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    Open E: Thank You For Helping Build Our Progressive Jewish Gifts Shop

    It's nearing the end of January and I'm just now recovering from the Hanukkah season. Phew. With the last minute acquisition of Pop Judaica right before the Holiday season, it was a wild ride.

    First and foremost, I want to express my gratitude toward our employees. ModernTribe could not have made it without Tiffany, Patrick, and Bart and I am eternally grateful for their magnificent loyalty and dedication. I'm not exaggerating: there were many days when they worked until midnight getting packages out and doing all the hundreds of things it takes to make this business run.

    Thank you, customers, business partners, friends and family for helping us move forward toward our goal of providing identity-strengthening Jewish products. We grew significantly in our quest to make Judaica fresh, exciting and accessible to youthful Jews and to those not necessarily religious or traditional. There were also many set backs, but lessons are learned and thankfully our diversity of strengths help us bounce back from our mistakes and losses.

    We found wonderful partners in the Jewish community, special thanks to: Limmud South East, Lisa Alcalay Klug, Jewlicious/ JConnectLA, Jewish Woman International and Meredith Jacobs, Jewcy.com and JDub Records. All of these organizations (people, in case of Lisa) are stellar contributors to Jewish American culture and wonderful friends of ModernTribe. We look forward to strengthening our bonds as we continue to grow.

    Of course, thank you, thank you, thank you to our customers for whom we exist. We served thousands of you this year and, we hope, most of you have been thrilled with your purchases and customer service from ModernTribe. Thank you for your emails and phone calls of praise and also of criticism. Yes, we've made some mistakes: sent the wrong package, inadvertently mis-represented an item on the website, failed to meet your service expectations, and others. We take our mistakes seriously and are always working to improve our processes so that we can reduce human-error. Also, one thing you should feel secure about: if we make a mistake we will always do whatever we can to make things right for you. Thank you for your continued support and patronage.

    Finally, and most importantly, thank you to my husband, Webb Roberts, whose unyielding support is, at times, so overwhelming it makes me want to cry. He not only has allowed us, as a family, to take significant (scary) financial risks, but listens and discusses the big issues (and the insignificant rabbit holes I sometimes fall into) with patience and wisdom.

    Shalom to all. We look forward to 2010.

    Open E: ModernTribe's Best & Worst of 2008

    In the spirit of the Open Source software movement, I'm sharing my learning as an e-commerce entrepreneur. 2008 was an incredible year for ModernTribe.com and No Limit Texas Dreidel. Our first full year in operation was filled with triumphs, mistakes and exponential learning. Here are some of the best & worst, biggest flubs and greatest wins of 2008:

    Best Marketing ROI (return on investment):

    Direct mailing of postcards to media resulting in editorial in the Los Angeles Times, B'nai B'rith Magazine, and more. Approximate Cost: $500. Estimated ROI 5-10x!


    Most Exciting Unexpected Editorial:

    Inclusion in Newsweek's holiday gift guide which we found out about through a customer. We didn't believe him and then he scanned in the page and emailed it to us.


    Biggest Advertising Disappointments:

    With the sad closing of Jewish Living Magazine we lost our banner ad, some great editorial links, and an editorial feature of our Stainless Steel Scroll Menorah. Also, the Google Jump Start program conducted during Passover was a blood bath: our $116 average purchase cost us $93 (that means each $46 gross profit, cost us $163 to generate -- ouch!)


    Best Buying Decision:

    Listening to a product rep and stocking the best sellers from the line including the Jumbo Glitter Crystal Balls.


    Biggest Supplier Nightmare:

    Selling 80 Peace Sign Menorahs over the weekend and then finding out our order from the manufacturer wasn't coming.


    Biggest Buying Mistake:

    Not paying attention to an invoice and missing that an artist increased his wholesale price 40%. (The dollar's weakness against the shekel was part of the reason why). I'd set and advertised the retail price, based on the original wholesale price.


    Biggest Manufacturing Triumph:

    When the No Limit Texas Dreidel games were late, insisting that a small amount be air shipped to fulfill a large customer's order.


    Second Biggest Manufacturing Triumph:

    Games arrived in pretty good condition, pretty much as specified, and late but early enough not to miss the season. (In manufacturing, this mediocre result is a triumph).


    Biggest Manufacturing Mistake:

    Failing to get a detailed, complete price quote in writing resulting in us paying $1400 for production molds we had understood were part of the per piece price.


    Biggest Heart Attack Moment:

    Getting a call from "The View" and then finding out they were looking for one of our suppliers, not us.


    Biggest Heart Attack Moment II:

    Getting a call from NPR and finding out they were looking for us!


    Biggest Serendipity:

    Erica with her complimentary skills and geographic desirability became a business partner after getting a gift from ModernTribe.com from her mother.


    Best Unofficial (and Unpaid) Business Partners To Whom ModernTribe Owes Big Thanks:

    My husband Webb contributes his smarts and talents to nearly every aspect of the business. Todd, Erica's husband, manages our intellectual property. Jill, Jeremy's wife, edits and contributes to the blog (and just started her own editing/writing business). Mike Weiser and Beth Shapiro of Donner, Weiser and Associates provide excellent accounting services and advice. Brian gives his opinions freely about our ads, influenced our design direction considerably and gave us the lead for the Time Out New York editorial that lead to one of our biggest sellers of the season: Mix Tape USB Stick. Meredith Jacobs included No Limit Texas Dreidel in her TV show on The Jewish Channel, named for her book and her website: Modern Jewish Mom, and talked about us on DC radio. Lauren is always looking out for PR opportunities for us and introduced me to HARO, my favorite PR tool. Christy hooked us up with two Pittsburgh retailers who sold No Limit Texas Dreidel. My mom, our loyal customers, and many others have helped make 2008 a success for ModernTribe. To all of you, my most sincere thank you!

    Open E: Starting An E-Commerce Website

    This is the second post in a series called "Open E at MT." In the spirit of the Open Source software movement, I'll be openly sharing my learning experiences at an e-commerce entrepreneur.

    Choosing Your Business Name URL.
    Judaica Modern was second runner for the name of the website now called ModernTribe -- and strongly lobbied for by my dear friend Reid. After learning so much about Search Engine Optimization (SEO), it may have been a better choice. That's because it has "Judaica" in the URL which weighs heavy for Google -- try searching for Judaica. You'll see that most top ranking sites have Judaica in the url but not much else going for them. For example, the third ranked site has a note on the home page about being closed for Passover! which was in April! But ModernTribe, I thought, would make a much better t-shirt. Oh if I only knew then...

    Fun Fact: ModernTribe.com was owned by one of those internet bottom-dweller conglomerates who squat on thousands of domain names. The asking price was $1800 and I negotiated them down to $500.

    You'll Need Two Kinds of Help to Build Your Site
    You almost always need someone who will make your site look pretty: a graphic designer. These days it's not enough to know some html to create a good looking site. Sometimes you will also need a systems programmer. Some people say they are good at both design and programming. Be skeptical. Which type of help you need depends on the solution you choose for your website platform.

    Choosing Your Website Platform is One of the Biggest Decisions You'll Make
    Platforms are time-consuming and expensive to change so you've got to weigh the options carefully. Below are the four main choices you've got. Once you decide among one of these four approaches, you'll still need to narrow down to the particular what. But making the decision among one of these below is a good start.

    Lease a site. Yahoo Shopping sites are an example. You pay a monthly fee to use their system which is hosted for you. The disadvantages are (1) the monthly fee and usually a percentage of gross sales and (2) although you can customize the look -- meaning -- you can pay a graphic designer to customize the look for you, the functionality of the system is whatever they offer. The advantages are (1) it's cheap and easy to get started and (2) the system is maintained and upgraded (I assume). Nexternal is another brand of site leasing.

    Buy a solution to configure and host yourself. X-Cart is an example. You pay upfront for the software (X-Cart Gold is $229), upload the software and configure your site yourself. X-Cart says you don't need any knowledge of php (the programming language) to get it up and running. Yah. But you'd have to pay a programmer and/or graphic designer to customize it if you want unique look or function. Advantages are that there are no monthly fees or transaction fees, you can get the customization you want if you are willing to pay for it, and there is company support and a community of users around the solution.

    Get an Open Source solution such as OSCommerce. Similar to buying a solution but you don't pay for any software. However, you wouldn't attempt to install and configure this puppy yourself unless you are a programmer -- ever -- just try following the forum posts, and there is no company support because there is no company. Instead there is large community support for your programmer. You would hire a programmer to create your site using the open source solution and you'd hire a graphic designer to work with the programmer.

    Build it yourself. For completely customized function and look you can hire a programmer and graphic designer and go for it! This requires a lot of planning and specification writing and a general masochistic outlook. This is how we built ModernTribe. Advantages are big: you get what you want (or at least you try) and you own the site. Disadvantages are big too: you pay up front and age quickly -- both you and your website. You have to always be maintaining and upgrading. You become as dependent on your programmer as an infant to his mother. And on that note, I'll say goodnight, as I need to go email my programmer.

    Introducing "Open E at MT"

    Dear Readers,

    Early last year I came across an Israeli designer, Ronen Kadushin, who started Open Design inspired by the Open Source software movement; Ronen develops "blueprints" for products and then posts them on the internet for anyone to put into production. I loved the idea and thought something similar could be done with e-commerce.

    So I am going to attempt a bit of "Open E" and share with you some of ModernTribe's challenges. Delving into e-commerce has been a fascinating learning experience for me and I thought many of you may enjoy hearing about this wild-west frontier of retail.

    So here goes the first installment of a series of "Open E at MT."

    A dose of e-retail-ality: third party warehouses make money by making mistakes.

    When I started this business it was only me -- and necessarily, I hired a third-party warehouse to store and ship our products to you. Order fulfillment is a lucrative and growing industry but finding a good one is like finding a good builder (good luck!)

    Our warehouse considered themselves industrial systems geniuses because they stuck SKU (stock keeping unit) stickers everywhere (and to my dismay, right across our logo). Even so, several times, they sent "My Own Chanukah Set" instead of "My Own Shabbat Set" and the washing cup instead of the kiddush cup. It came astonishingly clear that the warehouse was rewarded every time it made a mistake. Each re-shipment resulted in more revenue for them: another set of "pick" fees (per item charges for picking products off the warehouse shelves), pack, and ship fees, and also customer service time.

    Our warehouse charged for customer service in increments of 15 minutes, like a lawyer. So if I picked up the phone to tell them to re-send the correct product ("the Shabbat set has 'S-H-A-B-B-A-T' written on the box...") we had incurred 15 minutes customer service time. Of course I tried to dispute the charges but we are talking about thousands of transactions all billed at the end of the month. Business school grads will appreciate this factoid: our warehouse and fulfillment charges were 1/3 of our gross sales for December, 2007. Hard P&L pill to swallow, yes?

    When Erica joined ModernTribe our own warehouse seemed within reach. Several working weekends later we created our ModernTribe warehouse and have been very pleased. We even found a warehouse manager, Tiffany, who has experience in e-commerce working for another niche business, an Australian catalog. Now you can get more flexibility regarding your requests for changes to orders or shipping service -- just call or email us. And now you can tell when your MT order arrives because the box has ModernTribe on it instead of the name of the third-party warehouse. Yes, we still make mistakes -- but at least our incentive is to try very hard not to! Then we can make corrections more quickly and include a consolation free-be without incurring an additional "pick" charge!

    More Open E at MT coming soon! Tell me what you think about Open E-- like it/hate it/meh?