Practical Ecommerce

When an ecommerce side hustle becomes real

I’ve been talking with many budding ecommerce entrepreneurs lately. A big question I’m asked is along the lines of “when is it time to quit your day job and focus on your side hustle?”

The answer is different for everyone. In this post, I’ll describe how it happened for me.

I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. In a previous post I chronicled my journey to founding Fringe Sport. I started the company out of my garage in 2010 and achieved a few thousand dollars in revenue in the last few months of that year. The next year, 2011, revenue was about $100,000.

But, $25,000 of that $100,000 came in one weekend: Black Friday to Cyber Monday. Back then, my co-founder and I were both working normal jobs, eking out time for Fringe Sport whenever we could — on evenings, weekends, and even lunch breaks.

When Black Friday 2011 rolled around, we planned a sale online and, also, locally (in Austin, Texas). We didn’t really know what to expect. But we knew it was a big weekend for shopping. We set up the sale on our Shopify site and decided to extend it to our local customers, servicing them directly from our (tiny) rented warehouse.

When we showed up that Friday morning to our warehouse, we were locked out. Our landlord had rented it to a band for the weekend to shoot a music video. He didn’t tell us!

We banged on the door and got the band to stop recording for 30 minutes. We dragged as much stuff out of the warehouse as we could, and waited.

Thirty minutes after we opened, an older Volkswagen came rolling up. I think it was a Jetta. Three people stepped out. We must have looked like a swap meet, with most of our inventory strewn around the parking lot of our warehouse. But they bought our products (exercise weight plates) anyway.

Those three folks kept coming back throughout the day, loading up the Jetta, and driving away with our plates. They cleared us out. And, eventually, we had to turn away a few other local shoppers.

But what happened that weekend finally confirmed for me that what we were building matched what consumers wanted. Prior to that weekend, I did not feel we had market validation — we had not achieved product and market fit. But the fact that we could generate $25,000 in sales in one weekend — and because I saw and talked with our local customers — helped me to confirm the vision that what we were building was “real.”

I spent the rest of 2011 and early 2012 talking with my wife, getting my personal finances in order, and lining up my departure with my employer, who did not know about my side hustle. I wanted to ensure my employer would be affected as little as possible by my leaving.

Quitting my job was a huge step to legitimizing my new company. My gross salary from my employer was larger than the total revenue of Fringe Sport — not to mention bonuses, perks, health care, and other benefits, as well as leaving a great company and a great team.

But I was 30 years old. I had wanted to start my own business since I was a kid. I needed to put 100 percent of my effort into Fringe Sport. Even if it failed, at least I would have given my all.

I also looked at the risks. I concluded that if Fringe Sport failed, I would clean up the mess and then get another high paying commerce job. It was far better to try at age 30 than at age 40 or 50.

Next month, I’ll write about my three big mistakes during this transition.

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  1. Elizabeth Hollingsworth January 5, 2017 Reply

    Thanks for sharing your story, Peter and it’s great to know it’s going well.

    However I heard warning bells go off when I read you made 25% of your 2011 revenue in the Black Friday-Cyber Monday weekend. You had a huge sale and someone local simply decided to cash in on your great prices, carrying away your stock in their Jetta again and again over that weekend.

    I know you went on to create a real success, but a) I disagree this massive sale made your business at the time “real” (who doesn’t take advantage of a sale?!), and b) I would implore any start-up to refrain from holding such Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales at such an early point in their business.

    I wrote a blog post about this detailing the reasons why massive daily deals can harm your business at http://www.practicalecommerce.com/columns/notes-from-australia/10945-Daily-deals-6-ways-they-ruin-your-business-3-ways-they-might-not

  2. Peter Keller January 5, 2017 Reply

    Thanks @Elizabeth- and your post is great!

    I think the “when to focus on a business” question is different for everyone. It may not have been wise for me to quit a solid 6 figure job after one huge weekend, but it happened. And as I learned in b-school- just because I got away with it, doesn’t mean it was a good idea.

    That said, I do think sales can make sense- they can increase conversion rates significantly, and drive both revenue (increased sales) AND profit (increased volume over your fixed costs base, even if profit margins per sale are lower).

    But of course you have to do these things the “right way”.

  3. Jeff Bronson January 24, 2017 Reply

    Wow Peter, this one really struck a chord with me. I’ll start at the end, then circle back to the beginning. You see, I’m THAT 40 yr old guy, actually 42 as of a few days ago. Starting yet again down the path of being a ‘solo hustler’ away from a full time job. Back in my late 20’s I worked full time across too many dead end cubicle sucks, while building an eCommerce shop. 100% of my effort wasn’t possible across the span of many years.

    You did the right thing, putting 100% in, and the risks paid off. A wonderful feeling. Looking forward to reading about some of the mistakes. I’m going to do a brief 5 minute video review of your product page tomorrow and send it by the end of this week. Showcasing what’s working well, and likely a couple of suggestions.
    It’s a cool story!

    – Jeff Bronson, eCommerce Warriors
    Conversion Optimization For Lifestyle Brand Retailers