Attracting the 'alpha mom'

Can the Silicon Valley programmers behind Jimmy Beans Wool make knitting with $500 yarns hip among high-income, professional women? We ask our experts.

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By Brian O'Reilly, FSB contributor

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Jimmy Beans Wool founder Laura Zander near Reno
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The experts FSB consulted for advice on how to grow Jimmy Beans Wool

Reno (FSB Magazine) -- Laura Zander has big plans for her little knitting-supply business. "We want to be a household name," she says. "Every knitter should know about us." It's not the kind of huge ambition she expected to have again when she fled San Francisco in 2001 after the dot-com bust. She and husband Doug Zander landed in tiny Truckee, Calif., where the former Silicon Valley programmers shifted into the slow lane, trading computer skills for goods and services.

Then Laura did some web work for a wool dyer in Placerville, Calif., a nearby gold-rush town. A longtime knitter, Laura took wool in payment and got a suggestion too: Why not open a knitting store? "I dismissed the idea at first," she says. "But Doug thought we should look into it." In 2002 the couple founded Jimmy Beans Wool (jimmybeanswool.com), just in time to catch a knitting renaissance and build a $1-million-a-year business.

Lately the knitting fad has ebbed, and annual revenue has plateaued at $1.2 million for the past three years. This year, when the leases expired on their first shop in Truckee and on a second Reno store they opened in 2004, the Zanders moved to a Reno mall location with more space than their first two stores combined. Store traffic continues to slow down, but online sales are growing by 15% to 20% a year, and account for 70% of revenue.

Laura, 32, needs a growth strategy. She wonders if she should expand into new product lines, such as sewing and other crafts. And she is considering trying to convert non-knitters to a pastime that she believes can appeal to many more upscale professional women.

To create a nationwide following online, she wants to spark media interest in Jimmy Beans. (The quirky name is a holdover from the original Truckee store, where the Zanders sold coffee too. "Jimmy" was their slang for "cool.") "I'd love to get in Martha Stewart's magazine," she says, "but how do you make that happen?"

For Doug, 37, who maintains the website, the big question is how to make sure it pops up in searches. How can they use search ads to snag shoppers, and what else can they do to goose online growth?

A PR pro's tips on getting great press

To unravel these mysteries, we enlisted three experts, who made the trek to Jimmy Beans Wool in Smithridge Center in south Reno, where it sits between a Verizon Wireless store and a Toys "R" Us.

First up is Darcy Provo, a vice president of Antenna Group, a San Francisco public relations firm that specializes in fast-growing clean-tech and high-tech companies. She surprises the Zanders by walking the mile from her hotel across largely sidewalk-free Reno. Modeling an arty offbeat scarf, Provo laughs, "I looked all over for something hand-knitted to wear."

She admires the hundreds of colorful yarns ringing the store. Then everyone heads for a back room and a conference table stacked with more yarn. Provo, 51, gets started by asking the Zanders why they want to court the press. "I read a book called The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR," Laura replies. "Media attention seems cheaper and more effective than advertising."

Doug adds his two cents: "If it's in an article, people feel it's true." Provo nods approvingly. "It's called third-party endorsement, and it's huge," she explains. But she warns that getting ink takes hard work, and the Zanders won't control the final content. They have to be prepared when stories take off in a different direction from the idea they pitch. "Be content with a one-line reference," Provo says. "That still builds valuable awareness."

Next, Provo asks the Zanders to describe their ideal customer. "Young, hip, professional, busy, prosperous enough to spend $500 on wool for a sweater," Laura says. To reach this type of "alpha mom" through the press, Provo advises against a hard sell. "You need to wrap stories around what you do or how people use your product, and sell the idea like a PR firm does," she says. "You can't just say, 'Shop here.'"

Provo suggests that the Zanders tie stories to holidays, news events, and other occasions. "How about something political for the upcoming presidential primaries and election? You could create one pattern for Republicans and another for Democrats." Letting her imagination run, Provo tosses out possibilities - knitting might be promoted as an alternative Super Bowl activity, she suggests.

Also, she says, customers can be great sources for story ideas. "Start farming for anecdotes now," she says. "Get on your website and ask customers for stories. If they do something unusual, see what inspired them so you get a personal story."

Once the Zanders have their ideas worked out, the next step is to craft their pitches to fit particular publications. For example, an article about a customer who knits blankets for the troops in Iraq might appeal to editors at USA Today or Parade magazine. A customer who knits Christmas sweaters for her dog might appeal to a pet-magazine editor.

Provo advises the Zanders to aim their pitches at the right person at each publication. "Don't send a press release to Martha Stewart herself," she says. "Call up and ask who covers crafts. E-mail a three-paragraph story idea and your first sentence had better make the reporter care." Finally, she counsels against hiring a PR agency, which may seek a steep monthly retainer. "You've got good selling skills. Just use them to sell stories," she concludes.

A growth guru shares his profit-making strategies

To advise the Zanders on setting and achieving growth goals, we recruited Brad Kittredge, 30, a senior consultant with Deloitte Consulting in San Francisco. He starts by asking the Zanders to talk about their target customer. He listens to the pitch and notes that the prosperous professional woman they have in mind probably doesn't worry about price, but may value superb service with a personal touch. He wants the Zanders to be sure this inference is correct, however. So he suggests they survey customers. "Find out what determines customer satisfaction," he says. "Maybe it's speed of delivery, number of errors, inquiry response time. Set goals based on that and track your performance. It helps you stay focused on what matters to customers."

Kittredge's ears perk up when he learns that knitters often get together in weekly knitting clubs. "Laura should contact these clubs and ask if she can fly down and knit with them for an evening," he says. "You'll learn who else they could buy from, why they choose you, how you could accentuate that - or what to fix."

The clubs could also be a way to expand the business. "Once you know more about them, start preparing web seminars - introduce new patterns, new techniques, offer special discounts," Kittredge suggests. The couple might also provide tips on organizing clubs and offer discount starter kits of yarn and supplies to help new clubs form and to create loyalty to Jimmy Beans among their members. The Zanders might even consider doing a weekly podcast for knitting club leaders. That would help establish them as authorities. "Be like Oprah," Kittredge advises Laura. "She chooses books for reading clubs, and you could choose knitting projects."

Another customer-service suggestion: Offer tips to lead customers to additional online purchases, the way Amazon.com does, with little prods like "People who bought this book also bought these."

"Upscale professionals don't want to be sold to, but they do appreciate useful information," Kittredge says.

The website also can tell the Zanders what isn't working, Kittredge points out. "You can track which people abandon their shopping carts in the middle of a purchase," he says. "Send them a note saying you noticed that and want to learn what obstacles they encountered."

Laura brings up her ideas about branching out into sewing and other crafts. But Kittredge is against it. New lines will distract the Zanders from their focus on knitters, and the new SKUs will create too much complexity and increase the chances of shipping errors. "You've got a warm, intimate flavor, and you don't want to lose that," he says. He reminds them that they're already growing web sales 15% to 20% a year. "That's demanding enough," he says.

Laura should also forget about converting non-knitters. "It's far easier to coax existing knitters to your business than to persuade people to start a hobby they've never been interested in," he says.

A Google exec offers advice on working the web

For help in tweaking the website, we tapped Gretchen Howard, online sales and operations manager for Google in Mountain View, Calif. Like Kittredge, Howard urges the Zanders to get better acquainted with their customers. She recommends that they devise questionnaires for both store and online shoppers. "Dive deep into your online accounts - compare the repeat customers to the non-repeats and look for trends and demographic differences," she says. "You might learn that New Yorkers are more unhappy with you than Chicagoans, and you'd want to know why." She suggests they try Survey Monkey (surveymonkey.com), a service that hosts online polls, to collect data from customers who visit their website.

Howard, 34, also wants them to study how customers find and use the site so they can fine-tune it. She suggests they use one of the analytics programs available to online advertisers from software companies and from search-engine services. (Google's version is Google Analytics. A top competitor is Yahoo's Full Analytics.) These tools will show the Zanders which pages on their site are getting traffic and which are ignored.

Howard pulls a sheaf of papers from her briefcase with data that Google gathered from the Jimmy Beans website and similar online stores. She dials her office, where two analysts are ready to discuss the findings. The good news, they say, is that customers who find the Jimmy Beans site spend significant time there, clicking on several pages. But the site isn't getting as many visitors as sites run by comparable companies in the needlecraft and sewing category. Howard points the Zanders to figures showing that the Jimmy Beans site gets only 342,000 visitors a month, while competing sites average two million. Laura asks which businesses are in the comparison group, and whether they're knitting vendors or giant craft-supply companies. But Howard won't tell - that information is kept private to protect other advertisers. Frustrated, Laura asks, "How do we know what's a reasonable number?"

To boost traffic, the Google exec recommends more and better keywords. The analysts have prepared a list of several dozen terms they found effective. They also urge the Zanders to build their ad campaigns around specific products - such as wool, kits, or patterns - and track each campaign's success. Finally, the Google team advises against running general ads in foreign countries or on non-English-language sites, because they say those ads generate a poor response. (About 5% of Jimmy Beans' online sales are to overseas customers.) Instead, they should consider creating ad campaigns that specifically target international customers.

Doug finds the keyword suggestions helpful, if not groundbreaking. "Mostly they were permutations on what we already used," he says. Google suggested the Zanders buy "yarn knitting" in addition to "knitting yarn" and also purchase misspelled words like "kniting."

After meeting with the makeover team, Laura says she has a manageable handful of ideas for building up her business. "Instead of broadening our offerings, we're going to focus on our target market, learn more about what's important to our customers, and provide what they need," she says. Meanwhile, Laura is working on the media plan and Doug has stopped paying for keyword advertising overseas.

Now, Laura says, she hopes to do for knitting what Zappos.com did for online shoe retailing. A neighbor in Truckee - another dot-com refugee and an early Zappos employee - recalls when the shoe site was no bigger than Jimmy Beans, Laura says.

We'll report back on how well the Zanders fill those shoes.

The experts

GRETCHEN HOWARD is online sales and operations manager at Google in Mountain View, Calif. (google.com)

BRAD KITTREDGE is a senior consultant with Deloitte Consulting in San Francisco. (deloitte.com)

DARCY PROVO is a vice president of public relations firm Antenna Group in San Francisco. (antennagroup.com)

Your turn

Help the Zanders grow their knitting-supplies business and make it a household name.

COMPANY: Jimmy Beans Wool (jimmybeanswool.com)

LOCATION: Reno

2006 REVENUES: $1.2 million

BUSINESS: Selling yarn and other knitting supplies

CHALLENGES: The Zanders want Jimmy Beans Wool's online sales to keep growing at an impressive 15% to 20% annually. They crave good press and would also like to draw more visitors to their website, which pulls in less traffic than it could. One consultant had tips on getting media attention. Two others urged the Zanders to learn more about their customers and give them personal service. The Zanders were advised to build customer loyalty by offering special promotions and useful information.

Please e-mail your thoughts to FSB's Makeover editor at fsb_mail@timeinc.com. We will publish selected responses in print and at fsb.com.

To give feedback, please write to fsb_mail@timeinc.com. Or post your thoughts on the FSB Features Forum. To top of page

Could your business use a makeover? In general, successful Makeover candidates are profitable small companies with at least $1 million in annual gross revenues. To submit your firm for consideration, e-mail the FSB makeover editor here. Please describe your business briefly, provide your most recent and projected revenues, and explain why you think your company would benefit from a Makeover.

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