As Victor Halvarsson was strolling through the romantic streets of Monaco with his girlfriend Hanna in 2013, something happened that would change the life of this 24-year-old bank employee.
They passed by a jewelry store.
“Wow,” his girlfriend burst out with delight. “When you propose I want a ring like that.”
He looked at the ring – and noticed the hefty price tag: 45,000 euro.
One of the first thoughts that crossed his mind was that the ring could probably be bought online for a more affordable price. He decided to look it up.
“I did some research, but couldn’t find any really good online jewelry businesses in the Nordic countries. I thought this was really strange, and while researching further I also began to learn about the diamond industry. Among other things, I saw the high margins of traditional jewelry retailers,” says Victor Halvarsson.
The quest to find a ring for his partner transformed into a quest to fulfill his lifelong dream.
“I had always known that I would be an entrepreneur one day. It was just a matter of time. The timing was perfect. I had worked for a few years so I had some resources in the form of saved money and a professional network, but it still wasn’t time to have kids. I was thinking: if not now, when? I believed wholeheartedly in my idea of entering this industry.”
What were your first steps to make things happen?
“I began brainstorming about what kind of brand I would like to build. It needed to be something I could stand for. I decided to go for high quality in the medium- to high-end segment. Premium. I realized I needed a supplier that could help me fulfill that brand’s vision, and went to an industry exhibition in London where I could get in touch with different suppliers.”
But then it didn’t go as expected, right?
“No. At the exhibition, I met a supplier from Los Angeles, which I thought was the best one. But they didn’t meet my expectations. They made promises that they didn’t keep, like being very slow at replying to e-mail. If they said that they would send over prices by Wednesday, the information would come two weeks later. I wondered: is this what it’s going to be like all the time? I got bad vibes. Just a month before my webstore launch was planned, I decided to drop them. It was a decision made in panic, incredibly challenging emotionally. But it was the right thing to do.”
So there you were, about to launch, when all of your planned product range disappeared. How did you deal with that?
“I immediately sent an e-mail to a couple of other suppliers that I had met at the exhibition. They were very skeptical, to say the least. They were so used to people coming to them saying they would sell their products online, without ever seeing results. To get a yes I had to sign a contract committing to sell 30,000 pounds worth of their products in the first year. But as it turned out, I was very lucky. The supplier, located in Birmingham, the Mecca of jewelry production, has endless knowledge and craft experience.”
At what point did you know for sure that your business would work?
“I’m not sure I’m at that point yet. When two, three days pass by without any orders coming in – it still happens – I get some doubts. But fortunately, it’s always just temporary. I guess I could tell the business was working after about two years, around the time when we started to make a profit and I hired the first employee.”
On your Facebook page you have 122 reviews, and everyone has given you 5 stars except one that gave you 4. It doesn’t get much better than that. How is that even possible? What’s your secret?
“First, all our staff are extremely knowledgeable – everyone is hand-picked, and I dare say they know much more than most employees you’ll find behind the counters of traditional jewelry stores. Then, we do extreme things to make sure our customers are happy with us. Sometimes I travel across the country to deliver wedding rings personally, if that is what it takes. Early this summer, for example, a couple was getting married in Stockholm on a Friday, at 2 pm. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as planned. The ring, produced by our supplier in England, was supposed to arrive a couple of days before the wedding, but the FedEx aeroplane got stuck in Paris for two days because of a technical issue. The plane from Paris arrived the same day as the wedding. I drove two hours from our office to the distribution center, ran to catch a last minute flight to Stockholm, flew for one hour, and jumped in a cab to get to the wedding. I arrived with the ring with 20 minutes to spare. The bride and groom weren’t even aware of it; only their wedding planner.”
How do you deal with that kind of stress?
“I almost enjoy it. In the summertime when many couples are getting married or engaged, situations often arise where special solutions are needed. I like to find solutions to whatever shows up. But I believe the main explanation for our good reviews is that we never fight against customers about who is ‘right’. I see companies that do that, where they have to ‘win’ and collect those 10 euros, even if in doing so they hurt their reputation. Our policy is to give customers the benefit of the doubt.”
You have a very generous returns policy. Customers can return rings and get their money back – even if they had their name engraved. Honestly, don’t you get slightly irritated when that happens?
“Maybe I was more frustrated in the beginning. I almost wanted to convince customers to keep their purchases. Now, I see the wider perspective. Even if a returned ring costs as us much as 40 percent of the original price, it’s much better to swallow that, move on, and focus our time and energy on sales. If we don’t, we risk getting those 1-star reviews.
Such high-value products must be a target for fraud?
“There have been attempts, but thanks to Klarna fraud protection nothing has happened. It also helps that in most cases we build up a relationship with each customer, and every item is sent in plain, anonymous packaging. Plus, deliveries must be signed for with an ID card.”
What’s your best moment as an e-commerce entrepreneur so far?
“A man called one day. He began by saying something along the lines of ‘I’ve heard you have good prices, considering what you get’. I immediately noticed that this wasn’t one of those ordinary customer calls. As it turned out, I went to his home, presented some options and we discussed the pros and cons. Finally, he decided upon one of the diamonds. After a couple of months it was ready for delivery. We priced the ring at 100,000 euro. It was the most premium ring we’ve sold so far. When producing on that premium level, we go from being an e-commerce business to being a high-end jewelry consultant.”
How do you explain your growth? Your yearly revenue has made big jumps since 2014 when you started.
“There’s only one secret: satisfied customers. Many of them see themselves as ambassadors after their purchase, spreading the word. When their friends are getting engaged or married they convince them to buy from us. We have had the same webpage design since day one, it’s really crappy. I see many budding online entrepreneurs make the mistake of putting their attention into tweaking everything on their homepage, instead of focusing on delivering an outstanding product experience for a great price.”
You’ve made the choice not to bring in venture capital. Why?
“I don’t want to grow this company faster than I personally grow as a leader. My aim is not to sell the business for a huge profit, but to grow with the business and create a life’s work I can feel proud of. If we got 5 million euros in capital to become the largest online jewelry e-commerce business in Europe, for example, that would create lots of extra pressure. Not only that, spending the money would be too easy. We would spend money because we could, not because it was necessary.”
Finally, what happened after that visit to Monaco? Did you two get married? What ring did you get her?
“It took about three years, but finally I got her a 3-stone ring with a Fancy Colored Yellow diamond. The three stones represent the past, the present and the future – the present being symbolized by the biggest stone. We got married in Cap Ferrat in the summer of 2018, just a 10-minute drive from Monaco where it all started.”
Role: Founder of VANBRUUN.com, an online retailer selling luxury engagement and wedding rings to Nordic customers. A ring costs 3,000 euro on average. Yearly sales so far: 0.1 million euro (2014), 0.6 million (2015), 1.6 million (2016), 2.7 million (2017), 3.7 million (2018 expectation). The company has five employees.
Best online purchase: “Derek Rose sells luxury nightwear, and purchasing from them feels like buying from a real person.”
Book recommendation: Principles, by Ray Dalio. “We use it within our company. It describes everything from how to build a good relationship with customers, and each other within the company, to the importance of spell checking e-mails.”
Shopping platform: Magento