Tips for launching an online retail business

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Stylist Team
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We were recently joined for a lunchtime masterclass with Caroline Stanbury, founder and CEO of luxury gift website

Caroline shared a wealth of tips and inspiration on her four years running the site, which features handpicked women's, men's and children's gifting and caters to those on any budget.

Check out her advice on everything from funding to product selection and how she tackled the technical side of the website, below.

Picture credit: Rex Features

Getting started

When you decided to start your business, what were the very first steps? I don't mean writing business plans and getting funding. Did you contact companies whose products you wanted to sell or let them come to you? Do you think 'what you know' can ever overcome 'who you know' in business?

When you going into any business you need to be confident you can get brands on board - which is extremely difficult to judge! It's a catch 22 as you don't have anything to show them but at the same time you need them to believe in you and your vision.

Yes, my contacts did definitely help. I had worked in the fashion industry 10 years prior to setting up Gift Library so used this to my advantage, but it was still hard. Once you can convince one person though, it does become easier.

I would love to know when you got your lighbulb moment for the luxury online business - as I am still waiting for mine!

My lightbulb moment was when I woke up one morning and realised I needed my business! I was working all hours of the day and if I had a spare moment I was with my children, and the only time I had to shop was late at night. I wanted something that would bring all my favourite brands to one place, and so Gift Library was born!

It seems to me that we, as women, went from battling for right to work to 'must be my own boss'. Do you think that corporate career is something you never wanted and your own business was the only way forward for you?

With the stress of raising money, staff, growing sales and 'doing it alone' - a corporate career sometimes seem very attractive!

I get asked a lot if I would start my business if I knew what I know now - and I do wonder sometimes when it has grown to the level it has and my stress levels are through the roof.

However, I find running my own business extremely rewarding and love so many parts of the challenge. I also believe I have been spoilt working for myself and I am not sure if I could go back to working for anyone else. Plus, the rewards are much greater when you have your own business.

My advice to you is if you have a passion to start a company and a great idea then you should definitely consider it.

Product selection and marketing

I was just wondering how you make Gift Library stand out from its competitors? There are so many websites competing in the luxury space it must be hard?

It's an on-going battle as once you think you have cracked it, someone else comes along.

For us it's about continuity. We make sure we focus on delivering a great service, that the website is trusted which is why I have my name and face visible on the homepage, and also that we have unrivalled product selection.

I am still hands on. Everything that is sold on Gift Library is picked by me, so that I can make sure quality is paramount. This makes me feel comfortable that we are on the right track.

You have such a beautiful range of items on the Gift Library - how do you shortlist from all the great brands you work with to ensure you always have the very best selection of products on the site?

The key with my choice is the diversity of the brands we have as each season I love to choose a small selection from each brand ensuring that the site is forever evolving and new ideas are being brought to the forefront.

We do however always have a core set of products that we keep too they are so timeless and will always be a fabulous gift. I also travel each season to find new and exciting ideas to share.

What do you look for in a truly great stand-out gift? are there any no-nos which turn you off a potential piece immediately? and any absolute yes's?

A stand out gift for me is something that is luxurious and slightly frivolous that normally you would not buy for yourself.

A complete non gift for me is practical i.e. I never want to receive an iron or a blender and these will not be on Gift Library.

The technical side

I would love to know how you learnt about building an online business, from commissioning a website to maintaining and developing it. Did you always have a tech person involved the creation or did you teach yourself?

When I started it was like the blind leading the blind, I had no tech person and new nothing about the web except I used it and I love the convenience of being able to shop any hour of the day! I still to this day have Business School For Dummies on my desk!

I went direct to a web developer and learnt all I needed to know the hard way - trial and error - and we built the best site we could on my tiny budget.

Once it was up and running I could see what else need to be built to make it more user friendly etc. Now however I would never undertake this job again without my tech team.

If you could go back and do one thing differently what would it be and what would you do instead?

Knowing all I do now if I was to start again I would have taken a greater interest in the formalities and structure of running and owning a business, instead of handing it to others to formulate it for me.

Like most entrepreneurs I was the visionary and wanted to move on and get started.


What are your top tips for people trying to start their own business who don't have much finance behind them?

My advice is to start small. I started at home and had one person helping me in the early days.

Importantly, I wasn't in a hurry. Don't "think big" in the early days. A business is like a wheel, as once it starts it picks up momentum, so you need to make sure your ready to move when things start to pick up. If you're going in the right direction, and can prove growth, you will always find funding.

I have been in the process of setting up a new business for most of 2012, but a stumbling block is finance. Relatively speaking, I don't need a huge amount - about £20k. What are the options available? Would you recommend a bank loan, or getting an investor (something I didn't really want to do), or something else? What did you do?

Well it's a tough question; its very hard these days to get any sort of a loan with a bank without some sort of security against it which I would not suggest you do.

I started out with friends and family investors but again this comes with having to give equity and some control of your business away.

Work/life balance

I have read before that you have three children. I am also a mum and am keen to set up my own business - did you think its harder starting a company when you have children?

Having children made me think about what I wanted to do and what I wanted to teach my children, and giving them a strong work ethic was important. The challenges are the same but it requires better planning on your part with child care and schooling.

It is tough but its also rewarding when your children are proud, and my daughter loves to come and sit with me in the office. With your own business you have the luxury too of choosing the work hours that suit you and your family.

How do you manage your work / life balance? I know that you must be so busy with running the Gift Library, I wondered if you find the time to do things that you enjoy outside of work?

I make sure that at weekends I switch off completely. In the week, I make sure I see my friends twice (who are the same I have had for 20 years) and put up with me being glued to a telephone constantly!!

With my children, I see them every morning and we have breakfast together as well as bed times and bathtimes. There is a lot of forward planning to make sure they have a fun and structured schedule whilst I am working. It's not perfect, but it works for us and the children have always had a working mother and are extremely happy!

Did you have to manage a full time job whilst developing your business? I'm struggling to find time to fulfill my current job, work on my business plan AND spend time with friends and family without completely burning myself out!

I did have a job to support myself through the set up of Gift Library as I did not take a salary for about the first three years.... so I continued with my styling, it was very stressful but rewarding.

Key is to ask for help when you need it and to write lists so as not to forget things and to be really organised in your day-to-day life.