First-time Ecommerce Shop Owners: How and When to Hire?
You're ready to start your own store but you're not sure if you can do it yourself. What kind of people do you need to hire? How many?
Many people start e-commerce businesses on their own. A few lucky folks start the game with a free sidekick: a spouse, sibling, or a supportive golden retriever. If you don't have one, you need to hire.
But before you hire, understand what kind of person you need.
When starting out, you’ll likely run the whole show on your own. As your story unfolds, it always starts off manageable—this gives you the confidence that you need to run your business. But once sales start picking up, your jog turns into a run, and your run turns into a sprint. If you're unprepared, you get a heart attack. Time to hire.
At this stage, visualize how the whole pie looks before you make a move. Mentally divide the work you need done into imaginary departments:
- Supply Chain - getting your goods from suppliers
- Product - managing product development + photos and descriptions in your shop
- Orders & Inventory - taking orders from your customer and making sure that items are in stock
- Fulfillment - delivering your goods to your customers
- Customer Service - helping out your customers
- Marketing - selling your goods through ads, influencers, content, technology, or other means
- Finance & Accounting - looking at sales data, managing your costs, and bookkeeping
- Shop Optimization - improving your shop through better design, new features, and customer feedback
In e-commerce, all these departments need people to run them. It could be you, it could be the person you hire. And to find that person, always follow this golden rule: hire to cover your weaknesses.
Stay focused on the things you’re good at and seek help in the areas you struggle with.
Hire Your Opposite
At its peak, the Nokia 3310 allowed you to make calls and lengthen a polygonal snake in a thrilling pixel game. 20 years later, the iPhone vaults beyond and juggles the tasks of a phone, flashlight, calculator, stopwatch, notebook, calendar, tracking device, router, camera, TV, browser, personal trainer, and supercomputer all at once.
When it comes to running shops, most people are like 3310s, not iPhones.
Think of yourself as a tool—you may look like a genius doing one thing, and a complete idiot doing another. You can’t do it all. You need self-awareness and introspection to figure out the kind of tool that you are.
One helpful angle to think about who to hire is to consider the duality between process-orientation and creativity.
Process people like limitations. They like doing things step-by-step. They like documenting. They know how to limit options to make faster decisions. Chaos overwhelms them so they like putting things in order. When pure process people run shops, they can be traders, often buying goods from others and selling them at a markup.
Creative people like open-endedness. They like having options to explore possibilities—this makes them less decisive. They like toying with ideas and daydreaming. They struggle with rules. When creative people run their own shops, they tend to be creators, often making new things they want people to try.
While there’s a spectrum, most tend to lean in one direction. (If you’re both, count your blessings!) And no matter which type of person you are, the principle stays the same: hire your opposite. Process people need creative people. The reverse is also true.
Once you’ve figured out the type of skills you need, start looking for generalists.
Unlike specialists who prefer honing their expertise in a single domain, generalists wear many hats, get their hands dirty, and jump into anywhere they’re needed. They sacrifice depth for breadth. With the chaos of a new shop, this is what you need.
Your marketing “department” will likely need to do product development. Customer service might need to manage inventory. Finance could dabble in fulfillment. Job descriptions will get blurry. Get used to it.
“But isn’t that messy?” For sure. When you have a new shop, expect the ground cracks open every few days. You need people who can keep on running despite the unsteady environment. Generalists should fare better than specialists.
Since age tends to skew people towards specialization, you’ve got better chances of plucking out a generalist by hiring someone young. You don’t need extensive experience.
Where & How to Find People
Hiring as a first-time shop owner feels like reaching the buffet on closing time. The lobster is all out. The steak is tough as nails. The servers want to clean up. Enjoy the leftovers.
Unless you’ve got a trust fund, you can’t pay as high as others. People don’t know who you are. You can’t offer the same benefits as big corps do. If you were fresh out of college and looking for a job, you probably would not work for yourself.
Given your unremarkable reputation and lackluster job offer, job boards will just serve you leftovers. Lucky for you, you’ve got a decent option: your network.
Start digging. Look for people you trust and ask them if they know someone. Tell them about what you want to do. Sell your dreams and ideas.
Maybe you’ll get lucky and nab a lifelong employee/partner in your first shot, but don’t count on it. If you can’t find the perfect person at this stage, just find someone good enough (but don’t settle for someone swarming with red flags) first just to get started. You can continue headhunting as you run grow your e-commerce shop.
When is Hiring Too Early or Too Late?
When you’re a new shop, you’re likely not eating from a golden spoon. You need to protect your cashflow. If you’re bleeding money, you’re asking for doom.
Sometimes shop owners get a little bit too optimistic. “I have a great product so I expect 1,000 orders next month.” Based on pure intuition and excitement, first-time shop owners make the mistake of hiring too soon in anticipation of future sales.
What if the sales don’t come?
The safe and sensible way to go about deciding on when to hire is to put off hiring until you see traction. Are you getting more orders? Are your customers sending you wonderful feedback more and more? Are they buying again and again? If *real* trends give you reason to be optimistic, and your sales look like they will be able to pay off your overhead, go ahead and hire.
Otherwise, hire only when you’re in pain. Don’t jump ahead of your sales.
Next Steps to Hire
Hiring is both art and science. It’s skill and luck. But before you start your hiring journey, always keep the following in mind:
- Look at your own skills and interests.
- Hire someone your opposite.
- Get someone who can wear many hats.
- Skip job boards and dig around your network to recruit.
- Sell your mission and business to attract good people.
- Don’t hire too early.