Hello! My husbean and I learned A TON in the past few months while moving the shop from Google Forms, Twitter posts, and the self service print-a-label machine at the post office, to where we are now. We figured that it's probably a good idea to go ahead and share our findings. Maybe it'll help someone else out there!
Expect this to be a 10 minute read.
1. Stamps.com and Shipping Software
The big thing about ecommerce that most people don't think about is the shipping component. Yeah, you kinda realize that you will need to ship the products to your customers, but, at least when it came to us, it ended up kind of being the aspect we wanted to put off perfecting until after we got some sales. We'd just pay the full rate at the post office until then. Well this forced us to make early decisions about what we could and couldn't ship, and what would end up with tracking, and what would be packaged in envelopes, bubble mailers, or boxes, regardless of appropriateness. Thankfully, this was in the before times, well before we started working on getting a store launched.
Switching to a company like Stamps.com/Shipstation has a lot more benefits to it than just saving a ton on each packages postage. Having a nice centralized place to keep track of physical orders; automatically sending tracking numbers clients' email addresses; being able to pay postage and print shipping labels at home; being able to easily schedule package pickup or have a nice and quick drop off with a prefilled SCAN Form; having your shipping and tracking information sync and get pulled back into Shopify automatically; this kind of tool is DEFINITELY AND ABSOLUTELY A MUST if you are dealing in physical goods at all. Plus, there's plenty of options out there, so you can find the one that works best for you, whether that be Stamps.com/ShipStation, or Shippo, or Pirate Ship, or EasyShip! There's tons more out there, each with something that may work better for you and your specific needs and budget. FIReNVY recommends using this site to easily compare the more popular ones side by side to see for yourself! It's what we used to help decide.
2. Thermal Label Printer
So yes, you can get those clear pouches and print out the big ol' 8.5x11 fold-in-half labels on printer paper (or just use a bunch of packing tape, cuz those pouches are PRICEY). Or you can buy the really expensive label paper for your ink jet printer. OR, and hear me out on this, you could just get a thermal label printer. They are time and money savers, especially when it comes to ink/toner. A good label printer for ecommerce or small business use will run you between $80 and $180. But regardless of whichone you choose, they all print on cheap rolls of 4" x 6" labels, using NO INK, NO TONER! When I say serious money savers, I mean it. A single roll of labels is like $10 - $15, depending on how big a roll and what brand. Heck, I'm looking at a 12 pack of 500-label rolls (6,000 labels!) for $53. Compare that to the nearly $100 in ink we go through in our regular printer, just to print 500 sheets, if we're lucky.
We just switched to the Rollo printer based on recommendations from friends and #SmallBusinessTikTok, and we're pretty happy with it, although it can be a bit pricey when it's not on sale. HOWEVER, we actually started with a $30 refurbished older printer that we picked up on pcliquidations.com, an old Datamax-O'Neil E-Class Mark II. It took a little bit of effort to get the drivers and software installed and the settings perfected, but it worked pretty well for a quite a while. [FIReNVY: WELL, ACTUALLY... A plastic piece that held the thermal plate snug against the labels broke pretty quickly (can't tell if weakened during shipping or during initial setup), so we had to manually hold it down and apply pressure while printing. Also, because it was older it had less memory so printing more than two or three labels at a time could make it freak out and forget the size of label briefly while it was busy loading the next label into its internal print queue. BUT YEAH, GREAT...] Okay, so,, aside from those annoyances it worked great for the small amount of shipping we were initially doing, so it may be good to look at going the second-hand route. But if you are going to be making more than a few labels at a time, it's probably best to go ahead and get a newer Zebra, Epson, Brother, or Rollo unit. Just make sure to ask around and do your comparisons to find the one that makes sense for your volume and budget.
3. Shopify Help Center and Community Forums
FIReNVY here. I did the majority of the work of the actual site/storefront build, so I'll take over on this one! =P
When it came down to the actual building of the site, there was a TON of things that we just couldn't figure out right away. Sciggles had an image in her head and a few similar sites that she liked, so I figured that that would be a great place to start. Before we even created the account and started the free trial, we sat down and listed out what we wanted from the store, and what features and designs it should have to best serve our needs and the needs of our current and future customers. It definitely helped that she had already been selling through PayPal and at conventions for a while. We took the aspects of user functionality that mattered the most and started exploring the free Shopify Themes to find one that matched best. If one didn't have most of them, we'd keep looking; if none of them had enough of what we were looking for, we knew we'd probably have to check out alternative platforms after all. Thankfully we found a theme that really resonated with us. It wasn't perfect, but due to the research I had put in on various podcasts and the Shopify App Store itself, I knew that there was pretty much always going to be an app for that. 😊 So we created our account and set up the core business details in the Settings menu. We switched over from the default theme to the one that's still in use today.
Sooooo, uh, now what? I barely knew how to navigate through the top-level menus of the "Admin", as Shopify calls it. How was I supposed to actually list our products, change the color schemes, put custom logos in, monitor traffic from Facebook and Twitter, and really get just anywhere, before the free trial ended??
And this is where one of the biggest and best parts of Shopify comes in, a feature that they have over all of their competitors: the Shopify Help Center! *ta-da! sparkle, sparkle* It is organized super clearly with both top-level checklists to get you quickly setup, and really deep dives to get it set up 👋 just right 👌. I can't recommend highly enough that you utilize this powerful resource. It even has specific information for connecting various third-party tools, like your shipping software and your web host. Like specifically YOUR shipping software and YOUR web host. The Shopify team is seriously impressive. There's even entire podcasts (Shopify Masters) and even LinkedIn Learning-type lessons/classes available (Shopify Compass). The body of knowledge helped us get to exactly where we needed without having to hire on a developer or a whole team of people. Heck, I even learned some Liquid, HTML, .css myself, just from getting things set up with the numerous helpful tutorials they had available!
4. Small Business Tik Tok
Alright this next one may sound silly, but trust us, it's too legit to not check out! While known more for short-format funny videos and overall generally meme-ery, TikTok is actually an AMAZING platform for tutorials and continuing education. ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARE A VISUAL LEARNER!! Checking out a few helpful hashtags, like #smallbusiness, #ecommerce, or #shopify (of course!) will bring up thousands and thousands of videos from your peers and fellow creatives! TikTok is where we learned how to use our Cricut effectively for custom vinyl stickers and applications. TikTok is where we learned how to customize like a dozen different obscure settings and things on our Shopify store. TikTok is where we learned how to floss! Uh, I mean, um, uh, IT'S WHERE WE LEARNED *ahem* where we learned super helpful organization and craft hacks to make our suddenly busier lives much simpler! It's an amazing community of creative ecommerce entrepreneurs and small business owners just like you and just like us. One of my husbean's favorite sayings is "you just don't know what you just don't know"; well, TikTok is where we learned just what we didn't know!
5. ASK FOR HELP AND ADVICE!!
Picking up right where we left off from the bullet point above, "you just don't know what you just don't know".We're all pretty used to working primarily alone on our ongoing passion project. Maybe your significant other helps with the taxes or you have that one friend that actually knows how to use the scissors BECAUSE FIReNVY IS BEYOND HOPELESS AND-... Sorry, got a little carried away there. But many of you probably recognize that feeling of wanting to be hands on over every little detail, making it exactly like we want it, our way, in our own time. But the long story short is that just isn't possible or, more importantly, practical these days.
FIReNVY isn't so good with the arting or the steady hands thingies, but he IS good at figuring out the logistics and implementing new technology and systems. Our friend Pickra is AMAZING at coding and navigating his way around computers and network systems. Our amazing community on Twitter and Discord are invaluable for their feedback, support, and ideas! #SmallBusinessTikTok is an amazing collection of bits of specialized crafting knowledge and experience, plus an endless fount of inspiration. Shopify Help Center and their Support teams know the site and all of the third-party programs and apps practically inside out and know how to make our head-pictures turn into a beautiful and usable online storefront.
Our point is that no one can go it completely alone. Build up those support systems; grow your community; scour the web; reach out for help and advice! The answer to your problem already exists. The trick is knowing where to look or who to ask! You never know what your friends might know, you know?
In closing, this blog post was really fun to write and probably more important to get out there than either of us initially thought. We've gotten so far with the help and support of many wonderful people. We feel it's only right to pass it on and help support those that will come after. If you have any questions or just need a friendly sounding board to.bounce your ideas and plans off of, you can always, ALWAYS reach out to us. Seek us out on social media or shoot us a message through our contact form, whatever makes you feel more comfortable. We cannot promise that we will be able to help everyone, but we'll be darned if we don't try!
Love and hugs, Team SciggleNVY