Not sure how many of you read the book “The World is Flat” by Thomas L. Friedman, given the popularity of the book, I assume many (if you did not read it, go get it, its good).
I would like to share an experience similar to what is narrated in that book, its a family business which I started about 5 years ago.
Its an Egypt gifts and flowers shopping website called Asfory.com (and store.giftsegypt.com). It allows Egyptian expatriates to send gifts and flowers to their loved ones back in Egypt (e.g. a mother, father, sister, spouse, etc). We don’t own any inventory in Egypt, we simply take the order online then call a flowers merchant close to where the gift is to be sent, and ask them to deliver. For other gifts we buy the item and then ship with Aramex (the equivalent of UPS/Fedex in Egypt). We either get a commision from the merchant or a service charge from the customer (factored into the item’s price).
The gift site is paired with an Egypt portal which we use to funnel traffic into the ecommerce site, but it also generates some decent content-match revenue.
The owners are split across 3 continents, I and my wife here in the US take care of the website and marketing, my mother in Egypt takes care of order processing, delivery operations and customer service, and my sister in the UK is the editor for our Egypt News blog.
Below I list some of the technologies and services that enable us to make this happen:
- Yahoo Merchant Solution and Web Hosting: This nice offering from yahoo provides us with an affordable and user friendly platform to list our products, charge the customer credit cards, manage delivery operations, etc. However, we recently started adding video streaming to our site and it is starting to get costly, they give you only 500GB of transfers per month, then charge you $5 per 500MB after that, which frankly is too much (I might switch because of this, still considering my options since we have been very happy with the store platform so far).
- Skype: My mom uses skype to call the customers internationally. My mom has DSL in Egypt, so using skype she can make very cheap calls to most of the US, Canada and Europe. Further more, we use skype to have monthly board meetings, the voice-conferencing quality of skype is far superior to other products (yahoo messenger has good quality for one-on-one, but not so good for many-to-many voice-conferences).
- eVoice and eFax: Using eVoice and eFax we have 800 numbers for customer support voice mail, and for faxes. When our customers call the voice-mail number (or send a fax), my mom gets it as an email attachment, then she can call the customer back using skype or reply by email.
- YPN and Adsense: I think most readers of my blog know what these are already, they let us monetize the content site by adding ads to our pages, a decent chunk of our profits actually comes from this (versus the gifts we sell).
- Aramex: This company was mentioned as a success story in Friedman’s book, they are like a UPS/Fedex for the middle-east, though they are also expanding internationally. Our business would not function without them, as the government owned postal system is very slow in Egypt. My mother in Egypt has a couple of helpers whom buy the needed gifts, then my mom calls up Aramex and they come to her home to pickup the gifts for delivery.
- Card Services International and PayPal: Between these two payment processors, almost all of our customers are able to pay us one way or another. I have been very pleased with both of them, specially in the prompt way they handle and investigate disputes, etc.
- YSM, Adwords and MSN AdCenter: Again, no stranger for readers of this blog (buying super targeted keywords on different search sites), it is one of our main marketing tools, the others are email campaigns and of course standard SEO techniques.
- Vertical Response: They have a scalable pricing model for email campaign marketing, we get our mailing lists from customers who place orders, but also from subscribers to our Egypt news blog. Vertical Response has a very simple user interface and nice tracking for opens/clicks. They also provide a post-card mailing service (for real junk mail), but I did not try that yet.
- Yahoo Groups: We have a nicely sized Egypt News mailing list to which we send our latest Egypt News blog postings, yahoo groups just works for this kind of thing and it is free!
- WordPress: Yahoo Web Hosting has a nice setup that lets you very easily add a wordress blog to your site, we use it for our Egypt News blog.
- FUDforum: FUDforum is a very nice open-source PHP based discussion board, we use it to provide an Egypt Chat service for our members to discuss everything Egypt.
- FeedBurner: I mainly use FeedBurner for its BuzzBoost feature, which is a plumbing service that lets you insert your different feeds as HTML badges on any webpage. So for example, on our main Asfory Egypt Front Page, we have a feedburner badge which pulls in the most recent postings from our Egypt news blog.
- LogMeIn.com: This is a very well done free tool that lets you access any computer remotely using a web browser (it is like GoToMyPc but free). Using this tool I can easily teach my mom how to do new things in our store, I login to her computer while talking to her on skype, then move the mouse around and she gets to see the exact steps. It also allows me to easily fix my mom’s operating system when it gets clogged!
Before I close, I wanted to mention a cool gadget that helps flatten the world, it is not related to the business, but I got to use it during my trip to Egypt over xmas. The gadget is Sling Box, and it is like LogMeIn except it is for remotely connecting to your DVR (e.g. Tivo or ReplayTV). So using this nice toy I was able to watch my TV in the US, delete old shows from the recording schedule and add new ones.
So indeed, the world is flat (if they can just figure out teleportation or how to speed up planes, the Egypt trip takes almost 24 hours door-to-door, which is tortute if you got 4 kids to drag along 😉 ).
PS: Below is a map of customers to our Egypt shopping site from Dec 2006: