Categorized | Shoestring Startup

Castle Ink Mompreneur Starts Home-based Business on Shoestring Budget

Lauren Elward

Lauren Elward is not a typical housewife. The mother of two, and current CEO of Castle Ink (http://www.castleink.com), got her start in education, having served as a high school English teacher for several years. Five years ago when she wasn’t creating lesson plans, Elward started to draw up business plans for an online venture. Nearly a year later Elward took the reins of Castle Ink, a fledgling Internet startup that sells low cost, earth friendly printer ink cartridges and laser toner.

As with most teachers, Elward found herself buying HP ink cartridges for her printer at least once per month. “The copy machines were often broken and I found myself having to use my own money to print and copy lessons from my home printer. With no venture capital, a time consuming day job, and a baby on the way, Elward set her sights on launching a website that offered alternatives to the high priced ink cartridges offered from name brands like HP, Canon, and Epson.

Leveraging just a single credit card, Elward started her online business by purchasing a domain name and hosting package, and then enlisting a $10-per-hour-designer that she found on ODesk. She then spent weeks scouring the internet, seeking out a reputable vendor that offered superior ink and toner products. According to Elward, this was actually the hardest part of starting the business.

As Elward envisioned her product line she knew that she needed something significant to differentiate her offering from all the other products in the crowded ink space. She decided to launch a product line that consisted almost entirely of green products; specifically remanufactured toner and ink cartridges. “It is important to help the environment and I realized that recycling these empty ink cartridges is easy, profitable and environmentally beneficial. It helps reduce solid waste, conserves raw materials and the energy needed to produce a new product. Most cartridges can be recycled up to six times,” states Elward. In addition to offering remanufactured (and some compatible) ink cartridges, Elward launched a successful recycling program in conjunction with a partner business. The recycling program encourages consumers and businesses to recycle their used ink cartridges by actually paying them cash in exchange for their empty cartridges. Once she decided on a product, she got to work on a marketing strategy.

Given her lack of capital Elward realized that she needed to come up with low cost ways to promote her new business. “My husband, who works in Internet marketing, helped me immensely to understand the process and from there I utilized my free time to learn everything I could,” states Elward. Just by reading online articles and following discussion groups and blogs she amassed an extensive knowledge of the art of optimizing a site to maximize traffic from search engines (a discipline known as SEO). The biggest “hit” for Castle Ink has been the effective implementation of search engine optimization, especially on Google. A quick search on Google for “ink cartridges” reveals the Castle Ink listing toward the very top of the search results, ahead of many multimillion-dollar organizations. What really makes this a “hit” is that she manages to do this without spending more than $1,000 a year in total marketing. To this day, Castle Ink still relies on organic search engines for the overwhelming majority of traffic.

The focus of Castle Ink since its inception has been servicing the customer. “I realized with so much competition in the online ink cartridge retailer space that I needed something to differentiate Castle Ink,” states Elward. In addition to customer service, Elward manages to keep prices low and competitive. She implemented a 100% satisfaction guarantee, which allows customers to return the products for a full refund if they are not completely satisfied with the quality. Elward credits both a reliable drop shipper and supplier, who handle all aspects of shipping the products, to her success.

Castle Ink continues to thrive despite economic conditions. Sales in 2010 more than doubled from the previous year and only a quarter into the new year, Castle Ink is sustaining that growth. The economy seems to be working in Castle Ink’s favor. Both big businesses and consumers are realizing the savings by using remanufactured ink cartridges. In fact, Castle Ink has focused attention on small businesses and school districts. The average order size on a business or school order is much larger than a typical consumer order, so Castle Ink is working hard to get established in this new market. Without even spending marketing dollars on attracting business customers Castle Ink has already inked deals with two national businesses, and hopes to sign on two more this quarter. Expectations are that revenues top one million this year.

Elward, a clear underdog, turned a small idea into a solid business when she launched Castle Ink. The stay-at-home mom proves that even with just a shoestring budget there is significant money to be made on the Internet.

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