Online selling: lessons learned

My Etsy shop has been open for a year and a half now. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long! It seems like just yesterday that I was trying to decide if anyone out there would like the odd little things that I make. To say I’ve learned a lot would be an understatement…this has been a roller coaster of self-doubt, joy, frustration, hope, and confusion! Here are some of the biggest things I’ve learned so far about running an online micro-business:
 
1) There’s way more to it than crafting
 
It all sounds so easy at first: set up a shopfront, sew/crochet/draw/sculpt/paint some items, and you’re zooming off to the exciting world of online commerce! Whoa, not so fast, there, Speedy! Sure, making things is important, after all you couldn’t have a shop at all without some cool items to offer. But the sewing and painting is only one aspect of the many things that have to be done in order to run a successful online shop.
 
In huge corporate businesses, each job function is run by a person or department set aside specifically to do that function. There is a department to handle advertising and branding, another department that orders supplies and creates the items, one to photograph the items and handle presentation, one to write the text and other written material, one to manage the website, one to reach out with social media, one to handle boxing and shipping… Each person or group has a single function that they’re responsible for, and that’s all they do.
 
But in an Etsy shop? Guess what, all of those departments are ME! 🙂 I don’t have a crew of employees to delegate jobs to, so all of it falls on my shoulders. Every job function from creating to photography to marketing to shipping is equally important in the successful running of a business. An awesome handmade item is useless if it isn’t presented and photographed in an appealing way, advertised so that buyers know it exists and can find it, and shipped in a safe and timely fashion so the buyer can enjoy their purchase. If there’s a single link missing in the chain, the whole enterprise goes kablooey!
 
So that’s one thing that you have to understand and adjust to when running a shop. Of course I would prefer to spend my time designing and creating things, since that’s what I love doing. But running a one-person business means wearing ALL of the hats. You aren’t just the creator, you’re the photographer, marketer, shipper, and more. I’ve had to learn to build up my skills in these areas, and to budget for time to allow everything to get done. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it!
 
2) Photography
 
One of the biggest hurdles of running an online store is photography. Photography is absolutely essential, because the buyer can’t hold the item or see it in person. The photos are the only way they are able to determine if your item is the correct size, color, design, and materials that they are looking for. If a shop has dark or blurry photos, or if the item is presented in an unappealing way, the buyer is likely to give up and look elsewhere.

But if you’re anything like me, most people don’t have a super fancy professional quality camera, or have the skills to use it. I have a simple, older point-and-shoot digital camera, that I’ve traditionally used only for snapping quick photos of my family and pets. I’ll be blunt here: learning to take clear, appealing product photos is HARD. The good news is, the longer you do it, the better you get. My photography has gradually gone from terrible, to less terrible, to hey that’s not bad, to hey that’s actually pretty decent! It took many months of experimenting with types of light, time of day, white balance, different angles, backgrounds and who knows what else. For every photo used in my shop, there are at least 20 that didn’t make the cut!

Tip #1 that I’ve learned: Don’t give up! Even if you feel like your photos are crap, keep going. Work on learning your camera (you’d be surprised how much a cheapie point-and-shoot can do), learning about lighting, learning about backgrounds and how they affect your photos. You WILL get better. As an example, here is a necklace that I photographed over a year ago, and the same necklace photographed about a month ago with the same camera. At the time, the “before” pic was the best I could do. But I learned!

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Tip #2: Try everything! Don’t just snap one photo. Try pictures from every conceivable angle, move the item around so that the light hits it differently, try every background you can think of. With a digital camera you don’t have to worry about wasting film, so fill that sucker up with pics! Sometimes the best photo will surprise you; it might be the weird angle you thought would never work, or the background you thought would be too busy. Experimenting is a great tool in learning how to improve your photos. Here’s an example from my own work…I tried a variety of different backgrounds and light sources for this painted duck decoration, before finding one that I liked.

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3) Advertising

Again, it sounds so easy; build an online shop, and buyers will come! Unfortunately, it takes a little more than that. The Etsy forums are always littered with posts from new shop owners lamenting about their lack of sales. “My shop has been open for a month but I don’t have any sales. What am I doing wrong?” The truth is that there are hundreds of thousands of online stores, with literally millions of items available. Your shop is just a tiny speck of plankton swimming in a big, big, BIG ocean.

In the current online environment, you have to work to be seen. You may have wonderful items, beautiful photos, and fantastic customer service, but if buyers never get the chance to see your items, it’s all for nothing. Marketing is a huge part of running a successful shop. You can’t just sit around and wait for the buyers to come to you, you have to get your name and your items out there for people to see and fall in love with!

Marketing is another one of those skills that has to be learned. I’ve tried a lot of different advertising venues, from social media like Facebook and Pinterest, shopping sites like Wanelo, Etsy teams, and one attempt at a paid ad on a popular website. The results have varied a lot, and I’m still learning. But the key is to stick your neck out there and be seen! Also, keep in mind that the type of item you offer may affect how successful a particular venue is. For example, I’ve seen people have incredible success with Wanelo, but for whatever reason, my items just didn’t catch on there. As a result, I’ve stopped putting a lot of time into that site, and have been focusing on the sites that are more successful for my type of item.
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So that’s what I’ve learned during my shop’s first year or so of life. And I’m still learning something new every day! I’m always open to tips or feedback, so don’t be shy if you have something to suggest. 🙂

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My shop: PeachPod

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4 responses to “Online selling: lessons learned

  1. Your before and after pic example gives me hope for my own images. I only have a point and shoot camera and sometimes get frustrated with the quality of my pics and it seems like I’m never very happy with them. They are slowly getting better (my first pictures were terrible!) but I know they could be better. Do you use a photography light or all natural lighting?

    • I’ve tried artificial light, but I can never get it to look good at all. I try to stick with natural light; a cloudy day is great, or a shady spot on a sunny day. There are “daylight” bulbs that are supposed to imitate sunlight, but I’ve never tried them.

      I checked out your shop, and I think your photos are really good! They’re nice and bright, which I think is the hardest thing to do. Cute shop! 🙂

      • I usually photograph out in my back yard but the area with the best lighting is also the area with the most wind and it makes my pinatas spin while I’m trying to photograph them. I’ve been considering investing in some photography lights and moving the set up inside.

        Thank you! 😀

      • OMG, the wind drives me crazy too! My items are so small and light that sometimes they try to blow right off the table. 😛

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