I’ve been building, running, and experimenting with ecommerce in various forms since 2005. I learned a ton, made some decent money, and had a lot of fun building and testing things. But there's a few things I wish I'd known before I got started.
A bit of background
It all started when I bought a pair of eye-catching gothic shoes on Ebay.
The shoes were too big, so I put them on a local auction site and priced them to get my money back (including the ridiculous shipping costs from US to New Zealand) so I could buy the next size down.
They sold within a day. The germ of an idea had begun.
I noticed a few other people had been watching the first shoe auction. So when I bought my new pair off Ebay, I bought a second pair in the initial size. I put them up on the auction site and stuck an extra $50 on them. They sold within a week.
While I didn’t end up getting into the shoe game (for the exact reason that it’s super hard to buy shoes accurately online), I had been struck with what Michael Gerber describes in his book The E-Myth Revisited as “an Entrepreneurial Seizure”.
As freelancers, we all understand this feeling. It starts as, well...a feeling, which grows into an idea, becomes tangible, and then....possesses every waking moment.
It’s that last bit where things start to go wrong.
My first ecom store started with $500 and zero planning. I had a niche in mind, found a clothing brand I liked, and made my first wholesale order. A friend in IT made me a very basic ecommerce website and things started moving. While the business grew and I eventually got to realize my dream of owning two boutique retail stores and designing my own clothing line - it also ate my life.
I was working full time and had a 3 year old to manage as a single mum. I’d get up, answer emails and pack orders in the morning, spend my lunch break at the post office, then get home, do parenting stuff, check inventory, order things, upload new products, search for images, write descriptions, answer more emails...and so it went on.
By the time I finished, it was usually around midnight.
Like any business, freelancing included, if you don’t have a plan to protect your time and sanity, you’ll wake up 10 years later and realize you made a horrible mistake. You’re burned out, depressed, hate the tiny copycat community that has grown around you, absolutely despise polka dot and cherry print everything, and desperately want to sell the business you once loved and go backpacking forever.
Note: I am still backpacking. And I still hate polka dots.
So my point is - start your side business with a plan first. It doesn’t have to be complicated - just a brain dump of thoughts and goals in a notebook is enough to help you see what might work for your situation.
Most important: Decide what you want your lifestyle to look like so you can choose an ecommerce model that’s right for you.
Running a side hustle takes TIME. And even a little time out of each day can distract you enough to have an impact on your life and client work.
Think about how much time and money you have, seriously, to allocate to a new venture. Then think if you’ll still be excited and motivated about running your thing in 2 years time...and in 5 years time.
This isn’t meant to dampen your spirits. I’ve started and failed at stores, simply because I had something I wanted to get out of my system - and I went into those things being totally okay if it didn’t work out. There’s no guarantee of success.
Let’s take people who start Shopify stores as an example. There are over 500,000 stores on Shopify at any given time - and 95% of those stores will fail.
My advice is to start small, test your market, and be okay with losing a little time and money if it doesn’t work. If things gain traction - that’s awesome, and you can prepare for bigger things!
While there’s no absolute guarantee of success with ecom, there are some common things to avoid at the start to get you on the right track.
Choosing a bad niche
Find a niche that you’ll enjoy working with and talking about. Having competition is good, because it means there’s a market for what you want to sell. But too much competition and not enough customers is a recipe for failure.
Flip that around and look for a niche that has competition to ensure your target market exists, plus a big enough audience so you can show up, put your own unique spin on things, and make a mark with your brand.
Poor quality products
Quality control is a huge part of being successful in ecommerce. It's something you want to pay close attention to, as dealing with returns, refunds, and angry customers is a huge time, money, and sanity suck.
Get samples of every physical product you want to sell (if possible) to ensure you’re personally happy with the items that will be on your site.
Low quality, budget website
When you’re shopping online, you tend to avoid sites that:
As a copywriter and marketer, this is less likely to happen to you. But always step back and ask yourself if your site looks like a quality, trustworthy operation that you would buy from.
Badly optimized site
Websites that are slow to load, impossible to find in search, and aren’t dialled in for easy and secure payments will cause potential customers to go elsewhere.
No return customers or word of mouth referrals
Things like bad products, crappy service, and no referrals can all add up to once-only purchases.
Find ways to ensure your customers come back, and tell their friends about your awesome online store.
Make sure you’re capturing as much business as possible from your abandoned carts and email list.
If you’re running your own store, shipping can be a big issue.
Shipping costs, lost items, postal delays, tracking problems, returns, and unforeseen customs and tax duties can all be detrimental to your business.
It’s super easy to get carried away with shiny new things you can put in your store. But how much are you really making on each sale?
Make sure you know exactly what each item will make in profit to see if it’s worth stocking. Unless you can sell in volume, earning a couple of dollars on an item isn’t enough to sustain or grow a business.
Lack of marketing
Consider how you’ll drive traffic to your site. Is there a channel that will help you get in front of your audience - and if so, how much time do you have to spend there to make sales?
Can you afford to pay for ads? Will you create content and rely on SEO? Can you hire influencers or use affiliates? Can you get press coverage?
Marketing is a huge factor in the success vs. failure of a store.
No systems in place to maximize customer spend
It’s easier to get more money out of existing customers than finding new ones all the time. Bump up your average order value by offering incentives, loyalty systems, discounts, rewards, etc. to ensure you’re (ethically) making as much as possible to keep your store running smoothly.
Crappy customer service
Customer experience is at the heart of online retail. I will say this again:
CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE IS AT THE HEART OF ONLINE RETAIL!
Okay cool, don’t forget that bit. Because this can make or break things.
Think about how many times you’ve had a bad time buying things online. It happens a lot. When you get crappy service, it’s unlikely that you'll shop from that store again when you can get better treatment and similar products elsewhere.
Make sure you have systems in place to ensure your customers are happy and taken care of - no matter how weird or annoying their problem is - and you’ll be far ahead of a lot of other businesses.
Underestimating how much time is needed to grow your store
This is always a problem, even for experienced store owners. How long do you think it will take to:
Even the smallest things can take a lot more time than you think. Make sure you don’t underestimate how much you can fit into your day.
If you don’t have time or patience for this, ecommerce models like digital products, or using third party platforms to print/produce/sell/ship your products might be a better lifestyle fit.
Depending on your ecom business model, you’ll need to think seriously about things like:
The beauty of ecom is that there are models to suit everyone, whether you’re amped to grow your idea into something spectacular - or whether you’re becoming increasingly lazy (like me) and don’t want to spend much extra time on your laptop outside of client work.
Building your own brand on a platform like Shopify
This is hands down my preferred way to do ecommerce, because providing a great customer experience is something you often can’t do when you’re part of someone else’s platform. It takes a lot more time, but it’s ultimately more rewarding creating your own brand.
Don’t you love getting online orders that are wrapped beautifully, with personal notes, stickers, and other things that make you feel cared for as a customer?
Creating an outstanding direct to customer experience is pretty exciting - and it’s something that will set you apart from every other competitor.
But - the downsides are that you have to handle everything - every day. It’s pretty time consuming. And if you haven’t done customer service before, this can be a real eye-opener...
Yep, I tried dropshipping. From a travelling perspective, I could definitely make this work if freelancing didn’t take up so much of my time. It doesn’t involve holding physical stock, you can set up your own store and create a brand, and margins can be high depending on the source of your products.
My main points to note here are not to bother selling cheap stuff from AliExpress or similar. You can create and curate a nice store - and I’ve built and sold 3 Shopify stores that were making sales this way. But it wasn’t for me because:
If you are going to try your hand at dropshipping:
Third party platforms
There’s a growing number of platforms where you can create your own seller store and retail your goods using that platform’s traffic.
Etsy, Redbubble, Ebay, Amazon, and Threadless are all examples of this. I sold physical products on Etsy for a year and was making pretty decent weekly sales.
You don’t get much control over your brand experience online when you use someone else's storefront, but it makes life easier for things like marketing, printing, shipping, and payments - depending on the structure, fees, and services of each specific platform.
Clickbank and Gumroad are two of the most popular digital product platforms. You can also create paid templates to sell on your website or Etsy, and books to sell on Amazon, as other examples.
All the hard work is done at the front end of a digital product, then they can just sit around online indefinitely picking up sales - or you can market them as and when you need to.
The world of ecom is an exciting rabbit hole with endless opportunities for you to create what could be a very lucrative side business...main business...or global success. You’ll never know until you start :)
Based on my lifestyle needs and goals right now, I’m not doing anything too intensive. I have no home base, and have been enjoying a minimalist nomadic lifestyle out of my backpack for a few years, so I can’t run a store that involves holding and shipping any products. Plus I’m on the move a lot, so I know the whole customer service thing would fall apart for me.
I also don’t want to spend any more time than I have to on my laptop! So this has narrowed my focus down to two ecom options.
I started a Merch store last year with my partner. This involves getting approved for a Merch account, and designing t-shirts for their platform. It’s started to get decent traction.
Merch accounts don’t involve anything from our side except designing and uploading. Amazon takes care of everything else. You’re allowed to advertise to drive traffic to your shirts, but we don’t.
It is literally the most lazy, passive ecommerce system I’ve ever tried. The downside is that Amazon takes a hefty commission fee for each shirt that sells. Other than that it kind of feels like free money.
These stores can sell for pretty big numbers once they start making a modest amount per month - so when the time is right, we’ll cash out and start on something new. Or retire. I can dream right?
I’m developing a few products to sell at the moment. These will take anything up to a year to be ready, and I’m aiming to sell them on my website, Gumroad, and Amazon.
Other than that I can’t share much because they’re top secret ;)
If I’ve missed anything out and you have questions about ecom options, or how to get started, find me on Twitter or drop me an email and I’ll answer them as best I can.
Recommended reading on this topic:
The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What To Do About It
Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck
Building a Story Brand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen
You can also check out this video interview I did with fellow copywriter Jacob McMillen on pivoting your business with ecommerce.