The internet is the world's largest mall, where everyone can hawk their wares—and perhaps become the next Jeff Bezos.
Maybe you want to sell your handmade goods around the world, or test the market for your groundbreaking new product. Or maybe you have a real-world store that you want to expand to the digital realm.
No matter what you create, you'll need a place to sell it—and the internet is rich with real estate for your storefront.
Opening an online store is easy—you don't need to hand-code a dedicated digital shop to get your business off the ground. (You wouldn't shell out to put a flagship store on New York's 5th Avenue, right?)
The hard part is picking a platform. Here are the many ways that you can start your own online business and bring whatever you create to the masses.
How to Sell Stuff Online with:
After the World Wide Web launched in 1991, only three years passed before people started selling stuff online. The Internet Shopping Network, an online computer equipment store, and NetMarkets, online marketplace both launched in the summer of 1994, with the latter believed to be the first to process secure online payments.
A year later, both eBay and Amazon were founded, the former as an online auction site and the latter as the world's largest bookstore. Someone purchased a broken laser printer on eBay—much to founder Pierre Omidyar's surprise—and the world of eCommerce as we know it was born.
And yet, online shopping at that time was primitive. Amazon and eBay are online giants today, some of the most visited—and most valuable—properties online. When they launched, though, they looked more basic than your average post on Medium. What they lacked in looks they made up for in potential—the opportunity tap into a global economy from your living room.
Fast forward to today, and most of us shop online regularly. If anything, we have to find an excuse to go to a "real" store.
Starting an online store isn't nearly as big of a deal today, and the odds of your new online bookstore turning into the next Amazon are minuscule. And yet, the internet's still one of the best places to start a store, with a market of over $300 billion in the US alone.
Amazon and eBay had to hand-code their first eCommerce sites, figure out how to accept payments securely online, and decide how an online checkout experience should work. Today, all you need to sell things online is an internet connection and a half hour or so to get your store started.
Products. People. Payments.
It's really that simple: every store needs products to sell, people to buy them, and a way to get paid for those products. It doesn't require a fancy website or millions in funding. All you need is:
None of that requires a dedicated eCommerce site. In fact, many of the tools and sites you already use each day include everything you need to start a store.
With such basic requirements, almost any site could be a store. If you already have a following on Facebook, a popular YouTube channel, or a WordPress blog with thousands of visitors, you could start a store right from that community.
You'll still need a tool to help you list your products for sale and process payments. Here are the best options, ranging from online marketplaces that handle the entire sales process to building your own store by hand right inside your Facebook page.
Imagine getting guaranteed, primo shelf space for your product at a major retailer. They'd handle everything, and you'd just focus on the merchandise.
That's what online marketplaces offer. You create an account, and list your products in a store that already has millions of visitors. When those people search for "widget", they just might find—and buy—your widget.
That's what eBay, Etsy, AliExpress (a retail site from Alibaba—which is a wholesale site from China that lets factory directly sale their products in bulk), and other stores are designed around. They don't directly sell products on their own—instead, they maintain an online market where everyone can list their wares. Amazon does something similar: they sell their own products, but also let you list your own products for sale.
Here's how they work:
That's all. You won't have that many options to make your store stand out, but hey: you've got a huge audience, and won't have to worry much about your store.
Where to Sell:
What It'll Cost: Fees vary widely between marketplaces. For example:
Perhaps you're making a brand new thing no one's ever heard of before. You need to both share the word about your product and raise funds to actually manufacture it in bulk.Traditional funding can be hard to acquire, and you likely don't want to take out a loan to build something you're not even certain there's a market for.
Crowdfunding is the next best option. It lets people pre-order your product so you get the initial revenue to start the manufacturing process.
The best part is that crowdfunding sites tend to have large audiences who are already looking for exciting new products that they can't find elsewhere. Once your product is added to a category, people who check that category regularly will pick up on it. With any luck, your listing will get featured on the crowdfunding site's landing page or or in their newsletter—something that's far less likely to happen on a traditional online marketplace.
Here's how crowdfunding works:
Crowdfunding is a bit more complicated than just listing your products on a site like eBay, and likely isn't the best way to sell items you've already produced. But it can be a great way to jumpstart your ideas. It's how the Pebble, Oculus Rift, Glif, and more got started.
Where to Sell:
What It'll Cost: Both Kickstarter and Indiegogo charge 5% of your total funding amount, along with an additional payment processing fee of around 3-5%.
If you're looking for a crowd, start your store on a social network. They may not be designed for selling stuff, but they provide a built-in audience, along with tools for sharing pictures and text.
In many places, especially South East Asia, a Facebook Page—or even an Instagram "store" or chat app account—is the default way to start selling stuff online.
You might not even need a store. Instead, you need a Facebook Page or other social media account, with photos of your products along with the sizes, colors, price, and other info in each image's description. When people want to purchase products, they can contact you in Facebook Messenger, or send an email to the address on your profile.
All of that works in a normal social media profile, with no special tools needed. If you're selling locally, you could deliver your products and get paid in cash. Depending on your local banking options, you could have customers transfer money to your bank account to purchase products—a common option in Asia.
You could also share a PayPal link with potential customers for them to send you money for the products. Or, you could just use Facebook for your marketing, and send potential customers to your real store website to make the purchase—just add the link to your store as the default button in the top-right of your page.
If you want to get more advanced, both Facebook and Twitter now offer built-in store tools to list products. On Twitter, just share a link built with a compatible service like Gumroad or Shopify, and your followers will see a preview of your product along with a Buy Now button. Facebook Pages now include a Shop section as well. Just click the Add Shop Section link on the left sidebar in your Page, then add your business address and email address, and optionally integrate with PayPal or Stripe. Then you can add products—which are basically fancy versions of pictures and descriptions, this time with a button to message you about the product. It's a slightly quicker way to close a sale from your page.
The hard work of selling products is still yours, though. Social networks give you a built-in marketing boost thanks to their existing audience, who might help you grow your business by sharing your product.
But for the most part, you'll need to build your own audience to make social network sales work. If you already have a wide follower base, selling products to that existing audience might be easy. Or, you can start from scratch, building your audience one person at a time with beautiful photos, witty posts, or silly videos. Real-world events—like a table at a farmer's market—can help people notice your brand, follow you on social networks, and eventually make a purchase.
Ads are another great option—and they're more affordable for small businesses on social networks than anywhere else. You can set a small Facebook Ads budget, target people who are following related brands or interests, and hopefully get them to follow your page. Then, over time, you can try to keep their interest with new posts and eventually get them to make a purchase.
Ready to sell stuff on your favorite social network? Here are the basic steps:
The best part about selling on social networks is that it's cheap. You can make a Facebook Page or Twitter profile and list your products for free right from your phone. You don't need a separate website, and might not even need a payments tool or a full computer. You'll even keep your communications with customers right inside the chat apps you already use to talk with friends. The downside is, it's harder for customers to sort through all of your products, and can get overwhelming trying to manage all of your orders inside Messenger.
Where to Sell:
What It'll Cost: Nothing—at least if you sell directly on a social network. You might need to pay for ads to get your products discovered, along with a 2.9% + $0.30 fee per sale if you charge through PayPal or Stripe. A Shopify store would start at $29/month as well.
If you like having the more integrated feel of a real Facebook Store, then you might be ready for a more advanced eCommerce platform. One that's designed just for selling stuff online, that includes exactly the features you want.
It'd take a bit more work to run that store—you'd have both the promotion tasks a social store brings and the more strict listing requirements a marketplace asks for—but you'd have more control over the sales process and how your products are displayed.
Form builder apps are some of the most flexible tools—they can power anything from your contact form to a prototype of your next app. And, yes, they're a great way to start a simple store.
All you need to sell stuff is your customer's name, info about the product they want, and their payment and shipping info. A form's standard text fields are a simple way to gather most of that. Most form builders—such as Typeform and Wufoo—let you integrate with payment processors like Stripe and PayPal to accept payments inside your form.
You'll have to do the hard work of sharing your product page and convincing people to pay via a form, but it's an incredibly simple way to sell your new shirt design or eBook. Here's what you'd need to do.
One of the best parts of using a form to sell products is that you can customize the checkout process far more than you could in any other standard eCommerce app. That can let you be creative—but be sure to include fields for all the data you need, and make sure your form feels trustworthy with clear pricing info and official payment fields so your customers won't leave the form before paying. Be sure to check some example payment forms (perhaps with these guides from Typeform or Wufoo).
Where to Sell:
What It'll Cost: Most form apps only include payments on their higher priced plans; you'll need a $29.95/month Wufoo plan, $35/month Typeform plan, or a $39/month plan on 123ContactForm or Formstack to accept payments—along with the per-transaction payment processing fee from the payments service you choose.
Cognito Forms makes it cheaper to start out by only charging 1% of sales—but if you sell a lot, their $24/month plan with no per-sale fee might work out cheaper.
Want something even simpler than a form—perhaps the simplest way to sell stuff online? A single-product store builder is the app for you.
Tools like Gumroad and Plasso aren't just for selling single items—you could use them to sell as many products as you want. But they are focused on presenting only one item at a time. You'll make a listing page for each product, with its own pricing, description, and media. Then, share that page, and your customers can buy that one item in a few clicks.
In just about the time it'd take you to share a file on Dropbox, you could be selling that file. All you'd need to do is:
You can use payment pages like these for all types of purposes. They're especially great for selling digital products such as eBooks and website themes, but you can also use them to sell anything you'd list on Etsy or even to make your own pre-order system for upcoming products. They can even run your subscription service or give you a way to add a store to your existing website without much work.
They're not that flexible and you can't make them look like you want—but you'll be hard-pressed to find anything else that offers this kind of simplicity.
Where to Sell:
What It'll Cost: Most single-product stores are priced like payment services, as a percentage of your selling price.
If you need more customization for your online store than eBay and Etsy offer, odds are you'll end up with a hosted eCommerce app like Shopify or Big Cartel. They're the real deal—a full custom online store for your business.
Tools like these are designed to handle every detail about your own store, one that looks exactly the way you want. Your store will have its own site, complete with product listings and a shopping cart for customers to buy multiple products. When you login to your store's account, you'll see a list of orders you need to ship, and can dig into stats to see how many people visited your store and how much money you've made this month.
And, since they're hosted, you won't have to do any work to maintain the site, install updates, or keep customer data secure. The team behind your eCommerce store will manage all that for you. You'll have all the advantages of having your own site, without most of the hassle you'd have in running a site on your own server—though you won't be able to change as much in your site as you could with a self-hosted eCommerce app (which we'll look at next).
Want to market your store with blog posts, email newsletters, and social media? Wondering how you'll keep track of accounting data and manage returns? Hosted eCommerce apps will take care of all that and more.
They'll take longer to set up than any of the other options so far—and cost more, at least up front—but you'll get a customized site for your efforts. Here are the basic things you'll do:
The important thing with hosted eCommerce apps is how much their interface fits your workflow and needs. Instead of directly opening an account and committing to one app right from the start, you might want to try a trial account on several apps and see which one you like best before building your full store.
Where to Sell:
What It'll Cost: Pricing for hosted stores varies based on your needs. Big Cartel is free for tiny stores, Shopify lets you get started with a $9/month lite plan, and Volusion starts at $15/month.
For a full suite of features, most stores cost around $30/month, plus payment processing fees and additional charges for customizations like themes and your own domain.
If you're already running your own website or want to customize everything about your site, self-hosted eCommerce tools are the next best option. They offer many of the same features you'd find in hosted eCommerce apps, and the core versions are free—though you'll need to pay for things like hosting, though..
Self-hosted eCommerce apps such as WooCommerce and Magento are some of the most popular ways to build a store since they let you customize everything. You'll find a wide range of themes and plugins for each to make it simple to build the site you want. And because they're running on your own server, you can dig in and customize their code and database however you want.
That same flexibility makes them more difficult to start using and maintain, though. You'll need to set up your own server or hosting, and the onus is on you to keep your customer data safe. And you'll often need to look further for add-ons with the exact features you want since the core apps themselves are a bit more streamlined.
Here's the minimum you'd need to do to run a self-hosted online store:
Want to try out a self-hosted eCommerce app before committing to it? You could run them locally on your computer using a local server tool like MAMP, or could try a pre-installed version in a hosting tool like Digital Ocean. That'll help you figure out if you like the tool enough to set it up entirely on your server.
Where to Sell:
What It'll Cost: The core versions of most self-hosted eCommerce stores—including Magento, WooCommerce, and X-Cart—are free.
You'll need to pay for your own hosting (starting at $5/month on a service like Digital Ocean), a SSL certificate to encrypt your site (from around $9/year), and will likely need to purchase themes, plugins, and paid upgrades to get the features you need—along with payment processing fees and your domain name. You'll also need to count for the time it takes to set up and maintain your site.
There's no perfect place to start your store. Everything comes with tradeoffs. Marketplaces give you a built-in audience in exchange for higher fees and less control. Hosted eCommerce apps cost more per month, but are packed with features. Self-hosted eCommerce apps are free as long as you have hosting and time to manage them.
One might work better when you're starting out, and as your business grows you can switch to another eCommerce app. That's what the Moment Lens team found. "Kickstarter was an early fundraising platform that played a key role in getting off the ground, gauging customer demand, and funding early production," says founder Marc Barros. They then built their own store in WooCommerce to drive sales after the crowdfunding campaign. And they still needed social media, like Instagram, to drive sales at their site.
Others start out on a marketplace, and build their own store later. Tasha Burton did that with her Belle Butters store. "Etsy is where I began," Burton says. It became crowded with similar stores over time, and the fees added up, so she moved her store to Big Cartel.
Or you could use multiple eCommerce platforms at once, as Urban Baby Bonnets does. "The branding strength of my own site is more powerful than the sub-branding of other platforms," says founder Colette Palamar. So, for the best of both worlds, she sells her products on her own site and on Etsy and Amazon at the same time to grab customers from their vast customer base.
Self-hosted eCommerce tools are popular for their flexibility, but they can also be too much to manage. As BottleKeeper founder Adam Callinan said, "WordPress and WooCommerce worked well for the first year and a half. Then, we outgrew the system and had 29 plugins operating simultaneously, tremendously slowing performance." Shopify fit their needs better, and their team didn't need to spend time optimizing the site.
Start with the tool that seems to fit best now, and when you outgrow it, make the switch. You could even sell in more than one place at once—just like you could have a real-world bakery and sell your baked goods at festivals on the weekend, too.
No one's going to walk past your online store. They won't follow your Facebook Page by accident, and aren't likely to randomly choose your product on eBay a second time if you don't try hard.
As BzaBiz founder David Bizer said, "Starting an eCommerce business is super easy and can be done in one day. Getting sales is hard, though."
A store on its own isn't enough. You need to get people to notice your store, take interest in your products, buy them, and share them with their friends. And you'll need to support your customers when things go wrong.
The tough part is that you need to do a great at all of it. As Tasha Burton said, "If the product is excellent, the customer service is great, you'll have instant customer loyalty. Don't take your customers for granted!"
It's the same things you'd need in a real-world store, only this time, your best tricks are with apps, not signs and fresh-baked samples. Here are some great resources to help you get started:
Building the next name-brand giant takes great products, along with a location where you can show them off.
Your online store is no different. The internet is really just the world's cheapest real estate, with online marketplaces, social networks, and hosted stores acting as shopping malls, market stands, and kiosks. What matters most is a combination of a good location, great products, and marketing that attracts people to your store.
There's no one perfect place to sell your products. Your best bet might be a combination of all the above—maybe you should try a Kickstarter to develop your product, then promote it on Facebook and make some extra sales, and eventually build a full-featured WooCommerce site on your own once you're ready. Maybe you'll end up starting a real-world store, too.
So go give it a try—in chapter 4, we'll show you step-by-step how to open, stock, and run your online store. There are so many ways to sell stuff online, it'd be a shame to want to start a store and never do it.
From Startup Costs to Business Plans: What You Need to Start Your Own Business
How to Start a Store: A Step-by-Step Guide to eCommerce with Shopify and WooCommerce
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