Getting Started

The beginners' guide to starting a business selling things online

Want to start selling on eBay, Amazon (or somewhere else), but don't know where to start? You're in the right place! Our ten-minute guide to the world of online selling will show you where to start, and how to do it right

So you’re interested in selling stuff online, eh?

Perhaps you have dreams of quitting the rat-race to start your own eBay or Amazon business (which obviously involves waking up at 10am, working in your pyjamas, taking long weekends whenever you like, and answering to nobody because you're the boss...)  

Or perhaps you just want a few extra bucks in your back pocket. 

Whatever your reason for wanting to get started, Ecommerce offers huge opportunities for anyone with an internet connection. Of all the ways of making money online, it's perhaps one of the easiest to understand and get started with.

But (like everything) it does come with its pros and cons. 

 First, let's start with the good stuff... 

What makes selling online so great?

We've already covered the working in pyjamas thing, so here are some of the other great things about building your own Ecommerce business:

  • You can work from home, make your own hours, and choose how far you want to take it. Maybe you just want a few extra dollars, or maybe you want to replace your day job and build an online empire. It's up to you. There's no glass ceiling, and no boss to suck up to. It's freedom.
  • It's something you're probably already familiar with. Most of us will have bought or sold something online before. You understand how it basically works. This makes selling online an easier skill to grasp than many other home business options.
  • You can follow your own interests. Are you passionate about fly fishing? Cake decorating? Refurbishing antique dolls? When you start selling online, you can often turn your passions into a profitable business. Can you imagine making a living from the things you love? Many people who run their own online selling businesses are doing just that — they're living the dream!
  • It’s not as difficult or risky as starting a "traditional" business. You won’t have to invest a ton of money into getting it started, and you won’t have to worry about buying or leasing a physical property. It has a very low barrier to entry (to use business-speak), which means practically anyone can give it a go.
  • You don’t even have to worry about storing inventory if you don’t want to! (Hint: It’s called dropshipping, and I’ll get to that later!)
  • It’s fun! At least, we think it is.

... And the downsides?

Like anything in life, selling online comes with its downsides. It's important you're aware of these before you get begin, so you set yourself realistic expectations. 

  • It takes time. You won’t go out of the gate with 100 sales in your first day. It may take you a month or two to start seeing some consistent results. So you'll probably need to hold fire on giving the one-finger salute to your boss. 
  • There's a learning curve. You might have sold a few things online before, but doing it professionally means you need to step up your game. Having said that — it's not too difficult to understand. Just be prepared to make a few mistakes along the way! 
  • You wear all the hats. As a business owner, you’re an incredible team of one (at least to start out.) You’ll have to be the accountant, marketer, web designer, and everything else. This also means that you shoulder all the responsibility. If something goes wrong, you're the one who has to fix it.  
  • It's not totally passive. This isn't a "set and forget and collect a paycheck" kind of business. You'll hopefully be dealing with regular sales, regular shipments, and regular customer inquiries. Until you can afford to hire staff, you'll probably need to be very involved in your business. (So those four-day weekends might need to wait.) 

If you're after a get-rich-quick scheme, this probably isn't it. But if you're happy to spend a little time building a reputation, developing your brand, and optimizing your processes... the sky is the limit.  

Ready for the challenge?

Great! You’re about to embark upon an amazing journey. With enough elbow grease and a little bit of persistence, you could be handing in your two week notice at your regular job, and taking your business full-time.

So where do you even start?

Getting started: Selling things around the house

The first thing I’d recommend you do is to jump on eBay (or your local equivalent) and try selling some things you have lying around the house.

Why should you start by selling household bits and bobs, rather than diving straight in with the stuff you really want to sell?

There are a few good reasons to do this first:

  • You'll get some feedback as a seller. People are often wary of new sellers, and this will give you some notches on your belt so people will feel comfortable buying from you.
  • You'll get experience. You’ll learn how to create listings, take photos, and deal with customers.
  • You'll get some extra cash. You can put these earnings towards your first “real” stock purchase.

Here’s how to get your first sales under your belt.

Step 1: Find the things you want to sell

You might not think you have anything around the house worth selling, but don't be so hasty. One man's trash is another man's treasure, as they say. If you're not sure where to start, see Anastasia Andrzejewski’s eBay article about what to sell on eBay. Loads of good ideas in there.

A word of advice: If you find something you think might sell but you're not sure, check eBay to see if someone else is selling it. Chances are if someone else is selling it, you can too. Even if they’re not, it’s worth a shot!

Once you've rustled up your quality second-hand goods, move onto the next step... 

Step 2: Take pictures.

The foundations of a good product listing are the pictures!

They don’t have to be taken with a top-of-the-line camera, and you don't need a fancy studio setup. Your phone camera will probably work just fine. The most important thing is that the images are clear and people can see what they're buying. And for this you just need a little common sense... 

  • Use a plain-colored background: Having other stuff in the background of your photos can be distracting and off-putting. Keep the focus on the product itself by minimising background distractions. For small items you could just use a sheet of white paper. 
  • Keep the camera still! Blurry photos are the worst! Normally this happens because you don't have enough light, which means every tiny shake of your hand blurs the photo. You can solve this by putting your camera on a steady surface, using a tripod, or moving into an area with better lighting.
  • Take pictures from every angle: You can’t always tell everything about a product from just one photo, so give your customers a few. This helps them build a picture of the product in their mind. 
  • Show the product being used: For example, if it’s a used shirt, take some shots of someone wearing it rather than just laying it flat.
  • Use more than one photo: The more photos you provide, the better your chance of making a sale.

For more on how to take great photos, see our guide to taking photos for your listings.

Step 3: Write descriptions for your goods

You've got your goods, you've got your photos. Now you need a good description to seal the deal. Don't be stingy with your product description — Just saying "Good, used condition" probably isn't going to cut the mustard. 

Remember that people are buying your product without getting to see it or hold it, so make up for this with a detailed description. Try to mention... 

  • What it’s made out of: If you’re selling a necklace (for example), let your visitors know it’s real sterling silver, or real gold. Tell them exactly what materials are in it.
  • How big it is & how much it weighs: Include the dimensions of the item as well as the weight for context. You don’t want people returning it and complaining it’s not as big as they thought.
  • Are there any flaws or damage? This is particularly relevant when you're selling used goods from around the house. Make sure you show these in your photos if possible, so your customers don't get a nasty surprise and return your item (or worse... leave you negative feedback!)
  • What the benefits are to the buyer (Important!): Your visitors don’t care about “how amazing this product is”. They want to know what's in it for them! So make sure your "features" are closely followed by the "benefits". ("Sturdily constructed umbrella: Won't turn inside out in a gale!")
  • Emotion-filled wording: Evoke strong emotions in the visitor. Don’t tell them it’s made of sterling silver. Tell them it’s made of "dazzling sterling silver, to make you the envy of everyone in the room".

For a detailed discussion of how to write listings that sell well, see our guide to writing powerful product listings.

Step 4: Create your listing in eBay (or your local equivalent)

With a pile of stuff, pictures and descriptions ready, it’s time to list them for sale online! (So exciting!)

The actual nitty-gritty details of how you list something in an online marketplace really depends on which marketplace you’re using, so I won't bog you down in details right here. If you’re selling on eBay and you need a step-by-step guide, check out our guide to listing your first item on eBay.

Step 5: Make those sales!

Once your listings are created and online, it's just a matter of waiting to see if they sell. If they don't sell, just re-list them. You can usually use exactly the same listing, so you don't need to re-write it.

If your products do sell, package those goods well and send them off to your customer as soon as you can. Now is your chance to wow your customer with your careful packaging, swift shipping and great customer service. Remember that part of your mission here is to earn some good feedback, so be nice! 

One thing I like to do is to email my customer, asking them to leave me some feedback. I usually find this gives me a much higher response rate than if I just relied on the automated email that eBay sends on my behalf. 

I'll usually send my customer an email like this:

Hey there!

Thanks for purchasing [PRODUCT]!

I just wanted to reach out to you to make sure it arrived on time and in good shape. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch. Also, if you found the process easy, I'd really appreciate it if you give me a review by going to [LINK TO REVIEW].

Thanks!
[MY NAME]

 

***

Once you've made a few sales of things from around the house, you'll have a taste of what it’s like to be an online seller. You should have received some feedback from your customers (which will make you less scary to your future customers), and you will have learned some good lessons about what works and what doesn't work for you. Hopefully you also have a little extra money in the bank! 

If you haven't been scared away by this process yet (and if you find yourself hungry for more!) then you might want to go professional with your online store.

How to take the next step and start selling professionally

Are you feeling the buzz yet? 

If you're loving the process of selling things online, and you feel like it's something you might want to do for a living, it's time to get serious and start building your own online business. 

The process of getting started goes like this:

  1. Find a product to sell
  2. Find a supplier
  3. Making it legal
  4. Choose which channels you want to sell on

Choosing a Product to Sell

The big difference between selling stuff from around the house and "going pro" is where you get your goods. Obviously you're going to run out of stuff around the house to sell, and when that happens — you'll need inventory. 

Deciding what to sell is often the hardest part of the entire process, and certainly the most time-consuming. Of the billions of products out there, how do you know which one to sell?

For the full run-down on choosing a product to sell, see our “What to sell?” section. But in general, you're looking for a product that meets these requirements: 

  • You can make a profit on it: Pretty obviously, you're looking for a product that you can sell for less than what you paid for it. Don't forget to factor in things like shipping, packaging, and marketplace fees. 
  • There is reasonable demand for it: You're also looking for a product where there are a decent number of people who want to buy it (so you can make a regular profit). One of the common mistakes new sellers make is diving into selling a particular product without checking demand. Don't be that person stuck with is a garage full of things you can't sell! 
  • The competition is not too intense: Competition can really drive down your profits, particularly when there isn't enough demand to meet it. When a bunch of sellers are competing for a small pool of buyers... things can get ugly. Often it's better to look for smaller niche markets, rather than trying to go into the really big, popular markets

I highly recommend reading over the in-depth guide Shopify created to choosing your first product. They walk you through the entire process of choosing, testing, and launching your product.

Finding a Supplier

Once you have a good idea for a product, the next step is to find a supplier for that product. You buy the product from the supplier for less, and sell it on eBay, Amazon or some other marketplace for more. 

Finding a supplier is probably the second most time-consuming part of selling online, and also comes with a raft of boobytraps to avoid... so be careful. 

There are two main ways to look for suppliers:

  • Google search: This method is free, but can be labor-intensive. If you just search for "[product] supplier" "[product] wholesaler", or "[product] manufacturer" you'll probably turn up a lot of results to wade through. This is where it gets tricky: Often the best suppliers aren’t very good at marketing themselves (and their websites will look pretty terrible) so they can be hard to find. Plus you have to be wary of slick-looking scam artists. Proceed with caution.
  • Wholesale directories: Like SaleHoo. Directories maintain lists of wholesale suppliers, often categorised and searchable. This makes it easier to find suppliers for whatever you’re looking for. Good directories will be very good at doing background checks on suppliers to make sure they’re not going to run away with your money. Many will charge a membership fee, but this can be well worth the cost with the time and money it will save you.

See our Finding a Supplier section for a detailed guide to finding the right supplier for you. 

Contacting a supplier

Once you've identified some prospective suppliers, (I like to have at least 2 supplier options up my sleeve, and ideally 3 or 4), it's time to get in touch. 

I recommend that, wherever possible, you always opt for a telephone call. Email is OK, but it doesn’t give you that personal interaction which can help you determine the legitimacy, expertise, and professionalism of potential suppliers. And these are all things you need to know when you're giving someone a bunch of money. 

If the idea of calling up a supplier gives you the willies, see our guide to contacting a supplier. We'll talk about what to expect, what to ask, and red flags that might indicate the supplier is not so good.

Negotiating with suppliers

Found a suitable-looking supplier? Great. Time to get down to business and negotiate your deal.

Remember that your goal is to be able to source your products for less than what you'll eventually sell it for. So every little discount you can get will count towards your profits — and it can really add up.

So how do you get a better deal from your supplier? 

  • Order in bulk: Obviously, the more you order, the better the price you can negotiate. If you’re just starting out this might not be such an option, but it's something to consider for later, if this product seems to be working out well for you. 
  • Develop a relationship with your supplier: As you work with your supplier and show them you’re serious and consistent, most of them will help you out by offering discounts and other bonuses. If they don't offer... try asking. If your business is valuable to them, they'll try to keep you happy. 
  • Buy from the source (the manufacturer) if possible: If you can afford to order in bulk, buying directly from the manufacturer of the product (rather than a wholesaler) will get you the absolute best prices. If you're not in a position to buy a whole bulk order, consider splitting the cost with other sellers. You can sometimes find partners on wholesale forum sites (like SaleHoo's members' forum) and arrange to split a shipment. 

Now that you’ve decided on what product you want to sell and who you’re going to buy it from, it’s time to make everything official and legal!

Making It Legal

it's important to check the legal requirements in your country or state for small businesses selling online. You might need to register a business name (or file a "DBA" in the U.S), and you may need additional licences when dealing with suppliers. 

See our Business Basics section for more on getting your business set up. Some things you’ll probably want to do include:

  • Choosing a business name
  • Applying for a tax ID or reseller licence 
  • Choosing the right business structure

Choose Which Channels You Want to Sell On

Now that you know what you’re selling and you’re set up legally, it’s time to choose where you want to sell.

The two big marketplaces most people start with are eBay and Amazon.

  • eBay: You’re quite possibly already familiar with eBay the big daddy of the online auction sites. Ebay is great for selling certain kinds of products: It's fantastic for used goods, and great for one-off items you've purchased from liquidation sales (that's when a store is getting rid of a bunch of old stock, or going out of business). The thing with eBay is that prices can be pretty low, and for many products it can be hard to make a profit. So you need to make sure you're choosing the right product.
  • Amazon: Amazon is a little more “high end” than eBay because they have a much more rigorous screening process you have to go through to sell on their platform. But you can sell products at a much higher price than eBay, they have more site traffic, and people will see you as an actual store, rather than just a Regular Joe selling bits and bobs from around the house. Also, Amazon has their FBA (fulfilled by Amazon) program which you can use to have them store and ship your products for you. This can allow you to grow your business without needing to hire more staff to help you pack and ship goods. 

Even though eBay and Amazon are the big players, there are quite a few alternative marketplaces you might also want to look into. Check out these alternatives to eBay and Amazon.

One last option is to set up a store on your own website. Having your own store gives you greater freedom, less competition and no seller fees, but it's a little trickier to set up. See setting up your own webstore to figure out whether this is something you want to do. 

Where to from here?

Once you’re set up and selling, now it’s time to focus on marketing and growing your new store. You need to develop your brand: Show people what you’re about and give them a reason to buy from you rather than you competitors.

Look into advanced strategies for increasing your eBay sales or your Amazon sales.

You may want to start considering your pricing and shipping strategies.

Finally, if you’re selling on your own webstore, you need to focus on social media, email, and content marketing to get customers to your store and keep them coming back. 

Now that you’re up and running, here are some additional resources to help you out:

  • Tips on shipping and packaging
  • Tips for importing into the U.S.
  • Tax basics
  • Other strategies to help your eCommerce store

 

Additionally, here are some great blogs to follow that frequently post content to help you along your online selling journey:

 

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Hopefully this getting started guide has helped you understand the basics of selling online, and gotten you your first sale! 

Ecommerce is a fantastic (and fun) way to make some extra cash online — and potentially build a full-time income. It also gives you the freedom to be your own boss and do something you really love. 

If you're prepared to spend some time learning and giving it a go, get started by figuring out what you're going to sell. Head on over to our "What to sell" section to begin your journey. 

Have fun! 

 

Learn more about selling online

Selling on eBay

Beginner and advanced training on how to get started and boost your sales on eBay

Selling on Amazon

Should you sell on Amazon? Get all the answers you need, plus tips for sales success.

Importing and shipping

Get the best deals on hot selling items by importing! Learn the essentials here

 

Product sourcing

Our guide to dealing with suppliers (and getting the best wholesale prices possible!

Business setup

Do you have to pay tax? Should you set up a company? Get answers here

Your website

Break free from eBay fees and sell on your own website. We show you the easy way