Startup Spotlight: Let’s Go Du+ch!

Sharing experiences, creating memories, engaging with like-minded people, enjoying a richer life… this is the concept behind going “du+ch.” The company was born of longtime friends Vincent Paradiso and Debora McCleary, who partnered to create a social network for travel and entertainment. Both entrepreneurs in their previous lives, Vincent and Debora created a unique way for people to connect with others who would share the cost of excursions they may not otherwise have been able to experience due to excessive costs. Their efforts established a marketplace for sharing life’s adventures, big or small and I had the pleasure of catching up with Vincent to chat about some of his hopes, challenges, and goals for the future. I was also excited to gather a few sound bytes from Deb, who founded the premier New York beauty directory, The Debb Report. And you all know I’m a sucker for all things beauty and fashion… =)

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Vincent, prior to co-founding du+ch, you had a very successful professional career in ballet. What made you decide to delve into the world of entrepreneurship? 

I’ve always been bit of an entrepreneur. I love ballet, but I always knew I would do more. I’d always had an interest in real estate so I formed Paradiso Properties. My goal was to have multiple investment homes that I rent and manage, along with a real estate license to sell homes. But I quickly grew bored with my new career choice. I made money, but it wasn’t my passion. I started contemplating new ideas. I thought of all the amazing things I did with colleagues while on tour with NYCB, and how we would split the bill. We wouldn’t have been able to enjoy as much had we not shared the cost. I knew I had something but wasn’t ready to dive in. One night out with my girlfriend, I wanted to book bottle service at a club but didn’t want to pay $1,500. Our friends couldn’t join, so we skipped out and the idea for du+ch was born.

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Deb, what differences have you experienced between building du+ch and building the Debb Report? What unique challenges have you faced with each endeavor and how have you addressed them?

The first challenge with the Debb Report was having my partner drop out. I ended up funding the entire site on my own, and found a few friends to help me write all the salon bios that are (almost all) now in place. Updating my site is still a challenge, because aside from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram updates, I have to be on top of so much information. I realized that I couldn’t do it all on my own, especially with the time du+ch now needs. I recently hired a wonderful beauty/fashion blogger to help create original content to help grow my site and SEO. Having a partner who is fully engaged and committed is a necessity. Vincent and I definitely have a give and take when it comes to growing du+ch. We complement one another very well and have complete trust in each other, which is invaluable.  Because du+ch is an e-commerce site, it is a much more involved endeavor than my directory so Vincent and I are having to learn as we go. We constantly seek expertise from those who have done this before and people have been very generous with their time and knowledge.

Choosing the right partner is so important when founding a brand-new venture. How do you work through differences in opinion and what qualities do you each bring to the table?

(Vincent) Deb is a long time friend. We have great chemistry. When I approached her with du+ch, she was immediately ready to jump onboard. The key for us is making sure we always keep open lines of communication. She helps ground me and work through new ideas. As I’d mentioned earlier, the ideas don’t stop. You can’t attack all of them at once, you have to stay focused. du+ch would be nothing if I’d built it, then decided to go out and work on another idea. Being able to keep everything organized helps a lot. We have yet to have any major disagreements, but I believe we both are the types of people who will listen. We will acknowledge each others’ points, let them sink in, and compromise on a solution.

(Deb) Vincent and I agree on most things day-to-day, but when we disagree, we have a real ability to listen to one another and come to a joint agreement fairly easily.  Luckily we are both sane, thoughtful and committed to making du+ch a success, no matter how long it takes us.

What is the best part about running your own business?  

Exactly that, it’s mine. I’m directly responsible for its success and/or failure. I take great pride in bringing an idea to life. It’s challenging work, but when you know your hands are involved in every working aspect, it is so rewarding. I look forward to each and every day. I am constantly learning about every aspect of my business.

Du+ch is such a unique concept. Do you have plans to expand beyond more elite and trendy events? Do you see a market for couples, families, businesses?

Absolutely! We’re now in all of those markets. The beauty of du+ch is that everything on the site is user-generated. The same way you can sell anything on eBay, you can share anything on du+ch. It is a marketplace that puts the power of the sharing economy in the hands of the masses. You no longer have to build an app to enter this space, you can use our platform to share anything you want. Every user, individual or corporate, can host and search for anything they want to share. The look of our brand is luxurious, but users can share free events, basic group packages, or even ultra luxe experiences. We take the social element of Facebook events, the payment features of Eventbrite, and combine them into one site. The greatest thing is you can reach more than just your current circle. The point is, friends cannot always join in the fun. With du+ch, you can find those who can, get to know one another, and pool your funds to make anything within reach. The great thing about du*ch, and what separates us from a Groupon/Eventbrite, is our social transparency. Every user has a profile with reviews and verifications, so you can meet new people and feel comfortable sharing with them.

If you knew then what you know now, how might you have advised yourselves before launching du+ch? Any big aha! moments?

I would have been a lot more specific in the design and build of the website. I had it in my head, but translating it to developers was difficult. They needed every single specification and I didn’t anticipate providing them that level of detail. I would have also done more research on payment processors. When we create the app, I am going to document every last detailed requirement for the developers. I won’t leave any stone unturned.

What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur? 

Discipline, focus and creativity. It is so important to stay disciplined. There are too many distractions surrounding us everyday – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. You have to resist the temptation and prioritize. You also have to focus on your goals, plan your short- and long-term strategies and then execute your plans to achieve them. That said, you have to remain creative, think out of the box and fill a perceived need. Always strive to disrupt the status quo.

What have been some of your failures since launching du+ch, and what have you learned from them?

I assumed once the site was built, the audience would come. I thought people would just find it, sign up and leverage the network, which wasn’t the case. I also focused too much energy on creating the perfect user experience. Marc Cuban once said, “Perfection is the enemy of profitability, you can try to make everything perfect, but you’re losing opportunity somewhere else.” What may seem perfect and simple to one may not be the same for others. I also mistakenly assumed that upon launch, I would play a support role. I didn’t realize I was going to have get out there and sell. That is the biggest challenge. Once you fill the need, you need to let the world know you’ve filled it. You have to make your own opportunities.

To what do you most attribute your success? What would say are the five key elements for starting and running a successful business?

Taking the lessons I’ve learned from the ballet and applying them to the business world. For both, you need to exhibit the discipline, focus, and creativity mentioned earlier, but you also have to be willing to fail, deal with rejection, perform, and not let anyone define you. We failed all the time while dancing. If a step wasn’t executed as expected, you didn’t give up. Instead, you figured out what went wrong, fixed it, repeated it, and tried to perfect it.  We dealt with rejection on a regular basis. In business, you have to do the same. Not everyone will love you or embrace your vision and that’s okay. So many of my most rewarding experiences came from taking a leap. Never be afraid of failure.

How do you go about marketing your business? What has been your most successful form of marketing?

Getting the word out is our biggest challenge, especially on a shoestring budget. I have seen a big jump in traffic when I advertise and share available listings on Facebook, but it hasn’t converted much yet. One experience that did convert was dinner with a private chef. The price was extremely reasonable and users wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. We are working on lining up fun yet cost-effective experiences. Giving corporate partners a chance to list group deals as they would with Groupon, but without the heavy fees, will help line up some great offerings. I also notice that when I do interviews like this, we get a major boost. I think it helps so much to get the word out. This interview engages a new audience and helps us connect with them. Some readers may skim our story, some may read the whole thing, some will love it, some will hate it, but either way I just grabbed the attention of a potential user and was able to get my entire message across. It is the best way to acquire new users and highlight interest in our brand.

Follow du+ch: Website  Facebook Twitter Google+ YouTube Instagram

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I Need Some Advice…And A Line Of Credit

Let’s face it. New business owners have a heck of a lot to learn when they’re first starting out and they often learn very costly lessons. Wouldn’t it be great to have a trusted funding resource with expertise in your industry, which could guide decision-making with sound advice and help you better manage your financial resources?

Back in my handbag design days, I spent a lot of time and money trying to boil the ocean. That’s a big-time business cliché, I know, but it really was applicable. I didn’t know what handbag styles would be a hit so I created a lot of different prototypes just in case, in an attempt to please as many potential customers as possible. Damn, that was a pricey error in judgement. I cast too wide a net and didn’t narrow in on my target demographic. Then, I spent an insane amount of money on PR to reach all those potential customers. Another waste. Bad mistakes turned into colossally huge ones because I became desperate….to make money, to get press, to find customers.

Presenting a new idea - crowdfunding or community funding concept

Presenting a new idea – crowdfunding or community funding concept

It would have been great NOT to max out a bunch of credit cards and work with a funding source that could have provided advice along with a line of credit. I could have owed much less and worked with financial experts in the fashion industry who could have provided valuable insight around the right areas of focus for my fledgling business.

A roadmap for expansion is critical but it’s hard to know, early on, what components should be included. Once you decide your focus, it’s much easier to correctly allocate funds. I think starting out, small business owners need that guidance from people who’ve made mistakes in expanding their own businesses or have seen mistakes others have made and can provide valuable insight about common pitfalls to avoid.

Figure out your target audience, determine where they “play”, then figure out how to reach them where they are most affected by your message. Learn from people who’ve been successful in the past and take advantage of their failures. There are always pearls of wisdom to be gained. Establish relationships and nurture them, as they are absolutely critical in growing a business. Determine the “what” and “why”, then ask questions and do research to establish the “how.”

Once your roadmap is set, find a lending partner who you can vet your plans with and who can guide your financial decisions. Leverage every source of knowledge available to you and choose the trusted lender that can provide advisement in addition to cash.

Taking It To The Street…Maybe With Some Wine And Cheese

In a world where virtual is no longer the alternate reality, there is still a lot to be said for direct human contact as a driver of prospects and sales.

Let’s face it, we’re all way too dependent on our mobile devices and completely absorbed in email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube…and on and on. But all the action is online, right??

Ummm, research shows that’s not exactly the case anymore.

Successful selling is rooted in relationships…personal relationships established via in-person meetings and informal, lighthearted conversations. So we need to turn our focus to OFFLINE advertising to differentiate us from the competition. Making yourself accessible to potential customers, giving them a chance to find out who you are and what you’re all about – it goes a very long way and may make them more inclined to patronize your business.

Hitting the pavement may be just the ticket to launch your company to the next level. If you were wandering around a bookstore, wouldn’t you think it was cool to run into an author in your favorite genre hosting a meet and greet? Maybe get a chance to pick their brain about their characters, what drives them to write, where they draw inspiration from? Maybe you might buy one of his/her books because you were just so impressed with their warmth and engaging personality. Maybe you read the book, love it and recommend it to a friend. Maybe that friend is Ellen DeGeneres and the author gets picked up for a segment based on your referral and hits the New York Times bestseller list the next week. Just saying, it could happen. And so the story goes…no pun intended. =)

Don’t discount the importance of face-to-face interaction. A handshake and a smile feel so much better than a private Facebook message, don’t they?? Hosting a cocktail party is a great way to get to know prospective clients!

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Just make sure you don’t kick back too much.  Remember, you’re working not partying on spring break. =)

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Be Loyal To Your Royals

Customer is king…or in my case, queen. =)

But words are cheap. You need to create an experience so a customer truly feels that patronizing your product offering is worth their time and money. You need to make them feel special and valued to inspire loyalty.

I’m going to tell you a little story. A few years ago, I asked Hubby to buy me a wok. As always, he did plenty of research to make sure I had the best and biggest, large enough to stir-fry myself if I so chose. I’m exaggerating a slight bit but my youngest can fit into it comfortably. Yeah, he’s four…and no, I haven’t coated him in soy sauce or anything like that. But it takes up two burners!!!!!

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Anyway, I was so excited when my wok finally arrived. But that’s not all. It came with a set of hand-crafted bamboo cooking tools and a cookbook as well. Everything was wrapped nicely and there were printed instructions about how to prepare my wok for the first use. It was a truly PRICELESS experience.

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Guess what? The Wok Shop in San Francisco made me a fan for life.

Customer loyalty is critical for success in business. You may be intrigued by my experience with The Wok Shop so maybe you’ll go to their website and check out their products. Perhaps you’ll make a purchase and tell a friend about your positive experience. Word of mouth can have an incredible impact on your sales. Conversely, it can really destroy your business if you don’t place the appropriate amount of focus on your customers. That leads to a lot of angry Tweets and you definitely don’t want those floating around in cyberspace.

The Swifty Entrepreneur

I’m currently obsessed with Taylor Swift’s newest hit, Style. I admit I wasn’t always a fan but over the past months, I’ve changed my tune, no pun intended. Her music is peppy and catchy but what really impresses me is the way she’s been able to transform her brand into a vocal empire.

 

Three specific things come to my entrepreneurial mind.

1. Know Your Customer – When you’re building a product, you need to be in tune (ha! I did it again!) with the needs and desires of your target audience. Taylor’s demographic is primarily female, primarily millennial. She creates music that appeals to their tastes – snappy, bouncy beats tinged with a bit of heartbreak and vulnerability. We’ve all been there and can relate to the trials and tribulations of dating. Her blatant honesty makes her music that much more refreshing and you want to sympathize with her plight because, really, who hasn’t had their heart pummeled at one time or another?? As women, we band together (OMG, I’m totally on a roll here, right??) and support one another in times of need. It’s just our nature. And with her 40 million Twitter followers, she has a pretty captive audience for those tales of woe.

2. Perfect your Product – As entrepreneurs, we work tirelessly to build and deliver quality products. But if we can’t believe in them wholeheartedly, how the heck can we convince the world to embrace them? Sometimes we need to make choices about our market distribution. Setting the right perception up front goes a long way in resonating with your target customers. If they see you offering your product for a lower value than they perceive it is worth, you may lose them. Consider Taylor’s decision to pull her music from Spotify. Why, you may ask? Because she felt distributing her music through streaming services devalued it. She recognized that perception is reality and being true to her hard work meant she needed to be very selective about her distribution channels.

3. Stay True To Your Brand – Taylor is a crossover success story. She tweaked her image but never strayed from her core which is why she’s sitting pretty at the top of the charts. The beats changed but the message always stayed constant and her fan loyalty persists as a result.

 

How Do You Keep The Music Playing? How Do You Make It Last??

So you’re sitting in front of your laptop a couple of months post-launch scratching your head, thinking “What the heck should I do NOW?”

Very good question. It’s one that I’m pretty sure most small business owners have.

Launch week ROCKED!!! We sold a TON!!! But now? Two months later? CRICKETS.

You’re still a ways off from releasing 2.0 so what are you supposed to do in the interim? Twiddle your thumbs while you obsessively refresh your sales numbers? How long can you publicize your initial offering while you prep for the new one?

It’s not easy, especially if you don’t have a ton of discretionary capital to toss at promotional services. When our Krina handbags debuted in InStyle magazine and OK! Weekly, sales skyrocketed. But the problem was maintaining that momentum when those issues were off the newsstands. Sure, we tried to capitalize on the wins but it only got us so far. Everyone wanted to see what was coming next…and we were still trying to figure out how to find the funds to produce what would come next.

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Building momentum takes time. So instead of panicking that sales are dropping off, consider different ways of reaching customers. Your primary goal is to keep your brand name top of mind. So get it out there to the masses and establish yourself as a source of knowledge in your industry. All of your efforts will indirectly help raise awareness of your brand. It may take time for your sales numbers to rebound but if you reach people on another level, they just may be interested enough to find out about your offerings. Don’t shove the buy links down their throats…try some new ways to build your customer base.

Consider these ideas:

  • Create a website and BLOG – Figure out what your audience wants to read and create a content niche for yourself.
  • Submit guest posts on websites where your target market congregates – This will help associate your name to a particular type of content. Say you run a handbag design company and you love fashion. Find blogs that cater to fellow fashionistas and inquire about submitting articles about topics in fashion and style. When you include your social media contact information in the post, readers will be able to see that you are also a designer/entrepreneur and maybe they’ll be interested enough to buy one of your handbags!
  • Post in forums that focus on your product and market – This is a networking opportunity, a chance for you to find fellow fashionistas who love handbags! Tell them about your faves and begin nurturing relationships (and hopefully, future fans)
  • Identify channels for cross promotion – Research owners of complimentary businesses and ask about cross-promotional opportunities. Offer to promote their brands if they do the same for you. Share the love and see how it positively impacts your business.

In the early stages of a business, the most important thing is to raise awareness of your brand. The more people that know about your products/services, the more of a chance you have to convert them to customers.

Celebrate The Lifestyle, Not The Product

As a small business owner I was always challenged with finding new ways of reaching fellow handbag junkies who would buy my designs. In retrospect, I tried to boil the ocean and I didn’t reach my target at the right level. The primary goal was always to move units and recoup costs so I’d have funds to pump back into the business. At the end of the day, a lot of one-and-done customers didn’t do much to sustain my rapidly shrinking market share.

After some research, I determined my target audience consisted of fashion-forward females, aged 25 – 50 with discretionary income to spend. That is a pretty wide net to cast. As it happened, I was targeting a lot of different customer groups in that audience and there wasn’t much tying them together – moms, students, professionals, and even grandmothers. I didn’t connect with them on a deep enough level.

I sold a good number of units but I didn’t make the experience personal enough where the purchaser was really invested in the brand. Without that hook, it’s hard to get repeat sales. And let’s face it, that’s how you really sustain a business.

Getting a bunch of people to buy a handbag isn’t going to butter your bread forever. You need to build a customer fan base, a loyal following of people who will want to buy your latest and greatest and will tout your brand to anyone who’ll listen.

Here is where lifestyle marketing comes into play. Make it less about the product and more about the lifestyle qualities, shared activities and behaviors. Focus on the EXPERIENCE.

Maybe I could have reached my audience on a completely new level if I’d appealed to their OTHER interests – what kind of music they like, whether they love heels or flats, the type of cocktail they crave on a Friday night after a long week, their dream car, favorite book, hobby or actor, what color nail polish they prefer, if they like to wear false eyelashes. In creating a buyer “persona,” potential customers have more to relate to than just a pretty handbag. A focus on content that builds upon an experience will always carry more weight because the customer can see how the product will fit into their lives.

These are ways to connect, to really get to know your consumers on a more personal level. Because if you know your customer, you can create products more specific to their tastes and that’s how you convert a one-time buyer into a lifetime fan.

Why Should I Care???

Okay. If I haven’t made this point clear in the past, let me try again.

People are INUNDATED with information, 24 x 7. If yours doesn’t have the potential to minimally raise an eyebrow, KEEP IT TO YOURSELF!

I’ve experienced this firsthand in my own entrepreneurial endeavors and it never ceases to amaze me how some people just don’t care about contributing to the overload. They have something to say and darn it, it shall be said. The only problem is, oftentimes, NOBODY CARES!!!!

Business owners are focused on distributing a message but they don’t always focus on the value proposition of said message. The value prop is the internal benefit derived by the recipient of the communication.  It basically tells people why they should care about the information being presented.

  • Why do I care about your product or service?
  • How will it improve my life?
  • What makes yours better than the competition?
  • And oh, by the way, what can I get for trying it?

Yeah, if you hadn’t already guessed, freebies and discounts go a LONG way. It’s worth the investment if you can convert email subscribers to customers.

Takeaway? Make the message meaningful and impactful and give prospective customers an incentive to BUY.

Likes, Shares and GIVEAWAYS!!!

I just spent two days in Atlantic City at a leadership offsite where one of the resounding themes was COMMUNICATION. There were a couple of other themes floating around as well….like gambling and drinking but for purposes of this article, I’ll focus on the former. =)

So, to put it very bluntly, communication can make or break your success as an organization. If you publicize effectively, people feel informed, engaged, and empowered. Impactful internal messaging boost employee morale and incent them to drive toward set business goals.

If you communicate poorly and without an executable plan, you’ll experience the opposite effect. Employees become detached, disenchanted and siloed – all leading to a heck of a lot of angst on the part of management.

So what can you do to improve receptiveness?

 

  • Tell people what they did well and how their efforts contributed to a specific goal.
  • Make them feel like they are valued and solicit their ideas for improving planning and delivery of initiatives.
  • Reward them for being active contributors.
  • Target the messages so they are most impactful and relevant to each specific group.

Turning A Prospect Into A Sale

Communication is key…no matter how large or small the company.

This concept applies to startups as much as it does to mature companies.

Furthermore, identifying and resolving gaps in external communications is critical to the growth of your business.

Just as successes can drive employees to achieve, they can also incent prospective customers to BUY.  Forget guerrilla marketing tactics…use accomplishments to your advantage. Celebrate them, ask for feedback, shower them with freebies or discounts, run giveaways for prospects who “like” or “share” something you’ve put out there. Anything to keep their attention focused on your company and what you are selling.

All of the efforts boil down to this objective…getting your name out to the masses. Highlighting awareness enhances credibility and if you are consistent and calculated with the types of communications you disseminate, people will be more likely to take a test drive. That’s your big opportunity to convert them into customers for life.

So don’t mess it up. =)

Courtesy of brendandunne.wordpress.com

Courtesy of brendandunne.wordpress.com

To Boost Or Not To Boost

I’m not a Facebook guru, by any stretch.

My fan page confuses the heck out of me, specifically why some posts get minimal reach whereas others get tremendous engagement…we’re talking mind-blowing numbers. From little old me. =)

I still have yet to figure out how these posts are evaluated by the elusive Facebook algorithms but here is what I suspect…they pick up on certain words and if there is anything remotely related to a contest or giveaway or solicitation of business, they hide those posts (or at least bury them in the News Feed).  This may not be a revelation to everyone but I’ve tested this on my own page and believe it to be true.

Here’s a simple example…yesterday’s post asking for erotic novel character names received engagement of over 500 folks to date, whereas a post that announced a giveaway with a $25 Amazon gift card mention got a pathetic reach of 13!!!!!!!

Facebook clearly holds the cards here.  =)

So, I decided to take the leap and BOOST.  I’m testing this over a non-consecutive two-day period.  I only went with friends and friends of friends and I paid $10 for the initial boost. I’ve heard negatives and positives associated with boosting but I figured, for $10, it wasn’t a really huge financial risk. Lord knows, I’ve spent much more on much less. =)

So we boost…today and again on Monday.  And let’s see what kind of activity my $20 can buy!!!

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