Getting The Priorities Right

About a year back, I started an online store called Doodle Bar.

I’ve longed wanted to run my own business. Selling what I love was a natural progression. The shop was stocked with notebooks with brands like Field Notes and Word, and magazines like Offscreen and Lagom. These are my favourite items and I believe people will appreciate them too.

A year later, I shut down the online store. I didn’t renew the domain. Throughout this period, I only sold a handful of notebooks. And one magazine. The pile of magazines and notebooks still sit in my bedroom. Despite this underwhelming experience, I never see it as a failure. I was excited about every sale and customer.

Plenty of lessons can be learned from this venture. Let me share a few here:

I Created The Best Looking Website I Can (but nobody came)
Using Squarespace, I created an elegant and user-friendly website. I spent nights after work refining the design and typography. I sweated about small details like the padding of the pictures. It took me a long time to publish a version I’m happy with. However, it was launched to a quiet silence. I shared this venture with no one except my wife and sister. I was thinking if friends and family buy from me, they’re supporting me and not because they like my products. And I wanted to surprise them after I made it. At the end of 12 months, I made a grand total of 2 sales from the website. To say it’s underwhelming is an understatement.

Learn To Make Money Before Spending
Keeping overhead low, I could make do with a simple CMS system like WordPress or Tumblr to gauge interest first, before upgrading to a better platform should there be sufficient demand. Squarespace cost $18 monthly. Every copy of notebook I sell nets me a profit of $9. I’ve to sell 2 notebooks a month just to break-even. I did the calculations before signing up but still went ahead anyway. Truth be told, I just needed an excuse to keep the Squarespace site I spent so much time on going. That was a major issue as my priority wasn’t on making money, but to satisfy my desire to own a business that reflects my values.

Minimum Viable Product
A minimum viable product (MVP) is to have a functional e-commerce system. My website was just an elaborated place about the products I sell. I assumed telling a story about them would be good enough to get customers coming in and buy. For the handful of people that visited, they can’t check out the cart which was a real bummer. As it wasn’t an e-commerce site, the only way they can buy is to fill up a form and send it to me. I’ll calculate the amount and send them my bank account number. Then, they’ll transfer the money over. Once I’ve verified the fund is in, I’ll proceed to ship the product. The entire process was tedious and painful. A MVP in this case would be to sell in an established marketplace like Lazada, Qoo10 and eBay. Grow the customer base, understand which products sell and which ones don’t.

Go Get The Customers
It’s ironic that as a marketing graduate, the one area I struggled most with was how to market my store. For most start-ups, the problem doesn’t lie with the products or services. It’s getting people to discover them. I should focus my effort on selling them and not creating the best brand nobody knows. If I were to start another venture in the future, I’ll do everything I can to get my brands before my target audience. Tell family and friends, go to tradeshows, attend exhibitions, try popup stalls, join like-minded Facebook groups. It’s building awareness and my focus should be selling, getting feedback and improving.

This post is inspired by Sketchplanations on A release strategy for happier customers, sooner.