Success story: Bonsai Tree

Online seller Bonsai Tree has seen their business grow more than they ever expected since they chose Bob Go as their fulfilment partner. We sit down with founder, Terry Erasmus, to talk about his passion for bonsai and how it has driven his incredible ecommerce journey. If you want to be big, not small, follow their example.

When you built your online store, how long did it take you to complete the journey from concept to launch? You can include a background as to why and how you started selling the goods you sell.

I started off with a Jumla-based website and at that time ecommerce was really in its infancy in South Africa. Everything was custom-coded, and although I couldn’t afford it, I knew that it was a trend gaining momentum, so I focussed on just creating a web presence. I registered the domain bonsaitree.co.za and then I set up the website which was based on something called Jum Social, which was a Facebook-type app. At the beginning, it just consisted of bonsai-lovers that were sharing ideas and posting pictures, with the long-term strategy that it would eventually become a website where I could sell products from.

I have always been a very passionate bonsai grower and in around 2010, I started looking for ceramic containers to put my bonsai trees in. Although there are a number of bonsai nurseries around South Africa, the offerings were very limited and so, I placed my first order of ceramic pots from China. I still remember the order arriving on one pallet and these days I’m ordering full container loads! The business has definitely grown from very small beginnings.

What did you find was the easiest or simplest part of getting started online?

Buying the domain was definitely the easiest part of getting started online!

Although I am a trained qualified industrial designer and part of my studies included desktop publishing, a bit of graphic design, and so on, I’m not a graphic designer. However, I am very much a self-starter and I learn what I need to in order to get things done. I’ve had to learn everything. The whole website as you see it today is all me – the layout, the design, everything is me and what I have learnt and implemented. I also had to get started on YouTube! I have my own channel with around 14,000 subscribers, and I create the content, I present, I edit the video and then also the voiceovers – all things I’ve had to learn and build over the years. I’m a one-man band, but I like it that way and it saves me a tremendous amount of money.

I think the most difficult thing for me when I started the website was the payment gateway and the logistics part. Back then, Andy Higgins (MD of Bob Group) had organised an event in Cape Town for ecommerce entrepreneurs and, in my opinion, there’s never been anything that comes close to that event. It was fantastic! There were breakaway sessions in various rooms, specialists from Google, experts from the logistics sector and smaller group sessions. Due to this, I became an early adopter of Shopify, which is still an absolute game changer.

Andy changed the ecommerce landscape in South Africa with the uAfrica shipping app that was so easy to integrate. Then PayFast came onto the scene and again, was easy to integrate. I have always stayed away from custom coding because it just gets too complicated and too expensive, so when these plugins for shipping and payment became available it was the turning point for me to actually start selling my products.

Thinking back, how did you approach the task of online marketing and what resources do you use nowadays for inspiration or functionality?

In addition to reading a lot of books, there are also many online resources available today. I like to pop over to the Shopify website and check out their fantastic tools and free information. I also highly recommend the Shopify Academy, which can really help someone just starting out in ecommerce.

We are currently using Google Ads for business promotion, but it’s become very expensive so we are considering more traditional ways of marketing. We like to approach our marketing strategy from a very much wider spectrum: we send new product samples with outgoing orders, we create brochures highlighting new products or products focused on that particular season, and even include handwritten ‘thank you’ notes in parcels.

Which platforms would you recommend for ecommerce, accounting, shipping, marketing (etc) and how do you stick it all together? 

  • Definitely Shopify – is there anything else?!
  • For accounting, we’re currently using the QuickBooks desktop app, even though there is no direct link to Shopify. Although there are apps and plugins available for this, I have been warned against them as they seem to be more focused on the online version of QuickBooks. We are, however, looking for a solution for the support and upgrade/renewals of the desktop app version.
  • We are also very happy with Bob Go, although we limit our use of the couriers available. If a courier messes up three times, we discontinue service with that specific courier. Currently, we are still making use of The Courier Guy and DPD Laser.
  • For marketing, we use a variety of platforms, including Google (and Google Ads!), social media platforms, the sales channels features on Shopify, and a software called Stamped for reviews and social proof. We’ve got almost 3,000 customer reviews on our products, which is fantastic for a very small business like ourselves. We’ve also built a very good following of about 150,000 on Facebook and reached about ±4,500 followers on Instagram.  YouTube is also great for our marketing. I do demonstrations using products that we sell, so it’s working well as a marketing tool.  

It’s a tough task to integrate all of these aspects of business together, so it helps to have a full-time staff of five to stick it all together. Our general strategy is to work around themes. For example, when talking about bonsai trees in the spring months, we’re looking at repotting (which usually happens during this time period). We then focus on promoting products that relate to this period and theme. We post weekly tips on Instagram and participate in many contests that are thematically plugged in, so that there is consistency. We are very fortunate that we’ve got a tremendous amount of material, like photographs, blog posts, videos and so on which make these processes so much easier.

What would you say are the current pitfalls of starting an online business in South Africa?

The temptation to go too big too quickly. The perception is that you need a fancy distribution centre, computers and snazzy desks, which all cost a lot of capital – money that you may not yet have. It’s a tough market out there with access to less disposable income, so you need to spend your capital wisely. We are actually trying to move away from Google Ads at the moment because the cost per click has just become astronomically expensive- in part due to the weak Rand, but also because it’s often perceived as being the easiest way to promote your business. I believe there are more creative and less costly ways of doing marketing.

I also see a lot of people with a little product that they want to start selling as a side hustle, and it’s just not as simple as that. An online store is a lot of work! It requires constant updates and consistent effort to keep it running and make a profit. You simply cannot just have a static webpage with a couple of listed products, and then when you do get an order, ship it out at your convenience.

In my experience, customers in South Africa expect the same level of quality and service as in a first world country. Many expect same day or next day delivery even though their delivery address is in a regional area. Unfortunately, we have an underdeveloped logistics system and not all couriers deliver with the same quality of service. Some parcels still arrive damaged even if your packaging is top class and some arrive later than expected if they arrive at all. That is just another obstacle that we need to face and conquer in this country.

What, in your view, is the thing holding most companies back when trying to decide whether to sell online or in a traditional bricks and mortar store?

They are two very different businesses and require very different strategies. I have spoken to a number of people that have tried the same approach for their physical store as their online store, and it just doesn’t work. You need to do your research and ask yourself some basic questions: Are your products suitable for brick-and-mortar? Do you have enough customers in the local area that are likely to visit the store and justify or cover your cost of sales? A similar analysis should be done if you have a brick-and-mortar store and you want to go online: Can your product be sold online? Is it very bulky product? Can you ship that product? Will people miss the tactility of the product if sold online? Those are just some of the things to consider.

If you’re looking at opening a physical store from your online store, it may be worth trying a pop-up store to see how people respond to your products and if they sell faster or better when people can physically touch them. If you’re a physical store looking to go online, learn from the mistakes of the big retailers! Instead of shipping orders from your shelves, keep your stock close to home and get those orders out quickly.

Moving on to Bob Go now – how long have you been a Bob Go merchant?

Forever. Terry has been a merchant since June 2015.

What is your favourite feature on Bob Go at the moment?

Rates at checkout – an absolute game changer! Before we used rates at checkout, I used very complicated Excel spreadsheets with all the tariffs for local, main centre and regional areas. Then, if there was a courier price increase, all of those spreadsheets needed to be changed and these rates would need to be manually updated on what was then uAfrica. Using the rates at checkout feature has been absolutely phenomenal, so kudos to everybody that was involved!

What would you like to see on Bob Go that isn’t currently available?

  • On a listed product, the quantity automatically defaulted to 10 items, even if there were more or less available. The product syncing functionality has been improved and has been moved to a completely separate service called Bob Sync, supported by Bob Shop.
  • The multichannel rules and the way the products were listed had a few filters that were unavailable. It was a problem for me and so I had to remove the Bob Shop channel. The rules for multichannel are a part of the Bob Sync service and have been extended.  
  • When most people think of ecommerce in South Africa, they immediately think of Takealot. It would be fantastic to have Takealot as a sales channel or integration on Bob Go. We don’t currently sell on Takealot, but if we did, I wouldn’t want to upload CSV files every day.

What advice would you offer someone that is considering starting an online business in 2023.

There has never been a better time to start an online business, but don’t kid yourself in thinking that it’s going to be easy. It’s more than buying the domain and having a nice product to sell. You may think you have a good idea, but there are a tremendous number of good ideas out there.

  • As they say, the devil is in the detail. It’s in the implementation; in the customer service.
  • In my eleven years in ecommerce, I’ve learnt that customers have extremely high expectations and are very unforgiving, so you need to go into this experience with your eyes wide open.
  • Don’t go too big, too quickly. As important as business funding is, the interest rates charged can often be detrimental to your business. Rather try to use whatever available cash flows you have available upfront to fund stock purchases.
  • Offer a unique product, pick a niche, do what you love, stand out in the crowd. I’ve built an entire business on my passion and love for bonsai trees! Make sure that the late nights and weekends that you’re going to be working are spent on something you love.
  • Be creative about marketing and don’t fall into the trap of spending tens of thousands of rands on things like Google Ads. This is an area that can get very specialized and might be worth outsourcing to an expert – even if you do need to pay them a small management fee.
  • You don’t need to pay huge sums of money for someone to develop a website for you – Shopify has made it so simple! Although there is a place in the ecommerce market for developers, small business owners just need to spend some time learning the basic tools. Not only will you empower yourself, but you will save a lot of money and gain confidence in your own business.
  • It is a lot of work starting an online business – especially in the beginning. It is a monster you need to keep feeding. You need to be active – creating blog posts, updating your website, getting onto social media. You need people to know that you are out there.

Increase your growing pleasure by with Bonsai Tree.