No one wants to hear bad news. Especially if it’s a customer complaint.
But what if you could stop customer complaints before they happen? No, we’re not suggesting you break out the Ouija board and crystal ball just yet. All it actually takes is a little empathy and foresight.
We’ve put together a collection of the most common sources of customer complaints (and how to fix them) to help you create a better shopping experience for your customers before they have the chance to get frustrated.
As a bonus, we’ve also included three email templates that you can use to handle complaints if things do end up going sideways.
Complaints can be a useful tool for discovering where your business needs to improve, but it’s much better to be able to get that insight without upsetting a customer at the same time.
Let’s get into it.
Why Do Customers Complain?
Customers complain when they feel frustrated.
That doesn’t mean that customers only complain when they can’t do something. Frustration happens any time the results of an action don’t match the expectation—when you do something and it doesn’t turn out how you thought it would.
These frustrating moments can occur at any point in your customer’s shopping experience. For instance, maybe their order never arrives or your product pages are a complete mess. Potentially frustrating scenarios are everywhere.
You need to anticipate and eliminate these opportunities for frustration so that your customers can discover, purchase, and enjoy your products without hitting any roadblocks (and without sending you a complaint about their less-than-stellar experience).
The Most Common Sources of Frustration for Customers
While complaints can take many forms, there are a few key things that can leave customers dissatisfied if they aren’t handled properly. If you can master these critical issues, your business will start getting fewer complaints and more happy customers instead.
Keeping your customers happy is all about managing expectations. Most customer complaints are caused by a disconnect between expectation and reality, so you need be able to more accurately align your customers’ expectations with likely outcomes.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common causes of complaints and how your business can get on top of them before they turn your customers away.
Shipping and Inventory Issues
“Where’s my order?”
If you’ve gotten that question before, then you definitely understand the importance of being able to deliver your products safely and on time.
Your customers put a lot of trust in you to get them their orders and if they feel uncertain about when their package is going to show up (or if it’s going to show up at all), the complaints will start rolling in.
To keep your customers in the loop, offer order tracking whenever possible. If your customers can keep an eye on the progress of their order in real time, they’ll have a more clear understanding of when their order should arrive and you’ll be able to reduce the potential for complaints based on shipping delays or uncertainty.
For Shopify store owners, giving customers the option to track their order is as easy as dropping in the tracking number when fulfilling an order or adding an Order Status page to your store.
If you ship your products through USPS, you can also give your customers live updates on their package’s journey with a map that appears on your Order Status page.
If you use other shipping methods to deliver your products, Tracktor is a handy app supported by hundreds of carriers worldwide that add full delivery updates and a real-time map to your Order Status page.
Out of stock products can be another major headache for potential customers. To prevent this from happening, you can use an app like Out of Stock Notifications for your Shopify store to give your customers the option to be notified when a product is back in stock.
Alternatively, apps like Visibility Manager and Wipeout can help you out by automatically hiding your products once they sell out, so customers won’t feel frustrated when they aren’t able to make their purchases.
Inaccurate Product Photos and Descriptions
“It’s not the right size.”
Try to see things from your customers’ perspectives: What would you want to know before ordering something online?
There’s nothing worse than placing an order, waiting 5-7 business days for it to show up, and then realizing it doesn’t fit properly.
When products don’t look, feel, or fit the way your customers imagined that they would, it’s easy to understand their disappointment. Every e-commerce business needs to do its best to give a clear and honest understanding of what its products will actually be like in real life so that customers know exactly what they’re ordering.
Writing product descriptions with important details like dimensions, materials, and sizing charts is a great way to accurately describe your products and give your customers a reasonable idea of what they should expect when placing an order.
Peace Collective, a Toronto-based apparel company, has product descriptions that are concise enough to be digested at a glance, but still feature all of the relevant details. They’ve even included the model’s measurements as well as a detailed sizing chart.
Don’t be afraid to be as transparent as possible. For instance, if a product runs small or large, be up front about it. Your customers will appreciate it and your honesty will help build trust with your audience.
Inaccurate product photography can also be a source of frustration for your customers. Ordering a product and realizing that the texture or color is completely different once you take it out of the box is a terrible feeling and can lead to complaints, returns, and customers that never come back.
To help your customers decide if your products are right for them, it’s also important to enable reviews and integrate social media feeds into your product pages.
Not only will this approach give hesitant customers the extra push they need to place an order, but it will also give them an inside look at what real people think about your products. Product reviews and Instagram photos will set your customers’ expectations at a realistic level and make sure that they’re satisfied with their orders.
Adding customer reviews to your product pages is simple with Shopify apps like Product Reviews and Yotpo.
For social media integration, try using Like2Have.it, a Shopify app that drops a shoppable Instagram widget onto your website (like the one ban.do is using above).
Website Responsiveness and Usability
“Your website sucks.”
Try to imagine your website as a real-life storefront: Can your customers easily find you? Is your store a complete mess? Is it difficult for your customers to actually purchase your products?
Keeping your website clean, organized, and easy to navigate is just as important as having a neat and tidy brick-and-mortar shop.
To avoid annoying your customers, you need to put a mobile responsive website at the heart of your eCommerce strategy. Nearly ⅓ of smartphone users will immediately navigate away from a website if it takes too long to load or they can’t find what they’re looking for right away.
That’s huge, especially since more than half of all Google searches are now happening on smartphones and tablets rather than mobile. However, if you own a Shopify store, you’ll be good to go since every Shopify theme is already fully mobile responsive.
Load times, in particular, take a toll on your customers’ patience. According to Google, 40% of customers will abandon a website if it takes longer than three seconds to load. Wondering how your website stacks up? Try running it through Google’s PageSpeed Insights.
If your store has a physical location, you should also think about how easy it is for your customers to find your contact details.
Here’s a quick checklist with the details that every business needs to have on their “Contact Us” page to avoid frustrating customers who are trying to get in touch:
Hours of operation
Address and location for brick-and-mortar stores
Social media links
3 Templates for Dealing with Customer Complaints
Despite your best efforts, you may still get customer complaints from time to time.
It’s important to not let these complaints eat away at you. Instead, see them as a chance to make your store better. Try to look past the negative feedback and uncover the lesson at the core of the complaint.
Remember: If someone is complaining, it means they’re looking for a solution.
They aren’t trying to hurt you. They aren’t out to get you. They’re frustrated and they need help.
As a business owner, it might not be your fault, but it is your responsibility. You need to deal with these complaints and find a solution that works.
It isn’t always easy to come up with the right words, especially if you’re dealing with a particularly emotionally-charged message. But with the right templates, writing a response can be a lot less stressful.
It’s crucial that you don’t just copy and paste these templates verbatim. Customers can spot a canned response from a mile away. Instead, use them as a guide for crafting a helpful and unique email.
Here are three basic email templates that you can use as a jump-off point for responding to complaints.
1. The Proactive Response
If you notice something wrong with a customer’s order, you need to reach out to them to let them know that you’ve corrected it—even if they haven’t complained about it yet.
If you really want to let them know you care, include a discount code to make sure they come back again and that their faith in your store hasn’t been shaken by a minor misstep.
Thank you for shopping with [YOUR BUSINESS]! Unfortunately, due to [CAUSE OF ERROR], your order was [ERROR WITH ORDER]. We’ve [CREDITED YOUR ACCOUNT/RESHIPPED YOUR ORDER/FIXED THE ISSUE] and you will still receive your order via your selected shipping method.
We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience and we are happy to offer you [DISCOUNT/PROMOTION] for your next purchase. Simply use this code at checkout: [DISCOUNT CODE].
If you have any questions or require additional assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact us at [YOUR PHONE NUMBER] or via email at [YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS].
2. The Yes Response
If a customer complains, you need to be able to resolve their issue quickly and competently.
According to American Express, 60% of customers always share their negative customer service experiences, meaning it sometimes only takes one instance of poor customer service to start a bad reputation for your brand. That’s a risk you can’t take.
Instead, you need to use empathy and a little creativity to come up with a solution that will satisfy your customer and keep them coming back.
Hi [CUSTOMER NAME],
Thank you for reaching out. I am so sorry to hear about your trouble with [ISSUE].
I’ve gone ahead and [SOLUTION] as an apology for any inconvenience you may have experienced. I know that [ISSUE] can be incredibly [FRUSTRATING/ANNOYING/EMOTION] and I do hope that you try ordering from [YOUR BUSINESS] again in the future.
Thank you for giving us a try and if there’s anything else that I can do for you, please let me know!
3. The No Response
In some scenarios, there might not be a solution for your customer’s problem.
Sometimes customers will have negative feedback about things like design or product updates that there will be no immediate solution for. However, these can be great opportunities for learning more about how customers use your products and how your business can grow in the future.
As long as you respond thoroughly and with compassion, your customer will know that their opinion has been heard and they may give your business another shot.
Hi [CUSTOMER NAME],
Thank you for reaching out. Sorry for the trouble! / I am so sorry to hear that. Would you mind telling me more about [SUGGESTION]?
At this time, we are unable to offer [SUGGESTION]. However, it does sound like a great idea and I have passed your feedback onto our team. I definitely understand how [FRUSTRATING/ANNOYING/EMOTION] it can be to deal with [ISSUE].
I really appreciate your input and I do hope you’ll give us another try. If there’s anything else I can do for you, please let me know.
Create a Better Shopping Experience for Your Customers
Customer complaints aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but a satisfied customer is much better than an upset one.
Now that you understand why your customers complain, it’s time to get out there and give them the best shopping experience possible. After all, your business is here to serve your customers, so their thoughts and opinions need to be at the core of your strategy.
Have any more questions about dealing with customer complaints? Let us know in the comments below!
The fear of missing out can have a powerful effect on shoppers. A split test done by WhichTestWon showed that when a countdown timer was placed on a product page, it converted nearly 9% better than a variation of the product page without a countdown timer.
Creating a sense of urgency among your website visitors can help make more people buy and less people “go home and think about it”.
There is potential for visitors on your website to procrastinate and try to delay their decision to buy. According to a study done by Centre De Recherche DMSP, consumers that were seen as high procrastinators had a 73% chance to not make a purchase decision immediately. Consumers that were determined to be low procrastinators still had a 26% chance. Introducing a product or time shortage, your customers will be less likely to delay their buying decision.
A study was done by DigitalCommons at the University of Nebraska in 2013monitored and surveyed 14 shoppers. Study participants shopped at various stores, with most stores using perceived scarcity strategies such as limited quantities and limited-time sales. The study found that the retail stores that had perceived scarcity produced psychological effects such as consumer competitiveness, the urgency to buy, in-store hiding, and in-store hoarding.
While your objective isn’t to turn your website visitors into rabid shoppers, you do want to encourage people to act immediately, and that’s where scarcity comes in. You can introduce perceived scarcity to your store by creating a product or time shortage.
I’m going to share the two kinds of scarcity you can create in your store and a few actionable examples you can use to create urgency.
Limited Time Sales and Offers
Creating a time restriction is one of the easiest and most effective ways of creating urgency and scarcity in your store. This is because customers don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to take advantage of an offer. For example, putting together an expiring sale or offer can force customers to make a decision faster than they might have without a time limitation.
Pet Pro Supply Co. also has a separate Flash Sale page which is prominently featured on their website. The product page is optimized for the flash sale by showing the sale price, and more importantly, the exact date and time the flash sale ends. This reminds the person browsing the product page that they need to act soon or miss out on the deal.
Include Product Page Countdown Timers
Instead of just showing the date that the sale ends, include a countdown timer on your product page, like MakersKit does for their items that are on sale:
This visualization helps increase the effectiveness of the time scarcity of this sale.
While sales under a time limitation work really well, they aren’t the only thing you can use to create urgency.
Create Timed Shipping Offers
Express shipping offers, or even free shipping offers, for customers that act quickly enough, is another great incentive. Fab&GO, a womenswear shop, offers next day shipping if customers act fast enough.
This is a constant reminder to those browsing the website that if they want to take advantage of free and quick shipping, they need to order within the next 2 hours. This keeps customers from putting it off later, and more often than not, forgetting about it altogether.
You want the customer to purchase, ideally, the first time they come to your website. It’s very unlikely they will ever return, even if they are very interested in purchasing. According to MarketingSherpa, e-commerce companies reported only around 30% of their traffic was returning visits.
You can use stock shortages to your advantage. Instead of looking at limited quantities of your products as a limitation to the sales you can make, look at them as a way to show scarcity to your customers and increase the perceived value of your products.
Show Stock Quantity
The easiest way of doing this is to simply show the quantity of products in stock on the product page itself and bring attention to the quantity you have left. Tradlands, a shirt store for women, does this effectively by showing the quantity when choosing a shirt size on their website.
Another way to create scarcity with limited quantities is to tell customers how many you have to sell instead of telling them what’s left. In most cases, using this strategy works best when selling a “limited edition” or “limited run” of a product, where you only manufacture and sell a specific quantity.
For example, Mindzai sells limited editions of some of their toys.
In this case, we see Mindzai is only going to create and sell 100 units, not only making this particular item special to own for collectors but also create scarcity.
Create Urgency in Your Copy
You don’t only have to show the quantity or sell a limited amount of a product to create scarcity. The language you use on your website, marketing materials and emails can create a lot of urgencies as well.
Just look at this email I received from Mizzen+Main the other day.
Take note of the way that Mizzen+Main describe their new shirts. Instead of simply saying “hey, new shirts are on our store, check them out,” Mizzen+Main makes me want to head over to their store immediately by letting me know that “they’re going quick!”.
They also justify their scarcity claim with “Our last product launch resulted in our fastest sellout ever. Get them quick!” at the end of their email.
As I mentioned earlier, the way you describe your product or phrase you call to actions can create perceived scarcity as well. For example, across the top of JerkySpot is a call to action to “Order Now” but it also makes note that “Supply is Limited”.
Letting your customers know that your product can sell out at anytime helps create a sense of fear and urgency. Customers don’t want to regret not taking action when they could have, and using the right copy on your website can remind them of that.
Use Scarcity Responsibly
Finally, it’s worth noting that with great power, comes great responsibility.
With the right product and customer, scarcity can work really well. However, creating false scarcity or trying to trick people is not the best way to go about this practice.
Obviously manufactured scarcity can turn off customers and hurt your brand.
The scarcity you create needs to be based on something. Why are you only selling those shirts for a limited time? Why is this a limited-run product? You can’t just throw a countdown timer onto a product page and expect it to sell more. The countdown timer should show an expiring sale or an offer (such as next day shipping).
At the same time, scarcity is not always a remedy for poor sales. There needs to be some demand for your products in the first place for this all to be really useful. Much like when Apple launches a new phone or tablet, the demand for their products is already there. The limited amount of Apple products at launch simply intensifies the demand and desirability.
Lastly, don’t over do it. You don’t want to come across as if you’re pressuring your customers. The primary function of perceived scarcity in your business is to encourage procrastinators to make a decision, not to force people to buy things they don’t want. A consequence of creating scarcity, when used improperly, is that it can create buyer’s remorse.
If customers make a purchase they were pressured into, it can cause them to regret their purchase, want a refund, and feel differently about your business.
If scarcity makes sense for your store, consider applying one example to your business. Even a small change, such as how you describe the quantity left for a product, can have a big change on conversions. If you have any questions on how to create perceived scarcity and urgency, or you’d like to share how it’s worked for you, feel free to comment below. I engage and respond to everyone.
Ruth Tal, against her parents wishes, quit high school to work full-time at her then part time retail job. “Tell me I can’t, and I’ll just want to do it even more,” she says.
She spent two years working for independent fashion retailers who became ersatz mentors, teaching her more about small business than she says she ever would have learned in school. Several years later, she would repeat her decision, opting out of University at the last minute, using her student loan to start a business.
That business is Fresh, a vegetarian restaurant empire with multiple locations in Ruth’s native Toronto, three locations in Moscow, and one in Mexico City. Fresh expanded its reach with a series of namesake cookbooks, gift cards, and cold-pressed juice cleanses, sold through a complementary ecommerce store.
And it all started with one simple glass of carrot juice.
Let’s rewind 27 years. Ruth was returning from a seven-year traveling stint, working her way through places like Israel, East Asia, and Australia while picking up skills and experiences. Back in Canada, she happened upon a small shop that was selling pressed carrot juice—her first exposure to vegetable juicing.
While waiting for the juice to be pressed, she was introduced to a community of health-minded people. The shop, ahead of the juicing trend, also stocked books on the medicinal benefits of juicing and plant-based diets. Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Juices by Norman Walker and other books like it changed her perception on food. It also gave her a cause.
“Reading these books, understanding what was happening in the meat industry and where food was coming from, it was really hard to look at food the same. So, I pretty much became vegan overnight. I got a little juicer and started making these radical combinations at home. I was feeling so amazing. Everybody was like, ‘You look so good. Why are you glowing?’”
I pretty much became vegan overnight. I got a little juicer and started making these radical combinations at home.
Committed to her vegan lifestyle, Ruth set out to share her new knowledge and sense of wellness with the world. It was 1990 and she knew that, at the time, the concepts were “out there”. Juicing was not mainstream, and even organic farming was met with skepticism, reserved for the hippies and the radicals.
“I wanted to inspire people. I wanted them to change how they were eating, and how they were approaching their choices. Also, I think, deep down, I was looking for a cause. I was looking for something to champion, and, in the 90s, there really wasn’t that much to fight for.”
Though she had eventually finished her high school diploma and was accepted to a university Political Science program that year, she couldn’t ignore the pull towards entrepreneurship—a life path that she had been unknowingly cultivating since her first retail job.
With $10,000 earmarked for tuition and books, she bought two industrial juicers. Juice for Life, as it was called at its outset, was a one-woman outfit, a traveling juice bar that would pop up at music festivals, markets, and health conferences.
“I had applied for an OSAP student loan—it was about $10,000. By then, I had a sense that I could keep going in the direction I was going, and just continue to grow. So I didn’t go to school, and I used my loan money to start Juice for Life. OSAP caught up with me a year later. They were like, ‘Hey, where’s our money?’ I cut a deal with them. I paid them back, like, $100 a week. And that was how I started my business.”
I didn’t go to school, and I used my loan money to start Juice for Life.
In 1992, the business took the leap from mobile to stationary, with a permanent stall set up in the trendy and bustling Queen West Market. Within very little time, she realized she was already outgrowing the space.
“I had two or three people working with me. I was working 80 hours a week. And I knew I was onto something. I just worked my ass off. I built a following, and I grew incrementally. I didn’t get ahead of myself. Every time I maxed out the location I was in, and I had people lined up at the door, I made my next move, and I would grow into a larger space. I would make the menu a little bit bigger, and I would develop more categories.”
I didn’t get ahead of myself. Every time I maxed out the location I was in, and I had people lined up at the door, I made my next move.
At this point in her journey, she realized two things: first, that her dreams of opening a full-scale restaurant were actually attainable, and secondly, she was in over her head. Thankfully, the realization coincided with an introduction to a friend of a friend, accountant Barry Alper, who would soon become her partner.
She opened her first full-service restaurant in Toronto’s Annex neighborhood, and enlisted Barry as a business advisor and he helped with managing her books, and wrangling payroll, and food costs.
“I’d been doing my own books, but they were a mess. I was trying to keep it together, but I started to realize I was in the weeds. And the only way to have a healthy and successful business is to have a strong organized back of the house. A strong, organized office. I recognized that having someone who could give me feedback and be the backbone of the business, that would be the key to my longevity.”
The only way to have a healthy and successful business is to have a strong organized back of house.
Barry helped her write a business plan as she was preparing to seek to fund. Ruth offered him a chunk of the business in exchange for being her partner. She figured that it was a risk to ask him to bank on her, but she was also reluctant to bring someone else into the business who might question her decisions. But the two developed a partnership, still going strong 20 years later.
“My industry was so early days that it was hard to explain to a mainstream person why I was making certain choices. I’d had so much resistance from everyone around me. A lot of people laughed. It took a little bit of time for me and Barry to learn how to be good partners to each other. We started off with baby steps, and then, as the business grew and as our confidence in each other grew, it’s become an amazing partnership. It’s probably the best thing I ever did.”
It’s become an amazing partnership. It’s probably the best thing I ever did.
Together, they opened the brand’s second location.
Shortly after the expansion, the business suffered a blow: two women who were running the kitchen at the original location quit and stole the recipe book. A recently-hired Jennifer Houston stepped in to take over and soon became indispensable to the restaurant.
“When I wrote my first cookbook, Jennifer helped me test the recipes, and we ended up striking this great friendship and mutual respect. Eventually, Barry and I invited her to be a third partner, as well. We didn’t ask her to invest anything because we felt like just having her sign on to be a co-owner was good enough for us.”
Jennifer completed the trifecta, and the strength of the partnership guided the business to expand to new locations, publish several cookbooks, and launch a line of cold-pressed juices.
They focused on people and retention, building a strong team that has grown up with the business. “That’s why I’m sitting in LA right now, on my porch,” she says, “and the business is running without me.”
What’s the secret to getting to this place? Sticking with it, she tells me, because success doesn’t happen overnight.
“I have no regrets. I don’t look back and wish I had done anything differently because I wouldn’t be here today. Everything that I did along the way, even the mistakes that I made, brought me to where I am today. Even in the face of doubt, even in the face of resistance from people around you, if you really believe in what you’re doing, and you have a passion for it, it’s really about sticking with it and seeing it through. To build the business that I have takes time.”
Everything that I did along the way, even the mistakes that I made, brought me to where I am today.
Vegans in a Dangerous Time
When Ruth launched a business in the 90s, it was ahead of its time, and timing ended up being a huge factor in her success. She was a pioneer in the vegetarian scene. Ramping into the millennium, plant-based diets started to catch on, and inspire a rash of new vegetarian, vegan, and juice businesses trying to catch up with the trend.
Before the surge of interest, growing her business and winning over new customers relied on a soft approach.
“The trick was, as Barry always used to say, ‘Just get it in their mouths, and then we have a customer for life.’ The approach that we had, apart from having the confidence in the food or juice that we created, was the environment. We really focused on upping our game and leveling the playing field between us and all the other great restaurants by offering service, presentation, music, and seating that was just as great as all the other restaurants in the city.”
The trick was, as Barry always used to say, ‘Just get it in their mouths.’
The team’s strategy was to build an environment that was a sanctuary for then-under-serviced vegans, but also welcoming to anyone else.
“Ultimately, they’re like, ‘Wow. That was so awesome.’ It’s an afterthought that it was plant-based. At that time, that was really important so they wouldn’t feel like they were being preached to.”
Cold Pressed Dot Com
When Fresh launched their line of cold-pressed juices, it was the first time that they were producing a product that could be sold easily offsite. Fresh ingredients and preservative-free recipes made for limited portability of their core product.
The partners moved from another platform to Shopify in 2016 to have more independence over managing their e-commerce juice sales. They added cookbooks, t-shirts, gift cards, and cleanse programs to their roster of juices sold outside of the traditional restaurant model, says Barry.
“We have a wholesale operation and we wanted customers at those locations to be able to order products from our restaurants. The website allows us to expand our reach and provide an in-home experience for our customers that is similar to our in-store experience.”
Returning to her Roots
Ruth may have disappointed her parents with what they perceived as questionable life decisions as a teen, but, she says, they eventually came around.
“When I go get my mom to take her out for lunch, I try to go to different places, but she only wants Fresh because that’s the food that she likes the most. My dad used to always carry my cookbooks in his briefcase, and he used to give them away. He’d go to the dentist, he’d give them a copy. Go to the bank, give them a copy.”
My dad used to always carry my cookbooks in his briefcase, and he used to give them away.
Now, 8 locations later, and 27 years after her one-woman-with-a-juicer beginnings, Ruth has hit the sweet spot, that entrepreneurial idea: she’s hired the best people to take over many of the aspects of the business so that she can focus on what she does best. And for her, that thing is returning to her roots, bringing her lust for juice and plant-based food to the rest of the world.
“I’ve really been the one to go out in the world and bring fresh to other cities. We opened in Mexico City last summer. We opened in Moscow, five years ago. My new passion is bringing Fresh to other communities and cities that really haven’t been exposed to what we’re doing.”
Improving cash flow is a smart move for any business.
It doesn’t matter how great your business model is, how profitable you are, or how many investors you have lined up. You won’t survive if you can’t manage your company’s cash.
In fact, one study found that 82% of businesses fail due to poor cash flow management skills. If you’re looking for one area to focus on that will have a dramatic impact on your business, this is it.
Established businesses often have a buffer of extra cash to get them through shortfalls. Growing businesses often don’t because they are always reinvesting.
Years with the biggest growth—including the first few years—are also the most challenging when it comes to cash flow. This is one of the reasons it’s so hard to get a new business off the ground.
Getting good at managing cash flow is one of the best things you can do for your business. Not only that, it’s a skill you can carry over into other businesses, as well as your personal finances.
Note: We’ve put together a free template to help you manage your cash flow. Find it at the end of this blog post and keep reading to learn how to use it.
The Difference Between Cash Flow and Profitability
Cash flow is not the same as profitability. A profitable business can still be unable to pay its bills. Similarly, just because a business is meeting all of its financial obligations, doesn’t mean it’s profitable.
Profit is an accounting term, which really only exists on paper. Measuring profit is a very specific way of looking at a business. It doesn’t tell you a whole lot about how the business is getting by day-to-day.
Profit is typically calculated in two steps. The first is to take your total revenue and subtract the cost of the goods sold. The difference is your gross profit.
Revenue — Cost of Goods Sold = Gross Profit
For example, if you sold $100,000 in rocking chairs, and the chairs themselves cost you $50,000 wholesale, your gross profit would be $50,000.
Cost of Goods Sold -$50,000 Gross Profit: $50,000
Of course, you would probably have other expenses beyond buying the chairs. For example, you’d need a place to store the chairs, and you might want to run some ads to get more sales. These expenses are called operating expenses and they get subtracted from your gross profit.
Operating expenses include most costs that are not directly connected to what you’re selling. Things like rent, equipment, payroll, and marketing.
The second step of calculating profit it to subtract operating expenses from gross profit. The difference is net profit.
Cost of Goods Sold: -$50,000
Gross Profit: $50,000
Operating Expenses: -$35,000
Net Profit: $15,000
If your net profit is a positive number, you made money. If it’s a negative number, you lost money. This report as a whole is called the income statement or profit and loss (P&L).
The Problem With Profit
The problem with income statements is that they don’t show your whole business. A few very important pieces of information are missing.
1. Debt Repayment
If you have any business loans or other startup capital to repay, it won’t show up here. Only the interest on those loans will be included on a P&L. Even though debt repayments can eat up a lot of cash.
2. Equipment Payments
Similarly, if you make a major equipment purchase, the entire cost will not show up here. Instead, that cost will get spread out over the lifetime of the equipment. If you spend $100,000 on a canning line and you think it will last you ten years, your income statement will show an expense of $10,000/year for ten years. Even if you had to pay all of it upfront.
It’s also important to note that your net profit hasn’t been taxed yet. This means it’s going to shrink even more. Even if all of your profit is available in cash, you won’t be able to run out and spend it all in one place.
4. Cash Received
Finally, many businesses use accrual accounting, which records revenue even if you haven’t received the money yet. On paper, you might have $200,000 in sales but if nobody has paid you yet, you’re still going to have a hard time paying the bills.
Further, if you carry inventory, all that product has value and gets included on your income statement as well. Of course, in order to extract cash from your inventory, you need to sell it first.
You can start to imagine why profit has little bearing on cash flow.
It’s All About Timing
Ultimately, cash flow comes down to timing. You may be profitable over the course of a month or year, but not a specific day or week. If your bills are due at the beginning of the month but you won’t have any money in the bank until the end of the month, you’ve got a cash flow problem. Even if at the end of the month, you made more than you spent.
Here’s the deal with profit. If you’re not profitable on paper, you’re in bad shape. You need to either increase your revenue or decrease your expenses if you want to stay in business.
But just because you’re profitable, doesn’t mean your business can run on autopilot. You still need to watch your cash—especially if you’re growing.
Benefits of Cash Flow Management
Although it may seem intimidating, there are clear benefits to prioritizing effective cash flow management.
1. Predict Shortfalls
The first and most obvious benefit to managing cash is knowing ahead of time when you’re going to have shortfalls. Don’t find out you can’t make rent after the check bounces. With a good system in place, you can predict shortfalls weeks, and sometimes even months ahead of time. This will give you time to come up with a plan. For example:
Call your landlord and ask them to cash your check a couple days later
Delay a shipment by a couple weeks to put off paying duty at customs
Run a promotion too quickly drive additional sales
Go on a collection to spree to clear up outstanding bills
2. Reduce Stress
Believe it or not, obsessing over cash flow will alleviate a lot of stress. Much of the anxiety entrepreneurs experience around paying bills comes from not knowing what’s going on, and worrying about whether or not it will work out.
It’s much better to know what’s coming, even if the outlook is not good. When you actually know where you stand, you’ll feel prepared. More importantly, you’ll be equipped to deal with it.
3. Know When to Grow
When you’re keeping an eye on cash flow, you know exactly how much money you have to spend on growth. Remember, just because your P&L tells you there’s extra money lying around, doesn’t mean it will materialize in real life.
Similarly, just because you have $20,000 in the bank, doesn’t mean you can spend it. You might need it to pay for upcoming expenses. When you look at your cash flow over the course of weeks and months, you’ll know how much have on hand to squirrel away or spend on growth.
4. Gain Leverage
Good cash flow management gives you leverage. If you need a line of credit from the bank to get you through a shortfall, or you want to get a supplier to give you a break for a couple weeks without interrupting service, a good cash flow system will back you up and establish trust.
Banks generally like to see this kind of planning, especially if you can clearly show when you’ll be able to repay the funds. Suppliers are much more likely to be flexible if you can tell them exactly how you’ll pay and when, rather than dropping off the face of the earth like most businesses do during tough periods. These people want your business and will be more willing to work with you through the ups and downs if they can trust you.
5. More Accurate
Cash flow is significantly more accurate than a budget. Budgets tell you what you want to happen. They’re wishful thinking and entrepreneurs are optimistic by nature. Cash flow projections tell you what is actually happening so you can deal with it—even if it’s not what you planned at the beginning of the year.
Most of us (myself included) would often rather not think about cash flow and just hope it works out. But it’s not worth the risk. You really will feel better staying on top of it.
How to Forecast and Manage Cash Flow
There are a number of paid tools out there to help you manage cash flow. Personally, I think the free one is the best one: Google Sheets. Anyone can use a Google spreadsheet to organize their cash. Although, it’s a manual process, it doesn’t take long to set up, and it’s easy to stay on top of.
More importantly, it’s easy to customize on the fly and adapt to your specific needs or situation. You can be as broad or specific as you want. And the time you spend creating and updating your spreadsheet is valuable for gaining a clearer picture of your situation.
The cash flow spreadsheet is basically an outline of where your cash is going. It shows you when cash will be coming in, and when it be going out. It’s a great way to quickly visualize and adjust.
Most businesses work best by planning week-to-week. However, some may need daily, others only need monthly. It’s also up to you if you want to include every single expense or just categories of expenses. These decisions will depend on the scale and complexity of your business.
Similarly, some businesses will be able to project their cash flow accurately for six months, others only two weeks. In general, try to project four to six weeks reasonably accurately. A good rule of thumb is that the farther you are into the future, the less accurate your predictions will be.
Step 1 – Forecast Expenses
The first step is to lay out all your ongoing financial obligations. Start by making a list of all the things you have to pay, from rent, to salary, to advertisements, to software fees, to loan repayments. Anything that comes out of your bottom line. Write down what the expense is for, how much it is, and when it’s due. You’ll likely forget about a few things so go through your bank and credit card statements to see what else you come up with.
Step 2 – Forecast Revenue
Next, it’s time to forecast your weekly revenue. Many businesses experience fluctuations in sales so it can be a bit of an art. Try to be as accurate as possible. The more established your business becomes, the easier it will be.
Start by writing down any guaranteed revenue. If you sell subscriptions or have long-term contracts, you’ll have a good idea of what’s coming up. You can estimate if those numbers are going to go up, down, or stay the same.
If a large portion of your sales are from first-time customers, it will be more difficult to estimate. Still, you should have a good idea of what to expect over the coming weeks and months. The closer you can get to reality the better.
One thing that can really help with projections is to look at past data. In many cases, your sales from this week a year ago will be more accurate than your sales last week. This is because historical data takes annual cycles and seasonality into account. If you believe your sales will grow over last year’s, you can increase the amount, but it’s important to be conservative so you don’t end up in a sticky situation.
As you forecast revenue each week, be mindful any dips in sales due to holidays, the time of month or year, as well as any promotions or major deals that will impact your revenue.
If you sell a bunch of products on one website, you may only have one source of revenue. If you use multiple channels such as web, retail, and trade shows, you might want to have a line for each because it will be easier to predict.
Make sure you add revenue to the week it will become available to you. Keep in mind, it may take a few days to end up in your bank account.
Similarly, fill in your expenses. Some will be weekly, some bi-weekly, some monthly, some variable. You’re also going to have a lot of miscellaneous expenses popping up. Use the row labeled “Other” to work these into the spreadsheet.
Add your opening bank balance for the first week. The following weeks will be predicted automatically based on your revenue and expense projections.
Step 4 – Update Your Spreadsheet
Your cash flow spreadsheet is a living document. If you keep it as a Google Sheet, it will be available anytime, anywhere. You’ll also be able to easily share it with someone else such as your accountant or another employee.
A good cash flow spreadsheet is updated on a regular basis. Once a week, log in and update your closing bank balance. If it doesn’t match up to what was previously calculated, it’s a good idea to figure out why. Sometimes expenses you forgot about pop up, or you realize you may have been too optimistic in your revenue projections.
Next, hide last week’s column. You won’t need it anymore since it’s in the past.
Finally, add a new week of projections in the last column. You always want to have a minimum of four to six weeks laid out so you can plan ahead.
Any time you’re projecting a shortfall, the closing bank balance will alert you by turning red. This will give you an opportunity to make some changes. In the template provided, you can see that a shortfall is predicted in the third week.
By knowing this ahead of time, this company could contact their product supplier and renegotiate their next payment. Instead of paying all $5,000 that week, they could ask to pay $3,000, and settle the remaining $2,000 the following week.
Free Business Cash Flow Projection Template
If you haven’t already, don’t forget to grab your free cash flow template. Simply click on the this link and you’ll be taken to the document in Google Drive. Click on “File” → “Make a copy…” to save your own editable version of the spreadsheet. You need to be logged into your Google account to make a copy.
Most companies simply can’t survive without good cash flow management. But anyone can do it. Take the time to get organized now and it’ll be easy to stay on top of it.
How do you track your cash? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
I used to dread the word “inventory”. As a part-time cashier in high school, the word inventory only meant one thing: lots and lots of counting. It’s common for businesses to reconcile their inventory at the end of the year by counting up all their physical product and making sure it matches what’s on the books. For big companies like the one I used to work for, this requires everyone’s help.
These days, I understand just how important solid inventory management is. Inventory is a placeholder for money. You paid money for it, and you’ll get that money back (and then some) when you sell it.
Why Inventory Management Is Important
Holding inventory ties up a lot of cash. That’s why good inventory management is crucial for growing a company. Just like cash flow, it can make or break your business.
Inventory Management Saves You Money
Good inventory management saves you money in a few critical ways:
If you’re selling a product that has an expiry date (like food or makeup), there’s a very real chance it will go bad if you don’t sell it in time. Solid inventory management helps you avoid unnecessary spoilage.
Avoid Dead Stock
Dead stock is stock that can no longer be sold, but not necessarily because it expired. It could have gone out of season, out of style, or otherwise become irrelevant. By managing your inventory better, you can avoid dead stock.
Save on Storage Costs
Warehousing is often a variable cost, meaning it fluctuates based on how much product you’re storing. When you store too much product at once or end up with a product that’s difficult to sell, your storage costs will go up. Avoiding this will save you money.
Inventory Management Improves Cash Flow
Not only does good inventory management save you money, it also improves cash flow in other ways. Remember, inventory is product that you’ve likely already paid for with cash (checks and electronic transfers count as cash too), and you’re going to sell it for cash, but while it’s sitting in your warehouse it is definitively not cash. Just try paying your landlord with 500 iPhone cases.
This is why it’s important to factor inventory into your cash flow management. It affects both sales (by dictating how much you can sell), and expenses (by dictating what you have to buy). Both of these things factor heavily into how much cash you have on hand. Better inventory management leads to better cash flow management.
When you have a solid inventory system, you’ll know exactly how much product you have, and based on sales, you can project when you’ll run out and make sure you replace it on time. Not only does this make sure you don’t lose sales (critical for cash flow), but it also helps you plan ahead for buying more so you can ensure you have enough cash set aside.
Money spent on inventory is money that is not spent on growth. Manage it wisely.
8 Inventory Management Techniques
Inventory management is a highly customizable part of doing business. The optimal system is different for each company. However, every business should strive to remove human error from inventory management as much as possible. This means taking of advantage inventory management software.
Regardless of the system you use, the following eight techniques to will help you improve your inventory management—and cash flow.
1. Set Par Levels
Make inventory management easier by setting “par levels” for each of your products. Par levels are the minimum amount of product that must be on hand at all times. When your inventory stock dips below the predetermined levels, you know it’s time to order more.
Ideally, you’ll typically order the minimum quantity that will get you back on par. Par levels will vary by product based on how quickly the item sells, and how long it takes to get back in stock.
Although it requires some research and decision-making up front, setting par levels will systemize the process of ordering. Not only will it make it easier for you to make decisions quickly, it will allow your staff to make decisions on your behalf.
Remember that conditions change over time. Check on par levels a few times throughout the year to confirm they still make sense. If something changes in the meantime, don’t be afraid to adjust your par levels up or down.
2. First-In-First-Out (FIFO)
“First-in, first-out” is an important principle of inventory management. It means that your oldest stock (first-in) gets sold first (first-out), not your newest stock. This is particularly important for perishable products so you don’t end up with unsellable spoilage.
It’s also a good idea to practice FIFO for non-perishable products. If the same boxes are always sitting at the back, they’re more likely to get worn out. Plus, packaging design and features often change over time. You don’t want to end up with something obsolete that you can’t sell.
In order to manage a FIFO system, you’ll need an organized warehouse. This typically means adding new products from the back, or otherwise making sure old product stays at the front. If you’re working with a warehousing and fulfillment company they probably do this already, but it’s a good idea to call them to confirm.
3. Manage Relationships
Part of successful inventory management is being able to adapt quickly. Whether you need to return a slow selling item to make room for a new product, restock a fast seller very quickly, troubleshoot manufacturing issues, or temporarily expand your storage space, it’s important to have a good relationship with your suppliers. That way they’ll be more willing to work with you to solve problems.
In particular, having a good relationship with your product suppliers goes a long way. Minimum order quantities are often negotiable. Don’t be afraid to ask for a lower minimum so you don’t have to carry as much inventory.
A good relationship isn’t just about being friendly. It’s about good communication. Let your supplier know when you’re expecting an increase in sales so they can adjust production. Have them let you know when a product is running behind schedule so you can pause promotions or look for a temporary substitute.
4. Contingency Planning
A lot of issues can pop up related to inventory management. These types of problems can cripple unprepared businesses. For example:
your sales spike unexpectedly and you oversell your stock
you run into a cash flow shortfall and can’t pay for product you desperately need
your warehouse doesn’t have enough room to accommodate your seasonal spike in sales
a miscalculation in inventory means you have less product than you thought
a slow moving product takes up all your storage space
your manufacturer runs out of your product and you have orders to fill
your manufacturer discontinues your product without warning
It’s not a matter of if problems arise, but when. Figure out where your risks areand prepare a contingency plan. How will you react? What steps will you take to solve the problem? How will this impact other parts of your business? Remember that solid relationships go a long way here.
5. Regular Auditing
Regular reconciliation is vital. In most cases, you’ll be relying on software and reports from your warehouse to know how much product you have stock. However, it’s important to make sure that the facts matche up. There are several methods for doing this.
A physical inventory is the practice is counting all your inventory at once. Many businesses do this at their year-end because it ties in with accounting and filing income tax. Although physical inventories are typically only done once a year, it can be incredibly disruptive to the business, and believe me, it’s tedious. If you do find a discrepancy, it can be difficult to pinpoint the issue when you’re looking back at an entire year.
If you do a full physical inventory at the end of the year and you often run into problems, or you have a lot of products, you may want to start spot checking throughout the year. This simply means choosing a product, counting it, and comparing the number to what it’s supposed to be. This isn’t done on a schedule and is supplemental to physical inventory. In particular, you may want to spot check problematic or fast-moving products.
Instead of doing a full physical inventory, some businesses use cycle counting to audit their inventory. Rather than a full count at year-end, cycle counting spreads reconciliation throughout the year. Each day, week, or month a different product is checked on a rotating schedule. There are different methods of determining which items to count when, but, generally speaking, items of higher value will be counted more frequently.
6. Prioritize With ABC
Some products need more attention than others. Use an ABC analysis to prioritize your inventory management. Separate out products that require a lot of attention from those that don’t. Do this by going through your product list and adding each product to one of three categories:
A – high-value products with a low frequency of sales
B – moderate value products with a moderate frequency of sales
C – low-value products with a high frequency of sales
Items in category A require regular attention because their financial impact is significant but sales are unpredictable. Items in category C require less oversight because they have a smaller financial impact and they’re constantly turning over. Items in category B fall somewhere in-between.
7. Accurate Forecasting
A huge part of good inventory management comes down to accurately predicting demand. Make no mistake, this is incredibly hard to do. There are so many variables involved and you’ll never know for sure exactly what’s coming—but you can get close. Here are a few things to look at when projecting your future sales:
trends in the market
last year’s sales during the same week
this year’s growth rate
guaranteed sales from contracts and subscriptions
seasonality and the overall economy
planned ad spend
If there’s something else that will help you create a more accurate forecast, be sure to include it.
8. Consider Dropshipping
Dropshipping is really the ideal scenario from an inventory management perspective. Instead of having to carry inventory and ship products yourself—whether internally or through third-party logistics—the manufacturer or wholesaler takes care of it for you. Basically, you completely remove inventory management from your business.
Many wholesalers and manufacturers advertise dropshipping as a service, but even if your supplier doesn’t, it may still be an option. Don’t be afraid to ask. Although products often cost more this way than they do in bulk orders, you don’t have to worry about expenses related to holding inventory, storage, and fulfillment.
It’s time to take control of your inventory management and stop losing money. Choose the right inventory management techniques for your business, and start implementing them today.
Salted fish and tobacco are traded for fur and feed grains. A block of raw wood is whittled into a toy horse and sold in a stall at a local artisan market. Watermelon seeds, sowed and tended, become full-fledged fruit before exchanging hands at a roadside stall.
Making things from scratch, cultivating them by hand, and carving out a living by selling and trading them—these are the incentive transactions of commerce in America.
Commerce has evolved in the past few hundred years, with the biggest changes coinciding with rail transport, the manufacturing boom, and the Internet. As far as we’ve come—think same day shipping and chat-based selling—the roots of commerce remain firmly planted.
Today, thousands of Shopify merchants still produce made-by-hand goods—some with traditional and primitive methods—selling them at craft shows, pop-up shops, and through their online stores worldwide. E-commerce gives makers more reach, and apps help keep their businesses running more efficiently, letting them focus on what they do best: their craft.
But maybe you’re not quite sure what to make and sell. Maybe you’re looking for a new hobby to busy your idle hands (and make a little cash on the side). Or maybe you’re not crafty at all.
10 Things to Make and Sell
We’ve compiled a list of things to make and sell, something to appeal to everyone from the advanced craftsperson to the creatively-challenged, from skilled trades to relatively hands-off ventures. Each idea will include a link to a comprehensive guide, as well as a Shopify store to inspire your own.
1. Bath Bombs and Soaps
A simple Google search returns pages of tutorials to teach you to make your own soaps, bath bombs, and other beauty products at home. They range from simple recipes for bath salts to more complicated formulations requiring emulsions and preservatives. This business idea has low creativity requirements—soaps and bath bombs can be made using commercial molds—but packaging and branding are important in beauty, so consider hiring design help.
Keep your inventory tight—fresher bath bombs have more fizz, and natural ingredients (like essential oils) in soap can expire.
Check with your local government to ensure that your production facility (even if it’s your own kitchen) meets health standards. In the US, for example, the FDA sets guidelines for ventilation, air control, and surfaces.
2. T-Shirts and Printed Merch
This is a maker business for the non-maker. Your original idea can be designed (this is where the “made” comes in) and printed onto various goods like t-shirts, mugs, tote bags, and dog bandanas, and shipped directly to your customers. It’s a hands-off business that has a very low barrier to entry.
T-shirts and printed merch can supplement an existing business. Gyms, musicians, and charities, for example, can sell branded swag to current audiences, and help to build the brand.
Not a designer? Use Fiverr, Creative Market, or Upwork to find talent to help you turn your ideas into designs for your t-shirt business.
Use a print and fulfillment app like Printful or Teelaunch. They integrate with your Shopify store, and automatically print, fulfill, and ship each order.
Jewellery is another business idea that can range from simple and low-tech (say, beaded necklaces and woven bracelets) to skilled trades with special equipment (say, silversmithing). It’s a saturated market, so doing your homework up front is important—how can your designs stand out? Is there a niche market to target?
Fashion is fickle. Validate your idea by tracking trends in jewellery—use Google Trends, and follow popular fashion blogs and influencers.
Photography is extremely important, but also difficult because of the scale and reflective qualities of jewellery. Invest in great photos by hiring a pro. You can save money by partnering with complementary apparel brands to share the cost of lifestyle shoots.
4. Curated Gift and Subscription Boxes
A gift or subscription box business is a great idea for those who are less crafty but have an eye for curation. Contrary to print-on-demand t-shirts, curated box businesses can be very hands-on. Assembly can be a tedious task, but the business has its advantages: subscription boxes are usually packed all at once at the same time each month, and in the same size box, making the shipping process simple.
Calculate your storage and assembly needs. Can your home accommodate your business, or do you need to rent additional space?
Ease your customers into commitment. Offer a substantial discount to those who pay upfront for subscriptions, or offer the first month free.
Use an app like Recurring Orders and Subscriptions to manage subscriptions.
Get insured and use safety labeling. Due to the nature of candle use, and the increased risks of injury or fire damage, be sure to protect your business from civil suits that may result from the use of your product.
Tap into a niche to stand out in a crowded market. Frostbeard Studio appeals to book lovers with cleverly named candle scents and copy filled with literary references.
Pay attention to branding and packaging. Candles don’t differ much from an ingredient perspective, but your product can stand apart with beautiful packaging and strong branding.
Candy, cookies, baked goods, chocolates, and jams. Sugar can be spun and dissolved and baked into endless things to make and sell. This is a category with unique complications—legalities, labeling, and shelf-life—but also with lots of room to get creative. Niche markets include: holidays and occasions, custom, novelty, catering, and gift baskets. Be sure to investigate the viability of selling your product online. Are fragility and refrigeration barriers to shipping?
Trace the supply chain, says food lawyer Glenford Jameson. Carefully select your raw ingredient suppliers to ensure that what’s on your label is what’s inside.
Consult with a lawyer or food inspection agency to be sure that your labeling meets local requirements for nutritional content, ingredients, and allergy warnings.
Rotate your inventory, says craft brewer Casandra Campbell, and stress the importance of doing so to everyone who handles it.
7. Art and Prints
Forget the story of the starving artist. It’s never been a better time to create the art you want to create, and sell it (without selling out). Whether you’re dealing in fine art, or reproduction prints, you can access far-reaching audiences and sell worldwide.
Work with an established gallery like Shopify-powered Spoke Art to show your work in person and help build an audience for your online store.
Have your work professionally photographed, or as a low-cost option, scan it on a flatbed scanner in pieces and stitch the image together in Photoshop.
Consider reproducing your art in multiple formats from prints and cards to t-shirts and mugs. Do it yourself through a print and fulfillment company, or licence your work to other ecommerce brands.
8. Digital Products
Choose a delivery method. Apps like Digital Downloads and Sky Pilot integrated with your Shopify store to automatically deliver digital goods, or provide a download link to each customer.
If you’re hosting files on Shopify, make sure files are each 5GB or less. For larger files, try compressing them into .zip archives.
9. Enamel Pins
Enamel Pins have exploded in the past year and are still on a strong upward trend. It’s not to late to cash in. You’ll usually work with a manufacturer to make enamel pins, but the design component can be as involved as you make it. Design your own, or work with a designer to illustrate your vision.
If you choose to design your own pins, use Photoshop, Illustrator, or free alternatives like Pixlr and GIMP. Stick to solid colors (no gradients) and avoid fine details.
Whether you manufacture overseas or locally, be sure to ask the right questions of your manufacturer:
What are your clasp and material options?
Can you send me physical samples?
What packaging options do you offer?
10. Traditional Handcrafted Goods
Much of the appeal of crafted goods is the story behind the maker. Weave your own story into product pages, a compelling About Page, and even packaging.
How will you scale? If your idea takes off, consider how you will maintain the handmade nature of your goods while producing in large quantities: can you hire contract makers? Can certain components of the process be outsourced to a manufacturer, then finished by hand?
Building your business on the side is not easy. You come home after a long day of work, you spend the little time you have with your family and friends, and you try to jam in a productive session, working on your side business before going to bed.
Your weekends allow you to get much more done in much larger chunks. They’re usually where you’re most capable of growing your business or having the most impact on your business when you’re working a day job.
Having trouble focusing on growing your small business? Get access to our free, curated list of high-impact productivity articles.
However, are you making the most of your weekends? How often do you find yourself distracted or making excuses when you’re not getting enough done? How should you structure your weekends? What does a weekend, optimized for productivity and growing a business, look like?
I’m going to answer these questions and share what has worked for me, and continues to work for me. Additionally, I’m going to share my action plan, exactly how I structure my weekends, and what I do every weekend that has helped me grow my side business and maintain a great work/work balance.
Switch Up Your Frame
The first thing you need to consider is how do you think of your weekends.
What you do during the week should set you up to get more done on the weekend. Don’t use your weekends to support the stuff you do during the week, instead, whenever you come home from your day job and begin working on your business, make sure it supports what you plan to do over your weekend.
For example, if you’re planning to tackle your website’s design over the weekend then choose templates, design logos, draw layout ideas and write copy throughout the week. That way, when the weekend rolls around, you can focus on the most important task – getting the website up.
Making Your Weekdays Support Your Weekend
Whenever you think up a task or project, but can’t make time for it during the week, David Allen, author of Getting Things Done suggests you add it to a “next actions” list instead of a “to-do” list. Throwing items into a to-do list is non-actionable. If you set an ordered list, of the next things you need to do for your business, it will require and encourage you to make quick decisions.
Think up a great, actionable idea for your business? Put it in your “next actions” list. Come up with a new marketing idea that will take several hours to implement? Put it in your “next actions list.”
At the end of the week, organize these ideas, tasks, and projects into timeslots throughout your weekends, then pull each task from your next actions list and move it into your calendar for the weekend. (More on this in the next section)
Now let’s get into what a typical weekend looks like for me, and how you should consider structuring yours to get more done.
How to Structure Your Weekend
While you won’t have as much time on Fridays to get as much done as you can on Saturday or Sunday, it’s a good time to reflect on what you’ve accomplished throughout the week and what you plan to do over your weekend
It’s good to sit down for five minutes, before planning out your weekend, to reinforce what has (or hasn’t) been working for you.
Not taking the time to see where you went right and wrong can stunt your growth as an entrepreneur. Your business only grows when you do. Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
What were my top wins this past week?
What didn’t I get done?
Where did I waste time this past week?
What was the best part of my week?
You can answer these questions out loud or write them down in a journal or private document (like Google Docs or Evernote).
Plan of Attack
Now it’s time to schedule your weekend. Set blocks of time for each task and get your priorities in check.
Your weekend should be flexible. Things happen and you can’t always stick to your schedule. However, don’t use that as an excuse to procrastinate. Stay flexible for when “life” happens, but don’t stay flexible just because Game of Thrones or your favorite TV show might be on.
Before planning out your weekend, ask yourself a few questions to get a better perspective on what needs to get done:
What must I get done no matter what this weekend?
Are there any potential distractions or commitments this weekend that I will need to account for?
Now it’s time to plan your weekend for success.
First, if you don’t know what you should be doing, use the Pareto Principle. Look at the 20% of things you’ve been doing for your business that have yielded 80% of your results.
Next, use a tool like Trello or even Google Calendar to set your schedule for the next two days. Pull the tasks you put off from your “next actions” list and start to schedule them into your weekend. If the task can be done in five minutes or less, do it immediately (yes, while you’re still scheduling your tasks) instead of putting it off for the weekend.
In the next section, I’ll talk about what your Saturday and Sunday might look like to help you figure out how to make the most of your weekend.
Here’s an example of what my Trello board, “Weekly To-Do”, looks like:
Generally, you’ll want to tackle the most difficult or time-consuming tasks first. If you don’t think you’ll be able to complete all your tasks for the day, do the most important things first. The most important task is up to your discretion, but generally, if it has a looming deadline or will make the most immediate impact on your business, it’s the most important task.
Let’s carry over that excitement and momentum from Friday’s reflection and planning, and begin to tackle the most important tasks on Saturday.
“Airplane Mode” Saturdays
So, because you hopefully have scheduled the most important or difficult task first, that’s where you’ll be spending most of your Saturday. It’s also likely to be your most time-consuming task, which is why it’s also important to get it out of the way as quickly as possible.
The key to getting more done on the weekends is focus. Sounds simple, right?
On paper, sure, but in reality, there are a lot of distractions and excuses to keep you distracted.
My Saturdays are usually the most productive day of my weekends. I like to put myself into “Airplane Mode”. Much like how your phone’s Airplane Mode which disables all of your phone’s connectivity to the internet, I do the same thing by cutting myself off from distractions.
Though it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get much done without the internet there are tools you can use to help keep you from wandering off and browsing Facebook, while staying connected to the internet.
These are the Chrome extensions I use to put myself in “Airplane Mode” every Saturday.
StayFocused – Block out the sites that steal your time so that you can work on what matters.
RescueTime – Track all your time on the internet to later review where you waste the most time.
News Feed Eradicator – Sometimes, I can’t block Facebook using a tool like StayFocused because I use Facebook to manage my ads and pages. However, with News Feed Eradicator, my news feed goes from distraction filled mess to motivational or inspirational quote.
Momentum – This extension replaces your new tab screen with an inspirational photo and a reminder of your most important task for the day.
Simple Pomodoro – If you’re not familiar with The Pomodoro Technique, it helps you work in small intervals of 25 minutes of getting stuff done and a short 5 or 10 minute break. Instead of plowing through without taking a break, Simple Pomodoro is a timer that will alert you when it’s time to take a break and when it’s time to get back to work.
I don’t like to lose the momentum I created on Friday and Saturday, however, even I understand that there are errands and things that need to be done on the weekend. That’s what Sunday’s for.
If I have time on Sunday, I will finish any other tasks, but if I can’t, I will add them back to my “next actions” list or simply schedule them for next weekend.
Schedule Content for the Week
Spend some time automating whatever you can for the following week. For example, every Sunday evening, I use Buffer to schedule all my social media posts until the following Sunday.
You can do this as well. Spend your Sunday evenings briefly scheduling out social media posts, planning out blog content, or scheduling emails to be sent to your email list.
Plan Your Week Ahead
I use Trello (you can use any scheduling tool you feel comfortable with) to plan out the week ahead. This way, I know exactly what I should (and need) to be working on when I get home from work. I’m not wasting time on deciding what to do or trying to figure out what to do next. I just come home and take action.
If you don’t already, I strongly suggest writing down and tracking weekly goals for yourself and your business. Some example goals you can set are:
I will easily launch my new e-commerce website by Saturday this week
I will easily go to the gym at least 3 times this week
I will easily get 10 sales to my store by Saturday this week
I will easily double my store’s weekly traffic, from 100 visitors to 200 visitors, by Saturday this week
Writing your goals down helps keep you accountable and brings you clarity. How do you really know what you want to accomplish in life and in your business if you’re not tracking it?
Prime Yourself for the Week Ahead
Stop dreading Mondays every Sunday night. Set the tone for an amazing week. Look forward to getting up early, tackling your morning routine and getting home after your 9-to-5 to work on your side business. Make your Sunday nights amazing!
Watch a few motivational videos on YouTube or an inspiring Ted Talk or learn something new before going to bed. You don’t have to over-stimulate yourself, just put yourself in the right mindset before going to bed.
Rinse and Repeat
Now it’s just a matter of repeating this process and becoming really good at adapting it. You won’t be perfect and won’t always have the most productive weekends – I know I don’t.
However, making an effort to work at it every weekend and putting in that work, even when it’s only for a few hours, can make all the difference. All of those efforts begin to add up over time and before you know it, you can have a full-time ecommerce empire on your hands.
What do you think? How do you, as a sidepreneur, manage to build your ecommerce empire on the side while working a 9-to-5? How will you make this upcoming weekend much more productive? Let me know in the comments below. I engage and respond with everyone.
When Fiona Richards became tired of working as a graphic designer for corporate clients, she decided to start her own business. That was over eight years ago. Today, her wholesale greeting card and stationery business, Cartolina, sells worldwide to some of the most iconic retailers, like Harrods, Anthropologie, The Smithsonian, and The British Museum.
Cartolina now also sells directly to the consumer, via an online store, and has most recently opened a retail storefront in BC, Canada. Omni-channel retail is here, and many merchants like Fiona are wise to adopt it. Recent consumer studies by Forrester and MIT highlight many of the advantages of taking your business in this direction. Consumers are approaching purchasing from multiple angles – 80% of shoppers check prices online, and a third are checking product info via mobile while shopping in-store.
For Cartolina, the transition to omni-channel retail didn’t happen overnight. We chatted with Fiona about her decision to dive into new distribution channels. She shared with us her wins and losses as well as some valuable advice for other businesses taking the same path.
Retail Design Photo Contest: Your shop could win a $500 prize package including custom business cards and retail supplies. Read to the end of this post for details.
Cartolina started as a handmade line using vintage ephemera, carefully trimmed and glued together.
“I wasn’t interested in selling one card at a time, so I researched the wholesale industry and learned that I needed to target the retail buyers to get the volume of sales that I wanted.”
A year after Cartolina’s launch, it became clear that the business was not scalable. Due to the time-consuming nature of handmade products, the demand became unmanageable. Back at the drawing board, Fiona designed a new collection – one that could be printed in bulk and warehoused. The new approach would require an upfront investment of a few thousand dollars. Before she made the leap of faith, she sent out press releases to her favourite magazines, announcing a fresh new stationery line from Cartolina.
“The response was overwhelmingly positive, which was the indicator that I needed to make the investment. There was a funny moment, back then, when our products were featured on the pages of Canadian House & Home before they were actually off the drawing board!”
The Wholesale Business
“I think it’s common for new entrepreneurs to think that they can get their product in front of retail buyers all by themselves. You are very limited in what you can do by yourself. Gathering a sales force is very important.”
Wholesale businesses can enlist the services of sales reps and distributors, leveraging expertise and connections.
Sales reps shop product samples to retail buyers in different regions. They write orders which are then sent directly to your business, where you will fulfill and ship directly to each store, paying a commission to the rep.
“Be very picky to match your products and your personality with that of the sales reps. A good rep is worth their weight in gold.”
Distributors, on the other hand, will buy your product in bulk and sell and ship the product directly to retail buyers. Distributors work well for for overseas markets, when it becomes too costly for retailers to buy small quantities directly from you.
After five years of using international distributors and reps, Fiona realized that retailers wanted a more personal connection with their suppliers. Cartolina then began shipping from their Nelson BC headquarters. The switch was eye-opening.
“Our experience with dealing directly with buyers and shipping daily to stores gave us the confidence to open an ecommerce site. It was the next step forward for us”
How to Wholesale
Recently in this blog, we’ve touched on sourcing wholesale products for your retail store, and selling wholesale to other retailers in our list of 50 Ways to Make Your First Sale.
WIth a seasoned wholesaler at our fingertips, we pressed her for some more first-hand advice for merchants taking the leap in this direction. Here are some tips we learned from Cartolina:
Consider Fit. Be sure your product is appropriate for the retailer you’re approaching.
Stay on Top of Trends. What’s in-store now is yesterday’s trend. “If you see lots of neon polka dots in the store, it’s best not to pitch a product with neon polka dots,” Fiona warns. “That train has already left the station.”
Connect. Larger retailers may have several buyers in your category, so be sure you’re connecting with the right one. Buyer info can be obtained, generally, by calling the retailer’s corporate headquarters.
Keep it Short and Sweet. When contacting buyers, keep the intro brief and include small images, essential info and links to your wholesale catalog.
Get Online. Create an easy-to-access online wholesale catalog for buyers that includes pricing and terms. Keep it separate from your retail site (if you have one) in order to avoid confusion. A wholesale line sheet is another great tool.
Know Your Customer. Your customer, in this case, is your target retail buyer. Find out who they are and what blogs they read. Pitch your brand to these blogs for a potential endorsement or post that can get your products in front of your targeted buyers.
Attend Trade Shows. Trade shows are great avenues for introducing your products to buyers. Fiona suggests NYNOW as one of best trade shows for wholesale consumer products. There are many other shows to consider, depending on your product.
Be On Time. Consider that retail buyers have a buying schedule. Try to have new product launches four times per year. Some retail buyers will want to see holiday products as early as April and Valentines products are usually on buyers’ schedules in November.
There are several ways to offer both wholesale and retail through your Shopify store, whether it’s via discount codes, apps, or opening a 2nd storefront. Before getting started, however, do your homework. Launch Grow Joy collected even more tips from its readers on the subject and there are several other excellent resources to help you make a foray into the wholesale realm.
The Leap to Retail Ecommerce
“We really have gone from originally wanting to only design products and not deal with buyers and consumers, to wanting as much interaction as we can get. I think it is partially a response to having spent a number of years working online and communicating only with email and social media.”
Feeling isolated after years of online-only communication, Fiona’s team began to crave human interaction. Cartolina made the move to retail after 7 years of building a successful wholesale business.
“We wanted to know more about the Cartolina customer, get feedback on our products, and also have an authentic, public presence on the web – not a hidden wholesale site, which confused the average visitor.”
Cartolina launched as an ecommerce site early last year as a reaction to the disconnect that they felt with their end customers. Adding retail to the mix proved to offer many advantages including larger margins and the ability to market direct to the consumer.
Fiona reported that the addition of a retail channel increased wholesale orders by 20%.
Continuing to nurture the relationships with buyers while simultaneously dealing directly with end consumers became a tricky endeavour.
“It’s important to take care of all of your customers.”
Wholesale buyers don’t want to compete with their own suppliers, she found. Keeping the peace meant being careful not to undercut pricing or offer too-frequent discounts or free shipping offers on her ecommerce site.
It’s good politics, she says, to extend discounts for retail customers to wholesale customers as well. Fiona also recommends leveraging social media to keep wholesale customers happy.
“If you’ve just shipped out a large wholesale order to a new retailer, take the time to introduce them to your followers on Twitter and Facebook. They will really appreciate the support and forgive you next time you offer free shipping to your online buyers!”
Cartolina’s experience with ecommerce was such a positive one that the company decided to take a stab at physical retail. This Spring, she bought a 130-year-old commercial building in her hometown of Nelson, BC. The building now houses the expanding wholesale business with a street-facing portion dedicated to retail.
This month, Cartolina opened its doors for business. The rear wholesale warehouse includes a sophisticated new shipping and fulfillment department to accommodate growing online sales. At the front of the building, Cartolina products are sold alongside a curated selection of products from other manufacturers.
“One of the benefits of opening a physical retail store for us is that we can incubate new Cartolina product in the store – if it does well in the store, then we will add it to our ecommerce site. And, subsequently, if the online response is good we can increase our production of that product, thereby lowering our costs and eventually adding it to our wholesale offerings.”
The effects of an omni-channel approach are already apparent – adding physical retail to the mix resulted in a noticeable uptick in retail ecommerce sales. Customers are able to interact with the products before making the decision to buy them later via ecommerce. Cartolina is also leveraging the power of social media and a history of shipping experience.
“We are featuring images from the new store on Facebook and Instagram and the response is that many of our followers are purchasing items from us as we post them! We are now shipping products, other than our own, to consumers all over the world.”
“Anticipate success,” says Fiona. “Make sure your business is scalable and can handle growth when it comes your way.”
When Bob McClure wanted to level up his family pickle business, he found shared commercial space in a tofu factory. The healthy bacteria in the air—caused by the fermentation process of the tofu—began to ferment their first batch of pickles and everything needed to be scrapped.
In every new business, there are hard lessons to be learned, each industry with its own unique complications and legal considerations. The food business, though? It’s in its own league. There is a dense forest of information (and misinformation), more risk of legal implications, and a volatile supply chain that can be affected by anything from weather to, well, healthy airborne bacteria.
If your passion is jewelry, and you’re looking to
If that’s not daunting enough, running a food business also involves a delicate inventory dance to avoid spoilage and waste, which can cost a new business a lot of money.
Have I scared you yet?
Don’t fret—I waded through the information and consulted some experts so that you don’t have to. In this post, I’ll cover the basics of starting a food business—everything from production to labelling—and ultimately how to sell food online.
Note: each country and region will differ in terms of food laws and licensing requirements, and some industries like dairy and alcohol may be subject to additional rules. Be sure to consult with a lawyer or your local government for information specific to your business and region. For the purposes of this post, the information and advice will be general, unless noted.
In many cases, business ideas are born out of passions or hobbies. If you make jams for friends and family, growing your own backyard strawberries, that’s a good place to start. You already know the process, and have had experience honing and testing the recipes.
Bob McClure and his brother Joe grew up making pickles with their grandma, Lala, and it was her family recipe that ultimately inspired the business. An actor and a psychology major respectively, they didn’t know the first thing about business or manufacturing, but the tried-and-true recipe was their foundation.
If you have an idea already, as in any industry, test its viability. Is there a market for this product? If it’s a saturated market, how can your product differ? Is there an untapped niche audience? Also consider if yours is a product that can easily be sold online and shipped—consider legalities (say, with liquor), fragility, and shelf life (does it require refrigeration?).
When the McClures decided to offer a premium pickled product, they had very little competition. 10 years later, picking well into its hipster heyday, Bob welcomes his competitors.
“Yeah there’s competition, but it’s the right type of competition if it’s bringing awareness to highly specialized quality-driven entrepreneurial products. The more I can get consumers to pay attention to that category, rather than price-driven, poor quality ingredients, the better for my business. It helps improve our entire category.” – Bob
Food Business Ideas
Does your idea tap into an existing niche category? Explore:
Gourmet, artisanal, small-batch
Dietary restrictions: allergen-free, gluten-free, nut-free, etc.
Certified organic, natural, fair-trade
Ethical and religious: vegan, vegetarian, kosher, halal
Jodi’s business, JK Gourmet, was designed to help her manage ulcerative colitis, and her audience is people also suffering with colitis and other forms of IBD—1.6 million people in America alone. She produces healthy snack options without the ingredients that commonly trigger her condition.
“We’ve carved out our niche with grain-free products, which ensures we’re gluten-free as well. We also address the needs of the growing paleo community, and because we have always eliminated the use of refined sugar and artificial sweeteners, we’re appealing to a wider audience than ever before.” – Jodi
Look into easy first-time food-businesses that require low start-up costs, minimal equipment, and fewer shipping challenges, and legal restrictions. Consider:
Canned and pickled products
Baked good ingredient kits
Raw ingredients (flours, etc.)
Coffee and tea
Produced vs. Curated
Much of this post applies to businesses who produce their own food, whether it’s through a 3rd party manufacturer, a home-based business, or a full-scale commercial facility.
If you’re looking to curate existing food products, say in the case of an online gourmet marketplace, skip ahead to Pricing.
Food lawyer, Glenford Jameson, stresses the importance of doing your homework when sourcing your ingredients. “Trace the supply chain,” he says, so that your packaging claims match what’s inside, and you’re working with trustworthy companies.
If you plan to produce a product that will be labeled organic, for example, be sure that your raw ingredient supplier has the proper certification, before making claims on your packaging.
“We work with distributors of raw nuts and seeds and dried fruit. We sometimes source our own ingredients if we have a new product we want to bring out and we can find no one in our group of suppliers who carries the ingredient in question. Sometimes our suppliers make suggestions based on something new that comes to market. It’s a collaborative partnership.” – Jodi
When you’re just starting out and producing small batches, it may be cost-effective to shop for ingredients at consumer warehouse club stores like Costco or Sam’s Club.
Make connections: in certain industries, finding suppliers may rely on word-of-mouth and personal introductions. The founders of Soul Chocolatesnetworked in the industry to make connections with regional cacao farmers.
Alternatively, for commodities like cacao and coffee beans, look for a distributor or broker who works directly with farmers.
Team up: network with other small-batch producers to purchase bulk wholesale ingredients together
Sometimes our suppliers make suggestions based on something new that comes to market. It’s a collaborative partnership.
Food Production: Commercial Kitchens, Home-based Businesses, and Manufacturing Facilities
While McClure’s Pickles started as a family tradition in their own kitchen, they continually improved their digs, eventually landing in the 20,000 square foot factory space where they operate today.
“When we were first starting out, we literally made it the same way we did when we were kids. We rented a kitchen that had a larger stove and we would go buy fresh product, bring it back, call up our friends and say ’Hey, I’ll buy you pizza and beer if you come make pickles with me on the weekend.’” – Bob
When we were first starting out, we literally made it the same way we did when we were kids.
As you’re launching your business, you have several options for production:
Home-based business: some food items can legally be produced and sold right from your domestic kitchen, but look into the regulations surrounding your chosen product. In the US, the FDA requires that you register your home-based business as a facility
Shared commercial kitchens: many facilities offer shared or co-op kitchen space that you can rent hourly or monthly, depending on your production needs. The benefits are reduced costs and paperwork (the facilities are already registered as commercial space). There are several region-specific directories for shared kitchen space:
Set up your own commercial facility: be sure to check with your local food governing agency to ensure your facility is properly registered and meets code.
“We started small in our home kitchen and then grew from there. We did not move out until we were bursting at the seams and knew we had a big enough business to support the move. We did look for co-packers—another company to manufacture our products for us—but because the mandate for our products are so specific (no grains, no gluten, peanut-free, dairy-free, kosher) there were too many issues with cross contamination with every other facility we met with. In the end we had to manufacture it all ourselves and now we do some co-packing and private label for other companies.” – Jodi
Work with an existing manufacturer: this option is great for hands-off entrepreneurs who are more interested in the business than the production. It’s a great option for industry newbies, too, as the manufacturers should already be versed in food safety and regulations. Find a food manufacturer via a manufacturing directory like Maker’s Row.
“We partnered up with someone that had a USDA inspected facility so that we could ship across the USA sooner without any issues with the food safety concerns. It is really impressive how much diligence goes into running a USDA inspected facility and it really isn’t something most people will be able to do straight out of the gate.” –Daniel
It is really impressive how much diligence goes into running a USDA inspected facility.
Packaging, Branding, and Labelling
E-commerce is especially challenging for food, because the most important decision-making sense—taste—is in the dark. Because customers can’t sample your product, branding is especially important. Package design, photography, your website, product page and package copy, need to pitch in to tell the story and help customers imagine how it might taste.
Because packaging is extremely critical in this industry, consider hiring a designer to help with your branding needs.
“Before you taste the product, it’s got to be something that attracts you to you. It has to be appealing. And it has to be familiar, so we chose our name and our identity, everything from the label, the look, the feel, the text, to be something that connotes handmade family, yet urban. Most importantly, we wanted you to see the product in the jar. It’s not covered up by a label.” – Bob
Most importantly, we wanted you to see the product in the jar. It’s not covered up by a label.
Aside from the visual appeal of your packaging, each country has its own labeling requirements, which may include best before dates, nutritional information, allergen warnings, and country of origin. If you plan to ship your product across borders, especially to retailers, be sure to check the destination country’s rules around labeling.
In my interviews with merchants over the past year, one thing is clear, regardless of the product: pricing is hard. Ultimately there’s no one magical pricing formula that will work for everyone. Know your costs, and keep adjusting until you get it right.
“The biggest challenge is dealing with the pricing when starting out small. The important thing to remember is if you have a quality product getting it in front of as many people as possible is the best way to grow. This means, in the short term forgo profit and get as many people to try your product. Over time those cost savings will come, and you don’t want to do that prematurely.” – Daniel
With McClure’s, Bob says they stand by their pricing. If you believe in the value of your product, price it accordingly.
“We’re not the cheapest product out there, so we have to compete on something that’s truly unique otherwise you just become one of the other commodities that you’re competing against and then it’s a race to the bottom.” – Bob
JK Gourmet’s brand is built on natural ingredients, and therefore, no preservatives. The shelf life on most of her products is only 5-6 months, and Jodi therefore keeps inventory tight, turning it over every 1-2 weeks.
While McClure’s Pickles have a longer shelf life of one year, Bob wants to be sure that customers get his product as fresh as possible. For that reason, the company’s inventory strategy errs on the side of producing too little of the product, rather than too much.
“It’s a juggling act and we’re always getting better with forecasting our needs and making sure that any business opportunities that we have are aligned, especially when a new product launches. That’s the trick, we have to make so much to justify a production run, while I have to make sure there’s a sales channel or outlet and enough demand behind it to really make it work.” – Bob
Use batch numbering or barcodes to keep inventory organized
Educate your team on your inventory management practices
“Over-communicate to anyone who touches your inventory about the importance of rotating your stock.” – Casandra
Over-communicate to anyone who touches your inventory about the importance of rotating your stock.
Growth and Product Development
McClure’s Pickles found success by honing in on their namesake product, perfecting and iterating on their grandmother’s recipe. Expanding their offering, initially, was in response to overwhelming customer feedback.
“We started with the pickles and very quickly made a bloody mary mixer. We had so many people saying to us, ‘Hey, your spicy pickle brine makes the best bloody marys.’ And that’s when that light bulb moment happens, and you go, ‘These customers are saying that they would buy two of our items instead of one!’ A lot of our product ideas come from the customers.” – Bob
A lot of our product ideas come from the customers.
Low-risk ideas came next—tried and true pickle flavors, applied to other products like chips. Since the early days, however, product development has become more sophisticated and the family relies on data to inform their next move.
“Now we get a lot of data and we analyze what’s really driving the market, what are the consumers looking for. Before we had access to data, it was a lot of word-of-mouth.” – Bob
While they still love engaging with customers and hearing their ideas, Bob warns to take them with a grain of salt.
“Not all ideas are like gold ideas. Customers love to talk to you about their ideas and you have to take that and refine that and make sure that there’s enough critical mass behind the idea before you take that into a product launch.” – Bob
What else can you sell?
Liberty Village Brewing does not sell beer direct to their customers through their online store, due to Ontario alcohol regulations. However, their website serves as a branding and marketing tool, helps customers find retail and restaurant partners, and sells items related to their product.
Provided you do your homework, acquire the proper licenses, and meticulously track everything, the likelihood of getting into legal hot water is low. If you do—and this is the scary part—the consequences can be severe.
“You as a food producer are exposed to both civil liability—being sued by a private party, be it a store that you sell to, or a restaurant, or an individual— and also regulatory liability. The regulatory liability flows primarily through the Food and Drug Act (in Canada).as well as several other federal and provincial statutes The Food and Drug Act is a serious piece of legislation. The government can throw you in jail, or take all your products and destroy them, or shut you down, or give you a big fine. There are some folks facing criminal fraud trials right now in Ontario relating to whether chicken was mislabeled organic or antibiotic free.” – Glenford
If your product is complicated or falls under a particular set of categories that requires additional licensing (meat, fish, and some agricultural products, for example), you may wish to consult a lawyer with experience in the food industry.
“Small businesses don’t often like starting up with a lawyer because we’re expensive and we’re hyper-aware of risk, which leads to policy and process. The last thing that they want is the same rigidity that they sought to leave behind when they decided to start their own gig.” – Glenford
However, Glenford says, “with the understanding that there’s this broad, significant regulatory framework and legal liability,” there are some best practices if you choose to navigate the legal bits on your own.
Don’t get people sick. “If you’re going to sell food learn how to handle food and learn how to store it. Get trained.” – Glenford
Trace the supply chain. “If you produce a food product and you’re buying stuff off the web, it’s really important to trace that supply chain. Ask questions of your suppliers, check them out, get referrals.” – Glenford
Work with a lab to test your products. “Labs help you trace elements that you may not have known existed that particularly relate to allergies. People are allergic to everything now so it’s really important that those core allergies are identified. Also you may find that there are things in your food that you didn’t think were there that may change how shelf stable they are.” – Glenford
Keep thorough records. “We track everything coming in and out of the facility; that way if there is ever a recall on our raw ingredients, we are prepared.” – Jodi
Make friends with the food inspector. “Reach out to public health, to whoever certifies your premises because they’re often set up to be your friend. These are pretty approachable people and they’ll be able to identify issues—this is what they do for a living. They really offer you some pretty sage and frankly free advice on how to make sure that you’re making a good and reasonable product.” – Glenford
“Get liability insurance that covers people eating your product and getting sick as well as you accidentally burning down the space you use.” – Casandra
Ask questions of your suppliers, check them out, get referrals.
Ethics and Transparency
Beyond legality, bad decisions around ethics and transparency can ruin a brand. This is true of any business, but the layers of complexity in food can make your business especially vulnerable.
“My best clients typically ask themselves ethical questions about their actions, their suppliers, how they treat their customers, their employees, and how they impact the world. When they approach problems in that way they’re typically in a better position to maintain the respect and goodwill of the community that they operate in as well as from their customers. Respect and goodwill are hard to earn and they’re pretty easy to lose. Even though that has nothing to do with the law per se it’s a really important M.O.” – Glenford
Respect and goodwill are hard to earn and they’re pretty easy to lose.
We’ve spent a lot of time building resources to help e-commerce entrepreneurs streamline their shipping processes. It is, after all, one of the most common pain points among our merchants.
And, no surprise, shipping food carries additional challenges, especially when shipping outside of the country.
“When you’re exporting food, there are a series of foods whose export is regulated under commodity legislation—Meat Inspection Act, Canada Agricultural Products Act, Fish Inspection Act, for example. Those have their own rules. Otherwise, you fall back on the Food and Drug Act and you complete a manufacturer’s declaration for export of food products manufactured in Canada. Essentially, you swear an affidavit with a notary that sets out the country that it’s being sent to, it sets out that it’s made in Canada, that sort of thing.” – Glenford
Free Guide: Shipping and Fulfillment 101
From deciding what to charge your customers, to figuring out insurance and tracking, this comprehensive guide will walk you step-by-step through the entire process.
Keep in mind to also consider the potential restrictions on your product in the destination country. Technically, once products are in the shipping stream, they become the problem of the purchaser, but the poor customer service experience can be bad for business. Mitigate the customer’s ultimate frustration by versing yourself on the laws where you ship.
As I mentioned with branding, the look and feel of your website is important in helping influence the customer to buy a food product without tasting it first.
Photography is therefore hugely important. You can opt to DIY your photo shoots, or hire a professional who has experience with styling and lighting food properly. Shoot product packaging and close-up detail of the product to show texture and true-to-life color, but also experiment with lifestyle photography that suggests serving and pairing ideas.
Use product page copy to describe your product’s taste and texture in detail, and include ingredient and allergy information in full. To keep the product page uncluttered, invest time in a thorough FAQ page to answer additional questions about ingredients, dietary information, and production methods.
Even if your website isn’t supplying the bulk of your sales, it’s important to nurture it as a tool to connect with customers and tell your story.
“Even though we’re in 5,000 stores worldwide we still have a great, core group of people that come to our website, purchase every year, like to see what we’re doing, get connected to our brand, our story. They really spend their time investing in what we do and most importantly, why we do what we do.” – Bob
McClure’s initially grew their business through retail partnerships, and the success with that channel relied on truly making them part of the business, and inviting them to care about its mission.
“Some of our retail partners take on more familial partnership where we’ll have a very direct interaction and we’ll work with them to do menu pairings or specific events that focus around our products and their products.” – Bob
“We do whatever we can, whether it’s with a restaurant partner, a snack partner, or a retailer stockist, to really emphasize our story because we feel that it’s unique.” – Bob
Marketing & Content
Marketing your online store is another topic that we’ve covered extensively in this blog, and for food, the same rules apply. In the absence of taste testing, connecting your customers to your story, is extremely important.
“Social media is a very big part of our brand. That’s where their core consumer goes, that’s where the most vocal action lies with their consumer and we take that very seriously. We want to be engaged with our core community because they’re the influencers and word-of-mouth can take your brand extremely, extremely far, as we’ve seen.” – Bob
McClure’s dedicates a significant percentage of their site to community—extra content, recipes (their own and customer-generated), and prominent social calls to action.
Word-of-mouth can take your brand extremely, extremely far.
Condiment brand, Green Mountain Mustard, takes recipe content one step further, using it to grow their email list:
Though your business plan may have no room for a physical retail strategy, it’s still important to take your product to the streets, and to the mouths of your potential customers:
Launch your brand at a consumer food and beverage expo
The length of this post may have a little to do with my inability to self-edit, but this, friends, is a very big topic to cover. Thanks for hanging in there! It’s a challenging industry, but one that can bring you success if you’re passionate and willing to wade through the legalese.
10 years into his business, McClure’s now employs 31 people who make and ship their product to consumers and over 5,000 retail partners internationally. Though Bob tells me he can’t confidently say he has it all figured out, the journey has been a rewarding one.
“I think in entrepreneurship, there’s always a series of challenges and they don’t go away. How successful you are depends on how you handle those challenges at any point. Some of them are big enough to break you, but how you use them as a learning experience in the future is what really makes for a great ongoing success story. If we don’t learn from what we do as entrepreneurs, we don’t truly grow.” – Bob
If we don’t learn from what we do as entrepreneurs, we don’t truly grow.
Elements offers huge functionality in editing individual pictures. Lightroom focuses on editing in batches. So it retains many of the features you’d find in Elements but is especially powerful at organizing and editing pictures at a large scale.
Camera+ is an app that significantly enhances the capabilities of shooting pictures on your phone. You can change shooting modes, adjust touch exposure, and set up a grid to guide your shots. And, it’s only $1.99.
Fiverr is a marketplace for small, inexpensive gigs. There are a lot of people who offer to edit photos, all with their own specialties. Too many people to look through? Rank them by “Recommended,” “High Rating,” and “Express Gigs.”
Okay, maybe you’re willing to spend more than $5, and on more professional agents. Well head over to the Shopify Experts page. There are dozens of photography experts you can reach out to for photography services.
If you don’t want to spend time hunting down the right person to send photos to, consider Tucia, an agency that has edited over 3.7 million photos. There are three tiers of services for different features. One cool service it offers for every tier: unlimited free revisions.
For $1.45 per image, Pixelz uses proprietary software to strip your images of their backgrounds so that you can substitute something in its place (for example, pure white, or the right shade of blue). It promises a 24-hour turnaround.
KeyShot is an image rendering piece of software that can create high-definition visuals and models. They can be made so high-def that they look like real photographs. In the right hands, KeyShot can do wonders, and is used sometimes by big companies to create their marketing materials. At $995, it’s the priciest item on this list, but there is a 14-day free trial for you to see if you could use it.
We’ve given you some pretty sophisticated software tools for editing photos. We wanted to include Digital Tutors because it’s one of the best learning resources online. It has lessons on many aspects of using Photoshop, KeyShot, and design more generally.
Free Photo Editing Tools
Okay, those paid tools are great, but if you happen to be on a budget or don’t want to invest a lot of money, no worries. Take a look at the tools below. They may just get you to where you need to be.
Want to edit online, directly on your browser? Take a look at Fotor. It offers editing and beauty retouching. Most cool is its High Dynamic Range feature: you can take three photos with different exposures to combine them into a single image, with the best light and tone from each of the separate photos.
PicMonkey is another great online photo editor with a very cool feature: Collage. You can take various photos and arrange them together. If you have lots of products, you can collage them together as perhaps a banner image for your store or in an email newsletter.
We’ve opened with a very expensive piece of Photoshop software, and we feel that it’s fitting to close with a free one. Photoshop Express is an app for your phone with slightly fewer functionalities than Photoshop Touch. It lets you crop, fix red-eye, share on social media, and more.
With recommendations of tools and resources for shooting, a step-by-step guide to using them, and tools to edit the pictures afterwards, you’re running out of excuses for poor-looking products. Take a look once more through our resources, and improve the way your products look today.
Do you have a favorite tool for editing your photos? Share it below.