This is a portion of an article that was published in the April 2018 issue of GiftBusinessINSIDER magazine, written by Nicole Moore.
Affectionately known as Queen Bee, Shawn Parola is the owner of All the Buzz Gifts, a thriving gift basket business in San Jose, California. Her company was launched in 2004, but Shawn’s flair for creative details began much earlier.
“I’ve always had a creative side and especially loved throwing parties, kicking up the theme five notches and creating decorations,” she explains. After giving birth to her son, she found that her creative side was shoved into overdrive.
“My sister and I did some event planning for a short time. I was always in charge of centerpieces and out-of-town gifts, thank you gifts, etc.”
After her sister decided to follow a different path, Shawn noticed people continued to request raffle gifts for schools as well as decorative elements for events. Her position on a committee at her son’s school gave her an opportunity to make gift baskets, and it was then that her eye for details became clear.
Shawn’s foray into entrepreneurship unfolded gradually. She worked at various full-time or part-time jobs over the course of several years including the one as an occupational therapist/rehabilitation department manager at a skilled nursing and rehab center. While employed, Shawn operated her gift business out of her home. Because she didn’t require much funding, she personally financed the supplies she needed for a particular project.
Eventually, she filed for her business license and became a sole proprietor, but that meant coming up with a company name that would have staying power. Shawn recounts, “My husband and I went through a million names, we wanted something fun that could grow to include other areas if we expanded into them.” When they finally landed on ‘All the Buzz Gifts’ – it just stuck!
All The Buzz Gifts is a professional gifting service catering to large businesses who have consistent gifting needs. They primarily supply commercial property managers, hotels, real estate agents, and home developers with gifts intended to foster professional relationships, such as referrals gifts, thank you gifts, and closing or signing gifts. They handle all aspects of gifting from concept to design to delivery and everything in between, particularly customization and corporate branding.
Operating from a house converted to a commercial space, All The Buzz headquarters (a.k.a. The Hive) consists of a workshop reimagined from an oversized garage, as well as an office space that holds Shawn’s desk, ribbon printer, and dye sublimation equipment. During the regular season, Shawn employs only one worker bee but will utilize on-call help for larger projects or occasional deliveries. However, when gearing up for the winter holidays, she brings in an additional 3-4 worker bees to cover the frenzied months of October through December.
Shawn’s most popular gift baskets are Thank You and Holiday Gifts. She found that her branded closed slide-lid wooden boxes did well during the past holiday season. She also discloses that wooden crates have been a hot commodity lately, as well as metal tins and beverage tubs.
While smaller gift items may be a more manageable feat, Shawn has handled her share of large volume and high-value gifts. Her largest order by volume to date was designing 650 gift bags for a vendor attending the Sundance Film Festival.
She has also designed several gift baskets over the years in the $1000 price range and says, “They are monsters.”
We bend over backwards to make people happy,” she tells us. “Customizing is just something that [makes us] more unique… I [will meet customers] in person for consultations and [will] send detailed proposals after the meeting. We’re always available to them and we have lots of ways to brand their gifts.” It is Shawn’s accommodating nature that keeps her clients coming back time and again.
Although her customer service is a key differentiator against the competition, it is not the only thing that attracts her client base. Certainly, her impressive design skill and knack for coordinating products, colors and theme has a huge impact. Keeping up with trends provides her with a competitive advantage. As Shawn reveals, “I’m keenly tuned in to what I see out in the world. I am really interested in colors, textures, style. So, it is pretty natural to me to see something different and automatically think about how I can use that in a gift design.”
Of course, every gift business owner knows that it’s not all designing, shopping and fun all the time. For Shawn, handling the administrative aspects of the business is sometimes an unpleasant necessity. Her least favorite tasks involve accounting, creating proposals, and clerical work.
Another important business responsibility involves marketing which she has steadily mastered over the years. Her most successful marketing strategy has been in-person networking. As people get to know her and discover what her business is about, a trust is built that organically promotes her business. The fact that she diligently follows up with contacts from her networking events helps as well. Shawn has also found that social media coupled with email newsletters are a surefire way to keep top of mind with her followers.
“We always get a few orders within 24 hours of a newsletter going out,” she reveals.
Although she plans to improve her online marketing strategies to increase sales, she indicates that about 20% of her business comes directly from her website. The other 80% is typically from calls or messages she receives via her social media platforms.
Her most valuable marketing tactic is the development of a cohesive and unforgettable brand. Initially, Shawn had no idea her chosen business name would become so iconic and memorable, but it didn’t take long for this newly crowned Queen Bee of San Jose to realize she had landed on the sweet nectar of branding gold. A testament to her branding genius is found within her networking circle where she is known as the “bee lady” and people frequently gift her “bee things.”
“I’m known as the Queen Bee in many circles,” explains Shawn. “There is bee stuff all over the hive. Our Facebook Live videos are called ‘Live from the Hive.’ We have several bee-based gifts and my giveaways always relate to our name, i.e. honey or bees.”
Over the years, Shawn has learned to capitalize on her distinctive honeybee trademark. “We put our name or information wherever we can as long as it is in good taste. And, we use our logo and signature black and yellow colors on everything we disseminate, including newsletters, car wrap, marketing materials, website, and social media.”
And when Shawn says she puts her information everywhere, she means it. Her fully wrapped company van is certainly an attention-grabber.
“We are looking to become the San Jose area source for regional and customized gifts…eventually [serving] most all California gourmet products… [while also] catering to local sports teams.”
When asked whether she would do anything differently if she started over, her answer was, “I would take more risks, get on the marketing right away, join a networking group so that I was out there and learning from other professionals right away.”
The biggest lesson Shawn has learned is that it’s not an easy business and it takes a whole lot of time and effort to keep it going. She says, “I find that I am always thinking about it and what I should be doing. You will have to learn a LOT of different skills or be prepared to delegate and pay for them to be successful.” And finally, “You will change your holidays forever, no more relaxing, parties, entertaining!”