My daughter has just spent one week selling a product on Etsy and, although we’ve stopped the experiment now (see later for why..) I feel that she learned more in one week about the world of entrepreneurship than she would have in a year of classroom teaching on the subject. But what I personally found useful was how it reminded me of all the important basics of creating, marketing and selling a product. Forget the basics at your peril!
What was the product? Slime. Yep – slime. For around £2.50 plus P+P, a 100ml pot of slime can be winging its way to you from a kitchen table in Cambridge. Why would anyone want to buy a pot of ready-made slime? Below is the list of things I believed she learned from the week (and I found very useful as reminders) and the first is on this very point…
- You need an expert in the field, who understands the market. When my daughter told me she was going to sell slime, all I saw was weeks of disappointment (“Well, we had fun trying didn’t we!?”) as the orders failed to materialise. From my perspective (knowing literally zero about the “slime market”), I just couldn’t see how anyone would want to buy the stuff.
How wrong I was. In the space of a week, we received 9 orders, 3 in the first day. I asked “Who’s buying this stuff, I just don’t get it!?”. Only then did I find out, from talking to my daughter, that there’s a whole sub-community, mostly on Youtube, of kids posting videos about slime, discussing techniques for making it, assessing different consistencies and so on. She knew the market, knew there was the possibility of making some money from it, and pushed through my scepticism (a scepticism based on ignorance quite frankly).
- Get on with it. She had the idea on Saturday night, Sunday night we were “live” in the market, Monday we got our first order. And the reality is that, until you’re asking for actual money, you don’t really know what will and won’t work. All the things we thought would be problems (marketing, getting anyone interested), weren’t. And the things that we’d never even thought of, became problems (more details below). Perhaps we might have been able to work out what those things were going to be beforehand, but I doubt it. The quicker you’re out in the market for real, the quicker you know what’s really blocking people from parting with their money. Of course, it’s scary – suddenly having a problem with order #1, thinking “Why didn’t we think of this?”, but there’s nothing like an insistent, paying customer to focus the mind..
- Your real problems will only be exposed once you’re asking for money. Continuing the point above, here’s a list of some of the problems that we hit in the first week. Sure, with hindsight some of these seem obvious, but we didn’t spot any of these till we actually started selling:
- Two items went missing in the post, and our P+P price on the site was unrealistic. We’d assumed normal postage was 100% reliable. For one customer we ended up having to send “Registered Post” which blew our P+P budget out the water. If we increased the P+P charge on the site (for a higher level of service), this would make the overall price very unattractive. This was certainly a problem for profitability.
- We got the quantity wrong. Initially we sold in 40ml pots. But it’s as much effort to make 40ml as 100ml, and 40ml was too small an amount to be “fun” for customers. We changed from 40ml to 100ml on day 2.
- Quality control was a problem. We didn’t have a set recipe, measured out each time. One person complained it was too rubbery, another that it was too sticky. So we fixed the production line to follow an exact recipe each time.
- There was an enormous difference in the cost of ingredients. Going to B&M to buy PVA glue rather than Sainsburys cut our unit costs enormously.
- The channel is everything. Initially my daughter wanted to just create a website to sell the slime. Instead we looked at 4 options – “Own website”, Amazon, Ebay and Etsy. Eventually we settled on Etsy because it’s specifically targeted at people looking for this sort of thing. And the reality is that, for a small percentage fee, Etsy provide a complete and ready market for you. It took about one hour to load up photos and descriptions, and their search engines and reach did the rest. I don’t think this would have happened with Ebay or Amazon, and certainly not with our own site (which would have needed marketing from scratch). So, find a channel, ideally an existing marketplace, full of your customers, and half the (marketing) work is done for you, all for only a small fee (and 90% of something, is better than 100% of nothing).
- For consumer goods, feedback/reviews/social media is immediate and vital. And good customer service is essential. The first order didn’t go well for us – within a day we had a (rather unpleasant) email saying that the recipient would post a poor review on Etsy if we didn’t fix the problem immediately. We did of course – we sent another pot through, were apologetic and accommodating by email, and we fixed the problem. But an early poor review on Etsy would have killed us dead. It also taught my daughter a lot about writing nice, helpful, “customer is always right” emails..
- Over-deliver in the early days. For the first few orders, we packaged up pot of slime nicely in wrapping paper, wrote a hand-written note, thanking them for the order, sent more than specified (around 70ml instead of 40ml), sent on the first possible day (instead of “1-3 business days”, as advertised) and so on. For this we got some lovely feedback, and people posted nice comments on the Etsy site. It cost nothing, really, to do these things – just care and a bit of effort. Thinking about “ROI” or that “This will never scale!”, completely misses the point – you need to build a following and you need evangelists for your product. What harm is it to give a few away for free (we did give one away for free, to someone who offered to post a review on Youtube)? Sure, we had to pay a few pounds extra on ingredients, but so what? It’s just early investment. Doing things that don’t scale in the early days, things which just require personal effort and care, will pay back in multiple ways.
Saying all this, we stopped after a week. It’s stressful being an entrepreneur. A couple of bad reviews*, and the re-emergence of homework have led to us pausing the experiment, perhaps until the next school holidays. But I feel that she learnt an enormous amount in that week. And I found it useful to be reminded of the basics – relevant however simple, complex or slimy your product is.
* I can’t believe anyone is interested, but if you are – the primary problem with producing slime in the UK is the unavailability of Borax. It’s now extremely difficult to get hold of this ingredient in the EU, and it’s very important for good quality slime. Instead you have to use substitutes, like contact lens cleaning solutions, which contain Boric Acid. Maybe when we exit the EU, this will revitalise the slime industry