Tucked away in a bay off the west coast of Ireland, lays the harborside city of Galway. There, along with the winding lanes of the old town and brightly-painted pubs heaving with live music, you’ll also find 25-year-old ecommerce entrepreneur Ross Madden.
His ecommerce business, which sold charcoal related beauty products, took off in a surprising way. What started as a hobby to bring in a little extra cash while he was studying, turned into a giant that generated almost 30,000 orders within the first year.
I called him up at home to hear more about his journey as an entrepreneur. During our chat, he opened up about what it was like to try to build this business as a complete beginner, including the many mistakes he made along the way. He shared his insights and advice and reveals the little tweaks that made a huge difference to his success.
- Let’s start at the beginning. Had you ever had an ecommerce business before?
- What were you selling on these stores?
- Okay, so that brings us up to date. Why did you decide to start selling charcoal products?
- What happened in the beginning? Did it take off quickly?
- But I know you ended up making much more than that! So what changed?
- So where did you go from there?
- How did you choose which countries to target?
- How much were you spending on these ads?
- Woah! Where were you advertising?
- Were you doing any other advertising outside of Instagram Stories?
- Did you sell a lot of different products or have one winner?
- Ouch, sounds like a painful realization. What other mistakes did you make?
- You’ve mentioned that you stopped working on the business? What happened?
- Was saving up to go traveling part of your plan when you started the store?
- How has running this business made an impact on your life?
- Want to Learn More?
Let’s start at the beginning. Had you ever had an ecommerce business before?
With the stores, I would see what was working with one and improve on the next, but I could never drive much traffic to any of them. I kept just changing product ideas and doing completely new websites. I thought I didn’t have a good product and that’s why I wasn’t generating any sales.
What were you selling on these stores?
The first website I had was for electronic components – little resistors, capacitors, and circuit boards. I do physics and electronics at college, so I had a background in it. I noticed that there were thousands of them available from suppliers in China, and they were so cheap, I couldn’t get over it. So I made the website, but to be honest, it’s all great when you’re importing all these products using Oberlo to use in your store, but then you need to start writing product descriptions. I was really lazy, and I didn’t want to put 1,000 products on and write 1,000 descriptions. So I made it and then got bored of it cause it was too much work.
I made a second one called Toddler’s Technology. I’d seen this fake iPhone on AliExpress and saw that it was selling quite well, and it was only €2. So I built my products list around this iPhone and found other little bits of toddler technology. But I was limited, there wasn’t much available. I advertised that with a Facebook post, and I think I lost €100 on it. I wasn’t making any money, so I got bored with this one too.
Also, I tried selling Anchor Bracelets. There were a ton of them available, and they cost me €1. I thought it was ridiculous that someone like Tom Hope could charge €50 for a bracelet that I could get for €1! I tried that as well, but my ads weren’t great. It made a little money, and I ended up giving it to my brother in the end because he was really interested in it.
A lot of people would try and after the third time, if it’s still not working, they’ll give up. But I could see that people were making it work, so I was saying to myself, “Stick at this, I’ll get there eventually.” I knew that the model works.
Okay, so that brings us up to date. Why did you decide to start selling charcoal products?
It was August 2017 when I first started my charcoal store. I’d seen that other stores were selling stuff in this charcoal niche, so I started to Google all the trends around it. I saw that there were a lot of suppliers on AliExpress selling a lot of charcoal beauty products.
I had worked out that I needed a low-cost product, and when I found the charcoal tooth powder, it fit the margins perfectly.
Click to import these products into your store
What happened in the beginning? Did it take off quickly?
Funny thing is, my first few sales actually came from friends that didn’t realize it was my website. I would link them the product telling them I bought it because it was on sale, and simple marketing made them buy it too! So my first five orders were from friends, and then it took roughly three weeks before I had a customer sourced from a paid ad. After that it started to really pick up.
Initially, I was happy if it was making me €400 a month because I was still in college and I live with my parents too, so I was like, “€100 a week? That’s fine. I can live off that.” So for the first month or two that’s what I was doing, and I was really happy with it.
But I know you ended up making much more than that! So what changed?
I remember seeing another charcoal website come up around the same time, and they had copied my model.
I’d go to their website, and I saw they had this social proof app where you could see other customers’ sales coming in. I watched it one day, and I remember I didn’t make any sales that day, and I saw he had five.
Then I was like, “Hmmm.. what am I doing wrong? I don’t like that he’s making more money than me now, because this was my idea originally!” Then I knew I had competition.
After that, I wasn’t content anymore with €400 a month because I knew that this obviously could make more. At that stage, I didn’t realize the scale it could grow to.
So where did you go from there?
I’d just been targeting Ireland with my ads, and then I branched out to all of Europe. Then over the course of two weeks, I also ended up advertising in the specific local languages.
When I’d been targeting Spain before, initially I’d been using English in my ads, just running one generic ad across Europe. Then I thought maybe I should change the language on the ad and target each country. Boom. Sales just skyrocketed! I went from €12,000 gross in September and October, with probably €500 profit. To €17,000 in November. It was just crazy. That was just simply from changing the language and targeting more countries.
How did you choose which countries to target?
I would go on Google Trends and type in “charcoal tooth whitening powder” or “white teeth,” and I would look at the top 10 countries that were searching for this.
I could see that Australia and New Zealand were quite high, also the United States and Ireland and the UK. Lower on the list were Spain, Germany, France, and Italy. I thought, “Okay, if they like it here in Ireland why wouldn’t they like it in Spain?”
How much were you spending on these ads?
You’re spending your own money initially while you’re building it up, right? Then money makes money. So initially I kept the ad spend low because it was my own money. There’s a bit of risk there because you don’t know, I could wake up the next day and none of those ads worked, and I’ve just lost that money. After my first payout came in, instead of spending it on myself I just threw it straight back into ads.
I got to the point where I was like, “Whatever I’m spending on ads, why don’t I just double it and see if it works?”
After that, I think I made €40,000 in December. Then I was like, “Okay, here we go!”
Woah! Where were you advertising?
I’d been advertising on Instagram Stories, and I was driving a lot of traffic with that. The actual Instagram Stories feature itself was pretty new at the time – it only just came in February or March of that year. And at the time, everyone was advertising with Facebook. But I remember one day I was on my phone looking through the Instagram Stories, and an ad came up out of nowhere, in between Stories. It covered the entire screen. All I had to do was to swipe up if I wanted to buy it. And I was like, “That is f**king brilliant!”
And because it was brand new to advertise on that platform, it was really, really cheap. If you had a good image, you could use that and just add the link to your store. People could swipe up, and it brought them exactly to the add to cart page. It was easy as that. It only takes a moment to buy the product.
The ads were driving a crazy amount of traffic. Even on a low day, €20 would get you 300 or 400 people coming to the website. If you can convert at 3%, you’re still making money off that €20.
Were you doing any other advertising outside of Instagram Stories?
After that, social media then took off in a big way! With Instagram Stories, you’re driving traffic from the stories to your website, but a lot of people would still click onto your Instagram account. So the following just went boom! People who weren’t even buying were following. So I think we got to 18,500 followers on Instagram in the peak.
I ended up getting a lot of DMs from people who wanted to be a brand ambassador. It cost me €2 to ship and post the charcoal tooth product to them, and most people would have 30,000-40,000 followers, so for the cost of €2, I was getting potentially 40,000 followers viewing my product.
They’d take a photo with the product and do a shoutout for my account. If only one customer bought out of the 40,000, then I’d still made a profit. It’s beneficial for both of us, you know? They’re getting a little feature, and I’m getting social proof.
Working with influencers definitely helps, and it’s a great avenue to go down, especially if your product is cheap like mine.
Did you sell a lot of different products or have one winner?
It’s crazy actually – I think it was almost 30,000 orders by the end, and all of them included the tooth powder!
Then towards the end, maybe towards May or June, sales had died because I wasn’t spending the same on ads. I was like, “Okay, what can I do to fix this?” And I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about it before, but a simple cross-selling app, of course! I worked in retail for four years, I knew exactly about cross-selling and upselling.
I installed the app six months later after starting the website. When you bought the charcoal powder, a pop up would come up once it was added to cart, and it would give you an offer of a toothbrush to buy together.
When I installed it, 60% of customers would opt-in for the toothbrush. And I made more money off the toothbrush than I did from the charcoal powder! When I looked back at my high traffic days, I reckon I lost about €40,000 by not having that app installed.
Ouch, sounds like a painful realization. What other mistakes did you make?
When you start making a lot of money, there’s no point in keeping it as a one-man show. Obviously, it sounds good, because you’re saving more money. But money makes money, so had I spent more money and hired other people like designers or social media marketers, it would have cost me initially, but over time I would have gained it back and then some.
You’ve mentioned that you stopped working on the business? What happened?
I was at college, and I had an important exam in March. So I took a big step back from the business then. I would have been working at it pretty much full time. I really put in 40 hours a week. Then I ended up traveling after my exams for five months.
All this cash was coming in, but I was still in college so I literally couldn’t do anything. I was just saving it and saving it and saving it. I knew that the minute college was over, I’d be gone.
Was saving up to go traveling part of your plan when you started the store?
It’s a funny story actually. So, I broke my screen during the summer, and it was broken for two months before I finally fixed it. Then someone ended up knocking it out of my hand the week after I fixed it. It cost me €200 to fix it, and I was like, “I’m not paying that again!” So I was building this website, and I said to myself, “If I can make €200 to fix this phone, then I’ll be happy.” That was the goal. And you know what, it’s still not fixed!
Even amid all the cash that came in, I still didn’t fix the phone because I didn’t care anymore.
I never thought it would go the way it did, to be honest. When I was making €400 a month, I was delighted! Then the next month it made me €15,000 profit, and that just doesn’t happen! You can’t really plan something like traveling in a year, because how could I know? It was just all small steps for me.
How has running this business made an impact on your life?
Oh, financial freedom is amazing! Personally, I never thought that I would be 25 and have all this free time, and have the cash flow to back it. Normally you have one or the other, right? You quit your job, and you’ve got all this time off, but now you don’t have the cash flow to do what you want. Or you have all the money, but you’re working all the time so you can’t spend it.
It let me pursue what I wanted to do. I wanted to travel for months and months and not be home, and I could do it! Plus I could work from anywhere. I’d bring my laptop to Spain, or bring it to Iceland, and I could just work from there. I answered to nobody. I was my own boss. In the end, money doesn’t make happiness, but your time makes happiness.