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How My eCommerce School Supplies Business reached 6-digits in 4 years

It was my family’s vision to create a bookstore that every parent would desire for their kids. The name of the business was actually inspired by the shape of our first rented store. It was back in 1991, in a small square space, just 25 s.m, when the idea struck my mother like a thunder: In Greek “Tetragono” means square, hence, the name of the business was for. In 2015, when I decided to build the eCommerce store of this business, having 2 stores and more than 1.0000 square meters, I wanted to honor them so I purchased the same domain name, although at the start I was tempted to launch it as a completely separate business unit.

Not 100% sure actually, since our site was far too new to also attract organic clicks! Probably they came from our social media posts or our blog’s content which we promoted. We launched in September 2015 and that month we got something 9 orders, made €369 and 2/9 orders came from the same customer. That was almost 22% retention (Haha)! We were pretty excited, yet our site was freakingly slow, that’s all I remember!

Did you have any experience/expertise in the area?

I’ve been helping at the bookstore’s warehouse since my 15’s, spending my summers there to “learn the job”. I gradually got experience from sales as well and later on, when I got into university, I started experimenting with the business’ marketing as well. So, I’ve been in book & school supplies retailing almost half of my life. It was pretty easy for me to identify the opportunities we had to differentiate from our competitors and raise the bar of the industry.

Have you raised any money? How much?

Nope, the business was and still is bootstrapping. The truth is that since that was my experiment to try to get my family business online and test my skills in eCommerce. I knew that I had to go solo. Plus, a retail eCommerce business is rarely attractive for a VC.

Who is your target demographic?

Active parents of pre-schoolers and/or children at elementary school, who are between 30-45 years old, highly educated & who enjoy DIY & events for kids.

It is not a funny story, but an intense one. We always offer free gift wrapping when a customer asks for it. Sometimes, when we know that the receiver will be a child, we also do some “custom gift-wrapping,” making it a little more special. People, especially parents, usually get excited since they are not used to it. However, there was a big school order we had to fulfill (lead from a very excited customer) and they asked us to do our custom gift wrapping for the whole school. I remember it took us nearly 2 days to finish it but eventually, we made custom gift wrapping for a whole school (212 children!).

How did you fund the idea initially?

We made a “family deal”: As long as my input would be my skills and the know-how to build an eCommerce venture from scratch, my co-founder and I would be the sole equity holders. So till we turned profitable, any of the expenses we couldn’t afford to pay for ourselves (salaries, courier costs, cost of the products etc), would be covered by the “mother” company. My father knew very well that if his business didn’t go online soon, he would be doomed since competition and conditions were much tougher in an economy in recession for almost 10 years. In fact, in order to make this work and be able to pay for the employees, we both also got day jobs.

Where did you meet your co-founder/founding team?

My co-founder in this was something like “no brainer” for me since we already had co-founded 2 other startups together in the past. Spiros (Xenos) who happens to be my cousin as well, was like my role model: fast-learner, doer, a true hustler. The fact that he is family was just a plus for me, his skills were much more important to admire. For example, on our 2nd startup (tizU), he learned how to code from scratch within a summer in order to be able to build the prototype. I will always respect him deeply for such deeds and achievements.

Any tips for finding first employees?

Focus on the values and mentality rather than skills. Once you feel you’ve found a candidate that matches your company culture, try to be straight forward to what you are trying to build, your vision, how you will build it, what kind of people you search for and how you are different from the rest. Highly motivated people like to work for a “different” company so this will make an impact on choosing you. Last but not least, the most important factor to find dedicated people to work for your vision, is to try to create a coherent brand culture in it. For example, we knew that the average standards of customer service in our industry were low to medium. So, we knew that if we managed to offer “extraordinary” customer service, we would differentiate our brand from our competitors.

In retail, when you don’t have white label products as an option to make you unique, you need to give a reason for the consumer to pick you. For us, this reason was Customer Experience. However, to offer an excellent Customer Experience you need to have happy employees working for you. So, it was pretty clear: since a stellar CX was our goal to initially trigger our growth, we offer a bonus for every 5-star customer review we collect from day 1. This way our vision was reflected and bound within our processes and we could hustle to achieve it altogether.

What motivated you to start your own business?

The case was simple: Back in 2015, we had just shut down our 2nd (failed) startup and we were completely broke. In fact, we turned to freelance projects to get some cash but both of our first 2 customers never paid us (one US-based company and a rap celebrity). So after this incident and a few panic attacks, we were broke for sure. All we had left was my parents’ business which although it was doing ok, would go out of the game soon without a good eCommerce website.

What were your family and friends first thoughts on your company?

They were all impatient actually! My family knew that it would be a game over for their 25-year retail businessunless we built the eCommerce venture, while my friends knew that I got really frustrated by my previous (startup) failures, so this time they were certain that I was determined to make this work. Both of them (family & friends), by the way, have funded our previous startup - without even asking them to - so I feel really lucky and blessed for having people like them in my life.

What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?

It’s your numbers. When times are hard, the biggest dope for me is clearly what we’ve achieved so far. It reminds me of my journey, the people who believed in me all time along and my promise. That I won’t stop till I make it work. Generally, I strongly believe that you need to remember how you began to help you stay down to earth and feel happy. We shouldn’t do this only when things go wrong. We should do this every night when we go to bed.

What has driven the most sales?

Our #1 revenue channel is price comparison sites which are a characteristic of the market we do business in. (Greece) They account for ~68% of our revenue, followed by the Organic channel which brought 21% of our revenue and currently is our top-grossing channel (it grows with 160% YoY growth in revenue the first two months of 2020).

It’s definitely the shortage of liquidity that is stopping use from being 3x the size we are now. Because of the fact that our eCommerce business has to support financially the liabilities of the mother company, this prevents us from hiring more people, as quickly as we would like to. This is a cruel reality we must live with, like most of the businesses in a recovering economy.

How do you protect yourself from competition?

We focus on two things: Customer Experience & Innovation. People, remember how you made them feel and competitors cannot catch you if you run faster than they do. There are lots of competitors who copy our tactics and our content but we always try to be a step ahead. In 2019, for example, we became the 1st business in Greece launching a branded School Bag Warranty which actually provided extra safety to parents (our core customer persona). We try to launch a new school-related innovation every year.

What are the top 3-5 apps your business could not run without?

Google Drive suite (google sheets), Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and Trello.We work heavily on spreadsheets both for data entry, project management and reporting purposes so Google Drive as a whole is super important for us. Plus we never skip our reporting meetings in order to be able to identify our growth channels and detect and resolve our problems, so both GA & GSC are vital for us to achieve this.

What are your favourite books?

The Four Steps to the Epiphany (Steve Blank), The Art of War (Sun Tzu), The Prince (Machiavelli)

What are your next steps?

One of the biggest pains of the parent is the back to school queues every September. We are preparing something to solve this for our customers.

Hopefully in 5 years, we want to be the top online retailer in school supplies in Greece, both in terms of revenue and content generated, selling through Amazon and shipping worldwide as well.

In 2019 we reached ~€168,000 in sales, ~73% coming from online orders & ~27% from phone sales. (That was +65% YoY growth). Right now, the first 2 months of 2020, our online sales grow with 69% YoY growth in revenue, being really really excited about this year.

Company Name:
Founder: Apostolis Lianos



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