How this 21-year-old entrepreneur used social media to grow an ecommerce empire

Could you tell us a bit about yourself, and how you started ZerotoTwo?

Sure! So a little over two years ago I was 21, a new college graduate, and working full time in finance. I had taken many business courses in college, but felt it gave me informational, as opposed to practical, knowledge.

One day, I read an article about POD (Print on Demand) and dropshipping, and started the Google search that would change my life. I was instantly fascinated with the idea of creating my own online business, and how easy it was to get started. Within one week from first searching the phrase “what is dropshipping?”, I had a Shopify store up and running with 40 products, complete with a domain, logo, four social media channels, and Facebook Ads!

Instead of researching and planning before making a move, I chose to dive in headfirst and learn as I went along. I watched hours of YouTube videos and joined every Shopify Facebook group out there, to soak in as much knowledge as I could. I recently came across the term “calculated impulsivity”, and that’s exactly what it was - not a foolhardy move, but a decision not to be bogged down by the learning curve of starting a business.

Many people around me had not yet heard of Shopify and the ease of ecommerce, so I definitely heard some hesitance in the beginning. But this just made me want to prove the concept even more! I viewed this as a business course in real time, so as long as I didn’t lose money in the end, there was no loss at all - only new skills gained.

I put every penny back into the business and kept track of every expense, so even though I wasn’t making a big profit in the beginning, I was never out less than $1,000. You can’t find such a detailed business course for just $1,000. This mindset relaxed my family and friends (they became my biggest cheerleaders!), and it has always helped me be very practical and realistic - my passion was business, my goal was learning, and generating profit was an added bonus.

During that first year, ZerotoTwo was my 7 pm to 3 am job - I stayed up all night researching, fulfilling orders remotely, and responding to customer inquiries. We made over $18,000 in sales with 35,000 website sessions in the first 12 months alone.

One of the biggest benefits to my ecommerce endeavors is my current position. A year ago, a recruiter on LinkedIn noticed my resume and reached out to me with an excellent opportunity. I now work full time running the marketing for a large ecommerce startup, managing the social media, content and affiliate partnerships for their family of brands.

My entrepreneurial skills definitely come into play daily, as I bring new ideas and strategies to the table, based on my own experiences. Being able to leverage these self taught skills into a full time job in the industry makes this “business experiment” a success on it’s own! I still run ZerotoTwo and my other businesses on the side, and I am loving it all.

What do you sell? What did it take to get your first products in stock? Has that changed since you started?

I knew that I wanted to focus on the baby market right from the beginning. I come from a large family so I was already familiar with the products and style. Additionally, everyone loves seeing an adorable baby, so I knew that it would be easier to “slow the scroll” on ads in this market.

Initially, I began ZerotoTwo dropshipping products directly from the suppliers. Beanies, moccasins, headbands, all the cute baby accessories you would love to get as a gift. But I soon realized that the 3 week shipping times and unbranded packaging were deterring customers from returning. The goal was to build a brand with loyal customers and followers. So I started buying in bulk and repackaging with logo stickers and business cards, which helped with quality control and the unboxing experience. However, with hundreds of product variants and suppliers and pricing constantly changing, that set-up got to be a hassle and was not scalable.

We now have mostly Print on Demand products. I create designs with words and images and sell them on a variety of products, including shirts, mugs and totes. There are three different printing companies that I work with to get the best pricing and product variety. When a Shopify order comes in, the printer receives it automatically, prints a single run of that product, and ships it off with my company name, logo, and a thank you note - all while I’m sleeping or at work! I create some designs on my own, and also work with freelance designers. The flexibility of POD makes it easy to offer customization or personalization.

Now that I have a portfolio of over 400 quality designs, I sell on Merch by Amazon and Etsy as well.

How did you get your first sale?

I remember that first sale vividly. I was posting all over social media, but because there was no big pre-launch, it took awhile. Three anxious weeks later, I’m startled awake at 2:39 am to a loud cha-ching - with a two item order, addressed to a PO Box in Qatar. I wasn’t expecting an international order, and even though I questioned it’s legitimacy, I shipped it out anyways - and three weeks later, got my first repeat customer ordering three more pairs of baby shoes! I am still not sure how that customer found my website, but I’ve got to tell you - although the Shopify cha-chings never get boring, that was definitely the sweetest one!

What obstacles and challenges have you overcome along the way?

There were many challenges along the way. One thing I neglected from the get-go was keeping a clear log of my expenses, and keeping business and personal finances separate. I was so excited and surprised that I was making all these sales, that I did not take a good look to see if I was actually profitable. Eventually within that first year, I opened up a separate business checking account, registered for a business license and ID number, got a sales tax permit, and enrolled in a business insurance policy.

When tax season rolled around, I purchased a spreadsheet from Paper + Sparks and went through every order and charge, until the final cold numbers hit me in the face. I was able to drop some recurring charges and see which marketing costs where dragging down my total revenue. I would recommend that new business owners pay attention to these things right from the start!

Another pain point was getting traffic. When you have a brand new website, no one knows who you are or why they should buy from you. I relied heavily on Facebook ads in the beginning (my plan was ⅓ product cost, ⅓ marketing cost, and ⅓ profit), but the most important part was to get those repeat customers. A one-off sale is nice, but brand loyalty is what makes businesses sustainable long term.

What influenced your decision to use Shopify?

When I was doing my initial research, everyone was recommending Shopify. They truly are a beast in ecommerce, and have made leaps and strides in improvement in the last couple of years alone. I have found their customer support top notch as well.

What theme did you choose for your site and why?

I started off using the free Shopify theme Boundless, and was very happy with it. As time went on, I began piling on extra apps and scripts, and noticed a slowdown in site speed. Last year, I bought the highly recommended Turbo by Out of the Sandbox. It’s an amazing theme, super fast and fully customizable, but most importantly, it took away the need for most of my other paid and free apps.

I went through each of their featured stores, writing down ideas and layouts that I liked, so that I saw the full capabilities of the theme and had my store mapped out in my mind before going in and customizing.

What Shopify apps do you currently use? Which apps are most important to your business and why?

Since our switch to Turbo, we don’t use a ton of apps. I was grandfathered in with the free version of Shoelace Retargeting, and have one Facebook dynamic ad running ever since. StoreView is a neat new app that shows you a list of customer actions in your store and emails you a daily overview as well. And I use Privy for email pop-ups, MailerLite for emails, and third-party apps for POD.

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

No, because I was learning as I was testing, and every misstep was a valuable lesson along the way.

What strategies have you used to attract more leads and grow ZerotoTwo?

Paid Ads - I started with small adsets, and then duplicated and increased the budgets of the profitable ones. When you start getting more traffic and sales, you’re “cooking my pixel”, meaning supplying it with information about your ideal customer. Eventually, look alike audiences start performing better than cold interest targeting - you can create LAA from visits, conversions, email subscribers, or social interaction.

Organic Social Media - This should not be underestimated. Many customers don’t trust paid ads nowadays, and prefer to do their own research and discover shops on social media. Having at least 5-10K followers on each account establishes yourself as a brand authority. I ran giveaways and contests to increase my followers, as well as browsing hashtags and relevant accounts. I also made sure to post once a day, responded to comments and messages, utilized newer channels such as Instagram and Facebook stories, and made sure to encourage positive reviews on social media - this all takes works but is sure to pay off in the long run.

Photoshoots - I joined the wonderful small shop community on Facebook and created a team of Brand Reps. These are baby models, but instead of pay, the Moms receive a product discount in exchange for their photos and social media shares. With Brand Collabs, I found experienced photographers were willing to barter high quality photos in exchange for complimentary products. These strategies helped me create a portfolio of thousands of modeled photos on a shoestring marketing budget.

Blogs - I created a parenting blog on ZerotoTwo to provide support and education to our customer base of Moms, and also to help with SEO keywords long term. I bartered with known bloggers in the industry, asking them to guest post on a topic of their choice. Sometimes it was for a product trade, other times simply sharing a link and a social media shoutout. On the flip side, I also sent out my products to bloggers, asking them to review it on their blogs. This was both to get reputable backlinks and to build an “as seen on” list. Bloggers and small shops often coordinate gift guides or giveaways, so I made sure to partake whenever possible. All of these partnerships were made via communities on Facebook.

Pinterest - This powerful tool is not mentioned enough. Think of it as an image search engine, where the posts never get outdated and pushed “down the feed” like on other social platforms. For businesses with beautiful imagery or photography, the photos will speak for itself. Otherwise, create blog posts within your industry and pin those posts. I tried both techniques, joined multiple group boards, and pinned other products along with my own, to my boards. Pinterest is now my #1 source of organic traffic, and I have pins from years ago that have been repinned hundreds of times and are still driving traffic and sales.

What are some of the most effective ways that you interact with your customers?

I interact with my customers wherever they are. This means posting across channels and responding to messages and comments whenever possible. I use IFTTT to share my Instagram posts to Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook automatically. Because page reach has decreased across Facebook, we’ve also created a VIP Group, for exclusive deals and chit chat.

It’s crucial to approach customer service professionally. No matter how upset the customer may be, my reply is polite and unemotional. I am also lenient with refunds or returns - sometimes the goodwill is worth it. There are many times where this approach has turned a fuming customer into one who promises to order again, and it’s a great feeling! Yes, I am a one-person business, but that does not mean my customers should receive sub-par service or snarky replies.

Are there any metrics you can share in terms of order volume, monthly sales, increased revenue, growth %, etc.?

Our returning customer rate and pinterest traffic both doubled in 2018, two metrics that we were focusing on.

What are you working towards now?

There is a lot I want to focus on this year. Some goals are implementing Google Ads, creating an email automation series, analyzing pricing, and expanding our product line. Additionally, the short time I have on evenings and weekends gets split up between Amazon and Etsy as well.

My 2019 goal is more efficient time management, while leaving behind the businesses and channels that are just a time or money suck. I’m sure other entrepreneurs can empathize with “shiny object syndrome” - I have far more business ideas than time to work on them!

Are there any blogs or other resources that have been helpful for you?

Of course! Are you ready for a ton of information?

Facebook Groups abound - the ones I consistently find helpful are: Shopify Entrepreneurs, Kingpinning, Ecom Empires, and Digital Advertising Superstars.

Podcasts are great for car rides or while you’re working. My favorites are: Shopify Masters Podcast, The Unofficial Shopify Podcast, and Entrepreneurs on Fire.

YouTube is another great free resource. Don’t shy away from content that’s a couple years old; although some of the dashboards and analytics have changed, a lot of the strategy is still the same. Some experts are Nick Peroni, Justin Cener, or Ben Malol, and for a quick burst of inspiration, Gary Vee.

Udemy courses are the only paid courses I’ve taken. Wait for their frequent $10 sales and grab these helpful courses: Facebook Ads Mastery, Ultimate Google Adwords, and Digital Marketing Course.

Merch by Amazon and Etsy is an entirely separate field with a particularly engaging and helpful Facebook community.

I know these are a ton of resources, but remember: don’t get stuck with analysis paralysis - switch off between learning and testing!

Based on your own success, what advice would you share with others who might be just starting out with Shopify (or with eCommerce in general)?

Learn, perfect, automate, outsource. Everything can be outsourced on platforms such as Upwork and Fiverr. But make sure you understand that specific task before you have to manage someone else doing it. A great entrepreneur knows a bit about everything. And if worse comes to worse, if your own business doesn’t work out, you’ll have a broad range of topics to spruce up your resume - like finance, marketing, strategy and operations - that an average office employee would not have!  

On that note, I encourage everyone to create a LinkedIn account and frequently update it. LinkedIn is not just for job hunting; the platform is invaluable for networking, researching, and learning. Every time a successful business person connects with me, I go down to the bottom of their work history and read up - I love learning where people came from and the trajectory of their careers.

It is so easy to learn about Shopify, Print on Demand, and Facebook advertising - and so much is available at no cost. But that doesn’t mean everyone can bring the persistence and focus to the industry that you can bring. Don’t get discouraged by those who call the ecommerce market overflooded - it’s 2019, there are new internet users born every year, new countries just getting access, traditional retail is crumbling, and overall interest is exploding. It’s not too late to open up your own ecommerce business, but once you do - it will require a lot of persistence and work to make it a success.

And a word of caution. If you’re just starting out, you likely don’t have a big budget to burn. Starting an online store is cheaper than it has ever been; no rent, no hosting or security fees, no TV, print or billboard ads, and you don’t even need to have inventory or manufacturing costs. But keep in mind that the ecommerce help industry is exploding as well, and there will be scores of experienced marketers trying to convince you that you’ll need their course or mentorship in order to succeed, products that can run thousands of dollars. Not all products out there are a scam or waste of money, but from my personal experience, nearly everything you need to know is available online for free, and those dollars are better spent towards advertising costs and testing.

Mindset and goal-setting are also super important. Too many entrepreneurs go into this thinking they’ll be a millionaire within 60 days, like the ads and success stories have you thinking. Those stories are a minority of a minority - if they are even truthful at all. If you go into this business with expectations set too high, you’ll likely be burnt out in the first 90 days, before you’ve really gotten a sense of your market. It’s definitely possible to see success in this industry, but it’s important to be realistic, track expenses and celebrate small victories. Ecommerce is not a passive income stream; it requires hard work. Wishing you the best of luck!

Where can we learn more?

You can visit us at www.zerototwo.com and follow us on social: Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest. Plus, if you’re a female in ecommerce, feel free to join our Facebook community of like minded individuals, Ecom Queens. I’m always happy to answer any questions as well.

Thanks for reading!

~ Brenda Lachman, Founder of ZerotoTwo

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