Having built my own portfolio of eCommerce brands since I was 17 and consulted dozens of 6 to 9 figure brand founders on growing their business, I've seen it all. I didn't have the blessings of millions of dollars in fundings from venture capitalists or angels for my businesses, and as a result, had to bootstrap (self-fund) all my businesses. This means I've had to learn how to stretch every dollar I had and do every role in the business until I could hire team members.
With an incredible team to help me operate my brands, I now spend my free time teaching at Shopify, the #1 eCommerce selling platform for merchants, and mentor hundreds of early-stage founders on growing their business – which includes optimizing their growth strategies, team structure, operations, finances, products, manufacturing – you name it.
What I've come to realize after speaking to my students is that no one really knows what to expect when they first get into building their brand. The good news is that it's not rocket science, and it's actually quite straightforward for the most part once you lay it all out. Read on to get a look at the pieces of the puzzle that you need to put together to successfully build an eCommerce brand.
There are a few ways to figure out the product and how to shape your own unique idea into it.
I've put my entire framework into a free mini-training that you can take here
My favorite strategy from the framework is to iterate on a product around you with a solution that you care deeply about. I say the last part because if you're not passionate about what you're building, your customers will see right through it, and you won't survive the turbulence of building a company.
Think about something that you use everything but wish there's a better version of because you want to solve a specific problem. A good example that I recently came across is blender bottles. I've bought countless blender bottles but always struggle with the powders not being mixed properly or being too lazy to clean them afterward, making them unusable. Someone had the brilliant idea of attaching an electric blender blade at the bottom of a blender bottle and making them into portfolio blenders. This solved the powder mixture issue and made cleaning as easy as mixing soap and water to blend. There are plenty of other products around you that could be innovated, and it starts with observing your own problems that you want to solve. To look at the rest of the strategies, attend the training session here.
An eCommerce brand is made up of a lot of components, you can categorize them as front-end, and back-end. I love analogies, so bear with me. Visualize it like it's a car. The front-end is the shell of the car, and the back-end is the engine and other components that actually run the car.
Let's start with the shell of the car first:
Front-end includes but is not limited to: branding, website, social media pages, product, etc.
Branding is more than just all the touch-points that you have with your customer that look pretty. Beyond the color and logo, it's the total experience that your customers get when they see your brand.
You want to create an experience that your customers can have every time they see something from your brand, whether that is the tone, brand voice, logo, color scheme, or even the slogan of the company. The key to good branding is being consistent and persistent. You need to have uniform branding across all channels for your branding to really stick.
If you're on a budget, you can just build your brand profile yourself following the guides that you can find online. If you have some money to work with, you can get creative agencies to build the brand guide for you, but get ready to spend anywhere between $10k to $60k for something really good.
You need a platform to sell your product. There are a variety of options you can choose from ranging from generic website builders to website builders specifically dedicated to eCommerce. Those designed for eCommerce have more built-in functions which make it quicker and easier for your store to launch and grow.
There's a handful of options out there, but none beat Shopify. You can get a 14-day trial here. I recommend just using a theme from the Shopify library. The free themes are perfectly fine when you're starting out and later, you can work with designers to build on top of those websites. We use Media Carry. If you need inspiration, I love browsing through Commere Cream to see what other brands' websites look like.
You also need to purchase a domain name, to direct your customers to, otherwise you'll have to use the default domain which typically includes something like yourname.myshopify.com. The downside to this is that it doesn't look trustworthy to the customer since every established store have a URL that relates to their brand. While it's important to choose a name that is memorable and allows customers to know what you are selling, it's also important that your name isn't too generic so it doesn't get lost amongst other similar businesses. A good balance between the two will maximize your search engine optimization (SEO) ranking.
Chances are, the domain that you want isn't available or cost an arm and a leg, so try putting some words in front of your brand to make it unique. For example, for Hint Water, instead of hint.com, they used drinkhint.com, or for Snow Teeth Whitening, they use trysnow.com since snow.com was taken.
Social media has grown immensely over the past few years and become a part of most people's day-to-day lives which serves as a huge opportunity for your brand. This includes opportunities to increase your brand awareness, connect with your customers on a more personal level, and use it as a storefront, and conduct transactions.
However, you don't need to be on every social media platform. It's more important to double down on your target audience's platforms than to spread yourself thin on all social media platforms. Conduct some research on your competitors to see which platforms are working for them and what kind of content is most successful.
At a minimum, you should have an Instagram/Facebook page, and a TikTok. You can use Twitter to build a different personality (like Wendys) and Pinterest for SEO.
I personally recommend Tiktok to everyone because of it's algorithm. Traditionally, as a brand you'd need to have followers to show your content to people. With Tiktok's algorith, your brand's content can get exposure to people who aren't even following you just because the algorithm determined that your content may be interesting to a particular group of people. It's the easiest platform to gain a following on, but not for long, so take advantage of it while you can.
Social media is an important part of your acquisition and retention efforts. It helps you bring in new customers but also nurtures the relationship with existing followers which in turn pushes them to make a purchase again. With advertising costs rising across the board, social media could be your chance to survive if done right.
Your products are at the forefront of your brand, so it's important to convey them in the best light. Unlike being in retail, your customers can only see your product through their screen, so make sure you present it in a way that is appealing and can elevate your brand's value. Think about the listings that you see on eBay versus something from an established website. The photos are drastically different in quality which makes you perceive them in different values.
The good news is that you don't need a professional photographer to make this work. If you have a good phone camera, you can take good pictures against plain backgrounds to edit them into presentable pictures. Here's a free class from Shopify on how to take good pictures.
If your product is used in action (workout clothing, camping gear, etc) I recommend showing them in the setting in which your customers would use them so you can help them visualize your product being used.
Don't overcomplicate the product description. You need to write the copy as if you're talking to the person face-to-face. Be genuine and get to the point, no one has the time to read through a story when they're buying a product. Use words that help people imagine the experience of using the product and tell people what the outcome is when they use the product instead of boring them with the technical details, those can come else where on the page. Good product descriptions include keywords that relates to your product and brand, which helps the page index better for Google and improves your SEO so people can find it better.
When launching a product collection, I recommend launching with at least four options to start so you can build credibility for the store. This can be different sizes, colors, or whole new products that are related to each other
I teach making products at Shopify:
In the beginning, you don't need fancy branded packaging. Normal brown boxes or mailers will suffice. Your money can be better spent on marketing, the fancy packaging can come later. Look at competitors with similar items and see what type of packaging they use. Do they also use paper or bubble wrap for safer shipping? Make sure your packaging can hold the average number of products your customers typically buy.
Later, when you want to elevate the packaging experience, you can think about your target market. Do they tend to be eco-friendly buyers who look for sustainable packaging? Or are they customers with high expectations, looking for a more high-end experience? Or are they the traditional customer who is fine with the basic brown packaging and you can save money?
You'll need creative designs for your website and marketing materials. Your website will need product photos, banners, and a logo and you'll need social posts and ads for your marketing materials. Depending on your product, you may or may not need to integrate videos as well.
If you want to create your own designs at a low cost, you can create your own designs on Canva. This graphic design platform is beginner-friendly and is constantly updated with new features. The free plan comes with thousands of templates and graphics that are more than enough to start off.
If you're looking to outsource designing, there are various websites to choose from. I recommend checking out designers' portfolios on Behance or Dribbble to see if you can contract them to work with you. Another option is to explore Instagram or Upwork to find artists that are suitable for your brand design direction. In the beginning, you most likely don't need a full time designer but you should always work towards bringing them in-house since the visual design of your brand is a key part to making your brand memorable.
The back-end is what powers the car: Finance, supply chain, marketing, team, apps
Make sure to have a separate bank account for your business. It makes it easier to keep track of your business records in the long run. When choosing a bank, look at different banks and compare fee structures and find one that matches your needs. For example, Mercury specializes in eCommerce banking and it's what we use for all our brands.
Before all of this, make sure you have your company incorporated in the state or province that you're living in so you can be compliant with doing business in that place. Afterward, you'll need to apply for an EIN if you're in the US or a tax ID anywhere else. This allows you to report your taxes properly and is a crucial part to getting a bank account.
Develop a system to keep a good record of your income and expenses. You can use something like Quickbooks online to start bookkeeping. When you break down your finances, you can better monitor the growth of your business and take advantage of tax deductions.
There's also sales tax to worry about. Tax obligations will depend on a variety of factors ranging from what type of business you own to how much taxes you own to where your business is located. Make sure you do your research so you don't miss any.
A supply chain consists of many parts, the main ones being manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and shipping carriers. If you're just starting your business, you'll probably be purchasing from wholesalers because they have lower minimums but once you've grown your business, you'll be able to buy directly from manufacturers.
After you figure out your products and know where to buy them from, make sure you build a good relationship with your vendors and logistics providers. Track your inventory properly using apps like Cogsy for inventory planning.
Depending on the volume of your orders compared to the cost of fulfillment you may or may not want to fulfill your own orders. You have the option to fulfill your own orders using an app like Shippo or if you want to outsource your fulfillment to a third-party logistics partner(3PL), I recommend Shipbob. You can get $500 in shipping credits with you sign up with the link.
Marketing is the effort of bringing awareness to a business selling a product or service. To have a successful marketing campaign, you must personalize it for the target customer and choose a strategy that fits your brand best. Marketing strategies can be divided between acquisition and retention.
Acquisition is when you bring in new customers to your brand. If you were to use Facebook ads, affiliate marketing, Snapchat or Tiktok ads, organic social media, or anything else that puts your brand in front of someone to draw them in, that would be acquisition.
Retention is nurturing people that are already a part of your brand in some form of an owned list. For example, using your email list or SMS list to send out marketing campaigns would be retention. I use Klaviyo for email marketing and Postscript for SMS marketing.
To grow your business, you need to figure out how to work on the business and hire people to work in your business.
Think about what work you need help for and how many hours per week does it take. Based on that, decide if you need a permanent or temporary employee. We started out hiring freelancers, and as we grew, we then hired agencies and eventually PT/FT employees. Hiring help also means dealing with tax and legal requirements, but you can use a program like Deel to manage and pay them to make the process easier.
You also need to consider fit as well. Create a plan and set goals for your hire to make sure they are a culture fit. Share your goals and vision with them so they can also share the same purpose. A bad hire can not only be a waste of time but also can be harmful to your business.
CX isn't just a phone call anymore; it includes any assistant brands you provide to your consumers, so this can range from your social media to FAQs on your website to your help desk. The quality of your CX will determine your consumers' brand loyalty, so having good CX will help you retain customers long term.
Make sure to listen to your customers and personalize your responses to them. Not only does this help develop relationships with your consumers, but also helps you predict future problems and find more efficient ways to resolve them whether that is providing more self-service options by updating your FAQ or developing a particular system to resolve that common problem.
You can either handle CX yourself or hire an agency to handle it. We use Gorgias to manage all our tickets and automate a big part of the process.
There's so much more to learn and it's the most exciting space to be in right now as more people are shopping online.
I teach a class on brand-building called Building Blocks where you can learn the exact framework I use. It's the same framework that I followed to build multiple multi-million dollar companies and I broke it down so you can follow the repeatable steps to build the brand of your dreams.
For everyone coming from this blog, use the code JWBLOG to get $2000 off the program (originally $2997). We offer a money-back guarantee if you go through the entire program and aren't satisfied.
Super proud to keep the stat that out of thousands of students so far, we have not had to refund anymore yet!