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The Pathway From Full-Time Work To Your Own Dropshipping Business

Just two years ago, Emma Cunningham was working a full-time job with the Australian government. 

Today, she's since quit her job and has no regrets. That's because not only is she the owner of a successful dropshipping store, but she's also created a course, moved into private labeling, and is launching yet another online business.

Needless to say, her life's been turned upside down over the past couple of years  for the better.

Though Emma was pretty lucky to have friends who mentored her through the dropshipping process, there was still plenty she had to learn.

In this episode of Start Yours, Emma spills all about how she found her niche, what her day-to-day looks like when running a dropshipping business, the importance of customer service, and more.

Whether you're new to dropshipping or are thinking about dipping your toes into the world of ecommerce, this is a value-filled episode you don't want to miss.

If you enjoy our podcast, do consider subscribing. Don't forget to also hop on over to our blog for more juicy ecommerce and dropshipping content!

Short on time? Here's a seven-point TL;DR version of our chat with Emma:

  1. Surrounded by friends in the right places, Emma got her dropshipping store set up in a week and got her first sale on the very first day.
  2. You can spend weeks, months, and even years thinking about it. But you won't know if it's going to work until you start.
  3. Customer service must be at the forefront of your business for it to have longevity.
  4. If you're just starting out, you do not need to outsource everything from the get-go.
  5. For a long-term business, you don't wanna have to be paying to acquire a customer every single time.
  6. Don't move to private labeling until you're getting at least 50 orders a day consistently.
  7. Take your time, learn, and set goals, even if they're only smaller goals.

Start Yours is a podcast about ecommerce, dropshipping, and all things launching a business.

Join us as we meet entrepreneurs who have gone through the triumphs and headaches of running an online store, and learn how they managed to survive and thrive.

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Entering the World of Ecommerce

Aleisha: Emma, such a delight to have you on Start Yours. Welcome to the show. I'm so intrigued to learn about your dropshipping and ecommerce journey. But first, where are you and what got you into this world of ecommerce? 

Emma: Well, thank you very much for having me on the show, Aleisha. I am based out of Melbourne, Australia, and I originally started my dropshipping journey in December of 2019, so almost 12 months now. 

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And essentially, what got me started was seeing the success that some of my other friends were having with online businesses. And I just kept seeing it and I'm thinking, "I've got to learn what they're doing and how they're doing it, and how I can get involved." 

Some of them have gone on to have some very successful brands and stores, and it's awesome to be around that all the time, and that's really what caused me to get into it.

Aleisha: It's so interesting. With the people I interview on the show, so many of them learned about this whole world through friends or on Reddit and they're like, "What's dropshipping? What's happening here?" 

It's not something that I think is widely talked about outside of the ecommerce community, so it's really great to see that you were socializing with the right group of people that got you into it.

Emma: I know. But at the same time, I think, even in Australia, in comparison to some of the other countries, this is huge in America, for example. And I think we will follow the trend here and start to talk about it more and more people get involved. But yeah, I was in the right place at the right time really.

Aleisha: What were you doing beforehand? 

Emma: I used to work for the federal government, funny enough. So I used to work for the social welfare agency, Centrelink, and help people that weren't in the position to... They might have lost their job or will be studying and need that extra support. Yeah, I used to work there.

Aleisha: When you dipped your toe in and your friends were like, "Here's something interesting to have a look at," how quickly did you make the decision to leave your career and actually focus on dropshipping? 

Emma: For me, I was very fortunate that I found a product that I was very passionate about and I could put all of my energy into, and I saw success quite quickly. And a lot of people can achieve results in a very fast time frame. It is a very fast-paced industry, in my opinion. A lot can change within a matter of a week. 

But for me, yeah, I literally quit my job within... It was April this year, so within four months. I loved my job. I loved my job. But the thing for me was that, even if I went there and put all of my hard work into that, it was gonna take me 10, 15 years to get promotions and get to the top level where I wanted to be. 

And then I'm watching my friends create these businesses and they're pouring the same amount of energy into it and creating something huge. So I was like, "I'm gonna invest more time and energy into creating a brand," and that's what really pushed me to excel in it really quickly. 

But yeah, I quit my job within four months, which was phenomenal, and I haven't looked back.

So yeah, very fortunate for what's happened this year, and obviously, ecommerce has just boomed this year because of COVID as well, a lot of online shopping, so yeah, I think I definitely got in at the right time. But in saying that, the statistics for next year are even crazier.

Aleisha: Yeah, it's extraordinary. I think, yeah, the timing is great. I think, when you talk about ecommerce and the community, we've been very lucky and I think Shopify is a great company. They’ve been really supportive of brick-and-mortars trying to transition into online. I think a lot of people are thinking outside the traditional retail box, so it's exciting to see where it's all going to end up. 

When you first heard about it and you said, "Okay, I'm gonna give this a go," how quickly did you find a product or get into a niche and start that first store? 'Cause I often think that this is the biggest point that people falter a little bit and go, "Oh, I like the idea. I wanna do all this stuff but I don't know how to start," and then they wait for months and months and it never happens.

Emma: Exactly. I think a lot of people can put a lot of self-doubt in their own minds and it really is a psychological hurdle that you've got to overcome. You can spend, literally, weeks, months, years, if you want, looking for the right product and you're not going to know before you give it a go. 

So for me, I found a product. And creating a website with Shopify online, it's very user-friendly, you can create a Shopify store literally within hours. For me, I got off the ground within about a week with the right guidance. 

Now, I think that's also where a lot of people come unstuck, as you mentioned. They don't really know where to start and it seems to be overwhelming. But I think having people there for myself and my friends mentor me and make sure that I went in the right direction because they've been in my shoes before. So that definitely was a huge help. 

But for me, I found a product using their methods and things like that, and was able to get started within a week. 

And then for me, I was also very fortunate, I made sales on my first day as well.

Aleisha: Did you? Wow! 

Emma: Yeah. I made a real, full sale. So I was just over the moon. I was like, “Wow, what is this?” And I used to print-screen my little Shopify results and think, “Well, this is crazy. I've made a couple of hundred dollars with my online business,” and I was like, “That's it, I'm happy,” then from there it's just scaled phenomenally.

Succeeding in the Pet Niche

Aleisha: Yeah, the cha-ching noise, we always talk about that. It's addictive. It's good. Yeah, you want more. So that's extraordinary, getting a few sales. I think a lot of people, again, feel really disheartened when they can't get those sales in the first couple of weeks. So I suppose you were very lucky. 

But it also showed that you have picked the right product and maybe have the right-looking store. What's your dropshipping niche actually? We should reveal a little bit about what you got into. What was the niche that stated all of your dropshipping journey? 

Emma: So for me, I went down the very passionate path of the pet niche. Even throughout 2020, even in Australia alone, just talking... Obviously, I sell to many other countries, but even just here, there's been a massive demand for people buying pets. 

I think as people were spending a lot more time at home throughout COVID, they sort of notice, “Well, I could get a pet, whether that be a cat or a dog and so forth.” So yeah, I opened up a pet niche, one-product store, and yeah. 

I found that a lot of people love their pets and they don't mind spending what they need to on their pets to get them the right product.

Aleisha: That's great, and it is. It always goes back, I think we talk about the pain points and also just where people want to spend their money. And you're right, look at the... You go on Google Trends and you look at the stats, especially within Oberlo as well, and seeing what people are willing to spend on the pets, especially as you said, they're at home, they're playing with them, they're sitting with on the couch, they're sitting next to them in the home office. 

We're not going out and spending money in restaurants and doing extra things, so that's a really great place to be.

Emma: And they’re on Facebook and Instagram and there's an ad, and you're like, “Oh, I'd love to get this for my little guy.” It's definitely been a really good journey in that industry. Since then, I've also looked into a few other different niches, but the one that I'm focusing on now as well is women's hair and beauty, so that's obviously a massive market too.

Aleisha: Do you, it's great because I'm assuming you have pets or a pet? 

Emma: Yes, I do. And he's been a very great model of the product.

Aleisha: That was my next question, “Do you use your pet for some imagery?” Because that really helps when you've got a free model on your hands.

Emma: I definitely did use him. But in the same sense, I find that shoppers are getting smarter, people are getting smarter with online shopping nowadays. So it's like if you open your Instagram and every model that's on there is promoting a face mask or like he's my new... Whatever it may be, they're holding it, and they've got a discount code. 

Yes, influencer marketing does work and it's huge. But I think the difference that I found with the pet niche was that people will take a photo of their dog or cat looking really cute in whatever they're in, like whether it be a pet bed or in a little harness, whatever it is, using a new toy, there are so many things that I've seen in the pet industry and it's not salesy, like you'll take a photo and they're happy to tag a business or share where they got the product from. 

And I think it doesn't come across as too pushy as I mentioned, whereas sometimes, as I say, some people are almost getting smarter with the Instagram influencer marketing. So to me, I found that I got a lot of content for free, which was awesome because people were happy to take photos of their pets and send them through and promote the brand almost for free, which was awesome.

Aleisha: And it's so easy, I mean, there are so many plugins now within Shopify that you can just pull. If someone used your hashtag or pulled your user name, that pulls it straight onto your front page anyway, so you've got that social proof straight away that is just instantly there. 

And it's so powerful as well because as you said, you totally feel that... I know if I can go on a website and say someone else wearing a top that's in three or four different body shapes, I feel much better about buying the item 'cause I think, “Alright, well, someone that looks sort of like me, I can buy it,” rather than just the model, so it's very powerful.

Emma: And it's also that as well because again, you've got all sorts of different pets, so all sorts of sizes, so to speak. So when they can go right on to the website, see the social proof being the reviews, the Instagrams, all linked up every time I post on Instagram, the latest images coming up on to the website, so they can really see what other people and other pets, you know, how they've used the product, and that it can be used across numerous different breeds and things like that. So yeah, it definitely has helped, all the different apps in the background of Shopify for sure.

A Day in Dropshipping

Aleisha: Tell me a little bit about your day, 'cause I'm always fascinated to learn about the day of the dropshipper, and also, I know we're gonna talk a little bit more about white labeling and going into your own products. 

But I think time management and thinking about what it actually takes to build a store as you have over the past year fascinates me, and I know our listeners are also really keen to learn about the processes of actually running a successful store. 

And we are very much trying to sort of swerve the viewpoint that it's just like a plug and play situation, 'cause I know you work really hard and you've put a lot of effort into it. So talk me through a little bit about your average day when it comes to working and building your business.

Emma: Yeah, for sure. So when I first started the business, I wanted to do absolutely everything. It was like, “I will do the customer service emails, I will respond to comments on Facebook, I will upload on Instagram, I will go in and manually fulfill orders.” 

You name it, I was doing it, for literally probably the first two months. 

And then still working a normal job, I found that customer service, and I've learned this straight away, is number one, obviously in line with having a quality product. But customer service really should be at the forefront of your business for it to have that longevity that you need

So for me, when I first started dropshipping, I wanted to do it all and I wanted to keep it all in my own hands so I could manage the quality, I suppose you could say.

So a normal day, once I left my nine to five, I'd be checking my ads, because that was primarily how I was generating, or how I have generated income for this business, things like responding to customer emails. I have now got assistants that help with the customer service, or the customer service representatives. 

Things like even just checking to make sure that the website... I always like to go in and have a look at it and how it's looking, because even something as simple as your website banner, for example, if you've got some sort of code in there, or if you're running a deal for that week, you know... Even Black Friday...

I went on a website recently, and they're still saying Black Friday, all this, and I'm like, it was three weeks ago now. So I like to check the website and make sure everything's still looking neat and tidy and that nothing is... No coding has come out of place. 

So yeah, I do spend a lot of time, to be honest with you, still very much so in the business, but as it's grown, I realized that I also need to outsource things to make sure that the quality is maintained and that I don't personally burn out.

So as I said, getting customer service representatives for the email side of things. I now have some help when it comes to content creation. Obviously, every time we launch a new product now, and we will discuss, as you mentioned, private labeling. But as I launch new products I make sure that I get the content created by a professional photographer more so than just myself on my iPhone. There are little things that do help. 

But I think if I was to be telling someone that's starting out, like, you don't need to outsource all of your things from the get-go. 

You wanna learn all the mechanics of your business and you wanna be able to grow with the business. Don't outlay a lot of money to begin. As you're making money, I like to say that's when you can start to look at, as I say, something as simple as getting a photographer to take your photos as opposed to you doing it. 

I don't think it's necessary, you just need to get started, and I think, again, it comes back to that psychological hurdle. A lot of people will put down in their own mind, "Oh, I don't have this, I don't have that." 

And to be honest with you, when I look back at my first website, I've had upgrades since then in the last 12 months, but I'm still proud of what I had. It was very simple, but it had what the customer needed to see and know about the brand. So it was still converting, but obviously, when you make some updates and upgrades along the way, your conversion rate will get better as well.

So, in a normal day, it's still very much so in the business. But yeah, as the year has gone on and I've moved into private labeling, because of the quantity and the size of the products that I have, I have now used a warehouse facility to be able to pick and pack my orders for me because I personally can't do it in my own home. But yeah, and then the other elements have been pretty much either outsourced or kept in-house and I still very much so do a lot of it.

Shifting To Private Label

Aleisha: That's great. And so when do you move from dropshipping to source your own product? Talk me through that process.

Emma: I think for me, again, as I mentioned, you want your customers to be happy and want them to come back. You realistically, for a long-term business, don't wanna have to be paying to acquire a customer every single time. So even word-of-mouth, for example, referrals and things like that, you want your customer to have had such a good experience that they wanna go and tell ten other people. 

And I think sometimes, and especially this year with dropshipping, it's still a very good method to do, and I highly encourage it. But I think you've got to know, as you say, when to pivot from that to private label, because, again, you'll probably find little things such as maybe shipping times, customers might not want to then refer other people to your business if they may have had to wait a few weeks longer than what they would if you were to send it yourself. 

But other things as well like even the quality. You can check over the quality when you're in control of that as well. But yeah, for me, I would recommend someone who’s scaling their business, depending on what the product is, there are obviously different variants, but I'll be looking at price points and things. 

But I'll be looking at it when you're getting 50-100 orders a day and consistently. 

And obviously, if the product is an evergreen product where you're gonna be able to continue to sell it, then I would look at either getting an agent that can get it quicker and at a cheaper price for you, because as you scale you wanna keep your profit margins as high as you can as well, so yeah, generally around that sort of 50-plus orders a day, I would recommend, personally, but yeah.

Aleisha: And did you use the same manufacturer that you were working with your dropshipping, or you found a whole new manufacturer to start white-labeling your products? 

Emma: I actually found a whole new manufacturer and went down the path of getting samples, obviously, to play it safe. 

When you're placing such a huge order value, you don't really wanna do that without seeing the product. 

So I got samples, went back and forth, I actually tweaked the product quite significantly to be able to have a unique selling point that was different from anyone else. So I really took the time to have a look at all the feedback that I've had in the time that I was dropshipping it and couldn't change the product, put onboard that feedback and implemented those changes so I could improve the product and have a better customer satisfaction rate and things like that, so that I have those return customers. 

And even now, looking at the business, since I have gone down a private label path, I have got quite a significant customer retention rate. And it's not necessarily in products that you need to buy multiple times, if that makes sense with you, so it's really good to see that for me because it just proves that the quality is there and that they're happy and they're coming back, which is ideally what you want. 

As I said, you don't wanna have to be paying every time to acquire a customer. Yes, I'm really happy with that. That's one thing that I've really been proud of since moving down the private label path.

Aleisha: That's excellent advice, and it's so good that you mentioned keeping track of customer feedback to then use later on. I've talked to people who said they've just got a file and every customer service email with this comment specifically about the product that they grab, they get an executive assistant or a VA to just grab that and put it in an Excel spreadsheet. 

So at least you can go through and say, "Oh, the sizing's quite big," or "This could be plastic instead of wood," or whatever it is. It really is such valuable insight, I suppose, when you get to that stage of having to then go to a manufacturer and say, "Can we just," as you said, "tweak this or improve this?" It makes a big difference when you've got all of that feedback to work with, I'm sure.

Emma: I 100 percent agree and I definitely think I've even seen that customers that I wouldn't have got previously, I'm now capturing because I have made those tweaks to the product. 

So, yeah, I would recommend, as people start dropshipping and even creating brands, and doing ecommerce long-term and full-time, you really need to put your customer first and take on everything they're saying 'cause they will tell you the improvements you need to make in your business, you just need to listen, so yeah.

Women in Ecommerce

Aleisha: I'm not too focused on our gender but we're both women in the ecommerce industry and it doesn't seem to be as prominent, I suppose, when we're going through Facebook ads. I know, as soon as I got into this world, I started getting served all these ads with guys sitting on Lambos and fake private jets, and I get a bit annoyed by those. But it's quite interesting to see it's not as female-skewed. 

Do you have a lot of female friends in the industry? Are we just not seeing them flashing their cash on Facebook in these ads or do you just think it's far more of a male-dominated industry at the moment? 

Emma: A couple of things with that. I think, for me, I've got a lot of friends, as I mentioned, and a lot of them are males. So, unfortunately, no, I don't think it is a... I think it is a male-dominant industry. 

But at this point in time, I also think there are a lot of women that want to create something but I almost think that they're a little bit scared or on the fence. And if we go back to the beginning where we were talking about overcoming that fear and just putting yourself out there, and giving it a go, and creating something, we're not reinventing the wheel most of the time. 

We're just making sure that we're selling something that's good and having a unique selling point that is different than anyone else that's selling it. 

So for me, I have a lot of male friends that are in ecommerce and have done well with it, and I definitely think there's a stigma almost, as you mentioned, there are a lot of people sitting on rented cars and in jets, and things like that, that diminish the industry a little bit. 

But yeah, I think there are a couple of big-name women in business and in ecommerce but they just... They're almost busy running their businesses, not putting themselves out there.

Aleisha: Yeah, that's a good point.

Emma: I definitely think there are women in the industry but it is very male-dominant, that's for sure. But hey, 2021, let's see who comes through.

Aleisha: Let's change that.

Emma: Exactly right. I'm trying to work with some women now, females that are young, they're hungry. One of the clients that I work with is actually in her mid-30s. 

So there's no right time to start. You've just gotta start. 

But yeah, I'm definitely finding there's a lot of interest about learning how to do ecommerce with females, but it really is a male-dominant industry that we've got to break that crack, almost.

Aleisha: Yeah. Well, let's get to you doing some training and sharing the expertise that you have accumulated in the... You've been doing this a lot of information and I'm so happy to hear that you are starting to share that as well. 

And I agree with you, I think, just going back to the females in dropshipping and ecommerce, for me, it's like the ideal industry. I've got friends who are new moms and they're at home who have got the marketing and they've got the tech skills to do it, and I'm always pushing, saying, "If you're bored and especially during COVID as well, not going back to the office, this is the ideal opportunity for you to jump in and explore this world.” 

And also, so many people during university years as well. I think of all the years I poured beers and waited tables and I'm like, "Man, if this was the realm when I was at university, I would have jumped for the chance to do this." So hopefully, we see more people, boys and girls, everyone involved.

Emma: All you need is a laptop or access to a computer and the will to wanna learn it. Again, it doesn't matter if you are male or female. Nothing against the men but I think they're the ones that have...

Aleisha: Come on, ladies. The guys are doing fine.

Emma: Have access to an internet connection, literally, and you can get started with this. There's a lot of free information on the internet, you've just got to start looking for it. But with that comes a lot of trial and error as well. 

So if you do know someone that's doing it or you have access to reach out to someone that is already in the position you wanna be in, then I would recommend you do that as well so you can get that guidance from them. 

And I personally don't know everything, I'm still learning every single day. My friends that have been doing this for five years are still learning every single day. You're never gonna know it all but with my experiences that I've had moving away from dropshipping to private labeling, for example, if I can share that knowledge with whoever and it helps them, then that's great.

Paying It Forward

Aleisha: So tell me, you've still got the pet niche store happening. You're moving into beauty and hair care, which I think is great. It's a whole another area that is booming at the moment and certainly piques my interest, and now also, you're doing some training and sharing your knowledge and information about what you've learned. Tell me more about that.

Emma: Yeah, sure. So I have put together... I've found, over the last few months, a lot of my friends, actually, funny enough, from different circles, I've got all sorts of different friends but from different circles that don't have access to the other people that I was referring to earlier. 

They've reached out and said, "I wanna learn what you're doing because it honestly has changed my life and made me more of a happier person, so to speak." 

With that though, comes time and needing to be able to allow my time to that, so because I kept getting asked, I thought, "Alright, I'm gonna put together sort of a step-by-step course that will be able to walk them through how to do it," 

So I put my methods and all my knowledge and resources into a program for my friends. 

And then a number of them have had success and given me really great feedback, so then I felt comfortable now to open that up to complete strangers and help people more broadly. 

As I mentioned earlier, I think it's a very hot industry overseas. The US, Canada, there are a lot more people doing it there, but there are still a lot here, but it's not as known, so if I can help more people with it, then I feel like I've done my dues. 

But yeah, and then with that basically now I have taken on-board students, if you wanna call it or clients, and they're learning my strategies as well. So I spent a lot of hours of my own time this time last year just pumping it out, so it's a great time to invest in yourself and start learning a new skill. 

And yeah, there are a lot of things that you can take away even from dropshipping and that you can implement into your everyday life. Even little ecommerce marketing strategies that you'll learn through dropshipping, you can implement that in other life situations as well. 

So at the moment, the course has been live for quite a number of weeks now, and I've been working with a lot of people and getting a lot of good feedback which is good.

Yeah, and then obviously, the hair and beauty brand that I'm working on, that one, I'm not gonna go down the dropshipping path on because I already know that this product is going to do so well. It's something that I've personally, it's a problem that I've had for a very long time myself, so it's fixed it for me, and I'm thinking this is gonna change lives. So I'm really excited to launch that in January and then potentially branch off with other products as well later next year. 

So it really is a repeatable process in my opinion once you know what you're doing and you've been able to get your head around it and get confident. 

I wouldn't tell people to bite off more than they can chew in the beginning. I think you need to take your time and learn and set goals, and even if they're only smaller goals, once you achieve them, they're mini milestones almost, you'll feel really good about it.

Aleisha: You've got so much going on which excites me because it means we can catch up again in the new year and we can report back about the hair care. I really wanna know more about that. I know you're sitting on it for the launch, but I'm very keen to learn more. 

And also just it'd be great in the future to explore a little bit more about working with manufacturers and also branding and marketing, which I know you're very good at. We haven't hit very much on in this episode, but let's definitely explore that in future episodes, if you are keen to come back on 'cause I think you've been fabulous and I think you've got a lot to give, so it'd be so great to have you back in on.

Emma: We can sit here and talk for hours almost on ecommerce. It really is a beast of an object, and once you learn how to master it, you can have phenomenal success with it. 

So yeah, I'd love to come back and talk more about branding. I've done a lot in that place in the last few months, and then obviously with the new brand that's launching, I'm doing a lot of influencer marketing on that one because of the product that it is. So yeah, lots more to share, and I would love to come back on.

Aleisha: That is perfect. Now tell me where we can get in touch with you, especially if we're interested in learning more about the course or just connecting with you on Instagram, or on the web and learning more about what you do? 

Emma: Yeah, sure, so my Instagram handle is @Emm.cunningham. Unfortunately, @Emma.Cunningham was taken, but that was the next best available handle. But in saying that, I feel like it already makes me friends with people when they call me Emm. 

So yeah, that's my Instagram handle. If anyone wants to chat, or pick my brains or even just follow me for my content, then please do, I'd love to meet you all.

Aleisha: She does good content. Can I say that's how I found you? Through Instagram. Searching through someone else's account, you get to go down the dark hole of Instagram. I've whiled away seven hours, but I found you and that was great. 

Emma: I had a great holiday with my aunty four years ago. One of those.

Aleisha: It's going, did I click like? That looks weird. Well, I hope we have inspired people, especially over the holiday period where, as you said, people do tend to lie around and think about changing their lives and often don't end up doing it, but this is the perfect opportunity to give it a crack and explore dropshipping and ecommerce and really make the most of it.

Emma: Honestly, the only regret I have is not getting started sooner with dropshipping. Honestly, it truly did change my life this year, and I think the more that people can put themselves out of their comfort zone, the higher the reward almost, so, yeah.

Aleisha: Yeah, yeah. That's great. Emma, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge on Start Yours, and I really look forward to speaking with you again.

Emma: Alright, thanks, Aleisha, have a good day.

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