Image Credit: © 2016 Negative Space
As of today, I’ve been self-employed full time for the past four years.
I owe that freedom to knowing how to start an ecommerce business.
Which is why I decided to write this. What follows is a step-by-step blueprint on how to start an ecommerce business. The following four recommendations are based on my five years in ecommerce, starting a building a six-figure ecommerce company from scratch.
But before I get to the advice, let me be clear.
It’s not easy to start an ecommerce business.
I would know. For much of 2012-2013 I struggled to get my Shopify stores off the ground. Not because I didn’t know what to do, but because I didn’t know what to do first. That’s the issue.
Lack of information isn’t the problem. It’s knowing what information to prioritize and execute on that’s the problem. You can always figure that out via trial and error like I did, but that’s a costly, inefficient way to learn. Plus, that uncertainty can eat away at your confidence.
When we’re sure of what to do, we’re confident and can immerse ourselves fully. But if you don’t know what to do, what do you have to be confident in? I wasn’t. The only thing I had going for me was sheer tenacity, resolve and the will to succeed. Sure, it makes for a great news story (which I made a big part of my ecommerce marketing strategy) but that’s about it.
It wasn’t fun or glamorous. Everyday felt like a free fall. I can’t tell you how many nights I spent with my face buried in my hands, toiling in uncertainty. Quitting seemed easier. But looking back, I’m grateful I stuck it out. The rewards―and not just financial ones―have been life changing. If your goal is start an ecommerce business, I want to help you achieve the same or better.
No bullshit. No hype. Just truth. Now let’s get onto the advice that will, hopefully, save you time, money and frustration. Here’s what to do first.
1. Pick Your Ecommerce Business Idea
Everything starts with a need. It can be an obscure hyper-niche need that few people have and even fewer talk about (i.e., chocolate covered roaches, fecal fetish videos) or a common, widespread need that everyone has (i.e., clean, running water and access to healthy food).
If you want to know how to start an ecommerce business, this is how you do it: by starting with a need. A lot of people treat this first, crucial step like a dice roll; they just guess and upload whatever products they like or look cool. Instead of staking all your chips on a random number, do some research first. To help you get the gears going, I’ll give you a few ideas and the research I did to determine their viability.
- Security cameras have experienced a steady uptick in search volume over the past five years, based on Google Trends data. They’ve also consistently ranked #1 on Amazon’s “Movers and Shakers” camera category. Plus, it seems like people everywhere have questions about them. Lots of demand, search volume and unanswered questions equal opportunity.
- Erotic and erotica-based books always trend well on Amazon. Plus, if done tastefully ― and that can vary wildly for something like this ― an erotic game has an edge when it comes time for product promotion. That’s because, much like my former gold grills brand, an item like this has built-in “virality.” It’s a novel idea that gets people sharing and commenting, and that’s half your ecommerce marketing battle taken care of right there.
- Hammocks have experienced a surge on eBay, based on data from their “What’s Trending” page. Plus, there’s an active 20,000-strong community of hammock lovers on Reddit. When you have a community with numbers like that, you’re onto something. All you have to do is differentiate yourself from competitors.
The options are limitless here. You can offer creative designs, use locally-sourced fabrics, or make them entirely by hand in-house and sell them for a premium. Besides, who doesn’t like the idea of relaxing in a hammock? No brainer here.
- Ebooks get a bad rep. If you’re like most people, you’re passionate about something. It could be an obscure genre of music, martial arts, cocker spaniels, Star Trek lunch boxes, quantum physics, or Middle Eastern food. You can monetize that passion by writing a short ebook for people looking to learn more about it and sell it for five bucks.
Think this can’t be lucrative? A business broker friend of mine gave me a look at a company that does $2.7k USD gross per month on autopilot. Their product? A catalog of 80 short ebooks on various niche topics sold via Amazon and their ecommerce shop.
Here’s a quick recap of the research again:
- Google Trends/Keyword Tool data
- Alexa/Quantcast demographics data
- Quora topics and questions on idea
- Reddit subreddit activity around idea
- Amazon reviews on similar ideas
- Facebook groups around the idea
- eBay auction activity around idea
- Browse Google for active advertisers
I’ll caution you again, though – the idea is just half the battle. After you settle on an idea, you’ll have to create a compelling offer and market that offer to your target market... relentlessly. It takes a lot of hard work, but with the right amount of tenacity and resolve, you can do it.
Let’s get to those two components now: the compelling offer and marketing.
Create Your Ecommerce Offer
Most offers are boring. You see these all over the place. "Contact us for a free trial" or "request a free demo" are common, albeit weak, offers. Who needs sleeping pills when you can just read offers like that before bed? A good offer is targeted to the right audience, addresses their most pressing concerns and outlines how your product can help with them.
Let's say you find out -- after browsing Amazon reviews for an hour -- that most flashlights suck. Consumers are complaining left and right. Poor battery life. Dim bulbs that produce no light. Cheap handles. Bulky and cumbersome construction.
Now let's say you make a better flashlight. A good offer wouldn't be "Click here to download our free flashlight specification sheet." It would be "Check out our blindingly bright, lightweight, military-grade flashlights with batteries guaranteed to last." See how I flipped those pain points and turned them into selling points? That's what a compelling offer does.
Build Your Ecommerce Website
Shopify is my go-to option at this stage. Not just because they offer plenty of features, third party applications, integrations and the like, but because they have helpful 24/7 phone support. I work on my store 24/7, so it’s nice to see them doing it too.
But if you’re just starting out, try not to get too bogged down in your site. You’re primary focus should be taking your compelling offer to market and validating it through sales. From there, it’s all about starting a dialogue with your new customers so you can refine your offer further.
We could talk conversion rate optimization for days, but here’s what’s worked for me: a clear headline that communicates my compelling offer, several crisp product images (three product images and one lifestyle image that gives your product context) and three to five bullet points that break down the benefits of your product.
Whether you’re drop shipping, fulfilling your orders in-house or a combination of the two, I highly recommend you order samples of your product for photo and video purposes. Invest in visuals.
Learn Simple Ecommerce Marketing
Marketing can get complicated. But there’s a way to combat the complexity and overwhelm. Just ask yourself what your marketing would look like if it were simple. Marketing is, by definition, promoting your products in an effort to sell them.
At this stage in the game you know your product, the need it meets and who your audience is. So put it in front of them. I recommend you hop on Reddit and search for a sub related to your ecommerce brand. Make your compelling offer the ad text and invest twenty dollars to put it in front of your audience for a week.
Or, even better, write an educational post about the problem your product solves without explicitly mentioning the product. Make it non-promotional and post it in a relevant forum or blog. Offer value. Share useful information. You build trust and interest that way.
Repurpose that same compelling offer and make it a text ad on Google AdWords. Best part is, Shopify usually provides a $100 ad credit for new merchants. Make sure you have an Analytics code on there and you enable advanced ecommerce tracking.
Another option: Facebook ads. Don’t forget to put your Facebook Pixel on your site so you can track results. But don't just boost your post. Visit Quantcast, punch in a few of your competitors' URLs, copy their demographic data and key it into Facebook's ad builder. Your targeting just got a lot more precise, which will increase your likelihood of getting sales.
Head over to Google Trends and see what regions your product gets the most searches. Now you have both demographic and geographic data to test in your ads. Test and verify assumptions.
If you do your homework, create something worth buying, and put consistent effort into sharing it with the people who could use it most -- whether through the blogs they read, the social media sites they frequent or whichever other medium you choose -- you'll be fine.
As I always say, when the going gets tough -- and it will -- just remember: if it were easy to be an ecommerce millionaire, everyone would be one. Just go get after it!