It is indeed a strange paradox that the internet enables me to pursue the “simple life”. Fresh out of college my wife and I had dreams of living in the country and living off the land. We bought some land, built a house and started a garden. There are few jobs here in upstate New York and many of the ones that are available are not that great. We did not want to spend the rest of our lives working a 40-hour work-week at a job waiting to retire (if we could retire) so we could live the simple life. I can remember jumping from low wage job to low wage job wishing I could work from home. It seemed like an impossible dream; too good to be true. Now, it has been three years since I’ve had an off-farm job.
What follows is the general process we go through when starting and promoting an online business. Because all of our businesses have been selling what we’ve made, that is what I’ll speak to. In the past we’ve spun yarn, made knitting needles, knitted hats and dipped beeswax candles. We’ve now found our best success with pet memorial stones. We have not become wealthy by doing this, in fact we likely live below the poverty line. The truth is we need less money because we don’t have to drive every day to go to work anymore. We have plenty of time to grow some of our own food and prepare meals from scratch. After all, that is why we moved to the country in the first place.
One of the secrets of our success has been to take small manageable steps. Before we made any sales, it seemed impossible. I got discouraged a lot and had my share of self doubt; but, because we persisted and repeatedly took small steps forward, we did succeed. Not every enterprise we’ve embarked upon has made money (some have lost us some). Through trying at it, we learned what we were doing. In that sense success can be somewhat inevitable for those who are persistent, adaptable and are willing to see it through.
Choosing the right type product to produce and identifying where you can compete is essential to success. On the internet, everybody is invited to the table. This includes small home businesses and big business including global business. If I can imagine a product I want to produce being produced in China or somewhere else with low wages, I know I will probably have a hard time competing and turning a profit. If a product is customized to order, of a high quality, uniquely artistic, needs to be delivered fresh/fast or is only a small niche market that is not worth big businesses’ time it may be a good opportunity. I believe the web is ripe with opportunities for the would be small business owner. Identifying the strengths you can offer to the market is key. It may be a low price because of low overhead or it may be personal customer service. There are areas where a smaller business can flourish where a large business would have a hard time delivering. Think hard about this as it will set you apart and bring you your share of the market you are competing for.
I’ve talked to many prospective homesteaders who are potential internet entrepreneur. An issue that comes up often while talking over ideas is pricing and demand. Out of desperation, it is tempting to begin the business with the idea, “if we could just barely scrape by”. I understand that this is an acceptable outcome for those of us inclined to the simple life; however, I’ll warn you against a life of undervaluing your time and skill (isn’t that what farming is for?). Do the simple math up front. If you think of a product that you will make $10 on and you need $20,000 a year to get by, you’ll need to make and sell a little over five a day every day of the year. I’d encourage you to think of things in these terms. Firstly, it brings you to the reality of the life you dream of fairly quickly. Secondly it gives you a sense of how many you need to sell.
In order to assess the possible demand for a product, it needs to be understood that the internet is a purpose driven media. This means that most online consumers likely know what they want to buy when they begin typing keywords into a search engine. A quick search on Google, Yahoo, or eBay will give you a good idea of what kind of competition is already out there. Besides just the search results, you will notice there are ads at the top and the side margins of the results. These are businesses who are paying per click to the search engines in order to appear on the margins of specific searches. In other words, they pay the search engine a set amount for each time a searcher clicks on their ad. More on this later. The same keywords you just typed to find the product you hope to sell are likely how your future customers will find you. They are like the road your shop will be on. You need to find out whether that road is getting any traffic.
A great way to assess the traffic for a product is to use a “keyword selector tool.“ This tool will allow you to see how many people searched a particular keyword on a particular search engine the previous month. Google has the adwords keyword selector tool. You can type in any set of keywords and it will tell you how many searches a month there are for those words. I‘ve had good success with businesses that get 500-10,000 searches per month. Less than 500 the market may be too small , and more than 10,000 the completion may be too high for me to want to compete.
If your investigation so far may have determined that there are businesses selling items similar to what you would like to provide, but is there money to be made? That is harder to determine; however, there are ways to investigate. If you are familiar with eBay and you have an account, you can search completed listings. If you don’t have an account it is easy to sign up. You do need an account to search the completed listings. This will show you all of the recently sold and not sold items for the keywords you searched. Search eBay for the product you’d like to produce. You’ll see the products people are currently selling. To the left of the results in a beige box you’ll see “search options”. Check the box that says “completed listings” and click “show items”. You can tell if anyone is buying the type of item you want to sell and for how much.
If you are encouraged by the results of your research, it is finally time to produce and sell your product. Before making the investment of time and money into your own website, I think it is wise to try and sell the product on a website like eBay or Etsy. Both sites charge a fee for every item you list whether or not you sell the item. For this fee, they provide you with the opportunity to reach many consumers in a short period of time and with relatively little invested. I know many people are successful on eBay. I have found it a great place to start to try and sell a product before making a larger investment of time and money for a stand alone website; however, I have found that ultimately running my own website to be more profitable because I reach more people searching specifically for my product. Etsy is a similar site to eBay but has much lower fees. They will only allow handmade items to be listed. If you are interested in selling handmade items, it is certainly a website worth checking out. There is a feature on Etsy called “time machine 2” that allows you to see the last 1000 items that have sold. The customers on this site seem to be buying items at sufficiently high prices for the sellers to make a decent return. I suspect people are willing to pay these prices because they value handmade things. If you believe you’ve found a product that is a keeper and you’d like to move beyond eBay or Etsy it is time to start a website.
It can be quite easy to start a website. I’ve used yahoo’s site builder software to build a really slick website. The software is free and it is easy to use. You can register a domain name and buy the web space or hosting through them. These are things you will need to do anyways. Here is where it gets tricky. They make it so easy to promote, accept credit cards, track your sales, print shipping labels and their software allows even a novice complete creative control of the site. They will charge you a yearly fee to register the site in your name (you’ll have to do this anyway). And they will charge you monthly/yearly for their hosting ( you can find it cheaper elsewhere but you will need to buy it anyways). They will try to get you to buy many, many services you may or may not need. I would predict that if you buy all of their services you will be working mostly to add to the stock value of yahoo. It’s not all bad though. If you are careful about which services you buy you probably can build a profitable business. The big catch is this, if you use their site builder (It’s really great) you can only host the site on yahoo’s hosting. If you take the bait and use their site builder you are choosing to host with yahoo for the entire life of your site. If their prices rise or policy’s change you will have to grin and bear it or restart your business elsewhere. For reasons I will not go into now, having portability for your website can be very important. Several years ago I paid $60 a month for their hosting in their “merchant solutions” product line. This is pretty expensive, but convenient. After several months, I cancelled the service as the business did not work out and it was too expensive for me to keep going. There are many companies that offer all of these same services out there. I’m describing my yahoo experience to point out that these company’s are in it to make money. Likely, the more convenient it is, the more expensive it will be. You should also be on the lookout for a catch. I would still recommend this route for some people. I myself may try using a company like yahoo again. Reason being it is quite convenient and I like having creative control. All of this being said, I have recently heard good things about the site “shopify”. I have checked out their site and think it may be a good deal. It does not suit me at this point but , if I were starting over again, I would take a hard look at them.
Having a website built for you can be quite expensive. If you are a novice, you may also need to hire someone to maintenance the site for you. If you are not careful these costs may suck all the would be profit from your business. Don’t be discouraged. You may know someone who would be willing to do the work. I’ve successfully partnered with relatives and neighbors who are willing to build me a website and maintain it in exchange for an ongoing commission for each item sold off the website.
It is important to be realistic and clear when entering such an agreement. I like this option because I only have to pay if and to the degree that we are successful. This is great chance for the web builder to get a residual income. It may also be a good opportunity for an aspiring web designer to get some practice. However you accomplish building your site, it will only be successful if people can find it. That is why my main consideration when starting a website is getting that website seen. Your strategy for exposure will determine the ways you’ll want to go about building your website. In almost any aspect of starting and promoting a website there is someone willing to help you out for a fee. I’ve talked to people who have paid handsomely for a website that looked professional and they have paid to have it promoted only to find that the are not making sales. Depending on your skill level you may want to hire someone to help you with some of the aspects.
When I’m shopping on line, I’ll go to yahoo or Google and type in what I’m looking for. Think of the last time you were looking for something online. When was the last time you looked on the second page? Often, I don’t even scroll down to see the second half of the first page. Of course people do make it to the second page sometimes ( probably not if they can find what they need on the first page). My point is this. You need to be seen in order for customers to buy your product. For the most part this means you need to be high in the search engine rankings for the “keywords” that people will type in order to find your site. To my mind this is key to being successful with your own site. You can have a well designed site with a great product, great customer service, and low prices; but, if nobody sees it, nobody will buy things from it. This is why the fees paid to eBay and Etsy are worth it. Your product gets seen the day you post it by lots of people that are looking for such an item.
How do you get to the top of the search engines? One way is to buy a spot there. It is relatively easy to sign up for “pay per click” advertising . You can go to Google or yahoo and search for something. At the bottom of their list of ads they will have a link like “your ad here”. During signing up they will help you pick the keywords where your ads will appear. In fact, you’ve met one of the tools, the adwords keyword selector tool. You then can bid an amount you are willing to pay per click for those keywords. This will determine your ranking. You’ll notice at the top of a results page there will be 2-3 bigger ads that almost look like part of the actual results. These are the prime spots. Whoever bids the most on a given keyword will get this spot. Those who bid less per click will be on the side margins in descending order and if there are many businesses bidding on a set of keywords some ads may only appear on the second page. You may want to note this while researching a product to sell. If there are many ads on the side margins there is likely a lot of competition and the market may be flooded. I’ve paid as little as .10 a click and as much as 2.00. There are tools available in a pay per click account to track how much you spend in advertising in order to make a sale. For myself I’ve always found it to be barely worth it when all is said and done. That does not mean it will not be worth it for you. It is a fast way to compete directly with those at the top of the search results. I like the “pay per click” because I can try a business out for a few days without the investment of time and energy promoting a site to naturally be at the top. I don’t like it because of the relatively high running costs of such a campaign where if you stop paying, your business stops dead. One thing to keep in mind when using a pay per click advertising model is that you need to build the costs into the price of the ads into the price of your product. This is common sense but worth mentioning.
My preferred way to reach customers is to promote my website to make it rise in the search rankings. You’ll here the term “SEO” used a lot these days. It stands for “search engine optimization”. This term is used by those who will make your business successful and by those who will take all of your money and not help you out one bit. I now do my own SEO. I adjust my websites text and network with other sites to make my site more popular with the search engines. Be very careful in hiring someone to help you out with this. They can hurt your website as much as help it. I go to two trusted sources to learn about SEO. First is SEO Book with Aaron Wall and the second is SEO moz. They both have free and paid sections to learn about SEO. I would be sure to research and have a basic understanding of SEO before paying for their paid forums.
In order to be listed in the results for a search engine, you will need to submit your site to the search engine. Again, there are companies that will do this for you for a fee. Search engines have complex mathematical algorithms which search your website and will give you a ranking based on the qualities of your site. The factors that determine a high ranking are closely guarded by the search engines and for good reason. Have you ever searched for something and had nothing but bogus results at the top. Perhaps you’ve clicked on a promising result only to find it is another search engine with more results. Google and yahoo want you to find what you are looking for because if you don’t , you will stop using their search engine. They are trying to rank the web pages so that the most relevant results end up at the top. This is a complex job when everybody is competing for the top positions including those who have no business being at the top. For this reason they can’t publish what will get a page ranked high. People do study it and look at the websites in the top results to guess what made them rise to the top. I should also mention that the rules change all the time as the search engines try to get and keep the most relevant results at the top. My best advice to you is to try to compete for just a few keywords that actually describe your product. Remember the search engines are trying to get good results for the searchers. I would not try and “trick” the search engines into ranking your site high for a search where it does not belong.
I believe there is a great deal of opportunity out there for the homesteader who would be business owner. I find more and more that I am buying my goods and services from small home businesses. The internet offers a growing marketplace and a chance to compete. In my own life it has become the perfect compliment to low-tech simple living. Good luck with your enterprises.