Can a small online business get bigger and still maintain its personal approach?
This week, an entrepreneur weighs whether his desire to offer that personal touch is getting in the way of expansion.
— Dan Beyers
The entrepreneur: Sam Feldman said he has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Though he’s still pursuing his undergraduate degree, he’s already working on his third business venture. His current project started just over a year ago, when he ordered a bulk supply of credit card sleeves to stick on the back of cellphone cases. He put the combination online, and they started selling. Since December, the College Park entrepreneur has sold more than 3,500 of his CardBuddy card holders. “I didn’t really have a master plan when I started out, but I saw this was starting to work, and I’m just trying to build it up as much as I can,” Feldman said.
The pitch, Feldman: “CardBuddy is a small card sleeve that holds one to three credit-card-sized cards. It sticks to the back of any phone or phone case. Users can easily pull cards from the case and enjoy the convenience of only having to bring along their phone instead of a wallet, too.
“We have two ‘models’ currently: The Original CardBuddy and our new CardBuddy Deluxe, made of leather and the only one like it on the market. Prices range from $8.99 to $25. I sell the first two models on Amazon now, and I just introduced the new deluxe model on Kickstarter.
“The challenge is scaling this from a small operation just selling a product online to a larger retail business online and in stores. To grow the company, I plan to launch my own Web site to sell the products. I’d also like to expand to offer it at more retailers. I need to think about marketing. I want to do well in our Kickstarter campaign.
“Right now, I’m selling 200 a week or so. With the help of a few friends, I’m packaging all the orders, and Amazon is fulfilling the orders. I try to make everything really personal and try to create a connection with customers. I include a note with each CardBuddy purchase that tells my story as a college student who really cares about quality of the products. I invite customers to e-mail me at my personal e-mail address, and I personally hand sign each note. Customer satisfaction is really important to me. I’ll always stand behind my products and offer a money-back guarantee. How do I maintain that commitment to customer service and offering a personal touch as I scale?”
The advice, Elana Fine, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business:
“You need to decide if you are a customer acquisition company or a customer loyalty company and focus on that. If you think people will be buying multiple CardBuddy products each year, you should spend time on things that create customer loyalty. But if your goal is really to sell one CardBuddy to as many people as possible, then you should focus more on customer acquisition. Of course you should still take returns and offer replacements when necessary — that’s just good customer service. But personal notes are beyond what customers expect if they buy a $10 product. That’s not a required part of the customer relationship and not something your customers likely care much about. They just want a good product.
“You can stay true to your values of providing good customer service by making good on your product and offering a quality product without expending too many resources. People will buy additional CardBuddy products because they liked their first CardBuddy — not because you send them a personal note. In fact, including a note might hurt your image with some buyers who could perceive you as too small a company if you have time to write personal notes for every purchase.”
The reaction, Feldman: “There’s certainly a balance I need to strike here. I know that most customers don’t expect this level of customer service, but I think that’s exactly what makes it so special. It’s a core part of CardBuddy’s identity to offer an outstanding experience, and many of my Amazon reviews talk about great customer service and the personal touch of each signed card. Despite this, if the company keeps growing at this rate, then it soon won’t be possible to hand sign each packaging card.
“When this is no longer feasible, I will ensure my customers are satisfied by hiring a great team who can respond quickly to any customer concerns. The phone accessory market doesn’t have much brand loyalty, so anything CardBuddy can do to differentiate itself makes a positive difference. I’m optimistic that the company will continue to grow, especially with the launch of the CardBuddy Deluxe. When this happens, it will be important to keep offering an excellent customer experience in a way that’s more efficient than what I do now.”
Sam Feldman, an entrepreneur and a student at the University of Maryland, founded CardBuddy, a small online operation that sells credit card sleeves that stick to the back of your phone. He sells about 200 a week, he says, and includes a hand-signed note with each purchase. Looking for some advice on a new business or need help fixing an existing one? Capital Business and the experts at the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.