Paula lives, breathes and knows everything there is to know about antique dolls, so she decides to start selling them online. Randy wants to start an eCommerce business, so he does his keyword research, analyzes the data, susses out the competition and decides to sell accessories for mobile homes. He knows nothing about mobile homes and, to be frank, has zero interest in them. But he smells opportunity.
It’s hard to know who will do better: Paula and her expertise or Randy and his research-driven approach. Practicality and passion are often at odds with each other when it comes down to it. If you’re divided on if Paula or Randy have the winning business model, you’re not alone.
We turned to the experts and polled eCommerceFuel members to see which route they took when they decided to start an eCommerce venture. Whether you decide to start a business based on a personal interest or go with a data-driven approach, one common thread seemed to be woven through everyone’s story: practicality always plays a part.
“For Me, Business Is The Passion”
Ben Camerota had no real interest in banners and signs, even though it’s what he now sells on a daily basis. “Even if my current business was totally systemized and could run without me and I had the opportunity to start another venture, I’d still go the practical route,” says Ben, owner of MVP Visuals. “For me, running a business is where passion comes into play, not necessarily what I sell.”
It all started with the book “E-Myth” by Michael Gerber and a light bulb went off for Ben. “The basic premise is that if you love arts and crafts, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should open an arts and crafts store,” he says. “The approach taught was that you’ll be successful if you work on your business, not necessarily in it.”
After looking into businesses that were small (but not too small) and nichey (but not too nichey), Ben learned of a business for sale where the owner was simply burnt out. “It was a business where I could see how I could grow it and make it more profitable. It ticked off all the boxes on my list. It didn’t matter that it was branded displays – it could have been teapots.”
You’ll be successful if you work on your business, not necessarily in it.”
Ben believes that passion can actually be an obstacle for people looking to start their own enterprise. “There’s this belief that we all need to be passionate about our jobs. I think this is a crazy and false hope and not realistic for the average worker. And that’s okay. For me, it’s better to derive happiness from other things in my life like family and friends. But that’s not a dreamlike narrative. You can’t sell a book on that,” he says.
“My Expertise and Passion Sets Us Apart”
When you’ve been a ski instructor for over ten years with over 19 winter seasons teaching people how to hit the slopes, it’s safe to say you’re an expert. Richard Ross, founder of AussieSkier, runs Australia’s leading online retailer of ski equipment. And he’s got the passion to back it.
“For me, it’s easier to find motivation to work on something that you have a natural affinity for,” he says. “It’s why I’d always choose a niche that involves passion.”
Richard didn’t seek to start a business and then decide to go into the ski industry. Instead, the idea slowly manifested. He started posting photos of his ski adventures in forums where they became increasingly popular. Rather than offer the traffic to the forums, he decided to put up his own masthead and start a blog. As his ski blog grew in popularity, he realized he could monetize it.
“This was after the global financial crisis when display ad revenue plummeted and the affiliate marketing scene was not yet mature enough. I realized I’d have to sell things online if I wanted to make money.”
He decided to conduct an SEO experiment by adding WooCommerce to his blog on WordPress. He put up knowledgable reviews of products he had used and liked. After a year, the organic traffic was strong enough to start selling. From a practical standpoint, he had found a solid and viable niche, even though it was a niche he knew and loved.
“Our unique selling proposition is that I’m an expert in this niche. My passion definitely helps as it assists my authority when making recommendations and customers are far less likely to second guess,” he says. “I also think it allows me to work harder as a lot of what I do doesn’t feel like work.”
“I’ll Never Mix Business With Pleasure”
It was Rick Vaughan’s brother, an already successful eCommerce entrepreneur, who gave him a piece of advice that stuck with him. “He told me to view myself as an internet retailer, meaning my job is to find products that sell profitably online,” says Rick, owner of The Writing Pen Store and multiple other sites.
“He told me not to confine myself to a certain niche, hobby or interest. He reiterated that to be successful at eCommerce, you have to find products that sell well and are profitable. And you need to be willing to change the products you sell if you find they are not working.”
It took Rick and his wife almost seven years to turn their eCommerce side business into their full-time jobs. And it wasn’t passion for the products that took them there. It was pure research.
“We had some basic parameters. Space was limited, so the products needed to be small. Since PPC advertising was going to be a huge part of our plan, the products had to have specific or branded keywords that we could advertise for easily. From there, we just threw ideas at each other. I would look up keywords in Google to see if the ideas had any possibility. We also spent a lot of time walking malls and shopping centers observing what people were buying,” says Rick.
When I’ve worked on business projects that are related to a hobby or passion, it was too easy to miss the red flags about whether the products would sell profitably on the internet.”
On one of their many research excursions to the mall, he found himself standing in front of an end cap at Brookstone displaying all sorts of unique pens. “I remembered that in my research ‘fountain pens’ kept coming up in queries. And then, the light bulb went on. Pens! They are small and lightweight, easy to ship and there’s a huge variety available.” It was there that a business was born.
Rick doesn’t think his practical approach has any downsides when it comes to running his business. “I evaluate products based on whether they will make money, not on whether I think they are cool,” he says. “When I’ve worked on business projects that are related to a hobby or passion, it was too easy to miss the red flags about whether the products would sell profitably on the internet.”
Rick insists that the practical approach to eCommerce is the way to go, especially if you want to maintain a consistent business model to provide for your family—and yourself. But it’s not that he’s never tried the passion approach before. It just didn’t pan out.
Rick and his family love saltwater reef aquariums and had success breeding and raising seahorses, so they decided to see if they could monetize their hobby. “We fine tuned our approach and invested in equipment to scale the operation. It required an excessive amount of time and mental energy,” says Rick, “But we found that the effort to monetize our hobby was taking so much time that our love for the hobby got crushed. That to me is the danger about mixing business with pleasure.”
“I Just Followed My Gut”
Charles Davis didn’t set out to go the practical route. His first attempt at launching a business was a passion project. “Years ago I chose a field based on passion: the automotive industry,” he says. “I would spend all day working on cars that when it came time to work on my own projects, I just didn’t want to. I quickly got burnt out from doing it all day, every day. The hobby I loved to do in my free time was just like work. Now I keep my hobbies and passions separate from my work.”
Though some argue that the practical approach to building a business is easier for turning a profit, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to it. “One hindrance is initially learning all the products and how everything works when you’re starting in a niche you know nothing about,” says Charles Davis, owner of Rogue Hydro, an indoor gardening business.
For Charles and his wife, the challenge was learning about different products, many of which were very technical. “There’s various plant fertilizer and supplements, hardware, electronics, electrical products, HVAC, and more in our niche. But once you’ve got that product knowledge, you do remove that disadvantage,” says Charles.
Though Charles took a practical approach to finding a business, a lot of it came down to following his gut too. “I’d love to say I did all the proper research, poring over spreadsheet data before entering the industry but a lot of it was just gut feeling. A practical gut feeling, but a gut feeling nonetheless,” he says. “When I entered the industry the online market wasn’t too flooded with competitors and the barrier to entry was relatively low, but high enough to block lots of dropshippers and those without cash flow.”
The medicinal gardening industry had done well during the recession and was growing at a decent rate. Charles also witnessed the laws across the U.S. changing as well as the general public’s view on marijuana. Since starting the business, a handful of states have passed recreational laws and even more have passed medical use laws. He expects that the business will continue to grow.
His advice for those deciding between passion or practicality? “I would always go practical. There are reasons why they say the carpenter’s house always needs work or the cobbler’s children have no shoes.”
Which Approach Is Best?
As I mentioned initially, I asked members of the eCommerceFuel community what approach – a passion or practical one – they had followed when starting their business. 50% of members that voted picked their niche based on practicality alone. 36% went purely with their passion and 13% selected a combination of the two.
Of those that indicated a combination, the vast majority described their decision as a practical one at first. But eventually their business became something that were wholly invested in and passionate about. That’s great news for business owners that want to be passionate about what they sell–it’s always possible to turn a seemingly boring niche into something you can later be super amped about.
Practicality wins again when it comes to earning potential. 65% of business owners who took the practical approach owned a store generating $250K or more in revenue annually. Only 41% of those in a passion-driven niche were in the $250K or higher bracket* for annual revenue.
For any new business to succeed, taking a practical approach is obviously a key component. Even if you’re ready to take your love of antique dolls to the next level, you’ve got to use more than just your product knowledge to get you there. “If you want to guarantee success no matter what”, says Ben, “Just be passionate about growing a business.”
Are you an eCommerceFuel member? Weigh in with your own experiences in our passion versus practicality discussion in the private forum. To connect with the store owners profiled in this piece as well as other experienced eCommerce professionals, apply to join us today.
*Numbers were from a study of 46 members polled in our private community. Percentages were calculated based on members that disclosed their annual store revenue.