Deciding to become an ecommerce entrepreneur is easy. Actually following through on it, however, that’s the real challenge. With all the decisions to be made, how can you know you’re on the right path?
The best way to figure out how to succeed is to look to those who’ve gone before you. (Why do you think we so strongly encourage finding a mentor?) While, yes, innovation has its place, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel when you can learn from the successes of others.
That’s why, at Foundr, we’re all about sharing advice rooted in real-life experience. To provide you with real-world advice on starting an ecommerce business, we’ve collected the following case studies and tips from five founders on how to become a successful ecommerce entrepreneur.
First, we’ll tell their individual stories, then round up their best advice, and finally, send you on your way with a series of next steps you can take to get started on your own business today!
Andrzej Dobrucki of Timeqube
Photo courtesy of Timeqube
We’ve all experienced a meeting where someone dominates the conversation, or the discussion drags on for longer than planned. In 2017, after sitting through too many of these unproductive meetings, Andrzej Dobrucki devised a simple solution: a stress-free visual timer. Timeqube is a silent LED timer that changes color to gently alert the speaker to yield the floor, without the distraction of an intrusive tone.
Photo courtesy of Timeqube
It took Dobrucki a few months to build an inexpensive prototype of his idea. “It looked ugly but worked well enough to demo it to people around me,” he says.
The cost of that initial prototype? The time it took Dobrucki to design a simple UI and find a hardware geek, plus two bottles of whiskey to pay for the prototype. To validate it, he posted to Facebook groups to collect feedback, and a few people endorsed the idea. That was enough to keep Dobrucki moving forward with Timeqube.
In early 2018, Dobrucki and his team began work on the product. That summer, to fund production and further validate the idea, they launched a pre-order campaign with a landing page featuring some product renderings and a payment gateway. They managed to pre-sell 200 Timequbes that way. They also launched on Product Hunt and secured a media mention in a popular tech blog in Germany (Timeqube’s current target market).
The next major milestone was finding manufacturers in Poland, where Timeqube’s hardware is still handmade today. By February 2019, the minimum viable product (MVP) was ready to ship to about 120 early adopters.
In September 2019, a major VC fund in Croatia approached the Timeqube team with an offer of a three-month acceleration program, plus a first major investment. Now, the team is based in Zagreb for the accelerator and is preparing a follow-up batch of 500 Timequbes, scaling up in the German market, and focusing on building a strong brand in Europe.
So how much did it cost to get started?
Dobrucki says the first ready-to-manufacture prototype cost $5,000. The manufacturing expenses for their first batch of 500 units were covered by sales from their pre-order campaign, plus a $15,000 angel investment and a $15,000 bank loan. After about 12 months of development, Timeqube is a profitable company.
Amy Mitchell of Lisse
When Amy Mitchell quit her job as a marketing manager, she didn’t have a plan. All she knew was that her values didn’t align with the company she was working for, and she had always wanted to work for herself. It was around this time that Mitchell came across Foundr’s Start & Scale Ecommerce course. The idea for Lisse came when a friend told her that safety razors are the most sustainable way to shave. Having always been conscious of her plastic waste, Mitchell decided to give safety razors a try.
“I bought one and loved it,” she said. “But every brand I found was very masculine and male-owned, so I thought there was an opportunity to brand it differently to appeal to women.”
To validate her product idea, Mitchell did a small pre-sale of just 20 units and used the user-generated content from the sale to build hype on social media. Pre-launch, Mitchell worked part-time on her brand and product development for about seven months, investing a total of $8,000 CAD during that period. She also managed to grow an email list of over 900 subscribers completely organically. Using Shopify, Mitchell built a simple landing page to collect email addresses and offered subscribers early access and a free gift with purchase, valid for 48 hours, to lend a sense of urgency.
“My website is not perfect, and there’s so much I’d like to change,” Mitchell says. “But it’s an evolution, and you’ve got to just start somewhere with the money and resources that you have.”
On launch day, Lisse’s subscribers converted at 10%. In her first week of sales, Mitchell made back her $8,000 initial investment. And within two months of launching, she sold out of product.
Today, her sales average $3,000 USD gross per month, but on offer days, she can make as much as $3,000 to $5,000 in one day. And she still hasn’t spent any money on advertising, relying instead on organic search, Instagram referrals, and influencer posts in exchange for free product.
“I really try to focus on engagement, adding value to people’s lives, and building a community,” she says.
Finding the right manufacturer for Lisse was a challenge in the beginning. As a cruelty-free brand, Lisse needed a manufacturer that had transparent supply chains free from animal testing. On top of that, the budding brand’s small order quantities meant that many manufacturers were unwilling to work with it, preferring the bigger companies that placed larger orders. Though this delayed her launch, in the end, Mitchell found the right manufacturer.
Now, she’s hard at work on the 2.0 model of her razor based on feedback from her customers. She’s also exploring third-party logistics (3PLs) and considering working with specialists in SEO and Facebook ads.
“Right now, all of my profit is being reinvested back into the business, so I’m definitely not cash-rich,” she says. “But going from no business to something that is consistently making me money with no paid advertising in just a few months has been pretty great.”
Pedro Ramos of Live Bottomless
Photo courtesy of Live Bottomless
If you’re working a full-time job and want to become an ecommerce founder, then you need to read Pedro Ramos’ story. He’s a full-time web designer at NBCUniversal and co-founder of artisan footwear company Live Bottomless.
In 2015, before being hired by NBCUniversal, Ramos was a freelancer building ecommerce sites for clients, but he wanted to build one for himself to generate passive income.
One day, a colleague asked Ramos for graphic and web design services for his new fashion line. Instead of offering his services, Ramos offered to invest 50/50. Ramos would handle the graphic and web design side of the business, while his co-founder would deal with the manufacturing and fashion side. To start, they invested $5,000 each into the business, $10,000 total.
But this ethical footwear company didn’t start out selling footwear at all. In the beginning, Ramos and his co-founder sold swimwear.
“Unfortunately, we never did thorough market research for our products,” Ramos says.
Instead, they based their swimwear designs on feedback from family, friends, and designers, and then tried to sell swimsuits for double the price of big brand names. This made it tough to compete.
Live Bottomless found its flagship product, huarache sandals, by accident. While selling at street markets, Ramos borrowed some artisanal summer sandals from his cousin’s company to bring attention to his stand. Those sandals ended up being their best sellers every time, which inspired Live Bottomless to shift from swimwear to footwear.
Photo courtesy of Live Bottomless
Thanks to Ramos’ background building Shopify sites for clients, building Live Bottomless’ online store was the easy part. What they struggled with was marketing it and getting sales. The company still had to sell the rest of the swimwear it had already purchased at a loss, meaning the first two years in business were not profitable. Even with a website, Live Bottomless wasn’t making any sales online, only at street markets or events. In 2018, Ramos decided to invest in Foundr’s Start & Scale course to learn how to make sales online.
“As soon as I started applying the lessons I learned, within two months, I had made my first online sale,” he says. “That was the biggest milestone, and although small, it confirmed that ecommerce really can work.”
Ramos kept optimizing from there, and today, he’s grown his side hustle’s ecommerce sales by 411%, generating $6,000 in online sales in 2019. The majority of Live Bottomless’ revenue still comes from wholesale and physical sales, but he aims to double online sales growth in 2020. He also plans on hiring a virtual assistant to help with the digital side of their business, while he focuses on the wholesale part and building brand recognition by attending more events.
Jose Chiriboga of Remu Apparel
Jose Chiriboga, a Start & Scale student, started his ecommerce business while he was still in college. He and his cousin wanted to launch a company in the outdoors industry, and their idea was to start a travel hammock business with products made in China. For every hammock they sold, they’d plant a tree in the Amazon.
They made an initial investment of $500 to purchase their first order of hammocks. But soon after, they learned about the negative effects the textile industry has on both the environment and workers. Chiriboga and his cousin decided to get out of the hammock business, as it conflicted with their values.
But that meant they had to find a new product. One day in class, Chiriboga looked down and noticed a recurring problem: a hole in his jeans. When he looked up, he saw a girl wearing a denim jacket. Putting the two together, he came up with the idea of upcycling jeans to create denim jackets, thus helping to solve the textile industry’s waste problem. Keeping in line with their ethical and eco-friendly values, they decided to work with communities of women in marginalized areas of Ecuador to manufacture their products.
To validate and fund their product idea, Chiriboga and his co-founder launched a Kickstarter campaign that reached 400% of its goal. Their first month in business, they made $25,000 and sold in over 25 countries. After the Kickstarter, they built their ecommerce site using Shopify.
Today, Remu Apparel has sold in over 37 countries, with about 87% of its sales coming from Instagram. And next, Chiriboga wants to tackle retail, starting with entering a store in LA.
Tammo Walter of ATAQ
Photo courtesy of ATAQ
Tammo Walter has a unique background, involving a stint in the German Special Forces, a career in advertising, and a love for road cycling. He found a way to merge his interests in branding, advertising, and fitness when he co-founded ATAQ, which sells all-natural sports and performance products.
It all started when Walter was training with a cycling coach and nutritionist, who encouraged him to ditch the synthetic supplements and opt for fresh, self-prepared nutrition. But six weeks into following this recommendation, Walter was frustrated.
“It was too complex of a subject matter to just whip out simple dishes that would actually have an effect on my performance,” he says. “You really need to understand the biochemical processes in your body and what nutrients you need at what time of the day and within your workout cycle to do things right.”
On top of that, preparing fresh foods that powered his cycling performance was time consuming. Walter tried to find plant-based nutrition products made for athletes, but he wasn’t satisfied with anything out there. That’s when he decided to make his own.
“What better way to create all of that with the lens of being a customer for your own products?” he says.
Walter and his business partner self-funded their company, which after two and a half years, would undergo a name change and be known as ATAQ. To get to the point that they were ready to go out and sell products, it took two years and $250,000. They hired a food scientist and worked with physiologists, trainers, coaches, and professional athletes to make sure they created quality products that worked well for the athletes they were trying to serve.
Their biggest manufacturing challenge was finding co-packers—companies that manufacture and package food—who were willing to work with ATAQ’s small production runs while maintaining quality. As a maker of nutrition products, ATAQ had to be particularly careful with inventory planning because these products typically have a shelf life.
“For one of the products, it took us almost a year to find the right partner, but it was absolutely worth it,” Walter says.
To build their online store, they hired a firm to customize their Shopify ecommerce site.
“It’s not a system we plan on using forever,” Walter says, “but it made the start pretty easy.”
Their first major milestone was when Walter and his business partner were able to quit their full-time jobs to devote all of their time to ATAQ. The next milestone was moving out of his garage, where they’d worked for a year, and into a proper office.
ATAQ’s future plans include exploring channels outside of ecommerce and expanding into international markets.
What Advice Would You Give Someone Who Wants to Become an eComm Entrepreneur? 5 Founders Sound Off
Andrzej Dobrucki: “Stop creating a perfect MVP and validate with customers as much as possible, as early as possible. You will avoid burning down funds and energy. It will help you move forward with your concept or pivot fast into something else. The idea is 5%, execution 95. No one will steal your idea.
“One way to create a good MVP is to quickly build a landing page, preferably with a payment gateway. Let people pay for your product even if it doesn’t exist yet. You’ll know how much they need it and realize the scope of the problem you’re trying to solve. Use well-known platforms: Timeqube is built on WordPress and WooCommerce. These are DIY solutions that can be implemented within one to two days.”
Amy Mitchell: “Start small, validate before jumping in, and don’t underestimate the power of good branding. I’ve seen a lot of great ideas, but if the branding sucks, who is going to want to buy it? And let go of perfectionism, it doesn’t exist. There is still so much that I know I need to optimize with my business, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Test and learn.”
Pedro Ramos: “Do market research first, find a sub-niche, and build an audience within that sub-niche first!”
Jose Chiriboga: “The best advice I could give to someone who is thinking about starting any business is to start today. The hardest part is always starting.”
He also recommends working with providers who can help you make your products as sustainably and ethically as possible. Though it may be challenging to find the right partners, Chiriboga says it will give you a competitive advantage.
Tammo Walter: “Make sure people can easily find you online. For us, it came down to three main components to make that happen. One, pick a company and brand name that is unique and doesn’t fight for attention with a gazillion other things online. Two, do SEO from the get-go so Google and other search engines can function as matchmaker, connecting the people that are relevant for you with you. Lastly, continuously create meaningful and interesting content for your audiences, such as blog posts, social media posts, etc., that give your audiences another entryway to your brand and product.”
Takeaways From These Ecommerce Founder Interviews
What an inspiring bunch of ecommerce founders! After reviewing all of their answers for this blog post, I noticed some commonalities and lessons that I’d like to spotlight:
- Take your time in choosing the right manufacturer. Both Lisse and Remu Apparel are sustainable brands, so finding ethical manufacturers was important to them. Being selective slowed down the process and presented more challenges, but for these companies, it was worth it to work with the right manufacturer.
Further, two of the founders mentioned the difficulties of finding manufacturers or co-packers who will work with you if you place smaller orders, so that’s something to keep in mind if you plan on producing in small batches.
- Do market research and validate to prevent wasted time and money. Ramos and his business partner didn’t do thorough market research before launching their swimwear brand, and at first, they operated at a loss trying to sell their remaining swimwear inventory while they launched their footwear products. And Chiriboga and his co-founder sunk $500 into hammocks before finding out that they didn’t want to get involved with the textile industry if it would have harmful effects on the environment.Mitchell, Dobrucki, and Chiriboga talked about validating their product ideas through pre-selling. Chiriboga chose to do this through a Kickstarter campaign for Remu Apparel, but you’re not limited to crowdfunding. You can also set up a simple landing page, collect email addresses, and then pre-sell to your list.
- Don’t be afraid to pivot. If at first you don’t succeed, try pivoting. Live Bottomless started out as a swimwear brand and switched to footwear. Remu Apparel started out selling hammocks and switched to upcycled denim. Whatever industry you’re in, if you find that your initial product isn’t going to succeed, it doesn’t have to be the end of your ecommerce dreams! Change course quickly to avoid losing more time and money on a dud product.
- Shopify is a recommended place to start your online store (Foundr is a partner of Shopify). Four out of the five founders I interviewed used Shopify to build their ecommerce site. It is a well-known ecommerce platform, and it’s relatively easy for beginners to use.
Next Steps to Start Your Own Ecommerce Business
You didn’t think I’d let you read this without taking action of your own, did you? Armed with this new knowledge from ecommerce founders, it’s time to dive deeper into some next steps using the following free resources from Foundr:
- Brainstorm product ideas. Coming up with an idea for a product is often what paralyzes aspiring entrepreneurs. This post breaks down five ways you can come up with a product idea.
- Validate your idea. Savvy entrepreneurs never jump in without testing the waters first. They conduct something known as “validation,” where they check to see if people will buy their product—before they launch or even create the product. This post shares how you can quickly validate your ecommerce product idea using Google ads.
- Create a business plan. A lot of eager founders skip this part, but did you know you could increase your chances of success just by having a business plan? This post walks you through the parts of a business plan. It’s written for freelancers, but its concepts can apply to ecommerce as well.
- Build your ecommerce site. If you’re ready to go all in, this is the ultimate step-by-step guide on how to start and scale your ecommerce business.
Knowing how to become an entrepreneur is one thing; the real test is putting in the work to make it happen. With all of the free advice presented here today, you’re already ahead of the game compared to others who will only dream about this stuff. Get out there and start your ecommerce business!
What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten on becoming an ecommerce entrepreneur? Share it with your fellow founders in the comments below!