27 March 2011

This week saw the fashion retailer Henley’s file for administration. It only seems like yesterday when Simon and Ben, the 2 owners, sat with me at a Sale Sharks match discussing online retail. One of the boys confidently said, “our customers need to touch and try on our garments, we will never do much more than the £10,000 per month we are doing now. The online shop can’t compete with our high street stores.”

This sounded very much like a challenge. And as someone who hosts hundreds of online retailers, some huge ones too, I knew I couldn’t lose.

I bet them £1 that I could prove them wrong.

Sitting with my web designers and marketing team, we immediately found ways of improving their system. Their e-commerce shop was clunky. Although the photography was stunning, the site could never live up to the brand because the site was slow and the user experience was poor.

We got stuck in as a project and actually built Henleys a new website and content management system to help run it. I know that this is some way from our core business but we were helping out friends and, after all, I had a pound at stake.

Within a few months of UKFast getting involved, the site was bringing in significantly more money and in December that year they did more than £1,000,000 on the site. We’d actually done nothing more than make the user experience the most important focus point by speeding up the site and putting the e-commerce shop on seriously fast servers on the UKFast lightening speed network. The results to date speak for themselves. We didn’t do any “SEO” or optimisation, we didn’t try and stuff the site full of keywords, and we didn’t try and cheat the search engines; we built something that users would just love – and they did!

Henleys web site traffic graph

So, what went wrong?

Well this is a lesson for us all. Luckily, the site is still going and although the brand is taking a battering at the moment, the site is still in action, though sadly it is not performing like it used to.

As a marketeer, when you change something, you monitor it. If it’s good you carry on, if it’s bad you stop and revert to the previous stage.

Henleys recruited some in-house SEO Experts. The revenue the site generated warranted more investment in this area and quite rightly, this is what they did.

However, in my opinion, they changed too much in one go to measure what it was that stifled the traffic.

Along with moving to a new web designer, they moved their infrastructure to their designers too, which resulted in a massive slow down in site performance. This was not picked up by the team because when they viewed their site it was super fast as all the images were cached on their machine. To a normal visitor arriving for the first time, they did not have this luxury; to them, the site ran incredibly slowly.

They also changed their domain name from HenleysClothing.co.uk to Henleys.co.uk

This is a fair enough decision in the board room. However, henleysclothing.co.uk was now a massive asset and well used and loved by hundreds of thousands of consumers. It was also very popular with Google who attribute “track record” historical performance information to every domain. A new domain is literally starting again.

With a number of other UK businesses with the name Henleys in the title, Henleys Clothing descibed the business perfectly.

This, coupled with umpteen other changes to their strategy and layout including image sizes, all made it impossible for even the best marketeers to monitor what works and what doesn’t.

The result: they lost momentum and they never recovered.

Sadly, they were already doing everything right and if they’d just left it, it would have continued to flourish at the same rate.

We have all been there. When something starts to go well, we want more. It’s not until you lose what you had that you concede that where we were was actually where we wanted to be. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and this is why, as a business owner or manager or if you are involved with an online business, there is so much information available to help you track your progress. The important thing is, no matter how excited you are for growth to keep the board happy, make small steps and measure. I call this Stop, Start, Rewind. Only when you get really good can you do the fast forward. However, use this mode with caution, and if you really can’t resist, make sure you have the right people on your team who will tell you the truth at every stage. More importantly, never put middle managers in between you and your key suppliers.

I had real problems reaching Ben and Simon once the site was established. When I was told news of the domain change I did everything in my power to get them information that I had on hundreds of other companies who had done similar things. I was always batted back to the same person who was pioneering all the change.

If you have people helping manage suppliers, make sure you check in regularly to ensure your team are not holding back information to protect themselves. No one likes being responsible for failure, so it’s imperative that you keep a close eye on the things that really matter in your business.

On a positive side, Henley’s still has a very strong brand, great clothes and if they can get the site back up to speed (quite literally) in my opinion this is fixable. If Simon and Ben are remaining at the helm, I’d imagine they will bounce back very quickly and learn from these very difficult lessons we have all had to face at some time or other. They are tremendous entrepreneurs. It is important not to underestimate what they have achieved, building a huge brand in a very short amount of time.

We have an amazing statistic that the vast majority of people who leave our network, return at some point in the future. We had one this week, Gypsy Media. We had hosted them from early 2001-ish for 5 or 6 years. They left for a more competitive solution. They found that that didn’t work. They tried a more expensive solution with a competitor of ours, and after bouncing around a few suppliers, they returned. It is the most rewarding feeling, helping people achieve their goals. At the same time, it is a thankless task. When it goes well, everyone assumes it’s the SEO specialists and the marketing teams but when it goes wrong, it’s the hosting.

Still, I love it and its an amazing era. Who knows where it is going to take us? All I know is that I am going to keep going, small steps at a time, and measuring as I go.

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