How my online business survived early setbacks

Contributor - Chris Barling

Ink cartridges - how my online business survived early setbacksDefrauded, burgled, but not beaten. How John Sollars and his Shropshire-based company Stinky Ink harnessed the power of ecommerce to survive and come up smelling of roses

Most people who are swindled out of £32,000 and have had stock worth £50,000 stolen in a raid might decide to give up, but John Sollars is one of life's optimists and he's made of sterner stuff.

His may be one of the unluckiest online start-ups ever, but he decided to persevere, putting his experience to good use and quickly learned how to protect his online business from scamsters. Now voted the number one online cartridge retailer, it would seem he made a good choice.

Life begins

"In early 2002 I was in my late forties and I wanted to do something different," remembers John. "I gave up a well-paid salary as a sales director of an independent electronic components company, sold the family caravan and put all my savings and energy into creating and developing my own online business, Stinky Ink. We sell every known make and model of printer cartridge, both third-party compatibles and originals.

"After weeks of brainstorming, I came up with the name. The domain name was designed to make people smile and be memorable. I chose printer consumables after having experienced huge difficulty tracking down the right cartridge for my son's old printer."

Crime report

Only weeks after launching in June 2002, fraudsters homed in. Initially, the site started receiving small orders to different addresses in the UK, with larger repeat orders each week. Before realising his error, John was servicing eight orders a day and over six weeks he shipped £32,000-worth of goods for which he was never paid.

Local police weren't interested because a crime is only judged to have happened at point of sale (ie at the fraudster's location). As John explains: "Because purchases had been made by a UK-wide ring of criminals, it was too big a task to file reports at every local police authority and nothing would have happened anyway, because the individual transactions were low value."

The stolen products had all been paid for on John's own credit cards, because as a new customer, he couldn't open an account with them. And because the sales were 'cardholder not present' (CNP), as the merchant, he was 100% liable.

John adds: "Early in September 2002, on the verge of bankruptcy, I was sitting with my dog at home when the full enormity of what had happened sunk in. I had to decide whether to carry on or go back to a 'proper' job working for someone else. But I picked myself up, dusted myself down, resolved not to trust anyone in future and got on with it."

Fighting back

John threw all his efforts into his business. He used email marketing and search engine optimisation to generate extra traffic and within two years the debts were cleared. Stinky Ink was back in profit.

The run of misfortune didn't stop, however. In March 2005, Stinky Ink's new warehouse in Shropshire was burgled and John's entire stock was stolen. As a commercial incident, says John, the police were again not interested, despite the total value of the products being £50,000. Thankfully, the stock was insured.

Stinky Ink used Sellerdeck software to built its website, which has now handled over 100,000 orders. The site, originally designed by John's teenage son, makes it incredibly easy and quick for visitors to find and buy what they need.

Orders are processed rapidly. "We can pick, pack and dispatch an order within one minute. I want to exceed the service I expect when I shop online and believe that we provide an exceptional service. If any order is hanging around for more than a short while I get really cross."

John's three key lessons

  • "To succeed, you need patience, commitment and hard work. Running an ecommerce business is the same as running any other."
  • "Always value your stock every month and ensure your insurance policy has sufficient cover."
  • "Be careful about whom you trust."
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Chris Barling

Chris Barling is chairman of SellerDeck, a company he co-founded in 1996. An ecommerce expert, enthusiastic entrepreneur and business angel, Chris has a passion for helping small businesses take advantage of new technology. He has over 30 year' experience in the IT industry.