How a fed-up mum and dad launched an online school lunch business

School Lunch Online is an online business that makes it easy for parents to order healthy lunches for their children through an online booking system. School Lunch Online co-founder Kate Cowley shares her story of how she started in e-commerce.

When Kate Cowley saw a friend’s Facebook post about ordering her kids’ lunches online in New Zealand, she wondered why she couldn’t do the same in Perth. Cowley knew there would be a demand for that type of service, so she decided to create the supply.

Cowley and her husband, Richard, started School Lunch Online, an online school lunch ordering service, in 2012. The School Lunch Online website enables parents and kids to pre-order healthy lunches from school-approved suppliers on short notice or up to a full term in advance.

“Teachers used to spend time in the mornings asking the kids about who was getting lunch and getting them to put their money in a bag,” says Cowley. “It was just a real inconvenience for the schools, and parents also wanted a better option.”

School Lunch Online can run alongside the school canteen or as an alternative to it. The menu includes sushi, wraps, salads and sandwiches. “I’m very aware of what’s in food – I’m a label reader. One of my criteria was that suppliers should use fresh, healthy ingredients and offer a good selection of food,” says Cowley.

Building a booking system from scratch

Cowley had worked in the IT industry for several years before becoming a stay-at-home parent to her two children, who are now eight and 10. Despite her IT industry experience, she says she had no idea where to start with an online ordering system. A friend who runs an e-commerce business recommended Sydney-based web designer Alicia Murphy. Word-of-mouth also led Cowley to Perth-based web developer Paul Ballardin, who owns internet marketing company Outsmart.

“The three of us got together and built the whole thing,” says Cowley. “We couldn’t use an off-the-shelf system because we had too many variables – for example, children at different schools or suppliers with different cut-off times. It had to be built from scratch.”

Cowley’s requirements were clear. “I knew that I was the primary audience, so the website and booking system had to appeal to me. It needed to be simple, straightforward and time efficient. I wanted it to be visually appealing but also practical and functional.”

Keeping School Lunch Online fresh

The online ordering system evolved over the six months it took to write the code. “We had a lot of iterations and changes until we got it right,” says Cowley. “I’m not au fait with the actual coding but I had a good relationship with the developer. If I required anything, he would explain the coding steps to me and I would go away and assess it.”

Cowley says she found there was more to online ordering systems than she’d initially expected. “I know now that a click involves a lot of steps behind the scenes. There are so many variables – from hosting, to where your domain name is registered, to which country you’re in. When you do a trace route for how many steps it takes to get from your computer to where it needs to go to the server, there’s a lot more to it than you think.”

School Lunch Online now works with 20 schools and has suppliers in Sydney and Adelaide. “It’s grown at the perfect speed,” says Cowley.

She attributes the majority of that growth to word-of-mouth and says customer feedback has resulted in a number of changes to both the website and the menu. “We use SurveyMonkey [for feedback],” she says. “It’s important to get feedback and to listen to it.”

School Lunch Online’s top e-commerce tips

Kate Cowley has learnt some key lessons over the past two years about how to grow an e-commerce start-up business:

  • Research everything. “Do a lot research before you make decisions. I’ve learnt a lot – even about things like colour psychology.”
  • Know your customers. “The more you know your audience, the better – you can then tailor the ordering system to suit them.”
  • Get a good team. “Find a designer and developer you can work well with. The three of us worked closely to get my website up and running.”

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