Business Musings: The Problem With Skimping (Niche Marketing Part 8)

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I had nearly a dozen conversations in July with writers who told me why they did not use Shopify for their online store. Instead, these writers used dated products that were the Big Thing in 2015 or freebies from the web (which is scary, when dealing with money) or some Shopify knockoff that has one-tenth the features and crappy reviews.

These writers weren’t politically opposed to Shopify. They knew it was the best tool for their business.

They couldn’t afford it…or so they said.

Now, that is probably true for a handful of them, and we’ll get to that. But I know damn well that most everyone who told me they couldn’t afford Shopify could afford Shopify.

So I drilled down with them to find out what the real problem was. The problem was…to them…that their writing wasn’t earning enough to justify Shopify.

And my mind blew up. Fortunately, I had enough self-control that it didn’t activate my mouth…in public…using the words I was thinking.

I will get to those words in a minute.

Then I had another conversation with two other writers who were cutting corners on their mailing list because they didn’t want to pay added fees for better services. Again, these writers could afford the better services, but they had some stupid algorithm in their head that they hadn’t hit yet, so they couldn’t “justify” getting those services.

You see that dent in my forehead? It’s from hitting my head on a table repeatedly.

I’m writing this blog shortly after the most recent of those conversations, but the blog won’t go live until we’re done talking about some of the niche marketing ideas.

It took me two days after the last conversation to realize that most people work for corporations or for someone else and have zero business sense at all.

Whereas, I’ve owned businesses since I was 19 years old. So some of this stuff is so engrained in me that what seems like common sense to me was actually something I learned back at the dawn of time.

These people—many of you included—don’t understand customer service. You don’t understand how to build a customer base. You don’t understand how to run a f—…a business.

(I’m bleeping myself here. I’m really charged about this. It’s quite lucky that I censored myself in those conversations, because there would have been yelling and table-slamming and swearing and face-palming, all of which would have made me feel better, and none of which would have helped the people I was talking to.)

Here’s customer service in its simplest form.

It takes a long time to convince a customer to buy directly from you. For any product. That’s why customers go to box stores or Amazon or a familiar place to try a product. Because they have no idea if your store will work for them.

In the hours before writing this post, I had to order something that the stores here as well as Amazon no longer carry. The site I bought the product from designed their own site in 2014, and have not upgraded it. They probably paid someone a lot of money to design that site.

I went through the counterintuitive ordering process and paid for the product with my online credit card because this place does not have a PayPal interface. It took almost fifteen minutes to place the order.

I only go back to that website because I need this product (yes, I’m being deliberately vague) and this is the only place I can find it. Every time I order it (and I order a lot of it so I don’t have to deal with the site as often), I search for another online place that carries it.

So far, no luck.

Then I went to the site where I get my soaps for my allergies. I’ve been buying these products for a dozen years or so now. Originally, the products were on Amazon, and then the soap company built their own site. They took everything off Amazon at that point. That original site was good for its time, but it was as clunky as the one above.

But around 2018 or so, they put together a new site. This morning, I went and reordered what I usually order. It took maybe five minutes and as I was paying (with PayPal), I saw a little notice that the machine was verifying the Shopify information.

Yep. They built the new site with Shopify. Everything was there. This little site, very niche, was actually easier to use than Amazon is.

Like everyone else, I have limited time. I hate wrangling a difficult online store. I have abandoned carts in the middle of checkout because the site didn’t have a quick and easy way to pay. I have abandoned several because they want me to use a credit card only on a site I’m unfamiliar with.

The smoother the experience, the more likely I am to return.

And I am not alone. That’s how customers work.

The first time they come to your site, they’re testing it. If it’s hard or clunky or counterintuitive…and they can get your product elsewhere, they will go elsewhere.

You have one chance, one, to get that customer to buy directly from you. If you have a crapass site, then that customer will not buy directly from you ever again.

One chance. One.

So these people who are telling me that they can’t afford to have Shopify, which is the go-to product right now, because they have hit some internal freaking off the charts idiotic number that exists only in their head, then I know that their personal online store will not succeed. Because they are losing customers more than they’re gaining them.

You will not recover those customers. You have to build new ones.

We’ve been dealing with this at WMG for a variety of reasons. We’re early adapters. We had an online store nine years ago, but it really didn’t work well, and we wasted more time on repairing it and dealing with customers who were unhappy than we did helping people or selling product.

Then we moved to WooCommerce, which was the go-to service at the time. It was counterintuitive and difficult to maintain with a small staff, but it worked well enough for our purposes. But we stopped promoting that feature almost immediately when we realized how much trouble the customers were having with every part of the service.

If we had a dedicated employee who just handled the store, WooCommerce in its early days would have been fine. We didn’t.

So we made it available, but it wasn’t our go-to.

We’re now moving everything to Shopify. We had a false start, which probably cost us quite a few customers. We’re remedying it.

We also know those customers probably will not return. It’s a hard loss, to be honest with you.

That’s what happens with businesses like the one where I order that one product I can’t get anywhere else. We get the top of the line service for the time period and then times change. Then you need to get a new service. That’s a problem you all want to trade up for.

But right now? Right now, the platform to be on is Shopify. (That will probably change ten years from now.) It works for small businesses.

The people who kept telling me that their writing income didn’t justify the expenditure for Shopify’s cheapest feature are guaranteeing that their income will remain low.

And I just checked. Shopify’s lowest tier is $30 to $40 per month, depending on whether you pay for a year or not. That’s roughly $500 to do it right from the start. You’re telling me that your business isn’t worth a $500 investment to keep and hold customers?

And those of you who are using free services that will “help” you sell? Have you investigated them????? Do you know where they’re based? Do you know if the business exists as a legit business or is it using your product to harvest credit card numbers? Have you done your due diligence?

This is not just about Shopify. I’ve heard the same crap from writers about mailing lists. I’ve heard it about other business innovations that will improve their business and bring in new customers.

Here are the rules every successful entrepreneur knows.

  1. You start with the best tools.

You never start with something half-assed. You have a storefront. Think about it. Imagine it as a brick-and-mortar store. Would you rather walk into a shiny new store with all the best tech and great customer service or a cobweb-covered store that looks like it came out of the year 2000? Who would you trust your money to? Who would you visit again?

 

  1. If you can’t afford the best tools, save your money and don’t start the new service or whatever you’re trying to do until you can afford it.

 

It’s better not to offer something than it is to offer a totally screwed-up service to your customers. When we realized that our first online store attempt was a bad experience for customers, we abandoned it, despite the fact that we had invested quite a bit into setting it up. When we realized that WooCommerce really didn’t suit our needs, but it did okay, we kept it and did not promote it. When we had internal troubles with our own jump to Shopify, we realized that those months were lost time and possibly lost customers. We had to accept that and move forward.

A bad experience is something customers hold onto forever. They will either stop buying your product or they will no longer buy it from you.

You get one chance. One. If a customer has a bad experience, they will not return.

  1. Customers don’t care about how much something costs you. All they care about is if your product/service works for them.

 

If they like your product and hate your service, they will buy the product elsewhere. Or they’ll stop buying the product altogether and find something else.

As a business owner, your job is to keep your customers. You want them to return. You have to do everything you can to ensure that they will.

  1. You build a customer base one person at a time. You lose them dozens at a time, because the disenchanted will tell their friends, “Don’t shop there. It’s crummy.”

 

One chance. One. Remember that.

  1. Entrepreneurs invest.

 

That means spending money up front, not waiting for some magic number of sales that will never come. If there’s no ready cash in the business, then save money until you can afford the upgrade.

Invest.

  1. Owning a business is about building for the future.

 

It’s okay to go slowly and to be cautious, but not at the expense of your customers.

  1. Think like a customer.

When you set up something online, test it with a computer other than your own. Was that a good experience? Was it easy? Was it fun? Did it work as intended? No? Can it be fixed or is the problem inherent to the platform you’re using? Figure it out. Make it easy for them, even if it’s hard for you.

There are more rules like that, but you get the idea.

When you step into the marketplace, which is what this niche marketing series is all about, you need to think about your customers. You need to build a good business. You need to invest real money into your business up front.

If you’re not ready to think about business, if you’re not ready to build, if you’re not ready to invest, then you’re not ready to start. It’s that simple.

So wait until you’re ready. If you don’t think you can do the things I mentioned here, then you’re not going to be successful. Don’t even try to run your own store or do something that requires you to act like a businessperson. Write your books, upload them to places like Amazon and D2D, and leave it at that.

Because building the business part of your business is not something you can do half-assed. No matter how much you want to.

*****

Speaking of investment and markets and going slowly, we’ve taken much of the summer to start revamping our stores…or actually start stores. We finished the Pulphouse store so that it would be ready after the Kickstarter. We’re holding a Grand Opening Sale through Sunday on everything in that store, everything we’ve managed to put up on WMG’s store, and on the writing workshops. Check it all out here.

Of course, the blog isn’t on there, because it’s separate, and it’s reader supported. Here’s how to support it, if you like.

If you feel like supporting the blog on an on-going basis, then please head to my Patreon page.

If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.

Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!

Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynruschr4e to go to PayPal.

“Business Musings: The Problem With Skimping (Niche Marketing 8),” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / eunika

7 thoughts on “Business Musings: The Problem With Skimping (Niche Marketing Part 8)

  1. Hi Kris. As usual, a great article! I’ve one question regarding shopify. How do you drive traffic to your shopify store? Does it depend upon your blog traffic? I guess traffic to your online store would also be a major factor in whether your store makes money or not.

    1. You guide them a thousand ways. That’s a good question, and one for a blog post. But through your blog, your socials, your books themselves, your newsletter. It is, as I have said repeatedly, a slow process. One reader at a time.

  2. Thank you for your perspective, Kris. It’s really helpful right now as I write from my tablet sinve my laptop needs a new screen.
    This means an unexpected delay in my construction efforts. I had been tempted to try it on the tablet and not lose a week or more, but maybe I can find other constructive ways of entertaining myself. Like writing on my creaky no-internet computer, and watching how-to Shopify videos for later.
    And, after reading your post, I will be upgrading to the full-service Shopify version. You hit the “not enough writing income yet” mentality right on the head. Thank you for naming it, for named problems can be resolved.

  3. This is such a valuable series, Kris.

    I hope that even folks without the freelancer or small business mindset can take some of what you’re presenting and figure out how to make it work for them. In trying to help people with Kickstarter (or Patreon, or Substack) mindset is a big hurdle. People are still expecting lightning to strike instead of researching, testing, and building one block at a time. The corner cutting is part of this, I think: an unwillingness to invest in business infrastructure and strategies while still hoping to strike it rich.

    Once I accrued a decent catalog, I turned my attention to infrastructure and better marketing strategies and I’m very glad I have. The combination makes everything easier and more profitable.

    I threw money away early on on things—like certain types of marketing— that were not prudent, but learned pretty quickly what and how to study and research. Part of that education comes from this blog.

  4. Nifty line from some current reading: “A players hire A players. B players hire C players.” And of course, working with C-grade systems throttles your chance of moving above B, or even staying there.

  5. After investing in producing a better product, the second investment any sane businessperson should make is infrastructure, which is a lot more than “nice offices” or “a more prestigious address” or “an upgraded website design.” One of the reasons that commercial publishers have adapted so poorly to the e-book revolution† is that none of them made such investments — not even Bertelsmann, which already had about 60% of such a system in place with its book clubs. Instead, they all “outsourced”… meaning that they became dependant upon third parties for not just actual delivery and accounting, but format specification and rules for advertising and order-fulfillment of other books inside their own books all got “outsourced.”

    In short, commercial publishing acted exactly like the US auto industry in the 1970s and early 1980s — or, closer to home, Borders in 2005 — when it adopted so-called “just-in-time inventory and outsourcing.” How’d that turn out? And what was it that both Einstein and Alcoholics Anonymous have said about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?

    What makes this worse is that the infrastructure of an electronic ordering and fulfillment system is at least an order of magnitude cheaper than what’s required with physical products (ranging in size and individual value from Pez dispensers to SUVs). And it would have established auditability and accountability for royalties… oops, now I understand why commercial publishers wouldn’t do that… but indies must have exactly the opposite attitude. It’s not just that they need “auditability” for taxes and such (which is important!), but as part of planning their business operations. In short, if what one gets from one’s infrastructure vendor is no better, no more specific, than a commercial-publisher royalty report, one is missing out.

    I’m making no specific judgments on Shopify here, because I’m not familiar enough with current versions (my last extensive exposure to its guts was in 2015). I am, instead, being very judgmental about those who — in this day of data breaches, hacks, etc. — think that cutting corners on the part of their business that involves handling other people’s money (on the way to becoming their money) makes any sense whatsoever. Sure, look at alternatives to Shopify; but in infrastructure, one very much gets something at least close to what one pays for. If you’re old enough to remember the old Fram oil filter commercials, think of an ordering system as the oil filter; if it’s not maintained along with the oil, someone’s gonna be buying a whole new engine (like, say, paying someone to help with a tax audit — a businessperson who self-represents in front of tax authorities has a fool for a client). That Shopify’s basic monthly fee, after allowing for inflation since the 1970s, is about as much as that Fram oil filter cost (at a time when one had to change the oil more often, too!), isn’t really all that coincidental. Plus the Shopify monthly fee is a deductible business expense… unlike the oil filter on the family station wagon…

    † One of them. Fraud, stupidity, more fraud, antitrust violations, and the thinking of too many executives that all they need do once they’ve printed a book is press the DELiver key certainly contributed.

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