Entrepreneur Bob Shirilla on his life as a small business owner

All the talk in the business world these days is about technology and how it’s changed everything. Marketing is all about SEO, recruiting is all about social media, and sales hardly exist outside of the mobile realm. Sometimes, you come across business leaders who make you rethink all of that.

Bob Shirilla is one such entrepreneur. Shirilla is the founder and owner of two e-commerce sites, Simply-bags.com and Keepsakes-etc.com, which he uses to sell bags, throws, personalized gifts and other keepsakes. He went into the e-commerce business in 2000, launching his first website alongside his wife. But his venture arose from humble beginnings – for many years, his wife operated two mall-based stores in Ohio, and business was good.

“My wife started around 1980 with a traditional brick-and-mortar retail store,” Shirilla recalls. “She grew that to two mall stores, but because big stores had such great discounts – and rent discounts – it was hard to compete, so she closed that down in 2000.”

Shirilla resisted the dot-com boom for a while, but eventually, the Internet became too cost-effective to ignore. It was then and only then that Shirilla and his wife came around.

Embracing technology
Luckily, Shirilla wasn’t starting from scratch when he decided to move into the online realm in 2000. He already had a solid foundation to work with, since his professional background was in technology.

“I had worked for Electronic Data Systems, a large consulting company, doing project management and strategic planning,” Shirilla said. “Around 2000 we started our first e-commerce site, which was Keepsakes-etc.com. The original purpose was to liquidate the leftover inventory, like Pokemon blankets, from our brick-and-mortar operations, and it sold like crazy. Shortly after that, we opened up a warehouse and hired our first employees. In 2007, we opened our second e-commerce site Simply-bags.com.”

The idea grew quickly. It was efficient to conduct sales online rather than in a physical store that was expensive to own and operate. The venture achieved quick results, so it made sense for Shirilla to grow his business from there.

That doesn’t mean, however, that he relies on the Internet for everything. Take recruiting workers, for instance – Shirilla notes that he hired his first employee in the early 1980s by putting a “Help Needed” sign on the front door, and not too much has changed since then.

“Even today, we don’t do anything sophisticated to get new employees,” Shirilla said. “We put an ad in our local newspaper, and we don’t use any social media.”

Social media in general is a tricky proposition. Shirilla’s brand is one that markets to a specific demographic group of people, and targeting large swathes of the population via Facebook isn’t likely to yield serious results. Shirilla has to fine-tune his strategies.

“I have collected 6,500 Twitter followers, and I can’t attribute a single sale to it,” Shirilla said. “Pinterest has been much more effective in terms of sales conversion. I think it’s because I target the right group there – Pinterest is mostly women, bags are a female thing, so if a lady comes on and sees a bag and likes it, she pins it, her friends see it and buy it.”

Moving on up
One of the biggest challenges facing Shirilla’s business venture is knowing when and how to expand when operating in a very competitive market. There are a lot of well-established sales titans out there, and while they make their millions, Shirilla’s just hoping to stay afloat, maybe adding an extra employee here or there.

“I believe this market is good for us because organically, without even trying, we have businesses, religious organizations, etc. calling us wanting us to embroider their logo on bags for an event. So we’re going to target our SEO and advertising towards this growing B2B market. That is going to be our drive in 2014, and I don’t think that Target and others can compete with us in that space. It’s very exciting.”

It’s telling that Shirilla mentions Target, as he spends a lot of time worrying about the retail giant and others like it. Those corporations have countless advantages that he doesn’t. They have more money, marketing power and physical real estate that they can use to attract and keep customers. Shirilla has to make the best of his situation despite lacking many of these benefits.

“Big brand stores – Macy’s, JCPenney, Target, Nordstrom, etc – have finally learned e-commerce marketing and they leverage their size,” Shirilla said. “Small guys like me were first in that space but now I have to compete with them. Every time I hear the words ‘free shipping’ I want to pass out – I can’t free ship. I am getting killed by those stores in the B2C market.”

Work and life
Shirilla’s job is a stressful one. He’s looking to ramp up technology, beat out competitors, deal with negative feedback and, at the end of the day, make enough money to feed his family. Put it all together, and it can make for an awfully demanding work life.

On top of all that, he tries to balance his job and his family. That’s always a tricky proposition, but Shirilla finds a way to make it work. He has a big family, and he tries to set aside time for his relatives whenever possible.

“I work a lot, but when it’s personal time, I stay in the moment,” Shirilla said. “I don’t go back to the business. Although I must admit that sometimes when I visit my daughter I will check my email after the grandkids go to bed, or if I wake up early in the morning I will do some work before everybody else rises. I don’t see that as a problem.”

Shirilla is not alone among small business owners who try to balance work and personal life. His story is common – there are countless entrepreneurs out there looking to achieve success not only in the business world, but in their own lives. It requires dedication, hard work and attention to detail. Shirilla, for one, is making it work.

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