A Christmas startup story – Gareth Mitchell of Tree2MyDoor

How a Christmas present idea turned into a flourishing business with one or two festive highs and lows along the way: an interview with Gareth Mitchell of Tree2MyDoor.co.uk

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24th December 2009 at 2:50 pm

When I spoke to Gareth Mitchell the founder of online tree gift company Tree2MyDoor.com, he was juggling orders and delivery times in the pre-Christmas rush to cope with the snow disruption enveloping the UK.

A challenge for the largest of online retailers, but one which Gareth, a seasoned online entrepreneur who has circumnavigated ups and downs way more treacherous than a bit of wintry weather, was clearly dealing with adeptly.

And it’s been a good year for Tree2MyDoor. Seasonal sales are up 25% in 2009 and as an Ambassador for Enterprise UK, Gareth’s personal and business profile continue to rise.

The Startup Spark

But Christmas isn’t just a typically seasonal peak time for his business, it’s the anniversary of the idea that prompted the Tree2MyDoor founder to quit his marketing job and begin his entrepreneurial journey.

Living in London back in 2000, missing his parents in Northern Ireland, Gareth wanted to send them something special and lasting for Christmas rather than the last minute booze and flowers.

What better gift, he thought, than two beautiful fruit trees they could plant, see grow and flourish year-on-year.

Turning to the internet for a quick and easy way to order them, Gareth rapidly realised nobody was offering such a service, which planted a seed in his mind.

Anyone For A Christmas Tree?

Gareth Mitchell of Tree2MyDoor.com

Gareth Mitchell's festive startup is now a flourshing business

A year or so later, Gareth was living in Manchester and decided to sell Christmas trees online and via a big leafleting campaign. He thought it would be the perfect way to pull in some cash to bootstrap the launch of Trees2MyDoor, having set up an early e-commerce site with a friend.

In fact, the idea went pear shaped like the fruit surrounding the partridge in the seasonal song.

Having blown his savings, he returned to a cold Manchester flat, stuffed with unsold firs, boxes, leaflets and the detritus of a poorly planned business opportunity and went to sleep.

As Gareth says:

I just thought Oh, what have I done? So I ended up leaving everything. Slept on it, got up the next morning and then said, right time to pull your socks up Mr Mitchell.

Doing It Right

For the next 10 months, Gareth planned, sought advice from business organisations and secured start-up funding including a loan from the Prince’s Trust.

Version two of Trees2MyDoor.com rapidly began to take off and the company has now developed strong relationships with tree suppliers, designed patent-pending packaging and has an e-commerce strategy that’s delivering upwards of 30,000 unique visitors a month, with an 8% conversion rate to sale at peak periods.

I asked Gareth how he’d achieved this:

We turned our back on copy that didn’t make any sense, keyword stuffing and so on, focusing on clear, well written content about what we had to offer. From there we also began to get lots of links from the press and other websites.  The resulting PR and profile has been really worthwhile.

Socialising E-Commerce

The Tree2MyDoor.com approach is a natural one online and off.  Traffic has been built by developing quality content to attract in-bound links and an eagle-eyed focus on the flow of the site based on analysis of behaviour as visitors reach certain pages.

Common sense perhaps, but plans to develop content specialising on practical advice about trees, and developing an online community of customers sharing tips, photos and video, highlight an evolving online strategy and a deep-seated environmental ethic:

Hopefully, we’ll enable loads more trees to be planted and get those people into the mindset of doing a little bit more to focus on the importance of trees.  We’d like to be a gateway to empower people to become more involved in improving their environment.

A worthy goal indeed.  Encouraging individuals to change what they do and get involved in a practical way with environmental issues as a result of a much loved gift makes a lot sense.

But it’s also a sign of how online businesses are adapting to become more than ‘just another home-based shopping cart’ idea.

Increasingly online e-commerce brands are looking to add valuable niche content, adapt to a more social web, and build in campaigns or beliefs that will mark them out.

Tree2MyDoor is doing that and, in my opinion, it’s very much a trend we’ll see more of in 2010.

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Alex is the founder and editor of SmallBizPod, the UK's first podcast dedicated to small business, start-ups and entrepreneurship. Alex writes about topical small business issues, entrepreneurs and anything else that catches his eye here on the small business blog. http://www.smallbizpod.co.uk

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