6 things I learned from creating an
e-commerce product

Back in February of this year I set out to setup my own e-commerce store selling a very unique product — potted cacti. Bit different to the usual thing I do, since I’m a designer for web and digital. I’ve made my own apps and created digital products for a number of clients, but designing my own physical product and store was a completely different kettle of fish.

From idea to launch, in under 8 weeks, I had designed, produced and sold a new range of products under a brand I created called Cactus & Co.

So what happened then, why am I no longer running Cactus & Co? And what was Cactus & Co anyway?

Cactus & Co was an idea mentioned by my girlfriend that stuck in my mind — potted cacti shipped to peoples’ homes, offices and studios.

It was a simple idea, in principal, and an idea based on a current and growing trend. However the main reason for creating Cactus & Co was to see if I was able to design and create a physical product rather than something digital. And while I genuinely wanted to create something brilliant that became a success, the more important thing was the journey itself and what I might learn.

Turns out I learned a lot. I had some triumphs and I also made some mistakes. I’d like to share with you the things I discovered along the way to creating Cactus & Co and why I’m going to do it all over again but with another idea (minus the mistakes).

So on to the things I learned.

I strongly recommend setting impossible deadlines. I set a stupidly bonkers deadline of 8 weeks from idea to launch and it kept me focused and elimated any time to doubt the idea. An impossible deadline makes you cut out all the clutter, streamline your idea, simplify things and just generally makes you get shit done. In hindsight I could have probably cut my my deadline to four weeks. The outcome would have been exactly the same just less product to launch with, which leads me on to …

Whatever you think you need budget wise, halve it. Launch with less stock, simplify your idea, work on it for less days. With Cactus & Co I launched with 200 products! What a tit. I could have launched with 50 or even 25. I was too blinded by making a profit than I was just launching the damn thing. Launch better with less. Customers who want something but see it’s out of stock will wait, if it’s good enough. Demand is a powerful asset. Create demand, build hype. People usually share and comment on items they want but can’t have.

If you can rely on less people when setting up the better the outcome will be. You’ll also have only one person to blame if it all goes tits up. Make it yourself, take the photos, write the copy, draw it. As soon as I relied on someone else to make the pots for Cactus & Co it all fell apart, literally.

Some things are best left to the professionals, that’s true, however think carefully about if and why you need outside help. If you do have to deal with suppliers to bring your idea to life, the most important thing you can do is get everything in writing and get it signed.

A contract might take an hour to put together but could save you hours in the courts and a bucket full of cash. Explain your idea to your supplier, be honest with costs, markups etc. And then write it all down along with what you’ve asked them to do — then get them to sign it. This goes for everyone, from small solo craft makers to large manufacturers. If someone is doing something for you, get a contract in place.

The next thing is payment. While a deposit is common, try and not part with any cash up front. If you have to in order to work with your supplier, agree a deposit of no more than 30% with the remainder paid on delivery and inspection. If something is not right, send it back and don’t pay for it until it is. No matter what they say and how much time they say they’ve taken to do what you asked. It’s their problem for not managing their own output and not reaching the expectations you set out in the contract.

The first thing people see when your product arrives is a container, be it a box, tube or envelope. However, once your customer opens it what do they get? How do they get to the final stage of physically holding your product in their hands? These steps are a crucial experince of not just your product but also your brand.

With Cactus & Co every element was fiddly. From the fulfilment process of potting the plant, decorating it, wrapping it safely for shipping to then getting it into the custom tubes we had manufactured, all without damaging the plant — was a nightmare. It took hours to perfect and in the end the quickest we could fullfill an order was 15 mins. This might not sound that long, but when you run the numbers on the profit per unit I was making less than minimum wage. This whole process of paper, bubble wrap, string, tube, tape etc not only made it look ugly when people finally got it out of the tube but it took people about 15 mins to unwrap it. All the while with stones, soil and a few broken leaves scattered over their table. Bad customer experience.

So keep it simple. Ask a professional packaging designer to help if you have to. Don’t just think about wrapping it and sticking it in a box — think how the customer is going to unwrap it. Use less materials. Think about what the customer is left to dispose of (boxes, paper or in my case dirt and stones).

In hindsight the solution for Cactus & Co could have been to provide the plants and the pots seprately as a kit, with directions on how to assemble yourself. This would have saved on the time it took for me to assemble it, less materials in the packaging and a better experience for the customer.

Spending £50 on a prototype to test your idea is better than spending £500 to realise your idea doesn’t work. For some reason I chose not to create a prototype for Cactus & Co. I did some basic testing of the shipping which involved packaging it up and sending it to myself. But that was after I’d put in an order for 200 cacti and 200 pots. I should have tested everything from production to packaging — then tested it again. Instead I went with the first idea that popped in my head and then resolved issues on the fly.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Samuel Beckett

Can your idea grow? I don’t mean literally like my cactus plants. Can your product idea grow in scale? Can you go from shipping to 10 customers to 1,000? Can you ship to other countries? Can you easily sell your product wholesale — have you got the right margins in place to still make a profit if you do?

These are all things I neglected to consider with Cactus & Co. I was limited to selling to customers only within the EU due to laws with shipping organic matter. For example Australia and the US don’t allow soil from another country into their own. So potted plants are essentially banned. Plants that are not potted and individual seeds are ok. Who knew! Well, turns out I didn’t. This was a massive shame as Cactus & Co was getting some great interest from people across the pond and even on the other side of the planet.

Thinking about how you could expand production and delivery of your product should be at the top of your research. Keeping up with demand will make your life and bank balance more rewarding. You’ll also have a ton of happy customers, all sharing what a great experience they’ve had purchasing from you.

Setting up and running my own e-commerce brand was a lot of fun and something I’m defintely going to do again. Next time I’m going to follow all the points I’ve mentioned above. Will I be selling potted cacti again? Maybe. In the meantime I have a couple more ideas that I’d like to try. They might not work but that’s why I believe in Samuel Beckett’s quote — I’ll keep failing better each time until I get it right.

I would also like to thank everyone who purchased one of my spikey little fellas and showed support in what I was doing — it really meant a lot.

If you have an idea for a product or are in the process of setting up your business and need help with your branding or your website, or would just like some advice, I’d love to hear from you. When I’m not setting up cactus shops or other such ventures I can be found designing things for a number of happy clients from my studio in Brighton. You can find out more about me on my website and you can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article, please feel free to share it with anyone you know who might find it useful.

Thanks again,