The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Small Business Finance

Introduction to small business finance

There’s a familiar saying: “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” But what if that man doesn’t know what to do with the fish once he catches it?

When you understand how small-business finances works, you’ll know what to do with “the fish”—in other words all the money you’re making and spending. And knowing how to handle your finances properly gives your business a fighting chance to survive and grow.

In this guide, we’ll look at essential small-business finance skills for successful entrepreneurs, including building a budget, tracking spending, and creating financial statements that are easy to understand.

Table of Contents

  1. Separating your personal and business finances
  2. Choosing a bank
  3. How to create a budget
  4. Understanding accounting, bookkeeping, and recordkeeping
  5. How to get started with bookkeeping
  6. Do-it-Yourself (DIY) bookkeeping
  7. Outsourcing your bookkeeping
  8. Keeping your business records in order
  9. Creating and reading financial statements

Separating your finances and limiting your liability

Separate personal from business finances

The first, and easiest, thing to do for your business’s financial well-being is separate your finances. Keeping your personal finances separate from your business finances offers many advantages, from simplifying your accounting to protecting your personal property and other assets.

Separating your finances has other advantages too. Calculating tax deductions, and overall tax preparation, is much simpler when your company has its own bank account. It’s also easier to figure out if that Wednesday afternoon lunch was with a client or a friend when your personal and business receipts aren’t mixed together. Even if you can easily distinguish one set of expenses from another, sorting a pile of paper come tax season wastes valuable time, and paying a chartered professional accountant (CPA) to do it for you can be expensive.

As your small business starts to grow, you might want to consider incorporating. When a business incorporates, it becomes a legal entity. That means if your business ever faces financial or legal trouble, your personal assets, such as your home or a college fund for your children, are, in most cases, protected.

It’s important to know when to incorporate. If you make your company a legal entity while it’s still in its early stages, you’ll no longer be able to claim any losses it incurs on your personal taxes. At the same time, the more mature a company becomes and the more assets it has, the more paperwork that’s required to incorporate it. In either case, expect the cost of incorporating to be somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000.

Choosing the right bank

Not all banks offer the same services. Some have mobile apps, for example, some don’t. Some will tailor their services around your small business, while others will have a more standardized approach.

Corporate accounts are a little different from personal accounts, so here are some things you should consider when choosing a bank for your business:

  • Does it offer online banking?
  • What are its fees for business transactions?
  • What kinds of interest rates does it have for business loans?
  • Can it offer you a business credit card?
  • Can you add other people and permissions to your account as your business grows?

Doing all your banking at one institution keeps things simple, but keep in mind that it’s not necessary. If your preferred bank doesn’t have competitive rates on loans, for example, it’s OK to look for a loan from another bank.

Types of accounts

When you open a bank account for your business, consider opening both a chequing and a savings account. The first will give you a place to manage your day-to-day revenue and expenses, while the second can be used for setting aside money for things like taxes or future investments in your business.

Transaction fees

Business bank accounts, like personal accounts, come in different tiers that allow a certain number of transactions for a monthly fee. Having an idea of how your business will receive payments and how many monthly purchases you’ll make through your account is helpful information to know when deciding what type of account to set up.

For example, if you’re dealing with several different vendors on a regular basis, you’ll want to make sure you have a low (or no) transaction fee on purchases. You might also want to see if your bank can offer you an account with no daily limit on debit purchases.

Loans and lines of credit

Even if you don’t need a loan or additional financing for your business right now, you might in the future. So ask a few questions up front about the bank’s lending requirements. Also ask about its interest rates on loans, the terms of its business loans and lines of credit, and what your small business would need to qualify for a loan.

Business credit cards

A credit card is a great way to build your business’s credit rating, giving you a better chance of securing loans and low interest rates in the future. Having a business credit card also can give you access to rewards, fraud protection, and extended warranties on purchases.

How to create a budget

Creating a small business budget

As the saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. You’ll never be able to see every bump in the financial road ahead, but you can avoid surprises and keep your business healthy by building a solid budget and keeping track of your money.

Creating a sample budget will give you a general idea of what to expect in your first months and years of operation. Over time, your budgets will become easier to create, and you’ll get better at forecasting expenses and revenues throughout the year. For now, let’s look at the types of things to include in your initial budget.

Expenses

A great way to start your budget is by writing out a list of every possible item you think your business will need—from the technology used to create your inventory to the day-to-day items in your office. A quick Google search for examples of budgets in your industry can help you figure out anything you might have missed.

One-time expenses

One-time expenses usually are big-ticket items you buy once (or sometimes every few years). This can include laptops, machinery, and office furniture. It can also include services like logo design or website development.

Fixed expenses

Fixed expenses are costs you reliably can expect to pay every month, and that don’t vary too much in price. This can include rent, insurance, internet service, website hosting, phone bills, and software subscriptions.

Variable expenses

Variable expenses fall somewhere between fixed expenses and one-time expenses—they occur more than once but vary in amount and are paid at irregular intervals. This might include materials to make your products, marketing costs, business travel, an accountant to file your taxes, or credit card processing fees.

Product pricing strategy

Coming up with the right price for your products is an important part of your budget. Here are some of the factors to consider when setting your price.

Cost of goods

The hard costs of the items you’re selling are usually straightforward. For example, if you’re running a hand-printed T-shirt shop, your material costs might be $8 per T-shirt and $3 for ink. But there’s more to setting a price than adding up hard costs.

Labor

Do you pay people to make your product or deliver your service? That cost needs to go in to your cost of goods sold. Even if you haven’t hired any staff yet, be sure to include the value of your own labour to help you evaluate the efficiency of your business. (If your own hourly “wage” ends up being unsustainably low, your business will need fine tuning.) It can also give you a good sense of when it’s time to start outsourcing tasks to someone else.

Packaging

If your business involves shipping product to customers, packaging and unboxing will play a significant role in how a customer experiences your brand. Your package is an extension of your product, so you’ll need to factor its cost into the cost of goods sold.

Shipping

Shipping is another key piece of getting your product to customers, and failing to estimate its cost correctly can throw off your budget. Things like size, weight, location, and speed all affect your shipping costs. Visit your local post office for help estimating your shipping.

Again, don’t forget to factor your own time into your shipping costs. You technically might be able to offer shipping within five days, but packaging up product and running to the post office on a daily basis isn’t an efficient use of time and will make shipping more costly by taking you away from other tasks.

Online shoppers expect to see a shipping charge added at the end of their purchasing process, but keep this cost reasonable. Customers faced with an exorbitant shipping cost may very well abandon their cart and not come back.

Processing fees

If you accept credit cards, you likely pay a fixed processing fee per transaction as well as an additional fee of around 3% of the order price. These charges vary based on the processing service you use, so shop around for one that makes sense based on your order volume. If your store is going to accept international orders, keep in mind that payment coming from outside your home country might incur higher fees on your end.

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Damage

Sometimes items get damaged, whether on their way to you or on their way from you to a customer. Hopefully the expense of replacing these goods will be a minimal cost for you, but it’s important to factor an expected amount of damaged inventory into your pricing. A Google search will give you a rough idea of what’s common for your type of business. Multiply the average percentage of loss in your industry by the cost of your product to come up with a loss estimate, then average that estimate into your pricing.

Returns

You may or may not choose to accept returns. If you selling artisan crafts, for example, returns might not be for you. If you do choose to accept returns, you can do one of three things:

  • Charge a separate “restocking fee” to recoup some of the loss
  • Raise your prices slightly to account for losses from returns
  • Leave your prices the same, and trust that a generous return policy will mean increased sales

Keep in mind you’ll also incur the cost of credit card chargebacks for fraudulent or disputed transactions.

Brand and target market

How you present your brand will contribute directly to your pricing strategy. Are you a luxury business selling products at a premium? Are you a discount shop going after the low end of the market? The way you position your business is a less tangible factor of setting your price, but it’s definitely a factor.

Sometimes, raising prices can, counterintuitively, increase sales by conveying quality. Other times, the lowest price will always win. Know your market and price accordingly.

Competition

There most likely will be other business out there offering products or services similar to yours. Research some of them to get a sense of how they’re pricing their items. You might want to offer a lower price than your competition to attract more customers, or you may want to use your brand to elevate the value of your product over theirs.

Projecting revenue

In the beginning, projecting sales is part research, part educated guess. The longer you’re in business, the better you’ll be at predicting these numbers and knowing when your peaks and valleys will be throughout the year. Like expenses, your sales will vary by industry.

If your business started as a side hustle, you may already have some preliminary sales data. Even a few numbers can help you figure out which of your products are bestsellers and what times of year your sales will be high or low.

If you have no data to start with, you still can gather useful information by talking to other business owners in your industry (if you don’t know any, your accountant might) and doing some research online. Chances are, with a little digging, you’ll be able to find some rough numbers on the level of growth to expect in your first year and which months will do the heavy lifting in terms of sales.

Understanding accounting, bookkeeping, and record keeping

Accounting, bookkeeping, and record keeping

In this section, we’ll look at three areas integral to keeping your company’s financial health on track.

Bookkeeping is the day-to-day tracking of your business’s transactions, such as sales made and expenses paid. Accounting interprets those transactions over longer periods of time. It lets you see if your business is profitable, which parts of your business are doing well (or not so well), the value of your business, and your cash flow. And record keeping is the organization of all the documents that make bookkeeping and accounting possible.

Let’s look in more detail at the differences between each of these financial tasks, why you need them, and how to manage them in a way that’s right for your business.

Accounting

There are two accounting methods small businesses can use—cash and accrual. You’ll need to pick a system before the end of your first tax year, and then stick to it every year following.

Cash versus accrual

Cash accounting records transactions only when money changes hands. So if you invoice a client, you wouldn’t recognize that revenue until their payment clears. In accrual accounting, sales, purchases, and expenses are recognized as soon as they’re billed.

Which method should you choose? Cash accounting is simpler to track, because transactions are recorded when payment is received or made. There’s no need to track accounts receivable or payable, and you always have a clear idea of exactly how much money you have. In other words, your books will always match your bank accounts.

Since accrual accounting records accounts payable and receivable, it can be more difficult to track cash flow, but it also helps you better forecast your business’s finances for the months and years to come.

Generally, you can choose the system that works best for you, but there are exceptions. In the United States, a business is required to use the accrual method if it carries inventory or generates an income of more than $25 million per year. In Canada, any income from self-employment (unless it’s from farming, fishing, or self-employed commission) must be recorded using the accrual method.

When you should talk to a CPA

If your business is still more of a side hustle, or if its finances are simple, you likely can skip enlisting the help of a CPA for now. There are plenty of small-business finance resources online you can reference.

But if your small business starts overshadowing your day job, talking to a CPA is highly recommend to make sure you’re on track. CPAs don’t just file your taxes—they also can help you with financial strategy, tax planning, lease negotiations, financial reporting, tax compliance, and treasury management.

A CPA can look at your business plan and budget, help shed light on anything you might have missed, and get you set up with a bookkeeping process tailored to your industry.

Choosing a CPA is similar to choosing a bank. They have to be the right fit for you and for your business. A great way to get recommendations for CPAs is by asking other business owners you know and trust in your industry. Make sure to talk to the CPA one-on-one to get a sense of whether or not they’re the right CPA for you.

Your CPA can help you avoid surprises down the line by helping you figure out how much tax you need to collect and set aside, which expenses to track and deduct, and which legal structure your business should use.

Bookkeeping

Bookkeeping keeps track of revenue

Bookkeeping is the tracking of a business’s revenue and expenses. It allows you to keep tabs on your company’s financial health and makes your CPA’s job easier come tax time. Basically, bookkeeping involves entering your sales and expenses into a spreadsheet and filing your receipts as a backup.

If you want to secure financing for your business at some point in the future, keeping your books up to date can help bolster a loan application or investment pitch. Well-managed finances and clear records allow potential lenders and investors make realistic projections of your company’s financial health and gives them confidence to invest in you.

Well-managed books also help your CPA take advantage of all eligible tax deductions, and catch banking errors in a timely manner, when they’re easier to reconcile. But the biggest benefit to keeping on top of your bookkeeping is always having a clear picture of where your business stands financially in the moment. Well-kept books can give you a sense of where your business’s high and low points will be over the course of the year. They can show you if your packaging costs are too high, or if you’re overspending on marketing.

Monitoring your books allows you to see in real time what’s working well and what needs tweaking.

How to get started with bookkeeping

Now that you know why you need to stay on top of your bookkeeping, let’s look at how to do it.

Step 1: Choose an accounting method:

There are two types of bookkeeping systems: single-entry and double-entry. Deciding which system to use depends on how complicated your finances are.

Single-entry

If your business is small and you’re not making a lot of transactions, single-entry is the simplest way to keep your books. In this method, entries are recorded a single time, marked as either an input (revenue) or an output (expenses), while things like inventory and capital are tracked more casually. Single-entry doesn’t offer all the checks and balances of double-entry, but if you’re doing your own bookkeeping, this is probably the system to choose.

Double-entry

With the double-entry system, every transaction is entered into your books twice. It’s more complicated than single-entry, but it provides more information about your business. Unlike single-entry, double-entry bookkeeping tracks your assets and liabilities in addition to revenue and expenses and has the checks and balances needed to reduce errors. Double-entry bookkeeping also gives you the information needed to create detailed financial statements showing which areas of your business revenue is flowing into and out of.

Double-entry is a more robust system. If you’re hoping to get a business loan or bring on investors, or if you’re hiring staff and carrying a large inventory, it’s highly recommended you use double-entry.

Double-entry is a little complicated, so let’s walk through an example. Say you run an online t-shirt shop. You order blank t-shirts from a supplier, screen print them yourself by hand, and then ship them to your customers. When you get a shipment from your supplier, you would enter that expense debit to your cash account, and as a credit to your product account. When the credit and debit columns of your ledger are added together, they should equal zero. This is what it means when someone refers to books being “balanced.”

Step 2: Keep good records

At tax time, the burden is on you to show the validity of all of your expenses, so keeping supporting documents like receipts and invoices is crucial.

The IRS accepts digital records, so if you use a cloud-based system like Dropbox, Evernote, or Google Drive to upload your documents, you’ll never have to deal with smudged receipts. You also can use a receipt-tracking app, like Shoeboxed.

We’ll talk more about recordkeeping later in this guide.

Step 3: Enter all your transactions somewhere

Bookkeeping involves keeping track of your finances on a spreadsheet. Whether you use Excel, online accounting software, or good old-fashioned pen and paper, you’ll need to choose a system that makes it easy for you to enter every sale and purchase. At minimum, you need to track amounts, dates, vendors, and clients.

Step 4: Categorize your transactions

Categorizing your transactions is the last piece of the bookkeeping puzzle.

The first and simplest part of categorizing transactions is one you’re likely familiar with: credits and debits. You’ll also need to categorize your receipts by “account.” Accounts help add more context to your bookkeeping.

Accounts generally are broken down into five types:

  • Assets. An asset is something your company owns, such as cash, a building, a computer, inventory, or even intellectual property. Basically, assets are anything your company could sell if it needed to.
  • Liabilities. The most common form of business liability is debt. So if you have a business loan, this would go in the liability category. Accounts owed would also count as liabilities.
  • Equity. Equity is any cash investment or drawing made by the owner of a company.
  • Revenue. Revenue is any income received from the sale of goods or services.
  • Expenses. Expenses are any money paid out for the everyday running of your company. This could include internet service, printing supplies, and office space rental. Expenses are different from assets because they generally hold no potential for resale, or are consumable (like office stationery).

There’s lots of flexibility in the way financial transactions can be categorized in your books. The most important thing is to decide on a system and stick to it consistently. If you haven’t done this before, consulting a professional bookkeeper can make the task of categorizing your transactions run smoothly and also help ensure your categories are in line with those of other businesses working in the same space as you.

Depending on how big your business is and how complicated your financial needs are, you have a couple of options for how you handle your bookkeeping.

Do-it-yourself (DIY) bookkeeping

If your business is more of a side hustle, if your finances are tight, or if your bookkeeping needs are simple, it’s worth considering the DIY approach.

That said, even if you plan to keep your own books, it’s a good idea to consult a CPA before you start. It’s possible to make errors with even the simplest bookkeeping, and those errors could cost you at tax time. Money spent getting a CPA to help you set up your books is money you’ll save paying a CPA to sort through and correct errors later.

When taking the DIY approach, you can use a basic spreadsheet to track your finances, or you can use online accounting software like Quickbooks, Xero, or Wave.

Using a spreadsheet is free, but you’ll have to work a bit to create financial reports. Online accounting software has a monthly cost, but it can create reports for you.

Outsourcing your bookkeeping

If your business is a little more complicated, or has moved out of the side-hustle stage, it might be time to outsource your bookkeeping. We recommend hiring someone else to do your bookkeeping if:

  • You don’t have the time to keep on top of it
  • Your finances have gotten too complicated for you to confidently maintain your books
  • Your efforts would be better spent working on a different part of your business
  • You’ve missed deductions at tax time or have accidentally kept your books incorrectly in the past

When you outsource your bookkeeping, you can hire a freelance bookkeeper, a bookkeeping firm, or an online bookkeeping service.

Hiring a local bookkeeper is a good option if most of your records are on paper or if you feel more comfortable meeting with your bookkeeper face-to-face. Hiring an online service, like Bench, could be the right choice for your business if you prefer to work online and your business isn’t cash-heavy.

At Bench, our bookkeepers do your books for you. We create the necessary monthly financial statements you need—all of which are accessible online—and provide you with everything you’ll need to hand to your CPA at tax time.

Keeping your business records in order

Keep your business records in order

Without records—the documents that show what your company has been spending and earning over the course of a year—there’d be nothing for bookkeepers or accountants to do.

Records are legally required as proof that the information included in your tax returns is accurate. To maintain comprehensive records, you’ll need to keep:

  • Receipts
  • Bank and credit card statements
  • Bills
  • Canceled checks
  • Invoices
  • Proof of payments
  • Financial statements from an online service or your bookkeeper
  • Previous tax returns

Depending on where you live and the type of business you run, there might be other records you’re legally required to keep or additional tax forms you need to file. Talk to a CPA at the beginning of your tax year to get a clear idea of how best to maintain your records.

A good general rule is: if in doubt, keep it. It’s a lot easier to throw out a receipt later once you’re sure you don’t need it than it is to frantically dig through your recycling.

How to store your records

The good old shoebox is a classic trope for receipt and record storage, but it’s not the most effective system. An accordion folder is a step up, but accidents still can happen. Paper receipts can be damaged by water, fire, or a loyal (if excitable) canine friend. Paper can also fade over time, especially cash register receipts, and the last thing you want is to open your shoebox at tax time and find a lot of blank scraps.

There are myriad services available to track and store your documents digitally. Taking photos of receipts and uploading them, along with electronic bills and invoices, into a Dropbox or Google Docs folder is the online version of keeping an accordion folder. There also are lots of online services designed specifically to help make your record keeping as painless as possible:

  • Shoeboxed allows you to scan receipts and digitally organizes their information . It also has a feature that auto-generates expense reports.
  • FileThis automatically gathers information from electronic documents (like bills), saving you the trouble of uploading them.
  • Expensify lets you scan and email receipts and electronic documents to create simple expense reports.

Creating and reading financial statements

Understanding financial statements

Financial statements are reports created from your books. They’re a great way to check in on how your business is doing, make predictions about upcoming revenue and expenses, and decide when to invest in growing your business.

Financial statements might seem intimidating at first, but once you get a handle on them you’ll love the peace of mind that comes with having a strong grasp of your business’s finances.

Balance sheets

A balance sheet is a snapshot overview of your finances at any given point in time. It looks something like the online banking dashboard page, butut instead of showing your checking and savings accounts, the snapshot shows your company’s assets, liabilities, and equity.

Essentially, a balance sheet shows the formula Assets = Liabilities + Equity.

In the example of our T-shirt company, a simple balance sheet might look like this:

November

ASSETS

Bank account: $2,000

LIABILITIES

Vendor invoice: $500

EQUITY

Retained earnings: $1,500

December

ASSETS

Bank account: $6,000

LIABILITIES

Vendor invoice: $1,000

EQUITY

Retained earnings: $5,000

Income statement

An income statement takes a closer look at—you guessed it—your business’s income, breaking it down into expenses and revenue, then further breaking those amounts down into individual line items.

Income statements look at things like:

  • Revenue: how much money you brought in selling goods (like a T-shirt)
  • Cost of good sold: the amount of money you spent on those goods before selling them
  • Operating expenses: other costs associated with running your business, like electricity, internet, marketing, and business cards.

You can use the above values to calculate your gross profit (Revenue – Cost of Goods Sold) and your net profit (Gross Profit – Operating Expenses).

Gross profit shows you how much income you’re bringing in on specific items. If your gross profit is low, you might want to consider increasing the price of each item sold.

Net profit tells you how much income your business is bringing in after expenses, and gives you a picture of the overall profitability of your business. It’s a way of factoring all of the other expenses your business incurs into the cost of your product. If your net profit is low, you might need either to decrease your operating expenses or increase the cost of your product.

A simple income statement might look something like this:

Revenues

T-shirts sold: $4,000

Expenses

Cost of goods sold: $675

Utilities: $50

Internet: $60

Studio rent: $200

Website hosting: $15

Total: $1,000

Net income: $3,000

If you’re doing your own bookkeeping, you can find a simple income statement template here.

Cash-flow statement

Cash-flow statements show you how much cash your business has earned or used during a specific time period. If you’re using the cash accounting method, you can already see how much cash you have available.

While it’s important to monitor your business’s revenue, it’s equally (if not more) important to monitor cash flow.

Revenue is the overall profit you have coming into your business in the long term. Cash flow is the amount of liquid cash you have access to at any given time. Cash flow is handy if you have to pay for materials upfront. Even if you’re going to be generating a lot of revenue from sales, you still need cash available to pay your vendors.

Business finance separates myth from math

Small business finance conclusion

Even if your company has the best product in your industry and award-winning marketing, it still can fail through lack of financial awareness. Keeping your records, books, and accounting in order will give you a clear picture of your company’s financial health and needs. This, in turn, will enable you to make the best decisions for your company’s future.

Whether you’re going it alone or hiring a financial professional, it always helps to seek advice from other successful entrepreneurs in your field or to consult with a good CPA.

Knowing how to track and manage your finances will give you peace of mind that more than makes up for any challenges you may face building the skill. And the more you learn to manage money, the easier and more intuitive it will become.

About the author: Altaira Northe writes for Bench, the online bookkeeping service that does your books for you. She’s also a writing coach and runner who splits her time between Toronto and B.C.’s Sunshine Coast.

Keyword Research Essentials: How to Find the Search Terms Your Customers Use

Ecommerce SEO Course on Shopify Academy

Keyword research is the most important aspect of your SEO strategy. It creates the foundation for everything else you do.

The goal of keyword research is to unearth opportunities to generate traffic based on what your potential customers actually search for online. It’s the foundation of any SEO strategy.

If you can optimize your webpages and the content you create with the right keywords, you can potentially generate high quality passive traffic to your site by showing up organically in relevant search engine results.

FREE WEBINAR: SEO Basics, Q&A with Casandra Campbell (Mar 21/2pm ET).

Instead of guessing at the keywords your customers are searching, keyword research is a process for making informed decisions about the keywords you target, based on factors like how competitive a keyword is or its estimated monthly search volume.

Solidifying your keyword strategy through keyword research is the first step you need to take before you start any on-site and off-site SEO—all of which you’ll learn in more detail in my Shopify Academy course, SEO Training for Beginners. 

 

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Prefer a written version of this video? Below you’ll find a slightly edited summary of how to do keyword research for ecommerce.

Keyword research 101

Before we get into how to find valuable keywords, let’s define what “keyword” actually means. A keyword is any word or phrase that gets typed into a search engine. For example, a single word like “cake” or a longer phrase like “how do I make cake.” With that, it’s also important to understand the three different types of keywords, categorized by searcher intent.

  • Navigational: A Navigational keyword is a keyword someone uses to navigate somewhere. For example, if you type the word New York Times into Google, you’re probably trying to navigate to the New York Times website.
  • Transactional: Transactional keywords are used when someone is trying to complete an action. For example, someone who searches for the keyword “buy running shoes online” is trying to make a purchase.
  • Informational: Informational keywords imply that the user is researching a topic or problem, or gathering context, not necessarily with the intent to make a purchase. An example of an informational keyword would be “what’s the most popular style of running shoes?”

Most ecommerce businesses prioritize on transactional and informational keywords.That’s because ecommerce keyword research largely focuses on searchers with the intent to buy. While not every keyword you’ll target needs to be in pursuit of a purchase, knowing the implied intent behind a search query is crucial for figuring out what content your page should have, whether that’s high-level information in an educational blog post or a sales-focused product page.

Just keep in mind that even with the right keywords, search engines will only reward you with their top spots if your content or product pages are able to add value by meeting the needs of the people searching for those keywords.

While keyword research has a surprising amount of depth, getting started is actually a simple process. I have a 3-step strategy and specific tools I use consistently to find the right keywords for the business I’m marketing.

Step 1: Make a list of topics relevant to your business

The truth is, there isn’t one “best” way to brainstorm your initial list of topics. Start by thinking about your industry and the products you sell. As you get going, think more about what kinds of questions your potential customers might have and what kinds of content they might be interested in.

Here are a few questions to help you as you brainstorm keywords:

  • When someone searches for this keyword, what are they expecting to find?
  • Is the keyword relevant to the products you’re selling?
  • How do you want to be discovered?
  • How do your customers talk about your product?

For example, if you are selling coworking office space, does your customer call it a “coworking space” or a “shared office space”? Brainstorm some of the different ways that people might search for your product when they have the intention to purchase. Despite being similar in meaning, keywords can still vary in intent, how frequently they’re used, and other ways.

But you don’t want to only target transactional keywords that people search for when they’re ready to buy. Think about using informational keywords to fuel your content marketing. This can be done by writing blog posts or creating new pages dedicated to educating your audience and moving them towards purchase intent.

So while the end-goal is to encourage a visitor to purchase your product, building a page on your store that addresses a specific concern or topic can increase your chances of getting found in the first place through informational keywords.

For example, if you sell garden hoses, a transactional search would be “rubber garden hose.” Meanwhile, an informational keyword might be “how to choose the right garden hose.” Throughout the brainstorming and researching process, you’ll find new variations, associations, and related search queries that help you paint a better picture of how your customers could potentially use search engines to find your business.

FREE WEBINAR: SEO Basics, Q&A with Casandra Campbell (Mar 21/2pm ET).

Step 2: Find “Searches related to” and write them down

As you start creating your keyword list, one concept you’ll want to familiarize yourself with is long-tail keywords, or keywords that are typically three to four words or longer. Long-tail keywords have less competition, but also lower search volume, so they’ll only be useful to your business if they’re highly targeted; that is, they send especially valuable traffic to your store. We’ll talk more about competition for keywords later in this article.

As you’re thinking about keywords, head over to Google, type in a word or a phrase, and then scroll down to the bottom of the page to the “Searches related to” section. Add relevant keywords you discover here to your list from Step 1.keyword research example

Step 3: Use a keyword research tool to expand your list

There are many tools that help make the keyword research process easier. One free tool that I recommend is called Keywords Everywhere, which is a free extension for Chrome and Firefox. It will show you the estimated number of times a given keyword is searched for on Google each month to help you prioritize your list. It will also recommend additional keywords for you to consider. I highly recommend you start here.

Another option for getting monthly search volume and keyword suggestions is Google Keyword Planner. The main value of this tool is that the information comes straight from Google so it’s more accurate than other tools. However, you need a Google Ads account to use it and you won’t see all the data unless you start running ads.

Another good tool is Ahrefs, which is much more advanced than what we’ve listed so far. This is a tool that people use when SEO is their full-time job. The beginner plan is over $100 a month. I’ve found Ahrefs is well worth the cost when your store is generating consistent revenue each month, and when SEO is a cornerstone of your distribution strategy, but if you’re just getting started, it may not be in your budget.

How to conduct keyword research: A recap

Now that we’ve covered the basics of creating a keyword strategy, let’s review the three essential steps for conducting keyword research for your own online store.

  1. Make a list of relevant topics to your business
  2. Find “searches related to” and write them down
  3. Use a keyword research tool to expand your list

Now, it’s time to carve out some space to brainstorm a big list of potential keywords that you can refine over time. Remember, you’re in the exploration stage, so try not to filter your ideas until it’s time to narrow down your list.

Once you have your list in hand, you can head over to the next lesson in my free video course on Shopify Academy, SEO Training for Beginners, where we’ll cover how to narrow your initial list so you can focus on keywords that will actually grow your business.

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Shopify Academy Course: SEO for Beginners

Entrepreneur and Shopify expert Casandra Campbell shares her 3-step SEO framework to help your business get found through Google searches.

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15 Drool-Worthy Product Page Examples to Inspire Your Own Ecommerce Store

When designing an online store, a lot of focus goes on the homepage—it’s the first thing that visitors see when they arrive. But the real goal of any ecommerce website is sales, and there’s no way you’ll achieve that without a stellar product page.

Effective product pages immediately convey the value of the featured product. They show shoppers what the product looks like, tells them what it feels like, and make them believe it’s something they absolutely need to own.

There are so many different features and variations you can choose when building a product page. I’m going to show you some of my favorites, and walk through what makes them so great in the hopes that you can apply these to your next product page design.

Hope you enjoy! And don’t blame me if you find yourself wanting to purchase one or more of these products. That is, after all, the very purpose of an effective product page.

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Shopify Academy Course: How to Design Your Online Store

Creative director Stephan Peralta demonstrates how to design a brand people love and an online store even the most casual browsers want to buy from.

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Best product pages: 15 examples

  1. Luxy Hair
  2. PooPourri
  3. Rocky Mountain Soap Company
  4. United By Blue
  5. Sixty-Nine
  6. Leesa
  7. Manitobah Mukluks
  8. Perfect Keto
  9. Johnny Cupcakes
  10. WP Standard
  11. Master & Dynamic
  12. Primal Pit Paste
  13. Love Hair
  14. Pilgrim
  15. Holstee

1. Luxy Hair

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It’s not a stretch to imagine that most Luxy customers are women, as this shop sells human hair extensions. The site immediately welcomes you with a feminine touch, complete with a heart emoji on the tab bar in your browser.

Since this product has many different variants, the user is brought along on a journey toward the one best suited for them, first choosing the thickness of their hair, followed by the color, and then being brought to the specific product page containing (ideally) exactly what they’ve been looking for.

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The clear call-to-action here is to add this product to my bag, but if I’m still unsure, there’s a prompt to watch an overview video above the purchase button.

The page also addresses some of the largest abandoned cart indicators: shipping costs and returns. Most data shows the vast majority of shoppers will abandon their cart if shipping is too expensive.

Plus, knowing that Luxy’s customer support team is available around the clock helps me feel assured that I can get in touch should I have an issue or question about my purchase.

2. PooPourri

 poopouri

I mean, how can you not get behind a product that speaks so candidly about something so taboo? This product perfectly lends itself to playful copy, which can also be a remarkably good way to gain goodwill.

“Spritz 3-5 sprays into the toilet bowl on the water’s surface,” their product pages reads. “Proceed to do your thing. *finger snap*” (For those who haven’t heard of this product, this is a toilet spray you can use before going #2 that traps odor beneath the water.)

This product page effectively upsells by showing visitors they will save money if they purchase on a subscription basis, and gives the option to purchase every one, two, or three months. They’re also not afraid to make light of their product, as is evidenced with their “How it Works” video.

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3. Rocky Mountain Soap Company

rocky mountain soap

This natural soap company knows that the people looking at their product pages are going to want to know they’re buying high-quality, wholesome products. They state that the product is 100% natural, and lead the product description with a list of its all-natural ingredients. The product menu allows you to view a full listing of ingredients within the product.

What particularly draws me to this product page is its bold usage of testimonials. Below this particular pumpkin bar, one review’s headline reads, “MMMM MMM MOISTURE.” A review that powerfully creates a pretty lasting impression in the mind of someone considering purchasing this product.

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Rocky Mountain Soap clearly knows the power of customer reviews. Nearly a quarter of respondents to a Bizrate Insights survey said they always referenced customer reviews when shopping online, and 40% said they did so often. The social proof immediately below the product, highlighting that it’s been rated with five stars by multiple other satisfied customers, is a sure way to lessen a buyer’s anxiety around never having touched the product in person themselves.

4. United By Blue

united by blue

One of the most eco-friendly online stores, United By Blue is on a mission to eliminate trash from the world’s oceans and waterways. You’ll see they reiterate that your purchase helps them get closer to achieving this goal: “Every product purchased removes 1 pound of trash.” Who wouldn’t want to clean up the earth and get a great top out of it?

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A sizing chart also helps users purchase the product with the right fit, which probably helps reduce the amount of returns the business has to process.

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The clean design on each product page takes users through product details, customer reviews, and a collection of similar products. By displaying color variants with the product thumbnails, United By Blue also encourages shoppers to click through and check out the options.

5. Sixty-Nine

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This one doesn’t take much explaining. It’s immediately obvious why this is an attention-capturing product page. The characters moving before your eyes and appearing to look right out at you brings the website and its featured products to life in a highly novel way, unlike many other ecommerce product collection pages.

Once you click through to a specific product, the animation changes to a static photograph, and is accompanied by a clean product page with lots of white space. There’s a link to their sizing chart so customers can be assured they’ll purchase the right fit, and there’s a prompt for me (as a Canadian) to head over to their Canadian store so I can purchase in CAD.

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The uncluttered design removes any distraction from the buying experience, giving users a clear and direct path to purchase.

I’ve remembered this website ever since it took home an Honorable Mention in our Ecommerce Design Awards, which we’ve since rebranded and expanded into our Commerce Awards.

6. Leesa

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Leesa is a foldable, shippable mattress company that eliminates the need to go to a mattress store. Their branding is crisp and clean, relying heavily on their palette of white, teal, and gray. Many similar mattress companies have popped up, so Leesa cuts right to the chase by highlighting why you should choose them over anyone else:

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They also take this opportunity to share their corporate social responsibility policy of donating one mattress for every 10 sold, to make the potential purchaser feel good about their decision to go with Leesa.

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A mattress is a big purchase, and so the more you scroll, the more reasons they give you to make the leap. You get a look at the inside workings of the mattress and what makes it unique. Leesa shows product reviews to give you a sense of how much other people have enjoyed it. They even include a FAQ of the top questions asked about their product, so people never need to leave the product page to have them answered.

7. Manitobah Mukluks

manitobah

Similar to a mattress, a pair of Manitobah Mukluks has a high(ish) cost per product, meaning that the decision to buy is more complicated. If something costs less than $20 and you feel like buying it, you’re considerably likely to buy it. But the more that price point creeps up, the more guilt you may feel when making a purchasing decision. And guilt is never a feeling you want to inspire in your visitors!

This product page seeks to ease the most common purchasing anxieties: “free shipping” and “free returns” are written in big, bold letters right next to the “Add to Cart” button. People feel like their purchase doesn’t have to be a forever decision, and that the price they see will be pretty close to the final amount.

Similar to Leesa, they allow the hesitant purchaser to leisurely learn more about the company and its mission, without ever leaving the product page.

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The reader can learn about the company being Indigenous-owned (as well as what that means), and the story behind the art on the sole of their boots. Personally, I think the end of the page should have a second “Add to Cart” button so people don’t need to scroll all the way back to the top if they’ve been convinced on the way down.

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8. Perfect Keto

perfect keto

Perhaps I’m biased, having tried an eight-month stint of a ketogenic diet myself, but I particularly like this product page even though it’s relatively plain. It has all the trappings you expect from a high-converting product page, including great product photography, an overview of why you should want to use their product, and the option to “subscribe and save” as a way to upsell by showing people that they’ll save money per product (even though they’ll pay more overall).

This page also employs a “Related Products” section so that even if people aren’t totally sold on the product they’re looking at, they can find similar ones that might be a better fit. Or, as I’m sure is the hope and dream of Perfect Keto, you can just buy the whole lot.

9. Johnny Cupcakes

cupcake

Any product that has to do with or likens itself to sweets is in my good books. Johnny Cupcakes is a playful brand, calling itself “the world’s first t-shirt bakery” and highlighting all their recent additions as being “freshly baked.” It’s a fun theme that works for them.

They make good use of product photography, using high-quality images to show off their clothing and fun designs. And how can you not love their loading animation of a chubby youth chasing an elusive cupcake?

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Additionally, when you click the “BUY NOW” button, the shopping cart pops up on the right-hand side of your screen to remind you that you can check out at any time. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that you have yet to close the deal, and it clearly identifies the ways that you can pay. This effectively turns the product page into the checkout page, which is a powerful way to speed along the purchasing process.

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10. WP Standard

wp standards

I confess that part of my reason for including this product page is because I have a big, fat crush on this product. It’s so intensely beautiful. What really stands out here is the product photography. It gives you a sense of time and place, so you can really imagine what it would be like to own this product.

A unique element of this product page includes the option to monogram your initials onto the bag. If you’re going to make a financial commitment to a high-quality bag like this, perhaps you want it to truly feel like yours, with the initials to prove it.

11. Master & Dynamic

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Bold, elegant, and luxe are some of the words that come to mind when I hit the Master & Dynamic website. Close-up shots highlighting the details of the headphones show off the quality and care with which the item was made. It begs you to wonder what they sound like.

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Master & Dynamic’s product pages are almost like experiences themselves. As you scroll, you discover more about the detail-oriented design of the headphones—what they were made of, which advanced features they have, and how to control them.

But they’re not completely prioritizing design over conversion. The floating “add to bag” bar at the top of the page is inconspicuous enough to not distract from the experience, but still a constant remind that you can make these your own. You don’t have to scroll all the way back up and interrupt the experience if you want to buy them. (Not to mention the nice reminder of all the color options you have!)

12. Primal Pit Paste

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Personal hygiene isn’t the sexiest thing to think about. And for a product that’s associated with being dirty, the product page design is as clean as it gets. An all-white background with touches of bright, punchy color make the brand and products feel fun.

Primal Pit Paste makes great use of customer reviews, highlighting them both next to the price and in an ever-present button on the left-hand side of the page. They also reiterate coveted ingredients and qualities (natural, organic, cruelty-free, etc.) right next to the “Add to Cart” button to combat any buyer hesitation.

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Still not convinced? Scroll down the page and get a deeper dive into the ingredients and how to use the non-traditional products. Images and graphics continue the playful element, and you can always pop over to your cart to check out thanks to the floating button on the bottom right.

13. Love Hair

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Love Hair is another brand that focuses on clean products, with a matching clean design for their product pages. White backgrounds, grays, and subtle hints of muted color draw the eye to the product images. And they don’t just show you still shots of the product; Love Hair also leverages video content on product pages.

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Beneath the video, Love Hair educates users more about the product and what they’ll get out of it, giving them an opportunity to speak directly to their audience’s pain points. And in case you needed any more reasons to buy, “Why Love Hair Coconut Oil” talks more about their quality ingredients and commitment to sustainability.

14. Pilgrim

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Aromatherapy meets dynamic design on Pilgrim’s website, with product pages that flicker from white to black to give you an idea of what it’s really like to have one of their items in your home.

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Beyond the flashy effects of their site, the design is elegant and clean as well. The page layout gives a brief nod to some of the standard “why buys”—30-day return, free shipping, 1-year warranty, 5-star customer reviews.

Scroll down, though, and a more robust product discovery experience awaits. Graphics that highlight the features, benefits, and materials of the product, along with user-generated content in the form of videos, give you a deeper dive.

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15. Holstee

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The Holstee brand is fun and playful, much like its product pages. A simple design with splashes of color draw your eyes to a few key elements on the page: the products, the “Add to Cart” button, and the highlighted text—another instance of promoting discounted prices if customers sign up for memberships.

Holstee is a very visual brand, and the rest of their product page isn’t as simple as what you find above the fold. Scroll down and you’ll see more photos, videos, and options to learn more about the product.

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Toggle between more detailed descriptions and specs, customer reviews, shipping and returns, and ecology (which essentially state’s the brand’s mission to great design and quality). This eliminates the need to scroll endlessly to get back to the buy button; instead, users just have to hop back to the section directly above.

Build your product pages with Shopify

You don’t need to be an experienced designer to create product pages that look good and drive sales. With Shopify, you can create product pages that have a balance of both good design and conversion-oriented elements.


Start your free 14-day trial of Shopify—no credit card required.

Selling Courses and Membership Programs on Shopify

merriweather council on shopify masters

Courses and membership programs can be a great way to monetize your experience and expertise in a specific domain.

But with so much free content out there, what do you do when the niche you want to target is already saturated with information? 

In this episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll learn from a hobbyist-turned-entrepreneur about how to create and market your own courses on Shopify with a membership program.

Danielle Spurge started Merriweather Council to help entrepreneurial makers leverage their talents to create sustainable craft-based businesses.

The same way you can pay for one gym membership that’s $9 a month or one that’s $79 a month—what level of experience do you want to have? Pricing is a tool to attract (or repel) people who are right for you.

Tune in to learn

  • Why niching down will actually build your business
  • How to transition from being a hobbyist to a business owner and how much time you need
  • How to create and market a course even if you don’t think you’re an expert

Don’t miss an episode! Subscribe to Shopify Masters.


  

Show Notes

Transcript

Felix: Today, I’m joined by Danielle Spurge from the Merriweather Council. Danielle helps entrepreneurial makers leverage their talents to create sustainable craft-based businesses and was started in 2010 and based out of Virginia. Welcome, Danielle.

Danielle: Thank you so much for having me.

Felix: Yeah, so you told us that you started off by growing an embroidery business where you’ve made 8000 the first year, then grew 74000 the second year. So tell us a bit more about this experience. What do you find separates someone from making four figures to grow to an almost nearly six-figure business?

Danielle: Yeah, that was my experience. Pretty low four figure year, my first year in business, and the upper five figures in that second year. And now that I’ve worked with so many makers and have been through the experience myself, I honestly think one of the biggest factors is people really honing in on what it is they actually want to be doing and what is actually a marketable product for them. For me, that was a huge shift in really being honest about what do I like doing and what do I want to continue to make. Especially when you’re doing a handmade product, it’s really important that what you’re doing is sustainable not only in production but in your own like mental state of doing it over and over. And I think, you know, one thing people can really do is just be really honest with themselves about what do they want to make, how much of it do they want to make, and then build their business based on those realities.

Felix: What were you doing that you decided to stop doing when you started thinking more and more I guess consciously about this?

Danielle: Yeah, so when I started my business it was really from a place of no plans. I was in college and I had planned to go to graduate school, and at the very last minute, like on the eve of college graduation, I decided not to go to graduate school. And so I didn’t have any plans, and I just decided to start my business because that’s something I’d always been interested in and had been researching throughout my senior year. And so I decided to just go for it since I didn’t have anything else to do. And so I started, you know, really from this place of, like I said, no plans, and I was making all sorts of different products, and just trying to see what would land and what do I like doing. And I do think that is an important step for a lot of people to take, is just trying things and see what works and adjust from there.

But I was making a lot of sewn products, you know, fabric buntings and different sewn projects, and I just decided that I really wanted to only be embroidering. That was kind of my like the main thing that I loved to do, and it was the thing that I felt the most drawn to, I had the most creativity concerning. So once I like really cut the other stuff out, I was able to really focus on those embroidered projects and do more of them, evolve them better, do them differently, do them better than I had been doing them, market them better. It’s really about finding that niche and digging into it. I think that is really what separates a lot of, you know, these people from people who are struggling is there just too afraid to go all in on something. And for me, that was like a really huge step. So I always suggest people do that.

Felix: Yeah. So you’re talking about two things. It’s like focus, but then also focus on what you’re most passionate about. And these are certainly lessons that I hear often from entrepreneurs. I’m interested in hearing what kind of questions did you ask yourself to determine that this particular niche was what you would be focusing on? How did you arrive at that point where you said, okay, let me cut everything else out. And again, like you said, it’s a big, big step, and it’s fearful because you are essentially making a decision that could essentially make or break you because now you are making the decision to cut things out of your business and focusing, going all in on one thing. It’s a big step. So what kind of questions did you ask yourself to make sure that you felt comfortable enough to make that jump?

Danielle: Well, for me it was a matter of accessibility. I really, you know, I was doing this business thing and I’m like, if I’m going to do this, let me do this on my own terms. I’m already so doing this on my own terms because I have no reference, I have no experience. Let me just continue to do this all on my own terms. So for me, I really wanted to be able to move around freely. Whether that means like within my workspace or within my state, within the country, I really wanted to be able to travel easily with my stuff.

And for me, embroidery was a very easy product to take with me. It’s lightweight. You don’t need a lot of stuff for it, you don’t need a machine, it’s all human powered. And so that was one of the biggest factors for me. And I know that sounds like weird probably to some people, but for me, that was a really major factor because it made it more enjoyable for me to do it, and it made it easier for me to do it. And so that was a huge factor in happiness and production.

And I also just, like I had to step back and think about what is it that people are asking me for? What do people come to me for? What do they say? Like, what do I hear from people at shows? At the time, I was doing a lot of shows, like weekly markets, and I was just listening to what people were telling me and I was like, you know, this seems more interesting to people, it’s more interesting to me, so let me just dig into that further.

And I’m sure that you hear this a lot too, but you know, people often feel like if they cut things out, they cut people out and they’re afraid of cutting off, you know, the chance of making money, especially at the beginning, because it feels like the more things I offer them or people who can buy from me, but you know, I’m sure you hear this, you know, the opposite a lot of times is truer, where if you’re doing one thing super, super well, more people who want that one thing done super, super well are interested in it. So that was really, for me, the biggest factor was what can I do well that I want to do more of and continue to grow it and make it better?

Felix: Right. So it’s also not always something specific about the product that you might be passionate about, but it could be about the type of business or type of product you want to focus on that gives you the lifestyle that you can create, because it sounds like that’s something you mentioned, which is that it wasn’t so much about the product itself, but you wanted to be able to easily create the products on the go, and not every product can fit into that niche. So that’s something important to look at. Don’t look at the products, but look at the kind of lifestyle that you’re going to have to adopt essentially if you choose a specific product or category.

Danielle: Yeah. I mean and I don’t mean to make it sound like I was jet setting all across the globe, but I just wanted to be able to have the flexibility to pick something up and bring it with me if I wanted to like go visit someone for the weekend or whatever. And you know, it really, it is, like you said, about finding something that you feel comfortable and happy with not just because you like to make it or whatever, but the sustainability of that production and happiness factor I think is huge and people often overlook it, especially with makers.

And some people, they don’t care about, you know, they need a lot of things, they need to be in this one specific place to make their product. That’s what makes them happy. So whatever it is, like just go for it because your happiness is going to create the atmosphere of output really. So whatever it is, the lifestyle that you want to have, I think that’s … You know, most people get into being an entrepreneur to have some kind of control over their lifestyle to begin with, so it’s really a very acceptable place to begin with your thinking.

Felix: Right. I heard from one of the entrepreneur friends, one thing that she mentioned was that it is a huge luxury that we get to make this choice and it would be a waste if we didn’t choose, if we didn’t actually use that opportunity to say I’m going to choose to do this thing, I’m going to focus on this thing. So you also mentioned that one of the other factors that you looked at is what is a marketable product? And something I hear from other entrepreneurs that are just getting started is that they are not getting this feedback loop where no one is saying anything to them, or they’re not getting any feedback from customers, they don’t have a lot of customers yet. How do you look for direction when you are at this stage where you’re either not getting feedback because you don’t have a lot of customers or maybe you’re just not asking the right question? Like how do you begin that feedback loop?

Danielle: I feel like for someone who has no customers of their own or audience of their own to give them feedback or maybe you know, sometimes people do feel like they don’t want to give unsolicited feedback, inviting the people around you to talk to you about your work I think is that kind. That’s probably something I picked up from art school where critique and conversation were a huge cornerstone of production, but also just being aware of what’s going on in the industry or the niche in general.

Like you can look at what people say to other people who make products similar to yours. You can look to see like what are people not getting from the market as it exists right now? What do people say they want that they can’t find? What do people say to other people? I think that is not necessarily something I was doing, but I definitely do that now, you know, in researching for other things, like what do people say they want that they can’t find. Whether that’s my audience or a different audience is still insightful to me.

Felix: Another thing you had mentioned to me was that you were not afraid to niche down, as you mentioned earlier, and how it actually had an impact on your pricing. So I’ll start with the first part about niching down. I think it’s like an exercise a lot of entrepreneurs go through where they realize they have a focus, but then their next question is how focused, how much should I be niching down? How small should it go? What kind of questions do you think entrepreneurs should ask themselves to determine if they have focused down enough?

Danielle: That’s a good question. I think it actually makes logical sense to start small and then build on that. Like, I don’t know if such a thing as too niche. I really believe there is a market for every product, whether the niche is big or small. I love to see, like with a lot of the people I work with now, they kind of start with one idea and then it kind of evolves and they bring in products as they get to know the people who they want to serve and who they are serving, they bring in products because they’re inspired by that audience or those problems that the audience has or the problems that they have that they want to solve. And so it’s almost like the natural progression to start with like one super specific thing that someone likes to make and then make selections and decisions based on how that goes.

But on the other hand, I know there are people who start out like me who are like, let me make all the things and then pick one. So I don’t know if this answers your question necessarily, but, you know, starting small I think is great and necessary. And then building from there, because, you know, I sort of went from this place of like making several kinds of things to making one thing, and then from that one thing that I really loved to do that I was niched down about, I was like, well, now like the natural next step or the natural evolution of this would be to do this other thing that’s very similar to this, but it’s like next level in some way or serves the people who already bought this one thing and now they want something else.

So I don’t think you can be too niche, especially as a maker. I think people really love to see a specialty, and it’s in some ways offers even more  assurance to the browser or buyer that you have this specialty and you’re really, really, really good at one particular thing, especially when you’re starting out. It’s less confusing for the buyer to see something that is super concentrated.

Felix: Right. So to you, does this mean as small as one product, one product category, or are you talking about late to start solving one audience’s problem? How finite or how small would you recommend someone start off if they’d want to start at the very beginning and then grow from there?

Danielle: I guess it kind of depends on the process the person is using or the manner, like the craft. I know for some people, there’s, you know, very specific like painters, you can make big paintings, small paintings, you know, there’s only so many ways to do something, but you usually have like a style. And so for a painter, they might have one very specific style and they apply it to various products, like big, small prints, whatever. Maybe they’re transferring their artwork to some other product, but their style is really their specialty.

And so in the case of someone like that, I’d say like, you can have more products, but in the case of someone who’s like making one thing at a time, you know, as a jewelry artist, you know, start with like a really concise collection, like two, three, four products that really go together and really build them out. Even now just thinking about what I just said, I’m like, well it really depends on the person and what their product is and what they like to do. So it’s really a hard question to answer, but I don’t think people should be afraid to have two or three products in a shop to start out. They just have to be, you know, really solid.

Felix: Right. Yeah. So one thing when I think about the makers that are starting businesses is this concept in the book, The E Myth, which is around the idea that there is a technician, which is just someone who’s really good at making something, that has an entrepreneurial seizure, meaning that all of a sudden they have this like drive to think, okay, I’m great at making this thing, I love making it, I should start a business around it. And quickly they’ll learn that it’s a whole different skillset, right? Building a business is a whole different skillset than just being good at making the products. Being good at production is different than building a business. What do you find is the most common challenge that you see makers that are trying to make this, I wouldn’t even call it transition, they’re trying to basically create another, a new skill on top of a skill hey already have What is the biggest challenge you see people that are going through this transformation?

Danielle: I think the biggest challenge is probably exactly what you said, is they didn’t realize that it wouldn’t be just to make it and sell it. There’s like a thousand steps between make it and sell it and a bunch of steps after sell it to be in business. I think that is absolutely like … I always, it’s sort of similar to what you just said from the book, but I always say it’s kind of like the opposite of what we see on something like Shark Tank, where these people who have this entrepreneurial spirit in them already, they come into some situation where they’re like, I had a problem and I fixed it with this app or this product or this thing.

You know, most makers come into business sort of like accidentally, where they just were making things that they loved to make for themselves or their kids or their friends or whatever, and people around them and telling them you should sell these. And they’re like, yeah, I should. And then they just thought that would be it, and they didn’t realize, you know, oh, I have to have this and this and I have to do that and this.

And you know, that they just, they didn’t realize and then they get discouraged that they don’t know how to do it and they just give up too easily or they give up too soon, because they’re intimidated by all of those things that make business business outside of the product because, you know, as people settle into their business selling products, I think they realize, you know, it’s like 30 percent making your product and 70 percent doing business, which I think some people don’t want and that’s why they like back out of business because they just really do want to just be makers and they don’t want to have the stress of business. But I definitely think that is the number one challenge, is people just had no idea what it would involve.

Felix: Right. And for people out there that are stuck in this phase, what do you recommend they look at in their business and their process and their life, or what should they focus on to determine how to unstick themselves from this situation?

Danielle: I know for the people I work with, a lot of times they’re up for the challenge of business, you know, the people who come to a point where they’re willing to invest in coaching or courses or whatever, they’re willing to stick it out for business.

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Danielle: Or whatever. They’re willing to stick it out for business, but they need to compartmentalize things or prioritize things and look at things in pieces rather than this one big conglomerate of business. So I usually like to suggest pick one avenue of marketing that you can focus on for a little bit and see how does that go for you. Or just pick one thing at a time and work through it, create some kind of a system. Because it’s a lot less intimidating when it’s one thing and you can create a system for it and then move on to the next thing.

Everyone thinks they have to do all the social media all of the time at 100% output. And that’s not even really true, it’s just what we’ve been conditioned to believe. I think also people compare their micro business, and in this case, a lot of maker businesses are one person, they compare their one person operation to Pepsi or whatever giant conglomerate that has this infrastructure that they’ll never have doing all of these things. And they’re like, “I can never succeed because I don’t have that.” And it’s like, no, you just have to work within your means. No ones expects you to operate at the same level as this giant conglomerate. It’s just like really being realistic and honest with oneself about what can they realistically achieve in a day and focusing on just a couple of things and not letting the pressure to participate in everything take over.

Felix: Right. I think just as much as you fell in love with being a maker, and on the production side, you have to fall in love with the marketing as well. But to your point, that doesn’t mean you have to fall in love with all of the marketing and pick everything. But there might be, hopefully, there’s something out there that vibes with your personality, the type of person you are. Or, like you were saying, create a system that makes it so seamless and frictionless to consistently show up in terms of showing up with the marketing that you’re able to scale it from there without having to necessarily fall in love with that process.

So, yeah, I think it’s important that you can’t just … If you are completely in love with the production and making, be a maker, it’s not going to be enough. You have to go from not just that, but you have to be as much about getting your product out there. You got to love that process as well just like you’re saying.

so it sounds like there’s a couple of stages that I usually see, which is that there are people that are doing this as a hobby, usually meaning they’ll start selling on Etsy or something and then turn it into a side business, probably still selling on Etsy because it’s a lot of handmade. And then transitioning to either their own website through Shopify or some other platform into a full-time business. So can you talk to us about the stages here, and what’s important to jump from each stage to the next? Like, let’s say that you are doing this as a hobby, and you want to actually be able to make enough money on the side to save up for a big purchase or something. What should you be focused on to go from the hobby stage to what you would consider more of a side business?

Danielle: Yeah, well I think, again, just being realistic about not rushing into thinking you have to have everything done perfectly immediately is a huge realization that people have to have, so that they don’t get discouraged too early on. I honestly believe that is the most major downfall I often see in people is they want to go from, like you said, hobby to side business, something that sustains, generates usable money for them and their family, and pays for things. They just get discouraged too quickly. So being realistic is the first thing.

For me, I find that with my makers who are literally hands-on making one thing at a time, or several things at a time, whatever, it’s a matter of having enough product, making enough product to meet whatever goal they have. So they have to be really specific about what their goal actually is because then they’ll know that they got there. That’s the one thing I find peoplethere are don’t have a goal, so they’re not even sure what they’re working towards. So they have to have a goal in mind, and they need to create a plan for the product to meet that goal.

I get emails from people all of the time who are like, “I want to generate X number of dollars, but I’m struggling.” And then they send me a link to their shop, and I click through, and I’m like, “You only have three products in your shop. So even if you sold all of these right now, you wouldn’t hit your goal. You need to have a shop that presents in a way that it can generate what you want it to generate. It’s not the shop’s fault. It’s not even the product that you’re selling. There just needs to be enough of it for you to get where you’re going.” So I think that very first thing is being realistic and setting a goal so you know what you’re working towards and you’ll know when you get there because I see that all the time. People, they have goals, then they’re like, “Why aren’t I reaching my goals?” And it’s like, “Well, you don’t have a business that could reach that goal. You need to do more or you need to do something different in order to get there.”

So a lot of times that comes down to how much product does a person have and also pricing, which is its own big issue. But I think for a person going from hobby to business, that goal, knowing what that goal is, is of massive importance.

Felix: Right, I’m not sure if you had to go through this, but then there’s that stage where someone might be working a nine to five, and they’re doing this on the side, it’s generating an income or a side income, but not enough for them to quit their day job and go into it full time. So either from your experience. if you had it or from others that you worked with, what about that? What’s the key that you’ve seen or what is the pattern that you’ve seen of success from people that are making that jump from a side business to full-time business?

Danielle: Yeah, this is one thing, and I know this is a massive privilege and very uncommon, my experience was very different from the experience of most of the people I work with. Where I had just graduated from college, and because of the issues that precipitated me not continuing on this graduate school path, I did have some support from my parents, my family. This whole thing was disrupted at the very last minute, and so I think people just kind of felt bad. My parents wanted to help me get settled into what I wanted to do instead since I couldn’t do this other thing. And so I did have some financial support from somewhere.

I know a lot of people do have that either from a spouse or from savings or whatever, so in that sense that’s not crazy, outlandish, ridiculous, but I never worked a nine to five job while I was running my product based business, and that is unusual. But I know from my students and friends of mine who do this that a lot of it is just not glamorous. There is a lot of hustling sometimes to make space in your day, make time in your day to put things into your business, whether that’s man hours making things or marketing and all that kind of stuff, the business side. It’s really not often that glamorous. There is a lot of work. It is really hard.

I think in my case, the people I know for sure who are doing this, they don’t necessarily have the desire to completely leave their job. They want to have their job for various benefits or they love their job or they’ve invested a lot of time and effort and money into having that job. They have various degrees or whatever and that’s the job that’s like their career. And then they have this passion business, right?

And so some people if they want to, I have had students who have scaled back to part-time from full time because their business was able to supplement some of that income. I think a lot of it is about planning and having a plan for saving and being really willing to do it slowly if you have to because that’s the safe way I guess to do it. Obviously, everybody’s gonna have different financial situations and what they need, different financial needs that they need to have met. But I think just having the willingness to take it slow and be really intentional about where you’re putting your effort and your energy and not allowing yourself to scroll through Instagram several hours a day. Little things like that really do add up.

I hear it all the time from people who are like, “Once I stopped doing this thing that was just busy work, and I was able to focus on doing this other thing that actually mattered, that was a massive help. So sometimes it’s the really simple things, and sometimes it’s bigger things like full blow financial planning. But I think planning, in general, is the top thing, and then time management. But that’s such a nebulous sort of abstract idea because we all have different things that we need to manage our time with and from day-to-day that changes, so there’s really no one solid answer to that. But everyone’s situation is going to be different, so everyone’s path is going to be different, which I think is important for people to realize too. It’s not going to look the same for every single person.

Felix: Right. So I’m sure that the answer to this question also it depends, but I like that you are very realistic about your answers, so I want to ask this question which is what is the minimum threshold that you’ve seen in terms of time commitment that is required if you want to keep moving forward, no matter how slow, in growing a business to the point of being able to have the option of going full time? And the reason why I ask this is that sometimes I will see people posting online about how they are complete … I’m not sure how they do it. They are a single parent. They got like two kids. And they work three jobs, and they’re still doing this on the side. Are those stories, not necessarily are they true or not, how much time do you really need to put into something if you are a maker and you want to eventually be able to grow it into a full-time business of your own?

Danielle: Yeah, it definitely depends on how long does it take you to make one thing. That’s probably a huge factor. But I definitely think you have to work it in the same way you would work in anything else that matters. So if you have a pet or you have a hobby or you have people that you care for or that you have to go and visit or whatever, you have to work it in. It has to become part of your daily life whether it’s seven hours on Sunday and 30 minutes every other day of the week or two hours a day, you have to make it be something that you are accountable to. But I guess bare minimum starting out, I would say probably like seven hours a week, seven to ten hours a week bare minimum.

I think people kind of have to, again, be realistic about what they put out and what they get out of what they put out. So if you can put in more, you get more, or you get there sooner, or whatever, but it has to become something that you do over and over consistently. You have to be accountable to it. So at whatever level you can do that, I think that is more important than how much time is it? It’s a matter of sticking with it and continuing to check back in on it and make it part of what you’re doing day to day.

Felix: Right. I think you touched on how there are a lot of entrepreneurs who are wondering how come I’m not succeeding or how come I’m not growing? And you mentioned that a lot of times it’s around waste of time outside their business. They’re spending hours scrolling through Instagram like your example. I think what also is dangerous or actually may be more dangerous is the time people waste inside their business where they think that what they’re working on is moving the needle. What do you see people wasting their time on that’s inside their business that people should take a hard look at to determine if, hey, is this the best use of my seven to ten hours a week if you’re doing this on the side?

Danielle: Oh my goodness, so many things. Probably the number one thing is learning a lot and never doing anything with what you learn or thinking that you’re learning things, but you’re not actually absorbing any of them. So like watching videos on YouTube that teach you something, but never actually taking any of that and doing anything with it. Or reading thousands of articles, blog posts, Pinterest, just spending so much time hoarding information to read later is one of the things I see people doing over and over. And I have done that too, that is very easy to do. Just hoarding information, never actually taking action on any of it.

And then also getting really spun up about little things. Like one thing that happened recently in my community specifically was this whole idea of should we ship for free became this super hot button issue and people freaked out. Etsy did this big push about free shipping, and people were just like, “It doesn’t work for me. I can’t make it work for me.” And thinking that their business was going to shrivel up because of it. And really focusing too much on things that ultimately don’t truly matter as much as we’re led to believe they do. That kind of stuff, I think people are super susceptible to. Just hoarding information and taking small things and turning them into big things, and also, yes, scrolling Instagram for hours.

Felix: Yeah, I’m a fan of the just in time learning model which is just learn enough to do what you need to do this week or ideally this day, and then only when you hit a roadblock where you’re not sure where to go or you hit an obstacle that you’re not sure how to overcome, do you go back hit the books or hit YouTube and try to troubleshoot from there. So kind of going with the troubleshooting mentality rather than needing to know the entire “path” before you begin, which I think, like you mentioned, it’s almost a crutch. A lot of people will spend a lot of time learning and reading and absorbing and not taking action because sometimes it is a fear of failure. It’s a fear of if I get started and try this thing, then I might fail, and then I look stupid right in front of everyone. And they stick to the safer route, which is, “I’m still learning, I’m still planning,” which again, doesn’t get you to where you want to be. And again, most likely, that’s not your goal, just to learn. It’s probably to build a business.

So because you have experience working with makers that want to build a business, we’ve been talking a lot about your path and your experience as a maker who’s made that transition, but I want to talk about the second kind of transition you made, which is now that you’ve gone through that process of becoming a maker with a business, you’re now helping other to do the same thing. I think there are going to be other listeners out there that are also in this phase where they have some kind of expertise and want to help others, help them build some kind of service, some kind of coaching, some kind of course around their expertise. Talk to us about that transition for you. What was that like?

Danielle: Yeah, so had experienced this level of success with my product based business that other people had noticed and were asking me about a lot. And I found myself, well, I’ve always really loved to talk shop with people, various business owners. That’s just one of my things I like to nerd out about. So whenever people would ask me, I couldn’t help myself. I would just love to talk to them about it. And I found myself doing that a lot. And I’m like, there’s got to be a more succinct way to package this and distribute it so that I don’t keep repeating myself. And obviously, people are interested, so I started doing blogging and that kind of thing. And then I decided to make a course, and I had no clue what I was doing when I made this course at all. But I did it, and people bought it, and it was cool. And then it grew from there.

And then also at the time, my husband had joined the Navy as an officer, and so he was in training and he was gone, and I knew that we were going to be moving and in this transitional time in our personal life. And I thought this was a good time to why not add one more transition on top of that? So I started really focusing on this educational branch of my business. And it was so much fun for me. I had spent all these years, probably somewhere between like year four and five of my product based business that I started doing this. I’d spent all this time in my studio, mostly alone, working by myself. And it was really fun to talk to other people more often and have other humans involved in what I was doing day-to-day.

And it’s also because I knew from my own experience, I had so many, even coming from an art school degree, an art school background, I had so many people who were like, “That’s probably not going to work, what you’re trying to do.” Telling me there’s no way you could make this viable product based business, hand making things. And I just wanted people to know that if they have people in their life who are telling them that, that that’s not true because, look, I’ve done it. Look, I see other people are doing it, and you can do it too. And I can help you, and that makes me feel good to be a part of the success of multiple shops rather than just my own. 

Danielle: It was just really exciting for me to be able to participate in the world in this way, helping other people do what I had found so much pride in doing for myself. That’s really where that started, and then that kind of took off in its own way as well, and so I’ve been running the service space business alongside the product-based business for about four years now too. That is definitely happy place; I love to make my products and sell my products, but I love also to help other people make and sell their products too because that kind of scratches a different itch.

Felix: Wow. It’s also good that you’re still in touch with [inaudible]-

Danielle: Yeah.

Felix: To teach to people if you’re no longer in that audience, so I think that’s great that you’re able to be a student and then also be a teacher at the same time. It’s funny that you mentioned the objections that people come up with or discouragement. It’s funny because objections always come from people that have not done it, right? It’s never from people who have done it; it’s always from people that don’t want you to succeed, not because they don’t want you to succeed, but I think it says something about their path, that they haven’t been able to accomplish that as well if you were able to do it. At the time where you were coming out with the services and the course, were there competing services or courses out there? I’m sure there are today, but back then four years ago, was anything like that out there?

Danielle: I honestly don’t know. There probably was, but I didn’t even know enough to think about that or to… I just have no idea. There definitely is now. There probably was then, but I was super in my own “this is what I’m doing, so it’s going to be my own thing,” and I did it, but yeah. It would be stupid for me to think that there wasn’t, so I’m assuming there was. I just don’t know exactly what it was.

Felix: Right. For someone out there that wants to follow your path, should they look? Should they look to see if there’s competing courses? What kind of extensive market research should they do in that direction?

Danielle: Yeah. I mean obviously in hindsight, it would’ve been cool if I had done more, and obviously in this past four years I’ve evolved my services and courses dramatically, but I think in developing any product, like we were talking about earlier too, it’s like looking to see what do people want that they can’t find, or what are the gaps, and then filling in, but really also coming from your own experience I think is the biggest thing. In that sense, there is no competition because no one can have your exact experience or exact outlook, but I definitely would suggest at least by way of making sure you’re not calling something exactly the same as somebody else, or differentiating enough that people would be able to tell you apart from someone else at bare minimum. Definitely would suggest doing that.

Felix: Yeah, I think the Imposter Syndrome that I will see from people that are in this situation where they have an inkling that they might want to do something like you were, they want to create courses, is that they will first say, “I’m not an expert,” and then the second thing is, “I’m not an expert with a unique viewpoint.” I’m not sure if you faced that at any point or if you hear from others that want to follow your path saying similar things. What are your thoughts on those kinds of internal thoughts?

Danielle: I hear that a lot from my product sellers, that they think something has been done so many times already. “There’s just no room for me,” “No one will notice me because there’s so many things out there already that are so like the thing I want to make.” My usual response to that is, again, that there’s a market for every product. There’s a thousand places that you or I or any other person can go and buy pants from, but only three places that we actually do because of however much we’re willing to spend or whatever style we particularly like or what fits us well, whatever. There’s a market for every product. People are attracted to different things for different reasons. Your people are out there; you have to be visible to them. There’s a reason that I’ll stop at this store, not that store, even if I can get the same thing at both places. Pants are not just pants at the end of the day, right? You have different preferences and things you look for. The same reason we have McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, et cetera. All these places, they have their own audiences and they’re all doing well.

Anything is possible; you just have to find what differentiates you and dig into that. Be okay with not everybody who needs a thing buying it from you. People buy things from different people for different reasons. That’s fine.

Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). When you sat down and either improved the course that you have today or start a new one, what exercise do you go through to determine what should be in the curriculum, what should be in the course?

Danielle: Well at first, it was “this is my experience, and so these are the steps I took” or “these are the things I paid attention to” or “here’s what I think is important, and what turned out to be important alongside ”here’s what I thought was important; turns out that doesn’t matter at all.“ Then I do obviously evolve on that same track, like ”here’s what I’m doing now,“ ”here’s what I’ve tested,“ whatever. Then I also learn a lot from my students and their questions, things that they follow up with me about, so I can see, ”Okay, this is a gap that can easily be filled in this curriculum,“ or, ”This is something that people are struggling with, let me see if I can address that.“ Sometimes I have Shiny Object Syndrome where someone asks me a question and I’m like, ”Oh my gosh, we can have a whole thing about that,” but I have to stop myself because too many things creates too many things to maintain, and that does serve anybody. I have to be careful, I think everybody has to be careful about what they spend their time on and just being really intentional about where and how they distribute whatever it is they’re distributing.

Even though I do learn a lot from my students, I think it’s a disservice to them to inundate them with things that maybe are not important to everybody and this may be just important to this one person. Knowing the difference, I think, is important, and I think that just comes from knowing your people and in general what they need and want. That whole differentiation factor. For me, when I’m building something, I do try to come from my own experience and what I know will be useful to people but without overwhelming them further, because the goal obviously is to help them make progress instead of give them another thing to build a wall that causes them to be slowed down.

Felix: Right. What about pricing? How do you price your courses? I’m looking here, and it ranges from $47 for one course up to $447, so pretty wide range of pricing. How do you determine how to price a course product?

Danielle: For me, a lot of it is volume, like how much is included, what do you get out of it physically, like how much am I giving to you in this bundle. Then a lot of it comes from what are the likely results that you could achieve. If something has the potential to make you thousands of dollars, then it’s worth a couple hundred. If it’s something that’s just like, “Here’s a quick and dirty tutorial on how to fast-track to this one end result of something is completed,” that’s different than “let’s build your whole business from the ground up.” Depending on what it is and how much is in it is probably the biggest thing, and that potential ROI for the person, but then also just how accessible is it and considering what people are able or willing to spend in the audience I think is important as well. I think pricing also helps attract and repel customers, and that’s useful for the business owner too. You don’t want to have a bunch of people who only want to buy things for $10 probably if you want to have… Like for me, it wouldn’t make sense to price something super, super low and then want to deliver a really high-quality experience for people because that’s not what they’ve paid for.

It’s the same way you can pay for one gym membership that’s $9 a month or one that’s $79 a month, and it’s just what level of experience do you want to have. The $79 a month gym is not going to run a special to get people in there for $9 because it’s not their customer. It’s all about knowing who you want to work with, and I think pricing is a tool just like any other tool to attract or repel people who are right for you and your product.

Felix: Right, and pressing such an emotional and psychological lever too; it’s not logical where you can just say, “Well I spent 10 hours working on this thing, so I’m going to charge 10 times my hourly rate.” It has so much more impact than that, and I think that when you do price things higher, in my experience, I think a lot of people can speak to this too, is that the higher the price of a product or course, the more committed to are, which I think usually means the more likely you are to succeed. I’ve gotten plenty of free content or free courses or very cheap courses, and I just don’t bother going through them or taking them seriously. I think there is a commitment that you are granting your audience, granting your students as well by pricing it to the point where they have to commit and you are attracting the type of customers that you want, which are people that have the funds and are serious enough to [inaudible] throw down the dough, essentially, to learn from you.

What about the marketing side? You create a course—maybe this happens before you create it at all. How do you begin to build up the hype and the marketing behind a course?

Danielle: Well, the first time I did this, I was basically just selling it to the people who had already asked me for it. That was kind of easy, but it was never like that again. I enjoy creating content like videos and blog posts and podcasts. I enjoy doing that, so for me, a lot of it is creating supplementary content that goes along with whatever the course topic or whatever is.

Felix: This is free content?

Danielle: Yeah, like putting out blog posts or podcast episodes or videos on various channels that sort of speak to the person that this thing is for and inspire them in various ways, like curiosity-wise, pique their interest, or just make them curious about something to want to know more about it, or address one of the hurdles that would stop them from wanting what I’ve created so that there’s less barrier to them taking action on it once it’s there. If I can help people understand, “Hey, this is something that you currently believe that’s not true,” or, “This is something you’re currently doing that you don’t need to be doing,” if I can eliminate some of those things before they’re presented with the option to buy something, that’s usually helpful. Again, that’s just me; I like to put things on my blog or on my podcast. If some people had like a vibrant Instagram community maybe, they would put it there.

It’s just about knowing where your people are and where you show up best, and putting out little teasers. For me, that’s what’s always worked really well, is being super honest about what it is that you would need in order to have success with what I’ve created for you, and then helping people sort of get to a place where they stand to be successful with it.

Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative), right. So you’re creating this supplementary content through blogs, videos, and podcasts. [inaudible] to create this kind of content, which is for marketing purposes. How much should you be giving away in terms of teaching what’s going to be sold eventually versus how much you should be using it to build curiosity and desire to buy the product?

Danielle: You know, that’s an interesting question because anybody you ask will have a different answer. I think for me, I don’t know enough to know which of those works better yet: like do you give away a lot of “here’s how-to” stuff or “here is how why” stuff, like “why you should whatever first” versus “how you should whatever first?” I’ve definitely read a lot from different people on the effectiveness of either of those things. I think it really depends on the audience that the person would be presenting this to. I know my audience likes to see some how-to stuff, but they also need, they might not realize it; they probably wouldn’t ask for it, but they need to see potential in why things should happen rather than how to do things only. I think for me, it’s understanding these people, what they want, and what they respond to, and then trying different things out. For certain ideas, maybe leaning heavily on one approach works better than for a different thing that we’re presenting to them.

I think my advice to people who are trying to do stuff like this is just to try it out, see what you can do for your audience, because it’s really going to vary depending on who the people you’re presenting it to is.

Felix: Right. Yeah, I think one of the simplest frameworks that I’ve seen is the “What and How” model, which is the free content is about “what,” and maybe to some extent, the “why” as well or “why you should be doing something.” Then if they want to know how to do it, particularly how to do it faster or how to do it the “right” way, that’s the paid content that they have to paid for. Yeah, so that’s a framework that I’ve seen.

Danielle: I guess we can call it like a matrix where it’s like “here’s what you should do,” that’s free. “Here’s how to do it,” that’s paid but low cost. Then there’s “here’s we do it together,” that’s paid but it’s more money, and then “here’s what to do, I do it for you” and that’s the most money. Various levels. It can be paid but it can be affordable or a lesser amount of money. There are different levels; it’s not like all or nothing.

Felix: Right. Yeah, thank you so much for your time, Danielle. Merriweathercouncil.com is the website. It’s going to be where the products are being sold; also, for any of the training that we talked about as well. You’re obviously doing a few different things; you’re juggling a couple of almost different businesses right now, which are very inter-related but also not. Where do you want to see the business go over the next year? What do you want to be focused on or what do you want to be working on over the next year?

Danielle: Sort of in the transitional phase again right now where bringing about more of an automated process and streamlining some of what we offer in terms of services so that they’re easier to sustain and more concentrated on the students that we’re working with. Then bringing back, because I really would love to do more of my product-based business than I have been doing in the past two years especially, so me doing more of my creative products is the big driving force behind a lot of this too. Still working with my students and being really intentional about what I put out in terms of services in order to make time for me to have that product-felling experience even more than I have right now so that I can tap back into that at the level that I would like to just for my own interests. That’s what we’re doing right now. I would love to see my business be more of a 50/50 between the two. I don’t know if it’s possible, but that’s what we’re aiming for.

Felix: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time, Danielle.

Danielle: Thank you so much for having me.

Felix: Thanks for tuning into another episode of Shopify Masters, the E-commerce podcasts for ambitious entrepreneurs powered by Shopify. To get your exclusive 30-day extended trial, visit shopify.com/masters.

 


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Business Plans 101: How to Write a Business Plan For Any Business

How to write a business plan: everything you need to know

There are many reasons to write a business plan—it’s not solely the domain of entrepreneurs who want to secure funding to start or grow their business.

A business plan can help you clarify your strategy, identify potential roadblocks, decide what you’ll need in the way of resources, and evaluate the viability of your idea or your growth plans before you get started.

Whatever your reason for writing a business plan, the task will probably still feel like a homework assignment. When you’re starting a business, your to-do list is a mile long and filled with more immediately rewarding tasks, like taking product photos, creating ad campaigns, and opening social media accounts.

Not every business launches with a formal business plan, but many founders find value in taking time to step back, research their idea and the market they’re looking to enter, and understand the scope and the strategy behind their tactics.

That’s where writing a business plan comes in.

What is a business plan?

A business plan is a document describing a business, its products or services, how it earns (or will earn) money, its leadership and staffing, its financing, its operations model, and many other details essential to its success.

Why write a business plan?

Investors rely on business plans to evaluate the feasibility of a business before funding it, which is why business plans commonly are associated with getting a loan. But there are several compelling reasons to consider writing a business plan, even if you don’t need funding.

  • Planning. Writing out your plan is an invaluable exercise for clarifying your ideas and can help you understand the scope of your business, as well as the amount of time, money, and resources you’ll need to get started.
  • Evaluating ideas. If you’ve got multiple ideas in mind, a rough business plan for each can help you focus your time and energy on the ones with the highest chance of success.
  • Research. To write a business plan, you’ll need to research your ideal customer and your competitors—information that will help you make more strategic decisions.
  • Recruiting. Your business plan is one of the easiest ways to communicate your vision to potential new hires and can help build their confidence in the venture, especially if you’re in the early stages of growth.
  • Partnerships. If you plan to approach other companies to collaborate, having a clear overview of your vision, your audience, and your growth strategy will make it much easier for them to identify whether your business is a good fit for theirs—especially if they’re further along than you in their growth trajectory.
  • Competitions. There are many business plan competitions offering prizes such as mentorships, grants, or investment capital. To find relevant competitions in your industry and area, try Googling “business plan competition + [your location]” and “business plan competition + [your industry].”

If you’re looking for a structured way to lay out your thoughts and ideas, and to share those ideas with people who can have a big impact on your success, a business plan is an excellent starting point.

Here’s what a couple of entrepreneurs said when we asked them how useful writing a business plan was for their business.

“We had a marketing background, but not much experience in the other functions needed to run a fashion ecommerce business, like operations, finance, production, and tech. Laying out a business plan helped us identify the ‘unknowns,’ and made it easier to spot the gaps where we’d need help or, at the very least, to skill up ourselves.”

—Jordan Barnett, Kapow Meggings

“Laying out a business plan helped us identify the ‘unknowns,’ and made it easier to spot the gaps where we’d need help or, at the very least, to skill up ourselves.”

“We own a bricks-and-mortar and ecommerce jewellery business that moved from Magento over to Shopify. We created a business plan for the move, just as we did with our original website and ecommerce business. Our business plan included an overview on why we were making the move, the issues with the current business, the benefits of moving to a new platform, the potential issues during the move, the main task, added costs, and a timeline. It really covered everything we felt was the most important. This business plan was given to everyone working on the project, from the photographers to the marketing team to the developers. This way we were all on the same page. It worked pretty well the first time, and even better this time around.”

—Jeff Moriarty, Tanzanite Jewelry Designs

How to write a business plan

There are a few key things to keep in mind to help you write an effective business plan.

  • Know your audience. When you know who will be reading your plan—even if you’re just writing it for yourself, to clarify your ideas—you can tailor the language and level of detail to them. This can also help you make sure you’re including the most relevant information and figure out when to omit sections that aren’t as impactful.
  • Have a clear goal. You’ll need to put in more work, and deliver a more thorough plan, if your goal is to secure funding for your business versus working through a plan for yourself or even your team.
  • Invest time in research. Sections of your business plan will primarily be informed by your ideas and vision, but some of the most crucial information you’ll need to include relies on research from independent sources. This is where you can invest time in understanding who you’re selling to, whether there’s demand for your products, and who else is selling similar products or services.
  • Keep it short and to the point. No matter who you’re writing for, your business plan should be short and readable—generally, no longer than 15 to 20 pages. If you do have additional documents you think may be valuable to your audience and your goals, consider adding them as appendices.
  • Keep the tone, style, and voice consistent. This is best managed by having a single person write the plan or allowing time for the plan to be properly edited before distributing it.

How to create a business plan outline

Few things are more intimidating than a blank page. Starting your business plan with a structured outline and key details about what you’ll include in each section is the best first step you can take.

Since an outline is such an important step in the process of writing a business plan, we’ve put together a high-level overview you can copy into your blank document to get you started (and avoid the terror of facing a blank page).

Here’s a sample business plan outline:

  1. Executive summary
  2. Company overview
  3. Market analysis
  4. Products and services
  5. Marketing plan
  6. Logistics and operations plan
  7. Financial plan

You can also start with a business plan template, and use it to inform the structure of your plan.

How to write a business plan

What to include in each section of your business plan

Now that you’ve got an outline or a template in place, it’s time to fill it in. We’ve broken it down by section to help you build your plan step-by-step.

Executive summary

A good executive summary is one of the most crucial sections of your plan—it’s also the last section you should write.

The executive summary’s purpose is to distill everything that follows and give time-crunched reviewers (e.g., potential investors) a high-level overview of your business that persuades them to read further. Again, it’s a summary, so highlight the key points you’ve uncovered while writing your plan. If you’re writing for your own planning purposes, you can skip the summary altogether—although you might want to give it a try anyways, just for practice.

An executive summary shouldn’t exceed one page. Admittedly, that space constraint can make squeezing in all of the salient information a bit stressful—but it’s not impossible. Here’s what your business plan’s executive summary should include:

  • Business concept. What does your business do?
  • Business goals and vision. What does your business want to do?
  • Product description and differentiation. What do you sell, and why is it different?
  • Target market. Who do you sell to?
  • Marketing plan. How do you plan on reaching your customers?
  • Current financial state. What do you currently earn in revenue?
  • Projected financial state. What do you foresee earning in revenue?
  • The ask. How much money are you asking for?
  • The team. Who’s involved in the business?

Company overview

This section of your business plan should answer two fundamental questions: Who are you, and what do you plan to do? Answering these questions provides an introduction to why you’re in business, why you’re different, what you have going for you, and why you’re a good investment bet.

Clarifying these details is still a useful exercise even if you’re the only person who’s going to see them. It’s an opportunity to put to paper some of the more intangible facets of your business, like your principles, ideals, and cultural philosophies. Here are some of the components you should include in your company overview:

  • Your business structure (Are you a sole proprietorship, general partnership, limited partnership, or an incorporated company?)
  • The nature of your business (What are you selling?)
  • Your industry
  • Your business’s vision, mission, and values
  • Background information on your business or its history
  • Business objectives, both short and long term
  • Your team, including key personnel and their salaries

Some of these points are statements of fact, but others will require a bit more thought to define, especially when it comes to your business’s vision, mission, and values. This is where you start getting to the core of why your business exists, what you hope to accomplish, and what you stand for.

This is where you start getting to the core of why your business exists, what you hope to accomplish, and what you stand for.

To define your values, think about all the people your company is accountable to, including owners, employees, suppliers, customers, and investors. Now consider how you’d like to conduct business with each of them. As you make a list, your core values should start to emerge.

Once you know your values, you can pen a mission statement. Your statement should explain, in a convincing manner, why your business exists, and should be no longer than a single sentence.

As an example, Shopify’s mission statement is “Make commerce better for everyone.” It’s the “why” behind everything we do and clear enough that it needs no further explanation.

What impact do you envision your business having on the world once you’ve achieved your vision?

Next, craft your vision statement: what impact do you envision your business having on the world once you’ve achieved your vision? Phrase that impact as an assertion—begin the statement with “We will” and you’ll be off to a great start. Your vision statement, unlike your mission statement, can be longer than a single sentence, but try to keep it to three at most. The best vision statements are concise.

Finally, your company overview should include both short- and long-term goals. Short-term goals, generally, should be achievable within the next year, while one to five years is a good window for long-term goals. Make sure all your goals are S.M.A.R.T.: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound.

Market analysis

It’s no exaggeration to say your market can make or break your business. Choose the right market for your products—one with plenty of customers who understand and need your product—and you’ll have a head start on success. If you choose the wrong market, or the right market at the wrong time, you may find yourself struggling for each sale.

Market analysis is a key section of your business plan, whether or not you ever intend for anyone else to read it.

This is why market analysis is a key section of your business plan, whether or not you ever intend for anyone else to read it. It should include an overview of how big you estimate the market is for your products, an analysis of your business’s position in the market, and an overview of the competitive landscape. Thorough research supporting your conclusions is important both to persuade investors and to validate your own assumptions as you work through your plan.

How big is your potential market?

Potential market is an estimate of how many people potentially could buy your product. While it’s exciting to imagine sky-high sales figures, you’ll want to use as much relevant independent data as possible to validate your estimated potential market. Since this can be a daunting process, here are some general tips to help you begin your research:

  • Understand your ideal customer profile, especially as it relates to demographics. If you’re targeting millennial consumers in the US, you first can look for government data about the size of that group. You also could look at projected changes to the number of people in your target age range over the next few years.
  • Research relevant industry trends and trajectory. If your product serves retirees, try to find data about how many people will be retiring in the next five years, as well as any information you can find about consumption patterns among that group. If you’re selling fitness equipment, you could look at trends in gym memberships and overall health and fitness among your target audience or the population at large. Finally, look for information on whether your general industry is projected to grow or decline over the next few years.
  • Make informed guesses. You’ll never have perfect, complete information about the size of your total addressable market. Your goal is to base your estimates on as many verifiable data points as necessary for a confident guess.

Some sources to consult for market data include government statistics offices, industry associations, academic research, and respected news outlets covering your industry.

SWOT analysis

A SWOT analysis looks at your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. What are the best things about your company? What are you not so good at? What market or industry shifts can you take advantage of and turn into opportunities? Are there external factors threatening your ability to succeed?

These breakdowns often are presented as a grid, with bullet points in each section breaking down the most relevant information—so you can probably skip writing full paragraphs here. Strengths and weaknesses—both internal company factors—are listed first, with opportunities and threats following in the next row. With this visual presentation, your reader quickly can see the positive and negative internal and external factors that may impact your business.

Here’s an example.

Strengths

  • Previous experience scaling ecommerce business
  • Strong ad management experience
  • Patented product
  • Exclusive deal with manufacturing company

Weaknesses

  • No team management experience
  • Breakable product, making shipping more expensive

Opportunities

  • Strong growth in product category sales
  • No “market leader” in category; many smaller firms

Threats

  • Regulation pending for product category in international markets


Competitive analysis

There are three overarching factors you can use to differentiate your business in the face of competition:

  • Cost leadership. You have capacity to maximize profits by offering lower prices than the majority of your competitors to maximize profits. Examples include companies like Mejuri and Endy.
  • Differentiation. Your product or service offers something distinct from the current cost leaders in your industry and banks on standing out based on your uniqueness. Think of companies like Knix and Qalo.
  • Segmentation. You focus on a very specific or “niche” target market and focus on building traction with a smaller audience before moving on to a broader market. Companies like TomboyX and Heyday Footwear are great examples of this strategy.

To understand which is the best fit, you’ll need to understand your business as well as the competitive landscape.

You’ll always have competition in the market, even with an innovative product, so it’s important to include a competitive overview in your business plan. If you’re entering an established market, include a list of a few companies you consider direct competitors and how you plan to differentiate your products and business from theirs.

You’ll always have competition in the market, even with an innovative product.

For example, if you’re selling jewelry, your competitive differentiation could be that, unlike many high-end competitors, you donate a percentage of your profits to a notable charity or pass savings on to your customers.

If you’re entering a market where you can’t easily identify direct competitors, consider your indirect competitors—companies offering products that are substitutes for yours. For example, if you’re selling an innovative new piece of kitchen equipment, it’s too easy to say that because your product is new you have no competition. Consider what your potential customers are doing to solve the same problems your product solves.

Marketing analysis is an important part of writing your business plan

Products and services

Your products or services will feature prominently in most areas of your business plan, but it’s important to provide a section that outlines key details about them for interested readers. If you sell many items, you can include more general information on each of your product lines; if you only sell a few, provide more detailed information on each.

Customer segmentation

Your ideal customer, also known as your target market, is the foundation of your marketing plan, if not your business plan as a whole. You’ll want to keep this person in mind as you make strategic decisions, which is why an overview of who they are is important to understand and include in your plan.

To give a holistic overview of your ideal customer, describe a number of general and specific demographic characteristics. Customer segmentation often includes:

  • Where they live
  • Their age range
  • Their level of education
  • Some common behavior patterns
  • How they spend their free time
  • Where they work
  • What technology they use
  • How much they earn
  • Where they’re commonly employed
  • Their values, beliefs, or opinions

This information will vary based on what you’re selling, but you should be specific enough that it’s unquestionably clear who you’re trying to reach—and more importantly, why you’ve made the choices you have based on who your customers are and what they value.

For example, a college student has different interests, shopping habits, and price sensitivity than a 50-year old executive at a Fortune 500 company. Your business plan and decisions would look very different based on which one was your ideal customer.

Marketing plan

Your marketing efforts are directly informed by your ideal customer. Your plan should outline your current decisions and your future strategy, with a focus on how your ideas are a fit for that ideal customer. If you’re planning to invest heavily in ads on Instagram, for example, it might make sense to include whether Instagram is a leading platform for your audience—if it’s not, it might be a sign to rethink your marketing plan.

Most marketing plans include information on four key subjects. How much detail you present on each will depend on both your business and your plan’s audience.

  • Price. How much do your products cost, and why have you made that decision?
  • Product. What are you selling, and how do you differentiate it in the market?
  • Promotion. How will you get your products in front of your ideal customer?
  • Place. Where will you sell your products?

Promotion may be the bulk of your plan, since you can more readily dive into tactical details, but the other three areas should be covered at least briefly—each is an important strategic lever in your marketing mix.

Logistics and operations plan

Logistics and operations are the workflows you’ll implement to make your ideas a reality. If you’re writing a business plan for your own planning purposes, this is still an important section to consider, even though you might not need to include the same level of detail as if you were seeking investment.

Cover all parts of your planned operations, including:

  • Suppliers. Where do you get the raw materials you need for production, or where are your products produced?
  • Production. How long does it take to produce your products and get them shipped to you? How will you handle a busy season or an unexpected spike in demand?
  • Facilities. Where will you and any team members work? Do you plan to have physical retail space? If yes, where?
  • Equipment. What tools and technology do you require to be up and running? This includes everything from computers to lightbulbs and everything in between.
  • Shipping and fulfillment. Will you be handling all the fulfillment tasks in-house, or will you use a third-party fulfillment partner?
  • Inventory. How much will you keep on hand, and where will it be stored? How will you ship it to partners if required, and how will you keep track of incoming and outgoing inventory?

This section should signal to your reader that you’ve got a solid understanding of your supply chain, and strong contingency plans in place to cover potential uncertainty. If your reader is you, it should give you a basis to make other important decisions, like how to price your products to cover your estimated costs, and at what point you plan to break even on your initial spending.


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Financial plan

No matter how great your idea is, and regardless of the effort, time, and money you invest, a business lives or dies based on its financial feasibility. At the end of the day, people want to work with a business they expect to be viable for the foreseeable future.

The level of detail required in your financial plan will depend on your audience and goals, but typically you’ll want to include three major views of your financials: an income statement, a balance sheet, and a cash-flow statement. It also may be appropriate to include financial projections.

Here’s a spreadsheet template that includes everything you’ll need to create an income statement, balance sheet, and cash-flow statement, including some sample numbers. You can edit it to reflect projections, if needed.

Income statement

Your income statement is designed to give readers a look at your revenue sources and expenses over a given time period. With those two pieces of information, they can see the all-important bottom line, or the profit or loss your business experienced during that time. If you haven’t launched your business yet, you can put together a forecast of the same information.

Balance sheet

Your balance sheet offers a look at how much equity you have in your business. On one side, you list all your business assets (what you own) and, on the other side, all your liabilities (what you owe). This provides a snapshot of your business’s shareholder equity, which is calculated as

Assets – Liabilities = Equity

Cash-flow statement

Your cash-flow statement is similar to your income statement, with one important difference: it takes into account when revenues are collected and when expenses are paid.

When the cash you have coming in is greater than the cash you have going out, your cash flow is positive. When the opposite scenario is true, your cash flow is negative. Ideally, your cash-flow statement will help you see when cash is low, when you might have a surplus, and where you might need to have a contingency plan to access funding to keep your business solvent.

It can be especially helpful to forecast your cash-flow statement to identify gaps or negative cash flow and adjust operations as required. Here’s a full guide to working through cash-flow projections for your business.

Download your copy of all three templates to build out these financial statements for your business plan.

Planning gives you a solid foundation for growth

A business plan can help you identify clear, deliberate next steps for your business, even if you never plan to pitch investors—and it can help you see gaps in your plan before they become issues. Whether you’ve written a business plan for a new business or for growing your current company, you now have a comprehensive guide and the information you need to help you start working on the next phase of your business.

Her LGBTQ+ Lifestyle Brand was Inspired by a Dog

Liz Bertorelli, founder of LGBTQ apparel brand Passionfruit, and her dogLiz Bertorelli really wanted a French bulldog. So, in 2013, she set a goal for herself: If she could somehow make an extra $5,000, she would get one. Though she had a full-time job at the time, she started an online print-on-demand T-shirt company to help her meet that goal more quickly. She exceeded it in a matter of months. Roughly five years, one dog, and a full rebrand later, Passionfruit—Liz’s LGBTQ+ apparel brand and online store is still kicking. And, her “Protect Trans Kids” T-shirt sales surged after one just like it starred on Saturday Night Live.

I sat down with Liz to talk Frenchies, snacks, and side hustles. 

Hey, Liz, tell me about you.

I am an average nine-to-fiver who happens to run a side hustle from five to nine. I have so many things to do that I don’t even remember what I do.

So sometimes it’s nine to one or nine to two?

Yeah, it’s like finding your own schedule.

Why did you start Passionfruit?

When I personally came out, it was super hard. I wanted to create something that allowed you to show who you were without actually saying it out loud. There were a lot of bigger brands that were doing this, but I wanted to start something that would feel like there were people backing it: queers designing queer products.

Close up of hands holding a pencil sketch that reads "Love is Love is Love is"
Passionfruit’s designs aim to spark conversations and let their LGBTQ+ customers be proud of who they are—out loud.

But really, it was a dog that inspired this whole thing, right?

Yeah. Instead of setting out [to achieve] an actual number of orders or whatever, I wanted to make enough money to get a French bulldog. I ended up doing that, and it was like, “Shit. Let’s level this up. Let’s go to the next bracket.” I don’t like setting out to do something and not achieving it. Last night, I started a puzzle at 9 p.m. I was like, “Oh my God, we can’t go to bed unless we finish this thing.”

How do you balance Passionfruit on top of a full-time job and a life?

I use a fulfillment service called Printful. They’re amazing because you don’t have to put a lot of money into it upfront. I get an order on the store, they will print my design on a shirt and they’ll ship it out. I’d go insane if I had to ship everything myself.


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With so much happening, how do you set priorities?

I do care about Passionfruit, but I currently would never put it before my friend’s 30th birthday or, obviously, [my full-time] work [at Shopify]. It’s never going to take precedence. I schedule time to work on Passionfruit, and I do it twice a week. If the week goes by and I’m like, “Wow, you didn’t even put in four hours. Damn, you had this booked. You failed to accomplish it,” it makes me feel like shit, and then I just do it better next week.

What drives you to keep going?

We’ve gotten emails about people meeting their partners because of their shirt. As in they thought a shirt was funny, they started talking, ended up dating, and getting married. So beautiful. Or stories like, “Hey, thanks, I came out to my family because of this, because I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth, so I just wore this shirt to Thanksgiving.”

Passionfruit founder Liz Bertorelli holds up a white teeshirt with an illustration of a red rose. The shirt reads "Forever Queer".
Liz Bertorelli runs Passionfruit as a one-woman operation but still makes time for spontaneous travel, too.

I’m sure the recent exposure on SNL doesn’t hurt either. Tell me about that.

I had a perma-smile all week after seeing Don Cheadle wearing that “Protect Trans Kids” shirt on Saturday Night Live. Although it wasn’t specifically the version we currently sell, it’s been an important message we’ve been printing on our T-shirts for years. It’s amazing how powerful a T-shirt can be—I’m grateful he used his platform and audience to spread awareness.

Amazing. So, you’re saying “we,” but it’s just you, right?

Yeah, it’s just me. Printful does count as part of the business too. On social, sometimes the community will answer for me, so I think I say “we” because they all also support the business and want to help.

Like unofficial ambassadors?

Yeah.

When you started, you had a partner. How did that evolve?

Passionfruit was a rebrand of a brand that I had built with a partner five years ago. The reason for the rebrand is, well, never get into business with a [life] partner, which was a lesson I obviously had to learn. It was actually good because it felt like the old business was my first shot at this, and it was time for a fresh start, personally and business-wise.

What was the hardest part of that transition?

The year where neither of us was really working on it was difficult. Because you build up this amazing community, you have this little baby that you created, it’s out in the world. Then something happens with your personal life where you have to take a step back. It was upsetting because it was my personal creative outlet.

You’re pretty busy doing this all on your own now. When do you get “you time”?

I love spontaneous travel, like, “Ooh, should I really be going away this weekend? Will that stress me out going back into Monday?” No, I should totally just book a trip to Chicago and eat as much fucking pizza as I want, go to some art galleries, and fly back.

What’s always in your carry-on?

A locket of Olive’s dog hair. No, I’m kidding. My glasses. Yeah, if I don’t have my glasses, there’s no functioning. Headphones. Sometimes I won’t even have music on. I just put them on. And snacks. I love snacking because I’m Italian and get hungry every 15 minutes.

Passionfruit founder Liz Bertorelli sits with her laptop. Her french bulldog Olive sits beside her.
Liz’s recipe for success? A laptop, internet connection, and plenty of snacks.

And your laptop, right? Because you run a print-on-demand business, can you do your job from wherever you travel?

Yeah, honestly, that’s the beauty of it. If I have my computer and an internet connection, I can manage the community. I can talk to Printful. I can upload new designs. I can literally do everything from anywhere.

Would you ever consider doing Passionfruit full-time?

If I ever did want to test out being an entrepreneur for real, it would change my lifestyle. If I don’t make enough sales in a week, then I don’t get a paycheck. Or would I suddenly feel unfulfilled because I’m not getting those same customer emails? There are so many factors that you would have to be OK with before jumping into it. I feel like I’m adaptable enough that I could make that work.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Photographs by Vuk Dragojevic

Controversy, Haters, and Trolls: How to Deal With Negativity Online

v dog on shopify masters

As a brand, it can be challenging to navigate the tumultuous waters of internet commentary. Despite your best efforts to project positivity, you may still encounter some negativity online—especially if you’re in a controversial industry.

So, what’s the best way to tackle these situations in public online spaces?

On this episode of Shopify Masters, we hear from Lindsay Rubin, the Vice President of V-dog—healthy, vegan food and treats for dogs—about managing controversy and dealing with online trolls.

At some point, you just let it go. You’ve provided the information, come in with kindness and a positive perspective. And that’s important for us because “Vegan” is such a heavy word—we want to position it in the most kind, compassionate, positive way possible.

Tune in to learn

  • How to make sure customers know your core values
  • How to handle disagreements with trolls on social media
  • How to create blog posts that customers actually want

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          Show Notes

          Transcript

          Felix: Today we’re joined by Lindsay Rubin from V-dog. V-dog creates healthy Vegan food and treats for dogs. And was started in 2005 and based out of San Francisco, California. Welcome Lindsay.

          Lindsay: Hello. Thank you for having me.

          Felix: Yeah, excited to have you on. So you were the very first employee at the company, which just started again in 2005. So I’d say, the company was pretty early in the game and was doing it before Vegan dog food was cool. Where did the inspiration come from?

          Lindsay: Yeah. So our company was started back in 2005 by our founder, Dave. And basically he and his wife, Linda, didn’t find anything on the market that they felt really excited about feeding their two rescue pit bulls, Candy and Sparky. So Dave decided to start V-dog here in the States in 2005, really with a goal of providing that high-quality plant-based food that’s complete and balanced and is a product that dogs really loved the taste of as well.

          Felix: No. Awesome. So how soon after the company got started before you joined?

          Lindsay: The company was around for, I would say, about eight or so years before I joined. And at that time it was really Dave handling mostly everything. That was kind of the type of guy he was. He was really just bootstrapping it, making everything work, bringing in people here and there to make certain parts of the business work. But he was really the type of guy that likes to keep everything under his umbrella and push forward doing most things himself. So when I came on, I really just started at kind of a lower level helping him with various organizational tasks and day-to-day business stuff. And my personal role kind of grew from there. But what it really took was for me to come on and for some other people that come on for us to really see our potential and see, “Okay, we can use this person here and my help can go into these areas and it could really contribute significantly to our growth into our organization.”

          Felix: Got it. What would you say is your role today? What is your responsibilities at the company?

          Lindsay: Sure. So I am currently the vice president and what I do mostly day-to-day is help us create the right partnerships, whether that’s in the Vegan community or in the pet space. And I helped basically direct our strategy to ensure that we’re on kind of the best path with all of our marketing and our PR, and basically how we present ourselves to the world and as well as which paths we take for our best growth.

          Felix: Got it. Now when you were coming on board, obviously, I think you grew into these skills. You grew the skill is to take on this role, what were some of the most vital skills that you had to learn that you would say had the most impact on the success of the business?

          Lindsay: I would say organization. I always considered myself a really organized person and I think what helped is being really list driven. I don’t know if that works for everyone, but for me I really liked to operate on a list basis. And just really honing that in and staying on track with those things became really, really beneficial because in a small business there’s always a million things kind of flying around and everyone wears a lot of hats. So staying on track with a project and really finishing it through to the end and getting to the right people and making things … kind of see them through to the end and complete them, I would say that has been a biggest learning process for me and even if you consider yourself good at something, I think there’s always room for improvement too. So I’ve definitely, I’d like to say, I’ve improved on that as well as some other other things.

          Felix: Are there any kind of models or apps that you use for organization. I know there’s so many out there. Is there any particular methodology that you subscribe to?

          Lindsay: Yeah, we use Asana and I really love it. We only started using it a couple of years ago. So it’s a kind of project management tool. It’s free and we use it. We have full time employees as well as contracted workers. And where it really works well for us is those contracted roles, whether it’s someone coming in and graphic design or photography or web development. It’s been really huge because you can kind of create a project like we just did a website update and it helped out so immensely to have those tasks just kind of all lined up and you can check them off. You can go back and forth, you can bring other team members in. So yeah, Asana has been really helpful for us.

          Felix: One thing you mentioned was about the key to knocking down these these lists is through prioritization. How do you decide what you should give priority?

          Lindsay: I would say I always give priority to the most time sensitive things, but in a small business, of course, there’s always this kind of quick projects as well as the big picture. So what I like to do is kind of dedicate parts of my schedule to getting knocking out kind of emails and quick things usually at the start of the day and then I focus throughout the rest of the day or I pick certain days of the week to focus on kind of bigger picture product projects, whether it’s a product launch that we’re trying to get through this year, that’s kind of more of a long standing project versus, “Okay, I have to answer these 10 emails.” So I kind of structure my day in that way as far as knocking certain things out and then taking the big picture projects and putting them into my schedule at various points.

          Felix: So when you have a big goal, can you describe how you approach breaking it down so that it is actionable on a daily basis or even if you’ve got an example of a big goal that you guys are working or recently accomplished, how did you break it down so that it’s not … it’s kind of behemoth that stares at you in the face? Was that just something that you can’t tackle every single day or make progress towards?

          Lindsay: Yeah, sure. And these projects can get overwhelming, but with organization it can really help check things off. So what I do, I’m really big into Google drive and I use Google docs just kind of as my sketch pad and my notepad. So what I do a lot of in there is I make a document, say it’s last year, we released a new flavor of our organic label biscuit. It was blueberry flavor. So for that, luckily we kind of had the blueprint. We had a previous peanut butter flavor and it’s a similar product. So we were able to kind of follow in that sort of footprint of the previous product.

          But what I like to do there is just take notes. I write in dates. I use highlights for certain colors and I kind of coordinate next steps when I have certain calls with certain people and I kind of just do a general outline, usually in a sort of Google doc. It’s kind of my way of having a notepad. And maybe that’s not something that is ideally … maybe using asana for a personal task like that would also work well, but I’ve just found that that kind of sketching it out in a document like that and organizing it there really helps for me.

          Felix: Was there something there you had to say or that the company had to say no to that seemed like a great opportunity, but it had no room, you guys are spread too thin, or you would be spread too thin if you say yes to it? Can you think of it as an opportunity like this where you guys just had to say no to it even though it was something that was, maybe it could have been super attractive for the company?

          Lindsay: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean we’re a family business, so our budgets tend to match that granted we’ve been growing a ton and we’ve seen most of our biggest growth over the last year, three or four years. But being that same type of business, we don’t have exterior funding so we have to make budgetary decisions really wisely and we’ve definitely had to turn down down things that we know would be really successful, whether it’s working with a certain advertising company or allocating tens of thousands of dollars to a certain video creation that we know would be successful, but it just isn’t working now. And the way that I kind of think on that is I put it away in a folder and I understand that timing is important and you have to stick to various budgets, especially as a small business, but kind of file it away and keep it on track or in a folder there for the future if you know it was something that would likely be successful, but it’s just might not work right now.

          Felix: Right. I like to say rather than say, rather than saying no, I rather say or I’d like to say not yet. It’s not time or not the right time for it yet, but you don’t have to just say no and then feel like you’re shutting this off forever. Most things are never once in a lifetime opportunity. So I think that’s important for people that are … especially when you are just trying to get started for the first time you kind of just [inaudible] opportunity, for opportunity. And it’s so important just to stay focused and not be kind of lured to the next thing. Which leads to my next question, which is I think you mentioned about how important it is to finish. So you say a little more about this, how do you become more of a finisher? How do you make sure that the … either internally or externally, where do you see … ambitious people fall short of finishing. Why does that happen?

          Lindsay: Sure. So do you mean with kind of day-to-day projects?

          Felix: Sure. Yeah.

          Lindsay: Or bigger picture projects?

          Felix: Yeah, I guess. I think if someone has a big goal in mind or they have a big project that they’re working towards and they work on it, work on it, and work on it at some point they abandon it to go somewhere else. Why do you think that that happens and what are the things that you do or you do as a company to finish the work that you start?

          Lindsay: I think our biggest component, of course we’re a Vegan company and we make it Vegan products. So I feel so fortunate to be able to work in a space as a Vegan individual as well. And I wonder if sometimes your project isn’t fully aligned with what you’re most passionate about. That could possibly be a reason why it falls off. I think there are probably tons and tons of reasons, but with us, we’re so passionate about finishing things and getting projects done and bringing new products to market because to us it means helping more dogs and saving more [inaudible] animals. So it’s really this full circle of authenticity. Everyone that works here with us … we’re a small team, but everyone is so passionate and we’re also invested in the brand and the product and we feed it to our own dogs and it’s just this kind of full circle atmosphere and everyone works together really, really well.

          So I think that’s a really big part of it, at least from our perspective, is the passion component and really choosing an avenue that is going to be successful, but also related to a personal passion. I think that that really, really helps.

          Felix: So you mentioned that or you said that with increased transparency of social media and influencer marketing, consumers, especially Vegan consumers want to know that what they’re supporting is real and as a Vegan known to operate a family business, you guys stay completely true to the missions. Being authentic is what sets you apart. What do you do on a daily basis to make sure that your customers know your core values and that you’re standing by them?

          Lindsay: Yeah, I think that the biggest tool for that for us right now is Instagram. We communicate so closely and so directly with all of our followers and our customers and we have our social media manager on there just always responding. And she’s a real person. I’m a real person. I’m on there sometimes commenting and writing back to people. And I think that that’s kind of a surprise. You don’t expect someone maybe kind of as a main stay of the company to be responding to you on Instagram, but we love it. We love talking with people, we love helping, and it’s such a controversial kind of polarizing topic that we kind of do an all hands on deck approach where we allocate a portion of our time to just really being there for the customers.

          And, in addition to that, on our website we have our about us page and we have various parts where you can learn about what we do. And I think a big part of it too, being in the Vegan community, is it ends up being somewhat of a small world. So, I don’t want to say everyone knows each other, but we’ve been in the Vegan community for more than 13 years now. So it’s in a way that kind of creating a positive reputation around what you do is really important and connecting with people who are passionate about the product as well.

          Felix: What do you think draws prospective customers to your social media page or your Instagram and to ultimately follow you? What do you think it is that you guys are doing that just when I come to the page, it’s like, you know [inaudible] a subscriber followed this account?

          Lindsay: I think it’s two things. I think that the number one inevitable thing that we’re so grateful for is the cuteness factor because dealing with dogs, it’s dogs are just so cute and adorable and love sharing all of that content, especially when it’s our own customers sharing photos. We love re posting and just sharing that kind of organic content. It’s so important to us and it just warms our hearts. We’re seeing it every day. It makes us so happy.

          And the other factor is, I would say the kind of, like I was just mentioning, how it’s a polarizing topic. People are kind of drawn to this, whether they’re coming to our page to disagree or agree or talk about their own Vegan dog. It’s a place where people can learn if they’re willing to learn and it’s so much information and on this topic that is just not in the mainstream public, especially in the pet food industry. It’s starting to shift a little bit and plant-based proteins and diets for dogs are being talked about a bit more, but it’s still has that kind of high meat protein, wolf-feel in a lot of the marketing. So we come in, we’re like, “Hey, dogs can actually thrive on a meatless diet and people kind of don’t really know how to react and that draws them to a page like ours because either they’re upset or they want to learn or there’s all sorts of reasons. But I would say that’s the biggest part of it.

          Felix: But that’s a good point about how you’re representing basically a polarizing topic and a lot of times entrepreneurs, business owners will stay away from that. Right? They don’t want to get into a business and industry that can … to them, there’s already enough kind of potential negative feedback that just throwing themselves into a polarizing kind of industry as a Vegan, the topic of Veganism is already dotting enough. So how do you guys address things like disagreement that’s public and maybe even to the extent of potential trolls or people that are coming on just to kind of hate essentially on your business and your cause?

          Lindsay: Oh, yes. We have a lot of experience with that and I will tell you across the board our number one strategy and goal with responding to troll-like comments, or negativity, or really mean comments is always, always with kindness. We’re always writing back in a really positive manner, offering information, offering a positive perspective, offering our email address, our phone number, saying we’re here to help, smiley faces. Just really positive things we would never have engaged in a negative way. And basically a part of it too is if someone really is just there to argue, at some point, of course, you just let it go and you’ve provided the information that you can, you’ve come in with kindness and a positive perspective. And that’s really important for us too because Vegan is such a heavy word and we recognize that and we want to really position it in the most kind, compassionate, positive way possible.

          And since I’ve been at the company, it’s been about six years now and we’ve made sure that … and everyone is already on the same page, is that everyone is just so sweet that works here and manages our social and we’re just that … that’s always kind of been our policy, is the kindness component. And it’s going to work differently for every brand. But I think across the board, the whole respond with information, say that you’re willing to help, offer email addresses and phone numbers, and then at the final point kind of know when to just kind of let something go if it doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere and maybe that person is just venting a little bit or not having a good day. That’s part of it too.

          Felix: Yeah. What I’ve seen is polarization is actually one of the best things for your marketing because it makes your true customers who that really believe in the cause even more fired up for the cause. And it gives you the opportunity as the brand is step up on the stage that, because now there’s disagreement now gives you an opportunity to respond and present your opinion, present the information. It’s almost like a kind of teeing you up basically to give kind of your perspective. So it’s almost like you shouldn’t shy away from it, obviously it can be tiring after a while. It gives you a lot of negativity, but it also gives you an opportunity to communicate with your audience. So you mentioned as well about the, about us page is a place where you are able to express the kind of core values of the business. Do you find that there’s a lot of traffic that goes to the about us page?

          Lindsay: I would say that our most popular pages are our product pages for sure, way above other pages like our, about us. But there’s a significant amount of traffic to it since people are kind of curious, “Who are the people behind this brand? Are they real people? I want to see pictures of them.” And we’re actually working on kind of customizing that even more with more photos. We have so much content, whether it’s from when we did a team day over out to a [inaudible] sanctuary and we’re like out there playing with pigs and goats and we’ve such adorable photos than that. So we’re always working to kind of add that to a main say on our website, but we do share a lot of stuff like that more on social.

          But I would say by far, people are mostly curious about the products and then they want to get there, they want to read the ingredients, they want to see what we offer, they want to see the price, they want to learn about our subscription model. So I would say those pages definitely kind of overpower the about us, but there’s definitely significant traffic and curiosity about pages like the about us page as well.

          Felix: So you mentioned the photos of your team days that you guys are spending time together doing cool things. What do you think are some of the other kind of important details to include an about us page, whether you guys have it today or you plan on adding in the near future?

          Lindsay: I think that anything that showcases that you’re real people that really believe in the product that you’re selling or the movement that’s behind it, those are really the key components. And what I look for as a consumer, I was just looking at some clothing company the other day that kind of came up as an ad. I’m always curious about those things from a marketing standpoint. So I was looking at it and I always personally go to the about us page or our story page because I want to know what the company is about. I want to know what kind of materials they’re using. Are they sustainable materials, did they use any animal products in their materials. Of course that’s specific to a Vegan person who’s concerned with those things. But you can carry over too no matter what you’re passionate about. So I think that the page that showcases your team photos are really important. And just kind of explaining the story and showing off that authenticity factor.

          Felix: So you mentioned that one of your key roles is around partnerships and making sure you have strategic partnerships and connections to grow the brand. Can you say a little more about this? What kind of partnerships do you guys develop and have?

          Lindsay: Sure. So our founder, Dave, and his wife, Linda, they started off with a company back in Sacramento and they had really strong roots to the Vegan community there. So we are lucky enough to kind of start off in a place where we had a lot of connections. And then from there we really did a lot of in-person veg fest and kind of direct marketing, handing out samples to people. So a lot of our initial growth and our initial connections really grew out of that is establishing these kind of on the ground partnerships with people in the community where we’re selling our product to.

          So I know there’s basically an expo for everything nowadays and the thing is they’re not cheap and you have to travel to them and there is always kind of costs involved. So we traditionally used to do a lot of them and it was really important when we were getting started and since we’ve scaled them back, we still go to some of the bigger events throughout the year, all over the country, mostly on the west coast. But I would say that was a really important part of kind of getting our brand off the ground, and really connecting face to face with our people ,and letting them see the product, and feed it to their dogs, and kind of get their hands on it back when we were first getting started till the present day.

          Felix: Got it. So are these retail partners or are they, I guess, influencers or what are some key types of people … Like if someone wants to take this approach of partnering up or establishing partnerships to grow their brand, who should they be looking for? Who should they kind of set their sights on to try to reach and get their product in front of?

          Lindsay: I think all of the above. So the veg fest, and food festivals, and expos, that would be the way we work that is directly to the customer. So we physically hand a sample right to the person that’s going to go home and take it to their dog and then ideally check our website maybe buy. So that’s one part of it. Another part is at different events, there are bigger scale events where you go there to connect with retailers or distributors, whether it’s in, for us, the pet food industry or in the natural food space. So that’s important as well. For us, we’ve focused mostly on eCommerce as a Shopify business.

          We also sell heavily on Amazon and Chewy. So for us the physical distributor route hasn’t taken strong priorities, so we focus on direct customer as well as social. Since social is important for us, we have various social media ambassadors that we do content for product trades and all sorts of different relationships, whether it’s blogging or Youtubing video content creation stories just to kind of really get a buzz. So Instagram and social partnerships are really important. And I think again, for us, that really does circle back to the authenticity factor because people approach us all the time and we love it. And they say, “I’ve heard about your brand. I really want to represent you.” Or, “I really want to try this for my dog.” And at that point we determine if it’s a good partnership. But since they know that we are this company that really believes in what we’re doing, it makes for kind of this more stronger organic partnership as well.

          Felix: When it comes to these social media ambassadors, what kind of involvement do you have in the kind of content that you would like them to produce?

          Lindsay: What we do for all new social media collaborators is we have a deck that we send over, which kind of outlines what we’ve done in the past and who we’ve worked with, some examples of content, whether it’s a video, or a poster, or a story. So we kind of lay all of that out in a deck and that’s like a pdf scrollable deck. And this way they can kind of make sure they get a feel for what we’re looking for. And then once we agree to a partnership, whatever the partnership details are, we also create a document where we both sign off on the partnership to ensure that the posts are made and that the collaboration goes smoothly and everyone understands everything.

          For example, we always have the ambassador have the product in the photo or the video and that we’re tagged. So we want to kind of create that as the baseline. So if people see the product, they can very easily find our page. And just to kind of set that as the precedent for creating the content. So little things like that, we just make sure that everyone signs off on those as we get going with new partnerships.

          Felix: How many ambassadors do you try to work with?

          Lindsay: I would say right now we have less than a hundred ambassadors, but we’d love to have more. And I think it’s something that we could probably prioritize. We always have so many marketing campaigns and different streams of marketing going on. But we love the people that we collaborate with and I think we focus a lot of our time on the ones that we’re working with, re posting them, and working with them, and sending them product, and making sure everything’s good with them. It’s kind of a big task. So I think maybe that’s part of why we haven’t grown it to the hundreds. But I think that it’s definitely doable and definitely important. You see so many brands out there. That’s really how they’ve grown. There’s fashion brands and all sorts of other brands that have basically existed because of social media. So it’s clearly a really important space.

          Felix: Do you have some kind of system or tools that you use to keep track of all of this? Of all the ambassadors?

          Lindsay: Someone on our team manages it. So they check in various increments to ensure that everyone is posting at the right time. And honestly, I think what it goes back to, since we have it, we don’t have it on a massive scale right now. We’re able to really trust the people that we partner with and we do check that all the posts are being made and such and we visit in with them and make sure everything’s going smoothly. But on a larger scale, if we were working with hundreds of ambassadors, I’m sure there would need to be some more tools in place, which I don’t know about at this time.

          Felix: If yourself or your team, you could only focus on one marketing strategy or one channel, which one would you choose?

          Lindsay: I would say email at this point. We focus a lot on our email marketing and reaching people in a way that is giving them the information they want. So with the Vegan plant-based dog food space, there’s a lot of learning to be done. So even if someone’s already on board with this type of diet for their dog, there’s so much information and there’s so much to absorb and so much to learn. So we like to just really consolidate that and send it out to our customers in addition to prospective customers or people trying to decide if this is the right product for their dog. And then what we do is we use MailChimp, which I really love. It’s really user-friendly and the reports are great as long as it’s properly tied into your Shopify and you can view all reports by campaigns and lots of really good statistics. So in addition to that, you can also, of course, create abandoned cart email streams and new customer welcome email streams. So those are all really important tools for us that we’re utilizing and having a lot of success with.

          Felix: So are these past customers that are joining the email list or how are you typically getting on the list?

          Lindsay: It’s both. So we use an app to create popups and the app is called Privy. It’s actually a really great app. It’s free and I think we’ve upgraded to a low monthly paid model for them. But you can tie that into both your Shopify and your MailChimp, so you can grow your email list. So we use that if people are just kind of new and they’re browsing the site, they can sign up, and then they can get a coupon in their first order. And then they’re drawn into one of the email streams where we send out good information about our products and about Vegan dogs and information from our blog and our vets. And then additionally, existing customers are in our database of course. Since their email is attached to their order and it’s in Shopify. And within MailChimp you’re able to kind of use tags and segment all sorts of different things based on order numbers, so you can send an email list to all of your customers that have more than one order or have zero orders. So those are all really useful components to it as well.

          Felix: Do you know approximately how large the list has grown to now?

          Lindsay: Oh my gosh, I don’t know off the top of my head, but we have been around for 13 years and we’ve, I would say, only in the past five or so years been working on growing our email list. I wish that we had done it sooner because it would probably be a lot larger, but it’s pretty vast and I would love to see it grow even more. And it’s always so funny from a personal perspective focusing on email marketing because I don’t like to get a lot of emails. So I always keep that in mind when I’m creating content on our end because I want to just make sure it’s stuff that people want to read. It’s cute. So we’ve got some adorable photos in there and it’s a couple of quick links that are hopefully helpful or it’s a nice little easy treat recipe that you can make at home for your dog that they can enjoy. So we try to keep it simple and keep it short and not overdo it. That’s something that I try to kind of keep in our strategy there.

          Felix: Right. So you mentioned that you use Privy to collect the emails. What are some good ways that you’ve found to incentivize someone to join the list?

          Lindsay: Yeah, the biggest one we have right now is join our list kind of the typical for updates, stay in the loop type thing, and get $5 off your first order. We’re experimenting with different coupon amounts and different ways of doing that. And we also just started doing a new subscription pricing model as well. So that’s our biggest kind of drive right now is to show that to new customers that they can get a really good deal on their subscription service. And we just started offering free shipping last year as well, which was really important for us. But yeah, using Privy as a popup on various pages with various types of methods like exit intent or a timer. And those also work really well if you have updates to share or if you have sales going on.

          For example, we’re working on a new product this year, so of course we’re going to be using that to show off the new product in addition to the theme that we use in Shopify. It has a new feature. I don’t know if this is a Shopify feature or specific to the theme that we’re working within, but there’s like a top banner feature so you can always have this kind of thin banner that makes an announcement up there, which is really nice too. You can either show it or hide it. So when we have the new product launch, it can kind of be static at the top of every page there, which is nice.

          Felix: You mentioned one of the key reasons why you wanted to get people onto the list is for education and even if they are existing customers, there’s always education that you can provide to them. How do you structure this? How do you make sure that you kind of get your points across, that education across without overwhelming them?

          Lindsay: Yeah. We like to keep it simple and we create a lot of blog posts in addition to a new page that we have. So this is really exciting. MailChimp just created at least later last year, the end of last year, they created the ability to create landing pages, which is really great. If you want to just create a simple landing page, you can verify your URL and even have your own URL, like vdog.com, show up instead of a MailChimp URL. You just do it through kind of your backend domain and you can really use our drag and drop methods to create a landing page and show off information on any topic. So we definitely use that and it’s been really helpful. We have a new kind of Vegan dogs 101 page where we have just lots of cute images along with the top questions that we get.

          So basically to answer your question, it’s kind of being in the business for so many years. We’ve created an FAQ page and those are based on our top question. So we’ve taken those kinds of top questions and looked up the research behind them and kind of consolidated things into pages and blog posts that we can kind of concisely and precisely present to the customers. That’s not just an overwhelming amount of information, but they can kind of sift through the photos for example on the landing page and be like, “Oh, this relates to me, ‘how to transition my dog to this food.’” And they can easily find it within that page versus the FAQ page is helpful as well, but we want it to go a little bit beyond that with some more resources.

          Felix: I like that approach. So I think a lot of times when we are tasked or task ourselves with creating content, and creating blog posts, creating newsletters, we started thinking, “Oh, let me try and think of something off the top of my head to create.” But you’re taking, I think, a much better and scientific approach versus just the fine, what are the top questions people are asking you? What would make it into your FAQs and create answers to them. Create the answers to the questions in a form of a blog post and go in depth. I mean that’s a great approach and you can almost get endless supply of questions after a while. Right? From your customers to answer in depth. And so you mentioned the blog posts that you’re sharing through email marketing, product information going out, you mentioned recipes are going out, out of all those types of emails, what kind of emails do you find get the most interaction, whether they opened them more frequently or clicked on them more frequently, which one of the kind of types of emails you send out get the best engagement?

          Lindsay: Yeah, this is always so fun to see. So we work with some contracted marketing people who are experts in analyzing these things. And I worked together with them to take our kind of monthly newsletters or new customer welcome emails and all of our streams to kind of look at the click through rates and look at what content is most popular. And a small example in one of our newsletter is the video block we had in there wasn’t performing well. So we decided to remove it and replace it with another component that was doing well in addition to a easier access to something like a shop button.

          So what people kind of do is you’ll scroll and you’ll maybe read one article and you’ll be back in the email and you’d be like, “Okay, well now I want to visit their website.” But then if it’s all the way at the bottom, for example, you don’t want to bombard people with shop now all the time because it’s an informational newsletter. So something that we’ve played around with is balancing the delicate act of kind of where to place that and how to make it easy for people but not kind of have people feel like we’re really forcing them to shop. We really do want them to get this information and feel confident about us, about what we’re doing, and about the product. So we’re always revisiting that. I think it’s an ongoing process and just staying in tune with our analytics, and MailChimp, and Google analytics really helps us see what’s working and what’s not.

          Felix: So you mentioned that the subscription model is a new type of business model for you guys.

          Lindsay: So we’ve had it for, I think about, four or five years now, but we’ve just recently changed the pricing structure.

          Felix: I see. When you introduce this, what was the reasoning behind that? What did you see, either from your customers or in the marketplace, that made you decide to add the subscription model?

          Lindsay: You know what? People always ask us for it and it was so wonderful to finally be able to implement it because I get it. It’s this big bag of dog food. First of all, you don’t really necessarily want to go to the pet food store and lug that around, especially we’re in San Francisco. In the city you have to take a Lyft or Uber. Not a lot of people have cars. You kind of luging in this background. So that’s a common experience. So the eCommerce of it alleviates that and we’re happy to be in that space. And we’ve been in that space since 2005 kind of our founder set it up really ahead of its time. So I think people kind of question that, “Oh dog food. You’re going to sell it online. That’s kind of a weird.” But we stuck with it and obviously it’s working out really well and we’re grateful for that.

          But the other component is to make it even easier. It’s like, “Well, I don’t really want to go on every month and have to navigate this website and place an order. Can you just send my order automatically?” And for many years we didn’t have that capability. There wasn’t an app that fit our needs right or we just didn’t find the right app. We didn’t have the capacity to find the right app for whatever reason. Our team was small. So finally we did get going with a recurring order app. Currently we use bold recurring orders through Shopify and I would say most of our customers purchase through our subscription, which makes me so happy. We know that it’s convenient and they’re able to log into their account, they’re able to change the increment, change the products, get the shipment. So it’s really flexible and it’s something that I’m so happy to provide because I remember back in the day when everyone was kind of … we got so many requests for it. For us, it grew out of simply people asking for it.

          Felix: Well how does this change your logistics to execute on all the subscriptions that are signed up?

          Lindsay: On the kind of logistics and execution … and it doesn’t change much because the app pulls the order right into Shopify as if that person was placing the order in front of their computer right that that morning. So then it just pulls through to where we have two warehouses, one on the east coast, one in the west, and our orders a separate are separated out east and west. So say someone over in New York orders, the order populates just as if they placed the order that morning thing and then it’s boxed up and shipped out either that day or the next morning, just as if it flowed through as if it were a manual order.

          Felix: When someone comes to this site to buy just for the first time. Do they easily learn about the subscription model or is that introduced to them later? How do you introduce it to a new customer that’s about to buy?

          Lindsay: Yeah, in the past we didn’t have it set up as prominently as it is now, but if you go to our website now you’ll see it’s the number one feature right on our home page as well as when you’re on any of the product pages. There’s a little bubble where you can choose one time purchase or you can choose the subscribe and save option. So we like to think it’s pretty well spelled out and we’re always working on getting customer feedback and making sure things are are set up in a user friendly way.

          Felix: So you answered that you’re selling on Amazon, also Chewy. I think you might be the first guest on this show to sign on Chewy. What was that like? How did you guys get your product on Chewy?

          Lindsay: We have been selling on Chewy for a couple of years now, so we’re kind of new to it, but they’ve been a really great customer of ours and people love Chewy. They have super fast shipping and they’re really easy to work with. Just like we like to pride ourselves in customer service, Chewy does too. They have people that are always there to answer your questions. So it’s a really nice fit for our product and we’re happy to be selling on there. As far as how we got selling, I believe they approached us because they work a lot through their search algorithms. So a lot of people were searching Vegan dog food or V-dog on their site enough to the point where it made our brand pretty desirable for them to carry.

          Now, I wasn’t involved in the negotiations for all of that. So I don’t know a ton of it, but I know that we’re selling a lot to them and it’s been working out really well and people are always really excited to hear not only are we selling on Amazon, but, “Oh, I think they’re on Chewy. That’s great.” I already have a subscription order on Chewy for this or for that, or that’s where I get my dog’s toys or dog bed and stuff. So it’s just nice to kind of have our products in these avenues that makes it easier for people. We want it to be convenient and comfortable for their experience.

          Felix: Right. When you sell on a platform like this, how does customer service work when a customer wants to … they’ll purchase a product or thinking about purchasing a product and which is how to Chewy?

          Lindsay: Chewy handles all of the customer questions, and concerns, and returns, and everything. The only time that they reach out to us on items like that is if the customer has a specific question they don’t know the answer to. Something like if it’s about a vitamin in our formula or if it’s about something really specific like that, but they’re really knowledgeable. And in the beginning, when we set up, I remember we had kind of an initial call and they were able to ask any questions about the brand. But yeah, it’s been really smooth so far. And they take all of the customer questions directly if it’s someone that’s buying our product on Chewy.

          Felix: That’s great. When it comes to logistics, how does it work with Chewy? If someone buys on there, how does it kind of flow through the rest of your supply chain?

          Lindsay: So Chewy buys the product from us and then they take the product and then warehouse it themselves. They have many warehouses and that’s why they can ship so quickly, is that they take our product and all other products and they put it in their warehouses and then it’s as if it’s their product and then they ship it to the customers.

          Felix: That’s great. It makes a lot easier for you. So you mentioned one of the best marketing strategies you’ve had is your year’s worth of V-dog kibble giveaway which you do every July. Tell us more about this. How does a give away work?

          Lindsay: Yes. So every July we have Vegan dog month. And the goal of that month is to just create a lot of excitement and buzz around the topic of feeding dogs a complete and balanced plant-based diet and showing off how they thrive, and how happy they are, and ultimately how much they love the food. And I always laugh because I tell people that my dog’s favorite treats, aside from the V-dog products, are chickpeas and broccoli stems, which I just think is like the funniest most Vegan ever. People always crack up with that. It’s hilarious. So Vegan dog month is just having conversations about that and our giveaway, we did it for the first time last year where we did a year’s worth of kibble. So the way we do it is we have a signup page and anyone interested, they can put in their email address and then we gather a list.

          This year we used [inaudible]. Last year we used MailChimp and then we use a random winner generator to pick the winner. And this year it was this wonderful woman with two dogs. And she was so happy and grateful and in a previous interview someone asked me, “How do we ensure that that person’s going to post pictures, and talk about us, and kind of what are we going to get out of it?” And, to us, we know that we’ve had that communication with the customer and whether they post about it or tell a million people about it isn’t our major concern. We’re just happy that we were able to give this product to someone who was clearly very interested in it. Often it’s a new customer so that’s even better that this person kind of gets to try it out. If they’re a new customer, we’ll of course probably send them a small amount before we send a full year just in case, so their dog can get a feel for it. That’s a little part of it too.

          But I think this year it was an existing customer, so she was so grateful. And we loved you and we love being able to provide that type of gift. And in addition to being able to provide that, it just gets this really great buzz. I mean it’s a great prize, right? Who doesn’t want that amount of dog food for their dog for the whole year. And we recognize that and we’re happy to be able to provide something like that. In addition too, throughout the year we also often donate our slightly damaged bags to rescues and sanctuaries. So that’s another important part of our giving component.

          Felix: How do you promote a giveaway?

          Lindsay: We promote it through social media, and our email newsletter, and then we have a landing page, which we usually do something like create a bitly link for it and link it in various parts, like in our Instagram bio, on Twitter, on our Facebook posts. So it’s kind of an all-around model of just getting a word out there. And additionally, we play around with sponsored posts and allocating a little bit of budget to getting the word out in things like Facebook ads and directing people back to the landing page where they can sign up with their email address.

          Felix: And you mentioned earlier that you guys recently went through some website updates. Well, what did you guys want to change the website to improve it?

          Lindsay: With our website updates, the main goal was to incorporate some of our new photography. So something that I would say took us a while to fine tune is finding the right photographer and getting the right shots and getting the shots that work for what we need. Especially big wide, beautiful, cute happy dog shots for our website. So that was the main goal of our most recent update was getting those photos on there and the best way of working with our designer, working with our web developer. And of course, before that, we had to get to the point where we found the ideal photographer and the person who is able to get the shots that we wanted. So the update was really focused around photos and making sure the web space, especially the homepage is a bit more photo driven. So we added some more photo blocks so you can easily access things like our new welcome page and it’s kind of right there, all laid out on the first page. So I would say our homepage and the kind of photo edits were the main drivers there.

          Felix: But why did you decide that you wanted to make it more photo-driven?

          Lindsay: We see a lot of websites that we love. We’re really invested in kind of inspirational brands, whether it’s in the Vegan community or beyond, whether it’s just a cool product or something that we buy ourselves and we see their websites and we know that we like them personally. We know we like the clean, easy to navigate look. So it comes from within ourselves that just being, we know what we want this to look like. We know what we enjoy as an experience of online shopping or browsing and learning, so we just try to take that personal experience and infuse that into the updates that we create for our own website.

          Felix: And is the site design designed in-house or do you guys have hired out for that?

          Lindsay: It’s a combination. So we work, some of us in-house help kind of strategize on what we want and kind of whether it’s the copy or the image and we bring in our graphic design and then ultimately we have a developer that we hire works in the backend of Shopify, which is important. We took a while to find the right person too because of course some developers are really great, but they don’t have Shopify expertise. So that’s really important. To avoid that kind of learning curve or initial speed bumps is to find someone that is a Shopify specific code expert.

          Felix: Maybe tips there on finding something like that.

          Lindsay: There is a page on Shopify where you can find the top Shopify experts and I believe we’ve found a couple of people off of there. So that’s definitely been helpful. And then beyond that, it’s really just figuring out what type of workflow you want, so we use asana. So our developer was not only a top Shopify expert, but they were super happy and accommodating for our methods and for using asana. And the type of project scale, often we’re not doing these massive overhauls. They’re kind of like lots of little updates that are kind of bunched into a month long project. So finding someone that is able to work with your timeline and your project size too is important because you can look at the Shopify page and there’s a whole list of experts there. So you can kind of start there, and then weed through them, and have some calls, and communicate with people, and see maybe which one is the best fit for your company and what you need.

          Felix: That’s a good point there. It’s not just about their experience and their skill sets, but then how well can they fit into your existing system. If they had never used your project management tools before, there’s definitely a learning curve that’s associated that can kind of slow things down. And the page we’re talking about is experts.shopify.com page where you can find a list of experts that they have experience with Shopify. And so one thing I noticed about this site was that on the top there’s like basically three links at least on the desktop side. There are three links they can click on. One of them is occupied by testimonials. Why did you find that it was important to have this kind of prominent part of the navigation for customers to be able to find your testimonials?

          Lindsay: Yes. Testimonials are so important for us and they have been basically since our inception, being in a space where people are deciding on their dog’s nourishment and their dogs day-to-day eating, and enjoyment, and happiness, and health. What really helps people to see that it’s a positive thing is reading other people’s stories and not just other people’s stories, but we even have our segment or section segmented out on the testimonials page there. And you could see one is even called miracle stories and there are just these incredible stories of dogs healing from all sorts of things, from seizures to terrible skin and allergy conditions. And it gives that little extra layer of confidence that, “Okay, there’s someone out there who has had a lot of success feeding this product to their dog and it makes me feel a little bit more comfortable in trying it.”

          And it’s always been a priority of ours since we’re dog parents. We feel that that is something that is a priority of us when we’re finding new products and learning about new topics, is that we like to see real-life stories. And I think again, it comes back to the authenticity factors. Here are real-life dogs that had been thriving on this food for so many years or this person just switched and here’s their experience. But yeah, we just also love to share people’s stories and it’s always fun for a customer to see their dog on the website too. So that’s part of it as well.

          Felix: So you mentioned so far Privy and the bold recurring orders apps that you’re using on Shopify … Are there any other apps that you recommend the listeners check out?

          Lindsay: Yeah, one that comes to mind that we’ve been playing around with a bit lately is called Conversio. And the main thing you can use it for targeted or segmented email receipts as well as all sorts of email campaigns as well. But we recently added their photo review tool and it’s been the best thing ever. It basically in a way mimics how Amazon does reviews where you could see photos and texts. And previously we just had text and how many stars the customer gave the product.

          But ever since we implemented the tool it’s the most exciting time of day or week when we check the review photos because they’re so adorable. We have people with their photos flowing in and their glowing reviews and it makes us so happy. And the photo part of it is so nice too because that’s also adding in that testimonial factor that people can find our product and say they’re looking at our kibble page, they scroll down, they can actually see right there a bunch of dogs enjoying the product and what the dog’s parents think about the product and how many stars they’ve given it. So that’s a really fun tool that we implemented last year.

          Felix: Awesome. So what do you want to see the business go over the rest of this year?

          Lindsay: We see a lot of growth potential this year. Last year was a really good year for us. This year we’re working on some new products and we’re hoping to launch that later in the year and really just round out our line and offer kind of a one-stop shop for dog parents to buy anything meatless for their dog’s diet. So we’re looking forward to continuing to grow and offer new products and grow an Amazon in Chewy as well and just kind of listen to our customers and take requests. And we’re always creating this open line of communication where we’re a team of Vegans, we hear you, we want to know what you’re thinking, we want to know what your dog’s think. And Luckily we do get tons of really positive feedback and the dogs really love the taste of everything. So it just makes us so happy that we’re able to provide something like this that allows dogs to really be in their best health. And at the same time, it’s an environmentally sustainable product as well as not needing to harm any farmed animals in the process.

          Felix: Awesome. So v-dog.com is the website. Thank you so much for your time, Lindsay.

          Lindsay: Thank you so much.

          Felix: Thanks for tuning into another episode of Shopify masters, the eCommerce podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs powered by Shopify. To get your exclusive 30-day extended trial, visit shopify.com/masters.

           


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          Introducing: And Nowhere Else

          Collage of illustrated citiesHome. It’s a physical location, but also a feeling. When the place we call home is also the place where we work and create, it defines us as much as we define it. Makers and founders everywhere are at the heart of the communities where they do business. This series, And Nowhere Else, examines the relationship between the places they live and what they choose to create.

          Starting with Key West, we visit communities around the world—small towns and large urban centers alike—to ask what makes each place unique? What does entrepreneurship mean in downtown Detroit? Does it feel any different in the Canadian island community of Tofino?

          The subjects in our stories feel lucky to live where they do, and it inspires their work, the materials they use, and the ways that they do business. In Key West, rum distiller Paul Menta cures his barrels in the ocean’s salty bounty, right at his doorstep. In Kyoto, Ayumi Nicholas honors traditional Japanese handicraft in her kimono silk guitar straps. And in Boston, Hannah Blount draws from her seaside New England roots when designing her custom jewelry.

          In this series, you’ll hear from Paul, Ayumi, Hannah, and other entrepreneurs about the uniqueness of the communities where they live and work. And, maybe their stories will inspire you to find your calling—in your own stomping ground, and nowhere else.

          Paradise Found: After the Storm in Key West

           Illustration of Key West, FloridaWhen the place we call home is also the place where we work and create, it defines us as much as we define it. Makers and founders everywhere are at the heart of the communities where they do business. This series, And Nowhere Else, examines the relationship between the places they live and what they choose to create.


          As you crest the last of 42 bridges along the 113-mile stretch of Highway 1, you’re greeted by a sign welcoming you to “Paradise, USA.” Affable locals, two rum cocktails deep, say this island has a “vague, sexy mystery” with its blooming Moonflowers, famous sunsets, and island-y, Jimmy Buffet-ish, cowboy sort of soundtrack . Paradise indeed. This is Key West, Florida.

          Yet less than two years ago, Key West was victimized by Hurricane Irma, a category 4 storm that destroyed homes, wiped out a tourism industry that employs over half the island’s residents, and dumped 2.5 million cubic yards of debris along the only highway out of town. It was the first time this area had experienced a hurricane in almost 12 years, and the threat continues to loom.

          Within six months of Irma, though, many of the island’s shops and hotels were back up and running, and tourists were trickling in. Distiller Paul Menta says it wouldn’t have been possible without the strength of the business community. “We’re not competitors anymore,” he says. “We have to work together, and that’s what we do.”

          A group of people cycle past a pink building in Key West, Florida
          After Hurricane Irma, Key West was rebuilt by a community that works together.

          This tight-knit community opens its arms to outsiders—though you’re not a “conch” unless you were born here—and the result is a mixed bag of adventure-seekers, displaced artists, retirees, and, as one local says, “oddballs.” These are their stories.

          The island of misfit toys

          Paul always felt like a sore thumb. That is, until he moved to Key West and found his people. “I came here and I kind of just fell into place,” he says. The chef by trade discovered an untapped market in his new home: legally distilled rum. “They’ve done it illegally, but nobody’s had a license,” he says.

          Paul Menta of Key West Legal Rum Distillery submerges a wooden barrel in the shallow salt water.
          Distiller Paul Menta cures his rum barrels in the ocean’s salty bounty.

          Paul became the first to open a legitimate distillery in Key West, bottling the flavor of the island through Key West First Legal Rum Distillery. Literally. Unlike many rums made with molasses,—a byproduct of sugar refining—he uses local dermera cane sugar and cures his barrels in the ocean’s salty bounty. Anywhere else, it might seem curious to see a man rolling a rum barrel down the street, but here in Key West, Paul says, weird is normal: “We’re the land of misfit toys.”

          Paul may be the only business owner on the island who welcomes the hurricanes. He says that the resulting pressure drop produces unique flavors like butterscotch and black truffle. While the hurricanes may be beneficial to rum-making, he admits that they’re not great at producing customers.

          Tropical collars

          Deb Pansier once biked from Key West to Alaska with her dog Bucky in tow. Though she moved to the island in 1978 and still calls it home, she’s traveled across the U.S., building houseboats, working open range cattle in Wyoming, and learning to operate a crane. In 1991 she made her first dog collar and would eventually supply collars to Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville locations across the U.S. These days, you can find her, paintbrush in hand, designing custom tropical collars for Key West pets at her studio and pet shop, Wagadoodle, on Fleming Street.

          A mother lode of gold doubloons

          Mel Fisher was a dive shop owner in California when, decades ago, he convinced a group to dive for treasure off the east coast of Florida. Almost a year after the first dive, the group uncovered riches not seen for centuries. That first big find—only a fraction of the 1622 wreck of the Spanish ship Atocha—yielded a $20 million bounty. Key West’s penchant for angry storms, combined with a harrowingly narrow channel between it and Cuba, make it infamous for shipwrecks.

          Kim Fisher, who operates Mel Fisher's Treasures in Key West, Florida holding a gold object next to a glass display cabinet filled with jewelry.

          A diver searches for treasure in the waters surrounding Key West, Florida

          Kim Fisher has been hooked on finding buried treasure since his dad took him diving as a kid.

          Mel’s son Kim was 9 when his father let him dive for treasure for the first time. Kim found a silver coin and says he’s been “hooked ever since.” Today, carrying on his father’s legacy, Kim operates Mel Fisher’s Treasure, providing visitors a rare look at centuries-old artifacts and an opportunity to own a piece of history. “Everybody dreams about finding buried treasure,” Kim says. “I know I’m really lucky. I get to live that dream.”

          A Mainer in Key West

          Angela Berube-Grey had a long career in IT and web design before she and her family moved from Maine to Key West in 2014. The change in climate was tough on her kids’ skin, and Angela took action. She began experimenting with natural ingredients to make soaps and lotion bars to combat the problem. Using local ingredients and natural fragrance inspired by their new island life, Angela now handcrafts and sells her products in her retail shop, Conch Republic Body Essentials. In true Key West fashion, she also co-owns a paddle board–making business with her artisan husband, Craig.

          The millionaire in flip-flops

          To celebrate receiving a top honor in her role as a shoe company exec, Sue Cooper quit her career cold turkey. A year later, as a new Key West transplant, she founded Lazy Dog, selling T-shirts and renting kayaks (and later paddle boards). In 2012, she wrote the book Millionaire in Flip Flops to share her transition from the corporate world to being her own boss. More than 20 years after starting her business, Sue is still at the paddle, and Lazy Dog has expanded to offer tours, retreats, and lessons.

          Walk a mile in his shoes

          During the Cuban Revolution in 1960, Roberto “Kino” Lopez and his young wife, Margarita, fled the country to take refuge in Key West. “They thought the revolution would be short-lived and they would go back,” says daughter Ana.

          Exterior of Kino Sandals in Key West, Florida. Two oversized sandals lean on the wall by the shop's door.
          More than 50 years after its inception, Kino Sandals still makes footwear the traditional way.

          Initially in Key West, Roberto supported the family through manual labour jobs. In 1965, though, he founded Kino Sandals, drawing on his skills working as a boot-maker in Cuba to make footwear appropriate for the laid-back island lifestyle. More than 50 years later, Kino Sandals is still family-run, with the products handcrafted and the next generation at the helm.

          They never expected to find a second home in Key West, though they say their community is like family. “If you ever need any help, you could always turn to anybody here in our small community,” says son Alan. “Pretty much everyone knows each other,” adds Ana.

          A framed photo of a young Roberto Kino Lopez, founder of Kino Sandals

          Multiple generations of the Lopez family who run Kino Sandals

          Roberto’s legacy is honored by the several generations of the Lopez family who run the business using his traditional methods.

          The coastline curse—and opportunity

          There’s more than one reason business owners enjoy living in Key West. If it isn’t the people or the Bob Ross sunsets, surely it’s the miles of coastline. Flanked by the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, its surrounding sea life is as diverse as its residents.

          Paul McGrail and Sean Rowley knew opportunity when they saw it. The business partners bought their first catamaran in 1988, and today, their Sebago Watersports fleet hosts sailing tours and snorkeling adventures in the world’s third largest coral barrier reef.

          If you’re meant to be here, the island will let you know. And if you’re not, it will chew you up and spit you right back out.

          Kelly Lever

          Some of the other shops selling goods unique to the area include Kermit’s Key West Lime Shoppe, run by a local character named Kermit Carpenter, who churns out all manner of treats, including key lime green tomato relish and Kermit’s Choc-O-Roon Cookies.

          People overlook the water on a pier in Key West, Florida
          The community of Key West welcomes everyone from retirees and artists to adventure seekers and “oddballs.”

          Transplants, too, are making their mark here—tricky, given Key West’s unpredictable climate and tourism-annihilating storms. That, combined with the high cost of housing, means the livin’ isn’t always easy. The misconception, some say, is that everyone is rich. But many work sidegigs or two jobs to be able to live here.

          For Kelly Lever and Adam Russell, a couple of artists who run Key West Pottery, Key West chose them, not the other way around. “If you’re meant to be here,” says Kelly, “the island will let you know. And if you’re not, it will chew you up and spit you right back out.”

          Illustration by Verónica Grech

          She Built a Local Economy in the Tibetan Plateau—with Yak Wool

          One of Norlha Textiles’ artisans, in a blue wool jacket and black pants, poses with an oversized blue scarf next to a yak on the plateau.Armed with a camera from her mom and flanked by a translator, Dechen Yeshi first visited Tibet in 2004 to get closer to the heritage from her father’s side. “I started to hear their stories, and I felt I could do something more,” says Dechen, who was 22 at the time. “That’s where my mother’s idea—she loves textiles—of doing something with yak wool made sense to me.”

          Fast forward to today, where from the picturesque Ritoma Village, Dechen runs Norlha Textiles—the first luxury brand from what’s known to Tibetans as the Amdo region. (Her mom, Kim Yeshi, became the first investor and remains the company’s president today.) Dechen and her team began producing cozy scarves once picked up by European fashion houses like Hermès and Louis Vuitton but that are now made under Norlha’s label, along with beanies, pullovers, and blankets. But Dechen didn’t just create a brand, she created a local economy: over 140 artisans power Norlha. This is how she did it.

          Dechen Yeshi, owner of Norlha Textiles, in a navy sweater and pale blue scarf, inspects a slew of scarfs in her workshop.
          “If you take that first step, then it becomes easy to take the second and the third,” says Dechen Yeshi, shown here working with her textiles.

          As she settled in, Dechen noticed young adults felt “very marginalized, and they often had to leave their hometowns and go into big Chinese cities. They really wanted to be a part of the whole globalism and modernity” movement, Dechen adds. But “families were split apart, so it was important to create a source of employment to keep young people at home, so they could be with their children and their parents and then culture and tradition could be passed down.”

          Landscape of lush green grass surrounding the village of Ritoma and it’s terra cotta colored roofs.
          Ritoma, home to fewer than 1,500 inhabitants, is surrounded by vast fields and enclosed by mountains.

          Living in a remote area was full of challenges initially. Ritoma lacked paved roads and plumbing as well as reliable electricity when Dechen first visited. So you could imagine what it was like starting a new business. “People thought we were kind of crazy,” Dechen says. “How are you going to make products where you have to train everybody in the village? The only thing that was from here was the raw material.”

          Yet Dechen felt compelled to give it a shot. “I needed locals to see that I was here to stay,” she says. “I just felt that I was incredibly lucky to have grown up outside and had an opportunity for an education, and then being young and the combination of that—you just feel anything is possible.”

          An artisan, in beige shirt and brown pants at an outdoor weaving machine, works on a piece of textile.
          The weaving process for a single scarf can take more than two hours.

          For the next few years, Dechen connected with nomads who collected wool shed by yaks, and she traveled with a few of them to Cambodia so they could all learn how to weave. “We don’t just buy the yak wool and cart it off to a factory,” she says. “That’s not what’s special about us. What we do is try to retain the added value by taking the raw material and creating employment off of it.”

          Over time, Dechen turned to her new community to learn their dialect, and in turn, she’s provided English and computer classes to help employees. Her business also supports employees through an amateur basketball team—a mix of both women and men who’ve played on an international level and were the subject of a documentary film.

          An artisan in blue shirt and apron works within the workshop.
          Dechen’s scarves wind through 10 different workstations, each run by a different artisan.

          Around 6,000 yaks roam the Amdo region, and nomads normally collect wool in the spring after the animals shed their winter coats. Workers don’t shear or comb off the wool; instead, they wait for the yaks to naturally molt. That means Dechen’s main raw material has often been in flux and purchased in bulk once per year. But mastering the flow of supplies has helped her meet growing demand and gets her artisans paid regularly.

          Above all, though, the team strives to create “fashionable” products. “We don’t want people buying from us just out of sympathy, because then they won’t come back and then it’’s not sustainable,” says Dechen. “We need to continually find our sense of identity, find our sense of style. We’re still in the teenage phase of our company identity…but we’re continually working on that.”

          The quality control process on a piece featuring a yak imagery is being completed by an artisan in blue shirt and grey pants.
          “We want people to see us as this brand that has beautiful products, but it also is a way of life,” says Dechen.

          Today, after a decade and a half in Tibet, Dechen is now a mother of three and is looking for new growth opportunities for Norlha Textiles. She’s been hiring international interns, turning to software to better run the business, and iterating on past designs. “My dream is definitely for it to become the first high-end Tibetan brand in the world.”

          Photographs by Axl Jansen
          Additional reporting by Neal Hicks, Lindsey Neely, and Sam Charlton