Caesar Chu got the idea for his business, The Original Whiskey Ball Co., while visiting a bar in Asia. The bar served drinks with giant ice balls shaped using an expensive machine, and Chu wondered how he could achieve the same result with "a low-cost product for the masses."
Six years after starting his business with $1,000, a Weebly eCommerce site and Amazon marketplace sales, Chu, a Californian, has sold millions of his ice-ball freezer trays while keeping a full-time job.
"Be scrappy and start simple," and learn from your mistakes, says Chu, one of several online entrepreneurs who, along with representatives from Weebly, Square and Google's G-Suite, offered tips and tools for running an eCommerce business from anywhere at Weebly's Summer Event Series, held at several General Assembly locations.
Here's some advice and stories from the experts. A common theme from several entrepreneurs: start with what you know and keep business simple.
Go From Idea to Reality
Chu, with no engineering background, decided to use freezer molds to make big ice balls — he says they melt slowly, preserving the drink's taste. He first sketched out his idea. He then researched Chinese manufacturers on Alibaba and chose one that provided the best service, initially ordering 200 units in plastic bags.
Chu got his business going in 60 days, working in the evenings after getting home from his full-time job. He used Weebly to quickly make a full-functioning eCommerce site, and created his logo in a word-processing program.
"I was published and selling products literally within a couple of hours," Chu says. Sales kicked in after a few weeks. “Amazon was sort of that launch pad for me. And that launch pad led to another launch pad." Retailers started contacting him, as did Living Social.
He didn't pursue patents initially because "I wanted to move swiftly … and in order for me to go to market in the time that I did there was no time for me to wait."
Retailers now account for a majority of Whiskey Ball sales, and Chu has learned from them, redesigning his product based on their advice.
After initially shipping from home, he now distributes products from five warehouses worldwide, using third-party-logistics providers and managing Whiskey Ball from his laptop. He has no direct employees and says he could operate the business from anywhere in the world.
Select Online Tools To Help Run Business
Chu has never met his manufacturer, conducting all their business by email or Skype. In addition to Weebly, Chu has used Facebook ads, ShipStation, Shipwire, Google Cloud Print, G Suite, Google Voice, Intuit QuickBooks and Zendesk. His omnichannel strategy includes marketplaces such as Jet.com and Walmart.com, and wholesale distribution to liquor, grocery and convenience stores, big-box retailers and hospitality companies.
He advises new entrepreneurs not to spend much time obsessing over perfect logos or photos. “Get something out that's good enough that represents the brand well," then refine and sell and talk to customers, Chu says.
Be Prepared for Growth
Lauren Lutchna of upstate New York and her husband turned their organic, cruelty-free skincare products hobby into a business, Farmstead Apothecary, using Weebly for online sales. They went into business after getting orders when they shared their homemade products with family and friends.
"We had to build an eCommerce site, we had to design our own labels, find a labeling manufacturer and find packaging. We had to figure out how we were going to promote our company and which channels we were going to sell in, so it was incredibly overwhelming," she said. They found the Weebly platform the right balance of "customization and user friendly."
Farmstead Apothecary's "toolbox" also includes Square, Google and Quickbooks, "and we needed them to talk to one another, and the awesome part is that they all communicate," saving the couple a lot of work, says Lutchna, who takes wholesale orders as well as selling to consumers online and at a farmers market.
Farmstead Apothecary has grown quickly, getting into Whole Foods in five months, far sooner than the Lutchnas' five-year goal. "We were prepared for growth at any rate — slow, fast — so our advice to any startup is be prepared for growth at any rate," she says.
Start Where You Are
Former preschool teacher Katie Raquel's raw juice business, Katie's Coldpress, also arose from a desire for healthy products. With no certified organic juice bars at the time in her small city of Monterey, California, Raquel made her own recipes, then won a local business-plan competition and used the money to buy her first industrial juicer.
The company makes the juice in a Watsonville plant and Raquel runs the business online with Weebly and Square. "I love the online platform because I'm home during the week with my three kids, so I need to be able to do it on the go," says Raquel, who even ran the business while on bed rest with twins.
Katie's Coldpress delivers juice packages sold online, ships other product via the website and makes individual sales at farmers markets. Raquel also reacts to orders that pop up on her phone. She uses a Square reader at the farmers market, and also uses an iPad and a Mac desktop in the business.
"We have all those different layers and they kind of need something to pull them all together, so Weebly and Square does that and makes it a lot easier for me to manage."
She advises new entrepreneurs to "just start wherever you are," use free information that's available online, and take it bit by bit.
Keep Everything on Track
Susan McGregor started kids' organic clothing collection Charlie & Gus in 2015 when she couldn't find the cute, comfortable leggings that she wanted for her young sons. She started sewing her own, and soon was designing her own fabric and making shirts, shorts, bibs and rompers. A few moms in her neighborhood asked where she bought her boys' clothes, so McGregor opened an Etsy store.
"I got my first order almost immediately and was hooked! About six months later I created my own webstore ... I have hired a small team of seamstresses who cut and sew all our garments in my home studio in Roncesvalles, Toronto," says McGregor.
In addition to her Weebly store, MacGregor sells Charlie & Gus products through retailers across the globe. "I can keep track of inventory, easily change (or) update my website, test pricing or other incentives, gather valuable metrics, send emails, and add various apps to my website," she says.
Make the Most of Social Media
MacGregor acquires new customers through social media, especially Instagram, where Vogue and Glamour magazines discovered her clothes. "I am also obsessed with Google Analytics. I love seeing who visits my website, when and how they navigate my pages. I use Square to process all my sales whether online or through my Square reader when I am selling at shows," says MacGregor.
Her advice? "Do a business plan, figure out production, itemize all costs, set goals, research competition, work out a social media strategy. I hire people to do the things I'm not good at so that I can focus on what I am good at."
Take the First Step
"You don't have to be a designer to design a great website," Weebly designer Derick Anies says. Visual appeal and simplicity make for a great first impression and help build trust, so create a clear, simple, intuitive navigation, using industry standard page names like "home," "shop," "about" and "contact," he says.
Spencer McCluskey of Square says it's important to have an omnichannel strategy and create a seamless experience for shoppers. He advises giving customers multiple purchasing options and delivering a consistent experience across store, app, website, event, marketplace and social media.
Square tries to enable a one-stop shop for everything, regardless of channel, and integrates well with Weebly, he explains. Among his recommendations: offer loyalty rewards, track customer history and host parties or events in a physical space to connect with customers when you're not trying to get them to buy something.
Even if you're just getting started and don't possess all the know-how you might ideally like to have, these entrepreneurs suggest, you can take that first step and get your eCommerce business up and running. With a laptop or tablet, the right mix of online tools and a bit of imagination, you can run that business successfully from almost anywhere.
Want even more information? Watch the events live!