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.
A good idea—like lightning—seems to strike at random.
Sometimes you spend the better part of a day looking for inspiration and never find it.
Sometimes you fill up an entire whiteboard brainstorming dozens of ideas—none of them worth doing.
And then there’s those times when your muse decides to sucker punch you in the brain with a brilliant idea as you lay in bed at night. And unless you get up and jot it down, you run the risk of forgetting it forever.
Maintaining a steady flow of good ideas is a big part of many disciplines—whether you’re an entrepreneur, a creator, a maker, or a marketer.
Creativity and the ideation process, even today, is still a bit mysterious. However, it is something you can get better at to produce good ideas reliably.
But First—Where Do Ideas Come From?
Before we talk about ideation, we need to look at what an idea really is.
We tend to take one of two perspectives when it comes to the origin of ideas, according to the author of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert:
Ideas come about from sheer mental effort: Through force of will and focus alone, you can come up with ideas through the process of trial and error. However, this can be frustrating as it puts the burden entirely on the thinker.
Ideas are a spontaneous gift from forces outside of our control: Back in the day (and still today), we’d imagine a “muse”— a creative spirit floating about us—that would possess us and give the gift of a good idea. This is a more abstract take on ideation and pretty inconvenient when you think about it.
In a way, the truth is a combination of the two: Everything you absorb from the world around you is processed in your brain—”ideas” are just the relationships between those things.
You might’ve been led to believe the right hemisphere of your brain is where all ideas come from, but that’s not really the case.
Creativity actually involves different parts of your brain at different stages of the process, with the prefrontal cortex playing a big role in the spontaneous and deliberate discovery of new relationships between concepts.
Creativity is the process of connecting dots—each “dot” being an experience, a concept, or a piece of knowledge you’ve collected.
This is a recurring theme across many stories of invention and discovery.
The idea for Velcro was born when George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, was hiking in the mountains and noticed cockleburs stuck to his pants and his dog’s fur. He connected the dots between the cockle-bur’s hook and loop design and the real world applications they could have in fastening objects together, which is now used in shoes and even by NASA.
You’re also probably familiar with the story of how Sir Isaac Newton allegedly defined gravity after observing an apple falling from a tree and connecting that to his existing knowledge of physics and math.
One of the beautiful things about ideation is how we draw upon what already exists to generate something different, simply by looking at existing concepts together in a new way.
Hats and cats, separately, are perfectly unassuming concepts. But combine the two and you end up with a pretty novel idea that people search for over 14,000 times a month on Google (“hats for cats”), and a seemingly silly concept becomes a potential business idea 😉 .
Most great stories about ideas seem to have them come out of the blue. But people who have to be creative every day to make ends meet are living proof that it’s possible to do it on demand.
The Four Stages of Intentional Ideation
The creative process is perhaps best understood through the model outlined by Graham Wallis that’s broken into four stages:
Preparation: Outlining the problem and requirements, and gathering information.
Incubation: Giving your mind time to digest and work through different combinations between everything you’ve amassed in the preparation stage.
Illumination: The “aha!💡” moment when you come up with the beginnings of a working idea.
Verification: Validating your idea by seeing if it meets all the requirements you set in the preparation stage.
If an idea doesn’t pass the verification stage, you simply return to the incubation or preparation stages and try again.
Anyone who engages in creative problem solving on a regular basis is likely already going through this process intuitively.
But by developing an awareness of these stages, and applying tactics to help you along at each step, you become more efficient at it and can produce better ideas more reliably.
1. Preparation: Arming Yourself With Information
The more information you have, the more possibilities there are.
This stage is all about knowing what cards you’re holding and the rules of the game you’re playing.
Ultimately, you’ll need a firm grasp of your objective. Are you trying to come up with a catchy slogan? Are you trying to make a certain amount of extra cash?
This is also where you set your restraints for the verification stage: How big is your budget? What is your time limit? Who is the audience for the idea?
Make your problem as concrete as possible so you can start working backwards from there. (e.g. “I want to make $1,000 so I can go on a nice vacation in two months.” or “I want to reach 10,000 new cat owners with a holiday marketing campaign”).
If you’re tackling a problem for a business you’re involved in or want to start, a SWOT analysis can help you lay all your cards out on the table and consider potential internal and external obstacles and advantages.
Research is also a key part of this stage. And all good research starts by asking questions that will help you fill in missing information.
Write these queries out to guide your research and make the internet your ally:
Use Google search to learn more about your problem and related topics.
Look for existing solutions to your problem and how those ideas were executed.
In theory, this process can go on forever, so try to push forward to the next step as soon as you can.
The creative process is messy and you’ll likely revisit this stage if you don’t turn up any good ideas.
2. Incubation: Connecting the Dots Until a Picture Forms
“I’m not procrastinating—my idea is just incubating.”
It sounds like an excuse to do nothing, but it’s the very reason why sometimes when you walk away from a problem, you suddenly come up with a solution.
In the incubation stage, we step back from the problem and everything we’ve accumulated in the preparation stage to give our minds a chance to connect the dots.
Recognize that incubation happens both passively and actively. Don’t feel bad about taking a break or doing something else if you’re not turning up anything good (this can actually bring about the next stage, as you’ll soon find out).
However, you can and should warm up your creative muscles in some of the following ways:
Free writing: Write about your problem. Just get every thought and idea down without worrying about grammar or spelling or whether it makes sense. Not only is this a good warm-up, our brains are good at spotting patterns, and so we might find something useful in the mess of words.
Drawing a mind map: Write your problem in the middle of a whiteboard or on a piece of paper, then start clustering concepts together by literally draw lines where connections can be made. Use a piece of paper or a free tool like Coggle.
Making a list and outlining your thought process: Using Workflow (free), a piece of paper or a Google Doc, create a high-level outline through bullet points of a potential solution, grouping them into groups and subgroups and so forth.
Making a Venn diagram: Draw two or more overlapping circles to create a Venn diagram you can use to express differences in each circle and commonalities in the middle where they overlap. This is especially helpful for creating analogies and thinking up creative ways to explain something.
Bouncing ideas off someone else: Two heads are better than one. Expose your problem-solving process to someone you trust and apply the age-old rule of improv, “Yes, and…” to pursue each train of thought as far as it goes instead of rejecting any of them too soon.
A lot of ideas is far more important at this stage than quality. There are no “bad ideas” at this point. You never know what connections will inspire something you can use, and at the very least this will prepare your mind for the next stage.
3. Illumination: Capturing the Ideas That Excite You
When it rains, it pours—especially during a brainstorm.
This is the eureka! moment. This is the part we all look forward to. This is when an idea is born in a flash of inspiration.
For inventors and entrepreneurs, these moments of illumination can sometimes become the basis for a good founding story.
It comes as a flood of insight, often when you least expect it. There’s a reason for that. The brain is actually more prone to these flashes when your frontal lobe isn’t fully engaged. Doing chores or other tasks where you can check out mentally can be a good way to distract yourself from the problem at hand and let it stew in your head until inspiration hits.
When it happens, though, capture as much of this insight as your mind can “see” while it’s still firing on all cylinders. These moments are fleeting, so it’s best to capitalize on them, following the trail of inspiration as far it goes.
Many entrepreneurs and career creators keep an idea journal of some kind handy for these moments. Usually, it’s a small book or a dedicated app—Evernote, Trello, Google Keep (what I use)—but it should be something you can keep on you at all times.
Looking For a Product Idea? Check Out Our Guide!
Learn how to tap into profitable niches and source winning product ideas in our free guide: How to Find a Product to Sell Online.
4. Verification: Evaluating and Tweaking Your Idea
Poke holes in your idea and see if it still floats.
This is the last stage where you check to see if the ideas you came up with actually meet your requirements.
Don’t just aim to be objective here—actively play the role of devil’s advocate and ask the hard questions. Be fine with killing your ideas if they don’t fit your requirements or you can’t adapt them to make them work.
At this point, it’s also important to see how your potential idea has already been done. Truly original ideas are incredibly rare, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
By looking at how similar ideas have already been executed, you can see where you need to reinvent the wheel and where you don’t, borrowing whatever works and improving upon it wherever you see opportunities. This is common in marketing where new ideas are inspired by competitors or even companies in different industries.
If a lack of certainty scares you away from an idea because it’s too “out there” and outlandish, just remember Seth Godin’s words:
“In a crowded marketplace, fitting in is failing. In a busy marketplace, not standing out is the same as being invisible.”
If your primary goal has anything to do with capturing and keeping people’s attention, different can be good as long as it aligns with your audience.
Embracing Random and Planned Creativity
As much as we try, we won’t always be able to turn on our creativity like a faucet whenever we need it. You can try to beat procrastination or find hacks to focus better, but there will always be times when you can’t control your creative process.
Despite many claims about “the most creative times of day”, there’s actually a lot of variance in when famous creatives did their work.
The only real commonality is that creative people tend to rely on a routines to increase their creative output.
Click image to see the interactive version (via Podio).
Whether you’re a night owl or a morning person, consider making the most of your most inspired hours to make creativity a habit.
Instead of trying to copy every successful person’s routine, learn to lean into your own.
Creativity is more like a muscle than a wishing well.
It’s not something you run out of. It’s something you feed and exercise, and push beyond its limits, so it gets stronger every time. Leave it alone and it atrophies and grows weak.
It all contributes to a stronger creative process. The more you consume in the world around you and the more often you connect it in clever ways, the better you get at it.
So read and learn about a bit of everything and find creative ways to “play”: whether it’s writing, drawing, freestyle rapping or anything that encourages you to combine concepts in novel ways.
Getting Lightning to Strike Twice
While natural creative geniuses surely exist, anyone can be creative and become more creative by integrating ideation and the creative process into their lifestyle.
If creativity was a truly unreliable force, there would be no career artists or writers or comedians or YouTubers or serial entrepreneurs. These people have integrated the creative process into their very lifestyles—living, breathing, and embracing the ideation process every day—able to make lightning strike twice, thrice, and many more times when they need it and even when they don’t.
However, the start of an idea alone isn’t worth much. Nor does the creative process end when you start executing. You continue to connect the dots as you flesh out an idea and bring it to life.
And that’s where the real fun begins.
What tips do you have for coming up with great ideas consistently? Share them in the comments below!
No longer just the obscure interests of a passionate few, the objects of obsession found within geek culture—Harry Potter, Star Wars, Pokemon, Halo, Marvel, among other worlds—have become wholly embraced by the mainstream.
It’s become an industry fuelled by fandom where fans attend conventions “cosplaying” as their favorite characters, proudly rock t-shirts that reference comic book heroes, and line their shelves with Funko figures and video game collectibles.
In the middle of it all is a company called Loot Crate: a subscription service that ships a monthly “mystery box” of products that have been curated for geeks and by geeks.
Loot Crate: The Origin Story
Loot Crate, like other subscription box businesses, focuses on curating products from across these different worlds and putting together an enjoyable unboxing experience for their customers or “Looters”.
The company was founded in 2012 around a simple idea: “Putting the awesomeness of Comic-Con in a box,” according to Hannah Arevalo, Director of Support at Loot Crate.
“Our co-founders Chris Davis and Matthew Arevalo met at an L.A startup weekend event where they conceived of and built the entire company in 48 hours. While most other team members went back to their regular jobs, Chris and Matthew decided to keep going with Loot Crate and dedicate their time and energy into fully growing this new business.”
Loot Crate has now grown to serve over 650,000 Looters with new monthly themes and partnerships that help it expand its reach to fans of different universes—within gaming, anime, comic books, and more—who all have one thing in common: geeking out over their favorite worlds.
“From The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, South Park, Minecraft, Call of Duty, Fallout 4 and the WWE, we cater to some of the world’s most demanding fans and do our best to show them new and exciting ways to express their fandom,” Hannah says.
How Loot Crate Curates Products
With so many fans of so many different worlds to serve, Loot Crate’s challenge is making the unboxing experience as relevant and enjoyable as possible for as many subscribers as possible every month.
These subscribers can expect anything from comic books, t-shirts, candy, figurines, trinkets, stickers and more when their Loot Crate arrives—with premium goodies if they choose the Loot Crate DX offering.
By working with licensors, Loot Crate can also create exclusive products that are sold through their various crate lines and their own Shopify-powered ecommerce site, Loot Vault.
“The curation process is a huge part of what we do at Loot Crate. There are so many opportunities for us to curate some of the most awesome and exclusive items you will find in pop culture today,” Hannah explains.
“Many of the ideas come from our employees. We have an amazing group of people, who are all fans of pop culture and offer invaluable feedback on the best items to include. Working directly with the brands and creators also allows us the opportunity to create and manufacture completely exclusive products that have never been available before.”
Keeping their finger on the pulse of geek culture is important for aligning their future crates with current trends—for example, the increasing interest in diversity among superheroes.
Hannah elaborates: “With the upcoming Wonder Woman film to 2016’s big hit Rogue One, female leads are driving huge crowds to the theaters. The rest of pop culture is standing up and taking notice too, from Blizzard’s Overwatch series to some of our favorite comics and tv shows—more diverse actors and storylines focused on underrepresented audiences will continue to be a wellspring of creative content for fans to enjoy everywhere.”
Choosing New Monthly Themes
Many of the worlds of fiction that fans have grown to love are frequently fleshed out further with new movies, video games, comic books, and even fan-generated content.
World building is central to geek culture in all of its forms, and so it’s important for Loot Crate to keep up with the current events of each world—both real and fictional—and incorporate them into the unboxing experience.
“We pride ourselves on making sure the latest titles/IPs are included in our crates and their most recent storylines are reflected,” Hannah says.
“All of these factors come together to inspire our themes for the month. Looters love the mystery of each month’s Loot Crate so the themes give them a peek into what’s coming without ruining the surprise.”
The themes give them a peek into what’s coming without ruining the surprise.
Loot Crate also offers “partner crates” for superfans of specific properties, from Harry Potter to Hello Kitty, where they team up with brands to offer official, exclusive items.
“We spend a large amount of time doing research and consulting with our partners to make sure we can bring something truly unique to the most passionate fans, but also the most sought after items around an upcoming event or release,” Hannah said when asked about the nature of these partnerships.
“Our partner crates are really special because of this. We love being able to dedicate a whole crate to a particular brand or theme and see the amazing products we can find to make the experience one you cannot get anywhere else.”
Introducing Loot Vault: A Traditional Ecommerce Experience
Part of what fuels consumerism in geek culture is the desire to collect and own items from your favorite worlds.
And part of what makes subscription boxes work is the fear of missing out on exclusive goodies each month.
Loot Crate understands this, and that’s why they’ve built the Loot Vault: a Shopify store, which Hannah co-leads, that has become an extension of the Loot Crate brand.
“Loot Vault is different because it follows a more traditional e-commerce experience of a single, closed transaction, while Loot Crate is a subscription service with recurring shipments,” Hannah says about the difference between these two e-commerce experiences.
“The idea came about by a desire from our community to have access to even more products that we sourced or created, that might have not made it into a crate, as well as some of our past items that they might have missed.”
Loot Vault launched in October of 2016 and has already completed more than 50,000 orders (as of Dec 15) with a 4.9% conversion rate, proving to be a smart way to sell their products outside of their main subscription box offering.
Marketing to Geeks? Use the Network Effect
No longer as stigmatized as it once was, “geeking out” is simply the expression of fandom.
That self-expression is how geeks earn their membership into this culture, and some of Loot Crate’s most impactful marketing tactics harness this energy to tap into the inner circles, networks, and audiences of Looters to reach geeks with shared interests.
Referral and Rewards Programs
On Loot Crate’s website, a “Give 5, Get 5” offer lets existing Looters earn a credit for every additional Looter they bring on through their referral program.
“As our community is one that shares frequently, a program that incentivized people to do what they already did, was a no-brainer for us”, Hannah says. “It also encourages what any commerce platform always aims for: repeat business.”
With a subscription model, this referral program (powered by Friend Buy on Loot Crate and Beans on the Loot Vault Shopify store) is an especially clever way of acquiring customers and growing their monthly recurring revenue.
Unboxing Videos and User Generated Content
The unboxing experience is centered around the anticipation of opening up a recently delivered package and going through its contents one at a time.
This hallmark of modern day consumerism is actually part of the value proposition for subscription boxes such as Loot Crate.
“As a mystery subscription service, we knew it would be important to offer a way for our community to celebrate together each month when their crates arrive. For many, the unboxing is the most important part of the month and can be a very sacred experience for them,” Hannah explains.
And these customers don’t undergo the monthly unboxing experience in private either.
“Looters are able to connect with other fans of these crates even from across the world through social media and community as they all unbox together. This has been a tradition of our brand since the very earliest of days”.
Working with Influencers
There are a wide variety of different types of influencers across geek culture creating all kinds of content from reaction videos to reviews to “Let’s Play” videos for almost every video game out there.
There’s no shortage of influencers for geek-focused brands to work with, and Loot Crate features theirs prominently on their website, each with an exclusive discount code for their respective audiences.
“We pride ourselves on supporting the creative communities on Youtube and Twitch through our partner programs—from working with Pewdiepie to influencers on a local/genre level, we look for inspiring creators to help us tell the story of each month’s crate.”
Logistical Lessons From a Successful Subscription Box
As you can imagine, the logistics of a mystery box subscription like Loot Crate are more complicated than a traditional ecommerce operation.
Hannah says that getting these crates out every month is no small task: “It takes an incredible team of logistical ninjas to make sure everything gets out in time and into the hands of our Looters.”
In the early days, the team could hand-stamp their logo onto each crate, but as they have grown to over 13 recurring product lines (with more to come), they have had to constantly push their operations team to innovate their processes to keep up with the demand.
Scaling wasn’t pretty at first, but Hannah says the key was to make decisions with a “customer first mindset” because what’s in the best interest of the customer is usually what’s in the best interest of your business.
Redefining What It Means to Be a “Geek”
“Being a geek” means something different today.
It’s become an inseparable part of pop culture that spans across a variety of media, opening up to accommodate casual geeks—not just the superfans—as they indulge in the ever-growing worlds of their favorite stories and characters.
It’s a space that’s buzzing with opportunities for geek-centric brands like Loot Crate, and one that’s likely to be as timeless as the popular titles it’s built upon.
Once every few years, during the holiday season, it seems like one ridiculous idea for a product or toy becomes insanely popular.
This is the story of those unlikely ideas and how they went from a brilliant spark of inspiration—or even a coincidental discovery—to something that was purchased, enjoyed, and loved by millions.
Let’s dive into three different Christmas crazes and examine why they took off. Maybe the stars aligned just right to make them all possible.
Or perhaps it was just an accident.
In 1943, Naval engineer Richard James was working on a way to keep sensitive instruments steady at sea when he bumped a spring off his desk. He thought the way it slinked to the floor would make it the perfect child’s toy. After searching through the dictionary, his wife settled on a name: Slinky.
But stores didn’t want the toy and sales were slow for the first two years. That changed during the Christmas holidays of 1945 when a Philadelphia department store gave the Slinky its own display. People went crazy for it and they sold all 400 units in less than two hours. It was a little mistake that turned into a big Christmas craze.
While the Slinky may have been a happy accident, other ideas seem more calculated.
2. Mr. Potato Head
In 1949, inventor George Lerner thought that children would enjoy using potatoes to make silly faces. Just to be clear, this wasn’t Mr. Potato Head as we know him today. What Lerner was suggesting was sticking push pin eyeballs and mouths into actual potatoes.
Toy companies didn’t think the idea would work because mothers wouldn’t be willing to waste food to make a child’s toy.
Nobody really wanted the idea until 1951 when he showed the idea to a stationary company called the Hassenfeld Brothers. They absolutely loved it. In fact, they loved it so much they made Mr. Potato Head the star of the first TV ad ever made for a toy. They sold a million of them in a single year.
Advertising certainly helped Mr. Potato Head, but can a product make it on hype alone?
3. Pet Rock
In 1975, ad executive Gary Dahl was at a bar listening to his friends complain about how hard it was to take care of their pets. That’s when he came up with the idea of a pet that didn’t need to be fed or go for walks. A pet that would cost only a few cents to make, but could sell for $4.
What he invented was the Pet Rock. It was a seemingly normal rock with a 32-page instruction manualthat outlined how to wash it and teach it tricks like playing fetch or playing dead. Surprisingly, the idea caught on almost instantly and 1.5 million pet rocks were sold leading up to Christmas day that year.
What Do Christmas Crazes Mean?
We caught up with Chris Byrne to find out why some toys take off while others don’t. He’s spent more than 30 years in the toy industry and wrote Toy Time! based on his experience. Here’s what Chris had to say:
“Nobody can predict a fad, but it comes into the culture and then everybody wants to have it. Then it becomes an accessible way of branding oneself and saying, ‘Hey I’m part of the culture, I’m part of the here and now.’ You know you can’t have a Birkin bag or a BMW, but you can have a $34 Tickle Me Elmo.”
Although, we can’t predict what the next fad will be, we do know how it will influence consumer behaviour. Once a new toy becomes hot, owning it becomes a status symbol and everyone wants to get their hands on it.
Chris also reminded us of the most amazing aspect of all these ideas and the toys they spawned. Something we often forget amongst the toy crazes and the holiday rush.
“Each child comes to a toy in a different way. Every child brings something different. It’s just a lump of inert plastic until the child’s imagination brings it to life.”
What was the Christmas craze when you were a kid? Reminisce with me in the comments!
It’s often said that we are the average of the people we spend the most time with. If your friends eat out a lot, chances are you don’t buy groceries very often. If your family spends more time reading than watching TV, chances are you do to.
So it follows, that, if you want to be more successful, you should spend more time with successful people. And reading Tim Ferriss’s new book, Tools of Titans, is a great way to start doing just that.
Over the years, Tim has interviewed tons successful people from a huge variety of fields on his podcast, the Tim Ferriss Show. Whether he’s speaking with a retired US Army general, a stand-up comedian, a tech company founder, or an Olympic coach, Tim delves into the secrets of their success that anyone can apply to their own lives and work.
Now, Tim has distilled all the key points from those interviews into a book you can easily reference any time.
It’s the kind of book you’ll want to keep on your desk for the next time you feel stuck and need a bit of inspiration. Want to know how Seth Godin thinks about money? Flip to page 238. Want Tracy DiNunzio’s advice on how to complain less? Flip to page 314.
Included among the countless stories, insights, and ideas are Tim’s guests’ personal book recommendations. Almost every expert interviewee was asked to share their favourite books, guaranteeing you won’t run out of things to read anytime soon. While you’ll need to check out Tools of Titans to get the full list, I’ve pulled out a few of my favourite recommendations, specifically tailored for entrepreneurs.
1. Invisible Selling Machine
Recommended by: Daymond John
Daymond John is CEO and founder of FUBU, a $6 billion lifestyle brand he started in 1992 with $40. Daymond has also won may industry awards and appears on ABC’s Shark Tank.
My parents always taught me that my day job would never make me rich. It’d be my homework.
Daymond’s book recommendations include Invisible Selling Machine by Ryan Deiss, a step-by-step guide to automating your entire sales process. A well structured sales funnel is the key to scaling your business and this book explains everything you need to know to do just that.
2. Stumbling on Happiness
Recommended by: Maria Popova
Maria Popova is the founder of Brain Pickings, a content-rich website about living a more fulfilling life. It originally started as a weekly email to seven of Maria’s friends in 2006. Maria has also been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, and Wired UK.
Ours is a culture where we wear our ability to get by on very little sleep as a kind of badge of honor that symbolizes work ethic, toughness, or some other virtue—but really, it’s a total profound failure of priorities and of self-respect.
Much of Maria’s work is about living a more fulfilling life so it’s not surprising that one of her recommendations included Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. Written by a prominent Harvard psychologist, it includes ground-breaking research to demonstrate why we’re so bad at predicting what will make us happy—and what to do about it.
3. What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School: Notes From a Street-Smart Executive
Recommended by: Ramit Sethi
Ramit Sethi’s blog, I Will Teach You to Be Rich, dishes out regular advice on things like starting a business, improving your personal finances, and just generally winning at life. He’s also written a book by the same name.
My emails look like I am writing to you because I want to be your friend…at scale.
One of Ramit’s book recommendations is What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School by Mark H. McCormack. The author is credited with founding the modern-day sports marketing industry—his first client was golf giant, Arnold Palmer. In this book, he shares his advice on things like closing deals, being a more effective leader, and getting the most out of meetings.
4. The Willpower Instinct
Recommend by: Jane McGonigal
Jane McGonigal is an author and research affiliate at the Institute for the Future, but may be best known for her TED talks on games. She has been called one of the “Top Ten Innovators to Watch” by Business Week and her work has been featured in publications such as Wired and the New York Times.
I’ve learned an important trick: to develop foresight, you need to practice hindsight.
There’s no question that willpower presents a great challenge for all of us. It’s not an unlimited resource and when we’re tired, we make bad decisions, or feel unable to make decisions at all. Jane’s book recommendation, The Willpower Instinct, uses the latest research to help readers optimize their willpower for maximum output.
5. Ogilvy on Advertising
Recommended by: Noah Kagan
Noah Kagan was employee #30 at Facebook and #4 at Mint. Since then, he’s built his own company, SumoMe. Noah also teaches entrepreneurship through content and courses and has created several successful side businesses as case studies.
You have to ask for things and you have to put yourself out there.
Copywriting nerds will likely already be familiar with Noah’s book recommendation, Ogilvy on Advertising, written by one of the world’s most sought after advertisers David Ogilvy. This candid primer on all aspects of advertising is a must-read for anyone who wants to write more persuasive ads.
6. How to Be A Movie Star
Recommended by: Margaret Cho
Margaret Cho is an actress, comedian, fashion designer, and singer-songwriter. She has created a tremendous body of creative work and is well-known for her ability to quickly neutralize hecklers when she’s on stage.
I’m not the kind of artist that can go on autopilot.
Margaret’s book recommendation, How to Be a Movie Star by William J. Mann is a biography of the accomplished actress, Elizabeth Taylor. This biography follows the ups and downs of Elizabeth’s journey to stardom, with much to learn along the way.
7. It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be
Recommended by: Casey Neistat
Casey Neistat is an New York-based filmmaker, YouTuber, and founder of Beme. His contributions to the film world have been significant, but what’s most impressive is how Casey built up his own success over time, having supported himself since the age of 15.
You can always work harder than the next guy.
As a self-made man, Casey is living proof that you don’t need to be born into wealth to become successful. His book recommendation, It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be, teaches a similar message. If you have big ambitions, hard work can get you there, and this book by Paul Arden has advice that will help—in an easily digestible format.
These seven book recommendations are just the tip of the iceberg. Tools of Titans features hundreds more book recommendations, insights, ideas, and success secrets for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Your Black Friday and Cyber Monday planning should have started months ago. I feel you, fellow procrastinator. I’m editing this post mere hours before it will be published.
But have no fear—you can still pull off an epic BFCM sale with only a few weeks to go. From one last-minute junkie to another, a tight deadline is a great motivator.
Don’t let the rush pressure you into a bad decision, though. If you’re a small business, competing with retail giants on price shouldn’t be your goal. The deal-seekers will always chase the lowest prices. This is not your audience. As an independent merchant, however, you can still participate—and have a stellar sales weekend—by employing a little creativity.
You already have the tools. It’s a matter of packaging them into a compelling campaign. And trust me, you also still have time. 25 days, to be exact.
Here’s your 3-step guide to planning and executing a flawless Black Friday and Cyber Monday promotion in under a month (on top of all of your other superhero feats):
Are you ready?
Is your store in a good state to handle a surge in sales? Shopify has your back when your store floods with traffic—we’ve survived the flashiest flash sale without a blip—but the rest is up to you. Do you have the inventory? Do you have the infrastructure in place to handle an uptick in customer service inquiries? Can you ship everything on time?
If you answered “yes”, let’s get rolling!
What’s your offer?
While customers expect a deal on Thanksgiving weekend, you 👏 are 👏 not 👏 Wal-Mart. Drastically slashing prices just isn’t feasible for most small businesses.
There are other meaningful ways to participate in BFCM and still reward your customers without making a huge dent in your bottom line. Win-win.
How much will your discount be? Will it apply to everything or specific collections or products? Are there other ways to reward your customer without killing your margin?
There are several options, including:
Unique coupon codes for specific customer groups
Site-wide sale with a universal coupon code
Sale products or collections (no code required)
Gift or gift card with minimum purchase
You can implement and communicate your plan in a number of ways. If your offer itself isn’t a “door crasher”, your approach can still create some buzz. Make it creative and interactive, inspire urgency or anticipation, and consider exclusive loyalty offers.
Here are some ideas (with real examples from other retailers) to inspire your own campaign:
Gift guide or gift giving themes: remind your customers of the impending holiday season, and the urgency to start shopping. Link to holiday-themed or gift-giving collections. Studies show that consumers are eager for holiday content as early as Halloween (that’s today!).
Timed deals: create excitement with new deals released every hour or at different intervals throughout the weekend.
Sneak peek or pre-sale: allow social followers and email subscribers early access to view or apply the deal.
Gift cards as gifts with purchase: give a $10 gift card (valid only after January 1st) to customers who purchase over $100, for example, to extend the relationship with customer through the holidays. 💡 TIP: now might be the right time to update the look of your gift cards with seasonal themes.
Run a contest or giveaway: use Shopify’s integration with Gleam to generate anticipation for your promotion and build your email list
What are the terms and conditions of your offer? How will you communicate terms clearly to your customers to avoid disappointment or customer service nightmares?
Establish clear start and end dates and times for each offer.
What is the discount? Is there a minimum order value to be eligible for the deal? Set conditions on the Create Discount page.
Are there any excluded products? Clearly identify these terms in your fine print.
Is the offer exclusive to certain customers or regions? Targeted email communication is best for this type of deal.
If you’re offering free shipping, are any countries excluded? This is also a good time to set up your shipping calendar: cut off order-by dates to receive products in time for Christmas.
Create a content calendar for your campaign that accounts for every step. When will social posts and emails deploy? What will be scheduled automatically and what tasks will be implemented manually. Do you have a team? Who is responsible for what?
Be sure to schedule email and social communication throughout the campaign—teasers, reminders, and “last chance” notifications.
Assets & Copy
Create and schedule all of your emails, blog posts, and social content up front to free up your time to manage the influx of sales and customer service inquiries during the busiest shopping season of the year.
What assets do you need to create? Consider:
Website: home page, landing page, banners, pop-ups, collection headers
If you’re not a designer (or don’t have the budget to hire one), there are plenty of free, beautiful graphics and photos, plus tools to put them all together.
Layer type over free stock images using a tool like Canva, try Shopify’s slogan generator to help inspire clever copy for your campaign, and create graphics from scratch using a free Photoshop alternative like Gimp.
💡 TIP: keep your imagery and messaging consistent across all channels, but optimize copy to suit each social audience or customer group.
Install a live chat app to help alleviate the customer service crush, and respond to support issues in real-time.
Be at your best this Black Friday and Cyber Monday!
Get our 26-point checklist of everything you need to cover to ensure your BFCM weekend is a success.
Download BFCM checklist
Set up Your Email Marketing Campaign
Last year, email marketing accounted for 25% of sales on Black Friday sales and 22% on Cyber Monday. As a small business competing for sales on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, email is a powerful tool. It can get expensive to stand out in the noise of BFCM. Why not focus instead on a repeat business from a captive audience: your customers and subscribers? Use BFCM as an opportunity to reward existing customers, maintain relationships, and improve loyalty.
Subject lines on an average day are critical to email marketing. They’re even more so as email volume hits its holiday apex. Take a minute to remember your own inbox last Thanksgiving. I bet it looked a little something like this:
Consider both organic (loyalty offers for existing fans) and paid content. Remember that the paid space is competitive on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, so be sure to target your campaigns wisely to get the biggest bang for your buck.
Ask customers to share or tag friends
Offer exclusives to each social channel, using unique codes to help direct your decision making next year. Which platforms converted better? Where should you throw your efforts?
As with email efforts, schedule posts throughout the campaign
Remember: customers use social media as a customer service channel. Stay on top of your mentions and DMs throughout the weekend.
Design catchy but on-brand graphics that don’t cheapen your profile—especially important for lifestyle brands
Many merchants elect to not participate in Black Friday or Cyber Monday in a traditional way or even at all. When we visited merchants across North America last year, we discovered that small businesses approached the weekend much differently than their massive chain counterparts.
Here are a few ways to (not) participate:
Small Business Saturday
This Saturday focuses on supporting small businesses—almost the antithesis to the winding lineups outside of Best Buy. Appeal to consumers looking to support small and local businesses for their holiday shopping: tell your brand’s story in your campaigns.
While everyone’s in a turkey-gluttony coma or suffering buyer’s remorse, this is the time to draw customers to your store with the promise of regaining a little good karma. Typically on Giving Tuesday, “offers” are in fact in the form of donations to charity or 1-for-1 campaigns.
Outside of Giving Tuesday, extend the good-deed-doing through the entire weekend by partnering with a charity in line with your business or values. Last year, Goods Shop found that their customers embraced the donation-over-deals approach and “no one left empty-handed”.
Outdoor gear retailer Rei, is riding the second year of its #OptOutside campaign, in which they close their stores and encourage their employees and customers to spend the day, err, not spending. While the chain may not be generating a cent that day, the hashtag yields 1.8 million Instagram results—valuable brand reach that keeps on giving beyond BFCM.
While your own efforts don’t need to be as extreme, it’s a reminder to start planning much earlier. In the spring, start by building your email list, planning inventory purchases, and banking content in anticipation of the impending holiday.
Don’t let it creep up again! 389 days will pass quickly for a busy entrepreneur.