With 1.92 billion people shopping online worldwide, there’s never been a better time to start an e-commerce business. By 2023, e-commerce sales are expected to make up 22 percent of total global sales.
After founding Amazon in 1994, Jeff Bezos solicited advice from buyers on what to sell online using email lists. This is a very well-known strategy. But with two-and-a-half more decades of e-commerce behind us, there are several more ways to come up with that million-dollar idea.
Be On the Lookout for Problems to Solve
Some of the best e-commerce ideas come from a mere increase in awareness of what problems buyer groups are trying to solve in their lives. Becoming more observant can happen in a variety of ways. You can watch the news, take note of social media trends or even simply take note of the conversations happening around you.
Brian Roberts, founder of hip-hop jewelry company Refinement Co., says his idea for the company came from hearing people at a concert talking about buying grillz.
“The idea to start selling these products came to me one night, over the course of just a few minutes, when I overheard people at a concert saying how they wished they could buy a set. They complained how the process to acquire them was too slow and expensive. That’s when the lightbulb went on.”
In addition to eavesdropping at concerts, you can also look into niche interests (like veganism, massage therapy or gardening) and consider what demands might exist in those communities. When identifying potential problems that your product would solve, consider the following factors:
What could you create that could save people time and money? Build people’s self-esteem? Improve quality of life? Increase safety or comfort? Make life or daily tasks easier? Or make a process more efficient?
These aspects of buyer interest can help you think of a problem you can match with a product solution.
Do Your Homework
After you have some idea of the product you would like to sell or the problem you would like to address, there are several ways to conduct further research on the idea.
Pay attention to consumer trends. Companies like Mintel and Think with Google publish marketing data online that is free to the public — see a more complete list of free marketing data resources here. You can also research potential competitors and look into products or problems that their buyers are interested in lately.
When Jeff Bezos was coming up with the idea for Amazon, he had read a report that with the increasing popularity of the internet, web commerce would grow at 2300 percent. So, he came up with a list of 20 things to sell online and narrowed the list to the five that would sell best, including compact discs, computer hardware and software, videos and books. Books became the first main product since there was significant demand for them worldwide.
After beginning to sell books, Bezos continued to search for ideas by reaching out to his customers.
“I sent an email message out to the customer base, actually a thousand randomly selected customers, and I said, besides books, music and video, what would you like to see us sell? And the list came back incredibly long,” explains Bezos.
“One of my customers said, ‘I wish you sold windshield wipers because I need windshield wipers for my car.’ A light kind of went on in my head. You know, people — people will want to use this new-fangled e-commerce way of shopping for everything.”
Thinking through what products would sell and then reaching out to buyers for what else they would want to buy allowed Bezos to envision the kind of company Amazon would become.
Bounce Ideas Off the Communities of Potential Buyers
But in addition to just email lists, there several online communities to tap for e-commerce ideas. Sites like Amazon, reddit and Quora are valuable resources for learning more about what various communities would be interested in buying.
Sol Orwell, founder of science-based nutrition site Examine.com, came up with the idea for his company after joining r/fitness because of a personal interest in losing weight.
“As I was getting fit, I was reading fitness books and nutrition books – I was writing notes on what they were talking about. One of them was the Four Hour Body by Tim Ferris – I read it, I wrote notes on it and [posted the notes to reddit]. It was really popular, people really enjoyed it from there. And so that’s how I ingratiated myself in the community.”
After becoming a part of the community and contributing in a meaningful way, Orwell realized the subreddit had a problem. Many people were coming to r/fitness because of confusing or conflicting information about supplements and nutrition that they had found online.
So, Orwell decided to start Examine.com—a website where people could access science-based information about supplements as well as purchase quality supplements. He even found his co-founder, a dietetics Ph.D. candidate, through the subreddit.
Facebook, Quora and even Instagram can provide similar access to buyer communities. Once you discern which platforms or forums your potential buyers frequent, you can join their communities to identify the demands or products your future e-commerce business can meet.
Move Forward Into the Product Validation Phase
Once you have some kind of idea of the product you want to manufacture, it’s time to validate your product idea. Product validation means assessing where and how much demand exists for your product as well as whether buyers will commit to purchasing it.
One of the biggest mistakes any e-commerce company can make is failing to take these product validation steps. They can help turn the product you identify into an actual million-dollar e-commerce success.