The Novice Who Tamed The Web

The secret to cyberprofits is finding the right niche

Susanne St. Amant has what every online entrepreneur wants but few have found: profits. Despite rapid growth in Web use, even big players such as bookseller have had trouble cracking the bottom line. But this 36-year-old Canadian is selling Japanese kitsch at 50% margins on sales that grew from $1,200 last October to $9,800 in April. "It's kind of bizarre, eh?" she muses. "I didn't even look for it, and it happened. It's a dream job."

Granted, $10,000 per month isn't bucketloads, but it's more than a drop in the bucket of family income. And she gets another important thing: time at home with her two kids, Andre, 9, and Danielle, 7, which is why she started her business, Moon Kingdom, last June.

So how does an Ottawa civil servant with no experience in business or computers gross $63,000 her first 11 months in "etail"? St. Amant modestly claims luck. While she may have tumbled into a perfect niche, she also did extensive research. And she takes a Scrooge-like approach to costs but not to customers or suppliers.

It started in February, '96, when her brother got her hooked on the Net. "It was surf, surf, surf until 3 a.m.," she laughs. Cruising cybermalls, she realized an etail store could give her time at home. She began poring over trade magazines for the right product.

In the end, Andre and Danielle inspired her choice. Big fans of the TV cartoon Sailor Moon, they bugged her for T-shirts, notebooks, and other licensed merchandise. A Japanese import, Sailor Moon features impossibly long-legged, saucer-eyed schoolgirls who battle evil with magic tiaras. In Japan, it's bigger than Power Rangers but never caught on in the U.S. (though it did better in Canada). "It's good to hear somebody is profiting from it," says Joan Cato of lunchbox-maker Aladdin Industries, which will let its Sailor Moon license expire this year. "It was a terrible flop." That's why St. Amant couldn't find anyone selling the stuff. Although loyal, the show's following is too small and dispersed for bigger merchandisers. It was an ideal niche.

BARE BONES. Even so, she wasn't sure it would work. With little capital or storage space, she refused to buy in bulk. Some distributors couldn't be bothered and treated her "like garbage," she says. But others, like Aaron Clark, the 26-year-old CEO of Inotrend Inc., was willing to take a flyer. Clark creates posters that "talk," with a technology he patented. He was glad to move his leftover Sailor Moon products. He also enjoys handling her orders personally, as when a disappointed birthday girl called him about a lost order. "I knew my poster was going up in that little girl's room where she'd push the talking button all day long," he says. "For an inventor, that's great."

St. Amant's tightwad approach didn't stop with suppliers. She paid an acquaintance $40 an hour to design her Web page, but considered even that too expensive for maintaining it. Now her husband updates the bare-bones site. There are no bulletin boards or chat groups for fans, no information such as the news that the show may be back on the USA Network this fall. Her "site" is essentially an online order form. She shaves pennies by recycling shipping boxes from grocery stores and bubble-wrap envelopes from her neighbors. "It's my husband the accountant who put that in me," she says.

There are hundreds of Sailor Moon Web pages, but few sell products. Some 40,000 surfers have visited Moon Kingdom since St. Amant started last June. Orders come from as far away as Switzerland, although 95% of her sales are in the U.S. Her customers are parents and college students, and she treats them well, sometimes tossing in freebies. She'll even fight FedEx to get customers refunds when shipments are late.

That attitude wins her repeat customers and great word-of-mouth. Donna Nilsen got extra stickers with her first order, and has referred friends to Moon Kingdom. "I like Susanne's business style," says the Springfield (Mass.) mother of two. Cyndee Lord, mother of three rabid fans, aged 4 to 7, always shops at Moon Kingdom first. "Susanne keeps track of what you want and looks for things," the 38-year-old North Ridge (Calif.) resident says. Both Nilsen and Lord confess to having spent more than $500 on Moon Kingdom stuff. All that business is making the St. Amant home life a little chaotic. Although she now rents space in a neighbor's basement, there are 400 books stacked in the foyer and 300 T-shirts on the office floor.

St. Amant did it for her kids, and she's using her business to teach them. They have their own line of merchandise (DragonBall Z, another Japanese cartoon) on a separate catalog site. St. Amant does much of the work, but Andre and Danielle select products and check inventory. They've made about $750 since February. "It's better than delivering papers," their mother says. "It's safer, and the money's better."

From a total Net neophyte last year, St. Amant has become something of an expert in her hometown of Leamington, Ont. An Ottawa travel agency has asked her to run its Web site for a cut of the action. She knows Sailor Moon may not last forever, so she's branching into other ventures both online and off. Meanwhile, she's happy. She may be a stay-at-home mom, but she hasn't ironed a shirt since April--she sends them out.

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