Sunday, May 27, 2001

Family sells dolphin items on Web




By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

        Gary Stein's cyberswim with dolphins has taught him how to stay buoyant in the unpredictable seas of Internet commerce. Only a year into his Internet venture, JustDolphins.com, the College Hill entrepreneur has sharpened his skills as a niche marketer, and is expanding his inventory as well as his horizons.

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Gary Stein of College Hill.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        In early 2000, Mr. Stein was looking to augment his income as a government employee to cover the medical expenses incurred by his youngest daughter, who is mentally handicapped. A home-based Internet venture seemed a logical choice.

        “I have extensive knowledge of the Internet and know the histories of a lot of companies out there,” he said. “My family was in a retail business — I grew up in retail.”

        The benefits of operating an Internet store were many: flexibility, low startup costs, and ability to work from home.

        His daughter Ariel, 13, suggested their e-venture specialize in dolphins, her favorite animal. She also came up with a logo.

TOP SELLERS
  As JustDolphins.com continues to learn what merchandise creates a feeding frenzy among customers, several items have emerged as favorites.
  There's a colorful poster of a dolphin leaping from the ocean, which lists at $8, one of the site's least-expensive items. Other big sellers include a 14 karat gold dolphin pendant ($32.95) and a sterling silver bracelet ($19.95). An aquamarine candle bowl encircled by dolphins retails at $38.95, and a sleek dolphin oil warmer is priced at $9.95.
  For those who want entertainment, there's a perpetual motion magnetic dolphin sculpture ($19.95).
        Mr. Stein opened the site in June 2000. Since its debut, he and his family have spent 24 hours a day, seven days a week, answering phone calls and logging Internet orders from customers in Australia, England, Switzerland and the United States. It is not unusual to handle an order at 4 a.m., Mr. Stein said. He added that running an Internet company cannot be done by people who are “squeamish and want sleep.”

        The startup has generated more than $100,000 in profits, a figure that Mr. Stein predicts will multiply more than five times next year.

        JustDolphin.com's success is attributable in part to Mr. Stein's flair for marketing. It's also a tribute to his ability to learn from the mistakes of others, notably the ventures he dubs the “dot-gones.”

        “You've got to start small and build slow,” he advised. “Don't overdo the employees.”

        In addition to Mr. Stein and his wife, JustDolphins has one other staff member: Ariel. Theirs is a different profile from that of prodigal startups of recent times that obtained venture capital financing and blew it on employees and advertising.

        Starting small meant that the company ordered from wholesalers who would drop-ship, so the Steins didn't need to keep inventory and weren't stuck ordering large quantities of items whose appeal was untested.

        “It's good up to a point,” he said. “But you have better control when you can keep stock. It's best to take on wholesalers one at a time, and build your credit as you build your company.”

        Another lesson learned from the “dot-gones” was where and to what extent to invest the company's profits. With the aid of software such as Hitbox, Mr. Stein can determine the company's advertising effectiveness by seeing which locations draw the most viewers to the homepage. With the aid of visitation figures and customer recommendations, he can add and cut product lines to meet demands.

        Once Mr. Stein found his niche, he grooved in it. Maintaining a very specific line of merchandise seems to have boosted JustDolphins.com sales. Mr. Stein said that too much diversity would not reel in dedicated, returning customers and would blur the distinction between JustDolphins.com and competitors who sell a broader array of marine life merchandise.

        The company also donates 10 percent to 15 percent of each sale to a different dolphin charity each month. This idea, which was conceived as a way to give back to the community, turned into a strategic business move for Mr. Stein because the donations attracted even more customers.

        And customers are always on his mind.

        Said Mr. Stein: “I market from the standpoint of the consumer as well as the retailer. I learned a long time ago that a good impression will spread to 10 people, but a bad impression will spread to 100. We have complaints from time to time — items broken in shipment, that kind of thing. If you know how to handle these customers, show them you are concerned, they will come back.”

        Rebecca Angeles, a Florida dolphin enthusiast, plans to shop JustDolphins.com again, based on her initial experience.

        “I was very satisfied with the ease in ordering what I wanted from their Web site and was very impressed with the e-mail confirmations,” she said. “I received my order swiftly.”

        A customer from England wrote Mr. Stein about her purchase.

        “We used the dolphin as a wedding cake topper for our wedding in September,“ said Krista Baxendale. “My husband and I have one major ambition, which is to swim with the dolphins.”

        Mr. Stein will soon be swimming into new waters with JustDolphins.com. He hopes to move the enterprise out of his home and into a business incubator, where there will be room for more stock. At present, he's honing his business plan and planning to approach some venture capitalists. But all in good time.

        “When we do go to the venture capitalists with our business plan, we'll have a track record — unlike the dot-gones that started out with a lot of promises,” he said.

       



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