A couple weeks ago I was talking to a woman who had recently launched an online children’s clothing business with her husband. When they first started, they were super excited to bring their idea to market. They had a vision for a product that didn’t exist yet in the world and how it could make people’s lives better — including their own — if they turned their idea into a thing.
Like so many product entrepreneurs, some of their joy was killed off in the launch phase. They hired consultants to walk them through the manufacturing process. They ended up putting 3x the amount of money getting the product produced as they had budgeted for, and because of that, now that their product is for sale on the website, they’re not happy with its higher price point.
On top of all that, their vision was to launch the business with 5 or 10 products, but instead, they’re launching around a single product, the only one they could afford bring to market initially. The reality of what they have brought into the world doesn’t match the vision they had for the business back when they were dreaming it up, and that’s made them lose their confidence — and their joy — a little bit.
When I talked to the founder about marketing, she asked me: is this even possible? I knew she wasn’t just talking about marketing, but about running a small e-commerce business.
A year ago I would have replied, “Of course it is! I can help you get there!” because I’d want to sell her on my services and, frankly, I was a bit naive about marketing’s importance in building an e-commerce business. Now that I’ve been working exclusively with e-commerce entrepreneurs for over a year, I have a different answer.
It’s possible, but it’s going to be difficult.
Why Building an E-Commerce Business is So Hard
You’re competing with giants in the space who have a lot more market share, a lot more money, and a lot more staff.
If you’re selling baby clothes, you must convince a person to spend the extra $25 on a hand-stitched design, made in America, rather than going to the 2-for-1 sale at Carter’s.
If you’re selling jewelry, you must convince a person to buy your jewelry, not something from Etsy or a craft fair or Target.
Even if you’re selling a novel product, a new invention that solves a problem in a way no one ever has before, you have to get your product in front of the people who have the problem — then demonstrate how your product solves it — with only a few seconds of time because internet attention spans are short.
And you have to do all this with very little money and very little time.
It’s not easy. But it’s not impossible, either.
How to Win
You CAN compete with these giants. You CAN push past your initial product run and grow the company you envisioned. You WILL find your audience of super fans who will love and support your business as you grow.
I always talk about having a marketing strategy, and that’s really important, but you know what the secret formula to building a successful e-commerce business is?
No, seriously. I know that sounds cheesy, and it is. But this business was your idea, your dream, your vision. You’re not going to compete with the Targets or the Warby Parkers of the world — at least not yet — but you don’t have to. Because you have something that’s more authentic and that people can connect with: your story. And your products are a reflection of that story.
You + your products + a little strategy = a sure win.
You just have to keep showing up every day to play the game. And you can’t be afraid to let your personality come through in your marketing. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be uniquely you.
Here are 5 tactics you can use to make sure your voice comes through in your product marketing
1. Tell your background story
Many of us started our business because we saw the possibility for a different way the world could be. Maybe we noticed a hole in the marketplace and thought, “Why is no one doing this?” Or maybe we saw a way to bring something you were already doing and enjoying to more people. Your “a ha” moment — whatever lead up to you launching the business — can connect you to your customers in a way they can’t be connected to a faceless mega business. Remember why you started and stay true to that path.
2. Be radically transparent
Let’s face it: small companies are way more interesting than big companies. There’s so much more at stake! Blog the process of building your business and be radically transparent as you do so. Vulnerability is a great marketing tool. (One of my favorite examples of this was the blog 30 Days of Honesty, where the founders of Dabble blogged the process of deciding whether or not to shut down their company in 2013.)
3. Don’t compare yourself to others
“Comparison is the thief of joy,” is a quote often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt (although it’s unclear whether he actually originated it). Whoever said it, it’s a great quotable to keep in your back pocket when you find yourself scrolling through Instagram wondering why someone who makes similar products to you has 22,000 followers to your 2,800. You are on your own unique business journey, and it has nothing to do with what other people — even close competitors — are doing with their business. Find joy in what you are doing and stay focused on your own path. Don’t compare your fledgling business to someone else’s years-in-the-making success.
4. Know that the right people will get it
Joel Hodgson, the creator of the comedy show Mystery Science Theater 3000, once told a show producer who questioned the universal appeal of a joke that, "the right people will get it.” In fact the entire show, which featured three characters spewing sarcastic comments at bad movies, was predicated on the idea that some jokes would be obscure, but they created more value for people who understood the references.
Your business is the same. Your products aren’t for everyone. You have neither the manufacturing or the marketing budget to create universal appeal. Trust that when you solved whatever problem you were solving when you created your product, or designed something that appealed to you, that you designed it for others who had the exact same issues or design sense. They are out there — they are your tribe! Ignore everyone else, at least until you get much bigger.
5. Don’t be afraid to alienate some people by speaking to others
A while ago I wrote a post about having an activist voice in your business. It was right after the 2016 U.S. election and many small companies were wondering what their role would be in the coming years: should they speak out against a political climate they disagreed with? One woman I talked to was considering donating a hefty percentage of her clothing sales to the Southern Poverty Law Center one weekend and was crafting an email with that message and she asked me: do you think people will unsubscribe?
Yes, I said. But you don’t want them on your list anyway. YOU BE YOU. Because… the right people will get it.
In what ways are you being authentic in your marketing? What makes it difficult for you to be uniquely you?
What small brands do you think are doing a good job at this?