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How a Canadian Entrepreneur’s Store Went From Side Hustle to Full-Time Career

By on November 6th, 2018 Reading Time: 8 minutes

Olivier Gratton-Gagné launched his online store, iLikeMaps, in 2012. At the time, his store was a hobby – he enjoyed designing his map posters and coding his website. He wasn’t expecting it to become a full-time job and besides, he already had a career in marketing.

But, as his customer base grew and new sales channels developed, Olivier decided that his hobby could become more. He made the jump to work on his online business full-time and now lives comfortably, with no regrets. His revenue is about 120K USD total from all channels he sells on. When you subtract all expenses, Olivier says it comes out to a middle-class income, based on standards of living in Montreal (where he lives).  

How did he get here? With a lot of hustle.

Olivier custom-coded his website and business infrastructure. He runs his business on Shopify and also has over 2,000 listings on Etsy. He has a network of retailers that sell his products in brick-and-mortar stores, and he regularly attends craft and trade shows to drive more sales and network. He makes the effort to look for new customers everywhere.

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A glimpse of Olivier’s workspace.

He got his first sale from Etsy in 2012, 1 year before they opened their operations to third-parties like Printful. Olivier says he wasn’t ready for his first sale: “I sort of went with my bike around town and tried to find a good place to print. I didn’t have a printer at home at the time and I just scrambled to find some shipping materials.”

When Etsy reversed their policy and allowed third-party print-on-demand drop shippers for their sellers, it was a game changer. “Printful was the first printing service that I felt comfortable working with to fulfill orders. You really fit exactly what I was looking at at the time, which was only prints.” And with print-on-demand drop shipping in his arsenal, his business continued to blossom.

So what did he do to take his business to new heights? I talked with Olivier to get his insights and advice for entrepreneurs that want to take their online store to the next level. Read on for top takeaways and actionable tips!

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Think Like a Marketer

Olivier’s knowledge in SEM (search engine marketing) was critical in helping his business grow, and he spent a lot of time optimizing his Etsy listings, SEO, and sales strategy.

Want to learn more about SEO? Olivier recommends checking out the Google Ads Certification as a good introductory course.

Olivier approached his online store with a marketer’s perspective. He optimized his Etsy descriptions and images and made sure his listings were searchable and appealing for shoppers.

“My view was really to optimize the listing image. Etsy encourages you to make it quite big so people can zoom it. And that’s actually fine, but you should design it as a thumbnail first. I’ve seen that the practice has gotten quite big on YouTube as well where people are designing the thumbnails.”

He continues that it’s a good idea to research how professionals on YouTube create their thumbnails – there’s a bit of text and the image looks staged. This helps the video stand out, and creating a similar-styled thumbnail on Etsy can also help your product pop in search results. Makes sense, seeing as Etsy is largely a visual platform for creative people. If your thumbnail image isn’t attractive, you won’t get many clicks.

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A lifestyle photo with Olivier’s posters.

While he doesn’t follow all ecommerce best practices, when it comes to product descriptions, Olivier recommends to “use all the 13 keywords at your disposal and, if you want, write all the details you can. That really makes it professional if you can talk about every nook and cranny of your product.”

Getting Your First Etsy Sales

Etsy has become much more competitive since Olivier first got started. Back then, it may have been possible to see some traffic by optimizing listings with keywords and quality images. But now it’s harder to get going. Olivier recommends starting slowly, first by enlisting help from your network, then gaining sales and a reputation.

“The first sale, in my opinion, you should convince someone you know to actually buy from you at full-price so it is fair, not cheating. But you should get your family and friends on board. If you can’t then it’s really hard to go to the next level and sell to people you don’t know. Building up a bit of sales history and reviews is really important. I think it’s a very bad habit for entrepreneurs, in general, to do things in secret. I think you should be open about it and spread it in your network. Those should be your good first sales but apart from that it’s just a slow grind, you have to get through it and find what works. There are no shortcuts.”

Your first sales on Etsy are going to be to your friends and family to build a reputation and sales history.

Even with the increased competition, he continues to use Etsy ads and says “They’re still good ROI but overall Etsy is getting more and more competitive so I’m really checking those and making sure that they’re profitable.”

So, think like a marketer. Optimize your products so they’re searchable and appealing to your customers. Use your personal network, and experiment with what works.

Bonus Tip: Use Free Shipping

We talk about the benefits of free shipping all the time, and we’ve run several free shipping campaigns at Printful. Olivier agrees that it works:

“I use free shipping. That’s a big differentiator I have on Etsy – all my stuff is free to ship. That’s an anxiety some buyers have, especially people out of the US where they might not be able to purchase the product or they get expensive shipping. So, in either case, I offer free shipping for everyone and that makes it pop a little.”

A Little Bit of Media Attention Goes a Long Way

Sometimes all it takes is a little spark to make your products spread. For Olivier, that was being mentioned in BlogTO, a popular blog about Toronto. Not only did it make his sales grow, but it’s also what first opened his eyes to the potential of being a full-time ecommerce entrepreneur.

“I was mentioned in one of their listicles where they highlight some cool Toronto gifts. So even though I’m from Montreal, which is 6 hours away, my design was picked among a few others and I saw massive sales on that day. I was shipping quite a lot to Toronto and I also had some mention in the local media that opened the floodgate and that really changed my perception that I could really live off [my store].”

We’ve seen this in our other customer case studies. It can be a slow grind getting your first sales. Your personal network can be a big help, but it’s always helpful to get exposure from the media to take things to the next level. For Olivier, this grew his customer base to a new region and helped convince him to make his store full-time.

Embrace Multichannel Selling

Olivier’s business strategy truly encompasses multi-channel selling.

While Olivier runs his online business on Etsy and Shopify, he doesn’t just sell there. When it comes to online sales, Olivier says “I get requests from all the channels you can think of – social, email. People are starting to know me and they’re asking for custom jobs. In those cases, we might do the transaction by PayPal or direct payment links.”

It’s good practice to cater to your customers in whatever channel they use. A sale can happen anywhere.

He’s also very active in promoting his products offline, mostly through a network of brick-and-mortar retailers, and by attending craft and trade shows.

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Olivier at a craft show. Photo © Mathieu Rivard.

Trade shows and craft shows have been immensely successful both for sales and for networking. For those of you who are interested in exhibiting at a show, Olivier recommends to just jump in and do it – it’ll probably pay off. But you should start small and dip your toes first. He continues:

“First, do it! I think people feel that maybe there isn’t much opportunity. But for me, craft shows have been very good. I’ve met a lot of people and quite a lot of retailers without actually looking for them. And it got me tons of online sales and rebounds in the years to come. It really helps you figure out how people react to your products.

“So start finding out what the community is about, and you can attend the events without exhibiting there first and check out what’s out there. Start out with small shows, and maybe $100 or $200 to exhibit there for the weekend, figure something out for the table, get some products together and go out there. It’s money well-spent, there’s a good probability you’re going to make it up and then some more.”

If you don’t want to exhibit at a show right away, try just attending first to check out the vibe and what it’s about.

Olivier met most of the retailers in his network serendipitously at craft shows. But if you want to take it to the next level, he recommends trade shows that specifically connect retailers with craftspeople.

“I did my first trade show that’s only available to professionals and sellers, that was the NSS in New York. It’s really business-like. You meet people, you talk very quickly with them and try to figure out how to make your sale and get your inventory in their shop.”

But if a show isn’t your thing, there’s always word-of-mouth and cold-calling, which Olivier also does to find new retailers. Do what you can to find retailers that are a good fit for your product!

Olivier advises to only work with retailers who like and see value in your product. If they don’t like it, they’ll be terrible sellers.

Olivier worked hard to grow his customer base, retailer network, and sales. These are the main takeaways I gathered from our conversation:

  1. Optimize your website and product listings. Think like a marketer and brush up on your SEO knowledge.
  2. Use your personal network to get your first sales. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there – be proud of your business.
  3. Get a little help from the press to grow a bigger audience.
  4. Explore multi-channel selling – online and offline. Network with retailers and attend craft shows.

Life as a Full-Time Business Owner

Running an online store with a print-on-demand drop shipper is sometimes seen as passive income. You’re not fulfilling products on your own, so you can be more hands-off with your store. But if you want your business to succeed, there’s nothing passive about it. You have to work hard to make sales, especially if it’s your full-time job.

In an average day, Olivier spends about 50-60% of his time fulfilling his wholesale orders for brick-and-mortar retailers, answering support emails, and pushing orders through Printful and his printer networks. He also spends time riding his bike and dropping off orders to his Montreal retailers (which, he says, is a very enjoyable part of his work).

When he has the energy, he spends about 30-40% of his time on creative and business development. That’s following up on leads ahead of trade shows, creating new designs, and working on his code.

Being your own boss also comes with challenges, like “not getting distracted by side projects and finding the motivation to go back to maps and my customers. I think it has gotten more challenging over the years. The first few years it was rocket growth – I was doubling or tripling every year. But now it’s stabilizing, especially since Etsy has gotten more competitive, so finding the motivation when sales aren’t growing as fast is getting tougher.”

Ultimately, it’s knowing that his customers are happy with their products that gives him the drive: “Getting rave reviews, like when people are really, really excited about the products, I think deep down is what makes it worthwhile and still gives me goosebumps. But I think this is really on an emotional level what really drives me.”

Growing your store to the point where you can go full-time is hard work. And so is maintaining momentum when you get there. We ended our conversation with practical advice from Olivier for anyone who wants to make their online store a full-time job:

“Get your accounting right from the get-go. If you don’t know anything about accounting, learn it. And make sure you have proper processes in place to know actually how much you’re making. I think getting good business fundamentals is key, like accounting and legal framework. You might not need those to start selling on Etsy or using Printful, but if you want to get full-time, you have to acknowledge the fact that you’re going pro. And if you’re going pro, you have to get very serious about those things – it’s a commitment you’re making to yourself.”

Remember that if you want to make your online store a full-time career, you’re making a commitment to yourself. Get in the mindset of a pro and get ready to work hard!

Got any questions about growing your business? Share in the comments!

Nora covers all things ecommerce for the Printful blog. She appreciates good dad jokes, new books, freshly baked cookies, and evening jogs.

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