Alaska SBA office hosts Amazon for e-commerce workshop

  • Alaska Small Business Development Center Executive Director Jon Bittner hosted a panel discussion with Amazon’s Kyle Walker on Nov. 8 on how business owners in the state can offer their products through the retail e-commerce giant. (Photo/Naomi Klouda/AJOC)
  • Bambinos Baby Food President Zoi Maroudas shared her tips for selling outside Alaska. She created a line of organic baby food products she’s now selling both nationally and globally. (Photo/Naomi Klouda/AJOC)
  • Kyle Walker, the head of new business strategy for Amazon Exclusives from the Seattle headquarters, offered the best ways for Alaska products to be recognized on the e-commerce platform, particularly making sure to tell the Alaska story behind the product. (Photo/Naomi Klouda/AJOC)

Amazon is opening a “big door” to Alaska’s small business entrepreneurs, inviting them to sell their goods and services via the shopping giant’s network.

“It’s a worldwide door at Amazon,” an official with the organization told a packed crowd at a Nov. 8 workshop put on by the Small Business Administration Alaska District Office.

While there’s talk or hopes that the e-commerce giant might open an Alaska branch — and according to Amazon spokesman Erik Fairleigh, that’s not out of the question — the big topic of the day was how to use Amazon’s network.

The workshop featured Kyle Walker, the head of new business strategy for Amazon Exclusives from the Seattle headquarters who gave plenty of advice for entrepreneurs hoping to crack the code of a global market.

The panel discussion offered advice on e-commerce from Jon Bittner, the director of the Small Business Development Center; Cat Mason, a SCORE mentor; Zoi Maroudas, founder of Bambinos Baby Food of Anchorage; and Chris Fischer, co-owner of Alaska Beach Stone Lamp of Homer.

Because so many consumers go online to shop, the SBA and Amazon are working together to provide small businesses with tools, tips and information they need to be successful selling goods and services online.

Alaska was the first district office in the country to offer a joint-training opportunity with Amazon, said SBA Alaska Director Nancy Porzio.

With its isolated geography, Alaska is a challenging place to woo new customers, Porzio noted. The opportunity to partner with Amazon came after SBA Administrator Linda McMahon’s visit to Alaska in July. Her next stop after leaving Anchorage’s SBA tour was Seattle and Amazon. When she left Alaska, McMahon suggested a team-up between Alaskans and Amazon.

More than half the products sold on Amazon come from small businesses and entrepreneurs in small towns and cities across the U.S. and the world, Walker told the audience.

Walker said Amazon is excited to connect with entrepreneurs in Anchorage to help them grow their businesses.

“There are thousands of small businesses throughout Alaska listing their products for sale on Amazon and reaching customers in their neighborhood and around the world,” Walker said later when asked how many Alaskans currently do business on Amazon. “These are independent small businesses that are controlling their pricing and the items they want to sell on Amazon.”

One of those is Homer artisan Fischer. He told of his experience selling on Amazon, a newer development for the lamp maker who used to go it alone on a website he and his dad developed.

Bambinos Baby Foods CEO Maroudas also is gearing up to sell on Amazon.

A surefire way to sell is realizing people love to hear stories about Alaska products.

In Fischer’s case, he and his dad find objects — rocks, driftwood, glass — on the beaches of Kachemak Bay and build lamps. No two are alike with wood veneer lamp shades, Greywacke earth rocks stacked in various configuration, solid brass fittings.

“One day I was drilling into a piece of drift wood, and the wood really stank. It was this awful odor,” Fischer told the workshop group. “I put that on my Facebook page and got more responses to that than anything, just sharing an experience.”

The point was to keep sharing stories and keep up on social media to expand customer base.

Maroudas’ story is of the pristine soil Alaska vegetables grow in that’s never been saturated with pesticides or chemicals, she told the workshop attendees.

Combined with her medical background, she devised pure organic baby foods to distribute nationally and globally. Hers is the first national baby food subscription company that ships directly to parents anywhere in the U.S.

Since they are shipping-dependent, both entrepreneurs urged prospective business people to calculate postage costs ahead of time. They also need to keep plenty of stock on hand to allow for missed or late shipping arrivals. Fischer uses a triple-walled box to hold the heavy stone lamps. But a $2 box became $5 each, when he calculated the cost of getting his boxes shipped to him in Homer.

“Know your upfront costs. Know everything about the market, the products and any kink in the chain,” Maroudas added. “If there’s a kink, deal with it immediately.”

Bittner, the SBDC executive director, cautioned against getting “too successful, too fast.”

“That’s a real thing,” he said.

If a thousand orders come in and can’t be filled, a person’s reputation sours and customers “will remember that a long time after.”

Jumping on Amazon’s train gives manifold advantages, Walker told the group.

“Use our team to help you navigate. You don’t have to invest in a huge team. Use the order fulfillment customer service at Amazon. Take advantage of our shipping,” he said. “Imagine visiting 100,000 stores to reach the same number of people you can reach on Amazon.”

Amazon has no product-listing fee for small businesses, Walker said.

“It’s easy for small businesses to sell on Amazon and only takes a matter of minutes to sign up and get started. Amazon welcomes all businesses to list their items on our online marketplace and pick the model that’s ideal for their business,” he said.

E-Commerce isn’t much different from traditional, said Cat Mason, the SCORE mentor who coaches entrepreneurs in marketing, branding and business development.

“You still have to build relationships. You are a brand and your reputation makes a difference. Partnering with Amazon means partnering with a good reputation,” he said.

That said, he also advised people to network face-to-face as often as possible.

Bittner said 40 percent of all businesses sell through social media.

“Show pictures. Use customer reviews. Don’t rely on just Facebook and Twitter. Use more comprehensive marketing channels,” he said.

Walker said hearing Fischer’s and Maroudas’ stories makes him more likely to buy the lamp and the baby food.

“I like to hear the stories,” he said. “Now I’m more likely to buy because we do connect with something in the story. It’s not that different online.”

You’re catching customer attention as they scroll, though, as opposed to face-to-face.

Those at the workshop raised a lot of questions.

Daisy Nicolas, owner of Drool Central, an Alaska homemade natural canine treat and meal baker, said she’s been successful at farmers’ markets. But she’s intimidated at the thought of selling on Amazon. What’s the first step?

Walker said entrepreneurs might start by offering one product to sell on Amazon. Grow bigger as you grow more comfortable with how it all works, he said.

Another wanted to know if products could be offered by state on Amazon.

“Alaskans get lost fairly easily,” he said.

Walker said that’s an idea he can take back to Amazon.

Amazon also sells services by zip code, Walker said in response to a question from a digital tech company.

“We have a self-service model, so businesses can visit to get started,” he said.

Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].

11/16/2017 - 1:19pm