So there I was, in my early thirties, a wife and two kids, barely making ends meet earning around $30,000 a year working two jobs. Life wasn’t bad, but there were definitely parts that needed improvement. Like being able to spend more time with my family. My oldest daughter had just become a teenager, so getting any time with her was already hard. And I simply hated having to leave for work on a Sunday morning while my youngest pranced around out back asking me to push her on the swing.
Also, it would have been nice to simply be able to afford things. Nothing fancy or lavish. Just…you know….STUFF. Like an occasional trip to the movies. Or, heaven forbid, a bottle of wine that cost more than 15 bucks.
Overall though, I couldn’t complain. The most important thing was that I had a loving and healthy family. It was always the most important thing, and it always will be. However, as important as it is to appreciate what you have, this story isn’t about being content and settling into life as it is, for better or worse. This story is about how I took control of my destiny and my family’s future and how you can too, if that’s what you want.
The Pivotal Moment
I was a copywriter for a web design firm by day and server at a seafood restaurant by some nights and weekends. I was strapped for time and energy. I knew I needed something better for my family, but finding it in me to cultivate that dream wasn’t easy. One evening during a rare minute of downtime, I happened upon a video about how easy it is to make money selling your own branded products on Amazon using their fulfillment program, FBA. This sounded way over-simplified, but it caught my attention.
The basic gist of the video was that all I had to do was order products from factories on Alibaba, have them brand the products to my specifications, send the goods to Amazon and, as long as I could write a good listing, I would be in the money in no time.
That last part hooked me. As long as I could write good copy I’d be successful. I was a copywriter. It was a no-brainer.
I had found my opportunity, or rather my opportunity had found me and I had the initiative to grab it. As simple as it sounded, I knew this was their copywriting talking and there was plenty of hard work ahead, but I figured it was this or remain where I was. I made the decision that this was going to be the thing I did to take control of my life. That was the pivotal moment.
My first step was to put together a plan of action. I couldn’t just stumble into a business I knew nothing about. I needed to learn a thing or two about what I was doing. So I got to work studying.
At the time there was a prominent affiliate course that taught the how-tos of setting up a seller account on Amazon and setting things in motion. It was a very expensive course. But I decided to go ahead and buy it. I didn’t have the money for inventory, much less this course. However, I was determined to figure something out.
Today, there is an abundance of information available all over the internet on how to get started on Amazon, many of which cost WAY less than the $3500 I ended up spending. But at the time, it was worth it.
Aside from learning how to set up shop on Amazon, I also needed to tackle the ins and outs of importing. My instructions from the course were to order products from factories I found on Alibaba. This meant I would probably be sourcing from China. I couldn’t imagine that importing from Asia was so easy that anyone could do it, so I searched for books and settled on two, both available on Kindle:
· Import Export Business; How To Import From China Using (O.P.M.) Other People’s Money by Perry Belcher
· How to Import from China Starting with $250 by Stephen Jorgensen
When I felt confident that my importing knowledge was sufficient to get started, the next step was to figure out exactly what I would import. This was the most crucial piece of the puzzle, too. Everyone has a theory on what you should sell and how you should discover it, but there is no perfect formula for product discovery.
I made the decision that I wanted to build a brand. Not just a brand, but a legacy. Something that my children’s children would be running in a few decades. In order to do that, I realized I needed to serve a market rather than just sell a product.
That’s when my baby brand was born. I chose parents as the market because I am one. I figured if I’m my own ideal customer, I’ll know exactly how to market to…well…me.
Once I knew who I would be selling to, it was just a matter of numbers to determine what to sell. I looked at products that had great demand, which is not hard in the baby niche. Then I focused on products with high profit margins and a low probability of defects. I decided on textiles because of the potential for brand markup.
I knew I still had a lot to learn, but for the most part I felt good about the direction I was taking. I had an idea of how to set up a marketplace shop, how to import without making any stupid mistakes and I knew exactly what I wanted to sell and who I wanted to sell to.
Vetting a Manufacturer
The next step in the process was to find the right supplier. Your product supplier is essentially your business partner and not something you should rush into. With that in mind, I went to work scouring Alibaba for manufacturers of my target product.
In my importing research I had learned a couple of valuable points about finding suppliers using Alibaba. I learned that Alibaba does vet the vendors it allows on its site, but not thoroughly. I needed to take extra precautions to ensure I didn’t get ripped off.
So I limited my search to only suppliers that had been Gold Suppliers for at least three years. Even though a supplier pays for its Gold Supplier status, I figured if someone was willing to pay three years in a row, they probably weren’t a fly-by-night scam operation.
My next criteria was that they accepted Alipay (now they offer something called Trade Assurance, but that didn’t exist four years ago). I wasn’t sure if I would use Alipay, as the fee was 5%, but I figured if a supplier was willing to allow their payment to be held in escrow then they weren’t planning to rob me.
With my filters in place I found seven initial supplier listings I was interested in reaching out to. I sent them all my introduction email. At that time, being extremely new to importing, I wasn’t entirely sure what to put in that email.
All I was focused on was quality. That meant more to me than price. I figured if I could find the highest quality, I’d just have to pay whatever price was necessary for it. So my initial email read something like this:
Dear Ms. Li,
I am interested in learning more about your [product] model number MC002. I feel the best way to have my questions answered is to handle the product personally. I wonder how I may procure a sample.
Believe it or not, that worked. I got four responses of the seven, and three of them offered reasonably priced samples. So I ordered samples from all three suppliers.
The samples arrived, and the next step was to test and assess. One manufacturer sent me totally cheap products. I went through two sample runs with him, and both times a couple of his samples had defects. I knew that factory was out of the running.
The final two were tough. My first choice sent me what looked like a knock-off of a major American brand. This just didn’t sit right with me. The other factory was my last resort. While their sample was of very good quality, it wasn’t the type of model I was interested in.
I was struggling with what to do when the last-resort factory informed me that they also made the type of model I was looking for. So I ordered a sample of that one, and it blew me away. Top quality, original and the best price yet. I was elated. This was the winner.
Once I knew that this factory was the one I’d be working with, I played the two factories against each other to drive the price of the initial order down as much as I could. As was expected, the quality factory didn’t move much. But they did what they could, and I knocked about 20 cents off each unit.
Everything was coming together. Now I just needed some money.
As I mentioned, at the time of starting this venture I had no money. And I don’t mean that like, I had no money I felt comfortable losing but still had a retirement fund. No. I LITERALLY had no money. I never had more than $500 in my bank account at any given time. It was paycheck to paycheck.
My credit was also mediocre. However, thanks to a friend in the business, I managed to buy a new car at a decent rate. Well, I totaled that car (through no fault of my own) and had to buy another one. At this point I had two auto loans in my name so credit card offers started coming in.
I signed up for three cards. I used one to fund the course I bought to teach me how to set up an Amazon business. That meant I had two others, giving me access to about $11,000 between them.
Unfortunately, Chinese suppliers don’t take credit. In order to finagle this one I ended up having to donate to my wife through her PayPal account. Then have her withdraw the money from PayPal and give it to me. I do NOT recommend doing this, as I am pretty sure it is considered fraud (desperate times called for desperate measures). Many credit cards now have a cash advance option (with fees), and this might be a better way to go.
If the thought of playing with credit cards this way is giving you heartburn, just wait…
My initial order was for 500 units at roughly $11 a piece. After shipping and customs, that first order cost me just under eight grand. So I had just a teeny bit of money left to play with.
Setting Up My Supply Chain
I signed up for a professional account on Amazon, as I was instructed. This was before I had an LLC or trademark or anything. It was just me, my credit cards, and my PayPal account. Because my goods were rather large, I had to ship by sea. This meant I had to find a freight forwarder.
I scoured the internet for weeks. I used Google, I asked for referrals and I made phone calls to every forwarder I could. I was determined to find the best price for my freight, but also I needed someone who could handle customs clearance for me. Logistics and tariffs were intimidating to say the least.
I got the exact dimensions of the cartons from my factory and set about getting quotes. One of the challenges I faced was that, in order to get an accurate quote, I needed to tell the forwarder where the goods would be shipped. The only problem was that Amazon doesn’t tell you that until you create a shipment.
I was afraid to do this before I had a more concrete idea of when the goods could leave China. I explored what it would take to have the goods sent directly to me, but living on the East Coast, in a house with limited garage space, this was not going to be very efficient.
Then it occurred to me; why don’t I create the shortest distance possible? A shipment from South China can hop right over the Pacific Ocean and be on the West Coast much faster than any other route. All I needed to do was find a warehouse in California.
I quickly discovered that things called “FBA Prep Facilities” existed, and they were expensive. But I figured that import prep and distribution had existed before Amazon, and without Amazon prices. I just needed to refine my search. So I looked for “distribution warehouses.”
It wasn’t long before I found the place that offered exactly what I needed. They could handle the freight forwarding, had a relationship with a customs broker, had relationships with warehouses that offered prep labor and could offer all of that for the little bit of money I had left. Now my supply chain was set up.
Getting Started on Amazon
Putting all of the shipping and logistics into place was only one piece of the puzzle. During manufacturing I had down time that was spent creating my listing on Amazon. This is where I had to apply all of those copywriting skills I heard would be so advantageous.
I logged into my new Amazon seller central account, and chose to create a product listing. I chose a category and subcategories. Done. Listing created. I was officially in.
The first aspect of the listing I had to flesh out was the title. At the time, Amazon was still a bit of the Wild West and the baby category was highly “unregulated.” The prevailing advice was to stuff as many keywords as possible into the title, which could support as many as 500 characters back then.
Needless to say my first title looked awful. Probably not as bad as some, as I at least made it make sense, but it was very keyword rich, to say the least.
Along the same vein were the bullets. I crafted them to be very detailed and extremely descriptive. The bullets were almost a full fledged sales letter for my listing. I followed it all up with a description that was filled with scientific data, appeals to emotion and other persuasive copy.
When the copy was done, I dumped all of my keyword research into the search term fields. At that time we had thousands of characters to work with. I used pretty much all of the keywords I managed to drum up from Google Keyword Planner, MerchantWords and something called Scrapebox, which just pulled all of the autosuggest terms it could find.
My listing was now heavily saturated with keywords, and almost ready to go. There was just one obstacle left – photographs. Here I was fortunate because my step-father is a hobbyist photographer. The only problem was that he lacked a proper studio, and I didn’t have access to models. I decided I would be the model. My first photographs might have been a little amateurish, but they got the job done. My listing was finally complete, and I was ready to make sales.
The very next thing I did was turn on Sponsored Product Ads. Back in the stone-age we didn’t have all the match type options we do now. I picked my top four most obvious keywords and put them into a campaign. I ran the campaign for $30 a day and crossed my fingers.
I knew that advertisements weren’t going to be effective alone. I needed some social proof and some decent organic ranking. My next step was to bug all of my friends and family members to leave me reviews. I was relentless in asking anyone within earshot if they would give me feedback for my new product. I had zero pride in this. After countless days of aggravating everyone I knew, I finally managed to secure my first twenty-one reviews.
With this small amount of social proof and ads running, I was able to generate a sale every other day or so. I averaged four sales a week for my first two weeks. Despite the fact that the listing was very new, and I was still in launch phase, things weren’t moving fast enough for me. I had put everything I had, and most of what I didn’t have, into this. I needed it to take off.
When I launched my first product, it was before the days of blasting services like SixLeaf’s ZonBlast. There was only one service I was aware of, and it was one of the original “review sites” called Shop With Reviews.
I created a campaign on their site, offering my $69 product for just $5 in exchange for a review. After the first day I had sold 48 units, and within two days I was at a total of 56 units sold.
Two days later, other than the promo units I sold, I still only had four sales for the week. I was still ranked on page million-and-nowhere-to-be-found for my primary keyword. I had concluded that the promotion had done nothing more than give me more reviews, which apparently were just sitting there.
I vividly remember feeling completely defeated. I was still roughly where I started, because generating about $1,000 a month on Amazon was certainly not going to change my financial situation. And I had a lot of credit card debt to pay off.
I confided in some of my colleagues that I was worried things weren’t going to work out the way I had hoped, and I recall SixLeaf CEO Joe Junfola saying to me “in two or three months, I am going to remind you of this conversation and laugh at how silly you were being.”
It didn’t even take that long.
The next day I was number four on page one for my primary keyword, and number six on page one for a very important secondary keyword. What’s more, sales were rolling in. That next day I made four sales in a single day. The following day I made seven.
Before long I was generating eleven, fifteen, even eighteen sales in a single day. A week later I had generated over $25,000 in sales on Amazon! WOW.
This quick success leveled out at just over $30,000 per month in sales with a 64% profit margin. It was insane and noteworthy and began to get me some attention.
Quitting My Job(s)
I had built this little Amazon physical products business in the evenings during the week. From 8 to 5, with an hour commute one way, I worked as a copywriter for a web firm that serviced local contractors. On the weekends I worked as a waiter at a seafood restaurant.
I used to check my sales in seller central every half hour while I was at my day job. Needless to say, my productivity there was quickly sliding into nothingness.
After my somewhat impressive quick start to success on Amazon, I remember receiving a message from a friend and mentor, Ryan Moran. He explained to me that he thought I’d be good at consulting, but I brushed off the idea at first.
Then he posted in his Facebook group that he actually had clients interested in hiring a consultant to help them with their Amazon accounts. I messaged that I’d be interested in learning more, and from there Ryan convinced me that it would be a good move.
He set up phone interviews over the next couple of days, vouched for me and even negotiated my starting pay. Within a week, due to my stumbling into moderate success on Amazon, I had racked up five paying clients.
At the same time, another friend, Joe Junfola, was laying the ground work for a new service called ZonBlast. It was growing too rapidly for him to handle alone, so he went to his network for some help. At that time, ZonBlast emails were individually written “sales letters,” and Joe knew that I understood the Amazon ecosystem and what his clients would need, so he asked if I’d like to help him write emails.
Between my new job as copywriter at ZonBlast and my consulting clients, I was making more than four times my income from the web design firm and seafood restaurant. I happily traded in my two-hour commute and my no-free-weekends at the restaurant for the work-from-home lifestyle.
I couldn’t believe it. I had accomplished exactly what I’d set out to do, and then some. My experience in starting and building a business on Amazon afforded me the opportunity to take advantage of new ways to leverage my knowledge. Those also became learning opportunities that led to more clients, more offers and more profit.
This is an opportunity that’s there for anyone.
The Amazon game may have changed some since I started, but the principles of business are the same. Importing and branding are still valuable skills for any marketplace. There are still plenty of opportunities to find and sell in-demand products on Amazon. Marketing for greater visibility is still essential.
If you’d like to know, step-by-step, how to do what I did and import your own branded products to sell on Amazon today, I wrote a book detailing the entire process. This book is a culmination of the lessons I learned being a consultant for over a dozen brands, seeing the immense amounts of data I was privy to working for ZonBlast, and building two brands of my own that I grew from $0 to over $80k in sales in a single month.
It’s called Bootstrapping Ecommerce: How To Import & Sell On Amazon, and it is available….you guessed it….on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback formats.
If you haven’t started your journey into selling online, and you’d like to take control of your financial future, this book is for you.
If you’ve already begun your journey I have also written a book with more advanced concepts. This one goes over higher level marketing tactics to help take new sellers to the next stage in their business growth.
With these tools, you’ll be able to jump into the game with my knowledge. One thing I discovered on this journey is that there is no end to the questions and learning. And there’s no end to the obstacles that come up. My goal with these books is to give you a head start and knock down as many of those obstacles as possible.
By giving you the lay of the land before you plunge in, you’ll make fewer mistakes, have fewer doubts, and feel much more confident about taking the plunge than I did. My sincerest hope is that you come away with a grasp of what it’s going to take to create your own brand and start selling.
The industry of ecommerce is growing rapidly and shows no sign of slowing down. It’s simply evolving. Just like any other industry, new minds make it richer and help it grow into something better. While developing your own future as an entrepreneur, you’ll also be helping to develop one of the most exciting marketplaces in history.