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How to start selling online

Why read this? : We look at how to start selling online. Learn the quickest and easiest ways to source products and start selling them online. We explore the basics of channels like dropshipping, marketplaces and Print on Demand. Read this if your goal is to start online selling as fast as you can.

How to start selling online

How this guide raises your game :-

  1. Review the quickest product sourcing options for how to start selling online.
  2. Review the pros and cons of e-Commerce channels like dropshipping, marketplaces and print on demand.
  3. Learn the basics of payments and delivery you need to start selling quickly online.

As per our online store strategy guide, you have a choice between going full or going fast with selling online.

The “full” approach takes time. You do proper market research. Look for insights. Define and refine your opportunity. Build a business case and marketing plan. You set your competitive strategy and positioning.

But sometimes, you see a more immediate opportunity that you’ll miss if you take too long in planning. And sometimes, you just want to start selling as “fast” as you can to see if your ideas pull in customers. 

Hand holding a small wrapper package marked fragile

Ready to test your knowledge?

What’s your starting level of knowledge about how to start selling online?

Take the 2 minute, 5 question Three-Brains how to start selling online quiz and see how much you know about how to start selling online already.

How to start selling online - The fast way

The “fast” approach to how to start selling online prioritises speed to market over depth of planning. You start to sell as quickly as you can. What you learn from doing this tells you what works and what doesn’t. You get fast feedback from real customers which you use to optimise their experience and refine your offer.

What you need to go fast

There are 3 things you need before you can sell online :- 

  • something to sell. 
  • somewhere to sell it. 
  • a way to manage payments and delivery.

The good news for those who want to go fast is there are ways you can do all these quickly.

With some of these online selling approaches, you could be making items available for sale online in less than an hour. Whether anyone will buy them though is something we’ll explore in more detail. 

Relay sprinter holding a baton in his blocks about to start a sprint relay

You need something to sell

Your first task is to decide what you want to sell. The choice is to make, create or trade products. Or, you can also decide to sell services online.

Making products

You may already make products and sell them via traditional (non-digital) retail channels.

So, you could be looking to learn how to start selling online as a way of expanding your customer reach and reducing your dependence on retailers.

Or you have an idea for something new you can make.

Woman wearing a check shirt, yellow hard hat, protective goggles and gloves in a factory setting working on a piece of metal equipment

Something you think you can make that’s appealing and achievable to produce. You think enough online shoppers will want to buy it for you to make a profit. 

In both cases, you become a product “maker”. You create a tangible product. You store that product, and when the customer orders it, you arrange its delivery.

Generally, product “makers” fall into one of two categories. 

First, makers who make one-off bespoke items. For example, arts and craft producers who make jewellery, or create paintings or sculptures. These are typically high-value items, as they’re one-offs. There’s no real challenge with ‘stock’, as each item is made to order. These types of “made” products are common on marketplaces like Etsy and Gumtree. 

Other makers produce multiple items. These makers want to learn how to start selling online so they can better control the e-Commerce experience. e.g. many vineyards have extended their cellar door service to selling online.

Creating products

Another option is creating products using technology. These are either fully digital products or are created via digital technology and then applied to real-world objects.  

Creative skills work well with this type of online selling. 

For example, with good writing skills, you can sell books and how-to guides on channels like Kindle Direct Publishing or via marketplaces like GumRoad and Podia. 

With good graphic design or photography skills, you can create images and visuals which you can work with Print on Demand suppliers to place on “blank” merchandise items like T-shirts, homeware and artboards. 

And, if you also know how to create great video content, you can create and sell training courses through sites like Udemy and Teachable.

Woman wearing a black T-shirt with a design showing a Red Xbox controller and the words "Game Player"

No physical costs

The advantage of these types of products is you don’t need to spend much upfront to physically “make” or store the products, They exist digitally and are only physically made when the shopper places an order.

But this “easy” approach to products, also brings its biggest challenge. Because it’s relatively easy to start, there are many competitors. You’re competing against thousands of others with the same idea. So, you have to have to work out how to make your product and your brand stand out and be different. (See our branding lessons article for more on this). More on this shortly.

Trading products

Another option for how to start selling online quickly is to trade other people’s products. You become an online retailer and only sell other people’s products. You buy products from sellers and then try to sell them on to new buyers at a profit. 

For example, you look for bargains in individualised categories like antiques or vintage clothing. You then promote and re-sell at a higher price. Or, you buy large quantities of a product to get a bulk discount and then sell in smaller quantities for a higher per-unit price. 

Unless you know your category well and know how this model works, it’s usually not the best way to start with how to start selling online though. That’s because there’s a much easier, less risky way to do the same thing. 

Dropshipping

With dropshipping, you set up your own store website, and showcase items you know you can buy from a manufacturer or supplier at wholesale prices.

But your selling prices are at retail, not wholesale levels.

When an online shopper buys from you at the retail price, you then “buy” the product from the manufacturer on their behalf at the wholesale price.

You forward the details, pay the manufacturer the wholesale price, and they send the product to your online buyer. 

In this case, you’re essentially acting like the “marketing and sales” team for the manufacturer.

Aliexpress home page - shows categories, sale details for 11.11 sale and icons showing you fave shopping guide

You earn your profits on the difference between your store (retail) price and the (wholesale) price you pay the supplier.

You can find these types of suppliers all over the world. But, China is the most well-known source as they have low manufacturing costs. So, you can buy at a low cost from China, but sell at a much higher retail price in other countries. Typically, the difference between the retail and wholesale price can be 100%-200%.

It’s an attractive-sounding model, as you don’t have cash tied up in stock. You don’t pay for the goods until you place an order. And, you control your profit between the retail price your customer pays and the wholesale price you pay the dropshipping company.

Dropshipping challenges

The challenge though is you still have to find customers who want to buy what you’re selling. And those dropship suppliers will also sell to other online retailers, so you won’t necessarily have products that are different or distinctive.

You also have to find a drop shipping company reliable enough to send the right goods to your customer.

Because if an order goes wrong, the customer will come back to your store to sort it out. You’ll have to manage refunds and returns.

Plus, you have to set up your own online store website, which has to be able to accept payments and communicate with the customer about the delivery.

This can be hard to set up quickly and keep track of orders as they’re sent out by the supplier. 

Hand holding a small wrapper package marked fragile

Selling services

Your final option to sell online is selling services. These usually fall into one of two areas. They take place entirely online. Or the online sale triggers an action in the “real” world.

Entirely online services would be something like computer software customers download. For example, virus checkers and apps. You never physically touch these items. But, you sell them via an online store or online marketplace.

Many financial services transactions work this way. For example, home or car insurance. You enter all your details and buy the policy online from the insurance company’s online store. Yes, you’ll probably get a physical copy in the mail, but it’s triggered by what happens online.

In some cases, you can even sell the results or outcomes of an already carried out service. For example, you can sell graphic design elements like icons, website templates and fonts online via creative marketplaces like Envato. Or selling digital photography via sites like Adobe Stock and Shutterstock

Non-digital services

Services sold online can also be non-digital. They can trigger actions which are carried out in the “real” world.

For example, you could sell cleaning or gardening services through an online store. The buyer places the “order” online, but it triggers you to carry out a real-world service. The buyer is buying the “time” it takes to deliver the service and the guarantee you’ll deliver the service.

Many online categories work like this.

Food delivery cyclist on busy nighttime street

For example, think about takeaway food delivery from sites like Uber Eats and Menulog. Though you’re buying a physical product (the food), you’re also buying the service (the food delivery). Those come together and are sold through an online store. (See also our last mile delivery article for more on this). 

You need somewhere to sell it

Once you’ve identified what you want to sell, the next step is to identify where you’ll sell it. 

The easiest way is to sell to an online retailer like a Bricks and Clicks supplier, or a Pure Player. They buy the product from you, and they do all the online selling.

But, here you have little to no control over how your products are then sold.

To get some control and learn how to start selling online, your options are :-

  • marketplaces
  • print on demand / dropshipping and
  • direct to consumer. 
e-commerce 5 key channel options - on a x-y graph against level of complexity and control

Marketplaces

Marketplaces are sites designed to bring online buyers and sellers together. Well-known examples include Gumtree, ebay and Etsy which are set up to let you list and sell products.

The products you list under your seller profile essentially become your online “store”. You normally start with these sites by registering as a user / buyer, and then editing your profile to set yourself up as a seller. 

Gumtree

With Gumtree, for example, the process of selling is actually when you create an “ad” about the product you want to sell.

You create the product name, choose the categories it appears in, set the price, add images and descriptions and include your contact details.

Lastly, you then choose from the many additional options to “boost” your advertising. 

Your ad then appears as a “product page” within the overall Gumtree online “store”.

The buyer can contact you, and you sort out payment and delivery between you. 

Screengrab of Gumtree home page - Headline says Spend the $5k with the Gumtree Allstars

ebay

With ebay, you create a seller account and then list items for sale. You can add a profile picture and cover image.

For each item you want to list, ebay guides you through the process. 

First, it looks for similar items which have sold before, so it can pre-fill some of the data for you. You then edit and update the pre-fill data to make it specific to your item. 

So for example, you need to state if the item is new or used. You need to upload images and write your product description. You finish off by setting the pricing and delivery options for what you’re selling. 

Ebay home page - headline says Ebay Plus - start a 30 day free trial

Once you’re happy, you list the product for sale. You get 40 listings a month for free. Any more, and you pay a small fee. And if you have a store subscription, listings are included in the cost of the subscription.

Etsy

And finally, on marketplaces, you should also consider Etsy, if your products are handmade, vintage or related to arts and crafts.

With Etsy, you get to choose a shop name and description. You can set up a background image which can include a logo. For each product you list, you can add descriptions and up to 10 images. 

These types of marketplaces work best when you want to sell unique items that have a relatively high price.

So, you find a lot of cars and electronic equipment for sale on Gumtree, and ebay for example. And Etsy by design, is focussed on handmade and vintage individual items. 

Screengrab of Etsy Home page. Headline says Find things you'll love. Support independent sellers. Only on Etsy.

Where these types of “stores” work less well though is for products where you want to drive multiple and repeated sales.

Once your product sells through these marketplaces, you need to list it again to sell another one. This can be a very inefficient way to sell. It may be OK for high-ticket items, but not so much if you want to drive lower-cost regular purchases.

Print on Demand

Print on Demand is an online selling method where you create designs you apply to a range of merchandise items like T-shirts, hoodies, coasters, stickers and phone covers. You create digital mock-ups of the design on the item, and when the online shopper orders the item, your design is printed onto their item and sent out from the Print on Demand supplier. 

It has some advantages over marketplaces as you don’t need to produce individual items to sell. Your design only exists in the digital space until the customer decides to buy.

The Print on Demand supplier keeps stocks of the “blank” merchandise products. They print the product with your design when an order comes through. The Print on Demand supplier takes care of payments and delivery. They even take care of any customer service issues. 

Similar to the dropship model, you essentially work like the “sales and marketing” function of the Print on Demand supplier. You pay for and do all the marketing work to drive the sale. You earn a commission on the sale (typically 10% to 20%) and the supplier takes care of everything else. 

This helps keep costs low. Many people like this approach as a way to learn how to start selling online. It narrows the focus of what you need to worry about. It becomes all about marketing and the designs you create. 

The website, payment and delivery system is set up already. You just need to fill in the template to add your products. It’s one of the fastest ways when it comes to how to start selling online. You can have products for sale in less than an hour. 

Print on Demand suppliers

Print on Demand suppliers like Redbubble and Spreadshirt let you set up a store within their site, where you can list all your designs.

You have options to name the store, add cover images, create names for all the products, and make some adjustments to the price and the product description.

While you don’t have the same flexibility as if you created your own store from scratch, you do have some options to make it look unique. 

You can read about some of our very early experiences working with these types of Print on Demand suppliers when we first started our own store.

edbubble back-end - how you can adjust behind the scenes with a Redbubble account

Just because you can sell, doesn't mean you will sell

While this sounds easy to do (and it is), it’s not a guaranteed way to drive sales. You should bear in mind that just because you can create a merchandise design, it doesn’t mean you will actually sell any. It’s a very cluttered marketplace, and you need good marketing and design skills to stand out.

You need marketing skills to identify the target market, and to build your brand identity. And you need good graphic design skills to create interesting designs as we cover in our article on creative T-shirt thinking

It’s possible to outsource the graphic design skills. On freelancer sites like Fiverr, you’ll find people offering these services. But the marketing skills, you can’t really outsource, you need to work that out yourself.

The clearer you have a target market in mind, the easier it is to create designs with that target market in mind.

Look at what types of merchandise designs sell well online by looking at, for example, Amazon bestseller lists.

You obviously can’t copy other designs.

But, you can use the ideas behind them for inspiration. 

Amazon Best Seller page - shows examples of best sellers in sports, fitness and outdoors

Look for passions and interests

Focus on topics and themes, where people have strong passions and interests.

People will only buy designs about topics they genuinely have a deep interest in. They buy the design to show off this interest to others. Think about it. They’ll only pay for something that feels 100% relevant to them. 

For example, pet designs are common. Because people feel passionately about cats, or dogs, or tarantulas, they’ll buy merchandise to show this off to others.

Designs that are specific to jobs and professions are also very common. This is especially true when people feel really strongly about the work they do. So, professions like nursing and teaching attract a lot of merchandise designs. 

And finally, you’ll find lots of merchandise designs about specific games and hobbies like poker or chess. We’ve even done a few of those ourselves.  

Man wearing a black T-shirt with a design showing poker chips and the words pocket rockets I'm all in

Be careful of trademarks and copyright

You’ll also find areas like sports, movies and music as merchandise design topics. With these areas, you need to take a bit more care to make sure your designs don’t infringe on any trademarks and copyrighted material.

For example, you can create designs about say football or rugby. But, if you create a design that references specific football or rugby teams, you might be infringing on their trademark. And that can lead to legal challenges.  

You can create designs related to genres of movies, and even sometimes lines of dialogue or plot points. But, you can’t use actor or character images without permission.

Small metal statue of lady of justice holding scales

And similarly music-wise, genres of music and sometimes (but not always) lyrics might be OK. But band names and specific songs, you generally can’t use.

Challenges of Print on Demand

The big challenge of print on demand is to find customers and create designs they’ll want to buy. The underlying items – T-shirts, baseball caps, mugs etc – are not what sells the product.

They’re mass-produced and generic. 

What drives success ability is your deep understanding of the target audience and the creative skills to create relevant and appealing designs.  You need to try and build your brand identity so customers know who you are and what you stand for. 

This can be difficult when you only have limited control over the product listing on the Print on Demand supplier website.

Most of the Print on Demand operators will offer some degree of customisation on the ‘front end’ of the store. Logos and cover images for example.

But it’ll be more limited than if you were managing your own online store

You’ll likely also operate the store with the POD company’s URL domain set-up. So even if you drive traffic to the store, if you eventually decide to set up your own URL, you won’t be able to take the SEO authority with you.

Screengrab of the Three-Brains Spreadshirt shop home page showing design topics for T-shirt designs

It can also be a challenge as you need to build your brand and designs’ media profile.  But you have to pay for this out of your commission fees. On a $30 T-shirt, this might be $3 – $6 per T-shirt. But, as per our online retailers guide, you may need to spend more than that to get the reach, the click-through rate and the conversion on the sale.

Print on Demand is a very competitive marketplace. There are millions of designs available. Print on Demand can be lucrative if you have strong design skills and know how to make your brand stand out. But most stores make little or no money whatsoever.

Dropshipping and Direct-to-Consumer

As we mentioned earlier, dropshipping is where you set up your own online store website and use a dropship supplier to receive and dispatch orders. 

Direct-to-Consumer (D2C) is where you also manage the manufacture, storage and delivery of the orders. As per our guide to online store websites, there are ways to set up store websites relatively quickly. You can use template-based systems like Shopify, WooCommerce, and Big Commerce. However, the added complexity of creating bespoke products, store designs and system integrations makes it hard to launch the full store experience quickly.

Because of the costs and complexity of dropshipping and D2C, you should go through the full online store strategy process. Neither channel works well with a fast approach.  

You need to manage payment and delivery

Marketplaces

With marketplaces, there’s usually a one-to-one transaction between you and the buyer. Some, but not all of the marketplaces will support payments with options like PayPal, for example.

But with marketplaces, you are almost always accountable for arranging deliveries. So, that means you need to think about both storage and shipping options.

At the most basic level, you might arrange to meet the buyer face to face and exchange payment and goods directly. But, this only works if you live in the same area.

Close up of woman's hands holding a bunch of dollar bills and in the process of counting them

More likely, you will send items through the post, or via a courier. Couriers will likely be more convenient as they’ll come to you to collect items. But they’ll also be more expensive than shipping through the post. Either way, you need to factor in the cost of shipping, as well as any protective packaging into the overall price.

Print on Demand

If you use Print on Demand suppliers, payment and delivery are managed for you. This takes away the challenge of managing these services. But, it also takes away an element of control over ‘your’ store. 

While the online shopper might follow and like your designs, their interaction is with the Print on Demand website. They pay via the Print on Demand site, and the order is shipped from the Print on Demand supplier. 

There’s no opportunity for you to use these touchpoints to deepen the connection with the target audience. You get almost no data about these customers compared to how much you get when you manage payments and delivery yourself. 

Setting up payment and delivery systems can be complex. Our online store websites and order to delivery guides cover both topics in more detail. But, for anyone going for a fast approach to how to start selling online, there are a couple of areas to focus on.

Payments - your own online store

Payments in an online store are normally done through a Payment Gateway. This is a secure website system which manages the transfer of payment between the customer’s card, and your brand account. 

Payment gateway providers typically take a percentage fee for every transaction. This is typically 2-3%. However, you can usually negotiate volume discounts. The more orders you put through them, the lower the percentage per order they take. 

It’s part of your site’s check-out process. You can embed it into your site, or send the customer to a separate page on the payment gateway site to enter their details. 

Hand holding a VISA card in front of a laptop

Confirmation of payment from the payment gateway site should trigger your order processing system. That’ll tell the warehouse and delivery teams to pick, pack and dispatch the order. You can also put checks in place to prevent fraudulent transactions (e.g. stolen credit cards), or orders for locations you don’t deliver to (e.g. overseas).

Check out our e-Commerce payments article for more on this.

Delivery

Unless you sell through a “local” marketplace like Gumtree or Facebook Marketplace, it’s also likely you won’t deliver directly to the customer. So, you’ll need someone to do that for you. 

Logistics and delivery companies can help you set up storage, packaging for shipping and access to a courier or postal service. Check out which ones serve your area, and check out both delivery costs and service levels. It’s worth asking for a discount if your sales are high enough. 

Deliveries are one of the reasons dropshipping is popular as an e-Commerce business model.

Close up of a delivery driver handing over a cardboard box delivery to a customer

With dropshipping, the supplier takes care of storage and delivery. You only get involved if there are issues.

We cover the dropshipping approach in more detail in our online retailers guide. But for those looking to go fast on how to start selling online, below is a list of useful sites to research. These either offer advice and tools for dropshipping or are well-known as places to connect with potential dropshipping partners :-

The difference between available for sale and actually selling

The 3 areas we’ve covered – something to sell, somewhere to sell it, and payments and delivery – mean your offer is available for sale.

But as we said earlier, being available for sale doesn’t actually mean you’ll sell anything. Remember, the easier it is to set up a channel, the more other people will do it. That means you need to work out a way to stand out.

So, what other factors can you work on, at a fast pace to make your “available for sale” products more likely to sell?

To answer that, you need to think through how your e-Commerce experience will work.

e-commerce planning process - 5 key steps in e-commerce experience

E-Commerce experiences

As per our e-Commerce planning process guide, you must understand what needs to happen from the online shopper’s point of view when it comes to selling.

First, you need attention-grabbing digital media to make customers aware of your products, designs and store.

You need to be clear about who the target audience is using market research, even if only secondary research. And you need to create advertising messages that will generate interest in the products.

You have the most influence on the online shopper experience here as you control the marketing activity. But, remember, you also pay for that marketing activity. So make sure you’re across the different costs in your online store business model to stay profitable.

Your selling options

When you sell through marketplaces or print on demand sellers, as we’ve discussed already, you can make some adjustments to how the actual store and product pages look and what they say.

You can set product names, images and product descriptions. And you can usually make some adjustments to price, and what products are available, such as which colours or sizes you will set. But your options to influence other parts of the e-Commerce experience are limited in both these channels.

For example, with Print on Demand suppliers, they manage payments and deliveries. They also manage the quality of the base products and printing.

You’ve no control over the quality of the actual product they produce, just the design. And, as every other designer who sells through that Print on Demand supplier accesses the same back-end systems as you, there’s no way to make yourself stand out here. Your only point of difference is in the marketing and the designs. 

When you dropship or manage the whole online store system yourself, you can control how payments and deliveries work. You can add extra services that can make your overall offer different and more attractive. So faster, or cheaper delivery options for example, or deferred payment options. 

For more on how to build your e-Commerce competitive advantage, check out our how to get more sales online guide and our advanced e-Commerce techniques article.

Conclusion - How to start selling online

This guide explored the 3 key things you need to learn about how to start selling online.

Something to sell.

Somewhere to sell it.

The ability to manage payments and delivery. 

But as we’ve also made clear, being available for sale, doesn’t necessarily lead to sales.

It’s important that however you start to sell online, you see it as the “start” of your journey. E-Commerce is an ongoing learning process to find ways to improve your online sales. 

The faster ways when it comes to how to start selling online typically are in channels where someone else takes on the complexity.

So, marketplaces and print on demand are easier as someone else handles payments and delivery.

Instagram post saying No Network cables? Thank Dr John O'Sullivan and the team at CSIRO - with a picture of a woman wearing a T-shirt that shows a WiFi symbol and the words Australian Invention

But, as we also showed, this approach also means you’ve less control and fewer options to improve the customer experience. You don’t connect as much with customers when you take the fast and easy route. 

As your e-Commerce expertise grows you’ll want to take more control to give yourself more options. It’s easier to scale when you control the whole e-Commerce experience. So, you start to plan out setting up your own store website, for example. And you look for ways to improve the order to delivery process.

The first steps when it comes to how to start selling online are always the most daunting. But as you learn what works, your confidence and competence at selling online grows. Which helps drive your business’s e-Commerce growth too. 

Three-Brains and e-Commerce

We’ve worked on many e-Commerce projects and have good expertise and experience across e-Commerce strategy and planning, working with online retailers and setting up online storesGet in touch to find out more about how we can support your e-Commerce growth with our coaching and consulting services. We can help you make smart decisions about how to get the most out of e-Commerce.

Downloadable D2C status dashboard

Setting up an online store requires you to define your strategy and plan, work out the sales and marketing and also set up the whole operational side of the business including the finances and the delivery / supply chain model. It can be complex to manage.

That’s why we’ve used this project dashboard to great success in the past to have a simple one-page summary of the key actions required to set up and manage a D2C online store. Download it here or from our resources section. 

PowerPoint and Keynote versions of this document available on request. 

D2C Online Store Status dashboard - Four column headed strategy and plan, the store, order to delivery and operations
Click to download the pdf

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