A few weeks ago, I randomly ran the “since the beginning” sales report for Evernote Essentials (a report that I don’t often look at, frankly) and discovered that I’d crossed a pretty major milestone: 10,000 sales.
Yes, it’s a cool thing and I’m both proud of and humbled by what I’ve been able to accomplish, but I’m not looking for congratulations here.
Instead, I wanted to spend some time looking back on what has worked for me as a guy who sells something on the Internet and—more interestingly, I think—what hasn’t worked.
So, without further ado and in no particular order…
If I had to attribute my success to one single thing, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it was the affiliate program. When other people who really believe in what you sell are given the opportunity to make some cheddar while they share your wares, everybody wins. This arrangement has brought me countless customers that would have never heard of me or my stuff without the recommendations of my affiliates.
I toyed with a few different paid promotions fairly early in the game and I can say pretty confidently that, for me, they were a waste of money. I did some Google Adwords runs, a stint on Facebook ads and a handful of “direct” sponsorship/ad arrangements (podcasts, blogs, etc.). None of these produced any meaningful results and, in almost every case, the ads failed to drive enough sales to even recover the money spent on the advertising itself.
I’m hardly an expert, so I won’t come out and say that you should avoid advertising altogether—I think it depends heavily on the product, price and target demographic—but I’d try other, more “content marketing”-focused efforts before paying for ads.
I get a ton of email. If you’re fortunate enough to sell something on the Internet that gets some traction, a daily glut of email is a practically inescapable byproduct. My advice is to develop a system for handling it and set aside time each day (or as often as is feasible) to deal with it.
And, be warned, this will mean ignoring some of the emails you receive. I felt pretty awful about this at first, but there’s simply no way around the fact that I don’t have enough time to answer every email I receive and keep up with other things. I’d advise anybody in a similar situation to get used to this idea and be judicious in both how much time you spend on email and which emails you answer.
(Of course, I don’t ever ignore emails from customers who are having problems with actually getting what they’ve paid for — don’t ever think you can skip out on those.)
On Software-Related Ebooks
Probably the biggest factor that I failed to recognize when I first hung up my shingle was that my eBook was written about a piece of software; one that was being actively developed and frequently upgraded. So, if I wanted to continue to provide value to customers, that meant that I was going to have to regularly (cough) update Evernote Essentials to reflect the current state of the product. My point is, if you’re going to produce a similar product, make sure that you’re willing to continue the work you started for awhile afterward if you want it to have any longevity.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it, of course, but you probably won’t have the luxury of shipping it off, calling it “done” and moving on to the next thing. Keep this in mind.
Expect Frequently Asked Questions
This is another big one. No matter how simple the sales/delivery process may appear to you, there will always be people who (through no fault of their own) have trouble. There will also always be folks who want to know something else (“Is this available on the Kindle?”, “How do I get this onto my iPad?”, etc). My advice to you is to have a quick and easy way to answer these questions that don’t require you’re typing out the same three-sentence response several times per day. Personally, I use TextExpander for this and it works beautifully. GMail users should investigate the “Canned Responses” feature. No matter how you go about, have a way to quickly fire off these responses because you’re probably going to need it.
Like it or not, Paypal is the grandaddy of online payments. If you use Paypal to accept payments for your product, here are a few simple tips:
- Withdraw your profits to a bank account as often as you can. Personally, I do this a couple of times a week because, as many an online retailer knows, Paypal will freeze an account at the drop of a hat and getting it unfrozen can require a great deal of work. Best to not have your dough sitting there if this happens.
- Make sure your customers realize that they don’t need a Paypal account to buy your thing. To buy something through Paypal, you only need a credit card, so make this plain to your customers during the checkout process because there’s a large contingent of people who simply don’t trust Paypal.
- If you live in the US, the fees collected by Paypal for each transaction are a deductible business expense. If you make lots of sales, this will end up being a non-trivial figure and you’ll want to make sure you’re not giving Uncle Sam more than what’s he’s owed.
Speaking of taxes…
Earlier this year, I formed a California corporation (called, boringly, “Brett Kelly Media Inc.”). The usual reason for doing this is to protect your personal assets in the event somebody files a lawsuit against you, but the other really huge reason to consider this is that you’re going to get taxed out the ass on any money you make as guy/gal selling crap online. Doing business through a corporation (or other business entity, I think) allows you to draw a salary from a separate business and pay a great deal less in “self-employment tax” (which, in the US, is a gallingly high percentage of your income).
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: talk to an accountant as soon as you start making money. The money you spend will likely be a drop in the bucket compared to what you save and you don’t want to get blindsided by a massive tax liability you didn’t fully realize was coming (trust me on this one).
No matter how much your thing costs, people are going to bitch about the price. This is an unavoidable reality of doing this kind of business. Have an answer when people ask, but otherwise shrug it off and move on. If you’re making sales, then somebody is seeing the value of your proposition and you can feel fine ignoring the complaints.
People will, without fail, occasionally ask for a refund. Unless they’re clearly jerking you around, give it to them. In the grand scheme of things, the money you might have made from that sale will be minuscule compared to the bad will that person will generate if they feel you’ve screwed them.
Ebook Formats and Storefronts
My eBook is available only as a PDF. I don’t offer versions optimized for the Kindle and you can’t buy it in the iBooks store (though, it looks nice on the iPad, for the record). Reason being, my product is priced substantially higher than most other eBooks available on Amazon or iBooks and I wasn’t willing to lower the price to what I’d call “competitive” in either of those stores, nor was I super jazzed about the idea of forking over 30% of each sale to, well, anybody.
This is a decision you’ll have to make. My advice to you is that if you feel like your product is worth more than $9.99, then don’t bother with third-party retailers. I don’t and I’m not sorry I haven’t.
Two things here.
First, I get lots of emails from people who bought the first version of Evernote Essentials asking if they can get a discount on the second version. As the product page says,updates are free for the life of the product. In my experience, this isn’t how it’s normally done, but it’s worked well for me. If it’s feasible, I’d advise making future versions of your product free to existing customers, at least for awhile. Reasons:
- They don’t expect it and it will make them pretty damn happy.
- It’s far easier to deal with, administratively.
- It maintains, on some level anyway, a relationship between you and the buyer.
This may not be a sensible arrangement for everybody, but I’d consider it since it means that people are not only buying the one thing they’re getting, but they get the security of knowing that as the material changes, so will your product.
Second, make it easy to both update your product and to send these updates to people. This has been a pretty big sticking point for me since issuing a new version of my eBook requires not only my own effort in terms of research and writing, but also the involvement of third parties (a designer, in my case) that can add just enough friction to really make the process feel cumbersome. If possible, streamline the process such that updating your product can be done quickly and with as few external dependencies as possible.
Everybody who buys Evernote Essentials is automatically subscribed to my newsletter. You might think this is an underhanded thing to do, but (and I’m being frank here) there’s a lot of value in having a big ass list of people who plunked down money for your stuff. I don’t do much in terms of hard sells there, but I do try to provide additional value to those people. A mailing list is a great way to continue the conversation with people after they’ve made a purchase.
Sure, some of them will opt-out after the first time you contact them and that’s fine. But, it doesn’t take much smarts to see that cultivating and maintaining such a list can provide tremendous opportunity down the road.
And, honestly, I get great response from the content I publish to the mailing list because it’s the same kind of thing I write here. If you sell something online, make communicating with your customers a priority. A mailing list is a great way to do that. (And, for the record, I use and heartily recommend MailChimp)
This isn’t meant to be some kind of how-to guide for selling crap on the Internet. Far from it. I’m one guy who happened to make something that people really like and have responded to. This post is simply a bunch of (unsolicited, admittedly) advice. Do with it what you will.
And, if you’ve read this far, know that I’m incredibly humbled by the response that my little eBook has received. I’m thrilled that so many people have found value in it and am eternally grateful to each and every person who’s plunked down their hard-earned cash in exchange for what I made. Totally serious – thanks.
If you want to talk about any of this stuff or have any questions for me, definitely get in touch and I’ll do my best to hit you back.