Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Defining business success, for me

Shameful how long it's been since I added a post here. But alas, here I am. Today I "stagged" my business for sale. The photographer came and took the panoramic photos and the place has never looked better! And after 2 years and 10 months of running the business, I am ready to move on.  How can that be so?!?

owner alyshia at queen of hearts tea house kitchener ontario

When I'm really honest with myself the short answer is: Because once I've acheived my goal I am ready to accomplish the next one. The goal when I set out to start my own business was: TO OWN AND RUN A SUCCESSFFUL TEA ROOM. I would define a "successful" tea room as:

  • Having a great reputation with repeat customers.
  • Being proud of the tea experience I have created for customers.
  • Having business sytems in place that make it run smoothly.
  • Having hired and trained reliable staff whom I have a good working relationship with.
  • Having a plethora of stellar Google reviews and/or Facebook reviews.
  • Having a profitable business.

And I have accomplished all of those things in this short time so I consider my endeavour to own and run a successful tea room complete!

On the selfish side, I am missing my "weekends" (i.e. two dedicated days "off" from "work" in a row which often fall on Saturday and Sunday) and I am jealous of alllllll the people who have been able to "work from home" for the past 2+ pandemic years.  I have worked all (with a couple of rare exceptions) Saturdays and Sundays for the past 34 months and now I want a home office and I want my weekends back!

I will certainly miss my beautiful tea room but I hope it can live on with the next owner. Hopefully it will continue to serve customers a memorable Afternoon Tea experience in our region, allbeit without me. Of course, I am already excited for the next un-known chapter in my life. Wow, do I ever thrive on change and challenging myself!  Bring it on world;!

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Job Search Reflections - What's different this time?

I have been on the hunt for a full-time position since becoming re-structured from my last
permanent full-time position. It's been seven months of searching and it's been harder this time 'round. At times I felt encouraged, like when there was a job posting I was super excited about the prospect of. Or when a head hunter sought ME out on Linkedin; that feels good. Other times, it's been discouraging, like weeks when I applied to several openings but heard nothing back. It has never been this challenging for me before to find a new position; to have applied to so many jobs and get so little interest. What's different this time?

Not Different: Custom Applications, Every.Single.Time

Let me be clear on one very important point - I customize EVERY SINGLE application. I do not just use a form cover letter and generic resume. Instead, I write a custom cover letter for each and every position I apply to which specifically addressing the job posting and how I can meet the requirements and why I'd be a good fit in the role. This may seem obvious but in my experience with hiring, this is QUITE RARE.  In addition, on occasion where I am really interested in the position I will add "something extra" to my application such an Infographic (read about my "something extra" here). Here is a post I wrote about one unique application I sent in. It takes me at least 45-90 minutes to apply to a single job but I believe customizing each application sets me apart. However, does it work?

What Could Be Different? Reflections

My recent search experience has caused me to be reflective and ask questions about why it's been a different experience this time.
  1. Are there more qualified candidates in my industry now than there has been in the past?
  2. Are my skills now too diverse and I was not being narrow enough in my search, hence over-applying?
  3. Am I over qualified for the roles I applied to?
  4. Are recruiters getting better at only interviewing people they already know they would hire (hence, reducing the number of interviews I would get)?
I think the answer could be YES to all of these questions. As our world becomes more digital and our shopping experiences move online more and more, there are more people becoming versed in e-commerce and digital marketing so the entry-level applicant pool is larger for these jobs, than it was 2 or 4 years ago. Meanwhile, my skills are evolving too. I am becoming more well-rounded and more experienced and company's only need one or two "top level" digital manager jobs so I've been applying to jobs I could easily manage.

On the point about recruiters becoming better at selecting candidates, I'm not so sure about this one; can someone in the HR world comment here? On the cynical side maybe they are actually worse at their jobs and don't recognize awesome talent from cover letters and resumes because they are so used to reading the same thing over and over. OR maybe they're all using software to select candidates and my time spent customizing cover letters doesn't resonate with the technology like it would if a human being were reading my application.  I don't have the answer here.

Application Metrics

In reflecting on this recent job search journey I went back and tracked all my applications from August 2018 - February 2019. During this time I applied to 48 positions. Of these applications, 8 included "something extra" like an Infographic. Sadly, I received no feedback, acknowledgment, or call-back from any of the applications where I took this extra initiative. I still think submitting a "something extra" is important for key roles of interest so even though it wasn't the trick this time, I still advocate for this strategy. And I will always be a proponent of customizing a cover letter for every job; always!

During this time, these 48 applications resulted in only 5 interviews. In the past my application-to-interview ratio has been higher.

Types of Roles

In terms of types of roles I applied to, they could loosely be grouped into 5 groups:

  • Account Management: 4
  • Ecommerce: 5
  • Digital Strategy/Campaigns/Publishing: 8
  • Content Creation/Communications: 15
  • Marketing: 16

Reflectively, I am stronger in e-commerce than reflected in these numbers but that's likely due to e-commerce being a more specific job role (compared to "marketing" which is a vast category) and there being fewer postings for that more narrow role.

In Sum

All in all this job search period had it's up's and down's. I sure got excited about a few of the positions and had to deal with the "let down" of hearing nothing from the employer. However, in the end, I landed a new full-time job so I gotta consider that a success.  It would be nice to not have to do another job search for a longer while ;)

How does this compare to your recent (or past) job searches? What additional factors do you think impact your search experience?

Friday, March 8, 2019

MailChimp – Should we stay or should we go?

Originally posted on Things Engraved blog, written by Alyshia Bestard in 2016 - See original post.

We were recently faced with an email marketing challenge.  Did we need to find a new Email Service Provider?  Here is what we learned while evaluating ESPs and the decision we made.
Our MailChimp Challenge
We were faced with an email challenge. For starters, we have used MailChimp since beginning our email marketing efforts four years ago. The vast majority of our email subscribers come from contests we run in social media and through website sign-ups (we offer a 10% online coupon when you sign-up for email). The database isn’t huge but it’s respectable.
So the challenge… In order to remain compliant to CASL anti-spam laws we keep track of exactly how we obtained the person’s email address in a group called “Origin.” So the origin might be “Mother’s day Facebook Contest 2015” or “Website Signup.” However, where we ran into problems was when we hit the maximum of 60 fields in the origin group. Uh-oh! How were we going to keep track of how we obtained people’s email addresses? We decided it was probably time to spread our wings and find a new ESP (Email Service Provider). Also in the back of our minds was the hope of collecting email addresses in our 100+ retail locations. It seemed like a good time to shop around.
New ESPs to Consider
We spent the better part of a week researching what we wanted in a new ESP and which vendors offered what solutions. We examined “The Sales Force Marketing Cloud“, formerly known as “Exact Target.” Our sales representative Adrian, at Bronto also gave us a demo of their ESP offer. Also under consideration was “InBox Marketer,” a local to us full-service marketing company with their own email platform. We briefly looked at “What Counts,” “Get Response,” and “Constant Contact,” too. We quickly learned that there are several different “tiers” of ESPs available from full service marketing agencies to the bare minimum.
Our Main Considerations:
  1. Could we solve our initial challenge that lead us down this road? Could the ESP handle unlimited numbers of “origins”? We quickly learned that all of the other platforms would include this type of data under the user’s profile vs. by having them added to a group. MailChimp appears to be unique in this vain.
  2. Was the creation of email a drag-and-drop method? While we have the capability to code html who knows what the future will hold and drag-and-drop is more user-friendly for everyone, including interns.
  3. What are the automation capabilities? – We want to get into sending “welcome series” emails so we wanted to ensure that any new ESP would include this function.
  4. Would we be able to scale? In the hopefully near future we hope to collect email addresses from customers in our stores at the point of purchase. Would the ESP be able to handle this extra data (e.g. what store we collected their email address from) and could we segment email campaigns based on their originating store?
  5. Cost considerations
A New ESP?
So the search began! We spent a week listening to sales pitches from the aforementioned companies and watching demos of the software each ESP was peddling. We got quotes and we considered some of them. Quickly we realized that all of the other ESPs could do #1, #2, and #3 on our wish-list; these were very standard. So it did not become a conversation about drag-and-drop, automation, and unique user fields. Rather, it became a conversation about scalability (#4) and cost (#5).   How big did we need to go and how much was it going to cost?
Flat Rate by # of Subs vs. Pay Per Send
I found it really surprising that most of the “big folks” in the ESP game do charge you per send.   For SalesForce(Marketing Cloud/Exact Target), InboxMarketer, and Bronto you had to pay BOTH a “licensing-usage fee” AND pay per send. Double whammy! I guess that’s how they make their money and make a great platform. But do we really need to pay twice for one service? Do we need to go with one of the BIG vendors?
What we Learned
Paying per send really leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Why am I being penalized for growing my list? That IS my job to grow the list. But the bigger I grow it the more it’s going to cost me. I don’t like that. However, it did make me re-evaluate the metrics of “list size.” Is list-size really a good measurement? Probably not.   I used the segmentation option in MailChimp to discover that over half of our email list hasn’t opened any of the last 20 campaigns we have sent. A good number of those emails are probably being sent to dead email addresses that no-one even opens any more. So we pruned our list by deleting everyone who hadn’t opened our last 50 emails. Of course, it cut down the list size dramatically and we’re only now seeing the positive impact that’s having on other key (more important) metrics such as open rates and click rates (see here). So through the process of hating the idea of paying an ESP per send, we were actually able to clean our list up and dump the ‘dead weight.’ It was painful to lose a huge chunk of the list but in the end it was the right decision and gives us better measures of our list’s actual success.
The most impressbronto_automationive demo was given to us by Bronto – their visual on how to do automation blew our socks off (Just look at it!) However, it came with a VERY hefty price-tag that was far too high for us to even consider at this point. Sorry Bronto🙁
Upon discussions with our IT group the feeling was that we are month (or more) away from being able to collect email addresses at the POS in-store. So maybe that “robustness” we were looking for isn’t necessary yet? Why pay for advanced features NOW when we won’t need them for months down the road?

Stay with MailChimp?
During this research phase we did start poking around more in MailChimp and although we see the ‘tab’ every time we’re logged in we’ve never explored the “Automation” capabilities of MailChimp. There is also this “eCommerce 360” option that we had never explored. Apparently we can bring our online sales data into MailChimp which opens up a whole new realm of possibilities with personalized email marketing.
So the idea struck me that perhaps instead of changing ESPs we need to better utilize the features that are available to us in the platform that is already working for us.
Challenge Met?
But that pesky challenge, the limit of 60 fields for our origin, still had to be solved. Would we somehow add this data to the user’s profile instead of having it associated with their group? It didn’t seem that possible in the user interface. Could we somehow group more of the origins together (e.g. Mothers Day AND Father’s day contest entries together?) to free up some of the 60 spaces? This was a very short-term solution. But a solution was found! We decided upon exporting the entire list, including all the origin data to save for our reference if we the CASL police ever want to know where we got someone’s email address from. Then we added just one origin to reference the excel file export that contained the actual origin information. Then added everyone from the contests etc. to the excel export reference origin. This way we still have a record for the CASL police AND we can continue to use MailChimp for the time being.
The Future
Do we think MailChimp will be able to hold the extra info required when we start to collect email addresses in-store? Probably not. Even setting up “Store” as a group we’ll be limited to 60 stores and we have over 100 locations, so no, that will not work. However, as mentioned, we are months away from being able to add emails at store-level so we don’t need to worry about collecting store emails until we’re ready to actually do it. When that day comes we’ll have to begin at square one again and start researching more robust ESPs to see who can give us the best value for the money.
New Focus
We will now focus on using MailChimp to its fullest potential. We commit to keeping our list “clean” (removing dead weight regularly). The plan is to setup some automation – a series of “welcome emails” to introduce new subscribes to our list.   Hopefully we can change our sign-up button on our website to also include a pop-up when you first enter the site – we learned that that has great success rates – and of course it does, EVERY SITE is doing it now; this will help us grow our list while we wait for in-store email collection. We will start using the “birthday” field to send offers to people on their birthday. AND we will look into getting eCommerce 360 setup so we can feed our web sales data into MailChimp and make a plan for how to better connect with our paying customers. In short, we will use more of the features of MailChimp and work to personalize the experience for our email subscribers before we put on our big boy pants and join the big guys, like Bronto, and the like.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

A creative content solution project

Background - Waterloo International is part of the University of Waterloo, and is responsible for, among other things, stewarding international agreements for student exchange, research partnerships, and other strategic partnerships across the globe. At any given time there could be 300-500 agreements in place with universities and research consortiums across the globe.

The Challenge - Find a more user-friendly and useful way to view content about international agreements on the Waterloo International website.  The solution needed to become a visual cue to the vast number of international agreements the university has in place; this helps the university advance it's strategic plan goal of becoming one of the most internationalized universities in Canada.

Previous User Experience - Three separate lists (on 3 separate URLs) that displayed the international agreement information.  This information was very hard to use because it spread across three different pages. Each of the pages was a simple text listing of each agreement. There was no visual appeal and user's got no sense of how many agreements were in place at one time.

Project Requirements
Visual - A map showing "flags/markers" on the countries where agreements exist
Filters - The ability to filter the list by country or agreement type
Organization - All agreements in ONE list instead of three
Back-end - Run using a database so when a change is made to the database it updates on the website automatically
Cost - There are SAS solutions that exist that solve the challenge but they are expensive and do more than needed at this point. A requirement of this project was to find a low cost solution (less than $1,000).

The Solution - After some internet sleuthing, I sourced a Google App, called "Awesome Table," that met all requirements.  The data was already in Excel so we only had to clean up the agreements records and load them into Google Sheets. We added the longitude and latitude for each agreement location (thanks to our co-op students!) so that the map would display all the flags. Filtering was available for any number of fields we wanted so that requirement was easily met. And it was free; fitting perfectly within the budget!

The next challenge was the URL had the original app developer's branding on it which wasn't ideal as this support unit is part of a large university. And the university's website platform did not support the embedded code. To overcome this challenge I setup a free Google Site to host the map.  Not a big deal because Google Sheets was already managing the back-end data so pairing this with a Google Site was seamless.

Problem Solved!
The end result is a clean user-friendly display of the 370+ international agreements for the university.
View the live map. Voila!  Everything came together perfectly and I solved the online content challenge I was presented with.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Sharing a unique cover letter

I'm trying to impress my dream company this week with this unique cover letter.  I'm quite impressed with myself.  Hoping it's enough to stand out and make an impression!

(In the future, I may add a blurb about the challenges I had trying to create this "graphic" using Google Docs "Draw" (due to resolution issues) before I surrendered to doing it properly in Photoshop!)

Dear "Dream Company," In keeping with Anna Lambert’s 2019 article on how Shopify uses one’s Life Story as part of the hiring process I thought I’d introduce myself by putting a few highlights of mine in front of you. The following are markers from my career, my side projects and my interests which highlight how my life story makes me a strong candidate for your Customer On-boarding Lead role at Shopify Plus. I very much look forward to expanding on my experiences and skills with you in-person soon.

Friday, January 4, 2019

#Best6 (or #Best12 if you're me) for 2018

#Best6 is a popular hashtag this time of year as people reflect on their best moments (captured by photos) from the previous year.  I had a hard time choosing only 6 - as many people do no doubt - so I did a #Best6 x 2 to capture my 2018 year.

#Best6 part 1 includes our big family trip to California including sheer terror on Tyler's face riding a rocking boat at Santa Monica Pier. Man, I haven't laughed that hard in awhile; all captured in photos! If this lad gets married I'll be sure to show them at his wedding.  We also enjoyed a cruise to the Bahamas and scuba diving in Fort Lauderdale.  Just had to include the Mother’s Day tea in Goderich (with fancy hats!) which started a series of events of me researching my own business.  Maybe I'll post about that in the future...

#Best6 part 2 includes photos of my childhood home that my Mom, brother and I had the opportunity to visit (such amazing memories!).  My hubby won a poker tourney (fun!) and I took my 89 year old Grandma to Florida and we toured 4 "tea rooms" so I had to include a 3-generation photo of the awesome memories that trip created.  The cake photo represents the launch of the Shopify website at work (read my blog post about that here)  The dining room photo marks the fact we sold our house in 2018; love(d) that dining room window and bench!  Also, a family wedding from November ended the year off nicely.

And that's my #Best12 for 2018.  What were your best moments of the year?

Thursday, July 26, 2018

5 Things I Learned from a Shopify Plus Website Relaunch

It finally happened!  On Tuesday June 19, 2018 I pulled the trigger and we launched the new Things Engraved website onto Shopify Plus.  Why was this a big deal?  3 reasons:

  1. A migration to a new website platform had been needed for years, for YEARS.  So it was a momentous occasion when it finally happened.
  2. Due to the nature of the personalized gift business the vast majority of gifts get either engraved, lasered, or embroidered meaning the website needed to be customized in multiple ways for customers to place orders and communicate their customization desires to us.  Not an easy task when you're trying to customize an out-of-the-box platform such as Shopify.
  3. This was my baby!   It was a very long project (14 months from end to end) requiring a lot of thinking, planning, and execution among a team of people.  And I was ultimately responsible for all of it.  There is no "e-commerce team" or "support staff" for me to lean on - it was me representing the entire needs of the business and the partner we teamed up with on the technology side who made this happen.

So ya, big deal... at least in my little corner of the world and a big giant step forward for the company too.  So now, here are the 5 things I learned during this project that may be helpful to you as an e-commerce manager facing the a re-platform project:

  1. Choose the BEST technology partner possible - and this is number 1 for a reason - I feel it's the most important of any advice I could give.  When I say "technology partner" I am referring to the person, people, vendor, or team that is going to take YOUR website requirements (as the ecommerce manager for example) and make them work on the internet using the platform.  So this requires a lot of coding and experience with the chosen platform.  In our case we wanted a firm that would do the design (make it pretty and on-brand) as well as a partner that could code our custom requirements.  I was lucky in that after vetting 4 such technology partners the one I settled on was absolutely dynamo!  (Shameless plug for "Cinnamon Toast" right here.)  Overall, you need to choose a partner who you can trust, who understands the scope of your project, who delivers on their sprints/timelines and with whom you communicate well.  I cannot stress enough how important the partnership relationship is for a large website rebuild.
  2. Know what you want (and don't want) on your new site.  What IS working from our old/existing website that you want to maintain on the new site?  What is NOT working that you know must change?  At the beginning of the project be crystal clear with your partner about the functionality requirements of the new site.  Yes, the needs may change as the project evolves but the better list you can build from the beginning (and be able to communicate those needs and wants!) the smoother the new build is going to go.
  3. Get to know your new platform.  If your website build is going to take months like ours did, find a way to learn the platform before your "real" site goes live.  We did this twice over.  We created a live e-commerce website, using Shopify Plus, where we sold items at clearance prices for 6 months before the launch of the real website.  We also created a "Business to Business" website for volume discount information on a wide range of our products that would appeal to specific business sectors.  Creating and running these websites for several months before the launch of the "real" website allowed us to learn how to integrate our existing inventory, accounting, and shipping systems with the platform.  So when it was time to integrate the big build website to our back-end systems our IT group already had the foundation of knowledge which simplified this process greatly.  So my suggestion is to create a micro-site while your new big bad website is being developed.
  4. Maintain your SEO at all costs.  If there is a way to maintain your existing inking structure, do it.  I am not convinced that re-directs are "enough" to salvage great SEO.  Unfortunately it was also decided (NOT BY ME) that we would launch the new website on the .com url and redirect our 10+ years of traffic/links/ranking of the .ca to the .com.  Google was not happy with this action so in hindsight this was a mistake.  Traffic results in the first 30 days have fallen by more than 50% some days and more than 20% every single day.  Lesson learnt: do every.single.thing you can to maintain all of your SEO rankings with Google.
  5. Test. Test. And test some more.  This is not rocket science but if you're re-launching an already successful website onto a new platform and had several customizations done on your behalf, you will need to test until your fingers hurt.  And find good people to help you test.  It's not something everyone can or should do.  Asking office mates to "play around on the new site" will help you find your best testers.  And it's not always who you think it'll be!  Find a core group of 3 or 4 people who thinks about all the possible scenarios of shopping on your site and rely on them to find and report all the bugs for you to vet through to your technology partners for fixing.  Yes, things can get fixed after launch, and will need to be fixed after the fact, but if your site is already successful you'll lose sales while you're fixing the bugs if not addressed beforehand.  Test as much as possible before you pull the launch trigger.  One or two more weeks could make all the difference to a successful re-launch.
And there you have it.  I've lived it for the past 14 months and those are my tips and advice for an e-commerce manager who is faced with a website migration to a new platform.  It's a big undertaking but when done with these tips in mind, it's an exciting project to complete.  Please reach out to me directly if you'd like to discuss anything above or other conversations about website rebuilds and migrations.