How to prepare yourself for success: the challenges of starting an e-commerce business

5 minute read

Matt White has been through a lot in five and a half tumultuous years as an e-commerce entrepreneur. The lessons he’s learned along the way are invaluable to anyone who aspires to success in the booming world of online sales.

White is the founder of Sussex Beard Oil, a line of men’s grooming products. Less than two years after he launched his online store in 2013, White’s sales suddenly shot up a whopping 300 per cent, the result of a successful appearance on the TV program Dragons’ Den.

Matt White, founder of Sussex Beard Oil Merchants, presents his products on Dragons' Den.

Matt White, founder of Sussex Beard Oil Merchants, presents his products on Dragons’ Den.

From his humble beginnings in Sussex, New Brunswick, to his chaotic experiences as an overnight national success story, to his current status as an established, evolving e-commerce retailer, here’s a closer look at White’s unique journey, and some helpful takeaways that will benefit any e-commerce beginner.

Getting started in online sales

An acknowledged novice when it came to computers and e-commerce, White took his first steps as an online salesman in the fall of 2013, using WordPress to set up his first e-store. The initial site was built by a Halifax-based designer White still uses to this day. Early on, White’s shipping processes were fairly rudimentary.

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“For the first two years I hand-wrote all the delivery addresses on envelopes, took the packages to the post office and paid whatever they asked me to pay,” he said.

Hitting it big

White taped his Dragons’ Den segment in April 2015. Before the program aired in November, he realized he needed to prepare for a potential surge in sales.

“As soon as I came home from the taping it was like I woke up to ‘Wait a minute, what if this really does happen? Am I ready?’ That’s when I started to look at putting better things in place.”

First, White hired a U.S. company to completely rebuild his website. He also joined Canada Post’s Solutions for Small BusinessTM program, giving him access to discounted shipping rates. At the urging of a Canada Post rep, he updated some of the plugins on his online store, allowing for better integration with Canada Post, and increased automation in his shipping processes. The result? Even with the massive spike in sales, “things started working seamlessly.”

“Now I have a system where an order comes in, I press two buttons and it spits out a shipping label that I can put on a package,” White said.

White’s extensive prep work proved vital when the business blew up right after his TV appearance, and orders started flooding in.

“We almost sold more in two weeks than I had the whole year to that point,” he said.

Having a reliable hosting service that was equipped to handle increased web traffic was another important part of White’s preparations.

“The night of the show, our site went crazy,” he said. “Our hosting company said we were number three that week among all the pages they hosted. They actually had an extra person watching our site all that night and the next day, just to make sure it wouldn’t crash. I trusted the right people in that case.”

Switching to Shopify

About a year ago, White’s contract with his hosting service was up for renewal, and some expensive changes were required to refresh his site.

“When people see all the publicity my company had, there’s an assumption I can just write a cheque to the moon, but I’m still bootstrapping it like everybody else,” White said. “It’s not that easy to pay $1,000 a month to host my site.”

White looked around for a better deal, and found one with Shopify. Overall, he’s happy with the move, and part of him wishes he’d done it sooner.

“If I had a staff member, I would say ‘Go find out if I’m getting the best deal and what else I should be doing,’” White said. “It’s hard when you don’t have full-time people on board to do those things.”

As someone who still considers himself a bit “digital awkward,” White particularly appreciates the down-to-earth attitude of Shopify’s support staff whenever he encounters a problem.

“Shopify knows that the person pushing the buttons on the other end probably isn’t a programmer,” he said. “With WordPress, I had to have a geek on call to translate anything I needed to get done.”

The physical side of virtual sales, and achieving customer action

Needless to say, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for White. “I made costly mistakes that put me behind,” he acknowledged. Over time, however, his understanding of e-commerce has evolved. One key lesson, White said, was learning to think of his online store as having certain physical attributes, and maximizing them in order to attract and convert customers.

Men’s beard grooming products from Sussex Beard Oil Merchants.

Men’s beard grooming products from Sussex Beard Oil Merchants.

“As soon as people go looking at my online store, it’s as if they’re walking down the street past by my shop window,” White explained. “That’s my landing page. And what did I put in my ‘window’ to make people want to stop and walk through my door?”

Of course, there’s still work to be done once those shoppers step inside. Over time, White has seen that having an attractive website doesn’t mean much if browsers never become buyers.

“The call to action was not happening,” White said of previous versions of his online store. “You just can’t just have a site that you like the looks of. It’s got to have a call to action. Am I asking somebody to make a decision?”

If he could do it all over again…

Solo entrepreneurs in many fields often feel obliged to control every aspect of their business. White has learned the value of getting experienced outside help in those areas where he lacks knowledge and expertise.

“Seek the experts,” he said. “Trust them. Let them do what they do. There are solutions people have already put together that would have saved me so many steps and so many headaches. I couldn’t get over myself quick enough to say ‘OK, I’m going to let somebody else guide this part.’ That’s typical with an entrepreneur who works by themselves. A lot of times you’re afraid to hand things over. If I could do something different, I would be quicker to hand things over to people who actually have the solution.”

Broadening appeal: selling to all kinds of customers

Some of the lessons White has learned about e-commerce have made him a better entrepreneur. For instance, he’s realized the importance of selling to more than one kind of customer. It’s a realization the beard oil merchant made after coming face-to-face with a bunch of non-bearded buyers at trade shows and other events.

“It’s mothers, wives, partners, sisters,” he explained. “They’re sometimes the majority of my customers. I was marketing to a bearded person, and not even thinking about the person buying for a bearded person. Just changing that nuance a little bit and thinking ‘What would be important for somebody buying for a bearded person?’ Well, flat-rate shipping is important. I started putting that out there a little bit more and it helped a lot.”

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