35+ Experts Share Their Secrets on Starting a Highly Successful E-commerce Business
Everyday entrepreneurs and business owners are winning big with e-commerce—from a super successful side-business that sells t-shirts out of a garage, to a fast growth global brand like the 5th Watches.
For me, the first time “e-commerce” grabbed my attention was when our CEO Nathan Chan told me that one of our students, Deonna Monique, had done $1 million in sales sending followers from her Instagram account to her online store.
Yep, you read that right.
And in less than a year too. Heck, that doesn’t sound half bad … last time I checked most people were overworked and underpaid.
Since then, my greedy curiosity has become an obsession.
How were so many relative newcomers to business launching online stores that were generating anywhere from $100 a day in extra income, to over $600,000 a month?!
So, true to Foundr style, I turned to the experts for the answers—people who had already created and scaled e-commerce businesses.
Tony Robbins says:
“The surest way to achieve success is to model someone who is already successful … find someone who is the best in your chosen field and emulate them. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel—simply learn from the best.”
So I reached out to hundreds of entrepreneurs all around the world running successful online stores to learn from the best. Next I vetted the initial responses and culled the list down to just 35 replies across a range of industries. I dug deep to find business owners and brands that don’t necessarily have huge followings—people you may never have even heard of, but who are quietly crushing it in every category imaginable, from selling mountain bikes to computer headsets and more.
We asked each of them two simple questions:
• What has been the coolest thing about running an online store?
• What is the most important piece of advice you would give to someone starting an online store?
I encourage you to take handwritten notes of anything that stands out, and if you have learned some valuable lessons in e-commerce yourself, please add them in the comments section below.
Alright. Let’s roll. Here’s what some of the best have learned the hard way.
Kyle Goguen, Owner and Founder, Pawstruck.com
The freedom that comes from owning my own online business has been life changing. I put in many more hours than I would elsewhere, but you really can’t put a price on having the choice of where and when to work. You can’t beat being your own boss!
You can’t do everything yourself forever, even if it seems easier that way. I was hesitant to bring on other people and give up control, but it’s ended up being the best thing to happen to my business. What you give up in control you get back in growth and learning opportunities. Hiring has allowed me to focus on my strengths, which is better for me and for my business.
For me, the most exciting part of being involved with e-commerce startups is to see them grow up. Businesses evolve over time and I love seeing brands come to life through understanding and embracing their value proposition and point of difference. With this foundation, any brand can be successful!
1. Start with your Unique Value Proposition. Why are you starting a business and what makes your brand different from other businesses? Once you have that identified, find ways to carry that difference through your social media channels and website. Stay true to your core value and evolve everything around it—consistency is key!
2. Unless you know what your business needs, web development can be a bottomless pit. If you have the budget, invest in a skilled product manager who understands your business goals and market positioning and can help you translate these to your web developer. (This will save you tons of money in the long run!)
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and network, network, network! Starting a business is exciting and scary at the same time. You’ll have lots to learn and many unexpected ups and downs are coming your way. Networking with like-minded people will help you stay sane.
Surround yourself with people you can learn from—no one has all the answers. 🙂
Richard Lazazzera, Founder, A Better Lemonade Stand
The greatest thing about running an online business (especially coming from working in more traditional businesses) is managing the whole business from a single laptop. We hear people talk about running businesses from laptops all the time, but to really see it all come together is a magical moment you can’t help but appreciate.
The most important piece of advice I could give someone is to stop reading about how to do it and just start. Try not to overthink things too much, especially for your first business. Take a calculated risk and just go for it. Doing something will force you to learn more than reading 1,000 blog posts ever will.
Kevin Williams, Founder, Brush Hero
It’s a wild ride when you hit a sweet spot in the market. We grew from 0-$2 million in a single year and a lot of it was just holding on!
Basic creative technical skills are hugely important to get off the ground! Yes, you *can* outsource bits and pieces on Upwork or Fiverr, but you will save soooo much time if you can do basic HTML and use Photoshop. Spend the time. It’s worth it.
Stephanie Farrell, Site Manager, Minnow + Mars
Getting our first sale was pretty amazing, but I think the most exciting times are when customers call or leave us messages letting us know how much they like what we do. Running an online business can feel very solitary sometimes, so hearing that there are real people out there in the world actually paying attention and caring about the work we do really makes it all worth it.
Be prepared that it is going to take a while to drive traffic to your site and build your following. Not every online business starts out as a Warby Parker. Also make sure you really know your warehouse people and costs. It’s so easy for them to add 25 cents here and a dollar there and those charges really add up fast if you aren’t paying attention and negotiating along the way.
The most important advice I would give to someone starting an online business would be to make sure you are prepared financially if it takes longer to make your store profitable than you hoped. Plan for it to take a couple of years before you really get everything to fall in line. But hey, if it happens before that, lucky you!
James Pointer, Founder, Melon Optics
Being able to run a global business from anywhere in the world gives me the flexibility to spend summers surfing in Bali and winters snowboarding in the Alps. It’s a life-work balance that I really don’t think many other paths can offer.
Cash flow can kill great businesses. Whether it’s a relative, a bank, or an investor, have a plan of where to find cash when you need it.
Kunal Jhaveri, Founder/Owner, Bear Grips
The coolest thing about owning an online store is making money in my sleep! The great thing about e-commerce is it’s open 24/7, 365 days a year. Great motivation to know you already made $X before starting the day.
The coolest thing about running an online store is interacting with customers around the world. Hearing about their success with our products is a very gratifying feeling for our team.
I wish I had known where to start before I started. I built websites, landing pages, joined every e-commerce site thinking that’s how to get products out and make millions, and that was NOT the case.
So I paid someone, who I already saw making millions, $1,000 for a 15-minute phone call! His advice was simple, “Focus on one thing.” By focusing on one platform, that’s what took my business to the next level.
Emma Kruger, Founder, Riff Raff & Co
The coolest thing by far is just how overall I feel so much more in charge of my life. I can work the hours I want to work, outsource the things I don’t enjoy, all while connecting with amazing customers.
I wish I could have been more patient with my store and not have wasted so much energy worrying about daily sales, small dips, one return. The bigger view is so much more important than the daily numbers.
The best part of running an online store is when you get enthusiastic customers who leave amazing reviews or feedback. It’s such a good feeling to know that you had a happy customer whose life was positively impacted by your product.
The single piece of advice I have for all e-commerce merchants is to put more effort into your existing customers and audience to increase lifetime value and purchase frequency. Grow your email list, set up retargeting ads, and leverage marketing automation to help you scale retention!
Eli Williams, Founder, Foundry35
Once you’ve made the leap, you’ll look around at parties and realize you’re the only one in the room who doesn’t have a repressed sense of dread about going to work on Monday. Your life is not beholden to corporate overlords and you’re not chained to a desk. And best of all, you’ve got a lotto ticket that pays out proportionately to the hard work and raw grit that you plow into your business.
Identify your distinct strengths early, play to them, and never take your foot off the gas pedal. If you’re comfortable with numbers and datasets, make that a core competency and the competitive lifeblood of your business. If you’re a persuasive writer, use that to your distinct advantage to flood your website with visitors and capture their email addresses. If you’re a designer or product person, focus on perfecting a singular idea and then encapsulate that in your product. Ultimately you’ll have to combine all of these strategies, but the earlier you can identify your own strengths and outsource your weaknesses the earlier you’ll see traction and meaningful revenue.
Pete Williams, Co-Founder, Simply Headsets
The coolest thing has been the clients we’ve been able to help. Some of the biggest companies we used to look up to are now regular clients.
Manage your stock wisely…and dropship if you can. Everyone focuses on their web traffic and conversions, and thinks stock and dispatch will take care of themselves. They don’t, and can be a time sink.
Justin Adelson, Founder, Perfect Pixel Marketing LLC
The only thing cooler than making a sale is having your customer share their purchase online; it is validation that you are selling a great product and your business is on the correct path toward success.
Most e-commerce platforms have all the features you need to run a successful business; however, not all of them are built to be an all-in-one website builder (e.g. drag-and-drop design, multiple content types, etc.). Take advantage of free trials and test out every feature to make sure that the platform fits all of your needs.
Jeremy Prine, CEO, PCLiquidations
Getting to see unique ideas come to fruition and fuel growth is awesome. It is fulfilling to see everyone’s hard work lead to success and pay off in real time. Develop processes for everything from the start and tweak as you grow.
Lisa Batra, Founder, My Kid’s Threads
I made a leap from the corporate world to starting and running my own business while raising my two young kids. Prior to starting My Kid’s Threads, I held executive level positions in e-commerce for Fortune 500 companies (QVC, Bath & Body Works, Lowe’s, Charming Shoppes). I love the flexibility where I can have business calls in the morning and pop into my kids’ school or sports events later in the day.
Do not undervalue what you are selling. Whether you are selling a product or service, set the price at what it needs to be to make a profit.
Allen Walton, Founder, SpyGuy Security
Being able seek out successful entrepreneurs and become friends with people I looked up to along the way has been my favorite part. On a less serious level, spending last summer hopping around Asia while my business was on autopilot was pretty sweet.
What I wish I knew before I started: It’s difficult to run a business if you can’t convince customers to do business with you again and again. With the types of products I sell, my customers typically only need one item and don’t want anything to do with me after that. The next time I start a business, it’ll naturally be able have customers coming back all the time for more.
The most important piece of advice I can give to someone starting in e-commerce? Such a hard question, but I’m going to say that that diversification is so incredibly important. Never be so reliant on one stream of income that if it vanishes, your business completely crashes. For example, if 90% of your sales are coming from Facebook/Google/Amazon, and something changes (like it always does), you could be in big trouble. Businesses have died overnight due to stuff like that.
The coolest and most enjoyable thing for me is working side by side with store owners during a launch or peak season and watching a flood of new orders come in. There’s such a build of hard work, adrenaline, and anticipation that goes into it. When you exceed all expectations and can start calculating how much you beat your previous sales records by, it’s a pretty hard feeling to beat.
For first-time store owners, launch lean and understand you don’t need all the bells and whistles on day one. Your customers and gut will tell you what you need to work on and it’s funny how quickly things get done when a site is live.
Adam Schwab, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Lux Group
Without question, the coolest thing about running a collection of online stores is the truly amazing team that I get to work with. It is inspiring to come to work each day and see the passion and thought the team puts into creating amazing experiences for our members, generating significant profitability, and setting new records for our business and the businesses we partner with.
I wish from day one I knew the importance of having a really strong leadership team of super capable people. It can be tempting to keep someone around who isn’t up to it, or try to save a few dollars by hiring a less capable person, but I now know that investing in really good talent and letting them create value in the business delivers incredible returns across every meaningful metric.
Jen Geale, Co-Founder, Mountain Bikes Direct
It’s hard to beat the fact that on a sunny Gold Coast day, I can down tools, step out of my home-office and head across the road to the beach with my kids while our business keeps humming in the background.
There is no silver bullet. You’ll constantly come across systems, software, platforms or resources, which you’ll be told (or you’ll think) you need if you want to grow fast and be profitable. My experience is these “investments” often lead you down the opposite path, resulting in complexity, costs, and not actually meeting your business needs. More often than not, we’ve been able to solve problems with free tools or quick “hacks” using systems we already had, and the result is a much better fit for our unique circumstances.
Johann van Tonder, Co-author, E-commerce Website Optimization
The coolest thing is the science, the magic. Pulling levers and seeing how users respond to those adjustments.
Stop obsessing over competitors. Focus on your customers. Your business exists because of them. Get to know them well. Really well. Get into their minds, under their skin. Set aside a few hours a month when you do nothing but speak to customers.
Stacey Chang, Founder and Chief Warrior, Veerah
Seeing a vision I had for years come to life was the coolest thing. I took two years to develop our shoes, from learning about shoemaking in Italy to sourcing and learning about sustainable materials around the world. The journey has been full of ups and downs, but to finally see the finished product on our website and have customers able to see and experience my vision has been an incredible feeling.
Take time for yourself. As an e-commerce business, work can be all-consuming as you can work 24-7. However, taking breaks is important both for yourself mentally and for your business. I like to meditate and workout every day to clear my mind. When you turn off your computer and phone you will have even better ideas and more insight. Even as a founder, you can step away and it can be very good for your business to do so!
Joshua Manley, President, Iron Fence Shop
The coolest thing is the ability to make your own future. A year before I started my online store, I was $178,000 in debt ($33,000 in credit cards, $35,000 upside down in a rental house, and $110,000 in school loans) with zero in savings or retirement. Today, eight years after quitting my job and starting my own company, I am 100% debt-free and socking money away. Completely changed my whole life. Blows my mind to think about.
My advice: SLOW DOWN! There is so much to do, so much money to be made, so much opportunity to seize and you’re so excited! But there is plenty of time to do it all. Take a deep breath, be methodical in your decisions and don’t spend profits just to spend them. Listen, you don’t know if there is a turn in the road up ahead unless you have a map. When you start out, you don’t have a map, so just wait until you get to the turn to make a decision and choose your direction. As time goes on, eventually you’ll have a map and can plan things out a bit better. This single piece of advice will save you a lot of time and money!
Scott Flear, Founder, Rugby Warfare
The coolest thing is when I see customers comment on the website, social media, or email me stating how they love Rugby Warfare and how it’s now their favorite brand. It’s an amazing feeling knowing that a person goes to my brand as a way to express themselves to the world. I feel proud of what I have created when I see this.
I wish I knew the importance of email and having automated email sequences from the start. I must have lost hundreds of customers by not having a quality abandoned cart sequence in the beginning. Lead nurturing is also vital. Repeat customers are worth so much to me now, and I wish I focused more on generating repeat customers and making each one of them more valuable to me from the beginning.
Anubh Shah, Co-Founder & CEO, Four Mine
The best part has been being able to reach customers who are in a variety of places around the country. It has also been rewarding to create personalized pieces of jewelry for people to celebrate the most momentous times in their lives. E-commerce is rewarding because it gives you access to so many more customers.
You need to get out there and test all your experiments. If you have ideas, find ways to experiment with them, prove them and take them further. Don’t focus on theory, go forward and just DO. You will make mistakes, but this is the best way to achieve results and to learn. Learning from experience is the best way to move forward. With an e-commerce business, you can take risks, test experiments, and record data. Always be thinking of the next big way to take your business even further. Take calculated risks to move yourself up.
David Laubner, Head of Digital marketing & E-commerce, Blink
The coolest thing is the immediacy of feedback from your customers either directly through your online store or on your other digital channels. It never ceases to amaze me and the team as to the amount of extremely concrete information you can get from just studying your Amazon, Facebook, or site comments. When customers really want something these days, they will let you know quickly online.
Simplicity wins! We are all very busy, so requiring users to read a lot about your product or promotions might just be overcomplicating things and creating friction for your potential customers. You need to get to the point and figure the one or two selling points that they need to know.
Michael Jackness, Co-Founder At ColorIt
The coolest thing by far has been seeing all the comments from our customers. I love seeing customers say amazing things about our products.
I think the single thing I wish that I understood better when I started was the inventory/cash flow relationship. My previous businesses didn’t have inventory, which made it much easier to grow. In e-commerce, if you are growing at 300% per year like we are, there is never any cash to take out of the business or cash to pay taxes. In theory, there should be a big payday at the end of the rainbow, but it’s been a stressful ride. My biggest piece of advice would be to understand this relationship between cash, inventory, and growth.
Matt Edstrom, Head of Marketing, BioClarity
The coolest thing about running our online store is knowing that we are helping so many people across the country. Rolling out our product into the hands of our first groups of consumers and hearing that they love our product and that they stick with it because it’s better than what they had been using in the past is really motivating and exciting.
The most important piece of advice for someone starting an e-commerce business is to be eager to learn as much as you can and remain aggressive in seeking out advice and help on topics in which you are not an expert, even if you’re just looking for an outside opinion. Finding the right network of personal and professional contacts that will provide advice and mentorship is critical to an early stage startup because you can’t succeed without the help of others.
Robin Salter, CMO, KWIPPED
It’s exciting to be able to implement strategies and tactics and then see and measure results so clearly and definitively. With results driving decision making, over time, success and growth are inevitable.
Keywords are the key to e-commerce success. Identify your most valuable and profitable keywords. Find out where you rank for them. Find out who’s competing for and winning the ranking game. Build a strategy around maximizing and owning those rankings.
Nathan Hirsch, Founder and CEO, FreeeUp
The greatest memories of running my online store have been Black Friday and Cyber Monday of every year. With the consistently massive growth of the e-commerce industry, I have witnessed firsthand the craziness that ensues within an online store as the holidays start. For a full 24 hours, orders are flying in faster than they can even be processed. Those memories solidify all the work to get there.
I wish I knew how many parts of the machine there were. I’ve learned that starting and running a profitable online store requires many tasks to be performed on a daily and weekly basis. This includes, but is not limited to managing inventory, fulfilling orders, and making customers happy with their purchases. I wish I had been presented with a blueprint of all the roles that I would need within my online store to make it run smoothly without me spending hours upon hours trying to fulfill all of the tasks. In addition, I wish I knew how useful online freelancers could be for these tasks from the get go. My business partners and I performed a lot of the tasks on our own at first when we should have been passing it off to other e-commerce assistants.
Mark Dorsey, Co-Founder, VP of Business Development, Bonanza
I sell, but I mostly enable others to sell. The coolest thing for me is being able to watch so many Bonanza sellers grow their business from a side venture, to a primary income source operation. Once you scale your e-commerce store, you literally make money when you sleep. Nothing beats the feeling of waking up to a slew of new sales.
Before Bill Harding and I built Bonanza.com (an e-commerce marketplace), we had very little knowledge of how to best run an e-commerce business. But, as almost a decade has passed, and we have worked to refine the platform and amass sellers, the number one thing we’ve noticed that our most profitable users provide is excellent customer service. Cultivating positive relationships with buyers is a great way to build a reputation and increase sales. We try to encourage it by providing great customer service for the platform, so sellers can carry over the positive experience to their buyers.
Kevin Chow, CEO & Co-Founder, World’s Best
Online retail is a combination of “high tech” and “low tech” and to be successful you have to excel at both. It requires excellent technology and advertising, but also taking great care of your customers and merchant partners.
Great brands are built one happy client at a time and there are no shortcuts.
The best part is when clients tell us how much they love their experience. In a traditionally transactional space, excellent customer service and building that trust helps online businesses distinguish themselves.
Jerry Hum, CEO & Founder, Touch of Modern
It’s been very rewarding to see people grow, change, and transition between skills, all while staying within our company.
If I were to give one piece of advice, it’s to build a brand that can be nimble enough to evolve as time passes. Often we see big brands that were once successful fail because the brand itself fails to evolve. E-commerce businesses take a long time and trends will change, so your brand can’t depend on a trend that may not be relevant in a few years.
Bart Mroz, Co-Founder and CEO, SUMO Heavy
The most interesting thing about managing an online store is how even small changes—like changing the page layout, cleaning up a section of code, or removing a step at check-out—can have a big impact on the bottom line. That’s been one of the most rewarding things for me: finding areas of inefficiencies that once solved can make a huge difference to both the customer journey and profit margins.
At the very beginning is when it’s easiest to establish a good foundation to build on. So, invest time, effort and resources in building out the right infrastructure for your e-commerce site. Don’t let growth catch you off guard—plan for it. Every piece of software and technology that gets put into place, like your backend e-commerce platform, should be easily scalable. Most importantly, security should be your number one concern from the get-go, because the stakes only get higher as your business grows. Take action, early and often, to prevent costly problems. When something does go wrong in e-commerce, even for a few minutes, it can cost you thousands of dollars.
Wesley Blundy, Founder, Curvy
The coolest thing has been setting the challenge to myself to take an idea and turn it into a profitable, fast-growing business, and then looking back over the last three years and seeing that I’ve done just that. It’s an awesome feeling!
You need to learn how to acquire customers at a profitable cost. Sure, you need to do everything else too, like have great products and customer service, but it’s all a bit of a waste of time unless you can also nail the customer acquisition part. The good news is, you can learn from, or hire some of the best in the world to help you with this.
Michael Tremeer, Founder, Trefiel
Being able to travel full time while managing the business is awesome, but meeting and connecting with customers and hearing their positive feedback will always make me smile, no matter how large we grow.
For us, the most important factor has always been understanding the customer. Whether it’s improving the product experience, generating content that interests them, or even asking them for feedback on new products and packaging design, whenever we keep our focus on our customers, everything always seems to hit the mark.
George Hartley, Co-Founder, SmartrMail
The best thing about running an online startup is the freedom to follow your instincts, and make an impact on a problem you care about. That includes hiring like-minded people who share the same mission. Not having a boss is pretty great too.
Persistence trumps everything. Keep persisting, eventually something will stick.
And what about you…
Have you learned some lessons about E-commerce?
If so, we’d love to hear it.
Please leave your comment below and we can discuss. Here’s my comment –