Starting a business from scratch is a nerve-wracking proposition, as any Tums-crunching entrepreneur can tell you.
But with the right partnerships and guidance, the whole experience can be a little more palatable–not to mention profitable. Enter Shopify’s Build-a-Business competition, which helps anyone with an idea to hang out a shingle online. Winners each get a $50,000 investment and mentoring from storied entrepreneurs including Tim Ferriss, Tina Roth Eisenberg, Daymond John, and lean startup guru Eric Ries. Now in its third year, the competition has become a moneymaking powerhouse for small businesses: The 8,000 entrepreneurs participating this year (up from 3,060 in all of 2011) have so far netted $14 million in sales, up from $12 million a year ago.
In the spirit of giving, we polled some of Shopify’s recent success stories for their step-by-step tips on getting a consumer e-commerce business off the ground. Here’s what they had to say.
Step 1: Dream up the right product or service.
Sounds easy, right? And yet for every super-successful Snuggie, there’s a Crystal Pepsi and many other failures you haven’t ever heard of. The key to making sure your idea will find a (rabid, adoring) audience is solving problems shared by a large swath of people.
“The routines and activities you do are the same as everyone else. You need to find something you do during the day that is annoying or could be improved upon,” says Patrick Lehoux, creator of the Kinkajou, a bottle cutter that creates vases, tumblers, and pitchers from all those old (but sweet-looking) glass bottles you have sitting around. “If you can recognize this and improve this action or product there’s a good chance you will have yourself a business; Kinkajou uses something everyone seems to have an abundance of, but no real use for–empty bottles.”
It was a similar instinct that drove Steve Levy and his partner to create the Nifty Minidrive. “Nifty was set up purely off the back of the idea we had, which was borne out of our own need to increase the storage in our MacBooks without tearing it open or having removable storage sticking out of our computers. Basically, we were trying to solve a problem that we were having, using a simple and elegant solution.” The response was astounding: Over the 28 days, Nifty’s Kickstarter campaign–which set a fundraising target of $11,000–attracted 9,805 backers, who pledged a total of $384,319.
Step 2: Don’t overthink it, and start yesterday.
Successful entrepreneurs distinguish themselves from wannabe entrepreneurs simply by swallowing their fear and getting started. Jake Bronstein, founder of Flint and Tinder, purveyor of high-end made-in-America men’s underwear, says waiting too long ultimately results in paralysis.
“Start right now, and don’t talk to experts until you have started. If everyone knew all of the trouble, all of the problems, all of the pitfalls that lay ahead of you (as the experts in the field already do) nothing would get done, certainly nothing new,” he says. “You don’t need a business plan, you just need a plan.”
Step 3: Float a trial balloon–online.
Sophie Kovic, owner of FlockStocks, Shopify’s jewelry category winner from 2011, emphasizes the importance of testing an idea before you’ve spent any real money. And it’s possible to do it with just a little bit of online know-how. First, create a testing website that creates back to an “out of stock” message. “That way you can see exactly how many people would actually purchase your product,” she says. Spend $200 in Adwords and create a campaign to push traffic there (this technique is outlined in detail in Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek). “I would never outlay a cent without doing this first,” says Kovic, whose store sold about $100,000 a month at its peak.
Step 4: Solicit feedback, then take it to heart.
“Like many entrepreneurs before us, we spent too much time thinking about what customers would want, without actually having something for them to buy,” says Nathan Rothstein, president of Project Repat, which upcycles people’s beloved old T-shirts into blankets, bags, and scarves.
Early on, his team designed complicated totes and circle scarves without considering manufacturing implications (or, indeed, whether anyone even wanted them). While there were lessons learned about samples, production time, and U.S. manufacturing, it’s better to “find a way to get feedback from customers as quick as humanly possible,” Rothstein says. See step 3 if you need a refresher on how.
Step 5: Don’t sweat the e-commerce.
If you have a great idea for a product but don’t know the first thing about how to sell online, don’t let it stop you. Melissa Winn, of LIttle Green Pouch, a reusable food pouch for babies and kids, said she was worried about the e-commerce aspect of their business going in, but quickly found easy online solutions for each part of the puzzle.
Step 6: Streamline your stuff.
Big dreams are good, but huge product lines may not be, at least at first. Narrowing it down makes the launch easier for you and more accessible for new customers as well. And maybe it’ll even leave them wanting more.
“We started with four styles, in five sizes, in seven colors…that’s 140 different variants of just the underwear,” says Bronstein. “What if green briefs don’t sell in small? Or 2XL boxers in red? It was silly to have so many options when cash-flow is ultimately what kills businesses dead.”
Step 7: Don’t neglect social. Especially Pinterest.
Get your Twitter stream going and, by all means, promote your stuff on Facebook. But find the social outlet that works best for your particular product.
Winn, of Little Green Pouch, says Pinterest is the top referral source to her website by far. “Our product lends itself to great photo opps and we receive photos every day from customers of their kids using Little Green Pouch,” she says.
Once you’ve found your niche, get creative with it. Patrick Buckley, cofounder of DODOcase, 2010’s Build-a-Business grand prize winner, says the company recently launched a customizer and enlisted over 30 notables including Path’s Dave Morin, Gilt Groupe’s Alexandra Wilson, and Heath Ceramics’ Robin Petraviv to showcase their own creations. “We showcased their profiles with their cases on Pinterest as the Build-A-DODOcase “Creator’s Corner” day,” Buckley said. “We’re also using these individual stories across other social media channels.”
Step 8: Marketing should be fun. Make it so.
Marketing gets a bad rap, but it should be fun for you and your audience. Tattly, which makes design-minded temporary tattoos, did a 50% off birthday sale that led to its largest volume of orders ever as new customers shared the sale with friends and followers on social networks.
Hans Reichstetter, cofounder of Griz Coat, says it’s especially important for eye-catching consumer products to show off in all the ways new media makes possible.
“For Griz Coat, the key differentiator is the fact that it’s a highly demonstrable product that works really well in photos and videos,” he says of their faux-bear fur coat, which comes complete with realistic-looking snarl and claws. “If you have a product like that, you need to have an amazing photographer and videographer, and we’ve got both (plug warning: Joyce Pederson and Shravan Vidyarthi, respectively).”
Feel-good campaigns never hurt, either. “If every pair of underwear sold in America had been made here, we’d create 130,000 new jobs in 2013,” says Bronstein. “We’re making a graphic that explains that, putting it on Facebook and asking people to push the share button. For each share we get, we’re sending a free pair to a service man currently overseas this holiday season.”
Step 9: Don’t just believe in success–prepare for it.
[Fuse]Chicken, a smartphone accessories manufacturer, set out to raise $9,800 on Kickstarter for a bendy, adjustable smartphone stand and recharger. Instead, it attracted $212,000, and it’s projecting nearly $350,000 in sales for June through December.
“One simple idea can turn into an overnight success, so be prepared. In hindsight, there was much more we could have done if we had been prepared to exceed all of our goals, rather than just meet them,” says [Fuse]Chicken’s Jon Fawcett. “Being prepared to exceed your goals also means you need to consider your delivery to under-promise and over-deliver. With Kickstarter specifically, our difference of 1,000 products to build versus 18,000 caused a delay. If you are prepared to exceed your goals, you will be better prepared to deliver on time.”
The same applies whether you’re marketing smartphone gadgets or bear coats.
“Make sure you’ve thought through what will happen if your product proves to be very popular,” says Griz Coat’s Reichstetter, who said demand for the coats far outpaced their supply and forced them to play catchup for months.
“This does not mean you should be setting up large-scale production right off the bat, but rather you should just be ready with a contingency plan in case something miraculous does happen. And then move fast!”
Want more advice on how to make your business a success? Sign up for Fast Company’s daily and weekly newsletters.
–Erin Schulte is the editor of Co.Lead. Follow her on Twitter.