“Kids these days are all lazy and entitled ...”
BS! Everywhere I look I see hard-working, creative young people who are trying new things and finding exciting ways to earn income and gain life experience.
"Odd Jobs" will feature students and recent grads who are working unique and interesting jobs. We'll find out how they got started, the pros and cons of their gig, and what they've learned along the way.
Odd Jobs #3
Erica started her own online business to make extra cash while she was in college. Check it out:
Describe the products you were selling:
Hand-painted, wooden surfboards. Each board is 24” long by 8” wide. Each board had a slot with a removable fin. People could choose the name/words to go on the board.
Where did you get the idea?
I’ve surfed since I was in 7th grade, lived at the beach, and liked surf-themed décor. I browsed around on eBay trying to come up with something I could make and realized that personalized wall signs sold well. So I decided to do them with the surf theme in mind since there were not many others doing that at the time. eBay has a feature where you can go into a category and sort items by “best sellers”. All the wall décor signs sold very well.
What motivated you to start this business?
An easy way to make extra money while in college. Something I could do in my own spare time. Not to mention my parents are entrepreneurs and inspired me to come up with an idea.
What materials did you need to produce your products?
Plywood, acrylic paint, stencils which I made myself and then re-used. Sponges to apply the paint. Clear acrylic spray paint to make a shiny finish. Metal hanger and nails.
What equipment did you use?
Table saw (to cut 8ft x 4ft sheets of plywood into surfboard shapes). Sanding belt (to sand off rough edges). Hammer to apply the hanger.
About how long did it take you to produce one product, from start to finish? Once you became more experienced were you able to speed up the process?
It took me about 30 minutes to complete an unfinished board. If you include the time it took me to cut the board, that would add about 5 minutes per board. Yes, after time I got much faster and could do multiple boards at once. Most of the time involved with painting was waiting for the paint to dry. I quickly learned a hair dryer was a big help.
Did you run into any specific challenges from a production standpoint?
I had difficulty with some of the stencils I used. The acrylic paint would stick to some of the plastics and build up over time. The paint would not come off easily when rinsed. I learned which plastics worked best and cut my own stencils when I couldn’t find what I needed in the store.
From a production standpoint, what personal skills and abilities were particularly helpful to you?
I have more natural artistic ability than the average person. My mother is a successful artist (both drawing and sculpting), and my sister attended one of the best art schools in the country, so it runs in the family. Other than artistic ability, patience was key. It was slow, like watching paint dry, literally.
What web site/s did you use to promote and sell your products?
eBay was the sole platform I used to sell my items. I used the “buy it now” feature rather than the auction. I started off doing them as auctions but ended up having a lot of people contact me saying they couldn’t wait for the auction to end and wanted to buy one immediately because they needed it for a gift or by a certain date.
Describe the ordering process from a customer’s point of view (ie: what did they see on the site, what were their customization options, what if they had concerns/questions, etc.):
Each listing included a thorough description of the item and numerous pictures of previous orders I had done. I had 6 different styles to choose from. For example, a palm tree, an old “woody” car, a hibiscus flower, etc. There was also a color swatch indicating what colors the customer could choose from. At checkout, they would indicate what name/verbiage (maximum 10 characters) and colors they wanted.
Did you use a payment processor? If so, which one? (and describe your experience with this processor, and can you estimate the processor’s fee):
I accepted PayPal and Money Order only. I believe PayPal took a certain % of the sales price (10% 15%? Can’t remember exactly).
Describe the packaging/shipping process (how were the products packaged, what shipping service did you use, about how much did a normal order cost to ship, etc)?
I used two sheets of cardboard taped together (like a giant envelope) and slid the board in horizontally. I included a packing slip and hand-wrote a brief thank you note on each one. I used USPS since it was within walking distance of my house, and I think it was cheapest anyway. It cost about $4 for shipping and I would send them priority mail. Customers paid a flat $6 for shipping as the cost varied based on location. I did not ship internationally.
Did you run into any specific challenges from an internet sales/marketing/shipping standpoint/customer service standpoint?
There were a couple occasions where the board was missing when the package arrived. It seemed the tape had been sliced or torn in transit. I sent a new board as soon as I was notified by the customer. On eBay, customer service and feedback is everything so I always shipped the boards within 1-2 days of the order date (unless I was traveling for soccer, it sometimes took 3 days).
Taking into account all aspects of the process (materials, production, packaging, shipping, payment processing, etc.) how much did the average unit sold cost you?
The materials alone per board were about $1.50. I could buy an 8 x 4 sheet of plywood for $15 at the time and get 12 boards out of it. The acrylic paint was very cheap to buy in bulk as well. It’s difficult to put a $ amount on my time, but as a college student I would be happy making $10/hour so 30 minutes of my time was about $5. So my total cost was about $6.50 I’d say.
What prices did you set for your products (this might be hard to answer because of different sizes and customizations but if you just give a general range it would be good)
I started off selling them as auction listings on eBay and they would go anywhere from $15 - $40 (I had one sell for $43 somehow). Eventually I used only buy-it-now listings and set the price at $25 plus $6 for shipping. Of the $6 for shipping I would usually net about $2 unless it was going to CA. I only listed 5 per week (each were 7 day listings) because that’s all I had time to do (or rather all I wanted to do, I was a college student after all ) I cannot recall a single week that I did not sell all 5 boards.
How long did you have this business?
I did the boards for 3 years. I continued to do them each year when I was home for summer. I would cut the boards at my parents’ house on Christmas and Summer breaks. I would bring about 80-100 boards back to school with me each time. I stopped doing it the summer I graduated when I got a full time job.
Once you got started, how long did it take before your business became profitable?
Aside from the time I put into doing a couple test boards and getting the auctions set up, I made the material costs back almost immediately with the first 2 sales. My first auction was a 1 week auction and sold for around $30 if I remember correctly. Like I mentioned before, a sheet of plywood was $15 and the paints probably cost a total of $20. One major sidenote, my parents already had the saws and belt sander and did not charge me anything to use them. I imagine that would have cost me a few hundred dollars upfront. Of course I could have rented them the first couple times as well, instead of buying them. Not sure how much rentals would have been, maybe $40 per day?
Were there any hidden or unexpected costs of running this business?
None that I can recall.
Were you the only “employee” or did you have help?
I was the only official employee. My mom was a lot of help with the initial set up and advice as she was very experienced with eBay. But after the initial set up it was all me.
Was it difficult to balance running this business with your academic/social life?
No, not really. I was careful to limit the amount of boards I sold. I knew that I could have sold many more than I did, but I wanted to have enough time for school, soccer, and social life as well. I made enough money to cover my rent and a few extra expenses.
Did you learn anything about running a business that you didn’t already know from this experience?
Organization is key. Staying on top of the orders coming in and answering questions that prospective buyers had was very important. The primary learning experience was just keeping people happy. After 1 or 2 unhappy people, you never make the same mistake twice.
Do you have any advice for people considering a business similar to yours?
Presentation is everything. When you are selling a product, rather than a service, the product says everything about your company. It was better to take the time to do it right than to get it to the customer quickly and them not be satisfied with it. If I made a mistake or the paint ran I would start over. If I had a board that was shaped wrong or had a bad spot I would throw it out. It’s cheaper in the long run to waste material than to have an unhappy customer.
What was your least favorite thing about running this business?
When it was a gorgeous spring day in Pittsburgh and I had to stay inside because I had a board to ship. Putting work before play was tough at times, especially for a college student whose friends were outside playing. I also disliked the cutting of the boards. It would take an entire afternoon and cut about 100 boards. It was messy and redundant. But it was over and I didn’t have to do it again for 6 months.
What was your favorite thing about running this business?
Being self-sufficient. It was low stress and high reward. I could work at my own pace and have happy customers. I knew if I needed extra money I could sell more boards. If I had finals coming up I could take my listings down. You work for yourself, you call the shots.