Launching a new venture is an exciting moment for every entrepreneur. The first few months often see a flurry of activities to get everything up and running, full of anticipation and hope. Ana Eiras and her partner Carmina Valdizan, are no exception. They have just launched Kobold Toys Online http://www.koboldtoys.com , a unique toy specialty store that had its roots in Panama.
Four years ago, Carmina started Kobold Toys as a brick and mortar store in Panama, which she still runs. With the success of her business in her native country, Carmina is bringing the business online in partnership with Ana, who is based in the US. This new specialty toy stores offers unique toys from various parts of the world including Europe, North America and Asia.
We interviewed Anna Eiras about her new business, and the challenges they face with the newly launched Kobold Toys Online.
How did you and Carmina meet? When did you start to work together and start a business?
My partner and I met 4 years ago at a Conference, when we both worked in a complete different industry. At the time, Carmina was just beginning to do some research about the specialty toy industry with the idea of opening a toy store in Panama, where she currently lives. Kobold Toys grew enormously in Panama and, last year, when I decided to go into the toy business myself, I went to her for advice and we decided to venture into the online business together.
What made you decide to start an online toy store?
A number of factors played into that decision. I knew that whether I opened a brick and mortar toys store I would have to have an online presence, preferably an e-commerce site because it is clear to me that the Internet is the way of the future. For example, most of my husband’s co-workers have not gone to the mall to shop for Christmas or birthdays presents for their kids for years. They love the convenience of online shopping.
Another key factor was the start-up cost. I didn’t have a huge budget and setting up an online store was much more affordable than setting up a brick and mortar one. When things go well with the site, I will probably invest in a front store. But for now, I want to master the online business as much as I can because I really believe that doing business over the internet will only keep growing.
What is the concept of Kobold Toys? What sets it apart from other toy stores?
My partner, Carmina, did a lot of research before choosing the store’s name. Kobold was a rascal goblin in German mythology that wasn’t really mean but he loved to tease humans. We think that Kobold represents the essence of kids: little ones who love to tease. I liked the concept and the logo representing it, so I didn’t have a problem acquiring it for my business.
I also knew that I didn’t want to sell toys that people would find in mass markets (like Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, Target, etc.) and if they did find it, it was because the toy was just an extraordinary toy. We also carry toys that are perhaps made by artisans, in small quantities, eco friendly and safe. We are in what the industry calls “specialty toys”, meaning that we carry toys that are more exclusive, less massive, geared towards helping children to create and imagine, which are, in my view, the most important skills they could ever have.
Given that Kobold Toys has been in existence in Panama for the last 4 years, what lessons are you bringing from the brick and mortar operation to the Web? And how are you connecting the two operations (web and store)?
The best lesson we learned is that a successful toy store is one that brings customers a large assortment of products and that, at least once a year, innovates with a new brand or a new type of toy. We also learn that high quality and presentation matters a lot. In that regard, we are just as careful to select out wrapping paper, cards and gift cards as we are in selecting our toys. Our customers, for example, LOVE our wrapping paper, which we bring all the way from Germany and it is something that you will rarely find in a card store. Finally, we put a very strong emphasis on customer service. To that end, we have developed a line of business called Very Busy Very Thoughtful especially geared towards adults who are busy working but care deeply about their children, nephews, nieces and grandchildren. We have a service that helps them keep track of important dates, select presents, wrap them nicely and show that they care.
The stores are both connected in the sense that our customers return to the mall store or the web store for the same reasons: assortment, quality and great customer service.
When did you officially launch Kobold Toys Online? How long was the preparation to launch the site?
We just launched a few days ago, on March 12, 2008. It took me about 6 months to put the business together, starting with all the research I did on how to set it up, having the legal work done, then the site, then contacting vendors, and preparing the space in which the business would function.
How did you decide what products to offer in the site? What were your criteria for product selection?
As I mentioned before, I wanted toys that parents couldn’t easily find anywhere else; toys that were of the highest quality out there; toys that were educational without losing the fun; toys, in essence, that foster the child’s imagination and creativity.
The site looks very well done. What was your concept for the look and feel of the site? Any difficulties during the design process?
I had two things clear in my mind when I spoke with the site’s designer: I wanted the site to be functional, that is, easy to navigate. I wanted customers to be, at all times, only one click (two at the most) away from any other place they wanted to go. I also wanted pages to load quickly and to give brief, yet good descriptions of the toys.
I also wanted the site to have a clean, stylish look. To avoid looking cluttered was one of the most difficult things I had to do because you are constantly tempted to put information on the very first page a customer looks at. However, I know, from my own experience, that cluttered places are visitors’ repellents so I had to choose carefully what I wanted to display.
Finally, I wanted it to look like a toy store. That is why we do not have actual children pictures in the home page. That could have suggested that it was a different kind of children store. We chose images that gave the site a bit of magic and hopefully invites people to browse it.
Now that the site is up and running, how are you dividing the work between the two of you?
Carmina is in charge of her store in Panama, and I run the online business here in the US. For now, I do it just by myself. When traffic increases and orders come in, I plan on hiring part-time help until I learn better about the store’s needs and know exactly how many employees I would need.
How are you balancing a new business, family and other interests?
For a mom, that’s the kind of question that I don’t know how to answer, yet I find myself every day somehow balancing all of those interests. I made a conscious decision that, whatever time I was going to have with my kids, I was going to be 100% with them. That is, I was going to play with them, go out, prepare meals, talk with them, and just be with them fully. I do that on weekends and 1 day of the week.
Ironically, I work longer hours than I ever did before, when I was an employee, because the evenings are the quietest time to work and, in the morning, my kids are up early.
What is the most difficult part of starting an online business?
To me the most difficult part was envisioning how much traffic I would have. It is such a huge outreach that I could have 100 orders 1 day and zero the next day. In that sense, the strategy to keep traffic coming is definitely different than for a brick and mortar store, but it is fascinating and I am still learning about it.
What are the most pressing challenges you see ahead?
Attracting traffic and keeping customers loyal. Also, the Internet is, so far, the closest thing to a free market I have every seen. In that sense, price competition is fierce so you have to come up with other marketing strategies that will differentiate your store from others in order to remain competitive.
What are your expectations of Kobold Toys? What are you hoping to achieve?
I hope that Kobold Toys Online grows enough to finance a brick and mortar store and who knows what other ventures that may open up for us.
How do you expect to compete with the big boys of the business – e.g. Amazon, Toys R’Us?
Kobold Toys has a storefront in Amazon.com, which more than a competitor it’s a marketplace. About the other big stores, we carry products and provide personalized services that they typically don’t.
Do you have any lessons you wish to share to other entrepreneurs?
Yes. Take any advice anybody has for you because every little bit helps. And always keep the cost down, as down as you can. I usually ask myself: “how many toys do I have to sell in order to pay for that business lunch?”