4 Inspiring Stories of Normal People Building a Thriving Online Store

Building an online store seems like an impossible dream for most people. But after talking to Steve Chou at the FinCon conference, I learned that even normal people can build successful, six-figure income, mom-and-pop online stores that allow them to earn a good living and live their passions.

What I love about Steve's message is that he's not promising overnight riches, or even millions in income. He's saying that regular folks can build online businesses that allow them to escape the grind of a job and live the lives they're passionate about.

Meet Four Normal People Who Built Thriving Online Stores

When Steve and his wife were expecting their first child, they knew that they wanted one parent to stay at home. The problem was that they lived in Silicon Valley, and losing the six-figure income of one parent would put a tremendous strain on their finances. After considering several options, they decided to start an online store, Bumblebee Linens, which sells custom embroidered handkerchiefs. Within a year, the store more than made up for his wife's income; generating more than $100,000 in profit.

Nowadays, in addition to running the online store, Steve writes the popular blog My Wife Quit Her Job where he talks about their adventures in entrepreneurship. He also has a course to help others do what he and his wife have done with their online store. (Check out his free 6-day email mini-course on running a profitable online store to get a sense of what the full course provides.)

I'm excited to interview Steve and three of his students — fellow normal people who run successful online stores:

  • Ron and his wife started Sunny Decals because they weren't happy with the wall decal products available on the market. They felt like they could provide better, non-toxic wall decals for their baby's nursery.

  • Tracey quit her accounting job and moved to Ecuador. Her store, Artisans in the Andes, fulfills her passion for providing hand-made and fair-trade products.

  • Single-mother Sandy launched Get Unrobed, selling custom embroidered kimono robes, when she wanted to quit her job in order to raise and homeschool her child.

All four of these people now have thriving online stores, even though they weren't born entrepreneurs. It hasn't been easy, but their examples show that anyone, even the most non-technical person, can do it. Here are their stories.

Why did you decide to start an online store?

Steve / Bumblebee Linens:

When I first thought about how to replace my wife's six-figure income, I thought about taking on another job. But I knew that that wouldn't work. Afterall, it would defeat the purpose of our goal to spend more time together as a family. So ultimately, we decided to start an online store.

The online store business model was perfect. You could have a computer server take orders on your website 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. You didn't have to be physically present to run the store and all you had to worry about was order fulfillment.

Basically, we could run our online business from our house and that is exactly what we did!

Ron / Sunny Decals :

The idea for our business venture started a few months before the birth of our son. We were looking for ways to decorate the walls for the nursery, and decided to use wall decals.

But when we opened the large envelope there was a terrible, toxic smell of vinyl coming from the decals. We had to keep the windows open to try to air out the room from the vinyl smell and eventually the scent did improve. But a few months after applying the decals to the wall, they started to shrink a little and now there was a noticeable gap between all the pieces that we put together.

That's when my wife and I decided that we should make our own decals and create a better product than what was available.

Sandy / Get Unrobed:

"Ask yourself what is really important and then have the wisdom and courage to build your life around your answer." - Lee Jampolsky

After I had my son, my answer to that question, what is really important, changed a little. Like any other new parent, I now had a little being who needed a lot of my time and attention. Without question, he needed to rise to the top of my priority list.

I knew that I had to redesign my life to ultimately stay true to my priorities. However, redesigning a life isn’t easy and moving away from the traditional 9-5 job can be scary. It was a big decision.

It took courage, but I finally began to design my life around what was important to me. So, I decided to open an online retail shop.

I’m so glad I decided to do it because it is slowly opening up more opportunities for me and allowing me to move closer to my ultimate goal: provide nurture and education through homeschooling my son.

I knew that I needed to think outside of the traditional 9-5 system. Here is where the courage came in. It was time to design my life.

How did you find products and decide what to sell?

Tracey / Artisans in the Andes:

The first step was to find a niche for my store. This involved many hours of research on Google and Market Samurai. Steve's guidance at this point was crucial to finding a profitable niche. I finally found a gorgeous niche among the handmade jewelry available in Ecuador.

I thought that it offered many selling points that would be appreciated by today's consumer. The jewelry is colorful, unique, and handmade. The organic beads are sustainably harvested from trees that grow as a natural part of the Amazon rainforest. For me, this niche combined my passion for handmade with my respect for the earth.

Now that I had a niche, I turned my attention to sourcing my products and developing a unique value proposition around handmade. Since I was looking at handmade items, I couldn't exactly phone up local factories. I only had a limited understanding of Spanish and the local indigenous culture. But I stayed persistent, talking to people, learning a little bit here and there. I finally tracked down my first artisan, Olga, a talented woman with an eye for fashion who handcrafts tagua jewelry.

My values once more came into play as Olga and I were negotiating the price for my initial batch of inventory. I was interested in making a difference by working with artisans to build their businesses and provide them with more opportunities through access to a wider market.

Olga and I established a relationship where I paid a fair price upfront and she provided me with her best work. We spent time together to calculate the cost of the inputs and the time to create the product. I ensured that the price paid covered both elements. From here, I added the idea of fair trade to the core values that underpin my store and made it part of my unique value proposition.

Ron / Sunny Decals:

When we decided to create a better wall decal, the first thing that we wanted to do was find a material that was not vinyl and non-toxic. Seems like a no brainer that you shouldn't put a toxic substance next to your baby's crib or child's bed, right? After a lot of research we discovered a polyester fabric material with a water based adhesive. The material is non-toxic, works well with a variety of surfaces like textured walls, and it can be repositioned dozens of times.

Unlike vinyl, this material did not need transfer paper or special tools to apply. All you have to do is remove the decal from the wax paper with your fingers and apply it anywhere you want. If you don't like where you applied it, then you can peel it off and reposition it.

The only drawback is the price. The reason everyone online is using vinyl is because of the cheap cost. We believe that the extra cost is worth it for a top quality product for your child's bedroom.

How much did it cost to start your online store?

Steve / Bumblebee Linens:

The best part about an online store is it costs very little to start. You don't need office space. You don't need to hire anyone. Renting a computer server only cost about $7/month.

It cost us about $630 to get our ecommerce store open for business. Here the breakdown:

  • Webhosting - $7/month
    We launched our online store on shared hosting and stayed on a shared server for about 2 years until we outgrew it. At $7/month it was cheap enough that we knew we could keep our store open indefinitely even if sales were slow.

  • Shopping Cart/Website - Free
    Most people are scared of the technical aspects of running an online store and creating a website. But did you know that there are many open source shopping cart packages available that are absolutely free. What that means is that you can start a fully functional online store for very little money.

  • Digital Camera - $200
    We took pictures of our products with a cheap point and shoot digital camera. These days, you can probably even get by with just your smart phone.

  • Computer - $100
    For our "business" computer, we commandeered a cheap box that we found on Craigslist. Creating a website doesn't require a powerful computer. You just need a basic box that can surf the web.

  • Inventory - $322.90
    When we first started, we stocked a wide variety of products in very small quantities. This allowed us to test the market in order to see which products sold well. Then we placed larger orders of our bestsellers.

  • Shipping Materials - Free
    Most shipping carriers such as USPS offer free shipping boxes if you use their services. So in most cases, you don't have to worry about buying shipping materials at all.

What shopping cart software did you choose?

Tracey / Artisans in the Andes:

I chose to use Opencart, an open source shopping cart, as the basis for the shop. Going with an open source cart has been a challenge for me as I had to learn some programming to set the shop up as I envisioned it. On the other hand, I really wanted to understand how my business operates from the bottom up, so this was a good choice for me.

Ron / Sunny Decals:

One of the most difficult decisions at first was whether we should use a hosted or open source shopping cart. Both options have their advantages and disadvantages. We finally ended up choosing to go with a hosted option with Big Commerce.

The reason we chose to go this route is because there is less setup and maintenance involved. We do not have to worry about updates and security. Looking back, I believe that we made the best decision for our needs.

Steve / Bumblebee Linens:

We use OSCommerce to run Bumblebee Linens, but for those that don't want to deal with the technical aspects of hosting and setting up a free open source cart, there are three great fully-hosted solutions. Volusion, Big Commerce and Shopify will all allow you to launch a fully functional online store within a matter of minutes without knowing a lick of HTML.

(Editor's Note: Wise Bread readers get 20% off all plans on Shopify by clicking here.)

How did you get sales once you opened for business?

Ron / Sunny Decals:

One of the most time consuming things involving a new store online, is trying to get your name and brand out to the public. There are no short cuts here; it just takes a lot of time and effort. To accomplish this we write a blog, we try to write on other peoples' blogs, and we try to get our product in front of companies specializing in our field.

Tracey / Artisans in the Andes:

Right after launching, we took a break and went on a rafting vacation to Tena, a little town in the rainforest. I found out about my first sale of $93 when I ducked into an internet cafe. I was amazed to see that I had recovered 20% of my initial investment with my very first sale!

Steve / Bumblebee Linens:

Truth be told, business was very slow in the beginning. After all, my wife and I had never run any sort of business before. We didn't know the first thing about selling online. And we had no idea how to market ourselves either.

So we picked up as many books about the subject and forced ourselves to learn. We learned how to use pay per click advertising. We learned about search engine optimization. We did the leg work and the grunt work of calling event planners and wedding planners who would buy our products in bulk!

Slowly but surely, business started picking up and by the 6 month mark, our business started to snowball. By the end of the year, we had made over $100,000 in profit which was enough to supplant my wife's lost income!

So when my wife's maternity leave ended, she was able to quit her job knowing that we wouldn't have to make any major sacrifices for her to stay at home. And here's the best part. Over the past 5 years, our business has continued to grow in the double and triple digits.

What started out as a small side business now generates enough income so that neither one of us has to work at all!

Sandy / Get Unrobed:

One of my favorite things about running this site is getting sales out of the blue. Back when I was in B2B sales, I would have to have a long discussion with each of my prospective clients. Even then, I was never certain of a sale. With an online shop, the work I do will carry over to every other potential customer. For instance, the work to get a product shoot done is only done once. Yet, it goes a long way in reaching each of my potential customers. I don’t have to re-shoot for each new potential customer, whereas while I was calling up businesses in the past, I needed to go through the entire sales pitch every single time.

My favorite example of this idea in action was about 2 months into opening my site. I had recently had a professional product shoot and sales were starting to come in a little quicker than before. It was Friday night and I was at the park with my son. In between games of tag and trips down the slide, I checked my phone and saw a sale close to $250. It was my biggest sale at the time.

I was excited, especially because it came just hours after sending out a decent sized shipment for the past few days. About thirty minutes later, another sale rolled in. Not as big, but enough to make that my biggest sales day up to that point. After that, sales came more frequently. They came in the middle of the night, while I was at my day job and while I was out with friends.

Any final inspiring thoughts?

Tracey / Artisans in the Andes:

Setting up a business and keeping it going requires focused work over a long period of time. Having a business where I have a strong connection to the product and the underlying values keeps me on track and motivated. I kept moving forward, starting with the things that I knew for sure, then allowing my values to creatively guide me at each major decision point.

I have ended up with a business that has a deep meaning for me with potential for making a difference in the lives of others. The underlying basis is respectful to both artisans and to the earth. I feel thankful that I got to this point and look forward to how my shop will grow and develop.

Sandy / Get Unrobed:

When I review my reason for heading down this path, to stop trading time for money, to increase both simultaneously, running my own store from home does it. This allows me to work once and carry the results of that work through. This allows me to spend time doing things that are important to me. It allows me to design my life rather than default to whatever is thrown my way.

If you have the courage to step outside the norm and the wisdom to do it right, you can design your life to reflect what is important to you.

Steve / Bumblebee Linens:

Starting an online business is not that scary. And it doesn't take a lot of money.

$100,000 per year — that was our magic number. At first, it seemed like an unobtainable amount of money to make. But when you break it down by the numbers, $100k per year is $8,333 per month, or only $278 per day.

The average order size of our online store is roughly $50. So when we first cracked the $100k barrier (in our first year, by the way), we were only getting 6 orders per day.

In retrospect, 6 orders per day doesn't sound like a whole lot does it? The world is a very big place and you'd be surprised by how many people shop online. And it only cost us $630 to start. So do you have $630 to spare?

The bottom line is that starting your own online business is not very risky and doesn't cost that much either.

I'd like to thank Steve and his students Ron, Tracey, and Sandy for taking the time to share their stories. These non-technical people were able to launch their own online stores, and in turn, live out their dreams and passions. I'm glad to know the mom-and-pop store is still alive and kicking in this internet age!

You can join these four entrepreneurs in Steve's online course: Profitable Online Store. At the very least, I highly recommend subscribing to Steve's free email mini-course. It's chock full of useful advice for people thinking about starting an online store, and even if you never sign up for the full course, you'll get plently of great advice that will help you get started in launching your own online store.

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Guest's picture

Honestly, I really want to have my own online store too! I'm so inspired about different successful stories that I read here on PF blogs. Hopefully someday I will be a successful entrepreneur.

Guest's picture

Very informative article on starting and running on-line businesses. As was mentioned, people don't even need to run their own web business servers these days, although I probably would just because I am that much of a geek. Now I just need to find a niche that people will pay money for.

Guest's picture
Joshua Rogers

I love reading stories like this. It would be nice to hear more about HOW they started getting some traffic, though. For many, this is the largest hurdle.

Guest's picture

Hi Joshua - Sandy here from Get Unrobed. That is a really good point! I was very concerned about that going into it as well. As you can see from above, I was part of Steve Chou's class and he goes through it step by step. But, in short, I targeted a few words that I wanted to rank for on Google and just made sure my site was optimized for it and that I was seeking out backlinks for those words. There is a lot of information about SEO. It isn't nearly as scary as I thought it would be! :) I also had some good luck using Facebook ads, but I know that some others aren't in love with that option. For me, it was a very economical way to advertise. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!!!

Guest's picture

Great article, Greg! I love "normal people can build successful, six-figure income, mom-and-pop online stores that allow them to earn a good living and live their passions". It's the same message I work to get across to my target audience, baby boomers.

Guest's picture

I love the story Sandy tells of her being at the 9 to 5 job and having sales come in without her being involved. That's what we all want! I love it! Very inspiring. Thanks for posting these!

Guest's picture

Ecommerce has come a long way in the last few years. While it has become a lot easier to set up a store, it is become a lot harder to close the sale on online conversions. It is great to hear some trying stories from people building their online stores and becoming successful. The niche aspect of each of the people in this story is what differentiates them from the competition. Finding that niche and working hard is key to current online success.

Guest's picture

All these stories are so inspirational! Especially love the leveraging your time and effort like Sandy and the others! This is why it's so important to set up systems to make that possible!

Guest's picture

Awesome write up, Greg - I love hearing about others who have forged ahead, gone against the grain, and started something that they're passionate about. Building an online store is not an easy task, let alone actually driving people to it and getting them to trust and buy from you. Amazing work to all of you!

Sandy, on a side note: I purchased a robe from your shop a while back for my friend who was getting married, and she said she wears it ALL THE TIME - love it! I also want to thank you for encouraging others to design their life to reflect what is important to them. So many don't think it's possible, but all it takes is passion, drive and hard work to live how you want to live. No one else is going to create the life you want for you. Thanks to all who contributed and to Greg for the great post!

Guest's picture

Thank you for sharing these very inspirational stories. It's amazing what can be accomplished with the internet and a minimal investment. These case studies are proof that the time versus dollars model is going to quickly die out. Thanks again!!

Guest's picture
Jeannie @ ThePaisleyBox

Greg, Thanks for putting these inspiring stories together. As an entrepreneur it is always great to read about people that have "made"it. There are many tough days and what seems like very few great days when getting started.

Thanks again for sharing these stories.

Guest's picture

this was very helpful thanks guys

Guest's picture

Amazing inspiring stories. Thanks for sharing your experience with us. So that, we can also work like that. We are having our own online store and we are also a successful businessman.