It all began with a single question: Could anyone start a small online business from scratch, with few resources and still be successful?
As an entrepreneur and manager of a digital agency in New York, I’ve worked alongside many different companies. From early stage startups to established companies - all of our clients share one thing in common -- they all have considerable marketing budgets and invest heavily in digital advertising to grow their brands.
Unfortunately, most people don’t have tens of thousands of dollars, or even thousands of dollars, to invest when starting a business.
My goal is to prove that it is still possible to jumpstart a small yet profitable online business will few resources. Rather than just talk about it, I along with my team went out and actually built a business from the ground up.
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For the past month, we started a fashion sunglasses brand called ROTA Glasses. Our team performed market research to find a trendy profitable product; negotiated with manufacturers overseas; designed a simple ecommerce website; and advertised through social media.
The results were very positive. Within a month of launching, we completely sold out our initial inventory and have a long list of social media stars and fashion bloggers from around the world begging to promote our products.
Any motivated person can jumpstart this type of business on their own. Here’s how we did it.
First, conduct market research.
When it comes to starting a business, especially one on a tight budget, it’s important to keep a simplified approach, i.e. don’t overthink it.
Our approach was to find at least one trendy profitable product, build a brand name around it, and finally promote the brand online. In our case, we decided to start a fashion-inspired sunglasses brand.
We chose to sell fashion sunglasses for four primary reasons.
- Sunglasses are relatively inexpensive to produce (low cost per unit).
- They're lightweight (affordable shipping cost).
- Sunglasses have a high-perceived value among consumers (high profit margin).
- The product was trending upwards among millennials (increased demand).
All of these insights can be easily found for free by researching similar companies, search engine trends and social media activity. I will admit that there are far more sophisticated means of obtaining and analyzing key marketing data, but for the purposes of this exercise you should keep your research simple and straightforward.
Second, find a supplier.
Once we agreed on the product, it was time to reach out to a supplier. Thanks to the rapid growth of the Internet you can easily import goods from overseas with the click of a mouse.
Ever heard of Alibaba? It’s the largest wholesale and manufacturing marketplace on the Internet. You can order custom goods securely on your computer and have them imported from China straight to your doorstep.
That’s exactly what we did to start up ROTA Glasses. Except, instead of using Alibaba, we chose its marketplace AliExpress. Many of the same sunglasses that our competitors were selling online for $30 and up, we found for less than $5 on AliExpress. So there’s definitely a lucrative opportunity in retail arbitrage.
With the vast number of unique items available, you can virtually start any online retail business importing smartphone accessories, handbags, fashion jewelry, shoes, clothing apparel and the list goes on.
Third, create the brand.
This is probably the most underestimated yet crucial part of starting a business. Remember, people don’t buy products. They buy brands. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had an entrepreneur come into my office and show me an awesome product with the wrong branding. In general, the goal of branding is to increase perceived value and inelasticity.
Jill Ferguson, branding expert, says, “Your brand is what ultimately will sell your product. It should subconsciously speak to your audience’s wants, feelings and most importantly their lifestyle.”
For ROTA Glasses, we wanted to create a brand that came across as slightly high-end and was inspired by European fashion brands.
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Fourth, set up your online store.
As a new entrepreneur, it’s important to be able to manage your time efficiently. So, while you are waiting for your orders to ship, you should begin setting up an ecommerce store.
Being on a tight budget, I would highly recommend designing an ecommerce store on your own using a simple website builder, such as Squarespace, Wix or Weebly. It will, obviously, not look like a high-end website, but it’s a great starting point for any new entrepreneur.
Overall, your online store should have a unique look, effective copywriting, call-to-action (CTA) buttons and high-quality product images. Feel free to use our ecommerce store as a template when building your own.
Lastly, begin marketing.
Finally, we’ve reached the most critical and stressful phase of entrepreneurship, and that is sales. This is usually when reality sets in for many entrepreneurs. You have an awesome product and a beautiful storefront, but where do you find paying customers?
For ROTA Glasses, our team was on a short deadline, so we decided to focus solely on social media marketing. Social media is one of the most affordable and effective marketing channels, especially for popular consumer products like sunglasses. Since our online business was directly related to fashion, we decided to use Instagram. Most of our competitors were already having great success on Instagram so it was an obvious choice for us.
Our Instagram marketing campaign consisted of two core strategies: competitor analysis and influencer marketing.
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We conducted a competitor analysis.
To start off, our team set up a social page and added a couple product photos from our store. The next step was to search for competitors on Instagram that had 5,000 followers or more.
Once we had a good list of competitors, we began liking, commenting and following their followers. We only focused on highly engaged followers, who were constantly commenting on our competitor’s posts. These specific followers would have the highest likelihood of following us back, which would hopefully lead to an eventual sale.
We reached out to influencers.
Influencers are how Daniel Wellington created a $200 million business, selling cheap watches from China.
Our basic approach was to persuade fashion influencers with more than 100,000 followers to promote our brand. We incentivized influencers by giving away our sunglasses as promotional gifts.
Not only did we gain new followers and sales, but we also had photos of beautiful models wearing our sunglasses that we could now promote on our own social media pages. Hiring professional photographers and models to showcase our products would have cost us too much money.
Overall, what worked best for us by far were product giveaways. After only one giveaway, we gained more than 300 followers, 24 sales and 11 messages from new influencers, begging to promote our sunglasses. On average, a single giveaway cost us less than $20. So we naturally took advantage of this promotion as much as possible.
So there you have it - a step-by-step guide to starting your own profitable online business.
Anyone can use the same steps that our team implemented, and jumpstart a small online business from scratch. There are no more excuses left as to why you can’t start your own business right now. So get out there, and start hustling.