Five technology lessons I learned from my own foray into small business

By James Robinson , written on November 14, 2014

From The News Desk

In July, as I wrote here on Pando, I self-published an actual, real book based on a blog I used to write. It came on the back of a $15,000 Kickstarter haul in November 2013. The book is out now, rewards have been shipped, and I have closed the book on the slog of production and shipping rewards.

But now I’m three months into the next phase of this project: sales, marketing, doing my own PR, and getting a taste of what its like to be the one pitching stories. It’s been a unique position for me, namely because as a tech journalist it’s engaged me with technology in a completely new way.

The difference between crowdfunding and selling something online is so much greater than I could imagine. Crowdfunding campaigns that get past 40 percent of their target very rarely don’t get all of the way there. Having raised $15,000 on Kickstarter, I thought sales would be easy. But crowdfunding campaigns have a big fat end date to motivate supporters. With a book for sale, I had a big group of supporters to market to on social media, many of whom have often talked about buying the book without yet pulling the trigger. I can see on my website that people are getting through to the purchase page in decent numbers, but my conversion rates have stayed stubbornly low. It has made me reckon with the sheer volume of what is for sale online now and how many things I roughly intend to buy at all times. The bigger riddle, one which I still struggle with mightily, is how do you make your thing completely essential to your target audience? How do you make them not just want it, but want it now? Once someone leaves my page, there’s so much noise and distraction on the Internet that the moment is lost.

Physical retail is still king. Having sold a few hundred books now, separate to my Kickstarter, I’ve fielded the same question over and over. Where can I physically buy it? Online retail is a wonderful, convenient, inevitable thing. Anyone that could want my book online can get it, and at a better price. Direct sales mean that I can lower my price, because my margin is better. Regardless, 75 percent of my sales have been in real, actual bookstores, supposedly lumbering old world spectacles that are out there apparently disrupting the ecommerce space, letting you touch the product and offering same minute delivery.

It’s easier than ever to be your own store online, but people prefer to buy from Amazon. I can’t say enough positive things about the ease of use of Squarespace, allowing a web design ignoramus like myself set up a professional looking page in mere minutes, and how effective and seamless its integration with Stripe is. I had a website and an online store up and functioning within two hours. Surely enough, orders trickled in. But slowly. When I listed it for sale on Amazon, sales picked up steadily. Amazon makes it seamless to buy. We trust it. People were willing to input their credit card number and personal details into an independently run Squarespace page, there just remains something of a resistance still.

Paid social advertising can only exploit existing demand, it can’t create it from scratch. Sure, I can target readers of my book on Facebook by age, interest, geography and tastes in literature. But if you don’t have brand awareness you’re not going to get anywhere. Social ads aren’t miracle makers. It was only after I started to get some momentum with positive book reviews in major media outlets and a little name recognition of the book that I managed to see results from ads. Before that, it was good money sent down the drain.

For any small business, there’s a realm of boring minutiae that technology can never replace. You can be as tech-loving and savvy as you please, but if you’re selling a physical thing there’s a raft of boring jobs you can’t escape that feel about as modern as a horse drawn buggy. For every great day of sales, there’s a morning spent at your desk, printing shipping labels, bubble wrapping books, dealing with scotch tape, affixing labels, and sealing envelopes.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]