Jane Lee is using her knowledge and experience in the world of e-commerce to help fellow entrepreneurs. At 26, she already has three years of e-commerce experience under her belt after graduating from the business program at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto.
Since taking up her role as entrepreneur-in-residence at Shopify Inc. at the start of the year, she has started Shopify Stockroom, an online store that Ms. Lee envisions as a one-stop shop for all entrepreneurial needs, from office supplies to clothing.
She also draws from her business background with her own startup, Silly B Intimates, a bra company that she founded in August, 2015.
Here Ms. Lee shares her thoughts and tips on e-commerce, and provides some insight into how entrepreneurs can improve their online businesses.
1. How can a small business create buzz for its brand?
It's all about marketing. You can see it as three big buckets – owned, earned and paid media. Paid media is the Google ads or Facebook ads, which you can create buzz around. Owned media are things you own already, so if you own a blog, creating content yourself. And earned media is PR or other bloggers that you can tap into.
So those are the three buckets that I look at and I honestly think as a brand, if you're just starting out, you want to focus on just one. Owning one and having a focus on one and becoming a really good brand that is known for that one bucket is fun because you have a finite amount of resources and a finite amount of time.
For instance when I started the Stockroom I relied on earned media and owned media. I started blogging about how I started the Stockroom so I was the personality behind it. YouTube videos went up every week that showed exactly how I was building a store.
2. What are some of the best qualities that e-commerce entrepreneurs require to succeed in this space?
I think the best e-commerce entrepreneurs are generalists. People think that when you start an e-commerce store you have to be good at selling stuff, but that's not true. You have to be interested in the supply chain, in manufacturing, in finance, in forecasting, in marketing. You have to touch everything and, yes, you might not like everything, but having an interest and a genuine passion for the overall business is important.
The second thing is that they must be passionate about their product or about a cause. And so even though that's fluffy, I think that's important. At the end of the day when you're an entrepreneur and your business is struggling or you're going through some hurdles, what will get you through those tough times is the fact that you love your product or you love the cause that you're building your business for. Passion also coincides with perseverance, and so those two things are the biggest determinants of whether you create a great e-commerce store.
3. What would you say are some of the most effective moves for any e-commerce startup to take?
It's very important, even before launching an e-commerce store, that you create a base or an audience that you can speak to. Create your social channels – an Instagram account, a Facebook account, a Pinterest account. Create content and push it out months before you start an e-commerce store.
I think this is important because of two things. One, you will have a base of people to talk to even before you launch your product so you'll see sales right away. Second, you'll get feedback from people who are interested in the industry or in your product. That's valuable so you can tweak your product and pivot your product even before it launches.
4. How important is it for entrepreneurs to find effective mentors?
It's unbelievably important. The biggest challenge for me when I was an entrepreneur and now in my role at Shopify is that I'm so siloed. I work on my own projects and have my own profits and losses; it's very separate. If you were to come and visit me you'll see that I have a separate section in the office as well, just because it's treated so differently. So the biggest hurdle for me is that it gets lonely and it's emotionally taxing because you doubt yourself. So it's important to have mentors, and if you can't find a mentor then have a group of people around you who have gone through similar things.
In addition, I have cold-called or cold-e-mailed many people through LinkedIn to meet for coffee and pick their brains. That's something I try to do every week with someone different.
5. What does success in e-commerce look like to you?
One is sales, to be very blunt, and sales growth, month over month. Next is customer service, so I look to see if my customers are happy with the product and are giving good feedback on social media. The third is the social footprint and public relations that my e-commerce is getting and the influence that it has on the industry.
6. Where do you see Shopify and Stockroom in five years' time?
My big vision for Stockroom is for it to be the one-stop shop for all entrepreneurs, not only e-commerce entrepreneurs, but anyone who's starting a business. So if you are an entrepreneur, you are going to come to the Stockroom and you're going to get all your needs, from clothes to boxes, photography tools and let's say you could even get food that fits your lifestyle; literally everything.
7. What are your top three tips for any e-commerce business owner?
The No. 1 thing for me is to be super empathetic to entrepreneurs and the grind they go through every single day and making sure all my products are helping them – whether it's inspiring them, making them more organized or more efficient.
The second piece of advice is to use tools to help you in your e-commerce business. A lot of people stress out because they're doing it by themselves, but there are tools that can make you feel like you have a team. One of them is Kit, which is a virtual marketing assistant bot. I also use Instagram and Buffer to schedule a lot of things automatically so you don't have to really be concerned about them.
And the third is analytics. There are a lot of analytics tools out there and being an e-commerce manager or owner you have to be analytical. At the end of the day you want to make sure that you're using your money wisely in terms of marketing, so there are things like Google analytics, or Mixpanel, which is similar to Google analytics and just as good.
The third is definitely finding a group of people like you, or mentors who will help you along the way.
This interview has been edited and condensed.