John Sollars is celebrating 10 years of trading online in April 2012. His company, Stinkyink.com, sells ink and toner cartridges for all makes and models of printers. In a decade, the company has gone from being victim of an online fraud that lost it £32,000, to being a business that turns over £3m and employs 14 staff. John explains the philosophy that has enabled him to face adversity and succeed.
Q: When did you set up the business and why?
A: In the Spring of 2002 BBC 6 Music launched, coal mining ended in Scotland and the Queen Mother died. Another story that crept under the media radar was the launch of Stinkyink.com. It was a little while before I took my first order on April 22, and boy did I cheer! And better still, he’s still a customer 10 years later.
I decided to sell original manufacturers’ and compatible third party cartridges for every make and model of printer after having problems finding the right ink for my son’s machine. There’s a gap in the market I thought.
Q: Where did the name Stinkyink.com come from?
A: I had a brainstorm session with the family and everyone liked it. It’s memorable and smacks of schoolboy humour, so I thought ”why not”. In fact, officially we are Solar Electronics Ltd, but we trade as Stinkyink.com.
Q: What did you do before?
A: This is my third business: the first was a small CB radio shop in Kidderminster which lasted a couple of years in the 80s; the second was an electronic sub assembly business which went bust in the last big recession (1992) costing me a load of money. It took 10 years to recover both emotionally and financially.
Q: How important is technology in modern-day commerce?
A: In the beginning I had absolutely no knowledge of how an internet business worked, just a burning desire to be in on the cutting edge! As ecommerce is the core technology I turned to some web experts who would hold my hand. I chose Teclan, the internet retail specialists who built my first website using Actinic’s desktop ecommerce software. That served us well for nine years but recently I decided to move to a bespoke platform using Ruby on Rails.
Another key area for technology is our backoffice. It’s a high volume, low margin business so it’s vital to control costs. A couple of years ago sales were growing rapidly and we were struggling with manual, unintegrated warehousing, purchase order, accounting and order processing systems. EOS (electronic office supplier) software specialist, axisfirst, was able to streamline and automate the backoffice as well as give us an electronic data interchange (EDI) with our suppliers, real-time stock control and price feeds that have made a huge difference to our margins. Within a very short time the overall efficiency of the company increased by over 40 percent, net profit went up by over 20 percent and, as our turnover has increased, our stock has decreased.
Q: What was the lowest point in your story?
A: Only months after launching the website WorldPay told me that most of my orders were fraudulent. I’d been targeted by a ring of fraudsters based not in Nigeria or Russia, but all over the UK. Worse, the police could do nothing to catch them or get my £32,000-worth of stock back.
A: I was on the verge of bankruptcy and I remember sitting with my dog in the office when the full enormity of what had happened sunk in. I had to make a decision whether to bother going on, or to get out and go back to a ‘proper’ job. But I picked myself up, resolved not to trust anything or anyone in future and got on with it.
Q: How did you recover?
A:The fraud issue really coloured the first four years of the business as it made it hard to get credit with suppliers as our balance sheet was so weak. It taught me the importance of having cash in the bank and watching my P&L like a hawk – I can spend up to three hours every month reviewing it.
I used email marketing and search optimisation to grow both my customer base and website traffic. Within two years the business was in profit and we haven’t looked back.
Q: And the best so far?
A: I guess surviving this long is quite an achievement. The fact that I now employ 14 full-time and one part-time staff is a real landmark for me and turning over £3 million last year was a big moment as well.
Q: Looking back, what would you have done differently?
A: The biggest regret I have is not starting up three or four years earlier, when the internet was really in its infancy and the opportunity was there for global domination!
Q: What next for Stinkyink.com?
A: At the moment we are working flat out to increase our visitors numbers and also experimenting with ways to improve our website conversion rate. Both of these goals are long term, time-intensive processes, that sit alongside the overall objective of improving and growing the business.