For years, ever since I first started blogging about selling on Amazon, I've been sharing my story.
The story of how I got started on Amazon. The story of how I started blogging. The story of how we ever became “The Selling Family.”
But I've never shared my story here. With you all. With my very best readers and wonderful students.
I think, honestly, I was a little shy. Too reserved to share the details with the people who know me best.
But the more I thought about it, the more I knew that I needed to share the definitive version of our story right here on this blog.
So before I scheduled another guest blog post or podcast interview, I promised myself that I would “interview myself” for you guys.
But without a podcast host to chat with or a fellow blogger to call, I didn't have any interview questions to answer!
For a day or two, I stared at a blank Google Doc. How on earth was I going to conduct an interview with myself? I mean can you imagine….
Q: Tell me, Jessica, how did you get to be so amazing?
A: I'm glad you asked, Jessica!
JUST KIDDING 😂
That blank page made me realize that the absolute best people to ask the questions were my amazing Amazon Boot Camp students. So I hopped on over to our Facebook group and
outsourced the questions to them.
Let me tell you, my students did not hold back!
These questions really challenged me and made me reflect deeply on the past ten years. I feel so lucky to have had this opportunity both to sell on Amazon and to share it with this community.
Thanks again to everyone who asked questions. I hope you enjoy hearing our story as much as I've enjoyed living it!
How We Started Selling on Amazon
How did you get started selling on Amazon?
I've actually always wanted to be an entrepreneur. Even in my early 20s, I was dreaming of leaving the office life behind (so that I could one day run my own business and still have time to start a family).
So even though I had a full-time job then, I did experiment with side gigs like couponing, blogging, and eBay. Of course, the thought of actually taking the plunge to full-time entrepreneur was pretty scary!
But that decision was pretty much made for me when I was laid off in 2008 (like so many other people were that year).
And to add to the sting of losing my job, Cliff was actually the store manager at the time I was let go!
I know that Cliff would love if I mentioned here that he did NOT want to let me go, but the corporate managers did what they had to do because the industry we were in was really struggling. Plus, there were some hard feelings with him being store manager and me being the showroom manager.
Before that happened, Cliff and I both thought that my job was really secure. So as soon as the layoffs happened, we knew that I needed to replace my income immediately!
Ramping up my eBay sales seemed like the obvious choice. It was already making money as a hobby, so I knew that if I focused on it more, I could make more money. I used the money from my final paycheck to go buy cheap inventory from thrift stores and yard sales.
It actually wasn't too long before I had replaced my old income of $1,500/month!
Of course, by that time I was already feeling the urge for more. I didn't want to stop at $1,500 per month. I wanted Cliff to come home, too! But trying to scale the eBay business was exhausting. I was constantly shopping, listing, packing, and shipping.
Sometime in 2010, I heard some eBay sellers in a Facebook group talking about something called “Fulfillment by Amazon.” They were going on and on about how it was like eBay but without having to ship individual items to customers.
I started researching it on my own (even though there wasn't a lot of info out there back then!) and knew that this was it. FBA was the business model that would allow me to grow my business without having to work 60 hours per week.
I started out selling used books (that's what Amazon was known for, after all!) but I got tired of having to constantly search for one-off used books. By Christmas of 2010, I discovered that I could buy multiples of things like toys and household items and do more selling with less sourcing.
I was totally hooked!
When did Cliff become a part of “The Selling Family”?
My goal from the beginning was to retire Cliff from his job. He was totally stressed and burned out there, and I just wanted him home to spend more time with our son, Aiden.
By late 2010, I had realized that my only limitations were time and money. I would spend all that I could even though I could only work on Amazon while Cliff was home to watch our newborn son.
Cliff definitely thought that this was still just a “hobby” of mine, even though he knew I was making money with it.
But one day he came home from work and saw me sitting on the floor, surrounded by a stack of Clorox Toilet Wands 😮. I was trying to get them all prepped and ready to ship off to Amazon.
I think Cliff felt sorry for me so he started to help me out with my pile of inventory. He also asked me about what I expected to make on them if they sold.
Well, I explained to him that I had bought about 40 of them for $3.50 a piece and they were selling on Amazon for $22.50. I could see the wheels turning in his head 🙂
Once he realized that I could make that much profit in just one quick sourcing trip, he realized how much more we could make if he quit his job to work on the business with me.
On November 7, 2011, Cliff gave notice at his job. His last day of work was the day before Thanksgiving and there have been no regrets!
Our Amazon Business Today
How many hours a week would you say is put into sourcing?
When Amazon was our only income stream, we would do at least one full day of sourcing together plus maybe one extra day. Now that Amazon is no longer our only business, we source about 5 hours each week. Our goal is to get one shipment out each week.
If we get a big score, we may do extra that week and then take a few weeks off from sourcing and shipping.
What do you outsource?
I'm a big believer in outsourcing in all my businesses! In our Amazon business, I know that my time is best spent making buying decisions. The money is really made at the time of purchase, so Cliff and I make the final call on inventory purchases.
So we actually outsource the entire shipping and processing part. Sometimes my mom will help with sourcing trips or pick up products that I ordered online. But I still make the final call (I'm a bit of a control freak)!
Have you transitioned to Private Label or are you happy doing RA and OA?
We have dabbled in both Private Label and Wholesale so that we could understand the business models better. Our students have questions about those businesses, so we want to be able to answer their questions.
But we still stick with Retail Arbitrage and Online Arbitrage. If we wanted to grow our business past 6-figures, we would likely switch to a Wholesale model. I've never felt particularly drawn to private label, but I'd give it another shot if the time came.
I'd love to know what you check on a daily/weekly/monthly basis in Seller Central.
Let's be honest: I check our sales multiple times per day!!
I also check feedback and customer emails daily. With emails, I have to respond to those within 24 hours (to keep Amazon and our customers happy!). And for feedback, I want to handle any negatives as quickly as possible. These are just daily habits that don't take much time.
I tend to reprice just once per week to stay competitive.
How often do you and Cliff reassess your business goals and do you write them down?
Cliff and I talk about goals pretty often, but we don't really write them down.
Every month, we go over all of the numbers for our businesses and talk about them. That way we always have an opportunity to discuss how things are going and re-evaluate if necessary.
How do you and Cliff divide up your responsibilities?
At first, this was a little tricky for us. I was used to running the FBA business by myself and Cliff was used to managing a team of employees.
I think we both wanted to be The Boss 🙂
But over time we learned to focus on our strengths and divide up the tasks accordingly.
The one thing we still love to do together is source and make buying decisions. Even though we've been doing it for years, Cliff and I will still pick up different items in the stores. That means we find more “wins” together as a team than we would if we split it up.
We have my mom handle a lot of our shipping and labeling and Cliff is responsible for Merchant Fulfilled orders.
How is your son involved with your Amazon business?
He loves to invest in products for himself – talk about the typical son of two entrepreneurs! When he does that, he'll remove labels and even label and pack his own items. But the one thing he doesn't like to do is source! Which is too bad because he does like to make money selling products! I think he'll come around on it eventually 🙂
If he's not working on his own products, he will still help us pack our regular shipments or remove labels.
Does faith play a role in your business?
When Cliff left his job we spent a lot of time in prayer about that big decision. We knew that him leaving his job would give us more opportunity to do ministry. Now that we have our website and courses, I feel like we have a great opportunity for ministry because it changes people's lives.
Our faith also means that we know that no matter what happens, we will be ok. We do not fear things like our Amazon account being shut down or even our website losing income.
“All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
We also always try to be good stewards with our time and money.
Was there one particular time when you felt you had to take “the plunge” financially to grow your business that made you nervous?
Our big jumping point was definitely Cliff quitting his job. We haven't really shared this before, but at that time, we also decided to foreclose on the house we had purchased a 4 years before.
It was a huge sacrifice to give up the home we thought we would be in for a long time. But we knew that we were onto something big with Amazon and we were willing to give it everything we had.
So when Cliff quit during Q4 of 2011, we put all the money that we had into inventory. We ended up leaving our house with almost $30,000 in cash built up (lots went to taxes!!).
This gave us such a good foundation for both of us being full-time business owners. Even though it was stressful at the time, it proved to us that we could really do the business at scale. It was absolutely the right decision for our business and our family.
Just about 5 years later we were able to purchase our new home and we even paid cash! What a blessing. I'll have to share that story soon, because it is pretty amazing how everything worked out.
Looking Back & Lessons for Beginners
Do you feel an Amazon business is still capable of providing a steady income for a family (say, $50-70k per year)?
Yes, definitely. One of the best things about teaching the Amazon Boot Camp is that I get to watch my students start and succeed. We see new students still accomplishing this quite often.
Would you start an Amazon business today as a newbie?
Yes, I still think it's great for beginners. In fact, I have recently been working with a close friend (who is totally new to Amazon) get started with FBA.
It's one of the only businesses that you can start up without a ton of money to begin with. I think that having $1,000 is an ideal initial investment for someone who wants to take it seriously. But obviously, you can start with less if you just want to replace a part-time income or have some extra money for savings.
You can really test the waters to see if you like selling on Amazon before you have to put in thousands of dollars. And it's not a huge time commitment either. So you can do as much or as little as you want.
Looking back, what is one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you started?
This isn't so much something I wish I knew, but something we probably could have done differently.
Many people are able to reinvest all of their profits for a long time and really grow their business quickly. Well, we needed the money to live on so we couldn't do that. Our profits were consistent, but we didn't grow to huge numbers.
So I think that we could have invested more in the business before Cliff quit so that we could get our numbers up. But the truth is that we didn't have much money and I still feel like it was perfect timing.
What have you learned the hard way? What were some of your biggest mistakes and how did you address and overcome them?
Oh boy, I have quite a few stories of going too deep too fast. I get really excited and think, “This is the BEST. THING. EVER.” and will buy as many as I can get my hands on.
Then I realize that something wasn't as it seemed and the whole buy was bad. (This is like “sale goggles” but worse!!). I hate to return things so it's always a loss. In those cases, we just take the hit and try to remind ourselves of it next time!
Just recently, we bought 100 grocery items with a rank of 15,000. Or so we thought. When we went to list them, we realized that the rank was a sub-category….and it wasn't grocery at all!
What is the biggest mistake that you see beginners make?
It breaks my heart when I see beginners give up too quickly!
The first few weeks and months can be brutal, so I understand how it happens. You source source source and often find nothing. Your first payments are eaten up by inbound shipping costs. You see other people “crushing it” online and assume that you're doing it wrong.
So they decide that Amazon FBA just doesn't work for them and they quit.
I always feel like they were SO close to getting that first big win and reaching that point where everything clicks and you start finding things. If you stick with it, it really does get easier over time.
What categories should a new seller focus on?
You know I love to scan everything, but my go-to categories for new sellers are Home, Toys, and Grocery. It's been really nice to have Grocery ungated lately!
Don't assume that you know what people want and are willing to pay for (let's not forget about those $23 toilet wands!!!).
Selling, Blogging, and Teaching: Finding Balance with Multiple Businesses
How do you set up your schedule with the Amazon business and your online business? Are certain days for sourcing and other days for the blog?
As I mentioned earlier, we like to get out one Amazon shipment per week. Back when Amazon was our only source of income, we sourced based on money goals. We needed to spend $4,000 per month on inventory. If we spent it all in one trip, we were done! Otherwise, we tried to spend $1,000/week.
When I started my own website, I worked on it a lot at night while Aiden slept and Cliff played video games. It was my hobby for a really long time. Now that it's a full-fledged business, I have to be more careful with scheduling.
I try to keep track of my time worked and make sure that I am actually working any time I am in my office (and not, you know, getting distracted on Facebook!).
I actually have a few other websites I am working on right now, too, so work time is getting split in many ways. I've started to batch my work more as a result. I will spend a block of time doing one activity and then move on to the next one.
I try to schedule out blog content and emails ahead of time so that I can work on daily things as they come up. Of course, I'm also a total project person. If I have a project I am working on (like creating a new course), it will get most of my attention for as long as needed.
Outsourcing has been a HUGE factor in growing the way that we have. There is no way I could do everything that the business requires on my own or with just the help of Cliff.
I just recently outsourced a bunch of the day-to-day activities that were taking up a lot of my time. I love to have control, but with multiple businesses, I have to be able to let go of things. This is really hard at times, but it's necessary.
My advice for working on multiple businesses is focus first on things that make money right now. Then any extra time goes towards building and trying new things.
I always have a massive list of things I would LOVE to do. I give myself permission to write those down. But I have to keep working on the things that make money right now, otherwise, things would not stay consistent financially.
How do you juggle your Amazon FBA business with the website? How many hours a week do you work on each?
Right now, FBA averages out to about five hours per week. My websites are more like 10-20 hours per week.
If I schedule things right, I can get away with doing nothing for a week here and there. We actually just got back from Disneyland and I didn't open my laptop once!!
I almost always work 2 hours a day, which is just to keep things going. Then there's almost always something extra that I'm working on, which is where the 4-5 hour days come in.
I love working on my websites so that never feels like work to me. It still feels like a hobby a lot of times. When it feels like work, I take a hard look and see what I need to change. Maybe it's time to outsource or just let something go.
Any suggestions for people still juggling work and Amazon and preventing burnout?
I'm a big believer in not working too much. I think it's really important to set a schedule and stick with it, especially if you're working another job.
You don't want your family to resent you selling on Amazon!
When I was working a regular job, I did a lot of eBay sourcing during my lunch break. And once I was home but Cliff was still working, I would take a couple of days a week and go source in the evenings after dinner.
You just have to find that balance of doing enough to make it worth it, but not too much that you no longer enjoy it.
That was really fun for me so I definitely hope that you got something out of it.
In fact, would you be willing to share your biggest takeaway (or favorite story) in the comments?
I couldn't do any of this without you guys (well, ok, I could still sell on Amazon…but it would be so lonely!). So thanks again for being here and taking the time to read.
If you're on the fence about starting an Amazon business, I hope this inspired you to give it a shot. You can always learn more by signing up for my free 7-day email course below.
Or, jump all the way in with our Amazon Boot Camp!