by Alana Spencer, Ridiculously Rich founder and BBC Apprentice winner 2016
Many inspirational business success stories start with humble beginnings, and my handmade cake business is a textbook example of how something small can grow into something huge.
Ridiculously Rich (or Narna's Cakes, as it was known in the early days) started in the kitchen of my parents' home in Aberystwyth. Inspired by a chocolate-making book given to me by my mum, I began whipping up my own sweet treats when I was still in my teens, and after some early success selling homemade cakes and chocolates to my friends I felt compelled to take things further. I would make all sorts of tray bakes - brownies, rocky road, that kind of thing - and sell them at local markets and other events in Ceredigion and the nearby area. This proved to be a good way of making money, and people seemed to like what I was offering - so much so, in fact, that I was eventually asked to supply a couple of local shops with goodies to sell!
From there, my business grew and grew. As you may be aware, Ridiculously Rich is now co-owned by Lord Sugar, who invested £250,000 to help grow the company into a nationwide success. When I became the latest BBC Apprentice winner, I think a lot of people were surprised by Lord Sugar's decision to invest in what began as a small homemade cake business, but his faith in me is already paying off, and with our regional ambassadors now representing the Ridiculously Rich brand all over the UK there are even bigger and better things still to come.
While Narna's Cakes started out as a grassroots, do-it-yourself sort of enterprise with little to no online visibility, the Internet has been crucial in getting the business to its current level, and our online efforts will continue to form a very important part of Ridiculously Rich's future success. Modern technology - the hyper-connectedness, via the Internet, of everyone and everything - makes it easier than ever to grow a small business into a big success; no matter where you live or what sort of niche you occupy, there are all kinds of opportunities now available to people who know how to seize them.
I hope that these tips will inspire you and help your business (whatever that might be) to reach new heights online.
1. Start with a winning website.
Your website is the foundation - the hub, if you like - for all your online marketing efforts, so it's important to get it properly spot-on before attempting to score big wins elsewhere. Things like Wordpress make it easy for IT novices to create nice-looking websites nowadays, but there's still a lot to be said for going to a bespoke web development agency and working with them to create a truly professional site for your business. An experienced pro will know how to:
- Create a fast-loading, smooth-functioning website that users will love (and you'll find a doddle to manage)
- Represent you and your brand in the best possible way online
- Get your pages ranked highly on Google and other search engines
2. Think carefully about keywords.
The Internet runs on keywords. If you want people to find your website on Google, Bing, and other search sites, you need to think very carefully about the words and phrases that you want to show up for. One good approach is to make a big list of all the search terms that you think are relevant to your business - my own version of that list, for example, might look something like this:
- handmade cakes
- salted caramel slice
- buy chocolate brownies online
- baked goods
And so on. Once you've got a list of keywords covering every aspect of your business (every product you sell, every service you provide, all the different words people might use, etc.), paste that list into a tool like Google's Keyword Planner to find out how popular each keyword is. Use the most searched-for phrases on appropriate pages of your website, ensuring that each keyword is represented on one page only - if done properly, this will get your site showing as a result for each of the terms you targeted.
This is another area where it's a good idea to consult a professional web developer - they will have a good grasp of SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and know exactly how to fine-tune your website in order to maximise your chance of ranking highly within Google's results. Beware, however - many of the companies out there claiming to be optimisation experts are actually just salespeople looking to make easy money. Make sure you ask them for examples of times where they improved a client's traffic and sales, and don't be afraid to ask for a reference from the customers they name.
3. Be seen on social media!
Google isn't the only tool people use to find things on the Internet - social media, too, can be a huge driver of leads, purchases, and brand awareness. There are many different social media platforms to choose from (Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest...) and while some people manage to do well across all of them, it's generally a better idea to pick the handful of social platforms that best suit your business and focus your energy on them.
For instance, if you sell very aesthetically appealing products, it might be a good idea to promote them on Pinterest, whereas a less visual business may do better by joining conversations on Twitter and advertising their professional credentials on LinkedIn. Snapchat and Instagram are good for sharing photos/videos of the inner workings of your company, while Facebook pages are great for collecting customer reviews and interacting with your audience via messages and comments.
Whichever social site you choose, be sure to stay active once you've set your account up. If a potential customer searches for your business and finds a Twitter feed that hasn't been updated for months - or a Facebook page on which people's questions are going unanswered - this may damage that customer's perception of your organisation.
4. Think outside the box
But OK - all of your competitors have websites, all of them are on Twitter, and all of them are going after more or less the same Google keywords. What can you do to really distinguish yourself from the other businesses in your industry?
Once you've established your business online, there are all kinds of different ways to grow your business. All you need is an idea! This could be an unusual, attention-grabbing social media campaign that portrays your brand in a good light, or it could be a huge business initiative that leverages the Internet's ability to connect people across huge distances. Whatever you come up with, the infrastructure to do it almost certainly already exists online. You may need some help from your web developer to turn your ideas into realities, but don't worry - a good developer will always be up to the challenges you set them!
Here's one example. As mentioned above, Lord Sugar and I recently started selecting regional ambassadors to represent the Ridiculously Rich brand at food festivals, farmers' markets, and other local events across the UK. Would-be ambassadors apply online, and if they're selected, we send them everything they'll need to set up their very own Ridiculously Rich stall and sell our cakes in their area. By promoting this money-making opportunity online, we're able to reach eager cake lovers in every corner of the country, and each approved ambassador gets their own dashboard on the Ridiculously Rich website to help them manage everything. This initiative has already proved hugely popular, and it looks set to grow even more over the coming months!
5. Provide the best possible service at all times.
While it is possible for businesses to achieve massive growth via online marketing avenues, that growth is often accompanied by a decline in quality. When you've got a bricks-and-mortar shop that only serves people who walk through the door, it's relatively easy to ensure that each customer has a good experience; when you're serving thousands of people online and sending your products all over the world, it's far harder to maintain that high standard.
As your business gets bigger, you'll inevitably have to accept that some things are simply out of your hands. However, there are a few things you can do to ensure that your reputation doesn't suffer as everything else builds up:
- Keep an eye on your website. If people are interacting with your website instead of an actual company representative, it's up to you to ensure that your site is doing a good job. Be sure to look at the site on a regular basis to make sure that nothing has gone wrong; you may also want to register your site with Google Search Console, as this will inform you if there are any issues that may affect user experience and/or Google rankings.
- Choose your courier wisely. Do you send products to your customers through the post? If so, it's crucial to select a courier / delivery service that will do you proud. Above all, the two factors that will most affect the customer's lasting impression of your business are 1) whether their order arrived on time, and 2) whether it arrived in good condition. This is partially up to you, of course - you're responsible for ensuring that everything is packaged properly and posted promptly - but all your hard work may be spoiled if you leave the final stage of the ordering process in the hands of someone who's happy to let your customers down. Be sure to do your research - other companies will have left reviews online to help you avoid shoddy services.
- Handle any complaints in a speedy, polite, and helpful manner. Just about every business gets the occasional complaint or bad review - it's not the end of the world. In fact, it's possible to turn a negative comment into something positive if you (or the person you've appointed to interact with customers) handle the situation properly. Be polite and apologetic and do your best to resolve the problem in any way you can. Your aim should be to make the unhappy person happy, but if you can't do that, you can at least demonstrate to other people who read the bad review that you take customer satisfaction seriously and don't take complaints lying down.
The team at Designer Websites, who I've been working with recently, gave me a lot of great insight into the world of doing business online and how to do it properly. If you're keen to grow your business online, I would definitely recommend them!