Launching and Selling My First Online Business
At the moment I am sat in a coffee shop. Sipping a piping hot flat white. Blogging. Two years ago I didn’t dare to blog. I didn’t know what a flat white was. I saw people writing in coffee shops only in American movies.
Movies and books have always been a window to a world so far away, so different from the Italian countryside. It looked almost fake, impossible to reach.
I grew up looking at people working for companies, complaining about companies, maybe leaving companies. I never thought about starting businesses. I am too introverted, too shy, probably born in the wrong part of the world. Starting businesses, selling them, making money: all stuff that belonged to that almost-fake world I saw in the movies.
At least that’s what I thought.
In the last two years, so many things have changed. I have learned so much and I have pushed myself to places I never dared to think I could reach.
Now I can happily say that I was lucky enough to have been involved in the launch of a business, in the process of making it successful and in selling it. Not a life-changer, but I do feel like my life took a completely new turn.
Where it all started
I moved to the UK to become a developer, not an entrepreneur. I looked for a creative agency. With time it became more an Internet marketing agency. Our targets changed, my interests changed, but that is still our background.
We thrived making other small businesses successful. From creating an awesome brand identity to building a website. From copywriting and blogging to marketing.
We grew confident that we could really help any business. Clients came to us with an idea and, after less than a year, the majority of them had a successful online business. This made us really proud. We really loved helping all these people achieving what they deserved. They had the idea, we had the tools to transform the idea into something tangible and successful. It felt awesome.
It didn’t really last, though. A couple of difficult clients. A couple of projects that maybe we shouldn’t have accepted. Some mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes.
We found ourselves not enjoying client work as we used to. We were still busy and fairly successful, but we felt like we were missing something. We felt we were slightly underachieving.
We knew it was time for us to start our own online business. Put ourselves on the line. Use our skills to develop our own idea and make it thrive.
My business partner, James, always defined us as idea people. We love coming up with new ideas. It’s our thing.
Our strong point is coming up with a concept, making it viable and executing it. We adore the sensation of diving into a new project. It can be totally addictive.
That’s why having the idea for a new side project wasn’t too hard to find.
One of our biggest passions is stationery. Especially indie, weird stationery you can’t normally find on the High Street. We’ve always had our office stacked with really nice items and spent a lot of time online looking for some new stuff.
Why not start sharing this with other people transforming this love into a business?
That was the idea we were looking for.
We decided to start a stationery subscription box. It had everything we needed: something we were passionate about, a trendy business model and potential to grow.
The last thing we needed was a name. At this point we usually struggle quite a bit, but in this case James already had it in his mind: Moustache Stationery.
Simple. Easy. Trendy.
We had everything we needed!
Setting It Up
Once we agreed the concept, we didn’t need endless meetings. We were ready to dive in and give it a shot.
The first thing we wanted to do was prove our concept could work. We loved the idea of a subscription box for stationary lovers, but was anyone prepared to buy our product?
If we had to fail, better fail early. No need to invest massive amounts of money and time on something that wasn’t meant to work. We outlined our business model, set a price for our box and we were ready to get our hands dirty with some work.
Our initial set up was as simple as possible: a single landing page with a PayPal button. It took us no more than an afternoon to set up. We mocked up a basic logo, set up a WordPress installation and used a plugin to set up a landing page.
Now, you don’t even need a full WordPress website to do this. An old-school single HTML page would do the trick. Our choice was dictated by the fact that we already had a license for LeadPages. This meant having ready-to-go landing page templates, already optimised for conversions.
Once we had our minimum viable product online, we tried doing a bit of promotion to see if someone liked our idea. The platform we picked to do this was Facebook.
This choice was driven by the simple fact that we were already part of quite big stationery groups and that we were experimenting with Facebook Ads in that period. This solution simply looked the most natural, but we could have probably picked other routes too.
At first, we decided that we would have looked a bit more legit if we had a nice-looking Facebook Page. We set it up quickly and launched a very small campaign to get people to like our page.
To our surprise we had a couple of sales in the first day. Again, at that point our business was a landing page with a PayPal button and a Facebook Page with a couple of hundred likes. We were already in business.
These few initial sales boosted our confidence massively. We saw that people liked the concept. That was enough to start building a more structured website and post some messages on the Facebook Groups we were part of.
I was in charge of the website development. Nothing too complicated. We picked Cratejoy to implement all the commerce/subscription functionalities, and integrated it with a WordPress blog. We had Cratejoy’s brilliant back-end functionalities, but the flexibility and power of a WordPress blog too.
While I was in charge of the development of the website, James worked more on organisational tasks. Start sourcing material and products for our first clients, chat with suppliers, set up all the social media accounts to look professional.
We were really ready to go!
Early Days And Expansion
Our strategy for Moustache Stationery, at this point, was trying to achieve some quick sales in order to make the first box cost-efficient. In parallel, we tried to make our brand look a bit more established and consistent through all the platforms we were using.
The members of the stationery groups we were part on Facebook looked very engaged. We thought that if we presented our idea to this audience, we could sell some more subscriptions. Exposing ourselves to a large and opinionated audience like that was scary. We were really nervous and worried we might get slayed by the community. Hitting that Post button has never been so frightening.
The reaction we had was above all our expectations. People loved our idea. We immediately understood we were filling a gap at the right moment. We were the average stationery lover’s dream. It looked like they were waiting for us. We sold nearly 50 subscriptions in the first couple of days.
We were the new kids on the block, but people started talking about us. We went sold out pretty soon.
Packing the first boxes was hard work. We came up with a concept, ordered the materials, planned the layout and hand-packed every single box ourselves.
The final outcome was awesome. Kraft box with our logo rubber-stamped on it. A gold metallic sticker to seal it. All the items laid out in elegant black tissue paper. We were SO proud of ourselves.
Doing this all in-house was tiring, but incredibly helpful. It gave us a feel for what we liked, what were the issues we would have to face with the next boxes and what kind of effort was needed.
Once the first boxes were gone, we anxiously waited for the response of our subscribers. The vast majority loved them, flooding social media with posts and pictures. Now we could focus on a more structured marketing plan.
Immediately we noticed that, even if the majority of the sales were coming from Facebook, the biggest buzz was generated on Instagram and Twitter. Raising our profile on these platforms was the natural next-move.
Suddenly bloggers, YouTubers, manufacturers started getting in touch with us. We were growing. This was becoming something serious.
We kept gaining subscribers daily. Building the boxes ourselves wasn’t an option anymore: our office was way too small to fit them all. We had to go bigger.
Hitting The First Problems
For us, going bigger meant the need to outsource the packing to the US.
This might sound an odd decision, especially if it’s made by a UK company. The reasons were pretty simple.
- The majority of our subscribers were from the United States and Canada.
- Our margins on overseas customers were better.
- United State suppliers are bigger and, usually, cheaper.
Shifting our focus from Europe to the American market was a big step. We were lucky enough to get to work with an amazing fulfilment centre in NYC who helped us out a lot. Unfortunately, we started having other issues elsewhere.
The first obstacle we met was the difficulties in finding US suppliers who were up for selling to us. Most of them needed a US reseller certificate and being a UK company was a problem.
These problems in finding the suppliers we wanted immediately reflected in the effort needed to curate the box. Usually finding the items to include was a really fun task, now it was becoming pretty stressful and time consuming.
With the fun component of our creature slowly disappearing, we started pondering about its future. We were really attached to it, but we started thinking maybe we wouldn’t have wanted to do this forever.
Another problem in those days were our client-jobs. Moustache Stationery was born as a side project. It slowly became a bigger and bigger part of our company, but we still had a lot of obligations and deadlines dictated by our clients. At this point, things started becoming really stressful. We were always in a rush, super busy and with the constant fear that this could have influenced the quality of our work.
Moustache Stationery quickly went on auto-pilot. Our marketing input was minimal and we just spent some time per month curating the box.
In the meantime, our idea-driven personalities made us start other projects and business adventures. Moustache Stationery was slowly becoming a side project again, but its size demanded for a lot of attention.
At this point we started thinking that selling it, was an option.
Selling your own baby is never easy. It means letting go of something you worked hard for and put a lot of hope in. It means letting go of a part of you.
Selling sometimes feels like a failure. Feels like you are giving up on it. Could have we done more with it? Are we just picking the easy way?
For us selling was probably the only option. We didn’t want Moustache Stationery to lose its appeal just because we weren’t on the ball. We wanted it to strive and be successful, but we felt that wasn’t gonna happen with us.
We didn’t have any offers. No buyers. No idea where to start.
After some quick research Flippa looked the best option for us.
Flippa is a marketplace for buying and selling domains, website and apps. You just advertise your product (MoustacheStationery in our case) and allow potential buyers to start an auction.
We didn’t have any idea about what to expect. We looked at some similar website auctions on Flippa, but it was our first time and we barely knew what the process was. All we could do was take extra care in writing a really nice listing.
In order to sell something on Flippa for a good price, the listing is everything.
- It needs to convey all the value of your project to the potential buyers.
- Has to be as transparent as possible in order to not look as if you are trying to scam people.
- Has to highlight the aspects with the most potential of your business.
Easier said than done.
Writing a good listing took us a good amount of time. We included all sorts of charts, cost breakdowns and analytics screenshots. We wanted to give our potential buyers a complete overview of our business.
The extra effort paid off.
As soon as we published our listing we started getting buzz around it. The first offers started to come in and immediately a couple of pretty serious interested buyers got in touch with us.
This phase was exciting, but pretty stressful. People started commenting on the listing and sending us private messages. We were struggling to keep up with all the interactions, but it was very important to get all the questions answered and all the private offers pondered.
The auction started picking up momentum. The offers were closer and closer to the reserve price we set. We reached it via a private offer that ended a crazy bidding war between two users.
We did it. We sold our business. The final price largely exceeded our expectations. We were on the moon.
What Moustache Stationery Gave Us
Selling Moustache Stationery has been one of the most incredible and weird experiences of my life. We have learned a lot from it. It changed everything.
- Moustache Stationery was the first of our projects to gain momentum and reach success. It gave us a massive confidence boost. It made us believe that we can succeed doing our own stuff. A complete game-changer for us.
- Selling Moustache Stationery freed up a lot of our time and resources that we put into our other projects. At this point in time our two new retail brands and several new products we sell on Amazon.
- This project allowed us to experiment with social media in a way we never did before. We played with the Facebook Ads platform, we used for the first time Remarketing techniques, saw the potential of Instagram. All this know-how made a massive difference to all our other projects.
- We are now perceived as authorities in the monthly subscription box niche. Out of this sale we had people asking us to consult them for their new projects.
- Starting a business, making it successful and selling it, made us feeling like true entrepreneurs. I know this can be just an empty word, but in our case that feeling meant a complete mindset switch from the client work we were used to.
I am not the most confident person in the world. I actually lack a lot of self-confidence, but in this case I can say that I’ve come a long way since my Italian days.
I am writing our story and feeling proud of what we achieved. To me it means the world. It’s been like living in a dream for the past 6 months. We have worked hard, had fun and learned a lot
The great thing is that the dream hasn’t ended. We’re still living that dream. We are conscious that we haven’t achieved anything exceptional yet, that this was just the beginning. Our mindset switched. That’s our biggest achievement and Moustache Stationery has been, and it will always be, where everything started.