This was published in Today's Chicago Woman on November 23rd by writer Ella Huner.
Liz Kulin is founder of PiecesofThere.com, a Chicago-based e-commerce site that sells unique care packages. TCW sits down with Ms. Kulin to get the scoop on the company and learn howyou can send a cool care package to a loved one…
How did you come up with the idea for Pieces of There? I’ve moved from my hometown in Massachusetts a few times, for college and grad school, and every once and a while I’d miss home. My mom would send me a care package of products from home…Boston and Nantucket. It would make me feel closer to home when I was far away. So I started thinking that I could do the same thing for other people.
I did some research and found that there’s a really large market of transplants – people who’ve moved away from home for one reason or another. There’s about a billion people globally who currently live in a place other than where they grew up. So we started to ask some people what would they want to help them cure homesickness. People said things like photos, talking to friends and keeping up with people on Facebook, but mostly they wanted things from the place that they left…mainly consumable products like food.
Do you plan to expand your care packages to include more locations? Absolutely! We bring on average a new location every week. We’re actively reaching out to suppliers all over the country. We currently have 35 locations. We’re looking to have every American state represented on the site, and we’re also hoping to someday ship internationally. Right now we can only ship our products to addresses in the United States, but we’re working with our suppliers to be able to ship outside the U.S. so expats will have access to local products.
Do sales increase over the holidays? This is our first Christmas season actually. We were building the site last year, so we didn’t have any inventory for sale. The first care package we sold on Pieces of There was in March, and to be completely transparent we haven’t set any money on marketing because we’ve been focused 100 percent on building the inventory.
We did some test with Google and Facebook ads, but people would come to the site and look for their favorite place and we didn’t have any products for that location yet. So it was kind of a waste of money for us to spend on marketing, when we didn’t have enough products to sell.
All of our sales have come through Google search just organically. We rank really well for ‘state name plus care package,’ like Kentucky care package or Minnesota care package, and that’s predominantly where we’ve seen success so far. In preparation for the holidays now that we have more inventory on the site, we have almost 200 care packages and a PR campaign. We’ve also started talking to universities about being listed on their website as well as real estate agents to be what they call a ‘closed deal gift sender.’ So when they close a house to someone they might give a gift.
We’ve definitely heard that it’s a very seasonal business; we don’t know if it will be for us, but we’re still excited to see what the consumer behavior will be. Will we make more sales during college finals, when parents are buying care packages for their kids? Or will consumers buy these as holiday gifts? Or will it be in the spring when people have come back from their winter vacations and they miss their favorite winter spot? We just don’t know yet, and that’s something we’re really excited to see.
Overall what do customers say about the baskets so far? We have a couple of testimonials on our website, but I send an email to every customer after they make a purchase, because they’re one of our first 1,000 customers. I really want to learn from how they used our site, if they had any suggestions for improvement and what they think about the products that we’re selling. Overall, people really like that the products are from a place that they miss, and it definitely brings them back to a special time in their lives. That’s the whole reason we’re doing this. So we’ve definitely found that our mission to help cure homesickness is paying off.
What are some challenges you faced being a small business owner? The biggest challenge is just that there has been so much to do and there are only so many hours in the day. I have a lot of support. I am a startup in the Founder Institute accelerator program, which is a global accelerator program for entrepreneurs. You apply, you get vetted and you have to be accepted into the program. With that comes a lot of mentor support and networking that will hopefully lead to bigger and better things. While you’re in the program they set you up with a team, and so your team members all act as support members for each other’s start-ups. So maybe there’s a designer, or a copywriter or maybe one does marketing; we might trade skill sets to help each other out. That’s definitely been a really solid, positive addition to Pieces of There; it’s helped us grow much faster.
Where do you see the business going? I have hopes for the business, but realistically I think this time next year we’ll probably have twice as many locations on the site. Hopefully we’ll have a lot of happy customers and have repeat customers. We’re hoping to start a program where our customers can sign up for a monthly membership and be sent a box of products from whatever place they want, so that every month they can find a piece of home on their door step.