His First Business Idea Failed. His Second Let Him Quit His Day Job.
Just over a year ago, if you’d have told Jeffrey Ho that he was going to be the owner of a women’s fashion business, he wouldn’t have believed you. Back then the idea hadn’t even crossed his mind.
After all, what unraveled in the next months took him down a different path than what he had planned for his life.
With no experience running a business, he would find himself fumbling through the day to day, learning from each painful mistake he made along the way. He’d face moments of doubt, followed by “Aha!” moments where everything clicked into place. Eventually, he’d find himself in the most surprising situation of all, as he waved goodbye to his sensible bank job in pursuit of making his dream a full-time reality.
For Jeffrey, life was progressing smoothly. He’d recently graduated from a great university in Vancouver, leaving with a joint degree in psychology and commerce. He’d landed a job at a bank, and quickly found himself immersed in the nine to five.
As the days wore on, he found himself staring down the barrel of a life filled with long commutes, tedious meetings, and dull small talk over cups of bad coffee in the break room.
To an outsider’s perspective, he was a success.
But there was one catch. He hated it.
Introducing Dropshipping: Ecommerce Without Inventory
One day while scrolling his Facebook feed, he came across an article from Oberlo (shout out to our social media team!).
He clicked through and discovered dropshipping.
If you’re new here, let’s get you caught up. Dropshipping is a business model that allows entrepreneurs to run an ecommerce store without holding inventory. It works by connecting store owners to suppliers who make products. A store owner like Jeffrey will use a tool like Oberlo to import products from different suppliers into his store, and his job is to advertise them to customers. When a customer buys a product from Jeffrey’s store, he’ll purchase the product from his supplier, who will ship it directly to his customer. Which means no leftover stock or warehousing costs for Jeffrey, ever.
Up to speed? Cool. Let’s jump back in.
Jeffrey was intrigued. He’d never run a business before, but he’d been itching for a side project to take on. He wanted something meaningful that he could devote his spare time to outside of the bank. Running a dropshipping business felt approachable for someone who was a complete newbie to ecommerce. Most of all, he was drawn in by the idea that he wouldn’t have to fork over a bunch of capital up front for products and warehousing.
“I realized that if you’re dropshipping, you’re removing so much of the overhead costs of a regular business. So you can put more of that money into advertising. That’s what was compelling to me,” he says.
Ideas for different stores began buzzing around in his mind. He was passionate about men’s fashion and had always wanted to take on a project that helped him explore this.
In October 2017, he launched his men’s fashion accessories store. He filled the virtual shelves with rings, necklaces, ties, and hats that reflected his personal style.
He did all the right things. He spent hours perfecting the look of his store, making it look polished and professional. He wrote blog posts with style tips. He filled his Instagram account with beautiful, aspirational images.
But it wasn’t really working. “I wasn’t seeing any results for the first few months, to be quite honest,” he says.
After all, Jeffrey was still a beginner when it came to digital marketing, and every day was a process of trial and error. There was a lot to learn and many little mistakes to make along the way.
Finding products that resonated with his customers presented a whole other challenge. “I’m really passionate about men’s fashion, but trying to market products that are related to what you enjoy is an entirely different story,” he says. “I didn’t know what kind of products to test.”
It was frustrating. He was pouring so much time into the store, trying to turn things around. Every day after work, he’d be up late into the night tweaking his website and testing new products.
“I was working on it maybe 30 hours a week, pretty much like a full-time job,” he says.
But he was running out of ideas.
It was time to try something different. “I really didn’t have anything to lose at that point,” he says.
While browsing Instagram, he came across a couple of female influencers promoting sunglasses. Not your run of the mill Ray-Ban sunglasses, but styles that were kind of quirky and oozed cool-girl cred. And as he scrolled through the dozens and dozens of comments below the posts, he saw that people were going wild for them.
So he found some similar sunglasses from a supplier and imported them into his store. To help get the word out, he paid a couple of influencers to promote the sunglasses to their fans.
And then, finally, something began to happen.
People liked them, and they bought them. But now it was females, not males who were pouring into his store. While the men’s accessories remained on site, the sunglasses were stealing the show.
By now it was January of 2018, and he’d been at this whole ecommerce thing for three months. He still felt like a beginner fumbling his way through, but he had enough experience to know that he was onto something good.
So he did what you do when you’re onto a good thing, and did more of it. He found more sunglasses, careful to maintain the same look as the successful ones, and added them to his store.
“Back in January, people mostly just bought random products. But it was still within the sunglasses category, so that’s when I knew there was potential for it.”
It was time for something radical. The men’s accessories had to go.
“I changed my store completely and focused on sunglasses,” he says.
The old store went out the window, replaced with a new look.
Jeffrey turned to Tumblr for inspiration about how to appeal to his new audience of Millennial, fashion-forward females. He carefully cultivated a precise look and feel for his store, borrowing the tone of voice and image styles he’d seen on Instagram.
It was all about building up a reputation as a brand, and he maintained consistency down to the smallest details.
“Building a brand is about building consistency,” Jeffrey says. “It’s about building a store that has products with similar styles in them. You’re creating a story and creating a message. That takes more work up front. It is harder to find winning products, but it’s easier in the long term.”
He was forced to balance his side hustle with the reality of life working at the bank. Although it was as dull as ever, there was one bright side: “It was satisfying to know that you were getting sales while you were working.”
And those sales just kept coming. Soon the business was generating thousands of sales a month, and Jeffrey was starting to question why he was holding onto the bank job at all.
“First of all, I didn’t really like it. Second of all, I didn’t get paid enough,” he says. “When you realize that your side hustle earns you more than what you earn with your regular job, that’s when you know you should quit.”
When I spoke to him in October 2018, he let me know that he’d recently waved goodbye to the bank job, and was now free to work on his business full-time.
“Now I’m focusing on this full-time so that I can make this store not just a passion but a career,” he says.
“There’s going to be some risk and pressure involved because you have no other source of income. But then that allows you to focus more on what you really want to do, and you feel more incentive to try harder to try to make it work,” he says.
With his newfound freedom, he’s also been able to set his own schedule and work whenever and from wherever he wants. “I’ll be going back to my home country in Hong Kong to visit my family. My old job didn’t allow me to get that kind of time off,” he says.
Looking back, the journey to this point felt like a rollercoaster. “I’ve thought about quitting my store a lot of times,” he says. “You don’t always get the results that you want, but I guess that’s just part of running a business. Sometimes you’re in the red, and sometimes you do well. It’s all a matter of consistency, just keep going.”
And that’s just what he’s doing. With summer winding down in the northern hemisphere, he’s shifted gears with his store yet again and has expanded his range to include women’s clothing.
He’s got his sights on growing the store into something big with plans to start designing and selling his own pieces. “That’s the long-term play,” he says.
And now a year after launching, he says that the business is in a good place and is operating smoothly. As a result, he’s found himself with a lot more free time. “Now it takes a lot less time to run because I already have all the systems in place. So essentially all I need to do now is to focus on the things that generate the most revenue. For me, that’s running Facebook ads and doing product testing. That takes less than three hours a day.”
Towards the end of our conversation, I ask him to reflect and share his proudest moment. He pauses to consider. “To be honest, I’m proud of all the things that I do. Building a brand from scratch isn’t easy work. Seeing how it’s turned out today, that’s a proud moment.”
And for anyone else who is just starting with their own business, he has one piece of advice:
“It’s about patience and consistency. You are, down to the core, running a business. You can’t expect to get $1,000 back when you put $500 in, just in the blink of an eye. It does take time, and it does take some prior research. But as long as you don’t quit, it will pay off in the end.”