What did (and didn’t) work in ecommerce

What I’m listening to while I type: Born To Die

If the trick to web-tech entrepreneurial success is to keep trying and tweaking the same model until you get it right, then Boyd Carson is getting it right.

I spoke to him about his e-ventures and his thoughts on ecommerce ventures in particular.

As a partner at Sapphire Capital Partners, he launches bespoke investment funds for clients in property, renewables or anything else: “picking the right products for the clients to invest in.” As Founder of Sapphire Ventures, he runs his own start-ups, focusing on niche ecommerce products – most recently weselljewellery.com

It’s his fourth ecommerce-led venture. Two failed, one (Where Wise Men Fish) was a success and he sold it on. He launched We Sell Jewellery four months ago.

What I found particularly interesting in our conversation was the technique he’s developed out of this experience. Basically picking a niche product; focusing on getting to know that product and that market; and testing it first with just a couple of products and landing pages before committing.

It’s a low-cash, ultra-fast way of testing an idea on a market before you start building a beautiful website or weaving your business plan. I found myself wishing I’d spoken to him before I spent months building lovecocktails.co.uk (twice) and then finding our extensive product list was a logistical nightmare.

However, back to Boyd. He’s launched two jewellery sites and two fishing-related sites – isn’t that a bit of a bizarre mix, I asked him?

“It’s about trying to identify a niche market. Trying to identify somewhere where one can add value to the process. Everyone was rolling up hotels but no one had seriously looked at fishing lodges.”

When he replied to my Linked In appeal, he said he’d seen a lot of people getting ecommerce ventures wrong. I asked him what mistakes he thought they were making?

“Not doing enough research on the product to begin with, spending a lot of money upfront doing the website, spending all the money upfront without knowing the product.”

He added that was an issue for any retail business but was particularly the case in ecommerce:

“People assume ecommerce is easy but actually it can be harder because there’s so much competition on the web.
“It’s about knowing the product and the market – does the market want the product? And also the market may want the product, but can you get it to market with enough margin to make a profit via the internet, because the internet is so competitive?
“Someone may want to buy, for example, a gold necklace. We may assume there’s a market on the internet for gold necklaces but the competition is so fierce that the only one who survives is the one selling it the cheapest.”

Hence Boyd’s strategy of focusing on niche markets. His second jewellery site has focused on niche and custom-made jewellery.

However, the assumption would be that luxury goods, such as jewellery or exclusive fishing holidays need investment in a website and marketing – don’t customers expect a certain look and feel to the website? Boyd thinks not:

“You don’t need a big website to launch. You do test pages to test your product quite cheaply. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to test a product and get some feedback.
“For example, if I had a budget of £500 I could do an adwords campaign and spend that as a way of testing the market, rather than spending £5,000 and putting everything up there.”

Of his two ventures that failed, he felt going for a market that was too niche, too small (fishing flies?) was a reason for failure, along with not having enough cash to back the business up in the early stages, “and probably I didn’t know what I was doing”.

I asked him whether having had a business fail is a positive thing?

“Yes and no. It can be very dangerous, an entrepreneur with a small capital base can easily blow the lot and then its game over for them.”

So what advice would he give to someone planning an ecommerce startup?

“Research the product and don’t run out of cash. Have plenty of cash stashed away and don’t blow it on sales and marketing before you’ve tested your product.
“I’d also say that networking is very important because it’s a very lonely process starting a business and to talk to other people in a similar position can reassure you that you’re not failing, and they can offer you ideas and help”

And the most important thing?

“The overriding thing is focus wins. Keep focusing on what you’re doing otherwise you’ll never succeed.” 


Thank you, Boyd.

Thank you, Boyd.