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GeniusBabies.com: Pursuing Her Two Passions on the Web
Michelle Donahue-Arpas pursued her two passions on the Web -- staying at home with her baby and pre-natal or infant stimulation.  She proves that you can make it big on the Web even with little cash and limited technical expertise, as long as you have guts and determination.

by Isabel M. Isidro
Managing Editor

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How do you market your business?

The biggest mistake I did when I started was to think that with so many people online they would come across or stumble on the site. No way! And it takes a long time, but once you put in a lot of hard work, it pays off.

We successfully advertise on complimentary baby sites, and on GoTo.com with targeted keywords. I work very hard on search engines. I do the manual submissions myself. I don't believe in paying for a search engine submission service.

We have a contract for Yahoo! Shopping Advertising, which is extremely costly, and does not begin to generate the sales to compensate. We may just leave the big advertising for the big boys/ national companies.

Offline, we have did very little print advertising, as it was also very costly, and did not generate the anticipated traffic or sales to justify the print media.

We prefer to do less costly, cross promotions with other etailers that share the same target market. We will include their printed promotional materials with our orders, and they in turn include our GeniusBabies.com introduction coupon.

We share and swap e-newsletter ads with our e-colleagues.

How about banner advertising?

No. I think we tried it one time, at the very beginning. Ridiculous amount of money. It was one of the circuits that went through Yahoo, BabyCenter.com and some other one. I just saw five hundred dollars go poof, generating only two visits or some absurd thing. My $500 might be as well as have been $5 million. I was crushed. But it was a lesson to learn. I think banners don't work at all.

Does majority of your visitors come from Yahoo?

No, there used to be a fairly large percentage. I would say in the beginning about 20% or so. Now I would say it's less than 10%. They're really marketing towards the big guys right now who have more advertising dollars, so the small merchants have moved down the line. It has grown so much, and the downside is that you get lesser traffic because you are much less visible. And goodness, if you lose that five star rating, you'd be on page 99!

How do you promote your business offline?

We do baby fairs. The only cross promotion I do is with other e-moms who have online businesses with the same target market. My mentor, Dawn from BabyUniversity.com, was the one in the beginning who said "Girl, what are doing? What are you doing in frames?" She helped me develop my traffic. I really owe her everything.

We have one big group that I find most beneficial. It is called MyBabyShops.com, organized by several mompreneurs and serves as a cooperative advertising group. We have LOW budget. We try to think of different marketing things that we can do. Like when one has a baby fair in their area, they come, represent us, and bring all of our marketing materials with them. We all try to promote that site from our site. There is a very friendly competition. We feel like "well, maybe this time this person will want to buy something from us and next time, they'll buy something for you."

These are the first moms who will tell you if there is a good place to advertise. Or post a link. We have an ongoing email group where the moms tell us when they come across something good or if they lost some money on advertising. They will really give you insights and tell you the truth. They have become really important friends, and I've never met in real life any one of them. So they're my wonderful dear, dear virtual friends.

What do you think are the factors that make your business successful?

Starting small, not over investing, not having huge debts, or being in debt to anyone... not having an IPO! lol!

Loving what we do! Sharing the joy of babies being born! The special joys of sending a WombSong to an expecting first time mom-to-be, which she can play and sing to her unborn child. Other joys include wrapping a birthday gift and signing the card.

The personal touch again, the old fashioned idea of being kind, courteous, and respectful, and treating our customers just as we would like to be treated. Simple as that!

You proved to be longer-lasting than your well-oiled competitors. Any tips?

I always practice what my grandfather told me about common sense: that you are in business to make a profit. Many of the big e-tailers spent millions of dollars to get everybody to their site. We are not doing that. Instead, we just took exceptional care of the customers that did come.

Our repeat business has been our salvation. Absolutely our repeat business and our word of mouth. We ask visitors to our site how they found us and at least one of every 10 was referred by their brothers, sisters-in-law, mothers, co-workers. And I guess that's also the same number of people they can tell if we do something wrong.

So we try to do everything right and exceptional and surprise them. We get everything out the same day. Orders up to 2 or 3 in the afternoon. Sometimes they're just shocked. They live in the south and get it on the next day by ground shipping or something. They're not waiting forever to get it.

And of course the personal touch. Like giving a handwritten gift card instead of a typed message showing the typos and the misspellings and errors and that sort of thing on a printed packing slip. People love to get a gift card, you know, the old fashioned way of doing things. Gift wrap it and make it look really pretty in the same way that you would want it to be. Put a nice bow to it. Don't just stick it in one of those custom-made boxes, or in a gift box and cover it. That's not gift wrapping with a bow! That's not fun to open and rip open, especially for 1 and 2 and 3 year olds.

Really the customer care of responding to anything - from the comments they make, and to the suggestions. I think I said too that many people really want to make sure that it arrives on time for the occasion, like a baby shower. Not everyone is Internet savvy or knows how to click on the link and go to the UPS tracking system. We will do it for them and tell them that it arrived at 10:30 am and their daughter Cara signed them. And they're just so relieved that their gift made it.

What advice can you provide other online entrepreneurs? What pitfalls should they avoid?

Don't go into it with the belief you will see a profit or an income immediately, or if you're doing it because you need money right now. It is not a get-rich-quick plan!

If you have patience, a passion for your business idea, a love of the Internet, and are willing to grow your business slowly and steadily, you will be successful.

Fine-tune and tweak your site, ask for feedback from your visitors, customers and colleagues. Network as much you can with fellow e- merchants. This is still such a new field; your neighbors, family and friends may not be able to give you the valuable insight and feedback that your e-colleagues can.

What is your outlook for the next 2-3 years?

We hope to be doing what we're doing, and figure out a way to take on extra help again. Maybe I'll be at the point where I will want to focus more on my family. Maybe that will be time when I let go of the reins a little bit. I would love someday to be able to retire the business. And that's what I see in the long term when one of the bigger companies would come along and continue what GeniusBabies started. I would love to do online consulting; I am really, really interested in e-commerce. But I don't always want to work 365 days a year. I don't.

I am content with it growing steadily, not growing rapidly. That is not our ultimate goal. We don't want it to be the all-too consuming element of our lives. And we don't want to compromise what we had - the personal care that we give to every customer that has made it successful. We give our customers a unique experience that they couldn't believe that people actually cared - that they got a personal reply or response for all the things they said, or someone being kind to them.


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