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Surfing the tides

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Three DB creatives share the ins and outs of taking their businesses online, and reveal how well that’s served them in recent months. Jan Yumul reports. Photo by Baljit Gidwani

The virus has ravaged businesses worldwide, but the positive impact it’s had on the e-commerce sector is undeniable. The general consensus is that if you’re not selling or showcasing your wares online, you’re going to be left behind in the ‘new normal.’

Talking to three DB creatives – photographer, Martina Stevens; home decor provider, Kavita Mathur and artist, Eleanor McColl – it’s easy to see that going digital is the way of the future, and that every successful business now needs at least one e-string to its bow. The women discuss the very different uses to which they put their websites, how they created them, and how having an established online presence has put them ahead of the curve during the pandemic.

The photographer
Martina Stevens has been showcasing her photography at Martina Stevens Photography (www.martinastevensphotography.com) for a steady two years now. The one-and-a-half year DB resident specialises in new-born and family portraits, primarily shot outdoors in natural light.

A former model – she spent over two decades posing for the camera – Martina says she has found her happy place, behind it. The Czech’s foray into the modelling industry began at the tender age of 15 and, with so many professional photoshoots under her belt, she describes the switch to being shooter as a natural one.

Martina attributes the organic growth of her business to word of mouth (largely provided by “DB’s amazing expat community”), in tandem with her burgeoning online presence. It was after doing a few shoots that she started to think of putting up her own website and and getting her name out there.

“I believe that having a website, where you display your services is a must for any entrepreneur,” Martina says. “A website is like your extended business card – it should reflect what you do and how you do it, very clearly. I use Facebook and Instagram a lot as business tools and I do find them very useful for what I do, not only in promoting my business and my work but also as a way for me to get inspired. Facebook is a great tool in terms of promoting any business, especially in today’s world of social media but, in my opinion, what you really need is a professional website.”

Martina’s website serves as a showcase for her work and a gateway for people to get in touch with her. “I wanted a very simple and clean website that would represent my organic style of photography and offer potential clients an easy way to navigate and enjoy my photographs,” she says. “I had a clear vision of what I wanted and, when I decided
to work with a designer, it was really about finetuning it. I approached Bay Media Design – Duey Tam’s expertise helped me achieve exactly what I wanted.”

Unlike other businesses that have scaled back – or worse, shut – this year, Martina says she received a lot of bookings amid the social distancing measures. She believes the stay-at-home setup has made many families realise the beauty of quality time – and seek her help in preserving those precious memories.

The home-decor provider
In describing Red Velvet Designs (www.redvel vetdesigns.net), six-year DB resident Kavita Mathur says simply, “It’s a product of my love for all things beautiful.” A self-professed “house-proud person,” Kavita saw a huge potential for the home products market when she first moved to Hong Kong, as “everything seemed overpriced and inconvenient to shop.” Fast forward to the present, and her online collection encompasses both bespoke and off-the-shelf products produced in Vietnam, India and China. “The potential for an online business is immense, keeping in view the increasing overheads, especially rental, in running a traditional store-based business,” Kavita says.

Initially Red Velvet was exclusively Facebook-based, and the business thrived up to a point. “Facebook is an amazing platform for small businesses to connect with their diverse and dispersed customer base, and it helps increase visibility and marketability,” Kavita says. “It’s still my go-to marketing tool but by 2019 I was ready to set up a website, so I could grow from being a localised business to a regional one, tapping into the larger South East Asian market.”

Asked what a website gives her that Facebook doesn’t, Kavita says, “Ninety-three percent of purchase decisions start with a web search engine. A website instantly tells your customers you are ‘for real,’ and you come across more professional. It’s all about shopping with ease; having an online e-commerce website is the most important part of any online/digital brand in today’s times. “I would say a website’s most useful feature is definitely its ‘no human interference’ approach to the retail industry,” Kavita adds. “On Facebook, it’s about one-to-one selling – I still do that but it’s very personalised and it takes a lot of work.”

Kavita describes setting up her website as a labour of love. “I spent nights writing the content myself because I know my product better than anyone, and I did all my photoshoots myself,” she says. “It was delightful to select layouts and create an online vision of what I wanted my customers to experience when they entered the Red Velvet store. I was also able to include a blog, in which I provide expert advice on everything from getting the most out of candles to carpet placement.”

Kavita found herself stuck in India (at her family home) during lockdown, and she admits that she’s struggled with the logistics of that. “I was not physically present to send out shipments and do the necessary quality checks, and I suffered some losses due to negligence,” she says. “Added to which, I’ve had to put my new collection on hold. But I have very reliable and cooperative suppliers and excellent warehousing facilities… My learning from this experience has been that I can work from anywhere, and now
with positivity.

“My business took a hit at the beginning of 2020, which completely threw me off. But March came, and along with Spring, the business began to bloom,” Kavita concludes. “When people are not comfortable to venture out to shop, finding good products online is convenient for them.”

The artist
A prominent multi-disciplinary artist showing at major exhibitions like Art Central and the Affordable Art Fair, Eleanor McColl doesn’t rely on her website to generate sales.
“If somebody bumped into me and said, ‘Oh you’re an artist, can I see your work?’ And I said, ‘Sure, here’s my website…’ Maybe they’d look, maybe they wouldn’t,” she opens.
“Generally, people don’t buy a huge painting in oil on a website. They want to go to the artist’s studio or they want to go to a gallery and see it.”

Nevertheless, Eleanor McColl Art (www. eleanormccoll.com) is anything but a blank canvas. Eleanor’s original artwork (paintings, mixed media and photomontage) isn’t the only thing on offer. The art educator and mother of three also uses the site to promote her art retreats, and the art courses she provides (for kids and adults) at her DB studio. And fans of her work have the opportunity to shop her wide range of prints and art gifts online.

“I’ve had many different websites over the years,” the 11-year DB resident says with a slightly rueful laugh. “Honestly, I feel like I’ve changed it every two years – it always needs improving and updating. I used to have it designed by someone else but, when all the amazing new software came out, I started doing it myself.”

Interestingly, it’s only in the last year, since Eleanor started selling her products online, that she says her website has really begun to work for her. These days, in order to justify the cost of an online shop, she actively invests the time to drive traffic to her site. “There’s no point in having a website if you’re just going to sit there,” she says. “It’s been a real learning curve but I’ve finally got my head around the selling side of it.”

Being an artist in residence at schools across Hong Kong is another major part of Eleanor’s business and, during lockdown, with schools temporarily shut, she took the opportunity to move some of her classes online.

“Teaching online, you have to be extra energetic,” she says with a laugh. “It was exhausting, I have to say. But it was brilliant. I’ve had amazing feedback and I’ve enjoyed teaching technical skills online.”

The experience has in fact encouraged Eleanor to expand the digital side of her business. “I’ll do an online painting course and an online mixed-media course, for sure,” she says.“And I’ll teach the whole online thing… how to bring your business online.

“Lockdown has shown me that if we ever leave Hong Kong, I’ll still be able to reach people,” Eleanor concludes. “In my business, I work with people in real-life situations always, but I know now that I can definitely run a business online from anywhere in the world. I think that’s been a really good lesson.”

Find it
Eleanor McColl Art, www.eleanormccoll.com
Martina Stevens Photography, www.martinastevensphotography.com
Red Velvet Designs, www.redvelvetdesigns.net

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