Monday, 25 June 2012

The challenges of setting up an online business – my personal journey by Elizabeth Gaffney, founder of

Although I didn’t realise at the time, the foundations of Shophoppingmap were laid in a conversation I had with my uncle when I was 22. I had just returned to Ireland after finishing my first year studying the foundation year at London College of Fashion. My uncle had popped in for a coffee to break his Saturday morning jog and broke my Saturday morning lull with a barrage of questions; so, what exactly had I learnt during my Fashion year in London? What was I going to sell and where was my target market? Where was my business plan?  These questions were answered with a blank stare of dismay. Was he joking? No, he wasn’t.  I felt no more ready to start a Fashion business than fly a spaceship! Sure I was only 22 and had much more to learn. In fact, my plan was to further my skills in Fashion design with a degree course over the following few years.  My uncle shook his head at these protests but and urged it was very important to start something of my own as soon as I could.  And he reminded me of his own story.  He himself broke away from a prestigious career path early on and took some huge financial risks to do so.  Everybody thought he was crazy but he pushed forward with his plan in frantic blind faith. It took years of hard work to reach even ground but when he did, his business success rocketed.  And those who had shaken their heads at the beginning were left staring on from the sidelines in awe. 

My uncle warned that if I were to start a business at 25, I might spend the following few years watching my friends with their good jobs go on their ski holidays while I’ll still be broke but by the time I’m 35, they’ll still be working in someone else’s castle while I’ll be sitting on my own.

These words made an impact but I continued going about my business (although not a business) and graduated from Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication after a couple of sleepless years with a degree in Fashion Design. I was now 25.  So, what was I going to do?

I still loved fashion but was quite disillusioned with the industry. After seven years of university, I could not afford to work for free and influenced by the Green movement which, pre-recession, was in full swing, did not want to add any more products to the cycle of senseless fast-consumerism. But maybe I could add some directions to the process, so at least when people went shopping, they’d be buying tasteful high quality goods from a carefully chosen selection of retailers.  Internet shopping was at the time, in 2007, making the transgression from something some people did on Amazon to a mainstream activity and many shops and brands were opening their virtual doors.  However, not all of them were and I thought, wouldn’t it be great to build a sort of online shopping portal, not only pointing to the best quality retailers but also filtering out the brands that weren’t selling online yet?  A kind of simple timesaving signpost map for the discerning shopper… And that’s how the idea (and name) for Shophoppingmap was born! 

Of course, as with all business ventures, the idea is only the tiny first step of the journey and it took a year and a half of research and feeling around in the dark to build the site.  It didn’t go online until January 2009.  When I showed it to a computer programmer cousin for a professional opinion, he said he liked the way the site looked “homemade”. This was not quite the reaction I had had in mind but it did not stop me presenting it to CEO’s and head offices of top brands and retailers around the world.  I laugh when I think back to that “vintage” original version of Shophoppingmap but in fact companies reacted very positively, and many complimented it for its simplicity.  Simplicity is the key factor behind Shophoppingmap. It is a location-neutral, gender-neutral and interest-neutral shopping guide, with quality tasteful online shopping being the common denominator under all its different categories.

The biggest challenges about running an online business are the time it takes and the lack of immediate turnover.  We’ve all heard the enticing stories about many a multi-million pound Internet company starting in the garden shed but mine is very much still in the garden shed on a financial level.  Since the start, I have had to make ends meet with other work such as English teaching and freelance design.  It has been frustrating sometimes, not having the full time or financial backing to really push things forward.  On the other hand, when you are doing everything on your own, you really feel each step forward and there is nothing more rewarding than hearing from friends and acquaintances, (men and women) who tell me that they bought their shoes for their wedding/all their babies’ clothes/bedding for the new home/the perfect pair of jeans etc. through Shophoppingmap.  It is hard work and costly getting a site out there but it is good to know that the people who know about it use it and I believe that if you build a product that is genuinely useful and timesaving, success will follow. Eventually!

In the meantime, I am developing the site and will be running an offshoot shopping tour business in London this summer. Certainly being an entrepreneur isn’t easy but then again, what path is? You have to start somewhere and as my uncle said, you may as well start with something of your own.  And whenever I watch my friends go off on their ski holidays and I still can’t join them, I just remind myself, even castles start with a wheelbarrow and a pile of bricks!

Elizabeth Gaffney is a freelance stylist, designer, writer and communications consultant living in London. Having grown up between England, Canada and Ireland, she loves travelling and discovering exciting new places and pieces.  As well as directing Shophoppingmap, she is currently working on opening an online boutique for her finds and accessories designs.  When she is not working, she can be found rummaging around a market, in an art gallery or on a beach.

She can be contacted at