How to Start an Ecommerce Business and Make Your First Sale


If you’re wondering how to start an ecommerce business, you’ve come to the right place at the right time. Online selling has been in a rapid growth curve for years, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. In the first quarter of 2021, online sales grew by a whopping 39%.

What’s more, starting an ecommerce business has never been easier. In the past, you had to spend months — sometimes years — building a brand with a brick-and-mortar store before getting your first sale. But now, thanks to technology and the internet, there are many ways that you can get started right away — and for just a few dollars.

If you’re interested in how to start an ecommerce business but don’t know where to begin, this article is for you. We’ll walk you through everything from defining your brand to making your first sale so that it’s easy and straightforward.

Table of Contents

What is an ecommerce business?

An ecommerce business is a type of small or medium-sized enterprise that primarily focuses on online selling. Amazon is an example of a giant ecommerce business, but there are millions of smaller stores on the internet, started by people just like you.

Here are some examples of successful small companies that are using ecommerce to build their businesses:

  • Leesa: This mattress company made people rethink how to buy a mattress. As an infrequent and expensive purchase, mattresses often take a lot of online research before people choose one. Leesa turned that tendency into a profitable business.
  • Modcloth: Can you believe this popular online retailer got its start in the founder’s dorm room?
  • Dollar Shave Club: This company uses a subscription model to make it easy to replace your razor regularly.
  • Ipsy: Who knew people would pay to receive free samples of cosmetics? Companies are thrilled to get testers into new hands, and customers love receiving little gifts from themselves in the mail each month.

When it comes to how to start an ecommerce business, there are many different ways, and the cost of starting up is extremely flexible. Some people start out with just a few dollars, by setting up a simple website with WordPress, Shopify, or Wix, and selling items from other manufacturers. Other businesses start out on a larger scale, designing and manufacturing products and hiring developers to build unique ecommerce sites.

Learning how to start an ecommerce business

The foundation of your business will be your brand, product line, and target audience. You can think of these three items as the three legs of a stool — each depends to some extent on the other two, and all three have to be equally strong.

For that reason, you’ll need to work on the first three steps — brand identity, target market, and product line — simultaneously, going back and forth to find the perfect blend.

Where to begin is up to you. Some businesses start with a product line in mind and then build a brand around it. Others start with the branding and then seek out products that are a good fit for their target market.

Define your brand

Your brand identity will set you apart from others and provide a cohesive look for all of your marketing materials. When you’re looking at how to start an ecommerce business, this is a great place to begin.

Your brand identity will be most successful if it’s a natural outgrowth of your personality. A quiet, buttoned-down type may not be able to breathe life into a quirky, vivacious brand and may do better with a solid, stable brand persona (think JC Penney instead of Target). On the other hand, if you have an edgy sense of humor and eclectic interests, let your unique energy shine through.

Here are some brand personality spectrums to consider:

  • Youth vs. maturity
  • Vibrant vs. peaceful
  • Funny vs. serious
  • Stable vs. fresh
  • Grounded vs. high-energy
  • Formal vs. casual

It can be helpful to think of your brand as an archetype, pet, or person. What does it look and sound like?

Your brand identity will help you choose colors, fonts, design elements like logos or illustrations, tone, and other elements of your brand’s personality. Your company name and logo should encapsulate your brand.

But brand identity can also shape the word choices you use in your emails, phone messages, and marketing materials. Every interaction your customers have with your business is another opportunity to reinforce your brand identity, so refine it early and build it into your business from the ground up.

Clarify your target market

Your target market is a group of people with shared interests, values, or demographics who you expect to be interested in your products.

For example, you might be selling to college students or retirees, to city dwellers or rural folk. The more closely you can define your target market, the more effectively you can tailor your product offering and marketing message.

This means that if you’re selling products for college students, you’ll want to choose photos of successful college students for your ads, and if you’re selling to retirees, you’re better off with happy, active seniors.

The more specific you can be about your target market, the easier it is to choose appropriate marketing messages and make sure that your product offerings are relevant for them.

Keep in mind that if you buy advertising on Google or Facebook, you’ll be able to identify your audience by age, income level, industry, region, education level, and interests/hobbies. Use categories like this to paint a clear picture of your market.

Some businesses go even further and create a specific customer persona. Here are some examples of customer personas:

  • Beth, The Outdoorsy Mama: A woman who loves outdoor adventure with her kids. She’s 38, married, and works part-time from home. Her interests include hiking, yoga, and crafts. She lives in Kentucky and her household income is $72,000.
  • Bob, The Exhausted Entrepreneur: A man who started his own business five years ago. He’s somewhat successful but hasn’t been able to find the right staff to take his business to the next level. He lives in Chicago, earns $125,000 a year, and the only hobby he makes time for is trying to find the right project management software. He has a wife and two children but rarely sees them.

Your brand identity and target market should go hand in hand. For example, some consumers are attracted to brands that push boundaries and have a rebellious tone; others prefer more formal styles.

Decide what to sell

Of course, when you’re thinking about how to start an ecommerce business, one of the most obvious elements is the products you will offer.

Perhaps you already have a product idea and you’re building the business around that. Or maybe you’re not sure what you want to sell but have a target market in mind. Either way, it’s essential that you narrow down your focus before making any decisions about where the business will go.

As you create a more detailed picture of your brand persona and target market, your product ideas will evolve as well. You’ll be able to see what items are in demand for your demographic and which ones will make the most sense as part of your brand.

Your decisions will also be influenced by your personal history and style. Don’t hesitate to bring any experience or knowledge you have to your product line.

There are three primary sources for products: dropshipping, wholesale, and owner-created.


Dropshipping is an easy way to get started. You sell the products, but the wholesaler or manufacturer ships them directly to the customer — you never touch the products. You can sell online this way without paying for a warehouse, investing in inventory, or managing any shipping.

Be aware, though, that you’ll be competing with many other dropship companies for limited customer attention for the same products. Your control over quality and service is also more limited.


Most traditional retailers buy wholesale. This is buying items directly from the manufacturer or distributor, and then selling them to the customers.

Wholesalers offer a wide range of products in different categories that might meet your needs better than drop shipping does. You can order from a variety of wholesalers to create the perfect product line mix for your brand, with lots of opportunities to cross-sell or put together bundles that will appeal to your customers.

But wholesale also has its drawbacks: You’ll need to invest in inventory, have space to store the items, and handle shipping yourself.




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