meets Dress

Anna Bance – Girl Meets Dress

Q) Can you tell us the story of how you came up with the idea of Girl Meets Dress?

A) The Girl Meets Dress story began in 2009 when I was working as UK PR Manager for French Luxury brand Hermes – and like my previous roles in the fashion industry, it involved lending the collection of dresses and accessories out on a daily basis to fashion magazines, shoots, celebrities and journalists…I thought to myself “wouldn’t it be amazing if we could all borrow dresses for just one event, and wear a different designer for every event in our calendar?”

When my co-founder Xavier and I looked into the market we saw that no one was doing it. We were the first company to rent luxury fashion online and it is wonderful that Girl Meets Dress is now pioneering the way for rental as a new and exciting ecommerce category of its own.

Q) Can you explain your business model in very simple terms?

A) Online luxury fashion rental. Women can hire the hottest designer dresses and accessories for up to 95% off retail price. We have over 4,000 dresses from over 150 international designer brands.

Q) What does your team currently look like?

A) The wonderful thing about an ecommerce company is the exciting variety of team member with extremenly different skills / backgrounds, all working together each day to make our customers happy. Our customer service team is currently the largest section. We also have Marketing, PR, Graphics, Buying, IT, Social media, Content etc. We are growing fast!

Q) How have you funded the business?

A) We have 100% bootstrapped the company, self funding until the summer of 2013 when we raised our first round of investment funding from Global Founders Capital.

Q) How did you get from idea to product, was there much project management involved?

A) We very simply put a basic website live and confirmed demand for our product. Once you know the market potential exists and customers are excited, you can build on that and expand further. The early days are all about testing. My co-founder and I were the only ones involved in setting up Girl Meets Dress. Finding a co-founder with different skill sets to you is a brilliant way to launch without needing to hire a full team on day 1. If you can split the main areas of the business between you, then you can launch with minimal cost and test the product at market.

Girlmeetsdress.com

Girlmeetsdress.com

Q) How much competition is there in your space? How do you stand out?

A) We are lucky as we do not have many competitiors in the online rental market. We have the largest selection of dresses and accessories from 200 designers from over 50 countires, resulting in us becoming the UK’s leading luxury rental service. Our relationships with our designers are crucial and the aim is to bring together the best dresses from all over the world – from both UK new talent to worldwide established brands. The mix and varied selection of these designers on one site is what will hopefully mean that every woman visiting will find the perfect dress no matter what her event!

Q) What does your typical customer look like?

A) We are growing at over 100% and our customer demographic is very varied and exciting, ranging from a 14 year old girl off to her school prom, to young professional women who have 5 weddings this summer +various social occasions and need a different fabulous dress to each… to Mothers of the Bride looking for that perfect look on the big day.

Q) What have been your major hurdles when starting up, how have you overcome them?

A) When we started, ensuring we have a full team in place while bootstrapping was no easy feat. We were lucky to find so many hardworking and ambitious staff to stick with us and the vision.

Becoming knowledgeable in so many different areas is challenging but it definitely helps to have 2 co-founders with complimentary and different skill sets. Fulfilment and logistics is an area which has to evolve and improve all the time as the company grows and orders increase. New processes and staff roles have to adapt to demand for the product to maintain efficiency.

Q) What advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a business?

A) Although not 100% necessary, I recommend choosing an area that you know something about. There are exciting ways to pioneer every market, whichever field you love. Of course, you can learn about any new topic – but will you be able to compete with people with years of knowledge and expertise.

Don’t over think it. There will never be a perfect time to leave your secure job, risk your salary decrease, take a chance on an idea which might not work – but what’s the worst that can happen? You’ll go back to your previous role until you come up with the next idea!

Q) What customer recruitment channels are you using, and which are the most effective in terms of conversion?

A) We have a dedicated team working on our SEO through our blog whilst our CRM Manager deals with our 170,000 newsletter marketing. We’ve found that both of these, combined with our PR team running regular social media competitions and campaigns, have worked well for us in terms of conversion. When you’re a new company the most important and impactful skills to have for converserion is the ability to promote and market the product and brand to get that all important traffic through the doors – PR has been a huge element for us both online and offline.

Thea Green - Nails Inc

Thea Green – Nails Inc

Q) Who inspired you to start the business?

A) There are so many amazing entrepreneurs who are pioneering brilliant and useful business that are making our lives easier and more enjoyable. I love attending business events and networking so I get to know them all. Thea Green has been incredible in her ability to turn Nails Inc into a global brand – the company keeps on getting better and better.

 

Q) What are your long-term plans for the business?

A) Without giving anything away, Girl Meets Dress is proving the potential to be huge!
 We have ambitious and exciting plans for the year ahead. We want to continue to grow the collection of stock, the team, and to innovate within the wider Fashion space. 
We will continue our leadership of this emerging space and be in a position to wow our customers in every way possible and to forge a brand and quality of service which women will wonder how they managed without, giving women access to the biggest closet in the world!

Link removal requests – throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

A few weeks ago we received a request from an SEO firm requesting that we remove a link to their client’s site from our blog. The post in question, a roundup of an SEO event I attended 3 years ago had a number of links in it, all of which were genuine and pointing to relevant resources which had been referenced at the event.

I linked to the page of my own volition as it was relevant and gave context to the article. I had no communication with the client prior to placing this link and no money changed hands.

interflora

So why was I asked to remove this link?

Over the past few years, Google has been cracking down on those who have been acquiring links in a way it deems to be unnatural. Those affected suffer penalties which can see their rankings drop, or in extreme cases, their domain drop out of Google’s index altogether.

One high profile casualty of this action was Interflora, who saw their entire site disappear from Google searches for not just generic terms such as ‘flower delivery’, but even the brand term ‘Interflora.’

Needless to say, many people have been spooked by these penalties and in a panic have begun sending out link removal requests – like the one I received.

What to do if you receive a link removal request

Unlike copyright, libel, or trademark cease and desist letters, there are no laws stating that you must remove a link on request. That said, however, unless you are receiving a high volume of these requests and they are difficult to remove, you would be well-advised to action any removals.

If the link isn’t removed, it could ultimately lead to a Google disavow request, in which the webmaster will instruct Google to ignore the link and no longer associate it with his or her site. It’s not yet known what impact this has on a site, but it’s reasonable to assume that numerous sites carrying out this activity will not reflect well on your site.

This is what an unnatural link warning looks like

What to do if you think you may have been affected by unnatural links

As I’ve already mentioned, the only definitive way to know if your site has been affected by unnatural links is to receive a warning like the above in Webmaster Tools. If this is the case, you would be well advised to consult with an SEO agency that specialises in Google penalty recovery.

If your site has seen a drop in rankings, this can be caused by multiple factors, not necessarily spammy linking practices. Don’t panic. Calmly carry out an audit of your links using the export function in Webmaster Tools. Add an extra column to the sheet that is exported, and mark each page you review as either suspicious or not. Once you have this data, you can begin the process of contacting webmasters.

Moving forward, if you outsource your link building, ask for regular updates on the links that are being built and audit these to make sure they comply with Google Guidelines.

Export link data from GWT

Export link data from GWT

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater

Wholesale link removal requests are likely to do more harm than good in the long run, and could undo a lot of very valuable work. Before you make a link removal request be as sure as you can that removing the link is the right thing to do.

Startup Stories – Netberg

Michelle Cuccovillo

One of the biggest barriers to doing business online for SMEs can be setting up an ecommerce platform, which can be confusing and expensive. In addition, marketing the products and sorting out the logistics of supply and delivery can be a headache.

Startup Netberg is aiming to simplify the process, by enabling users to create simple web pages where they can sell products, as well as taking care of billing and distribution.

I caught up with founder Michele Cuccovillo to discuss the business in more detail.

Q) Can you tell us how Netberg got started, where did the idea come from?

A) Like many innovative ideas, ours came from a co-founder’s personal experience of a market need. Our co-founder, Jubin Nouri, had always helped his parents, who own a pharmacy, with their business website. He wondered why there was no way for a small business to have a website that was free and easy to use, where it was also possible to sell products. He talked to his best friend, Lorenzo Rando and myself about the idea and we both agreed with Jubin that this was something that did not exist yet.

We realised that many small and medium businesses are not online, because either they do not know how to be online, or they do not see the importance of being online. Small and medium businesses have to work very hard to compete with big corporations, especially online, as they do not have the capacity to spend a lot on a website’s design or SEO. Netberg is an online community that allows these small and medium businesses to stand together, whereas the power is in the numbers.

Q) Can you explain your business model in very simple terms?

A) On Netberg, businesses can create their free business web page in only five minutes, so that the world’s customers can see what they do, what they sell, where they are, when they are open and buy their products or services online. Last but not the least; Netberg also manages payments and door-to-door pick-ups and deliveries. This way, we take all the hassle away from selling online. In return, Netberg earns 7% commission on sales generated on the platform.

Netberg team

The Netberg team

Q) What does your team look like?

A) Our team currently consist of eleven people. We have three directors and co-founders, five young and eager interns and one sales leader base in London, and one director of sales and one director of partnerships based in Italy.

Our team members are all creators and world changers and firmly believe nothing is impossible. We work as a flat organisation, and we value our team satisfaction as much as our customers and shareholders. At Netberg, we encourage a fun and collaborative work culture within our office space and we live and breathe a can-do attitude.

Q) How have you funded the business?

A) So far, Netberg was founded entirely with our directors’ own savings. That was actually a great experience, because it helped us all realise that it is possible to achieve great results creatively without spending any or little money.

Netberg is currently part of the Accelerator Academy, a high growth training and mentoring programme in London. We hope that we learn enough during the process to attract investors who share our vision and understand the potential of Netberg.

Accelerator Academy

Accelerator Academy

Q) How did you get from idea to product, was there much project management involved?

A) After Jubin had the initial Netberg idea in February 2013, he shared it with Lorenzo and myself. Not long after that, we started working on the business plan. At the same time, Jubin started working on the thousands lines of code that make up our website, together with our web designer. In February 2014, the first few interns joined the team, selected from top universities across Europe. The beta-version launched shortly after the interns started, and they did a lot of work testing the product with our clients. On 14th May, we launched our final product, with a brand new homepage, during our launch event at Google Campus London.

Q) How much competition is there in your space? How do you stand out?

A) Many other companies offer online presence for businesses. However, we are different; we created a new concept that stands between three categories of competitors.

The first group consists of website generators. These companies provide businesses with a stand-alone website for a monthly fee. These websites generally do not attract many visitors without investments in marketing or SEO. They also offer too much customisation, which is nice but often complicated and very time consuming.

The second group of competitors are the online business directories. These directories cannot be used to sell online, they often have outdated information on them, and the business owner has little control over his business page.

The last group are the e-commerce platforms. These platforms only focus on the products, not on the business identity. They also do not promote off-line presence, and they have a complex pricing system.

Netberg is different compared to these competitors in various ways: a business owner can create a page for his website in under 5 minutes, without needing IT-skills. On Netberg, the business pages are part of a searchable network. They have a built-in e-store where they can present and sell their products hassle-free. The pricing is also clear, as we work with a revenue-sharing scheme. The business owner can create his webpage for free, and when he sells online, Netberg earns 7% commission.

A Netberg e-store

A Netberg e-store

Q) What does your typical customer look like?

A) We believe that all businesses should have a website, even just a simple one. Our websites are suitable for any SME, while our e-commerce is specifically tailored to businesses that sell physical non-perishable products that are easy to ship.

That means we approach all kinds of businesses: from shoe shops to butchers. We focus on these local SMEs because they generally do not have the time, money or skills to set up a website for their own business. We also make these businesses part of a community, so they can stand together with other SMEs, and survive despite the power of the big corporations.

Q) What have been your major hurdles when starting up, how have you overcome them?

A)When we started working with the team and launched the beta version, we had two main problems on our path. The first one was budget. We did not have a big amount of money to spend for marketing campaigns and advertising. That is one of the reasons why we joined the Accelerator Academy: to learn and prepare ourselves for investments.

The second one was time, as we have many ideas for activities that would make the company grow but unfortunately only limited number of hours within a day.

Q) Are there any services or tools that you can recommend for startups who need help with getting stuff done?

A) For a small company, the Google apps are great. We use Gmail, which is integrated with Google Drive, Calendar, Google Hangouts, etc. We use Buffer to schedule our Tweets and other social media activities. It is an easy-to-use tool, which lets you schedule your social media activities and see them all in one clear overview. Mailchimp is great for small scale email marketing. We used it to design and send the invitations to our launch event. For designing our marketing material, we mostly use the programs by Adobe, such as Photoshop and Illustrator.

Mailchimp - great for email marketing

Mailchimp – great for email marketing

Q) What customer recruitment channels are you using, and which are the most effective in terms of conversion?

A) We have been trying many different approaches to reach business owners. We started preparing the sales strategy in early February, and immediately identified two main channels: direct (email marketing, telemarketing sales and face-to-face visits) and indirect (business associations, public bodies, etc.). Recently we signed a contract with the biggest business association in Italy, Confcommercio (over 700,000 businesses associated), which should help us scale very quickly from autumn onwards.

Q) What are your long-term plans for the business?

A) Netberg has many plans for the future. After achieving the first target in UK and Italy of bringing many businesses online, Netberg plan to land to the US. The US is one of the biggest e-commerce markets and it would be a great opportunity worth exploring. Besides the US, plan is also to expand within the EU tackling major countries like Germany, Spain and France. Our vision is exactly what our tagline says: to bring all businesses online.

Ask an SEO – Jason Dexter on technical SEO

Jason Dexter

Jason Dexter

Most SEOs have a particular specialism, a secondary skill. This could be content marketing, PR or social media. In this piece, I caught up with Jason Dexter. Jason’s specialism is good, old-fashioned technical SEO.

I asked him about all of the technical issues we should be looking out for, as well as life at his agency Prototype SEO.

Q) Hi Jason, could you start by telling us about your background, how did you get into SEO?

A) My interest in web marketing started during my final year of college, where I developed a website for a business that sold number plates. The design was made by a friend of mine, but I worked on a system where you could type in your reg number, it would update the number plate in the correct format, you could change the style, overlays, at country flags etc. This sent it to the printer and it would be sorted there. We launched it and….nothing. Barely any orders or use of the system. I’d never considered HOW to get people to the website. Here I had a website I was proud of but nobody saw it. Moving onto university, I created a website that was an amalgamation of various social networks. Nice website, it worked, launched it on a domain and hit a stumbling block; no traffic. So I read up about how to get people to the website through social media, paid advertising, SEO and blog writing.

So over a few months, I’d got this passion (albeit with a small amount of knowledge) about search engines, how they work and how you could drive traffic to a website. My SEO skills weren’t setting the world alight but I’d optimised my website for some crazy long tail phrases that drew no traffic. But I was proud! Over the summer, I got a job with a a national paintball company, looking at their national websites and the websites of over 27 owner-managed websites across the country. Whilst I wasn’t experienced in commercial search optimisation, my job was overall management; image uploads, articles on the website, social media and SEO. The knowledge I gained from this job was huge and didn’t just focus on SEO. Working with 27 owner-managed venues, I essentially had 27 clients to look after, helping me build knowledge of client needs, management, relationships and internal politics. Things rapidly progressed, I contracted and freelanced for 3 years until became Head of Search for a design agency, rapidly building up their digital marketing clients and working alongside the social media department the create a multi-faceted search company.

Q) Tell us a little bit about your company, Prototype SEO?

A) The company is made up of 11 staff members, a mix of designers, developers, social and search. We’re an awesome team land theres some great talent here. It’s a relaxed environment and everyone is self motivated. We get our heads down, we get results. But because of the range of talents, there’s some crazy development work going on, or stand alone design. We’re based in South Yorkshire so our approach to work is no-nonsense, no-fuss and no-BS. Because of that, we’ve got some huge brands and companies on our roster.

Don’t underestimate local search!

Q) If you could advise an SME with little time or budget on one single task they can undertake SEO performance, what would it be?

A) Never underestimate local keywords. Ever. With that in mind, I’d look at Local Business on Google Plus. I’m cheating as it’s not a single task as such, but having a verified local listing can be incredibly powerful for a SMEs.

Q) What does your typical client campaign look like in terms of activity?

A) Generally speaking, we have two entry points into our search campaigns; we’ve built a website for them or we haven’t. If we’ve built a website, the search and social teams are involved from the very beginning. The heads of Search, Dev and Design sit down and go through a brief. My involvement here is usability, conversions and search optimisation. Every website that is built by these guys is in the best shape it can be pre-launch.

Typically, a campaign is segmented into content, technical and marketing. So whilst we could say duplicated content problems are related to content, it’s usually a technical fault with page management. Doing this also helps us create a 3 pronged approach, each having it’s own set of KPIs. Content could be user engagement and conversion increases through split testing, revenue increases. Technical could be lowering page load times and the lowering duplicated content issues. Marketing KPIs could be brand mentions, inbound traffic and (although I should say this and not focus on it) links. Each one is then split even further; content is then optimisation AND article generation AND conversion rate optimisation. Each of these subsets have their own KPIs and mini campaigns within them We try to be as granular with these campaigns because it makes management a gazillion times easier and we can see which areas need slightly more focus, which areas are performing the best and simply become much more proactive.

Q) How do you work with clients in terms of fees/KPIs? 

A) Set fee. We have an extremely stringent checklist for anyone looking to pay for performance related or ranking-based KPIs and we’re yet to work with a website any other way. Without wanting to offend people, it doesn’t attract the right clients either. Search optimisation is a risk, much like any other marketing channel. We typically find that if a client is happy with work, they ramp up the spend. If they’re not, they’ll tell us and we sort it out.

Q) If you could name 5 things on a technical SEO checklist, what would they be?

A)

  • Duplicated content
  • Internal linking structures
  • Robots.txt
  • Page Speed
  • Schema/Snippet

Q) Following Panda 4.0, what technical issues should we be looking at?

A) Duplicated content. There are a lot more issues at play with Panda, put talking purely technical then I’d duplicated content. We recently sat down with a website and ran a crawl analysis on it and it came back with 86,000 pages. Around 60,000 of those were duplicated. We found urls duplicated through variables in the URL and poor management. We’ve added canonical tags on every page and used rel=next/prev to manage pagination. The number of pages indexed plummeted and their search visibility is climbing. We’re still waiting for the next ten day roll out of Panda to see the full affects but it is a great way of showcasing that more pages isn’t better. More quality is better.

Q) What are your favourite SEO tools?

A) DeepCrawl – Amazing and powerful crawl data. The reports could do with a better design, but overall this is a bit of kit I couldn’t live without.

SEMRush – Great monthly overview of search traffic, great for competitor analysis and keyword research.

Ahrefs – Backlink analysis. Pretty self-explanatory but great for link building.

SearchMetrics – Their search visibility tool is awesome and it’s my favourite. Doesn’t always pick up keywords a client is ranking for, but a top-level view is solid and is essential to our reporting.

Q) What metrics in Webmaster Tools should I be most concerned with from a technical standpoint?

A) Index status and crawl errors. The first allows you to compare to your site map and diagnose problems there. 100 pages in a site map and 10,000 indexed shows a huge problem. Crawl errors is not only a great way of finding issues with your website, but can be powerful for link building; pull off a list of 404 pages, run a back link check on those pages and work your way through the list starting with the pages with the most powerful links. 301 them to relevant pages and you’re not missing out on the link equity.

Jason’s dream SEO client, Paddy Power

 

Q) Content marketing, short-lived fad or here to stay?

A) Here to stay. The name will change, like everything else in SEO. Just like conversion rate optimisation is now called growth hacking by most. The concept will be around for a very long time and I’m happy with that.

Q) Who would be your dream SEO client and why?

A) Paddy Power or Brew Dog. Their brand personalities are awesome and they’re not scared of trying anything completely insane, it’s part of their culture. The level of traffic they’d get also means we could work wonders on conversion rate optimisation as well.

Dave Naylor of Bronco

Q) Who are your favourite SEO rockstars?

A) Rand Fishkin – That beard.

Dr Pete @ Moz – His tweets range from laser-focused research to his wife questioning why there’s dinosaurs on his presentation. He seems a great guy.

David Naylor – I love Bronco and the work they do.

James Agate – His business drive is pretty awesome.

Scott Delong – Not an SEO, but simply because of what he has achieved with ViralNova.

Neil Patel – A clever man and some great content. I admire what he does.