Day 7: Digging Ditches, The Not So Glamorous Ecommerce Life

Sales to Date: $13,627.25

If you're wondering what has been going on for the last 4 months on the “How to Run a Chop Shop Series“, the title of this post should explain everything. The last time we left off, I talked about the usefulness of phone sales and was on the cusp of a proper migration from Miva Merchant to Shopify. Unfortunately, that migration hit the skids in a spectacular way when one of my main vendors issued a new pricelist that required the updating of over 10,000 SKUs. I had essentially gone from boot strapping my migration to Shopify and gradually weaning over the content and product listings to my own format, to having to perform a complete overhaul at once.  Yikes.

A major factor in why it has taken so long for the migration is that it's one thing to build a site from scratch and another thing to migrate an existing site over. With an existing site, you have to worry about moving all assets and images over properly, ensuring redirects are used, making proper use of canonical urls, properly specifying SPF records and a gambit of other technical issues.

With, one of the major issues that I had was that the site had been ranking for a variety of terms, but was struggling with an overall decrease in search traffic. My theory for the gradual drop in traffic was for the following reasons:

  • Lack of fresh content
  • Poor quality content and duplicate content
  • Broken links, images
  • No external SEO marketing

Thus, my goal with putting the site onto Shopify would be to keep the site running and try not to hurt sales, while fixing the technical and SEO issues over time. What happened when my vendor issued a new price list however, was that I suddenly fond myself with an ecommerce website that I was unfamiliar with a bunch of prices that weren't up to date, the SKUs were often wrong and most importantly, I realized I would most likely have to update prices each year.

With over 10,000 SKUs, I briefly considered having the prices update by hand. The pro was that it would be the simplest solution that didn't take much thinking. The con was that there was no way I would do this myself, so I would need to hire a virtual assistant or entry specialist to do this; and even then, I would likely have to have another person spot check their work. Assuming I trained a VA for 10 hours on how to interpret my vendor information, I would estimate the VA could go through about 20 SKUs per hour on average (not just updating prices, but fixing incorrect SKUs and creating proper Shopify variants). Thus 10,000 SKUs would take 500 hours to complete. The spot checker could go much faster at 250 SKUs per hour, as they would just be going through a spreadsheet instead of the Shopify interface, so their total hours would be closer to 40.

The total hour would thus be around 540 or at around $6 per hour for a VA, this would be $3,240. Total time at 40 hours a week (assuming I could ensure my VA is exclusive with me) would be about 12 weeks or 3 months of manual entry. So while the total cost of data entry wouldn't be prohibitive, the time involved is painful. That said, I could hire multiple VAs to perform data entry, but each would require their own training as well.

What I actually ended up doing was rolling my up sleeves and putting in some elbow grease, by writing my own application to parse, sort and prepare my vendor pricesheet for bulk import into Shopify. As an owner, my job is to try and delegate and scale as best I can, so I wasn't necessarily looking forward to writing my own application, but I realized that project managing a developer to write the application for me was not going to be that much of a time saving because of the product complexity. At the same time, while a VA would free up lots of time, the major problem was that I would most likely have to hire and retain a VA each year.

So far it's taken me about 80 hours of coding and manual editing to get to where I am now. I estimate another 80 more hours to get where I need to be. So about one full month of work just for this project… nevermind all the other projects I have, hence the long delay.

I realize that I am lucky enough to have the technical chops in order to write my own applications, but if I were a consultant to a client with the same issue, I would have told them to hire the VA. While a programmer could be faster or could be cheaper in the long run, it is incredibly hard to estimate exactly how long it would take. Plus, it's easy to be burned by a programmer if you don't have technical chops yourself. Compare that to a VA however, where you can accurately predict exactly how long it should take to complete the project.

Some places that you can find a virtual assistant include:

Bringing in a VA does raise a few interesting questions though. Namely, how much of your business should you outsource?  With ChoppingBlocks, I mentioned it already that phone sales are critical. Half of our sales are over the phone and I attribute a lot of those sales to my ability to close or follow up with customers. At some point in the future, I realize I will likely have to stop taking sales, but I am certainly not there yet. It's far better for me to try and outsource that which doesn't affect my bottom line, such as shipping and logistics.

Customer service is a tricky bit, because most business owners would immediately think customer support is a prime business segment to contract out. Mike and I tend to think that in the current day and age where reviews and trust matter, letting someone be in control of the happiness of your customers is a death wish. How many times are you happy when you call up a phone support line and get someone in India named “Bob”?  I'm guessing not very much. Obviously, there are many big companies that do this, but the one thing they have that you nor I possess is goodwill and brand. They can get away with it because they've already established themselves, whereas a small ecommerce operator has no natural trust from the customer at all.

Don't get me wrong either, it's tempting when you come across a site that says they have fluent native speakers that have neutral accents, transcribe messages, know American culture and can even complete sales. There are people like that of course, but they're called Americans. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure there are many hard working and competent outsourced workers, but if you want the performance of an American sales team, you're going to need to pay them legitimate wages. There simply is no free lunch.

Lesson 19: Outsourcing is not magic. You still get what you pay for.

Should You Write Your Own Content?

The ultimate ditch digging exercise of ecommerce is content writing. Most owners will scoff and say content (and photos) can just be supplied by the manufacturer and will reuse what the manufacturer gives, verbatim. In our opinion, this method is absolutely wrong and shows laziness on the part of the business. Quality, unique content is one of the pivotal parts of not just SEO, but sales and if you don't stand out from the competition, then why should a customer buy from you?

Now, whether or not YOU should be the one writing the content is the true question, as there's plenty of providers out there that are willing to write your content, that will promise high copy that sells. After all, content writing isn't easy and copy writers do possess a skill that often takes years to master. Sometimes it comes down to price, because if a copy writer is going to charge $100 per description and you've got 100 products, then you're suddenly going to find yourself $10,000 in the hole. However, if you can't write your way out of a paper bag, then perhaps that $10,000 isn't such a bad idea after all. The trouble is when you can't (or can't be bothered) to do everything else that is involved (programming, photos, answering phones, customer service, shipping) and suddenly instead of making money on your ecommerce site, you've started $30,000 in the hole and are bleeding before the first sale has even happened.

What it comes down to again is how much should you, as the owner, be willing to dig the proverbial ditches of your business and do the grunt work that nobody likes to do. Yes, we've all heard of the 4 hour workweek. Yes, we've all heard it takes money to make money, but at the end of the day, even I am required to dig ditches and be in the trenches to really build up my business. Which leads to one of my most important lessons:

Lesson 20: You should only outsource the parts of the business of which you are competent. Otherwise, you will never know if someone else is screwing up.

“But Grant,” you say, “how can I possibly be an expert in everything?”  

The answer to that is easy, keep doing it over and over until you are. You might not ever be a coder, but work with enough developers and eventually you'll know what is involved. Same goes for vendor negotiations, customer service, etc. What it comes down to is what small business owners have always had to deal with: be willing to fail and ask others for help. Most entrepreneurs do not succeed at their first business, second business or perhaps even third business. Most people fail, hard, at some point, try to assess what they did wrong and then try, try again. Mike and I are no different and have a string of failures under our belt.

So, going back to content- should you outsource writing to someone else?  If you can honestly evaluate their writing and know good from bad, then it's safe to do so. If not, then you should probably get up to speed on writing yourself so you know how to hire it out.

Me, I often write my own content, because I want to know about my own products and want to be an expert in what I sell, especially as they are high end items. Unfortunately, with this latest migration and hundreds of products being added into the new site launch, it has certainly slowed things down a bit. But hey, who ever said ditch digging was fast?


Grant Chen

Grant currently owns and operates two ecommerce businesses selling kitchen products and clothing. He is also a partner in a restaurant franchise with two locations and has over a decade of experience as an entrepreneur and web developer. He lives in the beautiful city of Seattle, Washington, and when he's not at his laptop with a coffee, will be found skiing or hiking in the mountains .

One Comment

  1. Great article Grant. Here are two other resources for VA’s…

    The 2nd one is where I got my VA. They are a service that will do all the grunt work for you. You give them a detailed job description and requirements; they go off and do their thing. This includes pre-qualifying and preinterviews. They hand you a thin stack of prequalified resumes and from those you pick 3 to interview on Skype. This is how I found my VA and he has been doing a lot of the before mentioned grunt work. I keep him busy 40 hours a week, which has freed up 40 hours a week of my time. This also means I’m not doing $3.25 / hr work (he makes $500 per month), when I can be doing much more important things with my time.

    You also mentioned product descriptions in here. For I outsourced all of that work. This was a bit more costly, because I wanted someone in the USA who could write intelligently about the products. I found an amazing certified physical therapist who did a better job than I ever could of writing the descriptions. I spent an hour on the phone with him stressing exactly what I wanted. Then, I spent another hour after he turned the first batch in – to get the quality even higher. He easily spent 150 hours writing all the descriptions on the site, which was 150 hours I was able to spend working on something else.

    I can’t wait to see the new version of!

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