When Dimitri Kontopos started his online accessories business, Malebox, he wasn’t expecting to create a business that would grow by 300 per cent in its last 12 months of operation. In fact, it started as a sideline gig to his corporate marketing role. His is a success story that leaves him rubbing his Movember moustache in wonder.
The business came about because Kontopos and his partner and twin brother, Harry, were stockpiling a range of cufflinks and had nowhere to put them.
“Harry started in the garage making boxes, creating them with a cufflink section on the left and a watch section on the right. Friends showed interest so we decided to design a prototype. That was the initial start of the business and also of the name, Malebox.”
That was in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the business formalised. And when Kontopos was made redundant from his corporate marketing role a few years later, he turned his undivided attention to his already growing business.
Kontopos works solo in a full-time capacity on the business, but says he is glad to have his brother’s support and ideas for the business, which has grown beyond his original plans.
“I didn’t think I’d get into all the product categories; I wouldn’t have even thought they were on the radar back then. It’s amazing how business develops and how opportunities come about through networks or the current business environment, or even the pressure you put on yourself to increase revenue.”
Site to behold
To get his online business set up, Kontopos sought the services of an outsourced web designer, but says he is quite hands on with the maintenance of his virtual shopfront. His online knowledge has proved invaluable as the business developed.
“From my corporate background I used to work as an analyst, so I’m used to writing business specs and have a good understanding of what can be done from an IT perspective. By knowing what can be done really opens my business up to the opportunities.”
Setting up his site required a few key steps. After devising a name, they searched for the domain – bypassing the personal match-making website with a similar name – and settled on Malebox.net.au. And with such a catchy name, he made sure to protect his IP from the outset, trade marking the brand in relevant classifications, and securing international domains.
When it came to payment facilities, Kontopos opted for third-party provider PayPal. “These third-party gateways do a really good job in keeping up-to-date with all the security standards.” He also accepts direct debit transactions through his site, too, as an alternative option for credit-wary customers.
Throughout this process Kontopos is careful to monitor his customer base, asking key questions during the purchasing period so he can tailor his website and his products to his audience.
“Most customers are really forthcoming with information about how they heard about us – whether that’s in a magazine, a flyer, a friend or colleague, or through a search engine – and I have all the stats on the distribution so I know where my business is coming from.”
Brand building online
To ensure customers continue to find them, Kontopos uses a mixture of search engine optimisation (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) strategies to drive traffic.
The SEO starts with blogging. The blogs include regular, seasonal advice for customers on how to dress for particular social events, such as weddings, as well as sports-related travel diaries. “The second part of the blog came about because we love sport and we sponsor Robin Bell, Olympic bronze medallist, who we travelled to Beijing with. When we travel we like to share the experiences, whether we’re buying product or samples in Europe, or talking about what we’re doing socially. It shows people we’re human and adds a little bit more ‘flavour’ to the brand.”
The Malebox brand also has a presence on Facebook, and Kontopos says he is keen to build this up over the next 12 months. “I’m definitely keen to target the social side of networking and improving my blog, for a number of reasons, including SEO and the value-add to our customer base.”
Kontopos joins free online seminars (webinars) to help build up his skills in ensuring his brand receives good prominence with search engines. “The key thing is relevance. We try to include content that is relevant to our products, our readers and our customers to increase our ranking.”
He also uses paid SEM tactics to drive customers to his site. “My SEM is quite structured by product and by budget, and I’m happy to adjust those where I see good returns. There’s always a ‘ceiling’ for the budget, but that gets taken away as soon as I see revenue come in for a particular product.”
Foot in the door
For Kontopos, the decision to become a home-based business was a no-brainer: the outlay required to start a home-based operation as opposed to opening a shopfront made the decision for him. “Initially your house becomes a stock warehouse!” he jokes. “Renting space and shop fit-out is pretty full-on in terms of capital, which is a big expense on top of your to outlay for products.”
Going the online route, too, proved an easy decision. “Because we are quite niche, especially initially, we wouldn’t have got the foot traffic to a retail store.” As Kontopos says, he has created a virtual business that knows no geographical barriers. Delivery Australia-wide is free, which is as appealing for shoppers in Perth, Darwin and Hobart as his local customers in his Sydney.
Kontopos doesn’t see the business flying the nest any time soon. In fact, the only expansion on the cards in the near future is likely to take place at home to create storage space. “I like working from home. I don’t see the office as an ugly place to go, even though I’m there a lot. It’s a strength and weakness that my commute to the office takes 30 seconds: there’s 30 minutes each way I’ve saved in travel every day, but it also means I’m working many more hours. Instead of downtime in front of the TV or whatever, I’ll go into the office to work, or to create,” he says.
“I don’t think anyone minds that we’re home-based so long as they can contact us by any means and get a fast response. Today, customers care about security with buying things online. They certainly care about reliability and speed of service and the quality of the product, and we cover those bases and customers are happy.”
In fact, it’s because of his size that Kontopos sees a major advantage, because it means he can adapt the business with new technology and new products so much faster.
“Customers expect to see something new in each category every few months. In terms of competing against some of the big players out there, we’re never going to be able to compete against them on price, nor do we want to, we’ll compete on quality and service.”