Entrepreneur Profile: Solartex Sun Gear

solartex

Successfully launching and running a business is a daunting task. Getting a look inside the entrepreneurial mindset, to learn from a business owner who’s been down that road and can offer some sage advice is invaluable. Today we are speaking with Lisa Dewey, co-founder of Solartex Sun Gear of Glen Allen, Virginia. Visit them online at www.solartex.com.

This American entrepreneurial story has its origins in 1995, when two mothers, one a pharmacist and the other a lawyer, had a shared passion for protection their young children from the dangers of sun exposure. After discovering some sun-protection swimwear manufactured by an Australian company and available only through a Canadian distributor and making several purchases, they eventually were approached about the opportunity to become a license holder to sell the product in the United States. In 1998 Solartex Sun Gear was founded with the website launching one year later.

When launching your store in 1999, what were the most difficult challenges with getting the site and the business up and running?

In 1998, very few people in the U.S. had heard of sun protective swimwear so our first challenge was education. We initially used magazines, boat shows, newspapers and television & radio spots to promote our products and as word spread, we became more committed. We started with a shoestring budget, and with so little money we had issues purchasing inventory. Since we imported from Australia via Canada, we had a learning curve with import issues. Both of us were Moms with young children and professional part-time jobs (I am an attorney and Laurie is a pharmacist), so we had time constraints as well.

But we remained committed to the idea that the products we sold made life easier for parents and safer for children. So in 1999, we decided to join the world of e-commerce. The internet was in its infancy as far as e-commerce goes. Frist, we had to find someone to create a website and we had lots of difficulties finding responsible, knowledgeable folks to do the work. Then we had to find money, merchant services, shipping options and figure out exactly what was necessary to establish an e-commerce site. That might sound easy now, but at that time it was far from clear to most bankers and other established entities how to put together an e-commerce site or whether it would be secure enough for people to trust. I thought for many years that I should have written a “how to” book, but I never had the time!

Over the next few years, consumers became more comfortable with on-line purchasing, but we still had the problem that we were selling a product that most folks in the U.S. had never heard of. It wasn’t like searching for a book, nobody knew the product existed so they didn’t know to search for it. This meant our marketing strategy continued to be education and word of mouth.

In those early years, Dogpile and AOL were the prominent search engines, not Google. For folks who did know to search for our UV swimwear, we were lucky in the early years of Google because we had great organic placement due to our early presence on the internet.

How did Solartex originally position itself in the marketplace, and how has that evolved over the last 15+ years?

Initially, our focus was to provide children’s items that were unique and safety oriented. We promoted the idea that these sun protection swimsuits made life easier for young, busy parents who wanted to protect their children from the sun without relying solely on chemical-laden sunscreen. When we began, our products were made in Australia, which appealed to many people and the items we sell are all great quality, with a bulletproof, long lasting fabric.

Soon we added flotation suits, another item that brings peace of mind to parents. We continued to look for and add unique products and even manufactured some of our own. Our product line expanded quite a bit over the years, but always with the twin goals of safety and peace of mind. We added all natural sunscreens, natural insect repellents, sunglasses, sun hats, sun gloves, sun sleeves, full body coverage suits, swim tights and swim diapers.

And over the years we went from a focus primarily on children’s safety and began to promote sun safety for adults of all sizes. We’ve had some of our greatest success with our big and tall men’s swim shirts and plus size rash guards.

Finally, our customer service has always been outstanding. We pride ourselves on our well made products and our customer service.

What are the biggest changes you have seen in online consumer habits in the last few years?

I think it has been interesting to see consumers become comfortable with internet shopping and trust that they can purchase swimwear unseen and on-line and that their shopping experience and credit card information will be safe. I do think mobile phones and devices have made it so easy to buy anything you want within minutes. Overall, I think trustworthy websites, consumer confidence in e-commerce, refined search ability begun by Google, multiple sales platforms, mobile devices, and sales gimmicks like groupons and free shipping have helped propel the e-commerce revolution.

Just as Google and Adwords changed things a decade ago, I think Amazon (which I personally think is a very difficult platform to use) and similar sales channels have changed things in the last 5 years. So many people sell on these channels and the competition for the consumers’ dollar is intense. Many people are foregoing traditional websites to focus solely on these sales channels. And with Google’s organic position bias against small businesses, many new entrepreneurs have no other feasible option but to sell thru these channels. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next 5 to 10 years.

What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about running an online business over the last 15+ years, and what advice would you give an aspiring entrepreneur wanting to get started in e-commerce today?

First, I would say if you believe in your product don’t go cheap; if you plan to have an e-commerce site, start out with a good website and professional search engine optimization. We spent so much time re-doing the things we tried to do on the cheap, I think our business would be in a much better place if we had been better financed and willing to spend money on the most important items, like our website, from the beginning.

Look for professional, trustworthy businesses to work with. Often it will take a lot of tries to find the right “partner.” And don’t be afraid to dismiss those “partners” that are not helping you meet your goals.

We have always purchased our own inventory, and I think if I had to do it again I would consider drop shipping. But the facilities and infrastructure weren’t in place for that option when we began. If I was starting out today, I would consider whether to even build a website or whether to begin by hiring someone to place my products on Amazon and other sales channels.

Most importantly, treat your customers well. Don’t battle over the small stuff, let the customer have the free shipping or the discount code that expired yesterday and you will have a customer for life. It may sound trite, but stick with your values.

Where do you see Solartex going in the next 5 years?

Good question. With increased competition from all sides it’s really hard to say. I think we will continue to look for new, unique, safety-oriented products to promote and will continue to maintain our website and explore other sales channels.

About Mohit Tater

Mohit is the co-founder and editor of Entrepreneurship Life, a place where entrepreneurs, start-ups, and business owners can find wide ranging information, advice, resources, and tools for starting, running, and growing their businesses.

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