Much thanks to Robin & Mark for sending in this great article about how their business began and grew. Enjoy the story and please ask any questions in the comments. Mark & Robin have said they are more than happy to answer!
- How did Bubblefast get its start?
Robin’s late husband, Alan Mann, was a computer consultant. One day in 1999 he found himself at the warehouse of a client who sold bubble wrap. Alan had some computer parts up for sale on eBay. He bought a small roll of bubble to use to pack his sold items. When he got home with the bubble he had a light bulb moment. If he needed an inexpensive source for bubble wrap, there were probably lots of other people out there in the eBay community who needed it as well. He went back to the warehouse and bought a few more rolls specifically to list on eBay. They sold almost immediately — and Bubblefast was born. Robin started driving to the supplier 1-2 times a week to pick up vanloads of product. Alan, Robin and their daughters, Michelle and Jenny, packaged the bubble and stood in line at the post office with their gigantic packages to ship. And the checks started pouring in. When the semi-trucks started trying to back into the driveway it was time for the business to move out of the home. Within a few short months, Bubblefast moved into the office/warehouse space in our neighborhood that we still occupy.
Tragedy struck Bubblefast in 2001. Alan, who was 43 years old at the time, was running in community marathon when he suffered what turned out to be a fatal heart attack. Robin and her 2 daughters were devastated. The story of how Bubblefast survived the tragedy is incredible. While Robin and her daughters were at Alan’s bedside for 17 days, a community of angels came to her aid. Robin’s brother David, a CPA, was serving in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan. He somehow wrangled an emergency leave to come home. He and Alan’s sister Janet, an insurance executive (who was 9 months pregnant at the time) took it upon themselves to practically move into the Bubblefast office to try to figure out how to keep the business afloat. Unfortunately there was very little in the way of documentation to guide them. Somehow they figured out how to respond to customers, order product, process orders and keep the creditors at bay.
On the shipping and receiving end, they were assisted by an amazing team. Alan, at the time, was president of the local school board. School administrators organized a volunteer squadron involving the whole community to unload trucks, package and ship product, and transport shipments to the post office and UPS. Robin says it was like something you would see on TV. She still can’t believe that it actually happened. Eventually, when Robin came back to work she still needed a significant amount of help. Robin’s teen-aged daughter Jenny helped her figure out how to use Mister Lister, an eBay-listing program. Brother-in-law, Larry figured out how to get into the website server to make changes. Other friends stepped in to help teach Robin how to use the temperamental forklift, how to make changes to the database and how to straighten out the confused accounting mess.
How did Mark come into the picture? One of Robin’s knights in shining armor was Mark. Mark had known Robin and Alan for a couple of years. At one point Alan had asked Mark to help organize Bubblefast’s financial records. Robin started relying on Mark’s help. He spent more and more time at Bubblefast. In April of 2002 Mark officially became a full time Bubblefast employee. Robin and Mark became an inseparable team. They were married in 2003. And the rest is history.
- What do you sell?
The Bubblefast product line is always expanding. We listen to our customers and provide what they need. We now have access to thousands of products. Our biggest sellers are bubble rolls, mailers, packing peanuts and boxes, but we also carry tape, labels, air pillows, poly bags, foam rolls, “green” packing supplies and much more. If there is something our customers need to package their products we either have it, or we do whatever we can to find it for them.
- Do you have a big staff?
No. Bubblefast is strictly a mom and pop operation. If you call the office, you’ll reach either Mark or Robin. We come to work every morning with our dog. 17 year old Steven and 15 year old Sara often come in to help after school. Steven and Mark recently completed a renovation of our warehouse complete with pallet rack shelving. Our landlord of 12 years says we finally look like a real business.
- What is the best thing about having a family business?
In this economy there is some degree of security in knowing that we control our destiny. We don’t have to fear coming to work one day and finding out that we’ve been “down-sized”.
- What is the biggest challenge of a mom-pop business? Well, it’s an awful lot of together time. ) Other than that, it is very difficult to get away. The downside of keeping outside payroll expenses down to zero is that there is nobody trained to take over if the two of us want to get away together. Because we’re always here and we know the ins-and-outs of each customer and each product, our system is probably not as streamlined as it could be. It would be very difficult for anybody to come in and duplicate what we do because so much is stored in our heads. We do manage to sneak in long weekends every once in a while but a longer getaway is out of the picture for the time being.
- What do you like about selling online?
Even after 12 years, it still amazes us that we can put a product out there and moments later have a sale from a remote island off of Washington State or a military base in the Middle East.
And, we’ve met some of the most interesting people through our online sales. Most of our buyers are sellers. And each of them has a story. Several of our customers have written books, recorded CDs or produced DVD or created works of art. From time to time we have received samples of our customer’s wares. It’s so cool to see what our products are protecting. Even though we may never have met in person, we have gotten to know a lot of our customers. Over the years we’ve shared the ups and downs of business, learned about each other’s families and become friends.
One of the ways we connect with our customers is through our monthly newsletter. Several years ago we started including a section at the top of the newsletter called “Bubble Briefs”. Each month in Bubble Briefs we fill our customers in on the latest and greatest news about all of the members of our family. We share our kids’ accomplishments, talk about any interesting trips anybody is going on, share pictures of our pets and generally make our subscribers part of the family. Some of our actual family members look forward to getting their newsletter so they can find out what their nieces and nephew are up to. Some of our customers look forward to getting our newsletter each month to “catch up with the family”. We love when a customer wants to know whose college tuition they’re paying for this time or offers advice about what one of our kids is up to.
- Do you sell internationally? Most of our sales are within the US but we also have a Canadian branch that we have recently begun expanding. Many of our products are available for shipping from our Ontario branch to all locations in Canada. Canadian buyers can find us on our Canadian website, www.bubblefastca.com or on ebay.ca.
- How do people find you?
In addition to eBay we sell on our own website www.bubblefast.com and on Amazon. We also have a presence on Bonanza, Addoway and several smaller sites. We try new sites whenever we hear about them but so far eBay and our own site are by far the most successful for us. We also provide drop shipping for several companies, both in the shipping supply industry and other categories. To encourage customers from one of the sites where we have to pay fees to move their business to our website we put stickers on our outgoing packages with our web address and discount codes for future web orders.
We’ve been fortunate enough to be included in several books about eBay and online selling including several of Marsha Collier’s Dummies books. We’re always excited when a new customer tells us they read about us. A lot of people learn about us either through referrals from happy customers or folks we meet in local networking groups.
We encourage local traffic to our brick-and-mortar location in Gurnee, IL. We don’t have a retail street presence so every once in a while we have our name put up on the marquis of our warehouse complex. We have a Bubblefast magnetic sticker on the trusty Bubblefast van. We also make sure to carry around a good supply of the famous Bubblefast pens wherever we go. We try to get the Bubblefast name wherever we can think of to put it.
- What are some of the challenges of running an internet business in today’s economy?
- Competition. While the economy has forced some competitors out of the market it has opened the door for some new types of sellers. One category is those who are in dire financial straits and are willing to sell product at crazy low prices to put food on their table. Then there are also those who think they will “strike it rich” by bringing in container loads of inferior, inexpensive product from overseas and making them available at rock-bottom prices. Another is manufacturers and other big players who are looking for any way possible to increase their revenue and are sticking their toes into markets like eBay. We don’t feel that any of these are likely to stay in the game for the long haul but in the short run they bring prices and profits down for everybody.
- Shipping. This is a particular pain point for us. While shipping prices continue to rise, customers are increasingly expecting free or low cost shipping. We are in a particularly difficult place because our products are both inexpensive and quite large and bulky. It is quite common for shipping to be more expensive than the cost of the actual item. For most of our large items we have to pay for shipping according to the dimensional weight of the package rather than the actual weight. A typical package of bubble cushioning, for example, weighs only 4 pounds but we have to pay for shipping as if it was a 41 lb. package. When you are shipping across the country this can be quite expensive. Our challenge is to continue to negotiate with all potential carriers to get the lowest possible rates and to help our customers understand that we are offering them the very lowest shipping prices possible.
- Lots of your competitors have come and gone. Why do you think you are still in the game? We ask ourselves that every day. Here are some of our answers:
- Selling products we believe in.
- The personal connection.
- Personal e-mails
- Talking to customers on the phone, business help, ebay help, etc.
- Honesty and respect for our customers – making things right when we make a mistake.
- Diversification – listen to our customers to find out what they need and find it for them. Diversification in our product line, selling venues, advertising opportunities, etc.
- Flexibility – especially important on the ever-changing eBay platform. Instead of complaining about changes, we always try to figure out how we can adapt to make the changes work for us.
- Networking – Local chamber of commerce, meet-up groups, chat boards.
- Constantly tweaking – take advantage of all free educational opportunities like New Life Event last week (30 free webinars). So much to learn and do!!!!