Online Business Update

I haven’t given an update on my online business in a while, so I figured it’s time.  I got a lot of products up on my online store (about 110 or so), but still had a lot to add to get a full line of products.  When our second baby was on the way last year, I started to evaluate the business model a little differently.

I was drop shipping my products, and started to imagine what it would be like if the business took off.  I’d have to order a whole bunch of items, and keep the inventory somewhere in our house.  Probably 200 or so items, and multiple of each, so I could ship the items out myself.  Drop shipping wouldn’t be as viable of an option once I started selling more, because I would want to include my own packing slips, and the cost dramatically goes down when you buy in bulk.

So the time it would take to ship everything out would be a lot, and the margin just wasn’t there to make it worth all the time it would take (especially with two kids under two).  Not to mention all the work it would take to get all the products up on my site.  And all this work for just a few dollars per order.

So I decided to shut down the online store portion, and just keep open the custom installations.  Throughout this process, I’ve found that the products aren’t where I’d be making the money.  The revenue is in the labor of doing the actual installations.  There’s less cost with this as well, as I already pay to have one site hosted, so a second web site doesn’t cost me anything extra.  I just created a basic website talking about the installations, and replaced my online store (if you’re interested to see what it looks like, it’s http://www.archwayhometheateraccessories.com).  There’s no merchant account to pay, no online store fees to pay, no SSL cost, etc.  Just a basic website that doesn’t cost me anything extra.

Now the work I have to put in on a regular basis is basically non-existent, but I am still available to do home theater installations for people if they want.  If you’re in the area I live and google “home theater installations,” I pop up as number one in the list.  It’s gotten me a couple of calls so far, and hopefully more in the future.  From what I’ve heard, big stores like Best Buy charge a fortune to do an extremely basic job (they don’t even install the speaker wire in the walls).  I charge less, and make sure the job is done right.  We’ll see how this new twist to the business goes.

2011 Year in Review

Every year, we get a Christmas card from a friend of mine that gives a full one-page summary of their year.  I look forward to getting their card every year, as I don’t get a chance to see or talk to them much.  This is my way of keeping up with what they are doing as time goes on.  I thought maybe I should do something similar on here, in case anyone else is interested in our personal life.

2011 had a lot of changes for us.  At the end of July, we had a baby girl, and named her Brooke.  She has changed our entire lives.  Everything revolves around her now.  I can’t wait to get home to see her every day after work.  We don’t go out of the house as much as we used to, because it’s much simpler to stay in with a newborn.  She makes my day when she gives that huge smile she does, but frustrates me to no end when she screams her lungs out and there’s nothing we can do to get her to stop.  She is the greatest thing to happen to us this year, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Every winter I need a project to work on, and this past January I decided I would start my own business.  I put in a ton of work, had a good friend of mine design the site, and eventually opened it for business.  I had been working on a business plan for the past few years, and finally thought the time was right to start it up.  I knew I wouldn’t have quite as much time to do all the up front work once the baby was born, and felt I was at a stable job to help handle any financial downfalls that could occur.  I’m still adding products to the site in my “free time,” but I’ve been getting quite a few sales.  Last month I actually came out in the black for the first time.

Last winter, I also decided to start this blog.  I’ve continued it as the year went on, but haven’t written as much as I did last winter (see above about baby taking up a lot of time).  I still plan on continuing this blog, even though it’ll probably be more like one post every couple weeks.

I took up running for the first time in my life, and did pretty good until Brooke was born.  I was up to running 3 miles at a time with no issues, and I even hit 4 miles once.  I hope to pick this up again soon.

We made more progress paying off debt this year than ever before.  My wife graduated from college last year, and started working late in the year.  This was our first full year with two incomes, and we’ve been paying off student loans like crazy.  We refinanced the house to a 15 year loan as well, which will help us become completely debt free much quicker than before.  Refinancing to a shorter term means less money to go toward other debt, but we will still be able to be debt free except for the house in just a few years.

Megan started a new job right across the street, so she doesn’t have to make the long drive she was doing last year.  She enjoys her job a lot, and gets to pick up our daughter at a decent time every day.  She is also off Fridays, so she can spent more time with Brooke.

Not everything has been positive this year though.  We had a good friend of ours who was involved in a boating accident in August, and his body still has not been found.  We think about him a lot, and pray that his fiance can find peace.

My grandpa took a turn for the worse this year as well.  He seemed to be a perfectly healthy 85 year old in September, but got rushed to the hospital because of low blood platelets.  Other complications came up, and he fought for three months, going in and out of the hospital, and eventually back and forth between the hospital and nursing home.  He got so weak after fighting for so long, and ended up losing the fight on December 14th.  He had a terrific 85 years, and was about as nice of an individual as you could ever meet.  He was a terrific baker, an accordian player, a volunteer firefighter, a grocery store owner, a meat inspector, and served in the US Navy during World War II.  I’m glad he got to meet our daughter before he passed away, and will miss him a lot.  I have a ton of great memories about him.

We’ve had a lot of things happen to us this year, and we are set to continue making forward progress in the future. 

What have been your biggest life moments of 2011?  Leave a comment letting me know how things are going in your life.

My First Sale!

My wife and I spent the whole weekend working on the yard outdoors, and I checked my email tonight and noticed I had a sale on my new store this morning!  All the hard work has finally paid off.  Someone bought a 250ft roll of speaker wire, and I ended up netting about $10 off the sale.  I never thought my first sale would have been that high of a dollar amount.  The sale totaled $72 (including shipping charges).  Here’s to hoping the next one comes pretty soon!

Online Business – Motivation

I guess this is a phase in starting up a side business.  I’m having an issue over the past couple weeks trying to balance everything in my life out, and it makes it difficult to stay motivated to this side gig that’s not producing any income yet.  I haven’t gotten a single new product up in the past two weeks, but I have gotten the checkout up and running, and purchased a new camera to use (so I don’t have to borrow a co-workers anymore).  But I’m having issues staying motivated lately, and I’m not sure why.

The last few days I’ve spent my nights outdoors, since it’s been so nice.  I’ve been taking dirt from the new construction across the street (I got permission first) and filling in huge holes behind the fence in the back yard.  For those that don’t know me personally, our backyard goes to a little creek, and there was no grass when we moved in.  We planted grass seed last fall, but there were huge ruts in the back yard from water washing out the dirt.  Some areas continued to wash away while we were growing grass, and I found out why this week.  When I went behind the fence that was up, there were two foot by two foot gaps that were washed out!  So I asked our builder if I could take some of his dirt from the new house he’s building, and he said that would be fine.  I think I got around 2 truckloads (10 or so wheelbarrow fulls) and dumped it back there, and packed it down tight.  If I had to pay for that dirt, it would have cost me $60, so I got to save all that.

Speaking of saving money, I got another little thrill tonight.  Last weekend, we installed a doggie door in our basement door.  I wanted two night lights to put in our basement so our dogs can see to go in and out in the middle of the night if they wanted to, so we looked at a store while we were out tonight.  I found two LED night lights on clearance for $2.48 and $1.74 that were both $9.99 regular price.  Score!

Anyway, back to the original portion of this post.  Other things are keeping me from working on my online store, when I know I still have a lot of work to do on it.  How do you guys stay motivated on side tasks when things get like this?  Let me know your feedback on it.

Adding Products to Online Store / Misc Updates

I finally feel like I’m starting to make some progress on my store.  I’ve added 11 products, but some of those have multiple variations for different lengths of speaker wire and cables.  I’m trying to add about one per night, and that seems to take some time to do.  I still have a lot of products to add though, so it’ll take a while to get pictures of everything and get them all added.

More Products

All the products I still have to take pictures of

Light Box

A view of my light box setup

I added a page on Facebook for the store.  I’ll send out some information on articles written for the Help Center I will have on my store, along with some discounts and sale information when the time comes, so make sure to like my store page on Facebook.

The first draft of the new design has been finalized too.  Work should start on it sometime this week, I believe.  I think it looks really good.  What do you guys think?

New Design

Initial draft of new store design

Things are starting to fall into place.

In other news, we found furniture for the baby’s room today.  We went with a cherry color, and it looks really good (well, from the online pictures anyway).  We spent the whole day driving all over looking at baby furniture, and finally found what we’re looking for online.

We also decided we are going to do whatever we can to sell our old house in Fairview Heights.  We are working with a realtor, and got a price from her today on what price she suggests we list it.  It seems like a good price to me, considering the market.  I did my own comps and they didn’t come out as high, so I hope we can generate some traffic into the house so people will buy it.  If it sells close to the price we list it, we’ll be right on target with my 2011 New Year’s Goals.

And now back to adding a product to my store for tonight…

Online Store – Adding Pictures

Today was picture day.  I took my first pictures of products I will be selling on my store: http://www.archwayhometheateraccessories.com.  The very first ones I took (some banana plugs) ended up taking me about 4 hours to get just right.  After that, the rest came pretty easy.

I didn’t have to end up making a light box.  Someone I work with is a photographer, and she had one I could use.  I used three daylight bulbs, one on the top and one on each side, which seemed to get enough light to make the pictures look good.

My coworker also gave me a camera to use.  It takes some really good pictures.  I had to read up some on aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings to get the camera adjusted the way I wanted it.  I ended up brightening the shot a little with the settings, so I didn’t have to tweak it at all once it was on my computer.  I just cropped out the section I wanted, got rid of the background, and put it up on the store.

It’s amazing how much more real it seems when you add some pictures to your products.  It feels like I’m finally starting my own business, and it makes me want to get the checkout process up and running.  It’ll come with time though.  Still lots to do before I’m officially open for business: tax identification, business checking account, merchant account/gateway, design, etc.

The design should be started sometime next week, according to my designer.  We talked for a few hours over the past couple days to get on the same page about how it’ll look/work.

I feel really good about how things are going so far.  I’d love to take a few days off work to get this really rolling, but it’ll just have to take lots of nights and a few weekends instead.

Online Business Update – Just Over One Week In

Since my last post talked about my New Year Goals progress, I figure it makes sense to talk about the progress I’ve made in starting my own business.  I figured out most of the worries I had with starting up a brand new business.  I decided not to go with a CPA, but found a better alternative in a bookkeeper and tax service provider.  I met with this person on Saturday, and she gave a lot of good information.

I am going to start up as a sole proprietorship, which basically means I won’t need to formally register my business name as a company or LLC.  I will probably move to an LLC someday in the future (assuming this whole business thing takes off), but I’ll save the cost until the time I need it and can afford it.

As far as the tax portion goes, she gave me some good advice.  Since I don’t plan on making any income for the next year, I don’t need to make any estimated tax payments throughout the year.  She said that if I do end up making some profits through the year (hey, it could happen), then give her a call, and she can let me know how to handle it.

As I mentioned earlier, I also found a really good online shopping cart provider, BigCommerce.  I’ve started setting up some products, along with getting some starter information included for shipping and tax.

I will be working with an awesome ecommerce designer, Greentree Designs, who also happens to be a good friend of mine.  I worked with the owner of Greentree Designs (Mark) at MonsterCommerce, where his job was to design e-commerce storefronts the entire 6 years I worked with him (I’ve known him since 2003).  During that timeframe, I’ve seen him crank out some amazing designs that make stores look both professional and offer a good usability aspect to it as well.  MonsterCommerce went through lots of designers while I worked there, but Mark was the constant force always designing.  Everyone that designed e-commerce websites there looked up to him, and for great reason.

Mark has also operated under the Greentree Designs company for as long as I’ve known him.  He designs regular websites and printing as well.  If you want someone who is very detailed about his work while producing professional results, I highly recommend him.

As far as my site goes though, I haven’t gotten to the design phase.  I put some product information out there, but no pictures.  You can’t purchase products yet, because I don’t have a payment provider set up yet.  But I have started with some basic stuff on the site.  I’m going to give you a link, but don’t judge it based on the looks yet.  It is in it’s infancy stage right now.  The site will eventually look like a good site, but now it looks pretty bland.  It’s called Archway Home Theater Accessories, and the URL is http://www.archwayhometheateraccessories.com.

I’ve got a lot of ideas for it, but they all take time.  Right now, I gotta focus on the basics: getting products set up, getting a payment provider, getting the design improved, etc., while still taking care of a lot of the background stuff for opening a new business (like getting a business registered, getting a Tax ID, setting up a business checking account, etc.).

I’ve also ordered about half of my product line, and they are on their way to my house as I type this.  I ordered one of everything I plan on selling (I will be drop shipping initially) so I can take pictures to include on the site.  I’ve got some really good ideas on taking some cool pictures.  I need to set up a light box though, so it’s all on a white background.  Discussing how to set up a light box is worthy of it’s own post though.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of stuff to do to get my store up and running, but I’m making some progress.  I’ll keep you informed as the process goes along.

Online Business – Accountant and E-Commerce Shopping Cart Software

Check two items off the list for starting my business: finding an accountant and an online shopping cart provider.

I’ll start with the simple one first: the accountant.  I called around to 11 different accountant companies in the area during the evening timeframe, because that’s what my availability is.  I wanted to make sure they are available when I would be able to talk to them.  Out of the 11, 6 were either closed or simply did not answer their phone.  I got different rates for my personal taxes this year (another goal I needed to accomplish soon), and what sort of hourly consultant rates they charge for starting up a business, along with getting a feel for the individual.

I ended up picking one that is a local business, that I believe is even run out of their home.  They are not a CPA (which is a good thing – save some $$), and have had over 30 years with bookkeeping and accounting.  They have been doing taxes since 1993, and have Christian values.  I have an appointment with them next Saturday for both personal and the new business consultation.  If you’re in the area, and are looking for an accountant for either your personal taxes or starting up a business, contact me if you want more details on this company.

As far as an online shopping cart provider goes, I actually shocked myself.  I worked at MonsterCommerce/Network Solutions for 6 years, entirely with the e-commerce product.  I was even the Product Manager for 2 of those years, and helped shape the current shopping cart.  I went into this thinking I would pick the NetSol cart.

However, since I worked there for so long, I also have a great feel for the direction of the company – more specifically the e-commerce product itself.  Without going into any details, let’s just say it’s my belief that the e-commerce product has gone into what I consider “maintenance mode,” where no major new features are added, but it’s just sustaining basically in an as-is state.  I could be wrong in this, but it’s my belief.

Now, I mean absolutely no disrespect to any of the people I know that still work there.  Everyone I know that I worked with closely that’s still there are great people who still care about the customers.  However, I do believe that the company as a whole is not focused on the e-commerce product, and unfortunately I don’t think anyone can change the company’s position.

So, up until I left the company, I believed that their shopping cart was one of the best out there for someone starting up a small business, and I would have chosen it without a doubt as my #1 choice.  But there was one newer company I knew about that seemed to have huge potential, so I had to look them up.  The name of the company was Interspire, and at the time they just had a purchase version of their cart.  They had a similar business model as Network Solutions’ e-commerce product – make the cart easy to use, but flexible to work with most businesses.  I looked them up this week, and saw how far they’ve come.  They now have a hosted version called BigCommerce, and it blows everything else I’ve seen for a brand new business out of the water.  I signed up with a free 15 day trial, and I have already decided that it’s the e-commerce platform I am going to use.  It has a ton of features, and is easy to use.  They seem to do just about everything just how I would do it if I were in charge of the company, so they are a perfect fit for me.

It’s a bittersweet victory for me though, as I would have liked to have used the software product I helped mold.  It’s a shame that the Network Solutions e-commerce product has fallen flat over the past couple of years, due to the company’s overall shift away from e-commerce.  I would have really enjoyed using that product, and using the connections I’ve made with both employees and store owners, but it wasn’t meant to be.  It’s time to move forward with my business, and I have to choose the best path for me.

Worries About Starting an Online Business

I’ve been involved with retail since I started my working life at age 17.  I have specialized in e-commerce for 6 years, and have helped thousands of online businesses succeed.  I’ve helped determine what features people need to have a successful business, and gave thousands of people advice.

But it’s different when I want to start my own business.  There are lots of holes in what I know.  I could tell you everything you want to know about usability, what features matter for an online store, and how payment gateways work, but I don’t have a clue about the legal side of starting an online business.  I’ve gone back and forth on starting a business for myself.  I think it has a ton of positives for the future.  I don’t want to be a developer my entire life.  I think owning a business that brings in enough money to support my family would be a great way to live.

But where do I start?  Do I just open up a new online store and go to town?  Or am I supposed to talk to a CPA to get the financials in place first?  Or do I need to register my business before I take any additional steps?  This is where I’m stuck.  I have wanted to start an online business for years.  I’ve even gone so far as to narrow down what I want to do: sell home theater accessories.  I think they’re the perfect product for me: I have a lot of knowledge about home theater, already have one good source to get cheap, reliable products, and the products are small so they won’t cost so much to ship.

I know I won’t make any money selling things online for probably the first year or two, and it will take up a lot of my time initially.  I’m worried that I won’t find enough time to get the site up and running.  I’m worried about any kind of financial losses that could occur throughout the process.  I have a lot of worries.

But I think it’s time to finally jump right in.  I know I’ll hit some stumbling blocks along the way, but I’ll never get any of it done if I don’t ever start, right?  So I’m going to get started on it.  I’ll keep everyone informed as things progress.  If anyone has any advice for me, feel free to let me know.  I’ll take any help I can get. 🙂