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I started selling online, in a weirdly awkward way, more than 20 years ago. I launched my online career through a website hosted on GeoCities (better known as Yahoo! today).
I had this great idea that if I created a site with lots of affiliate banners that linked to useful products, I would be a millionaire and retire before 30. Let’s get this out of the way – it didn’t happen.
And, if you’re not familiar with affiliate banners, think of the little ads you see plastered all over websites. Yeah, that was my great idea for making money back in 1998. But, that experience did an interesting thing… it got me hooked on the Internet. And, ever since then, I’ve been trying out ways to make money online.
Some ideas worked, some didn’t. Suffice it to say that after more than 20 years at this, I’ve learned a lot. I hope to share some of the knowledge with you.
Why my focus is on selling online
My primary focus for the last 15 years has been eCommerce. I own two Shopify websites and Etsy and Amazon stores. I have also sold on eBay and tried multiple eCommerce platforms.
Today, I earn a full-time living from my stores. I believe you can, too.
To set the record straight – I’m not a guru. I hate that term because, in today’s world, it implies some kind of scam or magical talent. There’s no magic to this. Just a lot of hard work and a lot of mistakes. All of which helped me to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Heck, I’m still learning.
And that’s ultimately the reason for this blog. First, I get a lot of questions from my friends who want to sell online. This will make a great place to record the answers to common questions I get.
Second, I want to document what’s working for me and what’s not. Kind of like an accountability journal or selling diary.
Still with me? Let’s get started…
Why would you want to sell online?
There are a lot of reasons for wanting to sell online. For me, being a card-carrying introvert means that I prefer and actually work better from home. Maybe you’re retired and looking for a little side income.
Maybe you’re a stay at home mom and want to find a way to help contribute towards the monthly bills. Or, maybe you already have an offline business that you’re looking to bring online.
Whatever your reasons for wanting to begin, selling online has several advantages to a traditional brick and mortar or regular 9 to 5 job:
- Online businesses are relatively inexpensive to set up and maintain when compared to other businesses
- Being your own boss comes with the freedom of choosing your own hours, when you take time off, etc.
- Working from home means no more commuting, worrying about what you’re going to wear to work or what to pack for lunch every day
There are other benefits and advantages, but these are the primary reasons I decided to start my own online business years ago.
There’s nothing like getting a FaceTime call from your granddaughter at 2pm on a Thursday and knowing you can drop what you’re doing and take that call.
I wouldn’t trade that freedom for anything.
Is it hard to start selling online?
I think one of the biggest misconceptions about starting an online business is that you have to have some kind of special technical abilities.
While it’s true that being tech savvy is a benefit, modern selling platforms like Etsy, eBay and even Shopify have made getting started super easy, even for beginners. Believe it or not, you can set up a basic store within the span of an afternoon.
The hardest part of selling is really in finding a great product and learning to drive traffic (visitors) to your store. A traditional storefront has the benefit of foot traffic, particularly on a busy street or within an existing plaza/mall. Brick and mortar stores depend on this traffic to survive.
Online stores are no different. They, too, need traffic to make sales. Depending on the platform you choose to sell on, it may be easier or harder to get that traffic. I’ll provide some ideas to help you learn how.
What are the best products to sell online to make money?
This is such a common question among people that want to start selling online. Yes, you can find lists of trendy products, but those aren’t necessarily the best products for you to sell.
What I’ve found after years of doing this? Don’t sell something solely because of the potential money you can make. Sell things that resonate with you. It’s true you can make money selling just about anything, but do you really want to?
I’ve tried to sell some of the most ridiculous stuff (to me, anyway). The times I’ve been really successful though, were when I was selling something I really loved and/or had an interest in.
For me, that’s pet supplies and jewelry. For you, it might be soy candles. Or yoga gear. Or those handmade baby toys that your friends and family rave about.
Be you. Think about your hobbies, your lifestyle, things that make your heart beat faster. Figure out how to turn that into something you can sell. I promise, if you follow this advice, you’ll never work another day in your life 😉
Ok, I have an idea for a product. Now what?
Once you have an idea of what you want to sell there are a few questions you’ll want to ask yourself:
Can I source this product easily?
It’s not enough to figure out a great product to sell; you have to figure out where you’re going to buy it in order to resell. I love my Apple products; but, realistically, I know the chances of getting a wholesale account with Apple are pretty slim.
Also consider where the product is coming from. If you’re buying from a U.S. wholesaler, the product will arrive much faster than if you’re purchasing from overseas.
Is the product easy to store and ship?
If you’re planning to stock and ship your inventory, you want to put some thought into where you’ll be storing it. Smaller, lighter products are not only easier to store, they’re also easier and cheaper to ship than large, bulky items.
Some things to think about:
- Are there any special storage requirements? I live in Texas. If I were going to sell lipstick, I probably don’t want to store them in my garage or shed during one of our 100º days.
- What kind of packaging will be required? Can the item fit in a bubble mailer or will you need boxes?
- Will the item require special handling? I tend to stay away from items that are fragile or could break easily. You’ll be on the hook to replace any shipments that break in transit.
Can you make money with this product?
This is a little trickier than it sounds, because the costs of selling a product go beyond the wholesale cost. Here are some basic costs you’ll want to consider when figuring out whether you’ll make a profit:
- Wholesale cost of item
- Cost of packaging (if extra packaging is needed)
- Cost of shipping
- Any other overhead costs
- Tranaction/bank fees and/or marketplace fees
- YOUR TIME!!! (this is so important and something people often overlook)
As you can see, there are multiple factors to consider. I aim to find products that I can sell for at least 3 times my cost of the item.
At this point, I know my cost of selling an item down to the penny, and eventually you will too, but until then, 3x is generally a good starting point.
Does anyone actually want this product?
Last, but certainly not least, you want to make sure that there is some demand for your product. You can have the most unique item in the world, but if no one wants it, you won’t be making any money.
So, how do you know if there is a demand? Here’s a quick and easy way to get an initial idea of whether your product is desirable:
1.) Go to https://www.google.com/trends
2.) Type in your product in basic terms. For the example, I’m using “green socks”
3.) The default graph will be over the last year. The closer to 100 the line is, the more popular the search is. In this example, I can see that there is pretty steady interest over the last year, and that interest peaked between December 1 – 7th. Makes sense for green socks, right?
4.) You can change the dates from the past year to the past 5 years all the way back to 2004. This will give you an idea of how long an item has been popular and even if interest is going up or down.
5.) Scrolling further down that page will also show where the most regional interest is for an item and also reveal related topics and queries. It can sometimes give you an idea for a product that you hadn’t even thought of.
This is a pretty basic way to gauge interest, but it works! There are several other things you can do to test a product’s demand and we’ll explore those in a future article.
How to get started with an online store
If you have a product, a computer with Internet access and a few hours, you really have everything you need to get started.
The next big decision you’ll need to make is where you want to sell your product. The three places I recommend for beginners are: eBay, Etsy and Shopify.
eBay : Perfect for inexperienced online sellers
If you’re breathing, you’ve heard of eBay. While it’s not my favorite platform anymore, it is easy for a beginner to dip their toes in the world of online selling.
In fact, to get your first taste of online sales, I recommend selling a few items from around your house that you no longer want or need. It really is that simple to get started.
The great thing about eBay is that you don’t need to sign up for a store, have a lot of product or find a way to drive traffic. The cost to sell on eBay is minimal and, listing an item is quick and easy.
Depending on what you sell, eBay can be the perfect place to start your selling career. You may also decide to make it a part of your long-term selling strategy. For some sellers, eBay is the only place they sell and that’s perfectly ok.
Etsy : The best place for handmade, vintage or craft supply sellers
If you make handmade items like jewelry, clothing or home decor, you may find Etsy is a perfect fit for you. It’s another easy to set up platform with built in traffic. In fact, many handmade artisans make their home at Etsy and never leave.
Etsy has a bit more of a learning curve than eBay. You will need to set up a “store”, which is free; but requires a few more steps than eBay. While the store is free, you’ll pay to list items as well as a commission to Etsy when you make a sale.
Still, the cost and ease of set up makes Etsy a great match for anyone who makes their own products.
Shopify : The easiest platform for new eCommerce websites
My favorite, but certainly the most complicated of the platforms I recommend, is Shopify. Now don’t get all nervous.
When I say “most complicated”, it’s simply because there are a lot more pieces to set up in order to start selling on a Shopify-hosted website. In comparison to other eComm platforms, I feel it’s still the best place to get started with your own site.
The cost to sell on Shopify is higher than eBay and Etsy, currently a basic store will run you $29 a month. You’ll also pay a transaction fee every time you sell an item. With Shopify, you also have the option of adding various apps (enhancements) to your store – some are free, many are paid.
So, it’s definitely going to be the biggest financial investment of the three; but, because you’re creating an asset that you own, it’s worth every cent.
What about Amazon or Amazon Handmade?
You may be wondering about Amazon. I do sell on Amazon Handmade and have previously sold on the main Amazon.com site.
I don’t recommend it for beginners for several reasons. While it’s a great place to sell, there is very steep competition. The commission is the highest at 15%. Unless you’re just selling an item here or there, which doesn’t work well for this site, you’re going to have to pay $40 a month for a store.
For handmade sellers, Amazon Handmade just hasn’t quite caught up with Etsy yet. Traffic and sales are still a struggle for the majority of artisans I know.
If you want to sell on Amazon (or Shopify for that matter), I would strongly recommend starting with Etsy or eBay first. Plan to work Amazon into your online selling strategy once you’ve started feeling comfortable with the others. There’s a fairly steep learning curve, regardless of what all the “gurus” out there will tell you.
Bottom line: As a new online seller, your best bet is Etsy or eBay. There are plenty of other selling platforms out there, but these two are solid choices. They’ve both been around for years and have plenty of documentation and support.
New to Selling Online? Here’s My Advice
This entire blog is dedicated to helping you learn how to sell online. You’ll be able to find tutorials to walk you through a lot of different things. But first, I’m going to share with you some advice I wish someone had given me 15 years ago. I hope it helps.
1.) Set your Expectations Appropriately
It seems like get rich quick schemes are a dime a dozen these days. There’s a guru on every
corner YouTube channel telling you how easy it is. I’ll be blunt – it’s not easy and it’s not quick.
Sure, you can get started quickly, but to make a full-time income within a few months? Not likely. Are there overnight success stories? Sure… but, they’re the outliers.
Most successful business owners have tried and failed multiple times. Or at the very least, made just as many mistakes as successes (or more!).
With that in mind, if you’re down to your last few dollars (and trust me, this former single mom can relate!), getting a part time job is a better bet to get money coming in quickly.
Your business could take many months or even years to really succeed. You’ll want to have a plan for steady income in the meantime.
2.) Consistency is the key to successfully selling online
If you only plan to sell occasionally, you can get away with spending a few hours and then walking away for a week or two. If you really want a successful business, though, the key is consistency.
Plan to spend a couple hours a day on this, if you can. If you don’t have 2 hours a day, no problem. Devote 30 minutes. But, do it every day. You could also plan to spend weekends working on your business. If your weekdays are too hectic to squeeze anything else in, then that’s ok, too.
However you work your business into your schedule, just showing up in a consistent manner will pay off over time.
3. Pick one thing and stick with it
At least until you’ve got it figured out. Once you delve into the world of selling online, you’ll find yourself pulled in a million directions. There’s a cool new marketplace, a great FaceBook group, this YouTuber with a new idea… on and on and on.
I recently read a great book called The One Thing by Gary Keller. The whole premise of the book is that you should focus your energy on only one thing at time. It’s easy to get distracted by all the “shiny objects” online. Unfortunately, your progress will suffer if you pay attention to them.
If you decide to start out on eBay – great. Stick with it until you’re confident enough in selling there that you feel you’re ready to move on to another marketplace or your own site.
Starting with Shopify – awesome! But, plan to put the time in to really learn the ins and outs.
Jumping from idea to idea or marketplace to marketplace will only result in frustration. Take your time and learn all you can before moving on.
With that being said…..
4.) Diversify your selling platforms
Sounds like a contradiction, right? Not really.
While I strongly encourage you to put your focus on one marketplace at a time, I also strongly encourage you to branch out when your’re ready. Remember the old cliche about putting all your eggs in one basket? It applies here, too.
The only exception to this is if you’re selling on your own website. In that case, you don’t need to bother with expanding, though you may want to. And I’d encourage you to.
The only website you own is your own
Here’s the thing… even though you can open a store on a 3rd party marketplace, you don’t own it. These companies could shutter their doors tomorrow, or just as bad, close down your seller account.
There is nothing wrong with selling on these sites, and making them a part of your overall strategy; but, keep the risks in mind.
Please trust me on this one. I lost a business years ago, not because I was shut down; but because the marketplace made several changes I didn’t/couldn’t keep up with. Sales began to suffer and eventually I had to close the business.
However you start, make owning your own website your ultimate goal.
5.) You’re going to have bad days, weeks…. roll with it
As I’m writing this article, it’s mid-July. For most sellers, this is a pretty quiet time of year. People are having picnics and hanging out at the beach.
Yet, year after year, I hear many online sellers flipping out that their sales are down. Well, unless you’re selling boats or beach gear, yeah… that’s kind of to be expected.
My advice is to not get too caught up in what your daily, weekly or even monthly sales are. As time goes by, you’ll learn what your normal is.
Sell pet products? March through June is usually the best time of year. Jewelry? That amazing times of year we call 4th quarter will be your booming period.
You’re going to have down days. Whether it’s slow sales, a website glitch or an angry customer. It happens and you just gotta roll with it. Because tomorrow, you may have the best day ever.
I see many sellers give up just about the time they’re getting ready to make a huge breakthrough. Remember what I said about consistency? It really works.
Hang in there and you will succeed.
Common Questions/FAQ About Selling Online
Can you make money selling online?
Absolutely. You probably already knew this (and that’s why you’re here!); but, should you have any doubts, I can assure that you can make money online. While it did take several years, I now make more than the corporate salary I left behind.
What is the best site to sell stuff on?
It depends on your end goal. If you’re just looking to offload the occasional item like used clothes, furniture, etc., then I recommend the following:
If you’re looking to turn this into a full-time (or great part time!) business, then I’d stick with the following online selling platforms:
What tools do I need to start an online business?
Here are the basic tools you’ll need to start your online business:
- Computer/Tablet with High Speed Internet Access
- Printer and/or Label Printer
- Website Hosting / eCommerce Hosted Solution (BigCommerce, Shopify) / Marketplace (eBay, Etsy)
- Payment Processor (PayPal, Stripe, Square, etc.)
You’ll also need things like:
- Shipping boxes or poly mailers
- Packing tape, if needed
- Paper & Ink for your printer
These are just the bare essentials to get you started. As your business grows, you may want to consider adding in more advanced tools like an Email Service Provider (for mailing lists), a Social Media Management system and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software.
How much does it cost to start selling online?
This is a pretty subjective question and really depends on what you’re selling and where you’re selling it.
For example, your costs are going to be different if you crochet baby blankets vs buying dog training collars wholesale. Similarly, your costs for running and maintaining your own website are typically going to be higher than selling on eBay.
Generally speaking, you’ll need $500-$1000 at a bare minimum. Can you shoe-string it? Why yes, yes you can. I did with my first business.
I started with a few things around the house and sold them on eBay. Then, bought some inventory. Not long after, I discovered dropshipping. Within 5 years, I’d sold over $1,000,000 worth of product on eBay. So, it can be done.
Is that typical? I don’t think so. But, if you have enough determination to stick with this, you can start with next to nothing. Just know it will take you longer to really start seeing a true profit.
Is MLM a good business?
In my opinion, no. I do have friends that make decent extra cash with Multi Level Marketing (MLM) companies like Arbonne, Plexus and Le-Vel. Those who make a full time living from it are few and far between.
I’ll be honest, even if you can make a full time living with one (and I know someone who does), I wouldn’t. Why? For the same reason I encourage you to diversify.
You don’t own that company. It’s not really “your” business. Someone else owns it and always will. If they go under, guess what? So too can your commissions or, worst case, your livelihood.
Investing in your own brand is always, always going to be the smarter choice. Could you go under? Well, technically… but at least it won’t be due to the decisions of someone else.
The Last Thing You Need to Know about Selling Online
I honestly believe that anyone who is determined to be successful selling online can do it. It’s not easy and it certainly isn’t fast, but if you’re willing to put in the time and the effort to learn everything you can – and apply it – you’ll be well on your way.
As time goes by, I’ll continue updating and tweaking this document to stay current and add more helpful information.
I’d love to hear from you ♥︎
What questions do you have about starting to sell online? Let me know in the comments!