David Peterson, Dragonfly Outlet
Some people are just born with the entrepreneurial spirit. As a boy in rural Massachusetts, David Peterson of Dragonfly Outlet built a loyal customer base selling seeds door to door in the springtime. By the age of 11, he was running his first successful business—with a partner and employees—selling baseball cards to his classmates.
"I knew nothing about baseball cards; my friends knew nothing about baseball cards," he muses. "Kids today know the value of a card. But back then, kids bought them if they liked that player, or if they wanted to complete a set.
"Who knows, there may have been some Pete Rose cards in there. I choose not to think about it," he laughs. "But I did make money."
With Dragonfly Outlet, Peterson is still pursuing his entrepreneurial vision—only now the goal is more than just profits. The online shop focuses on affordable, "socially responsible" toys, games, baby items and housewares. His target market is upper middle-class women who want to make healthy and sustainable choices for their children and families.
His timing for the venture couldn't be better. A recent survey by consumer research group Mintel found that more than half of Americans would regularly buy green products if they cost less. But Peterson isn't just being opportunistic, exploiting consumers' eco-conscious ideals for personal gain. He practices what he preaches and disdains the commercialization of the term "green."
The genesis of this idea was to make socially responsible shopping as easy as possible
"It's my personal opinion is that the term 'green' has been co-opted by mass merchandisers and has become meaningless," Peterson says. "Wal-Mart sells green products that are made in China. How green is it if they have to haul it thousands of miles over here?
"Social responsibility, on the other hand, covers a wide swath of concerns. Some people think in terms of 'is it made with plastic?' 'Is it recyclable?' Or 'does it have excess packaging?" he explains. "I'm trying to drive the green movement further, and make it about socially responsible shopping."
Peterson's goal is to make Dragonfly Outlet be competitive with large retail sites—from pricing and aesthetics to customer service. And it appears he has the right combination of vision and experience. Over the years, he's worked in retail and sales in the appliance, toys and technology industries, and he's currently involved with logistics and distribution for a networking equipment maker.
"I know my strengths," he says. "I hold every store I go into to unbelievably high standards. And there are so many stores to choose from that all sell the same things that if they fail me, I don't usually walk back in."
It's not easy being green
The concept for Dragonfly Outlet grew out of Petersen's desire to ramp up his casual sales on eBay—selling collectible toys amassed over the years—to the level of a business. But finding a continuous source of products that reflected his values as a consumer was not easy.
"I realized, thinking back over the years of all the purchases I'd made for my wife, trying to find something that's made in a labor-friendly country is really hard," he explains. "Even online, where information is tremendously available, each retailer will only tell you one or two facts, like it's made in China or made in the U.S. But they don't tell you things about the packaging, or whether the country it's made in has fair labor practices. That was the genesis of this idea, to make socially responsible shopping as easy as possible."
To that end, Peterson assigns icons to every product he lists to identify them as being made with ethical labor, wood or recycled materials, as well as other earth-friendly standards consumers may be looking for. The hope, he says, is to create a customized shopping experience.
"Somewhere down the road, the idea is to make it so easy that, if you're a customer of mine who's registered, when you come to Dragonfly Outlet, the site will automatically show you products that meet your social-responsibility criteria," he says.
The great thing about the multichannel infrastructure the Internet provides is it's much easier to get traffic into your store
His key product lines include Holgate and ImagiPlay wooden toys, which he chose for their quality and safety.
His personal favorite, though, is To-Go Ware, a product he discovered while visiting a nature conservatory. The line—which has been featured on Oprah—includes stainless steel lunch kits and reusable bamboo utensils that come in holders made of recycled plastic.
"It's one product that I seem to be doing well with across the board," he says. "I offer them wherever I have a sales presence."
In addition to Auctiva Commerce, Peterson is also branching out to Amazon while maintaining a small presence on eBay, where he previously used Auctiva's free tools and image hosting. It's tough to ignore eBay's value as marketing tool, so he's considering signing up for a paid Auctiva subscription to more fully develop and promote his business on eBay.
"The great thing about the multichannel infrastructure the Internet provides is it's much easier to get traffic into your store," he says.
To help spread the word about his Auctiva Commerce site, Peterson posts ads with discount offers on bulletin boards in places like yoga centers, where people are more likely to be interested in eco-friendly products. And he has friends around the country who post the ads in their towns.
He's also tinkered with AdWords, which produced a spike in traffic, but not many actual sales. He attributes the low conversion rate to not looking "slick" enough to compete with big retailers like Amazon.
"I want to make my site more professional looking, and add more product information and content to improve the shopping experience," Peterson says.
"I'm an independent guy with not a lot of capital," he adds. "So I've got to walk a fine line: I need a product that's not so obscure that hardly anyone wants it, but not saturated in the market either.
"Google is a great source of cheap advertising. I get a lot of traffic on Google by being price-competitive. About half of my visitors look at two pages or more, so I know they're interested. I just have to fine-tune it so they're even more interested."
In any job I've ever had that was customer facing, I always prided myself on giving the best customer service
Come January, Peterson plans to devote more time to adding inventory to Dragonfly Outlet and sharpening the appearance of his landing page. Blogging is also on his radar for 2010—if he can find the time to commit to it, and get past his "loathe of writing."
"In college, I feared writing courses," he laughs. "If I had a staff, I'd have a content writer. I have toyed with the idea of paying a college student to write my product descriptions for me."
Though balancing the demands of advancing his business goals with those of a young family and a full-time job is a constant struggle, Peterson always manages to remain optimistic about the future.
"Customer service is a passion of mine," he says. "In any job I've ever had that was customer facing, I always prided myself on giving the best customer service. And now here's the opportunity to do it for my own business, and I love it. I love it every day."