Ah, glam| camp. Our erstwhile little online shop specializing in spunky embroideries and postpartum sweatshirts. It occurred to me – only after a reader pointed this out in a comment yesterday – that I never actually addressed what happened to glam | camp, and since I know that so many of you are involved in your own e-commerce efforts, I figured it might be helpful to break down what went right, what went wrong, and what I learned from my own foray into Selling Stuff On The Internet.
For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about: In 2014, shortly after I moved to San Jose, my friend Erin (now the coauthor of our Big Activity Book series) came out to visit me, and we decided to pool our resources – basically, her artistic abilities and my web platform – to open an online shop stocked with items both crafted in-house and created by a handful of other independent female artisans.
And – at first – it went well! Stunningly well, actually.
Except here’s the problem: when it comes to e-commerce, “stunningly well” is an extremely, extremely relative statement. It’s incredibly hard to make a living with a brick-and-mortar shop; it’s pretty close to impossible to make a living with a tiny e-commerce site in the Age of Amazon. Ramshackle Glam did drive traffic to glam | camp, for sure, but traffic, alas, doesn’t always equate to sales.
We worked it, though: We figured out which pieces sold the best (pretty much just the Mom Bod and Adulting sweatshirts, and the Camp blanket), and focused our promotional efforts on those. We found some dropshipping companies to help streamline the inventory and shipping process. We kept bringing on new vendors, and coming up with new glam | camp products, in hopes that something aside from our go-to pieces would catch.
Eventually, though, the site went defunct. Here are a few of the elements that led to its downfall:
- Since we were really only selling three pieces in any significant quantity (two sweatshirts made in-house, which were expensive to make, expensive to keep in stock in multiple sizes, and not massively profitable once you took all that into account, plus a blanket made and shipped by a third-party vendor that ended up being our most profitable item), the other vendors we’d brought on board became understandably frustrated, and stopped cross-promoting us and offering us new pieces to stock. When we did get an order in for one of them, there was always the possibility that the vendor had, say, gone out of business and not mentioned this to us (this did in fact happen, and I’m not even blaming the vendor, really – we were out of touch with them for a long time).
- Erin was making most of the in-house pieces herself, which meant that she was putting in a huge amount of time and effort for virtually no return, because all of the money we made ended up being poured back into site upkeep, shipping, promotion, and inventory. This was obviously unsustainable, and became even more so when she got a full-time office job.
- I handled the up-front costs of setting up the site (hosting, design, photography, etc), and didn’t see myself recouping my investment – let alone turning a profit of any real significance – at any point in the future. Our sales and traffic were consistent – and decent – but didn’t seem to be trending upwards to any meaningful extent.
- Erin and I got a book deal (The Big Fat Activity Book for Pregnant People) in part because of a coloring book for new moms that she had created to sell on the site, and once that happened it felt like…you know, like the shop had done what we’d set out for it to do. Which was jumpstart us both into a new branch of our careers, albeit it in a different way than we’d initially imagined.
For awhile, we turned over the site to my friend Elise, who runs a brick-and-morter shop (and affiliated e-commerce site) called Stripes Boutique, but ultimately what we ended up doing was shuttering the site and handing over our existing inventory to Elise so she could just absorb it into her own store.
One of our best-sellers: The Adulting sweatshirt. (Still own mine; still love it.)
So. Here’s what I learned from the experience, in hopes that it helps some of you who may be interested in e-commerce make better choices:
- In the beginning – and possibly for a good long while – expect to put in a ton of time for zero financial return. You may strike gold and start pulling in an income, but that might be a long time coming. And it might never happen. Much as with blogging, you cannot open a boutique e-commerce shop *expecting* to make a ton of money.
- Related: Don’t put all your eggs in your e-commerce basket. If you can’t afford to have it make little-to-no money for awhile, make sure you save up in advance (or make it your second job – who needs sleep?!?).
- Research – and stick to – your niche. There are 20,000 online stores selling “It’s Wine O’Clock Somewhere” t-shirts. Don’t do that.
- Use dropshipping wisely. Dropshipping is basically when you list another company’s product on your site, and they handle fulfillment when a piece sells, so you don’t have to keep tons of expensive inventory laying around. It reduces profits, but also reduces the workload – and your initial investment – enormously. It also means you run the risk of selling items that are available from tons of other vendors.
- Allow your shop’s purpose in your life evolve. What started out as a potential career may ultimately transition into a way to showcase your personal work, or bolster the visibility of local artisans. And if, over time, your shop costs you too much in terms of money, time, and/or sanity, remember: It’s just a website, and sometimes taking the lessons from an experience and letting it fade into your past is the smartest thing you can do.
Short story: glam | camp was a great learning experience for me – I learned about everything from production to inventory to shipping to, you know, being beholden to customers whose order didn’t arrive on time (eep). Most importantly, it was fun a solid 75% of the time…and ended up sparking a working relationship between myself and Erin (the Big Activity Book series) that ultimately turned into one of the most fortuitous surprises of my career. glam | camp created a ripple effect that will last for years to come, but no matter where the next few books take us, their start will always be traced back to the day when Erin and I sat down at my kitchen table, said, “Hey. Let’s do something”…and then did.