Starting a Second Career Online

September 4th, 2012

A reader of Starting an Online Business for Dummies wrote me over the weekend. She is a former physician who is now an empty nester. Having just sent two young women to college, this had an impact on me. She is thinking about creating a website. She wrote:

“The more I read [your book], the more work seemed involved in doing an online business right. This is a second career for me and I really don’t want to put so much time into it right now. Can you recommmend a good quality consultant that I could hire to do most of the work to realize my business concept?”

In my book, I do profile a business planner, but he’s not really a consultant. It’s not something you can farm out to someone else. You have to be very involved and committed enough to test and revise your business to improve performance. On the other hand, there are businesses to help you. My response:

“Some of the e-commerce hosting services do provide customers with advice on their business. I’ve written about a number of these in ECommerceBytes (go there and search for my name, ecommercebytes.com). Try 3DCart (www.3dcart.com). Look up that article on ECommerceBytes. They are open to answering all sorts of questions from customers and they have lots of experience with online businesses. I don’t know anyone who will tell you if your idea is “good” or not. I am worried about your comment about not wanting to put time into it. I am not sure I would even get started if you aren’t prepared to put time and effort into it. Online businesses don’t run on their own and you need to keep up with them. Think about it, and then look into 3DCart.”

In other words, find a shopping cart/e-commerce hosting service that will answer questions and give you advice. More tomorrow.

I was recently asked, how much can you make by selling online. You don’t often find someone who has the b— (I mean, guts) to actually answer this question. It helps if you’re actually making money online, I suppose. I mean, if you’re not raking in income, why talk about it?

Anyway, John Saddington answered this question on his Tentblogger blog (www.tentblogger.com). This site is a gold mine when it comes to creating and marketing a blog. John also sells products online, so his e-commerce strategy is pretty diversified.

In this post, John projected that his income from blogging and online sales of products like WordPress themes would come to $44,000. He is able to support a wife and child just from blogging. Now, this was just a projection. I asked him for an update as to the real figure. I’ll report back on what he says.

When I think about this, I can’t help but wonder, having written 40-odd books, where I would be if I had started blogging in earnest five or ten years ago–when my agent was telling me to do just that. But there’s no point in going there. What are the takeaways I get from Tentblogger’s example?

  1. Diversify. Don’t just do one thing. John sells ads, products, consults, is an affiliate, etc.
  2. Make Connections. I’m starting to sound like a broken record, I know. But blogging, and connecting with vendors, sellers, and colleagues, is the way to build a platform. And that platform leads to revenue. In Saddington’s case, it leads to a lot of ad revenue.
  3. Be open. Don’t keep secrets. Let people know about yourself and what you do. Get personal. That’s what keeps people coming back to this guy’s blog. Share, and you’ll get back in the form of comments, visits, RSS subscriptions, and hopefully purchases.
  4. Make an every-day commitment. That’s what I’m doing now, and that’s what gives your blog, your website, and your store value. Not only does it help your SEO, but it gives people a reason to keep visiting you.

This fellow also obviously has fun with his site. He has nice cartoons of himself, and funny photos. You should do the same, even if you only sell products in a single online storefront. Talk about yourself; get a little personal; use humor; you’ll grab people and keep them coming back to you in the future. Stay with it for a long period of time. If you are blogging, Saddington suggests waiting at least six months before you even attempt to take out ads. (He had the requisite number of unique visitors, 250 per day, at only three months, however. I’m nearly there and I’ve only really been blogging in earnest for less than one month.) Eventually, you’ll start to generate sales.

In my recent list of ways to sell online without a website, I neglected to mention Payvment. This is a full-fledged e-commerce platform designed especially to work on Facebook.

ECommerceBytes has an article today on Payvment and a new feature called polling. Polls enable sellers to instantly create polls about the kinds of products they’re selling. There’s also a “Want” button that shoppers can add to an item listed for sale. If a friend sees that you want the item, hopefully, that friend will end up buying it for you. It’s another way of integrating social media and selling–and that doesn’t involve setting up a website.

My short news article on The Workshop at Macy’s is online at ECommerceBytes. You can apply for this program until Jan. 22. You need to be a female or minority designer of fashion, accessories, or other household items that can be sold in a retail environment like Macy’s.

We were hoping this would be something that mom-and-pop entrepreneurs could apply for. Winners get to go to New York for a few days of intensive business consulting and training. I was assured by Macy’s itself that it isn’t like that.

Apparently you already have to have a business of some sort, and possibly even a small boutique, to be chosen for the program. I found Nyla Simone, who was selected for the program last year. She designs custom furniture in Tempe, Arizona.

I neglected to mention one more way to make money without a website. It’s something I wrote a whole book called Affiliate Millions about it with Anthony Borelli, who is the guru in this field. It’s placing very cleverly written Google AdWords ads, and other affiliate ads, that get people to click on them–a lot. With each referral, you make money.

Tony has made a lot of money this way. It’s not for the fainthearted though. It can be a little like day trading: you can lose a lot of money if people click and click on your ad and never take an action that generates an affiliate fee for you (in other words, they never make a purchase, they never take out a subscription, etc.). When it works, though, it can be very exciting. You can find out more about it on his website.

Update: I thought of one more option for making money without a website. How could I forget that I co-wrote a whole book about this?

Amazon.com,Facebook, WordPress, storefronts, and e-commerce marketplaces: These are all potential “home bases” for you online. I used to write that you had to have a website in order to make money online. And websites are still important, don’t get me wrong. But there are a lot more options available these days. Here are some examples:

eBay

This is sort of the obvious place to start an online business. You can create an eBay Store, or you can simply list dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of products on this venerable marketplace without having a formal store. eBay is great as a starting point for anyone wanting to learn how to do business online. But more and more people, turned off by its fees and cumbersome rules for sellers, are turning to other venues to find customers.

Add on to Amazon.com

Some people–booksellers in particular–sell their books by adding them to Amazon.com marketplace listings. Their products show up here:

I wrote an article on ECommerceBytes about several sellers who, to my knowledge, don’t sell through a website, but primarily through Amazon, Alibris, and ABEBooks.
Marketplaces

If you open a storefront on eCrater, Bonanza, or Webstore.com, you don’t need to create your own full-fledged website from scratch. The marketplace gives you a head start

WordPress or Another Blogging Platform

A blog can take the centerpiece of your online presence. A platform as robust as WordPress can host a blog and lots of web pages. essentially, it is a website, but one that you can update by posting on a regular basis. My Buddhist meditation group, Jewel Heart, uses WordPress for all of its website content. In fact, if there is a blog on this site it’s a very minor part of the content.

A Facebook Kiosk

Facebook is good for marketing and networking and just having fun. Some people use it for e-commerce, too. You can sell on Facebook through an online kiosk. I’ve written about her before, but Kharisma Ryantori uses her Facebook page to advertise, and sell, her jewelry designs, as shown  below.

Twitter: Sell Simp.ly

You can do more and more with Twitter. Some dedicated Tweeters advertise and sell products through the site in short and sweet sales listings. Read about it in this article on the site called Sell Simply.

The bottom line: you need a “home base”, but that doesn’t mean you need to create a website from scratch. You can grow into a website, but you don’t have to start there. Start by piggybacking onto someone else’s site, whether it’s eBay, eCrater, Facebook, or Twitter. Get used to creating sales listings and handling a few transactions. Then you can create a website with confidence–and link to your various marketplaces from it, so can you boost your SEO.

Pricing merchandise is one of the key functions for anyone who sells online, whether you have a few items for sale on eBay or Amazon, or whether you operate a full-featured store with a 1000-item catalog.

Assigning the right prices and staying competitive with those prices can be a frustrating and time-consuming proposition. You want to make a profit, so your price has to be higher than what you paid for the item you’re selling (unless, of course, you’re unloading inventory that never sold in the first place). But it needs to be either the lowest available or at least very close to the lowest when compared to your competitors.

The difference is often a matter of a few cents–or even one cent. Take a look at one of my own books, which you can find on Half.com. It’s kind of painful to look at the prices being offered when you consider that the book sold for about $24.99 retail when new. But this is an old edition and out of print.

If you can’t read this, I’ll tell you that the four prices for this brand new book are (sigh) $1.89, $1.00, $0.99, and $0.97. (You wonder why I don’t write books for a living any more?) Let’s suppose that, for some reason, you wanted to buy this particular edition of this book. Would you pay $1.89 when you can pay $1.00? Would you pay $0.99 when you can pay $0.97?

That’s the problem lots of businesses face, but on a much larger scale. I just spoke to the owner of a company in Wisconsin who has hundreds of items in his product catalog and who sells on eBay. He and his employees used to scan through listings manually and adjust prices so they were the lowest. But the manual route is extremely time-consuming.

“Even if you factor only 2 minutes per product with 200 products you’re talking about over 13 hours a day of work if you do it twice a day,” says the businessperson, who asked to remain anonymous. “Never mind the fact if you tried to pay someone to do that all day every day they would be burnt out before the first week is over.”

Once you get past 100 items in your catalog, it pays to pay a little money for a pricing tool. This sort of tool can be configured to search for items similar to yours and make sure you have the prices you want. You can tell the tool you want to be the lowest, second lowest, or third lowest. You can tell the tool to make sure your items are one cent lower in price than those of your competitors. Here are two such tools:

  • In ECommerceBytes recently, editor Ina Steiner wrote about a pricing tool for Amazon.com sellers, Teikametrics.
  • I just interviewed the developer of a pricing product for eBay called PriceSpectre.

I’ll be writing about PriceSpectre in more detail after that article comes out. The point is, no matter how much you sell, once you put your items online, keep checking prices against the competition to make sure you’re positioned correctly–especially if you are in a super competitive field like electronics, digital media, or books. Whether you do it manually or use an automated software program, you’ll end up with more sales. Even if your profit margin is a little lower than it would be otherwise, you’ll be better in the long run because you’ll have more loyal customers and hopefully more repeat business.

Here’s my idea of the day. You can have it for free (for what it’s worth): BookBox. It’s based on the Redbox movie rental system. I went to a Redbox last night and impressed my daughters: “Where does the movie come out of?”

So, at a time when bookstores are struggling, why not a BookBox? Put it next to the Redbox. Put in some best sellers as well as some literary award winners. Swipe your credit card, and out it comes. I walked past the old Borders on North State. All the awnings are still up but the place is totally empty…so sad.

The name “Book Box” is already being used at a wonderful place in Chicago. It’s actually one of my favorite bookstores: Shake, Rattle, and Read, on North Broadway. Here’s a good image of the store at night. They specialize in pulp fiction.

Shake, Rattle, and Read Book Box

Banks have been getting a bad rap. They’ve also (happily) been having a lot of their ability to charge excessive fees taken from them.

At least one is looking for new opportunities by getting into e-commerce. Not by opening an eBay Store, but rather, by helping other people open online stores. Chase Bank has launched an Instant Storefront Solution, and I write about it on ECommerceBytes. If you’re looking for a merchant account that enables you to accept credit cards, this is a good way to get it. It’s based on the popular Miva merchant platform. BTW, check out the killer graphic by David Steiner that accompanies this article: “Just Add Inventory”!

Maxine Durkee, owner of the Heavy Weight Collections online store, says Chase Instant Storefront gives her site’s shopping experience a sense of security.

“Our banker was visiting our retail store during our beginning months and he mentioned that they had developed a relationship with Miva Merchant and I should take a look,” she told me. “When I checked them out, I saw that I would have lots of freedom with design and a basic starting point had already been developed if needed. They gave you a choice of a free template upon signing up and didn’t lock me into some long contract if I decided the solution wasn’t what I needed. We already had a design idea so I selected a template that was close to what we wanted to start with and we gave it a try.”

As you might expect, there are fees associated with opening a Chase storefront. The $100 setup fee is sometimes waived during promotions. And there’s a $39.95 fee for hosting. Then there are transaction fees. Sounds like Chase Bank, all right!

You may also have seen commercials for Chase offering a QuickPay product in which one person can transfer money to another person. To my surprise, there’s no fee being charged for this. It also sounds a little like the InspirePay service I wrote about recently, in which artists can get paid for their work by people who want to pay them online. InspirePayj, though, lets you set up a “Pay Me” or similar button on your website, so it’s not quite the same thing.

Here are my top tips for selling on eBay:

  • Take lots of photos. Photos sell better than text. Always include more than one photo. Try to get closeups. Pay attention to lighting, and arrange a background that contrasts with what you’re selling.
  • Get detailed with your description. Yeah, I’m a writer, so I’m prejudiced, but think about it. Aren’t you more likely to buy something if the seller talks up how it feels or how it works, and describes its unique features? Be enthusiastic; tell the world why you like what you have to sell and what it will do for them.
  • Go for quantity, not quality. The only way to make a consistent income on eBay is to get multiple items online, not just one or two or three. Don’t try to make everything perfect. Just get it online. You can fix it later.
  • Automate. Come up with a system for getting multiple sales online: a Web site template; a photo studio; software that will streamline your listings and get many of them online at once.
  • Get help. Don’t try to do everything yourself. You’ll quickly get exhausted and stop selling. Get your kids or family members to help; if that fails, hire a student or friend.
  • Choose brand names sell. Get to know the top sales items in your area of interest. Learn all you can about unusual and distinctive products that people will want. Try to find them at wholesale so you can offer them online.
  • Remember that the customer is king. …and queen too. Whatever someone wants, give it to them if you can. Give them a refund. Give them new photos. Answer questions quickly. Personal responses and personal attention leads directly to sales.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. If someone returns an item, accept it and move on. If someone complains, apologize. Don’t get bogged down in arguments and negotiations. It’s not only bad business, but it’s not worth the trouble and will distract you from selling and fulfilling sales.
  • Be passionate about what you sell. People always ask me what they should sell online. Sell what you love. After all, you’ll be spending many hours per week surrounded by these items. Make sure you love them yourself—or are at least moderately interested in them. Your interest will help you get your work done.
  • Expand to multiple channels. Don’t just stick with eBay auctions. Open a store. Try sites like Bonanzle and iOffer. Sell through your own Web site. Make all your online stores point to one another. The more points of sale you have online, the better your chances of success.