Creating a product from scratch may seem daunting at first, but when you break down the steps required to go from your idea to selling the product online or in a store, it is actually not that complicated. When we first talked about creating a keyboard cover, I had no idea where to start or how to begin. Luckily, doing a couple of Google searches for an hour or so will get you on the right path. There are many different ways to get your idea off the ground, so I thought I’d give my take on how to create a simple e-commerce product and begin selling it online. I’ve made a few mistakes along the way, and the tools I mention in this post are by no means the best tools, but I think these resources are a good starting point.
1) Picking Your Idea (1 week)
I think a lot of emphasis is put on this stage of the process. How many times have you heard this:
Yeah I want to create a product/business/service but I just don’t have the idea. Once I magically stumble upon that idea for a product, it will be easy to create and sell it since my friend’s brother’s cousin’s uncle makes these widgets in China and I can get it from him for dirt cheap. Then I just throw up a website and I’m good to go!
Parts of this statement are true, but the problem is pretty evident. The idea stage still holds a lot of people up, and my advice is to get something simple produced and get feedback from your friends and family. Back in the day, Google gave away free Gmail stickers to the public.
ZOMG!!! Free swag from Google? Yes, all you had to do was send Google a self-addressed envelope and they mailed you back these awesome stickers you could put on your keyboard to remind you how to Compose an e-mail with a keyboard shortcut or mark something as spam. Those were the good ol’ days when Google was still a “startup,” but I digress.
We first thought, why not create some Excel stickers? I mean, we love Excel keyboard shortcuts and we love these Gmail stickers, seems like a no-brainer. Then after some quick research, we found that there really weren’t any competitors in the market. A few companies have created stickers with Excel keyboard shortcuts like this guy and this guy, but we thought their products lacked some pizzazz and we could do better. We started to look for potential sticker vendors, and we found that many of these vendors have been around since the 90s and their products simply felt “old.”
This is where the light bulb went off. No one wants to put stickers on their keyboard. Unless you worked at Google where this kind of quirky colorful accessory made you the envy of your co-workers, stickers are too permanent and a pain to take off. We needed something more flexible and transient. I’ve seen my parents (and generally older people, for some reason) use keyboard covers to protect their keyboards from dust and dirt. I used to think these covers were super uncomfortable to type on, but they do serve a functional purpose as to protect your keyboard. So this is how the idea started, we would somehow put Excel keyboard shortcuts on these flimsy keyboard overlays.
2) Finding a Manufacturer/Vendor (2 weeks)
This is where I first hit a roadblock. What are the companies that already produce keyboard covers in bulk? Will they be able to customize it? Will we have to create the keyboard cover from scratch? All these questions ran through my mind and I simply started doing Google searches to find the answer. Luckily, there is an amazing website called Alibaba that pretty much answered every question.
Alibaba is essentially a database of suppliers and manufacturers that produce every single object or thing you can think of. No seriously, ANYTHING you want to produce in mass quantities, chances are some company does it on Alibaba. You simply do a search for the product and you’re likely to find some random factory that produces what you want.
Wanna by 100 rescue boats? How about 500 solar-powered street lights? Or 10 tons of dried kiwis? Yup, Alibaba’s got you. Needless to say, we found a couple of manufacturers that produce keyboard covers, but how did we sift through all the different companies? This is where it got a little tricky, since Alibaba puts in all these “badges” for the manufactures to display on their profile indicating they are legit, but you just never know. I sent out the e-mail below to 10+ factories and got a response from each one:
Hi, I am interested in purchasing a large quantity of these keyboard covers. Does your company provide custom text/designs on the letters?
That’s it. It definitely helped that the vendor we chose was based in China, and my Mandarin is decent enough to carry on a conversation. When I Skyped with the factory, it made both parties feel more comfortable in doing business with each other. To quickly close out this point, we set up multiple meetings with different factories, and it became clear who wanted our business based on the timeliness of the e-mails from the factories and how eager they were to do business with us. We also had to negotiate on buying terms, shipping, etc. and all this stuff I just Googled to figure out what the heck “FOB destination” means.
3) Design the Product (3 days)
Unlike other products, we were lucky enough to find a factory that already produces our product so didn’t have to do anything from scratch. This kept our R&D costs down, if I had to put an accounting term on it. We still had to figure out what the colors and text would look like, and this is where our Excel skills came into play. We knew we didn’t want to create a cover with 100 shortcuts on them, since you only end up using 10-20 shortcuts on a daily basis. We took the 20 shortcuts we used the most on our job, and created our first “design” in PowerPoint. I literally drew boxes and text boxes to convey what the design would look like to the factory. Here is an early design (or rather, a PowerPoint slide):
As you can see, the original “design” was very simple and dirty. I ended up having a PowerPoint with 20 some odd slides showing what the text would look like. I also showed the PowerPoint to co-workers and friends to see if it just passed a “common sense” test. After a few iterations with friends and the factory, we finally agreed on the text, colors, and other design considerations.
This design phase probably took no more than 2 weeks. The factory sent us a couple of prototypes and we would make small changes here and there, and then the factory would send us more prototypes with these changes. We simply iterated over and over until we were satisfied, and finally pulled the trigger to order a large quantity from the factory.
At this point, we probably took the most risk as a company. We still were not sure if we could really trust the factory we were working with, and we had wired thousands of dollars to some weird account number for some Chinese bank we’ve never heard of. We assumed at this point, we put all the work in and all we could do was hope for the best.
4) Building an E-commerce Website (3 weeks)
Now that we had our product in hand, we needed a way to sell it. I knew from day one that an e-commerce website would be crucial to our ability to sell our product. Had we tried to get into a traditional retail store, the costs and time could have easily eaten away at our profitability. We had done enough testing with friends and family to give us confidence that people were willing to pay for the product, so we just had to get the word out there.
The first step was to get a simple website up. Nothing fancy, just a website that could take orders and accept credit card payments. I was browsing around the Google Entrepreneurs website and found a link to set up a free website for your company through the “New York Get Your Business Online” program. The goal of this organization is to get all businesses in the U.S. a website, since 58% of businesses don’t have an online presence.
I was more interested in just getting free hosting to set up the website. I also didn’t want to use HTML or CSS, I just wanted one of those simple tools where you could build the website literally by drawing boxes on the screen. Through the Google Entrepreneurs resource, I built our first website with Intuit Websites software, and our site was extremely ghetto. I wish I could show a screenshot of the website, but I already deleted our account. We essentially had an About Us page and the homepage which had a Google Store I set up using Google Wallet. It was simple, easy, and got the job done.
We needed something more legit, so I started looking into real content/hosting platforms. The big ones that jumped to mind were WordPress and Shopify. I ended up choosing WordPress since I wanted to have a little more control and customization of the site. I’ve heard all the pros and cons about using WordPress, but once you start using it and editing the CSS, PHP, and understand where all the files reside on the server, it’s not as hard as it looks. Some additional tools I’ve used to spruce up the site include WordPress plugins (there are over 25K!) and WooCommerce. With these two tools combined, you can create a really robust website with a shopping cart, order page, and everything else you see on a typical e-commerce website.
So how would we accept credit cards? This took some research as well, since we had originally used Google Wallet to handle everything. Now we had to balance all the costs and benefits of picking a payment gateway. We chose Stripe (just because I like the way the website looked) and Mijireh to handle the PCI compliance (still not really sure about the value they add, but without them you have to re-create the final order page for your site with all the HTML and CSS styles).
Again, one of the best things about all these online tools is that many of them are free and they all integrate almost seamlessly with WordPress. Props to WordPress for kicking ass on this!
5) Social Media and Search Engine Optimization (1 week)
Everyone knows you need to do “social” and SEO, but I wanted to do it right for KeyCuts. With SEO, we set up the usual AdWords and Product Listing Ads. The big thing I wanted to get right was setting up all the social media channels from a business perspective. There’s a buzz now about how to effectively manage social media and content marketing for your business, I just wanted to find one authoritative source on how to do it all.
Alas, I came across this amazing tutorial from Yoast.com that puts all the SEO and social media tips into one lengthy tutorial. As you go through the tutorial, the cogs start to turn and you realize why you need to have proper title tags and why you should set up a Google+ profile to get better rankings in search.
6) The Present and Beyond
At this point, we were taking orders from the site, and the only thing we have not automated is the fulfillment. Currently our team sends out each order individually, and we are looking for ways to automate this at a low cost as well. We are exploring Amazon Dropship as well as other services, but these options still seem quite pricey for such a simple product like KeyCuts.
That’s pretty much it! We are always looking for ways to automate different aspects of the order process, fulfillment, content creation, but I think we are in a pretty good groove. The real work now is doing marketing for KeyCuts, and this is where the fun comes in. We’ve planned contests to rename our product, worked with Fab.com for a sale on their website, and are even hosting a Google+ Hangout on August 29th to talk about Excel shortcuts and answer Excel questions people have. All these marketing efforts are aimed at making the social media machine work for KeyCuts, and in return we can give back to the community in the form of Excel tips, articles, and special events.
If you are wavering on starting a new company, creating a new product, or just going off to travel for a year, we leave you with this quote from Tim Ferriss. We are huge believers in Tim Ferriss’ “muse” concept a la The 4-Hour Workweek (you should definitely read it if you are ever thinking about starting a side business).
For all of the most important things, the timing always sucks. Waiting for a good time to quit your job? The stars will never align and the traffic lights of life will never all be green at the same time. The universe doesn’t conspire against you, but it doesn’t go out of its way to line up the pins either. Conditions are never perfect. “Someday” is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you. Pro and con lists are just as bad. If it’s important to you and you want to do it “eventually,” just do it and correct course along the way. – Tim Ferriss