Your Guide on How to Launch and Grow an Ecommerce Brand in 2020

Four key strategies for bootstrapped e-commerce entrepreneurs


Omar Itani

3 years ago | 15 min read

“Forget the results, the outcome or what comes out of this venture. Just enjoy it for what it is, for what it can be, and for who you can become in the process of its creation.” — This is my advice for anyone who’s on the line between going for it or shying away from it; and any other struggling entrepreneur who’s on the verge of quitting once and for all.

A year ago, I launched a brand related to eco-conscious sustainable living.

I had resigned from my role at Google with the intention of trying to build something of my own. So after traveling a few months through Central America and seeing first-hand the extent of plastic pollution, I decided to launch an online brand to raise awareness about the pandemic and offer eco-alternatives to everyday plastic products.

This entrepreneurial journey has been an incredible experience in personal growth and business experience. To say I’ve learned a lot about myself and what it takes to succeed in life and business would be an understatement. And I say this because I’ve made some very costly mistakes throughout the year.

For instance, I invested in the products, before validating, because ‘I just knew’ there was a market for them. I waited until everything was perfect before I launched, and so I launched to an audience of 20 people — my close friends — because I didn’t bother building an audience before I started.

I got excited after the initial few orders came in, and I wanted to ‘go big’, so I splashed my money on ads and invested in more than one product line which ran us into the ground — I was too short-sighted.

Above all, I valued growth instead of profitability. Why? Because that’s what modern-day ‘start-ups’ do.

Don’t make the mistakes that I did.

If you’re working on launching a new brand, product or online store, make sure you read through this guide. I cannot stress how important it is to consider these four topics listed below.

Don’t be fooled into thinking your ideas will work, based on your self-believe or the assumptions you’re making. I was a victim of such thinking.

But hey, I’ve learned my lessons. Next time, I’ll do better. That’s how life works right? We try, we fail, we learn — and then we do better next time.

#1: Build an audience before you launch

It’s becoming much more difficult to gain traction on social platforms like Instagram. And if you’re launching a brand with a bootstrapped budget you cannot rely on advertising as a means for building awareness: the competition is too high and if you don’t apply proper targeting metrics, you might end up burning your cash with no return on investment.

That’s why it’s so beneficial to build an audience before you build the product.

Whether it’s a book, a clothing brand, or an online course, you want to make sure you’re introducing your product to an existing audience. Such a strategy will make your launch drastically more efficient and effective. It will also give you a chance to validate the interest in your products before you invest in their production.

The Power of an Audience

Consider a situation in which we have two brands.

Brand A has an existing audience of 200 and is about to launch a $100 product into the market. Brand B has an existing audience of 5,000 and is about to launch a $30 product into the market.

If we assume a conversion rate of 3%:

  • Brand A conversion on $100 product with an audience of 200 = $600
  • Brand B conversation on $30 product with an audience of 5,000 = $4,500

Having an audience of 200 is even better than what most people start with. Most people launch their store to an audience of 0.

Your first goal before you do anything should be to build an audience.

How to Build an Audience

Let’s say you want to launch your yoga clothing line. Here’s how you can build an audience before you launch a store.

  1. Choose one channel (ex: Instagram)
  2. Post — every single day — engaging, valuable, relevant, helpful content (ex: videos on different yoga movements, inspiring quotes on living a holistic lifestyle)
  3. Build an engaged community (ex: share stories on local yoga events and festivals, partner with other brands, individuals, influencers to create collaborations)

Your reach, influence, and credibility will grow hand-in-hand with the size of your audience. Once you’ve amassed a few thousand followers, you can begin to work on your store. Set-up a landing page with a newsletter — begin collecting e-mails.

Announce to your followers that you’re working on a new project and you want their feedback on it. Engage with members of your community. Find out what they — your potential future customers — want.

Building an audience is a long-term strategy and the key to sustaining it is to create relevant content and be consistent in your delivery.

An online audience elevates your game. It reflects credibility and gives you a market to speak to directly. An existing audience gives you a voice. It radiates influence — and people want to buy from influential people.

It also helps you validate the market’s interest in your product as you build it and saves you from allocating a hefty advertising budget when you launch.

How to Validate Demand for a Product

Validation is easy when you have an audience. That’s because you now have a direct line of communication with your first set of potential customers.

Let’s say your first product will be a cork-based yoga mat. Once you have a prototype of your product ready, you can set-up a landing page with an “about us” section and a product page with product images and a “pre-order now” button.

You can then run a small ads campaign to see how traffic converts.

If you get enough interest and engagement for the product at your price point — congrats, you’ve just validated the demand for your product.

#2: Build slowly, through stability

Years ago, after graduating from university, I accepted a job offer from Kraft Foods. At one of our sales conferences, every single Director or VP who delivered a talk on stage mentioned these three words on one of the many slides on their presentation deck:

Cash is King.

I never truly understood the significance of these three words until I launched my own company.

Businesses die when they run out of cash. According to a U.S. Bank study, 82% of business failures are due to poor cash flow management.

The e-commerce business really is a cash-heavy one. Despite the low overhead costs, you still need to consider your product investments, advertising costs, inventory logistics — in case you don’t work with third-party fulfillment companies and manage your own inventory, which would be the case when you’re about to launch — shipping costs, damage-incurred costs, and any other subscription costs that emerge from running your store.

All this requires liquid cashflow.

And cash-strapped businesses cannot survive very long.

In Your First Year, Seek Stability

Your first year is a year dedicated to testing. All you’re doing is experimenting.

Once you’ve introduced a new concept to the world, your sole purpose is to turn visitors into customers, get feedback from existing ones, review how receptive people are to your idea, and analyze how they’re behaving on your online store. The more cash you have on hand, the more experiments you can run with this data.

You’re constantly testing and revising your messaging and communication. You’re trying out different campaigns and CTA’s to evaluate their CTR’s and CPA’s (cost of acquisition).

If you’re considering quitting your job to start this business, I highly advise you not to. Entrepreneurship is not as glamorous as you might think.

Success in life and business requires stability over the long haul, so don’t add that extra financial pressure on yourself — it could lead you to burnout. Having a job is a privilege and a pleasant peace of mind knowing that your rent, food and bare necessities of life are taken care of.

Sustainable growth happens when you build slowly, consistently, through stability, over a long period of time.

Ask yourself these four questions before you make the full-time leap from employee to entrepreneur. Your goal should be to mitigate your risk.

“The best entrepreneurs are not risk maximizers… They take the risk out of risk-taking.” — Adam Grant

#3: Launch with only one product line so you can scale

When I first launched my business and the orders started coming in, I got so excited. I believed that the only true measure of success is growth at a rate of 10x. That’s what was preached while working at Google, and that’s what I was exposed to from the media in the entrepreneurial world.

So, that’s what I naively did.

I splashed the cash and began expanding quickly by investing in new product lines. And what happened? I almost buried myself alive.

When you expand a little too prematurely, and a little too quickly, your costs spillover across many other areas of your business. Every new product line requires a new advertising campaign, and so now you’ve just quadrupled that budget. New product lines require different sized packaging boxes as well.

Moreover, when working with manufacturers and suppliers, having large-sized orders will significantly reduce your per-unit costs. But when you’re working with a bootstrapped budget and you invest in multiple lines, you’re cutting out that economies of scale.

Streamline, Be Patient, and Stay Focused on That “One Thing”

Don’t allow your enthusiasm to get the best of you — and don’t compare yourself to the VC-funded startups or the already established brands in your industry who have a wide product line or access to several markets.

You’re comparing your ‘year one’ to someone’s ‘year ten’. You’re playing two different leagues.

Stay in your lane.

Don’t mix ego with business. It’s OK to start small — that’s how everything begins. Be patient and focus on one product line. Become good at that one thing — become the best.

When you launch with one product line and grow your business with it, you streamline and simplify your processes (ex: one-sized packaging box instead of three) and you reduce your overall per-unit production costs — which makes your products more marketable to wholesalers.

“Success demands singleness of purpose. You need to be doing fewer things for more effect instead of doing more things with side effects. It is those who concentrate on but one thing at a time who advance in this world.” — Gary Keller

Joco Cups began in 2008 with one reusable coffee cup line. It took them 10 years to introduce a new category — their reusable water bottles. By focusing on one single product (with a few colors), they managed to build a name for themselves in the market. Take a look at how wide their distribution has become over the years.

Similarly, S’well launched in 2010 with one water bottle and it came in one size, one color: blue. Now they offer thousands of SKUs in different shapes, sizes and colors.

Your single objective, in the beginning, should be to streamline your process, your packaging, your costs and achieve scale. You do that by launching with one single product line.

Don’t fall victim to the same mistakes as me.

Achieve Scale

While e-commerce is growing year-on-year, online sales only accounted for 16% of total retail sales in 2019.

So 84% of total retail sales happen offline. Your goal then shouldn’t be to only sell online, it should be to get your product into stores.

In order to do that, you need to achieve scale. Wholesale to get your product in retail stores. Form partnerships with other brands to cross-collaborate and access their customer pool.

Depending on your products, you can offer co-branding opportunities. This is a powerful strategy KeepCup did to expand its reach and get its reusable coffee cups into international coffee chains. This can only happen when you have that scale with your manufacturers and suppliers.

By achieving this scale, you create economies of scale with your production. Once you do that, you can begin expanding across different product lines or entire categories.

#4: Ignore store conversions—focus on growing three areas first

When I first launched, I was obsessed with understanding how I could drive up that conversion rate in my store.

“Why are we not getting more orders?”

That’s the only question I asked myself — but that was the wrong one to ask.

Our store conversions would always fluctuate somewhere between 1–2% and it drove me mad trying to analyze why. Through my research, I was shocked to learn that the average conversion rate for an e-commerce store is 1–3%.

Turned out we were doing alright.

Of course, this implies that if you want to increase your total number of orders, you need to first increase your store’s traffic.

  • If you have 100 visits per day, a 3% conversion = 3 total sales
  • If you have 1,000 visits per day, a 3% conversion = 30 total sales
  • If you have 10,000 visits per day, a 3% conversion = 300 total sales

But do you know how difficult it is to reach — and sustain — 1,000 visits per day to a new brand that has a bootstrapped marketing budget? (That’s why it’s so advantageous to launch with a pre-existing audience).

Online advertising is not the answer.

Online ads should only be a part of your overall strategy.

Personally, I think online ads are incredible for building a storyline across a remarketing campaign.

For instance, when a person lands on our product page and doesn’t convert, we retarget them with an ad that encourages them to “join a movement of change”.

And one someone adds to cart, but doesn’t convert, we retarget them with ads that offer a discount as an incentive.

Retargeted customers are 3x more likely to click on an ad and 70% more likely to convert.

With that said, online advertising a not sustainable growth strategy.

First, if you get your targeting wrong, you’ll burn through your budget without any return on investment; and second, if you pause your campaigns, the traffic stops.

So a more effective growth strategy would be to focus on three fronts: growing your mailing list, increasing your average order values, and driving more organic traffic.

Grow Your Mailing List To Increase Rate of Returning Customers

It is no secret that newsletters offer the highest conversion rates. Depending on the industry, average rates can range from 4% to 14%.

Mailing lists also offer the highest open and click-through rates — our open rates have reached 23% with a CTR of 5–7%.

When someone offers you their email, they’ve given you permission to contact them—and they are willing to listen. They want to hear what value you can offer them, and email is the most efficient and effective medium to increase the rate of returning customers.

Most of our visitors join our mailing list as we offer a 15% discount on their first purchase if they do. We then run a monthly newsletter that offers exclusive sale discounts and shares the latest blog posts or 1–3 interesting articles related to sustainable living or plastic pollution.

Focus on growing your list and make sure you integrate an email marketing strategy into your efforts. You should be utilizing your subscriber list at least once a month.

Increase Your Average Order Value (AOV)

You can center your attention on increasing your number of orders, but my advice would be to shift that attention over to average order value.

Here’s an example to demonstrate why.

  • Store A: 10 orders per day with an AOV of $30 = total sales of $300
  • Store B: 5 orders per day with an AOV of $80 = total sales of $400

It can be argued that store A now has 5 more customers than store B. However, when you consider the store’s CPA (cost per acquisition) along with the costs of handling, packaging, and shipping the order, you begin to see how the margins for store A are significantly cut. If their costs amount to $10 per order, their margins are cut by 33%, and if store B’s costs average $15 per order, their margins are cut by only 20%. Store B is then making more profit per customer than store A — even though the latter has twice the number of daily orders.

Your goal should be to increase average order values and the best strategy to do so is to offer pre-checkout product upsells and one-click post-purchase product upsells — that can drive a 10–30% in revenue increase.

Drive More Organic Traffic

As we’ve discussed earlier, inorganic traffic coming from online advertisements isn’t a sustainable growth strategy.

Increasing our store’s inbound traffic from organic search has been a year-long struggle and we’ve yet to crack it, but I do have some tips to offer:

  1. Get featured in news outlets or media publications. Mid-way through the year, I was interviewed by a journalist and featured in her article that was published by an online magazine. Traffic to our site soared and so did the sales that month.
  2. Work with influencers within your sector. I worked with several sustainable living and plastic-free advocates. We’d send them a package of our products, in exchange they would review our products with their followers. Some of them were really awesome to work with as they frequently shared posts on their feeds and tagged us. You don’t need to go for the big celebrity-like influencers who have 100,000+ followers. Work with younger ones so you can help each other grow your audiences.
  3. Build a content strategy that involves blogging. Content takes time, but content generation is key. Blogging — despite being a very long-term strategy — helps you grow your SEO.

Three Final Thoughts

On Burnout

Don’t try to do everything at once, and don’t try to do it all alone.

When I first started my business I was doing everything — contacting suppliers, developing the brand and its visuals, reading up on product pricing strategies, seeking out wholesalers, running the digital marketing campaigns, learning about email marketing and content strategy, managing the social channels, figuring out ways to increase organic traffic and improve conversion rates… the list was endless.

My mind was juggling across 10 different topics on any given day.

Trying to do everything at once and all on my own led to too much pressure and self-imposed stress. I wasn’t able to build or sustain any momentum. I wasn’t able to excel in any specific field.

Eventually, I reached burnout — and that’s a terrible place to be.

You cannot succeed alone. You need a support system — a team to help you raise the level of your game for your business to compete on a new stage.

You’re only as good as your weakest link.

Focus on what you’re good at, then outsource the rest to whoever is best at it — this is how you’ll raise the level of your game. Hire an intern or freelancer if you can. Whatever you do, make sure to pace yourself.

On Cultivating The Right Mindset

Ecommerce is a really exciting world to be in — but this is not a “get rich quick” scheme.

Building a brand and growing an online store is a form of entrepreneurship — it’s hard work, and there is absolutely nothing “passive” about it. Get ready for a roller-coaster of worry, anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty — here’s the truth for you. But more importantly, get ready to get your hands dirty in building, learning, failing and trying again until it works.

Before you take a step forward, remind yourself that you’re in this for the long-haul and commit to it. That’s the mindset you want to cultivate.

Understand that it will take you twice as long to build, and it will cost twice as much as you had forecasted.

On The Joy Of The Process

Building your own brand, transforming an idea into a tangible product, building a business from scratch — these are experiences too delicate to express in words.

There will be so many tough days, learn to love them.

There will be so many problems to tackle, learn to solve them.

There will be so many things you don’t know how to do, learn to figure it out.

Because that’s all it is at the end of the day.

Learn to love the process — because greatness is in the process, not the result.

Building a business is a privilege, and the journey of growth you personally experience through it is a reward in itself.

Forget the results, the outcome or what comes out of this venture. Just enjoy it for what it is, for what it can be, and for who you can become in the process of its creation. Show up every day and do the work.

Follow that dream my friend — and don’t let anyone stop you.


Created by

Omar Itani

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