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  • Writer's pictureMichael Pietrzak

How to Launch (and Maintain) a Successful E-Commerce Business

Originally published at on September 6, 2021.

If you’ve never read Tim Ferriss’ subversive manifesto, The 4-Hour Workweek, you can be forgiven for assuming it’s a guide for the lazy. Titles can be misleading.

When I read it in 2015, I was working both a full-time government job and launching a side business that would eventually eat up 80 hours of my week. Tim outlined a mythical third path: one that allowed me to work from anywhere in the world—as many or few hours as I wanted—with unlimited earning potential.

What was the key to this magical kingdom? It’s the focus of today’s lesson: e-commerce.

Why E-Commerce?

Imagine waking up before dawn to bike down to the ocean, lift some weights on the beach and meditate in the sand before a sunrise dip. At home you read, write for a couple of hours, study Spanish, then have a noon plunge in the rooftop pool with the love of your life.

In the afternoon, it’s business building at the local art cafe. You open your laptop to see that you made $487 overnight. Then you settle in for a beautiful dinner with your partner and other digital nomad friends.

This sounds like the fantasy version of the e-commerce lifestyle that’s sold in Instagram ads, but it was reality for my wife and me when we lived in Mexico in 2019.

Today my e-commerce business lets me work roughly 32 hours a week, with Fridays off in the summer, spend precious time with my wife and baby daughter, go for coffee and a walk any time I want, take a long weekend to visit friends… you get the idea.

We’re not rolling in money, but the freedom to live life my own way is priceless. For now, I’ve chosen a simple dad life and it’s perfect.

What sort of life will you create? Here are some enticing facts about e-commerce:

  • You can run your business from anywhere with an internet connection.

  • Passive income allows you to detach your earning potential from the number of hours you can work.

  • Your website will do the work of hundreds of employees and never gets tired.

  • According to Oberlo, a drop-shipping app created by Shopify, almost one-third of the world’s population is now shopping online, accounting for 18% of retail sales worldwide.

  • Shopify tells us that there is a $5 trillion e-commerce pie up for grabs, and that number is growing at a breakneck rate, fueled in part by lockdowns and COVID.

Why not grab a piece of that pie? Thankfully, getting started today is far less costly or time-consuming than creating a traditional business. Launching in e-commerce requires:

  • Minimal capital and no outside investment.

  • As little as a weekend to set up a website.

  • No physical inventory, if you choose to sell a service or digital product.

  • Only as much time as you can spare—just evenings and/or weekends.

Follow this guide to understand how to build a profitable e-commerce store in a few weeks.

How Not to Start in E-Commerce

Spoiler alert: my first e-commerce business was a failure—uh, I mean, a great learning experience. After 18 months, I broke even. Compared to the setup of my previous business, a solar lighting company in Africa, I figured this e-commerce thing would be a cakewalk.

I treated it as a get-rich-quick scheme, a side hustle to bolster my 9-5 income, and eventually let me get back to my “real purpose.” Whoops.

Let me say empathically: e-commerce is not a garden stroll. As with any other business, it will take sustained effort, time, enthusiasm, shrewd maneuvering and a bit of luck to turn a profit. Still interested? Great. Let me tell you why my online men’s store was a failure to launch:

  1. I failed to craft a compelling value proposition (the most crucial ingredient in any business).

  2. I didn’t take the time to find out what my customers wanted.

  3. I didn’t validate my ideas.

  4. I tried to compete on price instead of building a brand.

  5. I didn’t focus on a niche.

  6. I had no compelling marketing strategy.

With what you learn below, you can avoid my mistakes.

Step 1. Prepare your value proposition.

You may think that the free market economy runs on money, but that’s inaccurate. It runs on value. Value is whatever a customer shows you it is by spending their hard-earned cash: a solution, more free time, a shiny bauble, peace and quiet.

Every business since the dawn of time has had one main challenge: to offer value. Whether you do this well is the difference between unlimited riches and barely scraping by. That’s why we start our e-commerce business by asking, What’s my value proposition?

Your value proposition is “a promise of value to be delivered,” says Peep Laja, founder of marketing training firm, CXL. “It’s the primary reason a prospect should buy from you.”

A near-perfect value proposition looks like the one at the top of the Netflix homepage: “Unlimited movies, TV shows, and more. Watch anywhere. Cancel anytime.”

A value proposition clearly tells someone who visits your website or gets stuck in an elevator with you:

  • How you will solve their problem.

  • What specific benefits (not features) they can expect.

  • How you are different from all the other solutions out there.

And it is written in a way that’s simple enough for your pre-internet grandparent to understand; it’s the antithesis of corporate-speak.

A winning value proposition formula you see at the top of most successful websites looks a lot like the one at

  • Heading: “Dive in! There are so many things to do on Meetup.”

  • Subhead: “Join a group to meet people, make friends, find support, grow a business, and explore your interests. Thousands of events are happening every day, both online and in person!”

  • A few bullet points that link to other pages: “Make new friends; Explore the outdoors; Connect over tech.”

The value proposition is not just a slogan, it’s the North Star for your entire business. If you fail to get this right, as I did with my online men’s store, then your customers won’t care about your offerings, and you’ll have to go back to your old cubicle job.

Step 2. Choose a product or service.

Here we have a classic chicken-and-egg scenario: you can’t sell a product without a value proposition, and you can’t create a value proposition without a product. As you may have guessed, these first two steps happen simultaneously. But how do you even begin to decide what to sell?

Following your passion vs. the technical approach

Perhaps you have a business in your head because the idea won’t leave you alone, or it’s a hobby that borders on obsession. Maybe you had a skin condition and saw the need for a new type of makeup, like CEO Jamie Kern Lima.

Maybe you’re a hardcore gamer and saw a way to sell digital content while supporting charity, like the team at Humble Bundle. Or perhaps you’re crazy about rare sneakers, like Flight Club.

Following your passion will give you an advantage over those on the get-rich-quick track: you’ll have the enthusiasm to carry you through the inevitable tough times.

Then again, there’s much to be said for the technical approach. Don’t feel particularly passionate about something you can turn into a business idea? No problem.

Left-brained people can approach the “what to sell” question in the same way as you would troubleshoot a problem. Start by asking:

  1. What products do I own and absolutely love? Walk around your house with a notepad, and list your prized possessions. Then ask: what’s the common thread here, and how can I deliver comparable value?

  2. What annoys me about products I own? Some companies have built empires seeking out 3-star reviews on Amazon and inventing better versions of those products. Solve a customer’s pain point, and they will throw their money at you.

  3. What are my personal strengths? If you have 20 years of experience in marketing, consider selling your consulting services. Know precisely everything about the internet of things? Maybe you should sell packages of smart home tech for any price range?

  4. What are other people obsessed with? You probably know someone with a bewildering devotion to Yeti gear, board games, CrossFit, wine, shoes—whatever. People are willing to pay a premium to support their obsessions.

  5. What trends can I capitalize on early? Plenty of tools can help you identify rising tides:

  • Buzzsumo lets you search a website or keyword and find related products and ideas.

  • Google Trends will compare search terms and rank them by popularity over time and country.

  • Google Keyword Planner helps you input a product or search term and find related, and ideally underserved, audiences.

  • Jungle Scout provides data and tools that will help you succeed selling on Amazon.

  • Trend Hunter tells you what products and trends are in the “early adopter” stage.

Even if you sell your passion, you should use these tools to validate your idea and market.

To round out your technical analysis of the perfect product, Richard Lazazzera at A Better Lemonade Stand suggests you also consider:

  • Is there a growing market with little competition?

  • Can you charge a substantial markup? Five to 10 times is achievable.

  • Is the product non-perishable, but also consumable? (Think: printer cartridges)

  • Size: is the product small and light enough to warehouse and ship affordably?

  • Is your customer base comfortable buying online? Launching is probably not wise.

  • Sell a product around the $100 mark. Any less and you attract too many needy customers. More, and they will expect white-glove customer service.

Physical or digital products? Or a service?

Selling a physical product online can be done in two ways:

  • Warehouse and ship the products yourself. This can be done from your home office but quickly becomes unscalable.

  • Dropship the products. Dropshipping means letting someone else warehouse and ship your products, either a wholesaler or one of many specialized fulfillment companies. You never need see the physical products. I tried it, but the monthly warehousing fees and the pick/pack/ship fees charged on each order ate into my thin margins. (Pro tip: Oberlo lets you connect your Shopify store directly with the massive marketplace, AliExpress.)

Selling a digital product, such as a book or an online course is far simpler. You can enjoy:

  • Higher margins—even 100% profit after initial product creation.

  • Making infinite copies of your product without additional costs.

  • No warehouse or dropshipping fees.

  • No shipping headaches: no returns, refunds or repairs.

  • Saving money on staff to handle physical items.

  • Not working with a manufacturer halfway around the globe to prototype and build brand new products.

Or maybe you want to set up an e-commerce store to sell your services? The writer training company I started partners with publishing professionals to deliver virtual classes. It’s not as simple as selling digital products, but it’s highly automated and involves no physical products.

You could use your store to sell diving excursions to tourists, dog walking to busy professionals, or your coaching/consulting/accounting/speaking skills.

You need a niche.

There’s another determinant of success when selecting your product: you need to choose a defined niche to serve—a place where you will become the authority. This is true if you’re selling tchotchkes or your consulting services. Why?

  • If you try to compete on price with Amazon or other giants, you will lose.

  • If you try to serve everyone, you will spread your efforts too thin.

  • If you choose to serve a small pond, you have a chance to become the biggest fish, and those who are the “best” get the lion’s share of rewards. You can seek bigger ponds after that.

  • When you clearly and narrowly define your audience, word of mouth will spread inside that audience, and the referral sales will flood in.

  • In a niche you have a chance to pursue a Blue Ocean Strategy where no competition exists, and stand out in web search rankings.

  • When you get niche, it’s easier to partner with affiliates, influencers and advertisers.

Having the discipline to serve a niche and ignore the rest was one of the hardest lessons for me to apply. My fear was that if I didn’t cast a wide net, I’d miss countless opportunities. I worried that I’d choose the wrong niche.

Push through that fear. If you try to be a jack of all trades in e-commerce as I did with my first online business, (“We sell cool men’s fashion accessories!”) you ensure that nobody will care about your brand, or buy anything.

When I started to target specific categories of writers through my current business (e.g., professionals working on non-fiction books), that’s when sales started to take off.

The best way to find a niche

Now you have a general idea of what you want to sell, so it’s time to get to know your ideal customer and what they want.

Don’t try to guess. You need to actually get out there and hear people, whether through interviews or surveys or combing through product reviews or forums.

“It doesn’t make any sense to make a key and then run around looking for a lock to open,” says marketing master Seth Godin. “The only productive solution is to find a lock and then fashion a key.”

In case the metaphor missed you, real people are the lock and your potential solution/product/service is the key. Here’s how to find a lock:

  • 1. Brainstorm. Make a list of 25 types of ideal clients, off the top of your head.

  • 2. Ask, Who are my people? SUCCESS Entrepreneurship Editor Rory Vaden says “You are most powerfully positioned to help the person you once were.” If you once overcame some obstacle, leverage that.

  • 3. Google search/keyword search. Plug some of your customer archetypes into these tools and see what related terms come up.

  • 4. Peruse forums, etc. Get onto Quora and Reddit and find your market. Listen carefully to what they are saying.

  • 5. Launch a survey. Create a five-question survey and put it in front of your ideal audience. They might help you find related groups or refine your thinking.

  • 6. Set up interviews. Email strangers to ask if you can set up a five-minute call. People love giving advice.

Have an idea for a product? A fairly good sense of your niche? Great. But you can’t be confident in your choice until you get out there and test your idea.

Step 3. Validate your idea.

As an achiever, you probably have great confidence in your abilities. You may say, “I understand humans, can do detailed internet research, craft a brilliant business strategy and create a cutting-edge website.”

I thought that would be enough, too, but when I launched my men’s brand, I missed one critical ingredient: listening to potential customers. I minted the key, then looked for a lock. Don’t let this oversight cost you like it did me.

Assuming what a customer wants not only wastes your time and money, but I can tell you first-hand that building a thing that nobody buys hits your self-confidence like a wrecking ball.

How to validate your idea

When I launched my second online business, I started with a series of one-on-one, face-to-face interviews with writers to just listen. I uncovered their fears that their work was terrible, and their hopes of sharing their stories with the world. Then I built products around that. I still survey my audience regularly so I can know what they want, not assume.

Once you have an idea of the specific product or service you want to sell, and you know which niche you’d like to serve, you can and should go talk to that niche to answer one key question: “Will they pay for it?”

Here’s how:

1. Create a hypothesis you can test. E.g., I believe that customers will spend $300 to buy a 30-day audio program that teaches them how to become a certified coach.

2. Get specific on what success looks like. Sure, you might sell one program, but how many would you need to sell each month, at what profit, to be happy?

3. Talk to potential customers. You can interview people individually or in groups, face to face or over Zoom. You can launch a survey to your personal network, start a Reddit discussion or pay for survey responses, but you do need to actually get out of your bubble and interact with other humans.

4. Create and run an experiment. This is how you test your hypothesis (assumptions). Having someone tell you they like your idea is encouraging, but seeing them open their wallet is a stronger signal. There are a few classic ways to do this before even creating a prototype or fleshing out the program:

  • Set up a landing page for pre-sales. Using a platform like ClickFunnels or LeadPages, you can set up a simple sales page and shopping cart that will let you sell your product before it’s even created. If sales are disappointing, you can refund buyers and walk away with a valuable lesson.

  • Create an online storefront. In a weekend you can create a basic e-commerce website using Shopify or Wix or one of the other best e-commerce platforms to look like an established company and direct traffic to your product pages.

  • Set up a prelaunch campaign. Getting paid is not the only way to validate your idea. Harry’s, the men’s grooming brand, didn’t want to launch to crickets, so it set up a simple two-page website to collect email addresses—and collected 100,000 of them. That thoroughly validated for them that there was a hungry market.

  • Test with online advertising. Maybe you don’t have a massive personal network of ideal clients, or don’t want family members to know you’re launching a nerdy store. In that case, you can put a few hundred dollars into Google/Facebook/Instagram ads to gauge the number of bites you receive.

  • Run a crowdfunding campaign. The beauty of Kickstarter, one popular crowdfunding platform, is that you can ask a large community of backers (i.e., customers) for money without creating the product. They understand that getting their goods will take some time, and know that they will be refunded if you fail to hit your funding goals.

5. Crunch the numbers. No, an entrepreneur can’t avoid spreadsheets. Once the hard data comes in on the popularity of your offering, you can create a cash flow and income statement, which will show you if your e-commerce idea is worth your time financially. It will give you a sense of whether you have a hope of attracting investors in the future.

Step 4. Set it up.

Did your experiments prove you have a valid idea? If not, craft a new value proposition or find a new niche. If yes, then decide to go all-in, and take massive action.

Choose a business name.

This can be a surprisingly frustrating step in the e-commerce startup process because your business name will follow you potentially for life.

Weeks have passed where I brainstormed, whiteboarded, used thesauruses and rhyming dictionaries only to come up with something that felt mediocre.

Silicon Valley bloggers will tell you that you need something punchy and short, two or three syllables, ending in -ly.

Ignore them.

I implore you not to get stuck on this step. Dave Grohl lamented that Foo Fighters is the “dumbest band name ever,” a strange thing to say about one of the greatest rock bands in history. Your business name doesn’t determine success; your value proposition plus execution does. Choose a name and move on.

Register a domain.

Bad news: virtually every website URL is already taken. I couldn’t get so took .org. It hasn’t hurt business at all. Conventional wisdom will tell you that you need a .com domain to look legitimate. Ignore that advice, too. Plenty of global brands are launching with .co or .biz or others.

I recommend you register your domain through a registrar like GoDaddy. Why? Because if you let your e-commerce platform do it for you, Shopify or BigCommerce might own your website name, which makes it impossible to switch e-commerce platforms someday.

Do you need a logo or branding?

The short answer is probably—brand-building is an important but often sidelined part of a business, but one that will help you stand out from the competition and create a loyal following.

You don’t need to spend money on a logo or branding exercises. Canva and others offer free logo makers. And here’s an excellent and free brand personality quiz that will generate branding guidelines, including your business colors and font, based on your responses.

Choose an e-commerce platform

There are many popular options with their own strengths and weaknesses. The most important question to ask yourself is, what are my goals?

  • Selling a range of physical products? Shopify is optimized for that.

  • Offering a creative or visual service? Squarespace excels there.

  • Want a large, pre-existing market for your handmade goods? That’s Etsy’s jam.

  • Sell a generic product, and interested in being part of a massive marketplace? You might want to focus your efforts on Amazon or eBay.

  • Are you a coach, speaker, etc. selling services? Wix does a great job of letting clients book appointments.

  • Kajabi is an all-in-one tool that will let you offer online courses and membership programs but starts at $1,400 per year.

When selecting a platform, you’ll want to ask:

  • What are the monthly subscription fees and credit card processing fees?

  • Are there additional costs to add functionality, such as a loyalty program or detailed analytics?

  • How user-friendly is the back-end? Do I need to be a programmer to create what I want?

  • Is their system reliable? WordPress is popular, but with that comes an abundance of malware that has shut down at least one of my websites.

  • What does the front-end look like, i.e. what will your customer see? Is it important that your website is visually stunning, or just functional—and how does your preferred platform stack up?

  • What are existing users saying about customer and technical support? Shopify will help you make minor changes to your website code, which can save you hundreds of dollars, for example.

  • Does the system play well with others—i.e., does it plug into email marketing platforms, marketing apps, or your customer relationship management (CRM) system?

Don’t rush this decision, because once you’re set up on one platform it will be very difficult, time-consuming and costly to switch.

Set up your website

This may seem like a daunting task to handle on your own, but it’s actually one of the simplest (albeit time-consuming) parts of your e-commerce launch.

Most e-commerce platforms make it foolproof to create beautiful, simple websites in a matter of hours, with no coding. They offer free or paid pre-built templates to suit your style. All you have to do is upload pictures (find free stock photos at or or video, type out some copy, set your prices, and… launch.

Before you start, ask yourself this: what is the purpose of this website? If you answered sales, you get to stay on the island. Everything about the website needs to move the customer in that direction. But there are roundabout ways of moving customers to the cash register that are more effective than, “Hey you! Buy my stuff!”

To that end, your website should also:

  • Educate or entertain potential customers. Give them something valuable to build trust in your brand and establish you as an authority, and to come back. High-quality blog or video content works wonders. Google will also notice, and start sending you more visitors (for more on this, research search engine optimization).

  • Capture them on your email list. After word-of-mouth, email marketing is the No. 1 most effective sales tool; the statistics show that social media just can’t compete. You can do this by putting an email signup box with an enticing call to action all over your site: top and bottom of the homepage, on your about page, in blog posts, in popups (I know, I know, but they work). When someone joins your email list, you can set up an automated series of sales messages to create passive income.

  • Track what visitors are doing. No, don’t hire a private eye, but do install Google Analytics. It will collect invaluable data about visitor behavior. More on this below.

Finally, many plugins or apps can be integrated into your website. Depending on your needs, you might:

  • Install an exit-intent popup to gain email subscribers.

  • Set up a loyalty and referral program to encourage repeat business.

  • Create an affiliate program to have others start selling for you on commission.

  • Install a live chat app so you can talk to your customers while they’re perusing the website.

  • Set up a review and rating app to collect reviews and build trust in your audience.

  • Use a widget to suggest “recommended products,” and generate upsells.

What makes for an effective e-commerce store? Basically, three things:

  • Conversion rate: the number of buyers compared with the total number of visitors. 1-2% is typical.

  • Average order value: How much does each customer spend, and can you increase that number?

  • Returning customer rate: The axiom says that it’s much cheaper to keep an existing customer than to create a new customer. About five times cheaper according to one source.

Having a website is not the same as creating one that’s effective, but don’t seek perfection in the beginning. Start where you’re at and you’ll find better tools along the way.

Step 5. Create Customers

“All marketing includes a promise. If you do x you’ll get y.” —Seth Godin

Everything you’ve done until now? That was just preparation. Now is the moment of truth—will anyone buy from you? If you took care to craft an effective value proposition, choose a receptive niche, validate your idea, and of course set up a functional website, then I really like your chances of success.

Attract your first customers

How do you get customers to visit your website? Many brick-and-mortar businesses can rely on foot traffic. On the web there are no such roads; you need to build them. Here are some proven methods for generating website traffic.

  • Social media marketing: Men’s brand partnered with Instagram influencers to attract more than 20,000 visitors in two weeks. Social media can be powerful if done well, but it’s not easy.

  • Content marketing: If you can help a customer solve a problem or entertain them, you’ll gain their trust. Content can be a blog post, video, quiz, e-book, and on and on. When Google starts to notice that you’re creating great content, it will drive more traffic to you. This can take time, but once you see results, they will grow exponentially. This year, my company started publishing a blog post every two weeks, and our traffic is already 102% higher than the previous eight months.

  • Paid ads: This is the quickest way to generate traffic but can burn money fast. However, when you create an offer that produces a positive return on investment, your profit is limited only by the size of your ad spend.

  • Joint ventures: One of my favorite strategies, this involves partnering with another outfit that already has a preexisting audience in order to promote yourself. Reach out to bloggers, influencers, and affiliates and make them an offer that produces value for both parties.

  • Run a giveaway: A giveaway is a type of contest that offers a valuable product in exchange for the entrant’s email address. My first giveaway collected 3,000 leads and it only cost my business a $400 watch. Just ensure that what you offer is enticing only to your ideal customer, not the general public, or you’ll reel in a lot of professional contest entrants.

Keep them coming back

Again, it costs about five times as much in marketing costs to attract a new customer than to retain an existing customer. Once you’ve done the heavy lifting of converting a lead to a loyal customer, the next step is to turn them into a raving fan.

You can do this by keeping in regular contact, not just to say “hi,” but to repeatedly offer value (there’s that magi