Apologies if this isn't an approved post, just wanted to shed some light on how we hit $100k and why I'm calling it quits (for now).
For some background, I'm 22, in university full time doing a 4 year business program in 3 years, so I have full time classes 11 months out of the year. But I left my serving job last summer due to covid and didn't know what to do, so like many of us I decided I'd try to start a business.
It's important to note what inspired this. My brother is about 12 years older than me and has unlocked the ecommerce dream that many people drool over (travels the world, runs his business remotely, makes well over 6 figures and only has to work a couple hours a week if he wants to). When someone that close to you has reached that level of success obviously you're going to want to do the same. So he told me I should give it a shot myself so I threw myself into it headfirst.
I spent about a month brainstorming ideas and came across a problem I thought could really use solving, especially in the US. I basically took (what I thought was) a big problem and tried to find the company making the best solution. I found a US-based startup-sized company that made pretty much exactly what I was looking for. They even had a dealer application on their website! I was thrilled.
The idea was to take one of their product lines, which is a modular, physical product, and basically sell predetermined "kits" that people can buy in one click. They were more marketing to commercial customers rather than individuals, so I saw a lot of opportunity there. I made my website and started with 3 SKUs, which were basically just configurations and titles that I made up, using their product. I had a spreadsheet telling me what was included in each "kit", and with every sale I'd just order those individual components at a 35% discount from the supplier and they'd ship it all to the customer. Simple enough!
I opened the business on October 1st, 2020, running just Google Ads. I had no reviews, 300 IG followers, a 5/10 site, and all my products were $950-2000. Oh, and I was charging $350-500 for shipping (lol), cause they had to ship via freight. PLUS, with a single Google search of my product names, anyone could see that we were just a retail front and not the actual company making the product.
For about 3 weeks, there were crickets. No questions, no live chats, not even any email sign ups! I think I spent about $400 on ads before I got a single sign of life. On October 23rd, I was standing in line at the grocery store when I got an email that someone had placed an order for $3200. I couldn't even believe it. Someone actually spent $3k on my shitty dropshipping store with 0 social proof. I googled the name of the customer and he was the CEO of a tech company in SF valued at 4.1B, which I thought was hilarious.
Anyway, from there things actually started to happen. I upped my ad budget (had some money from the first sale) and made my site better. Started collecting emails, built the email sequence, starting getting questions via live chat. Things were moving! Within a few weeks I got my second sale, again to someone in the Bay area who also worked at a tech company. My first two customers also left 5 star reviews, so I knew I had something.
By the end of 2020, I had done about $12k in sales over three months. Obviously nothing crazy and I hadn't actually made a profit yet but I was so excited. I sat down January 1st and set a sales goal of $100k for 2021. I'm not sure where this number came from, the idea of running a "6 figure business" just sounded like the dream to me, despite the fact that unless you have a 50+% net profit margin, a 100k business is probably just earning you minimum wage. We'll get to that later.
January I got to work, bundled shipping into the product price and raising prices a little bit to increase margins. In February I got a message from an employee at a state government office requesting a quote for a big commercial project they were working on. I couldn't even believe it, I treated them like gold. Called back instantly, drafted quotes, sketches, got on calls with the boss to discuss technical details, everything. After quoting them $9300 (I'd net about 25% of that) for their needs, I followed up via phone a few times over the span of 2 weeks. They said ours was the most expensive quote, but with every call back they seemed to be getting warmer and warmer. About a week later, they sent an email saying they wanted to go ahead with us! I honestly couldn't believe I had just closed a $9000 sale to a government organization from my tiny bedroom in the middle of nowhere.
Not our acquisition, but our supplier. Remember that startup-sized company that moved quickly and had a small, agile, team? Well they were acquired by quite possibly the slowest, dumbest, biggest company possible. This was where everything started to go south. For anyone that's seen Office Space, this entire company just oozes Bill Lumbergh energy. Their website, products, and people literally look like they haven't changed since '99.
As soon as the acquisition was finalized (mid-February), shit started to get real. They moved their entire facility to merge with the acquirers facility in the midwest and shit just fell apart. That $9300 order took about a month longer than quoted and was delivered a day before they had to open the building, with missing parts. I've never been so stressed and furious at the same time, I had busted my ass to close that deal and these idiots couldn't even deliver a quality product, let alone deliver it on time. Somehow through a ton of kindness and over-communication I was able to keep my contact happy and get through it.
From March until now, our sales have steadily grown, always hovering around 10x our ad budget. In March I wasn't sure if the business could scale, so I upped the budget to $2k for the month. We did $21k in sales. May 15th we hit $100k for the year, at about a 15% net profit after all expenses. Remember, $100k was my goal for the year. I had hit it in under 6 months… but I was miserable.
Even though we're selling more than ever, I'm more stressed than I have ever been. In May, 67% of our orders (something like 13 out of 20) arrived defective, damaged, or with missing parts. No matter how many chances I gave this supplier it started to become clear that these weren't just hiccups, it was just the best they could do. We got a few bad reviews and refund requests, and lost almost all of May's profits (around $3k) just refunding people who weren't happy.
Not only that, but I was on the phone every other day profusely apologizing to customers and doing everything in my power to prevent chargebacks and negative reviews. It got to the point that I had to turn my email notifications off on weekends because every second email was reporting damages or defects. I couldn't relax at all. I began to see new conversions as a bad thing, because there was more than a 50% chance that they wouldn't be happy or they'd have a negative experience and I'd have to pick up the pieces.
Options for the future
There's always plenty of options with a business. Shutting it down, pausing, or pivoting in a new direction are the ones that come to mind. The most obvious alternative to shutting it down in my case is to get different suppliers, as our site actually has some real authority now. We racked up a bunch of 5 star reviews (even with all the supplier mishaps), an 800-person email list and even some decent domain authority on Google's organic search. I'm confident if we pivoted and brought on a new hero product with a competent supplier, it would sell. We added a generic add-on product to our site a few weeks ago and out of the blue, it just started selling on its own, even though its available in many other online stores for the same price.
Why I'm closing shop
Running the business has been exhilarating, but also exhausting. If I was available full time I would definitely rework it, change suppliers, hire a VA and automate more of the operation. Test new products, new ads, etc. But, I'm at risk of failing one of my classes and if I'm honest, I feel like I've had straight cortisol pumping through my veins for the last 6 months. Even if the business became successful, I couldn't move to a beach and retire if I wanted to, I have obligations here and as ridiculous as it may sound on an entrepreneurship sub, I think I still have a lot to learn from working in the business world. I still want to pursue my career and can't do that if I'm 100% occupied with my side hustle for the next year.
Maybe in a year when I'm done school I'll get it back up again and see what happens, but for now I need to focus on "the boring stuff" i.e my education, resume, and my health.
A few lessons
I think we look at people who have achieved success (in my case, my brother) and forget the context in which they were successful. My brother went to uni, climbed the corporate ladder for 8 years, and had his employer pay for his MBA. 366 days after getting his MBA, he quit and pursued his business full time. He had a healthy savings account and all the time in the world to build and hone his business, and for two years he worked on it 24/7. It wasn't until he was 3 years into it that he was able to bring on employees and finally start cashing in, and by that point he was 35!
I think being in high school and/or university, and just being young and inexperienced in general makes us want to do more, go faster, get to the top ASAP, and that hunger is awesome! It makes us gritty and determined and can yield some amazing results. But, it's also important to take care of ourselves to some extent and remember that most people that achieved success didn't do it on their first try.
Anyway, today's my 23rd birthday and I just wanted to share my experience to show that it's okay to fail and it happens allll the time. While I would've loved my first post here to be "how I sold my side hustle for $250k", it doesn't always work out like that and even if it did, I would probably conflate a lot of good luck with innate talent and start thinking I was a genius. Instead, I'm a humbled student, happy with what I've learnt and excited for whatever I jump into next.
Have you ever shut a business down and actually felt kind of good about it? It sounds backwards but I'm curious to hear other peoples experiences with this.