- The Definitive Guide to Starting an Online Business
- How to Find Online Business Ideas and Source Products to Sell
- The Paperwork: How to Make a Business Plan and Register as an E-commerce Company
- How to Set Up a Website for E-commerce
- How to Set Up Online Payment Methods to Accept That First Purchase
- Pick Packaging That Saves You Money
- How to Ship Products for an Online Business
- Successful Marketing Strategies for Small Businesses
- Small Business Customer Service Strategies Explained
- How to Handle Customer Returns
- Fulfilling Orders at Scale with a 3PL or Management Software
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About the Handbook
We’re diving deep into every facet of creating an online business to make it easy for you to get started and scale quickly. Hear from top e-commerce SaaS providers and online retailers for the best advice to achieving success — from choosing a product and building a website to creating shipping labels and processing returns.
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The product you choose to sell is akin to the patty of a hamburger. Without it, you have nothing but a sad excuse for a salad—not enough substance to build a booming business.
You will need the rest of the ingredients (think a clean website, nimble marketing, responsive customer support, etc.) to make your hamburger—nobody eats patties plain. But, a good product is foundational to your company’s success.
In this chapter, we cover everything you need to know to create and source your products, so you can set your business up for success. Once your product is ready, then you can invest in an online store, packaging materials, and everything else that enables you to rake in the cash—all things we’ll cover in future chapters.
Choosing a Product to Sell Checklist
Some people think they need to have a product idea before they can try their hand at entrepreneurship. That’s certainly not true. In fact, for many sellers, the desire to start a business comes first, the product idea comes second.
It’s safe to assume that you’re here because you have the motivation to start a business, so we’ll start with the second half of the equation: finding a product or service to sell.
If you already know what product you want to sell, good for you! We’ll meet you at the next section: validate the product idea.
If you’re struggling with coming up with the perfect product, don’t dismay. Here are a few suggestions to help spark inspiration.
Let Your Passions Drive You
As you are pursuing your own interests, it is a natural progression to notice unfulfilled needs in your own life. In short, be your own customer. Create or offer a product that meets a need you have. Greenbelly Meals, for example, was born out of a hiker’s struggle to get enough calories during long-distance treks.
Offer a Painkiller, Not a Vitamin
As we think about the types of products that make for successful businesses, we’d be remiss not to share sage advice from Shippo CEO and co-founder Laura Behrens Wu.
Laura equates vitamins with nice-to-have products. Sure, you might get some customers, but when push comes to shove, your products lack the sense of urgency to buy. On the other hand, if your product solves a critical problem for your customers, you’ll keep them coming back over and over again.
If you want to buck the trend of problem-solving businesses, look no further than the hobby industry. Hobby stores can reap heaps of revenue simply because customers will buy new products all the time. Meet the folks behind two successful hobby businesses: Mr Muffin’s Trains and Mini Materials.
Share Your Expertise
If you’ve worked in a given industry for a while, you likely have expertise to offer others. There are many ways to use your unique talents.
- Teach others what you know. You may be the world’s top embroidery enthusiast. Create a needlepoint kit to sell to beginners to try their hand at it. Bonus: create YouTube videos or blog posts explaining novice techniques to position yourself as the expert and help customers with their new kits.
- Offer your services or products to others. Create a platform that allows your customers to find you and buy your services or products. Maybe you’re an artist that creates comic books. Create a website to sell to customers around the world. Have you mastered how to make sourdough bread? Allow customers to make online orders to purchase your bread.
Look at What’s Trending
Many entrepreneurs find success selling products that fit current trends. These products might not be very flashy, but they can offer serious profit. The key here is to know where to look for inspiration. Here are a few places to start.
Most marketplaces showcase popular items on their home page or department pages. Marketplaces will aggregate product pages that are making a lot of sales or getting a lot of views, so that visitors stay on the website and buy more goods.
For example, as most of the world shelters in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, many online consumers are searching for home office furniture, at-home workout equipment, and more.
What marketplaces should I study?
Keep in mind that once you visit a marketplace, the resulting products will be tailored to your previous search results.They’re able to do this using cookies which are data files sent from the website and stored by your web browser. These files contain information about your clicks and data shared. Marketplaces will then use this to tailor your experience and encourage you to buy more items.
If you want an unbiased view of the marketplace (which we recommend when looking for products), you have a few options. Either clear the cookies from your browser or use a browser that does not save cookies like Google Chrome’s Incognito Window.
And, finally, some marketplaces will also sprinkle in their own products (think: Amazon devices) into these lists whether they are best sellers or not. You’ll always want to make sure you test the validity of the product before you make a decision, something we’ll talk about next.
Check out YouTube or Instagram influencers to see what items they’re promoting. Take a look at their posting history to get a sense of what products have been successful for them.
YouTube is especially popular for gaming, toy, and tech industries. Some of the top channels are:
- FunToys Collector Disney Toys Review
- Ryan’s World
- Unbox Therapy
- Marques Brownlee
Instagram is a great platform for apparel, jewelry, food, and beauty companies. HubSpot compiled a massive list of Instagram influencers for popular industries. Highlights include:
- Jamie Oliver (food)
- Annette White (travel)
- Alexa Chung (fashion)
- Oliver Proudlock (lifestyle)
- Michelle Phan (beauty)
- Massy Arias (fitness)
Product Review and Trend Websites
Check out product review and trend websites to see what’s working. Some websites like trendhunter.com were specifically designed to help entrepreneurs find their next big idea. You can also scan some highly-trafficked product review websites, such as:
As you’re finding a new product to sell, remember this old adage of my grandmother: never try a new recipe for company. Just like that new frosting technique you’ve been eyeing, you want to make sure your product is well-tested and destined for success before you put it in front of customers. Otherwise, you risk losing out on sales.
Here are a few ways to validate your product idea before you put business dollars behind it.
Understand the Search Volume
Before you invest in a product, you want to understand the size of your potential audience. To do that, you want to look at the amount of people searching for related phrases (that you can eventually reach with your online business) and more details about their demographics.
Here are a few free and paid tools you can use to get a sense of the interest in your product.
Google Trends is a free tool that allows you to look up the popularity of given keywords. The data is based on actual Google searches.
Say, for example, we want to sell a wireless mouse. We’re in the throes of COVID-19 pandemic and we anticipate that folks are starting to get tired of their clunky home office setup (or maybe that’s just me).
Start by entering the term “wireless mouse” into the search field. Ideally, the graph is up and to the right, which means interest is increasing, like so:
Look at the trend for different time ranges, geographic locations, then browse related queries to see if there’s a unique market need you can address.
Google Trends also has a handy compare feature. You can compare the interest for two different products, like if you are trying to decide between selling a wireless mouse and a wireless keyboard. You can see which term gets searched more often.
Google Keyword Planner
You can get more detailed information about audience interest from another free tool: Google Keyword Planner. You will need a Google Ads account to access it, but you won’t need to have an active campaign (read: spend money) to use the tool.
Start with discovering new keywords. Take a look at these columns of data:
- Average Monthly Searches: shows the average number of searches for this keyword and its close variants based on the time range as well as the location and search network settings selected. You can use this information to see how popular your keywords are during different times of the year.
- Competition: shows how competitive an ad placement is for a given keyword, specific to the location and search network settings selected. The level of competition—low, medium, or high— is determined by the number of advertisers bidding on each keyword relative to all keywords across Google.
- Top of page bid (low range): shows the lower range of what advertisers have historically paid for a keyword’s top of page bid, based on the location and search network settings selected.
- Top of page bid (high range): shows the higher range of what advertisers have historically paid for a keyword’s top of page bid, based on the location and search network settings selected.
Here’s how to navigate Google Keyword Planner.
Step 1: Look at the average monthly searches for a broad, generic term (e.g. “wireless mouse”). You want it to get a decent amount of searches—somewhere in the tens of thousands. It’s nice to see a large number here, because that means that there’s a large potential customer base.
Step 2: Check the term’s competition. It’s okay if competition is high, but it’s important for understanding your competitive landscape. Typically, the more general the search term, the more competitive it is and the harder it is for your website to organically show up on Page 1 of search results.
Step 3: Notice the top of page bid range. If those numbers seem expensive, it’s another sign that this term is highly competitive. Also, you want to make sure the cost to purchase an ad for that term is reasonable when you consider how much you might be able to sell the product for.
Step 4: From there, look for more specific keywords (usually a longer phrase or string of phrases) that have a lower number of average monthly searches and a lower level of competition. These are the terms you can start to build a business around. You’ll be more likely to find early success with more specific keywords and eventually grow to become more competitive against higher volume keywords.
Another helpful tool is Keywords Everywhere, a browser addon that allows you to get more information directly in your Google search.
The freemium option is useful for SEO research, since it shows you related keywords and other phrases people search based on the keyword you entered.
The real gold mine is in its paid version. It shows monthly search volume, cost per click, and competition data for keywords as you’re conducting a Google search. That way, you can see search volume and competition as you’re doing product research.
Once you’re happy with the potential audience for your product, you then want to size up your competition. Now’s the time to start making a competitive analysis.
First, make a list of your top competitors. The list can vary based on industry. It’s likely that you’ll have a range of big and small companies, new and old players, folks that sell exactly what you will, and others that are only partially related. The more information you can include on each competitor, the better.
For each competitor, take note of:
- Number of SKUs (stock-keeping unit; another way to say products)
- Product prices
- Discounts, promotions, sales
- Customer service process
- Social media presence
Use a personal email address and sign up for the companies’ newsletters and follow them on social media, so you can start to immerse yourself in the language and strategies they use.
Once you’ve collected your data, start to look for opportunities for your business to differentiate. It could be as simple as creating a cleaner, more user-friendly website. You might also experiment with discounts and promotions that haven’t been tried yet.
Third-party Analysis Tools
We also recommend researching your competitors using third-party tools. These tools can help you put numbers behind your competitive analysis, including website traffic, acquisition channels, keyword rankings, and more.
Some options to consider are:
Consider Your Target Customer
Before you and your product can put a ring on it, you’ll want to make sure that there are no blockers when it comes to your target audience. The tools above will help you get a better understanding of the customer demographics. Questions to consider:
- Do your customers live in locations that you can easily ship to?
- Do your customers shop and spend time online? What websites and platforms do they spend their time on?
- Are your customers key decision makers in their household or business? Are you targeting kids that don’t have credit cards or entry-level employees that don’t touch their company’s purse strings?
- Do your customers have brand loyalty that will be hard to overcome? Studies show that consumers are much more likely to try new brands during a major life change. For example, ZenithOptimedia surveyed 1,121 consumers to find that people were more likely to have tried new brands if they had undergone a life event. In all product categories, bar one, the probability of trying new brands increased by at least 75 percent after a life event.
While we all wish we could snap our fingers and have our product magically appear in our office or warehouse, the reality is finding and stocking your product is a little more challenging than that. The good news is that with the advent of the internet, sourcing products has gotten much easier. You can find a manufacturer or distributor, order samples, and finalize terms all from the comforts of your desk chair.
When you start your search, ask yourself: how do you want to source your products?
- Make it yourself. Maybe you make special handcrafted jewelry or the best cookies known to man. You’ll likely start out making and selling them yourself. One thing to consider is how you will be getting the materials or ingredients. Consider buying the materials wholesale or in bulk for better cost efficiencies. At scale, you can also hire employees or third-party vendors to create your product faster.
- Buy from a distributor or wholesaler. If your product already exists, you can look for companies that offer it in bulk at a discount. Distributors are companies that sell products, but they do not make them. They’re able to offer you competitive rates, because they usually order larger quantities from manufacturers than what you would buy on your own. Similarly, wholesalers sell products in bulk quantities in order to offer discounted pricing to sellers.
- Find a manufacturer. These are companies—both in the U.S. and abroad—that will make your product for you. You’ll want to go this route if you have a brand-new product in mind. And if you’re looking to source an existing product, working directly with a manufacturer offers you more control over the quality of the product.
Once you’ve decided what you’re looking for, you can start researching potential companies.
Traditionally, retailers attend trade shows and read trade publications to find the right manufacturer. These are a great option if you’re looking to network with professionals in your industry and learn more about the sourcing process.
While a trade show can be a big investment, you may want to attend periodically to stay up-to-date on trends and supplier information. For example, ASD Market Week is a comprehensive trade show for consumer merchandise in the U.S. The show floor is filled with retail vendors offering wholesale prices.
Alternatively, more retailers are turning to online marketplaces and directories. Here are a few to consider:
- 4wholesaleusa.com (U.S.-based wholesale sellers with manufacturing relationships around the world)
- Alibaba.com (manufacturers and distributors in China)
- Maker’s Row (manufacturers in the U.S.)
- Thomasnet.com (manufacturers and distributors in the U.S.)
As you’re searching, keep in mind that some marketplaces have a badge system to highlight trustworthy manufacturers. For example, Alibaba allows you to search by suppliers that are flagged as Gold Suppliers, companies that pay Alibaba each month to have this status on their profile; Trade Assurance, those that provide greater protection to the buyer in the event of quality or shipping disputes; and Assessed Supplier, businesses that have been verified by a third party.
When you’re ready to reach out to a potential supplier, you want to make sure you talk the talk. It can be challenging to be taken seriously as a new purchaser, so have a solid plan in place and understand the industry lingo and processes.
Request a Sample
Always be sure to coordinate and approve samples before placing a large order. This step is critical to creating a product that you can sell.
Have the Specs (Specifications) Ready
As you’re reaching out to potential suppliers, make sure you note the product specifications. Be specific—yep, that’s why they call it specifications.
Share the exact dimensions, colors, fabrics/materials, etc. that you want for your product. If you want them to add a logo, make sure to provide it as a file with a transparent background.
Don’t risk providing vague instructions to your supplier and then end up unhappy with the product you receive.
Agree on a Mockup
Do your best to share a mockup of the product you want. You can start by drawing it out on a piece of paper or editing an existing picture in Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft PowerPoint, Canva, or another photo editing tool. Some suppliers will provide you with a mockup before you agree to production.
If possible, have an image that both parties agreed upon, so you can reference it when you receive the product for review.
Set a Price
Before you commit to a sample, you’ll also want to discuss price. The supplier will share pricing information for the creation and shipment of the sample. In addition, make sure you are aware of the cost for creating and shipping the larger batch once the sample is approved.
Get the Timing Right
It’s important to set your expectations around timing, because it can be a while before you have a sample in your hands. Once you agree on a mockup and pay for the sample, it usually takes about a week for the supplier to create it. Then, they’ll ship it to you. Depending on the supplier’s location and the carrier service level chosen, it could take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks for the sample to arrive.
You may be in a time crunch and want to start selling ASAP, but by skipping the sample stage, you risk having a large order of inventory you just can’t move due to a defect or low quality.
If you are pressed for time, you can order the sample and chip in for express shipping. That’s an additional expense that might be worth it to get your item faster. Then, when you make the larger order, you can choose a slower shipping option that’s more economical in the long run.
Be sure to take note of the supplier’s business hours and holidays. If you’re a business in the U.S. that chooses to work with a manufacturer in China, for example, you will likely be communicating with them at the beginning or end of your work day when they are more likely to be online. The U.S. and China have different national holidays that will affect communication and production, as well.
Place the Large Order
The process for placing the bulk order is very similar to ordering the sample. The supplier will have an MOQ (minimum order quantity), which means that you’ll need to buy at least that many products in order for them to serve you. Typically, the price per item will be lower the more items you order.
As you’re placing the larger order, ask about the production lead time. This is the time it will take for the supplier to fulfill the order. The production time will be longer for the larger orders—anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
There are some payment options that are better than others when it comes to protecting your purchase and ensuring you don’t get scammed. Two popular options are using PayPal with its Purchase Protection for Buyers or a third-party Escrow service that keeps your money safe until you receive the expected product.
If someone is asking you to send money in a way that feels inappropriate, trust your gut and find another supplier. You can also do a Google search of the supplier’s name to see if there are any reviews online to reference. If other buyers have been scammed, they will sometimes post about it for others to take heed.
Inspect Your Order
Consider hiring a third party, like QIMA, to inspect your order for quality assurance. Especially if you placed an order overseas with a long shipping time, having a local company inspect the order for quality before it gets shipped will save you a lot of time in the process.
Celebrate Your Progress
Once you’ve successfully received your first large batch of products, it’s time for a quick celebratory dance. Sure, you have a few more obstacles to overcome before you make that first sale, but you’ve taken a huge step—one that so many aspiring entrepreneurs are still dreaming about.