Why I Should Have Failed Harder at My eBay Test

As part of our attempts to unveil the secrets of e-commerce, I recently took the plunge and tested a new product on eBay. Because 1), eBay is a platform Anthony and I don’t have much experience in and it would serve us well to get a hands-on feel for it and 2), because although I’ve been co-writing the Bootstrapping books, my contribution has been from more of a marketing and self-help standpoint. I haven’t had much e-commerce experience myself.

However, the books I’ve been writing are so compelling that I wanted in!

The first book, Bootstrapping E-commerce: How to Import and Sell on Amazon emphasizes the importance of thinking long term and building up a lasting legacy, not quick flip profit, but I wanted something else. Something that we recognize a lot of our readers will want too.

I wanted a little side income. An extra thousand a month. I didn’t want to spend hours on branding and researching my market, building up a huge online presence. I didn’t want to spend many hours on this at all. I wanted the quick flip.

Here’s What I Did

I researched trending fitness products because fitness is something I’m pretty immersed in and care a lot about (I am my market, in this case).

I found a product that was just being introduced around Christmas, a microfiber infinity scarf with a hood meant to serve as a gym towel. I though that was a great idea. I would use it! Except for the hood part which was good because it was the hood that made it a patented item. As long as my product didn’t have a hood I wouldn't come up against the patent.

I decided that by sewing nice, quality microfiber towels together I could market them as sports towel infinity scarves.

The idea was that the scarf with the hood already being sold online would create a market and buyers would be interested in a simpler and cheaper version.

There was no way of knowing if there would be any interest until I tested the product, so I ordered three microfiber gym towels off Amazon for $10. Ordinarily I would go to Aliexpress but it was just as cheap and quicker to get this particular item off Amazon.

I stitched them up nicely. Had them photographed for free using a photographer friend and myself as a model. Then I wrote up a description with Anthony’s guidance, loaded with keywords that would activate the eBay algorithm, very different from the Amazon algorithm.

What Happened?

Very little. I ran it first as an auction, starting bid $2.99. I got a handful of views for each color, but nothing sold. I ran them again, auction $2.99 and Buy It Now $9.99. This time I sold two of the auction towels to the same bidder, $2.99 each, just enough to pay for the postage.

I ran them again, Buy It Now $14.99. No takers. Also barely any views. Each time I relisted, I went back into the copy and tweaked it, hoping to increase visibility. However, views stayed extremely low, 10 or less.

What Went Wrong?

I think this was a case of there simply not being a market for the item. No one was looking for a microfiber sports towel infinity scarf.

Also, the photography might not have been appealing enough. I didn’t want to pay out much money on a test and while the pics were taken by a professional, time was limited and I only had two images to work with. Also it’s possible that the appeal wasn’t there. Perhaps potential buyers were saying, “someone sewed a towel in a circle, big deal.”

So This Was a Major Failure, Right?

Our next book, due out this year, is about failure. Not just about what you can learn from your failures, but how to learn to live with it day in day out and what it makes you as a person. Because e-commerce is all about failure. Tests fail, and we don’t get too upset because it was only a test. But entire inventories have to be liquidated, listings get hijacked, Amazon suspends you, you lose money, make it back, and lose it again.

The idea of a big overnight success and smooth sailing after is a big fat myth. An overnight success, maybe, but there’s plenty of failure to come after that.

It’s easy to say, "well, it isn’t failure, it’s growth experience," and while that may be true, it’s not the conversation we want to have.

Failure Is Out There, Let’s Talk About It

There is so much failure in this business but few people want to talk about how it cuts you off at the knees. But it’s a conversation we need to have just so we know we’re not alone when we do something stupid. Sink valuable time and money into a half-cocked idea, or a brilliant idea that simply capsizes.

There is a conversation going on right now about grit, see TED.com, and that’s part of the conversation, but so much about grit is about overcoming and seeing victory. What about the grit that has no outward glory to it? It’s quiet. It’s alone. It doesn’t get talked about because this grit is a little scary. It’s a hair’s breadth away from being utterly inconsequential.

We want to talk about the kind of failure that puts you in that place.

The Secret Truth of Failure

In this book, Failure: A Self Hurt Guide to Business Success, Anthony talks about his many failures in the early years of getting into the e-commerce game. The stories are heartbreaking. The failures hurt because he threw his all into endeavors left and right, more often than not hitting a brick wall.

But he kept going. And eventually, long after most individuals would have decided they were happy with the steady office job, he started coming out on top.

I didn’t feel a lot of failure from my eBay test because, honestly, I didn’t try very hard. I definitely didn’t have a lot riding on it. The failure didn’t sting at all. Maybe that’s what I should be worried about.

Dana Barfield