Testing-the-Waters-Filter
February 10, 2009 11:43 AM   Subscribe

What are the realities of running a small online business while working a full-time job at the same time? I've got a fairly well-developed concept for an online store that would market, sell, and ship a physical product, but I also work a full-time "real" job. Mrs. WebHund would not be pleased if pipe dream interfered with real job that is paying the mortgage off. So I need a little more "here's how I do it" information.

While developing my concept and poking around the AskMe archives looking for ecommerce how-to's, I noticed that a lot of MeFites have small online web stores selling all kinds of cool stuff. (You know who you are). Presumably, many of you are also likely working 40+ hours for "the man" and running your online store on the side. Obviously, there are lots of MSM articles about this, but they tend to be fluff/feature pieces that don't go into the nitty-gritty details that I'm looking for. I've got the concept, product, labeling, invoicing, shipping stuff, and all of the other logistics worked out, so not really looking for "what's the best online shopping cart?" or "should I use PayPal or Google Checkout" and similar how-to information.

Instead, what I'd like to know is what kind of experiences you've had doing this on the side, how you juggle/manage customers, emails, orders, doing the shipping, books, deposits, and all of the order stuff that goes along with selling a real product to real customers for real money.

Basically, looking for "day-in-the-life" descriptions and suggestions of your online store management routine and how you do it while working full-time for Acme MegaCorp.
posted by webhund to Work & Money (16 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
Three words: fulfillment, fulfillment, fulfillment.

It takes so much more time than you imagine it will, so if you expect your volume to be more than a few items per day, be prepared for it to become a full time job.
posted by elpiconeroalcognac at 12:06 PM on February 10, 2009


Webhund: I do not want to discourage you, but I think it's important to make clear that running even a small online business with shipping invoicing etc is not easy. Its very time consuming, and very complicated.

A few things that I have done / learned in the last few months:

- Customer Management - We use Zoho CRM. The basic version is free, we upgraded to a slightly larger version for some addiditional functionality.

- Inventory Management - Our ecommerce solution supports importing product inventories via CSV. What this means is that we had to customize our CRM to include all the appropriate fields formatted properly for the site to understand it. Process basically means that Warehouse Guy enters in a product to CRM, at the end of the day we dump the product data and plug it into the site import module.

- Money. We use Freshbooks for invoicing and some payment options. Its free with optional upgrades as well. We upgraded because the free version has heavy client number restrictions.

-Money is a whole other thing as well. There are so many different rates, percentages, and set up processes to complete. Also its almost impossible to get a new credit account right now with banks the way they are without ridiculously low maximiums and high rates. I mean, we already had a credit account with a bank and had to close it and open a new one with the SAME BANK and it took 3 weeks, required additional cosigners, and had higher rates and lower maximums.

-Shipping UPS.com account for USA basic box shipping. Unishippers or Freightquote for freight or international. Learn about boxing, dimensions, weights. Buy a scale. Learn about chargebacks and overages on shipping costs, or you will lose a few bucks every time you ship something.

- Communication We use Ringcentral and Linksys VoIP phones with a credit account. Pretty easy, they come pre-provisioned, and if you ever have issues and call tech support, as long as you ask to be passed up to level 2 support they are pretty good.

-Advertising / Finding customers - a full time job as well, depending on your product. internet helps a lot, direct mail can be good if its really really targeted at your demo. We use constantcontact.com to automate inventory mailing lists to business to business customers.

This is really a very very very very brief overview of some of the basics. I really don't see how anyone could do this with a fulltime day job. Its taken me about 3 months to get up to speed on all this stuff, and I have 4 people working below me I can delegate stuff to.

One thing most people underestimate is that you have to get all this stuff done and setup during day business hours so you can get people on the phone. Keep in mind time zone differences and stuff, so you will have to be able to put a lot of phone time in during your reg. job if it is a day job.


I'm really not even scratching the surface here, but maybe this will get you started and can help with some more specific questions.
posted by lazaruslong at 12:10 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh yeah. Approximate hours spent on the above:

-Zoho CRM Customer Management - 10hours, not finished
-Ecommerce Website - 40hours, not finished
-Freshbooks Customizationa and API activation - 10hours
-Credit Card Accounts Receivable Stuff - 20 hours, not finished
-Advertising via Direct Mail and Internet Ads - 10hours, not finished
-Constant Contact email advertising - 7 hours
-Communication Set-Up - 8 hours
-Shipping SetUp - 10 hours, not finished



maybe this gives you some idea of the time investment you are looking at.
posted by lazaruslong at 12:13 PM on February 10, 2009


You could basically end up working two full-time jobs, especially if you are really serious about making your business go. Both you AND your wife need to be willing and able to make that commitment.
posted by 14580 at 12:18 PM on February 10, 2009


You also need someone you trust who can adequately fill in for you when you're away or on vacation. You take vacations, don't you?
posted by furtive at 12:25 PM on February 10, 2009


One small piece of advice: If your shipping volume is high enough to justify hiring someone to pick and pack for you, you will save a lot of time by doing so. Get set up with a system that will allow you to print shipping labels and packing lists/invoices together and then hand those off to someone else. Set up a dedicated space for that person to work, with all your inventory at hand. When someone else is handling the mundane shipping stuff, you'll be better able to work on building your business (and handling the regular day-to-day and all those other little things that crop up).
posted by ssg at 12:29 PM on February 10, 2009


Three words: fulfillment, fulfillment, fulfillment.

Seconding this. I recently came across storenvy which handles fulfillment for you. Never used it, but it might be worth looking into so you don't get overwhelmed.
posted by logic vs love at 12:31 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm on the low volume, low maintenance side of the spectrum, but there are some weeks that can be really crazy (Christmas! Aaaah!) and the amount of effort really adds up over time. Producing the products themselves never seems to take up as much time as the daily minutia of fielding emails, sending confirmations, photographing products, updating inventories, filling out invoices, packing and shipping items, not to mention doing the books.

I try my best to do nothing during my full-time job's work hours so that I don't piss off the people who provide me with most of my money. I will keep packages in my car or at my desk so that I can mail them off during my lunch hour or after work, but I leave answering emails and updating the site to non-business hours.

Packaging stuff to mail is the most time consuming and tedious thing I do. I sell a wide range of products, and most of them are very delicate, so it's always a pain to find the right size box and wrap everything carefully so that it doesn't break.

I send everything USPS Priority Mail with delivery confirmation. The delivery confirmation gets sent out in a 'your order has shipped' email and works the same as a tracking number.
USPS is cheaper than the other options available, the usually arrives within three days, and I have yet to get a complaint about a broken or lost item.

I like where I am with a few orders a week. I can close my shop temporarily and take a vacation without losing too much business. However, I don't do enough to take advantage of opportunities to make my business more efficient. So, if I end up with a higher volume I might have to choose between taking the time to implement a better pipeline (stressful!) or calling it quits (sad!).
posted by Alison at 1:00 PM on February 10, 2009


Third-ing fulfillment. As soon as you're fulfilling more than say 3 orders a day you're spending a ton of time at it. I recommend Amazon if you get over that few units a day hurdle.

Make sure that people purchasing from you don't expect instant CS, but you should be able to provide service response within 24 hours. 48 on weekends. Once you open your shop it is constantly on your mind and you're always a bit on call to deal with customers.

Paperwork, marketing, and customer service will take probably 5x as much time as you think it will at first. Once you know what kind of problems your customers have you'll be able to cut the CS down a lot, but bookkeeping, packing, shipping and marketing are pretty much set time costs. Not to mention the time and energy spent making/acquiring, whatever-ing your merchandise. Try to do each one of these at the same time every day. For example do packing and bookkeeping at night, then the next morning do most of your customer service emails, ordering and marketing before work. On your way to work drop your packages in the post. Pick up new supplies on your way home. (Maybe check your pending orders before you leave work if you can.) Repeat until prosperous.

You might want to check out the chapter in The 4-Hour Workweek that pretty much covers how to test and set up something like this with little overhead and time investment.

If you get too busy to deliver the service you feel you should, raise your prices.
posted by Ookseer at 1:15 PM on February 10, 2009


I think it depends. I am not currently running an online business but I did, for several years. Now I help other people setup online retail businesses as part of my job as a web designer.

I think streamlining systems is really key.

I'm iffy on fulfillment if you're in a low-margin business. USPS Priority Mail makes things easy if you live in the US. The fact that I no longer live in the US and cannot avail of wonderful flat rate boxes is part of the reason I don't do this any more. If you have one product at one weight, you're golden. You can either drop off every day at lunch, or arrange for a daily pickup. If your picking and packing and weight range is a nightmare, look into fulfillment services and re-spreadsheet the whole thing.

My ecommerce system (the same one I use for clients) manages both inventory control and invoicing, so that's pretty straight forward. It also does minimal but sufficient CRM; so far nobody I've ever set up for online sales has wanted to extend that.

In terms of "managing emails" your ecommerce system should automate that as much as possible. If you provide sufficient information in the order confirmation email, it should cut down on the additional contacts. Online tracking is a great thing to offer customers, but yeah you will have to answer email.

Online advertising is it's own whole thing. Google AdWords, BlogAds, forums - it depends what your product is, and how competitive.

On thing I find a lot with smaller home based businesses is that people tend not to understand chargebacks. If you're using PayPal or you're doing direct credit card transactions through Authorize.net or similar, this is critically important and you must understand the risks, procedures and fallbacks. Plus with PayPal, "paid" doesn't always mean paid, and you need to understand that.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:22 PM on February 10, 2009


Interview with someone who does this.

In my experience, inventory is a big problem. You need to buy in bulk to get decent rates from manufacturers, which means you have to pay a lot of cash upfront and you need someplace to store the stuff. People end up with garages full of boxes. Ideally, your "one product" really is one product, with no variations.
posted by smackfu at 3:15 PM on February 10, 2009


Not sure what you're selling, but my suggestion (apart from 2nd-ing all of the above) is to start with the absolute smallest amount of inventory you can. Even if it means you're losing money on every sale at first. Do this until you figure out what sells for you. If you're overly optimistic and buy 500 of something that you can really only sell 5 of, you're gonna be sad. Start with one or two, and see what happens. If your distributor won't wholesale 'em to you on that small of a scale, just buy a couple from another store, and then see if you can sell it. On the internet, nobody knows how big your warehouse is. Use that to your advantage and experiment with different products and different techniques. If your product is a dud, liquidating the unsold inventory is a big, depressing hassle. So keep the inventory super-small, and then when you find something that moves, buy a bunch of that.
posted by spilon at 6:30 PM on February 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thanks to everyone for all the replies. I've marked quite a few as "best" because there seems to be theme here (time management and CS/order fulfillment), and a lot of the responses were MeFites' different ways that each of you handle this stuff. Spilon's variation of "nobody knows you're a dog on the internet" think-small answer was also great advice from a budget/financial standpoint.

Very interesting and helpful in my planning. :)
posted by webhund at 9:17 AM on February 12, 2009


You wrote:

"Mrs. WebHund would not be pleased if pipe dream interfered with real job that is paying the mortgage off. "

How would Mrs. WebHund feel if the pipe dream didn't interfere with the real job, but DID interfere with quality time with her?

When I ran a little independent record company, it took up huge, vast amounts of my time. Friends would come by to meet me for a dinner date and we'd end up hanging out for an hour while I finished packing and addressing orders. All my other interests and hobbies got short shrift.

As an exercise, print out a weekly and a monthly calendar and block out the time you spend on your regular job, then block out time for all the other things you'd need or want to keep in your life (sleep, hygiene, eating, housework, social time, time with Mrs. WebHund, personal downtime). NOW, block out time for your side business. How do those schedules make you feel?

And don't romanticize the notion that you can just cut back on sleep, either. I am enjoying every waking hour much, much more now that I get enough sleep.
posted by kristi at 11:52 AM on February 14, 2009


No first-hand experience here, but The 4 Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss spends a fair amount of time discussing what you are trying to do. Maybe worth a look if you haven't already.
posted by clark at 4:54 PM on February 14, 2009


On the fulfillment question -- there is an option to outsource. I sent you a PM, as I am just starting to run an experiment with an outsourcer call Shipwire . You can integrate it directly with most shopping carts. They hold your inventory and will pick and pack for you, or lick and stick if you have it pre-boxed. They have plans that are pretty cheap so may work to use them to get to scale and then decide if there is a cheaper option. But I agree with all above - if you have to mail everything yourself, what a pain! But I think we are approaching the era where we can outsource or automate almost everything, and the tools for the "common man" are catching up.
posted by mtstover at 8:59 AM on March 16, 2009


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