Interview with Anne Marie Blackman – President of My Ugly Sweater

Interview with Anne Marie Blackman - President, My Ugly SweaterTell us a little bit about your entrepreneurial journey and where you came up with the idea for My Ugly Christmas Sweater.

I’ll give you the overview:

I have a computer science degree from 1982 and worked in Boston in the financial industry designing computer systems for a decade. When I had my two boys we moved to Vermont to raise the boys, and I left my career. I was an at-home-mom for about 15 years and did a ton of volunteering in my community and kids school. I ran a number of fundraisers that had a costume theme and have a knack for coming up with funny costume ideas. Like, I twice ran a Bridesmaid party fundraiser, where both men and women wore bridesmaid dresses. It was just amazingly fun. I ran several parties like a Flashback Party, where you had to dress in the decade that you graduated high school. For a 60’s party I ran, we made go-go booths! So the point is that I have a creative spirit. And even though I am by no means a seamstress, I can craft a mean costume.

So in 2008, after being a stay at home mom/volunteer for about 15 years, my boys were getting ready to go to college and I was looking for something to do to make money to help pay for their college. This is where my analytical background came back to help me as I researched search trends on both Google and ebay to see what people were searching for that was related to Christmas. My thought was to sell something that people wanted for a Christmas gift that year. Back then, ebay had a free tool you could use for this purpose. Nowadays, you have to pay for this ebay research tool via www.Terapeak.com. Side Note: I dislike Terapeak greatly because they give away too much data about ebay sellers. As a successful seller, I tried to get my ebay store removed from Terapeak, because too many people were copying me. But, it’s a good tool for someone to use to study successful ebay sellers!)

So anyway: I used a (no longer existing) free ebay tool, and the Google trends tool http://www.google.com/trends/ and researched search trends.

I came up with a list of possibilities. When I found that people were searching for Christmas sweaters I dug deeper and found they were looking for ‘ugly christmas sweaters’ and then ‘ugly christmas sweater parties’. I had never heard of these themed parties, so I read about them (via Google) and learned that they had a contest for most ugly sweater. There were no websites catering to people who wanted to win an ugly Christmas sweater contest, and there were very limited number of Christmas sweaters for sale on ebay.

So all that research took a couple weeks. It wasn’t just a quick thing, but an extensive search and analysis of what was being searched for and what was trending in search queries.

There were no actual Christmas sweaters for sale at my local thrift stores, so I had no product to sell.  I decided I would buy pre-owned sweaters that were just regular sweaters (non holiday) and embellish them in such a way that they would be contenders for a prize at an ugly Christmas sweater party.

In 2008 I sold 50 embellished sweaters on ebay which were big hits and made about $3000. I studied ebay’s best match algorithms and always had at least two items of mine on the first page of search results.

In December of 2008, after the holidays, I immediately started planning for the 2009 holiday season. I opened an ebay store and got a domain name via GoDaddy. (They have a product called website tonight so you can develop a website without knowing how to code). I developed a simple website that featured some of my products and drove people to my ebay store. If they clicked on a photo it brought them to that section of my ebay store.  I learned how to do this by studying successful ebay sellers and reading all the information on the ebay website related to ebay stores.

I ran my business through ebay for three years, but in 2009 and 2010 it was my own website that was driving ¾ of my traffic to my ebay store.

In 2009 I was a guest on The View, and put on an ugly Christmas sweater fashion show. The producer found me via my website. I got calls from other media sources who wanted to talk about the trend. Truth be told, I had never even gone to an ugly Christmas sweater party at that point, but I had read everything I could about the trend and was the leader in the ugly Christmas sweater marketplace.

In 2010 I twice had ebay’s TOP SHARED award, for having an item that was most shared on Facebook for the day. That was pretty incredible. The way I did that was that I had listings that were on the first page of ebay that had a super funny product photo. People would click on the item because the photo was so funny. I made the listings have variants, meaning that when one item sold, there were always others available. So that way, the listing wouldn’t end. I kept re-loading the variants to keep the listing alive. (And of course, within those listings, I advertised other items in my ebay store, so customers would click through to my store after clicking on the funny photo that initially caught their interest).

In 2011 I hired someone to take down my GoDaddy website and make my current SHOPIFY ecommerce website (same name as my old GoDaddy site, but a totally different website). I left ebay.

I’ve increased my products exponentially over the years as the business grew, both in quantity but also in the styles of sweaters I sell. I still sell the embellished sweaters, but also sell thousands of vintage pre-owned Christmas sweaters and this year I have a line of brand new sweaters that I designed and had manufactured.

Side note: I co-authored a book titled, Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater (2012) which was well received. My coauthor and I did a tremendous amount of PR work which paid off, and the book got excellent press coverage. In 2012 I appeared on several national news shows promoting the book and my sweater business.

Jump forward to today: I started this business in 2008 to help pay for my two boys college. They both went four years to George Washington University and my business has paid for their college entirely. One graduated in 2013 and the other will graduate May 2014. The business also offers me a salary and has been very successful. What started as a part time seasonal business has grown to a year round full time business. It has been a tremendous amount of work but has been intellectually stimulated (I love that!) and offered me very interesting experiences as well as financial rewards for my family.

With such a seasonal business, how do you market your business year round? 

I work to market my business year round by soliciting media who are interested in the entrepreneurial story of my business, or the story about how I started a business, or other business angles.  Not too many people want to read about Christmas sweaters unless it’s Christmas season, so I use the off season to cultivate media related to the business side of my business.

What is your normal schedule? Do you work year round?

This is a year round full time business. I work crazy hours from mid November to Christmas, but the rest of the year it’s like a full time job. I take a breather in January but even then I check the computer daily and am never really away from work.  It’s a year round business because I have over 10,000 sweaters to process and get ready to sell by October. They have to be processed, photographed, measured, end uploaded to the website. The website requires constant upkeep, and the PR for the business needs year round attention.

You’ve received some amazing press exposure on national media outlets — how were you able to do this? 

I started my business specifically because I saw that it was trending. I did research and chose to go into a business that was going to become more and more popular. I started on eBay, but made my website (that linked to my ebay store) for two reasons. The first was to promote my products to a greater audience then just ebay. The other reason was so that media could contact me easily.  It’s really hard to contact ebay sellers – it’s not a friendly interface. My website had a contact-me page that made it easy for media to get in contact with me.

Because the ugly Christmas sweater theme was trending, I was contacted by media because I was the only business selling embellished sweaters that has a website, and I could be easily contacted. And I respond to requests immediately.

On my end, from the very beginning I solicited media attention by sending marketing materials all over the country to major news and entertainment shows as well as traditional newspaper organizations.

I work year round doing PR work for my company. As a side note, I love the PR work side of my business and have had offers to do PR work for other companies.  I’m considering it!

You started off selling on eBay, what tips do you have for being successful on eBay?

You should study ebay sellers who are successful and see what they are doing. Don’t limit yourself to studying sellers in your product area, but look for big sellers in general. Look at their ebay store. How do they get traffic to that store. Do they also have a website outside of ebay?

It’s really important to open an ebay store and not just have products for sale without a store.

When you have a store you can categorize your products. Like I had categories like MENS SWEATERS, FUNNY REINDEER SWEATERS, LIGHT UP SWEATERS etc.

I used to have links (with a photo) to all my store categories of my products within EVERY ebay listing. Like, if you have a listing for a women’s Santa sweater, then inside that listing it will describe that item and then it will say:

Are you looking for something else? Check out my store for these items:

[photo] snowman sweaters
[photo] funny sweaters

Etc.

And each line item links them to the category of items in your ebay store. That way, you don’t lose a customer just because that specific item wasn’t what they want. You want to drive them to your store.

There are loads of reasons to open an ebay store, and seller should read all they can about it. And when they open a store they should click through every page in the ebay store area of their website and fill in every field.  They’ll see things like ‘meta tag’ information. If they don’t know what that means then Google it. This is the way that ebay will help get you traffic from the search engines.

Why did you make the switch from eBay to your own e-commerce site?

I left for three reasons.

  1. Ebay used to reimburse 75% of your seller fees if you drove your own traffic to your ebay store. That meant that if a customer started out in my website and then clicked through to my ebay store and bought something, that ebay reimbursed me 75% of the fees. That was great! But they took away that program which was going to mean a huge increase in seller fees for me. I took the money that I would have been paying ebay for the fees and paid someone else to create my current ecommerse website.
  2. Ebay keeps changing their best match algorithms which decides who gets priority in their search results. When I left, they were promoting items that had the FREE SHIPPING option. The price point of many of my sweaters didn’t work with FREE SHIPPING and it was very discouraging to have to cater to ebays changing priorities for their best match algorithm.
  3. Many of my customers need items in two days or overnight. Ebay’s shipping options were very limiting (at least in 2011 when I left). I needed to offer FedEx options and needed flexibility in what the customer saw as far as shipping times so customers understood when they were going to get their items.

Your website gets a tremendous amount of traffic, what strategies have you used to increase your web traffic?

Ebay traffic:

From the beginning I was getting ebay traffic because I studied their best match algorithim and did things like became a TOP SELLER and followed their guidelines to create listings with variants etc. I utilized every ebay feature there was to get visibility. The ebay store options include technical variables like meta tags etc which had the effect of my ebay items appearing top in Google search.

As far as my www.MyUglyChristmasSweater.com website: Website traffic is a science that is called Search Engine Optimization (SEO). When I started I was getting massive traffic because I was unique in the marketplace. As the trend has grown, more and more companies have launched that are competing for the same space. I’ve studied SEO strategies, and several years ago hired Michael Salvo at Whitecap Seo (www.whitecapseo.com) to work on my website search visibility.

The most important thing for traffic (besides a good quality website) is quality inbound links to your site. Getting those links falls under PR, and is something I (and my team) work on year round.

You need people in media to write about you and link to your site.

The holiday season is already busy, but add a thriving seasonal business on top of that and it seems overwhelming. How do you manage your personal and business life during this time period? 

My family understands the seasonal nature of my business and are very supportive of my busy schedule during the holidays. I’m out flat, but they appreciate how hard I work and they certainly appreciate that the business has paid for the boys college.

Connect with Anne Marie … 

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