• John Lim

MF 202 : Starting a business online: platform overwhelm

Keep in mind, I know nothing about clothing!

In this episode, I talk about helping my dad take his clothing business online, including challenges with various platforms. More at www.bemovingforward.com.

Listen to the full interview by clicking the play button above. Moving Forward is also available on iTunes, Stitcher Radio, Google Play, iHeartRadio, and Spotify

Part 1: Post-holiday blues

I get a little melancholy right after the holidays. I love the holiday season, from the end of October and into November – December, as the decorations and music hit the stores. From Thanksgiving all the way to Christmas, I really enjoy the season and try to make the most of time with family and friends.

It’s the day after New Year’s Day that I get the post-holiday blues. Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely grateful for all of the wonderful blessings and people I have in my life, and that I’m here for another year to accomplish and do more. However, I can’t help but feel like I need a little more. It’s always more. As I woke up this morning, my first thought was, I should have announced another week before jumping into season 6. Maybe one more …

And that’s when I truly understood why some podcasts peter out. This is the first time since launching Moving Forward that I took a break. It was only a week and some change: episode 201 aired Saturday, December 22nd and today, is January 2nd. Not much time has passed and yet, I feel like I’ve been away forever. That combined with the human need for “one more …” day, week, month away, I can see how it would be easy to fall into the trap of content gaps that end up being way longer than you intended.

This is why it’s important to mark those return dates and hold yourself accountable to someone, in my case, you. If I didn’t announce that I was coming back this week, I may have very well fallen into the “one more” trap.

But now as I’m writing this, having just recorded episode 202, which feels more like episode 1 since I’m changing up the format, I feel really good. I’m getting used to flying solo on the podcast. I’m a little uncomfortable with changing things up but that tells me this was the right day and time to come back.

Part 2: Starting an online business

My Dad has been an entrepreneur for over 50 years. He’s still going strong and God bless him. I don’t know how he does it. He’s an amazing guy. He started learning how to sew when he was a teenager and worked his way to become a head designer at London Fog, where he designed raincoats for years.

Today, he and his his business partner run a clothing shop with two locations, catering to brides, bridesmaids, and teens shopping for prom dresses.

Business had been going well but about 2 years ago, he noticed a growing trend. Customers would come in, try a bunch of outfits and end up buying them online. Amazon has changed the way we not only shop, but the way we approach in-store visits. I’m guilty of this. Every time, I step into a store and contemplate buying something, I open the Amazon app and scan it to see if it’s cheaper there. It’s almost innate.

For my Dad though, it’s made his business a lot tougher. We got into a conversation about this and although I know nothing about clothing, I had a little bit of experience selling on Amazon. During business school, I sold all of my textbooks at the end of each semester through Amazon. I did pretty well, selling almost all of my books, usually at cost or even for a profit.

Later, I dipped the toe in the water selling private label products with my business partner through Amazon FBA. We didn’t do as well there.

The most success I’ve had on Amazon was in the digital space with the Corporate Cliches Adult Coloring Book which you may have heard me advertise during the November and December episodes as the “perfect white elephant gift.”

Given my experience, I knew enough that we should explore this as an option for my Dad. Up until that point, he wasn’t aware that 3rd party sellers were a thing.

We spent the next several months setting up his Amazon business:

  1. We registered his account as a seller.

  2. We got him approved to sell apparel (a restricted category).

  3. We upgraded him to Amazon’s Professional Seller plan (which has a monthly fee).

Next, we had to get the products ready for listing. We decided to do a beta test with a couple of different dresses. While I had experience doing this before with small products, I didn’t realize just how difficult this would be for clothing and apparel. Below are some of the challenges we faced:

  1. Listing clothes: for each item, we had to fill pages, including descriptions, keywords and doing size variations was a nightmare.

  2. Barcodes: Amazon requires product barcodes for items you sell. Unfortunately, many of the clothes either didn’t have barcodes or had ones that didn’t fit Amazon’s specs. Thankfully, I had a spreadsheet of several hundred from when I previously sold on Amazon that we ordered from eBay that I could allocate to these products.

  3. Photos: Amazon requires high-end photos of products on white backgrounds with the added restriction of no models (mannequins only) for new sellers. We first tried to ask the suppliers and wholesalers for photos. While many agreed, saying it would be no problem, they either didn’t send us photos or sent us ones that didn’t meet Amazon’s requirements. We later got a professional photographer to help but that was added time and cost.

  4. End result: it took us around 6-7 months to get up running. Timewise, we averaged around 1-2 hours per product. We sent in 4-6 dresses to Amazon, selling them as FBA (fulfilled by Amazon). Over the next few months, we sold 4 but had to deal with returns, long-term storage fees, and more. Moreover, it wasn’t easy to list and update inventory. While I love Amazon as a consumer and can see many benefits as a seller, it wasn’t a right fit for my Dad’s business.

Next, we tried Shopify. I know several people who love Shopify and have had great success with it. After doing a little homework, we decided to give it a try. By this time, we were into early 2018. While it was easier than Amazon, we also had some challenges getting his business on there:

  1. Setup was pretty straightforward.

  2. We upgraded his account to a pro account: one of the best features is that it comes with sub-accounts that you can assign to employees, something we couldn’t do on Amazon.

  3. The challenge with clothing is that it’s not easy to list variations such as size. We had to use coding and plugins.

  4. End result: we spent 6 months on Shopify and didn’t make a sale. Most of the time, we spent trying to figure out the platform. While I can see how and why it’s a great option for e-commerce businesses, like Amazon it wasn’t a great fit for my Dad or his business. At least, not at this time.

So what now? We had been chasing the “take your business online” dream for a year and a half and it seemed further away with more and more hoops to jump through. We were spinning our wheels, focusing more on the platform learning curve and multiple obstacles than on sales. In a moment of frustration, I took a break and Googled a search on places to sell clothes on and came across this platform called Poshmark.

More on this next week.

Part 3: What I’m reading / read

  1. I just started reading Star Wars: Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn, which I got as a Christmas gift from my buddy Angelo, who found a first print copy on eBay (it’s since been re-released as a reprint). I started yesterday and so far am enjoying it as a “what if” tale since this long predates the new films from Disney. I’ll update you as I finish it.

  2. When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink: a fascinating look at the “when,” the timing of success in business, relationships and more. The book is a quick read with compelling arguments and case studies on why timing isn’t as random as we may think it is.

  3. China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan: the second book in the Crazy Rich Asian Series about the lifestyles of the mega-wealthy in Singapore and China. As with the first book, Crazy Rich Asians, Kwan provides eccentric and entertaining characters with rich cultural themes and overtones. While I liked the first one more, this book was a nice followup and does a great job of expanding the lore.

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