How I learnt how to build an automated e-commerce in one month

#6 — Sixth month of my challenge: 12 topics to learn in 12 months

A silicone keyboard protector, read the story you will understand why!

Here is the story, in July I was in India, visiting my family for some celebration there. One day while working remotely I found a keyboard protector at my cousin’s place (like the one above!)

At some point I was holding it against myself, for some reason, and my brother had a revelation: the keyboard layout on top of my t-shirt looked good!.

My brother said: “why not build an e-commerce and sell t-shirts like this one?”, I answered “Man, that’s cooool, let’s just do it!” 😬😬.

This is me with the keyboard protector, sorry for the quality of the pic!

Here I am now, I decided to learn how to build an e-commerce and more precisely to sell T-shirts that I would design. I had never built any e-commerce in my life until now, that’s why I decided to take it as my 6th topic to learn in Learning Lab challenge right after the Webpack learning month.

I started this challenge on the 15th of August 😊.

Preparation

  1. Finding a mentor
    This month Carlos Bernabeu is my mentor. He was a colleague in my previous company and he has experience on building e-commerces.
  2. Defining the scope of the topic
    I want to learn what are the alternatives to build an e-commerce and how to set one up.
  3. Choosing a learning resource
    I first did a Google search and found out this article that I used as the main base for this topic: https://www.shopify.com/blog/50559813-how-i-built-an-online-t-shirt-business-and-made-1-248-90-in-3-weeks#
  4. Defining a project
    As you could read in the introduction, I want to build a running T-shirt e-commerce at the end of this month.

Learning about e-commerce

I started Googling around to find resources and I found a lot of online courses about how to build an e-commerce (and a lot about online marketing that I already learnt during my studies and not that interesting to be honest). I ended up finding the Shopify article of someone who created an online T-shirt business and he explains everything. I also read a few other articles and had some calls with my mentor.

From these researches and readings, I made a list of the different alternatives to build an e-commerce and I defined the process that I would follow to build mine.

Solutions

There are many different solutions to build an e-commerce, here is a short overview of each of these.

Drop shipping

Drop shipping is very simple: instead of owning a warehouse and having to handle your stocks a company will handle everything. Here is an example: I want to sell a very new bluetooth speaker coming from China, I make an order to the drop shipping company. Then you build your website selling the speaker, every time you get an order you automatically send it to the drop shipping company who will handle the packing and delivery to your client. You don’t have to handle the logistic and only pay them fees. It’s a good solution when you want to import a product from another company.

My mentor used the one called Shipmonk to run a business in the USA, and he gave me a very good feedback.

  • Advantages: Very flexible, you can sell anything
  • Disadvantages: You need money to pay the fees in advance since you need to order and stock the product before your sell it to their warehouse

Marketplace for designs

Then there is another alternative which is the marketplaces that sells T-shirts where you can upload your design and earn a commission for each T-shirt sold. It’s very different than running your e-commerce since you just own the design and nothing else. Not a brand and not the website selling. There are many website to do that such as:

Some of them can also handle other products, such as hoodies, pillows, mugs…

  • Advantages: Very very easy, don’t have to handle anything, only focus on design, don’t need to handle a website, don’t need inventory
  • Disadvantages: You cannot really create your own brand

Shop on websites (print on demand)

This one is very similar to the previous one, with the only difference that you can create your own store hosted by them. Which means that instead of putting your design in their collection you can create a small page where you can sell your design, and thus have your own branding on the shop and your own communication. This is a good alternative to build your T-shirt brand.

Indeed, the print is on demand, every time someone is buying a T-shirt the provider is going to print it and deliver it to your client.

You can use for that the previous websites (Spreadshirt, Zazzle, Teespring) or other alternative like Teemill — https://teemill.com/

  • Advantages: Quite easy, you can have your own website, own brand, don’t need inventory
  • Disadvantages: You cannot fully customize the website since they host it, you cannot always set up a custom domain name

E-commerce customisable solutions (print on demand)

This one is the coolest for me. You can use a real e-commerce solution such as:

Some of them can be used directly as a service, and some others can be installed in your own server. You can find themes and a lot of plugins to make it as you want and create as many pages with an administration console.

Once your service is chosen and installed you can set it up with one of the print of demand providers that are able to integrate with this solutions.

Here are the main ones:

  • Printful — https://www.printful.com/
  • Printaura — https://printaura.com/
  • Advantages: Everything is customizable, domain name fully customisable, don’t need an inventory
  • Disadvantages: Takes more time to manage, you need to pay the service or the hosting, plugins and theme can be expensive

The building process

Here are the main steps suggested by the articles, those are quite generic and reusable for many projects.

  1. Market research — I already have an idea so I cannot apply everything they advice there, instead I defined a market plan looking for places to promote my e-commerce
  2. Look for existing similar products
  3. Define the list of products to build
  4. Find how to build the product, in my case how to print the T-shirts
  5. Design the products to sell
  6. Find a business name (you can use things like — https://www.shopify.com/tools/business-name-generator)
  7. Create a logo
  8. Set up the store
  9. Define the pricing strategy
  10. Soft launch on social media
  11. Create social networks account (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter)
  12. Post on the subreddits
  13. Post on facebook and specific groups
  14. Collect emails to give discounts and remarket — send new offer to your subscribers
  15. Moving to paid advertising
  16. Grow followers in instagram
  17. Pay people in Instagram to promote your product
  18. Pay Facebook ads

Other takeaways

After reading this guide, I understood that the Facebook and Instragram ads are quite expensive and it’s better to focus on free advertisement.

Sales source from the article I read — https://www.shopify.com/blog/50559813-how-i-built-an-online-t-shirt-business-and-made-1-248-90-in-3-weeks#

Interesting reading, the person didn’t do much profit but it was very experimental, as a designer I can reduce cost, first focusing on free advertisement, and spend a lot of time defining the target. I decided then to skip the last 4 steps. I also adapted a bit the steps to my personal knowledge and my workflow. For example I will first start by defining a bit my idea and then understanding how reddit works 🙃.

Building the e-commerce

Now we will learn how to build and what are the steps. Let’s try it!.

My e-commerce idea

Here are my requirements and ideas for my e-commerce:

  • T-shirt made of organic cotton
  • Want to give $1 for each T-shirt sold to plant a tree
  • Minimalist design and Typography
  • Custom domain name
  • Available in XS size (otherwise I cannot buy it 🙈 hehehe)
Not 50% but 100% Cotton, Organic and 100% Awesome

I initially thought about selling this keyboard T-shirt that we accidentally made during vacation. Then I was like “what about a meme T-shirt?” everyone loves 9gag 😁 and memes. Finally I had another idea: the typography T-shirt (and the keyboard is somehow related to typography).

I decided to design the T-shirts that I would buy, because as 37signals says in their free ebook Getting Real, if you are one of your own clients, there is a market.

Let’s see now how reddit works. If you already know how it works, move to the next section.

Understand reddit

As I am not very familiar with Reddit, because it is not very used here in Europe, I started by researching about it to understand it better.

I first read this article from Mashable that explains the basics. To simplify it, it’s twitter (with communities called subreddit — each user can subscribe to those subreddit) without the limit of characters and with down votes and upvotes instead of twitter actions. So yeah it’s totally not twitter. This article also explains Reddit’s algorithm to order the stories posted. Also you can post URLs only.

You may also notice that posts with the highest score do not always rank at the top. This is due to Reddit’s time decay algorithm. Posts on the front page are obviously more visible, and therefore have a higher chance of being upvoted. But the site wouldn’t be valuable if the same content remained on the front page all day.

There is also a karma system that is a rating of upvotes and downvotes you received in your posts. So to have a good Karma you need to be an active user.

As the article say in 2012 there were 70 000 links posted everyday so it’s important to post in the right subreddit to reach users.

Finally they say that reddit users don’t like marketers, so I have to be very careful about what I put and where I put it.

How to take advantage of reddit

That is why I searched in google “how to promote content in reddit” and I found a couple of interesting links.

Such as:

From what I read it’s not an easy thing, you need to be a normal user, not a marketer, that means you need to spend some time everyday on participating for real in Reddit. Also, it advises to try to address other user concerns instead of promoting. Of course it says that your first post should not be a promotion because redditors can see your history and they know if a user is a marketer.

Another simple trick is to ask your friends to upvote your post, problem is most of my friends are Europeans and we are not using reddit a lot, so I would have to force them to create an account which limits the votes…

There is a subreddit for self promotion called “…shutupandtakemymoney…” 😁 otherwise an alternative is to pay for ads in Reddit.

One of these articles advises you to create other accounts for marketing purposes where you still need to gain Karma to look like a normal redditor.

From what I read reddit marketing is very hard if you are not a reddit user, so maybe I will not focus on relying on it, and hope that some real user does it himself. If you read it feel free to do it if you like my products. I will give it a try though.

Where to promote my e-commerce

It’s now time to list a few facebook groups and subreddits that may be interested about my e-commerce.

My T-shirts will use typography design, and will be made for people like me, designers or programmers, people who like fonts or hate them (Comic Sans for example hehe).

Here are some subreddits than could be interested on talking about my idea:

  • r/typography
  • r/comicsans
  • r/fonts
  • r/TShirts
  • r/shamelessplug
  • r/promote
  • r/design_critique
  • r/shutupandtakemymoney

Checking similar products

I typed queries like “Arial T shirt”, “Helvetica T shirt”, or “Comic Sans T shirt” and I found a few results that looked a bit like what I wanted to do. Good to know that there is some similar products, therefore a market. Also it can be an inspiration for my designs.

Some inspiration I found using Google Images

List of product to sell

I then started to build the list of my future products:

  • The keyboard
  • Helvetica T-shirt — Because all the designers love it
  • Comic Sans T-shirt — Because everyone hates it
  • Roboto T-shirt — Because I love it!

I then listed some ideas that could help to design these T-shirts:

  • Minimalist.
  • Design / Programming related (font size, colors code, font weight).
  • Maybe some jokes ? 😇

Technical solution

From my requirements I had only two solutions:

Print Aura was putting very high delivery price for Europe compared to Teemill but it was compatible with the e-commerce solutions. Teemill even if it doesn’t support the e-commerce solution was quite nice and easy to use. After contacting the support they explained that they may implement the custom domain name for personalised e-commerces, so I decided to go for it!

Designing the products

Once I found what are the products I was about to sell, I designed them following this simple rule “Making a T-shirt that I would buy for myself” and I started to make the Roboto one that of course, I bought for myself.

Here is my T-shirt unpacked!

This was the beginning of the aventure. To be honest I am quite surprised about the quality 😊.

Then I made the Helvetica design using some inspiration I got from my trip to Copenhagen. Later, I made the Comic Sans design because it’s the most hated font ever. Finally, I finished with the keyboard t-shirt that was the original idea (I put it in another collection that I called typing).

Creating the logo and branding

I quickly found a name: Typster a mix between typography and hipster. I found a very cool domain name: typster.xyz, xyz which represents also typography somehow.

I then made a logo to represent the brand using a bit of green to represent trees and the organic concept, and a T-shirt shape because this is what the business is about.

This logo is made with love!

Once the logo and name were ready I had to find a Unique Value Proposition (UVP) for my commerce. The UVP should describe what the product offers to the customer. In my case it’s to save the forests by wearing minimalist T-shirts. I came up quickly with the following sentence:

“Save our forests with Typster’s minimalist T-shirts made of organic cotton”.

Creating the website and the e-commerce

Once the logo and the branding were ready I created the website. Since I couldn’t integrate Teemill with any e-commerce solution I just made a simple website to show what the products are and what are the key features like every tech website does with their tech products:

  • We save the forest
  • The t-shirts are made of organic cotton
  • The designs are minimalist

I followed the Web design checklist that I built in a previous article “How I learnt how to steal like an artist in a month” and I used the Jekyll-webpack-boilerplate created also the previous learning month.

I found very cool pictures that describe the features using this very cool design resource that I totally recommend: http://makerbook.net/

I ended up publishing the website on Netlify that provides free hosting for static websites with a Build & Continuous integration server, Github integration, and HTTPS certificate that works with custom domain in one click!

Defining the pricing

Regarding the pricing I was a bit stuck, in order to changes the prices of your T-shirts (or the currency) you have to pay Teemill pro for £10 a month. Since I need to sell between 3 and 6 T-shirt to be able to make profits every month I decided to stick to Teemill free.

The price of each T-shirt is £19 for each customer, and I will get a commission of £4.50 for white T-shirts and a comission of £2.50 for colored T-shirts. Also in order to plant a tree I need to give $1 (~£0.70) to the planting trees non profit organization: One Tree Planted. Which makes only between £1.80 and £3.80 of profits for each T-shirt sold, not so much to be honest 😌 but good enough to save the planet and get some pocket money 😃!

Creating social networks and posting on it

I decided to create a Facebook page, twitter page, and instagram page for the brand Typster and also only post on one of them and automate the posting on others through Buffer to go faster. Since I am not very good at social networks and community management I will probably take one other month to learn about it and be better at it!

I decided to post every time I design a new T-shirt. Also, I want to post whenever trees are planted to show the proof for it!

Thanks to Buffer I can schedule post in all the social networks at once!

Promoting to the list

Once the social networks were ready I started to promote on the subreddits I found and also on the designer groups I joined on Facebook.

Also, I found a few days ago this very cool webpage that handles the promotions in various different pages: https://www.instaaa.com/
Since it’s free you have to wait about 6 months before they handle the promotion, or if you cannot wait, you can of course pay to be the next!

Submission is free, however we have a waitlist to keep it that way. Your startup’s current position on the waitlist is #1476. We’re promoting startups every day and should be ready to promote yours within four to five months.

For now, with the promotion in Facebook groups and Reddit I didn’t sell any T-shirts yet. I will start the promotion to my contacts as soon as I release this article!

The final result

Here is the final result of the e-commerce: https://typster.xyz/

You can see here the future best sellers (I hooope 😁)

You can find the website source here: https://github.com/sandoche/Typster-website

Feedback from this learning month

What went well

  • Understanding what are the different e-commerce solutions
  • Building the website using Jekyll-wepack-boilerplate
  • Using knowledge from the previous articles
  • Defining a different T-shirt concept using only an on demand T-shirt provider
  • The collaboration with my mentor Carlos
  • Teemill support was useful to answer my questions

What to improve

  • The solution didn’t meet all my requirements
  • I didn’t focus fully on this project because I had other side-projects at the same time, managing time was a bit complicated
  • I started the communication quite late (around the 7th of October) so I will have to continue a bit in parallel of the next month

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