Part two in an ongoing series about a small business start-up trying to succeed on the web without relying on traffic from the major search engines.

While I know that most readers are just itching for me to get to the "good stuff" known as marketing, the first few articles in this series are going to focus on the creation of the business with some explanation of why we've set things up the way we have.

Just as you can't optimize a web site that lacks a search engine friendly design, you can't successfully market a bad idea. The products you decide to sell and the way you decide to sell them will build the foundation for a successful marketing plan.

So with that, let's do a little looking into just how it was that Bento Yum and this experiment came into existence.

Watch for Opportunity

I remember reading once that the best businessmen and businesswomen were able to jump seamlessly from one industry to the next because they understood BUSINESS rather than the specific product they were selling. That always stuck with me and it's a lesson that I often see being missed as people look to launch online business today.

While good marketing from an experienced marketer can result in success for most business models, people with a little less marketing experience have a much better shot at success if they start with a great idea. What tends to happen, however is that people tend to get caught up in an idea of what they WANT to sell and they forget to take the time to figure out what WILL sell. That's why anyone that's looking to launch an online business needs to sit down and write out a reality check. They need to ask themselves if they want to launch THEIR business or if they want to launch A business.

Life will be a lot easier if they answer the latter.

That means that shoe-string entrepreneurs need to live an online life with eyes wide open ready to spot the business that they've never thought of. Inspiration can come from the least likely places.

Case in Point

Two months ago as I was browsing my feed reader, I stumbled across a post at the Nature Mom's Blog that talked about Laptop Lunches. As one of those folks that carries canvas grocery bags around to avoid the waste of plastic, I was intrigued. A few Google searches landed me on Flickr at the Mr. Bento Porn pool.

After a few days of drooling, I ordered my own Zojirushi Mr. Bento Lunch Jar from Amazon with plans to enjoy a new creative outlet that might also help my husband eat a little healthier.

That's when a door opened and opportunity presented itself. I'd been making lunches in the Mr. Bento for a week or so and coveting some of the adorable accessories used by other Flickr members while lamenting the fact that I don't live anywhere near a city that has bento supplies. Then an email arrived from a Lactivist reader that lives in Japan. We exchanged a few emails back and forth about a post I'd written. Then I asked her about bento supplies. She offered to go shopping for me and I sent her a check.

A week later, three boxes packed with bento-y goodness arrived and I was hooked. By the next day, I'd registered a domain name with plans to set up a WordPress blog so I could get some insight into their blogging platform. Then I started reading the comments that were following my posts of my bento haul on some of the blogging communities.

People wanted what I had. They wanted it bad.

I fired an email off to Abigail to see if she had any interest in partnering with me on Bento Yum. I figured I'd do the blogging and she'd supply the products and it would be a great way to help an at home mom make a little side money. As it turns out, she had the exact same thought and our emails passed each other as they worked their way through the series of tubes that is the Intraweb.

We met up on Google Talk and chatted for a few minutes before deciding to go for it. At the time, I figured I could get some good articles out of the experience and she might have a chance to start a business. We discussed some marketing plans and a few areas of social media that I was already dabbling in that we could explore.

Then we put our first bento start sets up.

With nothing more than a link at The Lactivist talking about my new venture, we sold out of nearly all the sets in a matter of a few days. Abigail started getting emails asking to be notified when new sets went online. Bloggers started posting about the great sets and the great prices they had found at Bento Yum.

Within four weeks, we'd sold 37 full sets. All without search engines. (Now to be honest, we were getting a trickle of traffic from Google...the site was indexed and ranking for some things in a matter of about 5 days...but none of the search traffic resulted in sales.)

That's when I was reminded of the immense power of community when it comes to niche products. From there, it didn't take long to decide what the focus of this new article series would be. If we could sell 37 full sets in four weeks with only the most basic social media marketing plays and without relying on search engines, what could we accomplish once we got really creative?

So I sat down and rewrote the robots.txt file and said "let's go for it!"

In the next article in the Hide and Speak series, I'll share our product plan outlining what it was we decided to sell and how we decided to sell it. Once I've set that base, the article series will shift to reviewing the strategies we've used so far, what mistakes I've already made in terms of usability and missed opportunities and what brilliant (I hope) ideas I've come up with for ongoing marketing.

Jump To The Next Article In This Series

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

June 15, 2007

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Hide and Speak: Stumbling Into Opportunity