When I started my business, I never thought I would have the opportunity to teach others how to start an eCommerce business

But things change and here we are.

If you don’t know who I am, my name is Lucy Bloomfield and I am one of the Co-Founders of Trefiel.

 

Sometimes, part of my role as Co-Founder was wearing sheet masks for photoshoots… lucky me! Photo by: Samantha Rose Andison

 

Trefiel was my first eCommerce business and we sold luxury, plant-based sheet masks. From June 2015 to December 2017, I spent every day thinking about how to sell more face masks.

In the end, I cared more about taking care of my customers and helping them feel better about themselves.

Our mission was to help women see amazing results with their skin fast and squeeze in more me-time while they’re at it.

It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, if you can call building a business you love a job.

You might have noticed that a lot of the verbs I’m using are past-tense. That’s because at the end of December 2017, my business partner and I decided to close down Trefiel for good.

There’s a lot I can say about why we chose to do this

There’s also a lot I can’t. It comes back to being a very personal decision for Michael and I to make and ultimately, one that was difficult and painful to process.

I spoke at a recent SPARK Deakin Alumni event about one of the reasons we decided to shut the company down –

It’s only now I’m past the mourning stage, that I can open up about my work and what I helped the company to achieve in the 2+ years of it operating. We saw Trefiel:

  • Grow from 0 to 10,000 customers in 18 months;
  • Maintain a 40% return customer rate;
  • Sustain average subscriber length to 10 boxes (industry average is 3);
  • Convert over 22% of our closed community channels for specific marketing campaigns.

If you’re not in marketing or business, these numbers may lack any relevance, so I’ll say this – we sold a lot of face masks in this period and I’m proud of the business my co-founder and I built.

 

We used influencer marketing to start and grow our eCommerce business.

 

It’s cliche to say but despite all the setbacks, mistakes and depressing lows, I look back on the journey of building my first company without many regrets. I made more mistakes than anyone could hope to make, but I did it…

I started an eCommerce business and grew it to reasonable success.

The only regret I have is this –

I didn’t document or write about what I was learning as I was going through the process.

It felt like I didn’t have time and truthfully, I didn’t.

I did an interview with Soak Society late last year and only after completing it realised that my days were monstrous. I woke up at 5 am and went to bed well after 11 pm every single night.

There were no days off.

There was no turning the business off or stepping away from it.

How to start an eCommerce business - when you don't have room for your stock, make a box bed.
We even slept with our business.

 

But if I had my time with Trefiel (or another business) again, I’d make time to write about what I was doing to grow my business, all the lessons I was learning and the mistakes I was making.

Because now that I’m looking back at the entire experience, most of it is blurry. I forget what order events happened in and how I felt as I went through the process of growing Trefiel into what it was.

 

Just another day madly packing orders for Trefiel at the Fulfillio warehouse.

So why the blog post?

When 2018 rolled in, I realised that in order for me to fully close the chapter on Trefiel, the last two years of my life and the part of myself that identified as Trefiel’s Co-Founder, I needed to write about the work I did. Even if nobody else read it.

Thus, this series was born.

From 0 to 10,000 customers: How I built a successful eCommerce business

Like all good stories, there’s a backstory that gives context about the person who decided to start their journey. My story is no different.

Let’s start from the beginning…

Why I decided to start my eCommerce business

Like a lot of people, I started to become tired of my awesome job… every time I read this sentence, it reminds me how privileged I am.

I was working for a US cyber security company as a front-end designer and developer and had the luxury of working remotely while doing so. This meant I was able to travel the world while working and I lived in countries that most people only dream of visiting.

 

One of my favourite stopovers was beautiful England and its perfect summer days.

 

Even though I was happy and I had more freedom than I could have ever imagined, I felt:

  • Stuck on a treadmill, exchanging time for money;
  • Frustrated by my lack of ownership and inability to grow beyond my current role;
  • Tired of working on something that wasn’t mine.

If I’m really honest with myself, there was also a part of me that was tired of digital nomad life, as hard as that is to believe. When you are constantly moving from city to city, with no home and no routine, you begin to feel as if you are lacking progression or any sense of normality.

So I came to a brilliant conclusion once I returned to Australia after 12 months of travel…

Why don’t I start an eCommerce business?

Okay, it wasn’t that easy or as direct as that may come across.

At the time, my Co-Founder and I had a friend of a friend (FOAF) that had started a teeth whitening company and, using Instagram influencers, had made hundreds of thousands of dollars in their first six months.

When my partner and I took a closer look at the company, we were dumbfounded at how poorly executed it was.

  1. Most of the copy on the website had errors or major grammatical problems and it didn’t come across as a professional organisation.
  2. It was probably one of the worst websites I’d ever seen… and yet, it was making a lot of money.

This, more than anything, proved to me that the barrier to entry was low when looking to start an eCommerce business.

I decided if our FOAF could do it, and do it as poorly as he did, I could do the same to at least the same standard as him, if not better.

At this point, I’d made the decision to do something without knowing what that something was.

Note to self: having a business idea you care about, rather than just starting a business for the hell of it, would have been a lot smarter. But more on that in a later post.

The next logical step was to find something I could sell.

Find a physical product for your eCommerce business

Funnily enough, if you want to start an eCommerce business, you need a physical product.

There are a lot of guides out there about finding good products to sell online and I’m not an expert by any means, so I’ll try not to make this part too complex.

This is the process I followed to find a product for my business

  1. Contact 100 manufacturers of different products;
  2. Ask them to send samples;
  3. Try samples;
  4. Pick the best one, improve and launch it.

Genius, I know.

Truthfully, most of what we ordered was rubbish, swiftly opened and just as swiftly disposed of. But there were a few products that passed the initial test.

 

Trying on the first lace face masks of Trefiel
The very first lace face masks of Trefiel

 

The lace face mask was passable, although I still remember debating whether it was worth going ahead with. Every time I felt sure that it was a good idea, these two questions kept popping into my head –

  • Was it good enough?
  • Were we crazy to think we could do this?

Two years later, the answers were clear – yes and yes – but at the time, it was one of those moments where you take a big breath and leap, because you have no idea what the outcome will be.

We had convinced ourselves it wasn’t any good at this point, but the family and friends we convinced to try our mask were surprisingly positive about it. A few of them even had sensitive skin and had no reaction whatsoever. Jackpot!

One of our family members had such sensitive skin, she couldn’t even wear fake tan. But she could wear our mask… so, we decided to go ahead, start our eCommerce business and after some tweaking, arrived at the perfect product.

Launch your eCommerce business

Michael (my Co-Founder at Trefiel) and I come from a tech and startup background, so running lean and launching an MVP was a natural choice for us.

We wanted to put the product out to market fast and see what happened.

This is why we chose to bootstrap everything, including:

  • Building our website ourselves in a week;
  • Manually sticking labels onto our blank mask packets;
  • Shooting our best-looking friends for our first photos and paying them pennies.

 

12 hours of sticking labels on packets later and I had a product that was ready to ship to my customers… that I hadn’t figured out how to acquire yet.

 

I vividly remember at this stage feeling terrified of losing my initial investment on the first batch of masks we ordered. I would spend hours deliberating about how long it would take me to work back the money lost and annoyed Michael by asking the same question –

Are you sure we’re going to be okay?

At the time, a couple of thousand dollars was a lot of money. I have to laugh thinking about it now. I would probably spend twice as much if I decided to start another eCommerce business and feel more comfortable with the risk of losing it all after the experience of growing Trefiel.

 

Behind the scenes at our first photoshoot with Kristy Costello, who was paid for too little for the awesome job she did.

 

But I’m getting too far ahead of myself. Let’s go back to how we managed to sell those first few masks.

Market your new eCommerce business with no budget

My only experience in marketing at this point was applying for a reception role at a small marketing agency three years before.

I didn’t get the position or even a callback.

But I had to figure marketing out in order not to fall flat on my face with this business because I’d told everyone I knew that I was going to do it and now I actually had to do it.

So I did what most people do –

  • Google “how to market an eCommerce business” and hope to find something useful
  • Stalk every single brand that was doing moderately well
  • Buy Instagram growth courses
  • Pour over email marketing templates
  • Try and fail to find information somewhere about protocols for working with influencers.

It was during this searching that I stumbled across Frank Body, the brand most women who use Instagram have tried at least once. The more I scrolled, the more I thought that I’d found the secret to creating a successful business.

  • Cheeky copy? Check.
  • Beautiful imagery? Check.
  • Well-priced products? Check.

I studied their campaigns. I ripped apart their copy to understand its structure. I even went as far as signing up to their email list to study their funnels and to unsubscribe so I could see what their unsubscribe page was like (it was the perfect user experience, just so you know).

“Okay, I know exactly what to do.”

Like a lot of other people, I saw Frank Body and other companies that I studied from the customer perspective, which is not the business perspective.

I saw the glitzy photos, I saw the perfectly worded captions, I saw the influencers and I thought that was what made a successful eCommerce business.

But I couldn’t have been further from the truth…

Frank Body was a business before they were brand.

A lot of new business owners (myself included) try to build a business with branding, but they have it the wrong way around. First, you need to build a business (aka sell product), then you brand it so your customers keep coming back.

This lesson chased me down for a good 18 months before I really started to take it seriously. But I’ll dive into that more in another blog post.

If you can’t sell your product, you don’t have a business. It’s the most difficult phase of any business, especially because you have no demographic insights or any information about who might like to purchase your product.

That’s where I had to make educated assumptions to attain those first few sales.

Guess, put it out, analyse, improve, repeat.

I didn’t know who wanted to buy my face masks other than they would likely be:

  1. Women; and
  2. Interested in skin care.

At the time, face masks were exploding and every woman and her man were masking up for a selfie on Instagram. So I figured we could at least ride that wave, focus on women between the ages of 18-35 years old and figure out the rest as I gathered more information.

Based on those assumptions, I chose Instagram to be our main platform and from there, focused on three tactics –

  1. Sponsoring events with the product (this works well if your cost of goods is low)
  2. Using organic Instagram marketing (it used to be a lot more effective)
  3. Influencers (which is paid advertising, but more hit-and-miss than any advertising platform I’ve used)

Through seeding product into many influencer’s feeds, we made our first sale. I will never forget this moment –

Michael had set up PayPal on his phone with notifications so we knew when a payment had come through. We were hanging out in our bedroom and a different notification came from his phone than usual. He checked it, turned the screen to show me –

[Customer Name] just sent $40

We both screamed, hugged each other and rolled on the bed, yelling “It worked! It worked!”.

It was our first online sale and eventually, thousands more would follow.

This is what it is like to live with your growing eCommerce business.

When you’re building your first business, you have no idea how to get that initial traction to move you to the next level. Most people never go beyond this point – it’s difficult to do on your own.

Looking back with what I know now, I would approach this period differently.

Organic vs paid marketing

As much as choosing to go the organic route is a great way to save money, I had the capital to invest into paid advertising and could have shifted the business into money-making mode far quicker.

If I had my time with my first eCommerce business again, this would be my main focus.

Facebook Ads is a powerful channel for any business, particularly eCommerce, and it allows you to test your product at scale and with as many niches as you can dream up.

It’s important to remember that some products don’t convert well on Facebook Ads. If I were to give advice to anyone looking to start an eCommerce business, I’d tell you –

Make sure you find an advertising platform that works for your business because it’s going to be a long, hard trek to grow it if you don’t have that option available to you.

Besides that small piece of insight, I wouldn’t change anything else about how I grew Trefiel initially. I had too much fun, wasting time and working on projects that excited me to want to go back and change all of it.

This is where I’ll pause for now

At this stage in my new eCommerce business, we had just enough of an inkling to keep going.

We’d had steady growth but nothing explosive up until this point. That is until we found a sales channel that worked incredibly, but more on that in the next post.

Want to learn more?

As I sat down to plan this series, I realised that I couldn’t write it in a linear way, following the exact steps of how I built it from start to finish because –

  1. I can’t remember half of what I did and when I did it
  2. I realised a lot of it would make more sense if I bundled it into lessons or topics.

You see, there were lessons to learn that kept coming back to me, over and over again, until I paid close attention to them and actually learned what I needed to from them.

I’m afraid to say that even though I think of myself as a fast learner, some of these took me longer to comprehend than they should have.

But, in saying all of that, the repeated cropping up of a lesson over time makes for a great story and I know that it’ll make it even easier to share with you some of the more important concepts you need to know as a business owner.

With that said, if you’d like to be notified when the next blog post in this series goes live, sign up below.

There are 13 posts planned out covering influencer marketing, branding, wholesale, outsourcing, hiring, firing and a few other valuable lessons I learnt while starting an eCommerce business and growing it to success.