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...
We've already covered the working in pyjamas thing, so here are some of the other great things about building your own Ecommerce business:
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.
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.
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?
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:
Here’s how to get your first sales under your belt.
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...
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...
For more on how to take great photos, see our guide to taking photos for your listings.
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...
For a detailed discussion of how to write listings that sell well, see our guide to writing powerful product listings.
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.
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:
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].
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
See our Finding a Supplier section for a detailed guide to finding the right supplier for you.
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.
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?
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!
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:
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.
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.
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:
Additionally, here are some great blogs to follow that frequently post content to help you along your online selling journey:
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.