Last Updated on by Catherine Tobsing
Windy City Parrot was started in 1993 by Catherine Tobsing. Until New Year’s Eve 2001, Windy City Parrot’s revenue was from bird shows. Bird shows are where vendors congregate in venues from a school gymnasium to shopping malls and they sell their bird related items to the public.
After 9/11 attendance to bird shows began to dwindle and Catherine partnered with a parrot customer who developed small websites exchanging goods and services for the development of the first windycityparrot.net site. The site was launched early January 1, 2002 it received its first order five hours later. Google was much more tolerant back then allowing new sites to be found more easily than today. (In 2002 Google would “spider” or find your site as soon as it came on line. Today, a site will will be ignored for at least 6 months – this is called the “sand box” and unless you take a very proactive approach to getting found on the web, your new site will be ignored). Eight years of bird shows created a customer base that began to buy from Catherine online immediately.
Catherine met Mitch Rezman her current partner (and now husband) in the spring of 2002. The first year Mitch helped Catherine do her bird shows as time allowed (about 30 weekends a year) and joined her in business full-time in the fall of 2003. By that time Catherine’s apartment was beginning to get crowded with merchandise as the website began to gain traction. In spite of having a large retail storage unit it was clear that retail and work space needed to be rented.
In October 2003 we acquired our first 1500 square-foot retail space on Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square. Mitch and Catherine were now living together and the new retail space was two blocks from our apartment. Response from Chicago area pet owners was overwhelming. And six months after moving in, we had acquired another thousand square feet next-door and broke through the wall between the two spaces joining them.
While growing the website we were also growing a retail market locally by holding “open houses” on a monthly basis inviting bird owners, veterinarians, Bird Rescues, behaviorists, and guest speakers. At its peak we would have 300 human visitors and more than 100 visiting birds on a Sunday afternoon. We were growing so rapidly that we acquired another 7000 square feet of retail space from the same landlord three doors down in May of 2004.
Towards the end of 2004 we consolidated space and gave up the first two units and moved everything into the now newly remodeled 7000 square-foot retail area. We were growing rapidly and had revenue from bird shows, the Internet and store retail sales. We borrowed all the money we could to invest in inventory. At the same time one of the last major manufacturers of bird toys in the United States, XTC Fine Feathered Friends in Palatine Illinois went bankrupt. We purchased roughly $50-$60,000 (retail) worth of toy making components and toy assembly machinery for cash. To put things in perspective this was two 22 foot trucks filled to capacity with crates of bird toy making supplies.
A sense of unstoppable success came to a screeching halt June 23rd 2005. We were taking a much needed day off having worked seven days a week for about two months to take a day long motorcycle ride. Upon our return, we went to take the motorcycle back to the shop where we kept it. We were met with seemingly 100 pieces of firefighting trucks and equipment and the building in flames. The 5 alarm fire burned for 3 days. The city of Chicago apparently had some sort of issue with the landlords. We never received the complete story but the ATF was involved and our building instantly became a crime scene that we had no access to 14 days.
Both shocked and devastated we went camping for about 10 days to review our future. The business was insured, although under insured so we weren’t sure what our next move would be. Even our personal laptops were at the shop and burned up in the fire so we did not have one computer when we returned. Prior to leaving for our camping trip we sign a contract with a public insurance adjuster to help us through the maze of paperwork needed to recoup our insurance money. We returned from the camping trip and an advance check of several thousand dollars was waiting for us.
We used the money to buy a new computer. Once the computer booted up we had an epiphany. Fortunately we had moved the website from a desktop server that was in an office at the shop to a web-based platform – Miva Merchant. We also been practicing cloud computing by moving all of our data to our website server daily.
Once the computer booted up we dialed into the website, we had a good news/bad news moment. While we were in the woods indulging in self-pity, the website quietly kept taking orders and we had about 120 orders and cash in the bank. That was the good news. The bad news was we had nothing to sell anyone. At that moment we made two major decisions on the spot. We needed to focus on website sales and we needed to learn how to drop ship a lot of merchandise very quickly. We decided that we would no longer do bird shows and focus exclusively on Web sales and concentrate on retail sales.
Our vendors were more than understanding and we were able to begin fulfilling orders from our living room teaching us how to be prolific drop shippers. Working with the public adjuster we did some tap dancing trying to explain to State Farm how an Internet business worked. The State Farm adjuster came out and looked at the building and assumed that we needed to find a new space, remodel space, stock the space and we’d be back in business within six months. After presenting the State Farm adjuster with a stack of orders and our bank statement on the hood of his car from the burned-out store Milwaukee Avenue he wrote us a check on the spot.
We rented storage lockers at the closest business class facility that we could find that had temperature control (for the bird food as it was the middle of summer) and send purchase orders to all of our vendors sending merchandise to the new storage facility address. In less than a week we were fulfilling orders from the driveway of the storage facility. We used folding tables, electrical inverters and a portable desk we created out of the back of the van for computers and printers. Catherine, who does fulfillment, worked outside under the hot sun. We use a satellite uplink to connect with Fedex and our website server in our shipping software.
An additional challenge confronted us. Our now former landlords sued us for for abandoning the spaces. The suit never made sense but we did have to deal with it and spent nine months in Cook County arbitration. Our attorney Jill Rose Quinn negotiated a settlement down but that issue hung over our heads throughout our recovery.
It took all of July and August to find a suitable and affordable facility that we could move into. We spent several weeks negotiating a 50 page lease for a 5000 square-foot unit with 22 foot ceilings at 2007 W. Fulton in Chicago. By early September we had painted the walls, installed computer’s and phones and moved in. We were excited about the move – the landlord had his business upstairs, a Medicaid pharmacy and an in-home Doctor care service. Unfortunately over the next two years we learned the landlord felt he was King of the building. At the time we were stocking hundreds of bird cages. When bird cages ship from distributors they are stacked on pallets to the roof of the semi trailer truck roof. A pallet of bird cages can be as much as 1800 pounds. We acquired a forklift from a neighbor who ran a used forklift store. The landlord regularly blocked our loading dock for 16 months with everything from hundreds of boxes of medical records to dozens of bags of garbage and litter.
We found ourselves leaving our forklift idle and having to move our bird cage boxes and through a narrow 28 inch door regardless of weather. What became more of a problem was the garbage on the loading dock We filed formal complaints with the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago.
It was now 2007 and our combined website revenue & retail store sales was over $900,000 annually. The rat problem had become overwhelming. Based upon our growth pattern assurances from the government that the economy was in great shape we moved into a 15,000 square-foot facility on the West side of Chicago. The landlord was our forklift salesperson who as it turned out owned several large commercial buildings throughout Chicago Metropolitan area. We had a great relationship, he had given us “pay me when you can” terms on the $3000 forklift he sold us and came highly recommended from one of our largest cage vendors.
We abandoned the Fulton space and moved into 4727 W. Walton in April of 2008. As luck would have it this was the cusp of our national financial disaster. The original plan with the space was to have the neighbor on either side of us sublet space from us help to offset the now sizable monthly rent payment. Both neighbors went out of business leaving us with expenses higher than we would’ve liked. To further complicate issues the economy began its tailspin, and our sales reflected that. Entering our first winter in the new unheated space became a major challenge as well. The landlord had originally agreed to provide us with the enclosures within the 15,000 square-foot unheated space but because he had so many commercial tenants abandoning his buildings he ignored our pleas.
As part of our agreement moving into the new space the landlord supplied a 50 foot long double wide fully functional office trailer that we placed inside the warehouse. The trailer supplied us office space but all the inventory and fulfillment was in a large unheated area which forced to build our own temporary fulfillment (shipping) room, with heat at the cost of several thousand dollars. By the time the spring thaw arrived we came to realize that when the trailers were installed, the sewerage pipes from the trailer were flowing into a storm sewer. During the first major thaw in the spring of 2009 we walked in one morning to a flood of human sewage throughout the facility. While inspecting this we also realized the trailers were placed on cinderblocks after having removed the suspension removed to lower them enough to fit inside. The cinderblocks were now crumbling and we were concerned for our overall safety.
We made move number four into our current facility at 906 N. Western out of desperation. Although it is only 900 square-foot with the basement it was three blocks from our home and we felt we could make the space work. The property has a two-story coach house in the rear that was used as a smokehouse for the Ukrainian delicatessen that previously resided in the space we now occupy. Within six months we were able to negotiate rent with our current landlord and reclaim the greasy smokehouse as usable storage and retail space on the first floor. This now gives us a total of 3500 ft.² of clean retail space.
It had been our goal to upgrade our aging website platform to something more advanced. The platform we were on did not offer all the new features that we felt necessary to be successful on the Internet today. The plans to do this had been postponed because of our physical moves and moving a website is actually far more complicated than moving a physical business.
We spent the spring and summer of 2010 paying our due diligence researching website platforms seeking the platform that would propel us to the next level. In October of 2010 we signed a contract with the company that I’m not allowed name and I’ll explain why in a moment. We gave this company $13,000 upfront to deploy the new website, create customized software to offer a better shopping experience and to migrate from the old web platform, which was to take at most 30 to 45 days.
The migration took 120 days and once deployed the new website simply did not work, it kept breaking down – at a cost of one thousand dollars per month. Costing us $20,000 in monthly website sales and the loss of long-term customers. The first 30 days of operating the new website we opened up 250 technical tickets and recorded over 50 screen captures of errors that we pointed out to the new web host.
We had signed a 12 month contract with a large penalty for early cancellation. We could not afford to stay on this web platform. Working with social media we used websites (like LinkedIn) around the world to amplify our voice in our criticism of this terrible web platform. The CEO of the company threatened us with a lawsuit. He also threatened some of the many e-commerce review website operators who were posting the negative comments we were providing. We also were not the only ones with problems with this company. The more he pushed us the more we pushed back. We made it clear that every day we were his customer we would do everything we could to damage his brand and he wanted to sue us but the activities of the lawsuit would be amplified throughout the web world via business and social media and blogging.
Having come to the realization that keeping us as a web hosting customer was going to cost him more than letting us go, he released us from the contract with no penalty but we had to sign a confidentiality agreement not to disclose anything about our relationship. Once we received written assurances that we would be released, Catherine & I literally worked around the clock to move the website from this platform to the 3Dcart platform we are now on. We did it in 21 days.
We also had to abandon the custom software which included a rewards program that duplicated the program that we had been with for six years. Also because of website security issues we we were unable to move customer passwords over and many returning customers were locked out of their accounts.
We had now changed website platforms twice in six months. While we were migrating website platforms Google deployed something called it’s Panda update. You may have read about some of this in the Wall Street Journal because it cost large web retailers like overstock.com and JCPenney’s to lose as much as 10 to 20% of their web revenue. Without getting into technical details, the Panda update is forcing websites to provide the best possible end-user experience. The site must be easy to navigate and fully functional.
Without getting technical there’s a couple things that need to be understood so as to realize the effects of what happened to our company next. Whenever you move a website, half the links inside the website (called cross-links), break. That’s because the URL of the particular web platform changes slightly making the old internal links obsolete. WindyCityParrot.com, is a 3500 page website with approximately 25,000 internal links. On both moves of the website about 11,000 links broke providing for a poor end-user experience. We were able to repair between 7000 – 9000 in one or two days using scripts in an Excel spreadsheet. The balance of the links must be hand coded.
Further to that, links from old websites never die. Thus we had approximately 11,000 more external links that were broken according to Google. In other words for every bird toy we sold on the old website(s) there was a link to that bird toy for every category that it resided in so one product might have as many as 10 links associated with it. To overcome this problem you must map the old links to the new website using something called 301 redirects. For every old broken link you must assign a destination link on the new website. It has taken us six months but we have now hand mapped 11,545 – “301 redirects” on the website.
A brief explanation of “301 redirects” from our webhost 3dCart’s knowledge-base: If you have an existing website you are migrating over to 3dCart, you can enter in 301 redirects to link to your new 3dCart website. A 301 redirect means the site has been ‘moved permanently’ and the requested resource has been assigned to a new, permanent URL. If a customer clicks on a link to your old site, which no longer exists, they will be redirected to your new site – this functionality helps keep your rankings with the search engines
Through all of this because of all the broken links we’ve lost what is called page rank. The loss of page rank begets loss of traffic, lost traffic becomes loss of business. We feel the worse is now behind us. Having repaired the 20,000+ internal and external links and acquired a new SEO consultant our hopes are to focus on rebuilding Windy City parrot in achieving $1 million a year sales in the next 36 to 48 months.