Growing An Online Furniture Shop To $13k/mo Post-Military

The Story of Modern Workspace

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

Hi, my name is Wes O’Donnell and I run several eCommerce businesses. I am a professor of marketing, a keynote speaker, a military veteran and a business coach.

I am also the author of A Cowboy Without a Coat: How a Texas Exile Learned to Love Michigan and RISE: The Veteran’s Field Manual For Starting Your Own Business and Conquering the Online Economy.

My first and perhaps most successful eCommerce business is Modern Workspace. In my book RISE, I break down how I started Modern Workspace step by step and how much it cost me along the way.

Originally, we sold full-sized medical carts. In 2015 we transitioned into compact or small computer desks and today we have added a somewhat controversial product; bulletproof backpacks.

I have run "normal" businesses, but I have had the most success in eCommerce. Beyond dropshipping at Modern Workspace, I have also made money from a niche directory site BestMichigan.org and a traditional blog Warriorlodge.com that generates revenue from Google Adsense. In fact, my blog Warrior Lodge currently generates about $500 per day in ad revenue.

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What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

When I started Modern Workspace, I didn’t have any sort of fascination or expertise with office furniture. I spent a lot of time on a blog called eCommerceFuel and the recurring theme there was "niche down".

I settled on office furniture and medical carts because I have a healthcare background and it made it easier to leverage the power of my old network.

In addition, my uncle ran a technology furniture business that specialized in videoconferencing. In the early days he let me dropship some of his products before I discovered World Wide Brands as a source for dropshipping suppliers.

For me, I was in an extremely precarious financial position. I had a six-figure income working for a medical company and I walked away to start my own business.

Actually, I came home from work one day and told my wife that my boss was so stupid, and I hated my job. She said, "If he’s so stupid, why is he the one signing your paycheck?" That’s when I realized that I could run a better business than my boss.

Learn as much as you can from other people’s mistakes and don’t get discouraged if your still not profitable after the first year. You are not alone. Persistence is the name of the game in eCommerce.

I lived off of my savings for a year as I built the company. We hit our break even point by about month 7 of that first year. This is rare, and I should warn that you should plan for 12-18 months before you break even, depending on your product and your network.

If I could do it all over again, I would have stayed at my full-time job and done Modern Workspace as a side hustle, and this is what I recommend to entrepreneurs that I coach. At least until you are earning enough to jump ship.

Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.

It’s important to note that I don’t produce original products. Everything that I sell is manufactured by someone else. I am simply the middle-man that connects the manufacturer with customers.

The beauty about eCommerce is that it has an extremely low financial barrier to entry. I believe my total startup costs were about $800.

This included the fee for forming my LLC through LegalZoom, domain name fees, registering a DBA (Doing Business As), a state reseller certificate, Shopify subscription, my theme and apps, custom business domain email from Gmail, a toll-free number and a lifetime membership to World Wide Brands.

Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

When I built the website, everything was learned from scratch. I was watching A LOT of YouTube tutorials and reading a lot of articles on SEO. I am a lifelong fan and cheerleader for Shopify. I think they make it extremely easy to get started from scratch and their support is second to none.

When I left my medical job, I had about $60,000 in savings. This is the cash that I used for both starting the company and providing for my family during that first year.

The "launch" was anticlimactic. We kind of fool ourselves into thinking that as soon as we go live, customers are going to start flooding in.

I remember looking at Google Analytics and seeing the real-time visit of my first customer and stalking them as they browsed products, mentally willing them to add something to the cart. They left without a purchase.

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My biggest lesson learned from launching, is to build up a following well before launch. Back then, Facebook pages were the "it" thing. Today, it’s Facebook groups.

Still, you can build a following by providing free tips, advice, cool pictures, polls and pre-launch giveaways to your custom Facebook group. All to get potential future customers fired up about your products.

Today, my Warrior Lodge Facebook page has about 65,000 followers. This means whenever I post a link to something compelling, I can send traffic at will. Start building your following NOW. Influencer Marketing is the real deal.

It’s also ESSENTIAL that you have an authentic brand story. This shouldn’t be hard because every person is unique. We may be similar, but all of us have a completely unique origin story.

Become a storyteller. Our whole society is based around stories in the form of movies, TV, books and games. These stories have a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. Engage your future customers by being an authentic storyteller.

Serving in both the Army and the Air Force during the Global War on Terror is part of my identity, and I leverage that to tell a compelling story about my businesses.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Starting an ecommerce business

You are going to be overwhelmed with the choices you have for marketing your business. There are companies that claim they can send traffic to your site, companies that claim they can improve your SEO overnight and it is extremely hard to distinguish who is legit and who is a scammer.

A cautionary tale:

I was scammed in the first 6 months of Modern Workspace. I was approached by a company that claimed that I needed to have "good business credit" and that they would manage my Duns & Bradstreet business credit rating to ensure that my company would be more easily indexed and found by more customers.

What was the cost for this service? $7,000. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a scam, but it was definitely a service that I didn’t need as a startup.

So what can you do for marketing in the early days? Here’s a breakdown:

Start an Instagram business profile

According to Hootsuite, 60% of Instagram users find new products on IG and 75% of those take action after visiting a post. Also, Instagram users are 70% more likely to make mobile purchases so make sure your theme is responsive (this is 2018 so they all should be these days).

Start a Facebook business page and an accompanying "Closed" group

This is where you can give tips & tricks etc. Why “closed” and not open? Don’t I want as many people as possible in my group? A closed Facebook group implies exclusivity. There is some psychology at play here.

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Take a crash course in Google Adwords

Either watch YouTube tutorials or buy a Udemy course, whatever it takes. Google Adwords advertising has sent more traffic to my site than any other advertising source. Just make sure you fully understand what keyword research is. You can outsource this later when your business is more mature and generating revenue, but it is something you need to know how to do yourself.

Become a storyteller. Our whole society is based around stories in the form of movies, TV, books and games. These stories have a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. Engage your future customers by being an authentic storyteller.

Email marketing

This may shock a lot of people, but I have never used email marketing. I just can’t seem to find the time to send out a monthly newsletter to my mailing list. Am I leaving money on the table? Yes.

If I were to take my own advice, I would use MailChimp. It’s free and has some beautiful templates. I’ve used it sparingly in the past for Warrior Lodge but not Modern Workspace.

SEO

This goes without saying, but make sure your site is SEO bulletproof. I use Yoast SEO for my WordPress sites and Shopify is very SEO friendly. Make sure to set up Google Webmaster tools so that you can monitor your stats and notify Google about your sitemap. Search Engine Optimization: Learn it, Live it, Love it.

Networking and partnerships

Remember that old saying "it’s not what you know, it’s who you know"? That is the most true quote in every aspect of my life, including eCommerce. SunsetKingdom.org is my new eCommerce store with a niche of West Michigan Outdoor gear.

I leveraged my network of former college students that attended my classes, members of the local Rotary Club, members of the local Chamber of Commerce all in a bid to get the locals excited about a new local business.

My pitch? Why buy a Kayak at a nameless, faceless sporting goods store like Dicks, or even WalMart when you could be supporting a local business that’s veteran-owned? Use your network and use your personal story.

Facebook advertising.

I have had great success with using Facebook ads to send visitors to a blog posting to earn revenue from Google Adsense. Having said that, I still haven’t cracked the code to send qualified buyers to my eCommerce store who are ready to make a purchase.

Facebook offers FREE training on how to get the most out of their ad network. I highly recommend spending the time to learn it. There is a reason that Facebook is a $40 billion dollar a year company. Their ad targeting is unmatched on any other platform.

One final note on influencers.

It never hurts to befriend those individuals who have a massive online following. How do you do this? Reach out and provide value to them in some way. It’s up to you to come up with your value proposition. The worst that can happen is they will ignore you.

I have heard of some incredible success stories on Amazon. Interestingly, many local entrepreneurs are setting up accounts with Chinese suppliers like Oberlo or AliExpress and competing with each other on Amazon. It’s actually very difficult to find certain products supplied in the USA these days.

I don’t use Amazon except to sell my books, 😊 however, if I did, I would somehow try to differentiate myself and my product listing as an American business with American products.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Modern Workspace, Sunset Kingdom, Warrior Lodge and Best Michigan are all profitable. Warrior Lodge is in the top 1% of traffic for Shopify sites that were started the same week.

I have yet to start selling anything at Warrior Lodge since I am currently realizing revenue with Google Adsense. Just to clarify, Warrior Lodge is a blog that sits on Shopify with the shopping cart invisible, and tasteful Adsense ads on all of the pages.

With that much traffic, it is tempting to start listing military related products and make the cart visible. However, my goal is passive income so that I can travel and speak and coach other entrepreneurs. I simply can’t add another ecommerce store at this time.

My margins at Modern Workspace range between 20%-60% depending on the product. One essential note here on product pricing that I learned in the early days.

There is a sweet spot for pricing and that spot is between $100 and $200. Go too far below $100 and you will have trouble making enough margin to be profitable. This is fine if you have a ton of traffic and can rely on volume of people. Over $200 and the purchase starts to become a big decision. You don’t want your customers having to make a big purchase decision.

If some or all of your products fall within that range, you’ll get regular sales which will keep your morale high; this is crucial in the early days when you might be tempted to give up. And you’ll also be scoring enough margin to see a nice return.

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World Wide Brands is a database of dropshipping and light bulk suppliers for products made in the U.S.A. Their lifetime membership is $299 and you get access to their dropshipping database for life.

I don’t get paid sending people there or anything, I just can’t imagine being successful at Modern Workspace without them. If you have a product that you make or manufacture yourself, this is a moot point.

All of my sales are performed online, however I have considered opening a Sunset Kingdom outdoor gear store in downtown Muskegon, Michigan.

I have recently become fascinated with the idea of generating revenue with niche directory sites and BestMichigan.org is my first foray into that arena. With Best Michigan Magazine and Directory, I allow any and all west Michigan businesses to list their business for free.

But offer plus and premium plans that charge $5 and $10 respectively, recurring every month for local businesses that want a more fully featured business profile.

So far, 300 businesses have signed up and about half are paying monthly. I pay writers to write weekly to make sure high-quality local content gets posted and shared on social media.

You should be providing original content for your Shopify store as well at least twice a week. My goal is to become the largest business directory in the state of Michigan however, I would advocate going more niche than I did.

Imagine a highly competitive field like doctors, car dealerships or realtors who depend on positive business listings as if it were life and death. Best Michigan allows local businesses to pay me to have their business listed first in search results on the site.

As well as advertise their business in the traditional ad spaces on the site like in the header or sidebar. Doing this while simultaneously building a large following on social media makes Best Michigan have more value to businesses who are trying to reach more local customers.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

This might seem small, but I changed the color of my "Add to Cart" buttons to green. Psychologically, green means go. For some reason, the native Shopify theme had the default color set to red!

Trends can be extremely useful. Visit TrendHunter, Reddit or Google Trends to see what people are interested in these days. This might shape what product you offer in the near term.

One final mention of B2B vs B2C. I know it is tempting to sell to the general population. After all, there are so many people out there, all of them a potential customer. But consider for a moment the advantages of selling business to business:

You can predict what a business will need and can be there to fulfill that product. For instance, you know call centers will need headsets. Go into the headset business.

B2B can also allow you to manage suppliers more efficiently. Businesses are good about paying on-time and making large orders. It’s not their money, it’s the company’s money. Also, businesses these days expect an Amazon-like experience when shopping for business goods; why not be their "Amazon".

What tools do you use for your business?

A couple of Chrome extensions that I personally find super useful are Google Publisher Toolbar, Open SEO Stats and Grammarly.

On Shopify I use the following apps: Beetailer Social Widget, Military Discount App, Rating Widget, SEO Manager, Order Lookup and Subuno for fraud detection, however I should note that Shopify’s fraud detection is quite good these days without need for 3rd party apps.

At Sunset Kingdom, I use Printful to fulfill novelty t-shirts, hats and posters with a west Michigan theme. I love Printful. Super easy to use and when they ship to my customers, the packaging even says "Sunset Kingdom" with my logo.

Google Analytics is essential as is Google Webmaster tools. I use Quickbooks Online for accounting software, but I’m old fashioned. There are some pretty good accounting competitors out there for small businesses.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I have to admit that I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts. Books, on the other hand, are invaluable for me.

Get Rich Click was the book that started me down the path of eCommerce years ago.

Six Billion Shoppers is a great guide for how to break into emerging eCommerce markets like India or Russia.

Some people don’t like Robert T. Kiyosaki, but his Rich Dad series changed the way I think about money.

Mastery by Robert Greene is essential reading and a book that I recommended to the cadets when I gave a speech at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

For the record, my favorite book of all time is Cosmos by Carl Sagan.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

So, here’s the big picture take away: It doesn’t happen overnight. Despite the crowded playing field, Amazonian dominance and new tax laws that will start taxing online businesses sales tax, there is still plenty of space to niche down and make a pile of money.

Learn as much as you can from other people’s mistakes and don’t get discouraged if your still not profitable after the first year. You are not alone. Persistence is the name of the game in eCommerce.

Staying positive will allow you to recognize opportunities that other people won’t notice. You may see an opportunity to pivot into something else that ends up being 10x more profitable than your original endeavor.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

I am always looking for content creators for Best Michigan Magazine.

Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.

Where can we go to learn more?

wesodonnell.com

modernworkspace.net

bestmichigan.org

sunsetkingdom.org

Wes on Facebook: facebook.com/wes.odonnell

Wes on LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/wesodonnell/

Motivational interview with Wes: vimeo.com/154448210

Wes’ Books on Amazon: a.co/28NDA4b and a.co/bwWJJdM

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