They say that many people's greatest success comes immediately after their greatest failure, and while I don't know if thats true, I do know how much I've gained through this experience.
I started shutting off credit lines and closing accounts today. Its the vape-apocolypse (PMTA deadline by the FDA). The project was doomed regardless, but after today there's no reason to keep loosing money.
Lets go back to 2017ish. I was working in a vape shop and saw some new products gaining traction quickly. Nicotine salts. They seemed to solve all of the problems that people would talk about in the store. I won't get into details, but I saw what I thought was a great niche taking over the market.
I decided that this was a good entry point, and that I could open an online vape shop with minimal resources. The niche was less expensive than the rest of the industry, and I was fairly limited with my initial investment so it was a good fit. I thought that I knew the market well, and predicted that this was the next big thing.
I started working on a notebook, making lists. Products and vendors, licences and llc, early funnel ideas, thinking about the customer journey. I found a web developer to help get me off the ground. I decided to hand pick the inventory and offer a lower number of options, but to position them as high quality. I came up with a basic plan for social. Built an email list. Looked into subscription options and psychological tactics to raise conversions. Came up with lists and notes for everything, got the site built, inventory pictures taken and listed on the site, launched the site and sent emails.
I didn't get a single sale the first day. I was so optimistic about my email list, that I thought I would be able to control the sales volume by how many emails I sent out (I had a lot of emails). That was heart breaking, but I learned my first lesson. Manage expectations. What I thought was a goldmine of an email list, turned out to be so low quality that it wasn't worth the price of sending them (sending tens of thousands of emails isn't expensive, but when you're loosing money sending email, you know its trash)
This is when I began having problems persevering, my motivation was shit because my expectations were so poorly managed. I kept working, but I quickly spiralled into depression. It got really bad, really quick, and then the quality of my work suffered. I'm normally pretty good at perseverance. I don't quit easily, I probably should have quit sooner.
I felt like I was arriving late to the party, so I had rushed out the first version of my site. I thought that I was going to have some early success with a basic model, so it was basically just an MVP. The plan was to go back and add extra features, make changes, and do A/B testing and optimize. None of this ever really got done, and what did get done was pretty low quality. I never really recovered from that first failure, that wildly mismanaged expecation. All the ideas in the world won't save you if your execution is shit.
At this point I was broke and needed to manage the site on my own. I started with a cheap HTML/CSS class at community college, and ended up moving on to a full-stack boot camp. What started out as the need to make changes on my site turned into a pretty decent education, and a discovery that I absolutely love coding. That may be the most important thing thats come of this. I know I'll use this as the base for future endeavours.
At this point I was pretty distracted from the vape shop. I didn't do much more for it than package and send orders as they came in. It was slow too, i might have a couple orders one week, but then not get an order for a few weeks after that. Average ticket was under $40, and I was paying out all of my profits (and then some) for cc processing fees, age verification software, and gsuite emails. I wasn't marketing at all, and what little SEO i did on the product pages was about the only thing paying off.
I realize though that for the first time in my life I've built a real business. This wasn't like previous endeavours where I was a sole-proprieter operating on cash that just went in my pocket. This was its own living, breathing thing, even if it was gasping for air.
I gained a lot of skills along the way.
Wordpress lead to front end design, which lead to the boot camp. I literally hired someone two years ago to help me put up the site, and give me a run down of how to use it. Today I can build a web server and front end in a few hours. I build some cool software along the way too, I now have a mass mailer and will probably never have to pay sendgrid or mailchimp ever again. I also have a banging landing page template that I can change the content and host in a matter of minutes.
I learned a lot about SEO, it may be a basic level of knowledge to some, alt text on pictures, proper tagging and on-site. Link building off. I may not know every thing on the map, but I can see how it all connects.
The legal side and all the accounts, I had just about every licence and account I could get. Never hired an accountant or lawyer to set it up, I just dealt with it myself. I can do that again without breaking a sweat.
I learned a lot about marketing, but definitely not enough. Nowhere near enough. This is my next big project. I found about a dozen of the best marketing books out there. Writing good copy. Psychological stuff (which I've always loved anyway). Digital. Did I mention that I designed and bought a billboard along the way? One thing I missed in the pre stage was that no reputable company would advertise for vaping. No google. No facebook. I could have done ppc on porn sites (but ugh..), but a lack of money prevented it. I tried a giveaway on /r/electronic_cigarette, it got me some traffic but no sales. By now I knew my site or my inventory were shit, but I wasn't able to fix it.
Image manipulation was a huge skill gain for me. I taught myself a lot of GIMP (its like photoshop but open-source and on linux). I paid for my original logo. $250 which I know is a lot, but hell, it was super important right? I ended up replacing it with one I designed myself a few months later. I bough a photo-box, tripod, and used an old cell phone that shot in 4k to take the product photos. That was hell at the time, 250 skus, some overlap in things like color and nic-level, but 3-5 pictures of every sku plus editing was daysss worth of work. Then I decided my work was shit and things weren't selling because of sub-par images, and I redid the whole thing. I shot and edited every single picture on the site, 95% of them twice.
One of my biggest mistakes was the fact that I misjudged the market. What I thought was a nicotine salt craze actually turned into a disposables craze. I could have pivoted, but my money was all blown on inventory.
I also should have worked on my email lists. I could have pointed the low quality list to a landing page to refine it into a smaller, but higher quality list. Money was always a pain point, and I should have saved some for ongoing and unseen costs instead of spending it all early on inventory and setup.
I also made the huge mistake in thinking that the products would sell themselves. I tried to do my own marketing, and when it blew up in my face I was left broke. I couldn't fix it by hiring someone, and since I was in a rut, I couldn't market for shit. It was too big of a hole to climb out of without an investor, and no one wants to invest in a failing vape shop with ageing inventory. Sometimes it's our own mental weight dragging us down, and without any little wins to keep me moving, I just fell further.
Failure is a humbling thing. As the dust settles I'm about $20k in the hole with about $7500 in unsold inventory. Inventory that becomes illegal at midnight.
I still think I got a lot of education for what I paid. I'm going to use it all again, and I'm going to build on top of the marketing and seo knowledge that I have now. All the knowledge really. I gained a lot of experience in a lot of areas really quickly.
Its been a hell of a ride, and I would have changed a lot of things, but I'm also glad to be where I am now. It could have been better, but it could also have been a hell of a lot worse. There's definitely a weight being lifted off my shoulders
Expectations low, aspirations high, and with a little luck my next one won't sink like the titanic. I've already got the next project in the works, this time I'll be using that coding knowledge that I love so much.
TLDR; I fucked up, but gained a lot along the way