7 things you should know about launching an eCommerce brand

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When I launched my eCommerce brand in December of 2012, it was just a logo and an idea. Four years later, that business that started as a logo was a living, breathing thing — and I made the difficult decision to sell it.

Before unpacking all the intimate details of that transformation and subsequent sale, I want to start with 7 things I believe are essential to know, in launching your own eCommerce business, regardless of whether you have a 200-word business plan, or an idea scribbled down on a napkin.

1. You have to work your way up to CEO

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Sure, it’s your company and if you’re like I was, you’re a company of one. But that doesn’t mean that you can put on a suit and spend your days driving around talking on the phone. You have to be humble and dedicated, spending lots of time on menial, deliberate tasks that ultimately lay the foundation for your business. You should find yourself working through every “role” of your organization early on, learning as much as you can along the way and determining what you are good at and where you struggle.

Start with the basics. Nobody likes the initial tasks of launching a business, like registration, taxes, forms, etc. — unless you’re an accountant or something and you get off on filling out paperwork — but spending time doing these things will not only help you be a better business owner, it will save you money. Do your research and find the correct path for each task.

Do the same for IT, customer service, marketing, sales, logistics — work every job as hard as you can, conquering each one along the way. Once you have mastered these, at least to the extent they need to be mastered to run your business, then you can be CEO.

2. If you’re selling a tangible product, are you going to stock it and ship it yourself?

If so, be prepared to run your own tiny version of an Amazon warehouse. Make sure you have the dedicated space to stock merchandise and develop a system that works for you, to process orders efficiently.

In the early days of my eCommerce operation, I housed all merchandise and shipping materials underneath a staircase in my home. I picked two nights a week to pack up orders (Mondays and Thursdays) and hand-addressed each and every package. I would load the orders up into my car, drive to the post office, wait in line, and process each order individually with the mail clerk. It was an exhausting process, so I found ways to streamline it.

I opened an account with Ordoro, which I linked to my Shopify storefront (more on this later), and started creating shipping labels in advance of shipping my orders out. I purchased a label printer and stocked shipping supplies from Uline. I was able to transform my workflow from a complicated, arduous process to a quick, efficient one. At the same time, I invested in shelving and completely reorganized my inventory.

If you opt to invest in a platform like Printful to handle everything for you, expect to save yourself lots of time, but be prepared to take a significantly smaller cut of sales profits.

3. Use Shopify to run your storefront and thank me later

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Before launching my eCommerce brand, I researched all the platforms available for hosting and managing my storefront. This was in 2012, which as far as I’m concerned, was like living on the Oregon Trail of entrepreneur-owned eCommerce brands. There wasn’t much out there, and much of what was out there was pretty terrible. Shopify drastically changed all that.

What I found with Shopify was an intuitive platform that gave me all the flexibility I needed to run my store the way I wanted to run it, without requiring a computer science degree. I’m an admitted computer nerd and know enough about coding to be dangerous, but Shopify allowed me to focus on the function and aesthetic of my site without laboring over the details of the back end.

In addition to the amazing core functions of Shopify, there are also third-party apps and themes you can integrate into your storefront that allow further customization. The options are endless, and you’ll soon find yourself tinkering with your site on a daily basis to deliver the best possible user experience you can.

4. Social media, social media and more social media

I’ve been a Facebook user since 2004, which is actually still amazing to me even as I type this. That’s 14 years of experience on the platform. 14 years! That’s more time than I spent in grade school. Granted, back in 2012 when I started my business, I had only amassed a mere 8 years of experience on the platform, but I knew my way around well enough to start leveraging social media as part of my digital marketing campaign for my new venture.

Facebook in 2012 was a wildly different place than it is now. I know this will be hard to believe, but Facebook for businesses in 2012 still allowed “free” distribution of content, without the need to boost posts or run paid ad campaigns to reach your audience. If you had 592 “likes” on your page, your content was broadcast to all 592 likers, or sort of anyway. Which meant for me, Facebook was a free place to advertise my new business.

As Facebook began rolling out the “boosting” and “ad campaign” capabilities, I had to adapt to be sure that my content was reaching my target audiences. I quickly learned everything I could about marketing on the platform, and essentially ran my ads like science experiments to find out what worked.

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Instagram was HUGE for my brand and by the end of my run, it was the platform I focused on the most. Because my products were very visual, it was easy to leverage the platform as a place to not only showcase what I was selling, but also to reinforce my brand messaging through lifestyle posts.

Find the social media platform that works best for your brand and learn everything there is to know about it. Experiment until you find what works. Use your existing social network as a springboard and grow an audience. Keep them entertained with content that is useful. It is very easy for social media content to be self-serving to a business. You must be able to offers followers something they can’t get from anywhere else. If you expect people to stay tuned in to what you’re saying, you need to reach them in a meaningful way.

ENGAGE with your followers! It isn’t enough to merely post a product photo and move on with the day. That isn’t social media, that’s advertising. And that’s OK, but for your social media to work for you, you have to engage with your audience and be conversational.

5. Numbers are your best friend

One of the many fantastic things about running an eCommerce business is that nearly everything you do will be digital and will therefore be trackable. Cold hard facts. Data. Everything you do can be tied back to numbers. If you choose to use Shopify, like I’ve recommended, most of the store reporting you need will be built-in already. The reports Shopify provides are excellent for analyzing your store’s performance and finding places to work on. You’ll want to look at basics, like the number of visitors you have, where they came from, sales trends, conversions, etc., but you can always increase your information base by adding Google Analytics as well. This additional reporting is especially helpful if you are running ads on the Google search or display network.

Aside from store performance, you need to be tracking social media numbers. Notice what content earns you the best interaction rate, times/days that are performing best, added followers or likers, lost followers or likers…everything you do on social media can be analyzed and optimized. So, do it.

If you’re selling a product, pay close attention to your margins. Find ways to save money without sacrificing quality or time. Build networks and relationships that help streamline the process of production. Every time you think you’ve “perfected” the production process, I promise you, it can always be improved. Balance the time/cost ratio of your production and make sure it works for you. Sure, you might save yourself a chunk of change on margins if you take on some of the production work yourself instead of sourcing it out, but does the time/value ratio make sense? Find the sweet spot.

6. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear

If you find success in your eCommerce brand, many things will happen. First, you will have more sales, which means more of every other function of your business. That means more customer emails, more social media interactions, more packing/shipping, more products, more designs…you get the idea. And this is great! Your business is taking off! But it also means you must scale accordingly. And this is probably this single hardest thing I faced as an eCommerce business owner.

By the time I sold my business in 2016, I was spending upwards of 15 hours a week packing and shipping orders. Now, I know that doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you consider I was also working full-time 45–50 hours a week, plus spending another 14–16 hours a week running my brand’s social media pages/advertising campaigns, 12–15 hours a week on new designs/product development, 12–15 hours a week on customer service, 10 hours a week on networking/in-person sales…I had two full-time jobs. Which was exactly what I wanted. This was my passion. This wasn’t work to me, it was fun. Until it wasn’t.

All of the little time sucks started to add up. What had seemed small early on now loomed large.

I never anticipated my business growing as fast as it did, and I wasn’t prepared…

Forbes lists “6 steps to scaling a business”:

1. Commit to grow
2. Build broad management skillset
3. Build collaborations
4. Establish standardized processes
5. Identify core competence
6. Articulate competitive strength

Once my business started to take off, I was committed to growing it, I built collaborations, I established standardized processes, I identified core competence and articulated competitive strength…but I failed to build a broad management skillset by bringing others into the fold.

I reached a point in 2016 where I realized this and knew that in order to continue growing my business, I was going to need to bring others in. The alternative was to scale my business back to a manageable solopreneur level. I decided to take a break and think it through. So, I did something that still seems totally crazy, I completely paused my business to make the right decision.

Which led me to #7, the most important thing of all.

7. Don’t accept the offer you can’t refuse

During time off from my business, I thought a lot about where I wanted to take the brand and how I was going to get there. I had learned enough to know what worked and what didn’t, and I was committed to coming back better than I had ever been. It was my time to catch my breath and tackle the things I had never given myself the time to do. Like formally fleshing out a brand identity and messaging, developing new product lines, bringing in more people, etc. And then out of the blue, I received a phone call I never planned on receiving: “would you be interested in selling?”

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Selling? The thought had never crossed my mind. I had been focused on growing, not selling. To me, selling was the same as quitting. It was the equivalent of giving up on my dream. Throwing away this brand that I had created from the ground up. How could I sell this?

The more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself that selling was the right choice. I was burned out. I was exhausted. It was the equivalent of asking someone finishing a marathon if they’d like to go ahead and start another marathon or get a golf cart ride to a bar and have free drinks. So, I took the golf cart ride.

But I shouldn’t have, and neither should you. If you’re running a drop-shipping site selling military-grade backpacks, OK, maybe then you sell. But if you build a brand that is an extension of yourself — an outward reflection of your personality, creativity and soul — do not, I repeat, do not sell it off.

My name is Cal Davis and I’m a storytelling/social media/marketing/ design/communications junkie. Are you thinking about starting your own eCommerce business? Do you already own one?

Let’s talk: jcdavis55@gmail.com

Cal Davis