When lockdown began, I started thinking about alternate ways to make money. I thought I should have a back-up plan as, after years of poor financial health, my bank balance remained constantly overdrawn. The pandemic had scared me shitless and I wanted to feel secure very fucking quickly.
I read up on stocks (pointless unless you have cash to invest, even if it’s Tesla) and tried online surveys (obviously crap but something I’ve done to make quick money since university days).
Eventually, having seen the term peddled around by successful looking men with fancy cars on Instagram, I gave dropshipping a go. It’s the latest get-rich-quick scheme: personal finance TikTok, YouTubers and regular folk all claim it has made them extremely rich, extremely fast, while working from their sofa.
The idea behind dropshipping is simple. You buy something on the cheap, then sell for profit. This is done via an online shop which you advertise on social platforms like Facebook and Instagram and set up using e-commerce platform Shopify, making everything look neat and professional. This supposedly makes the business very lucrative.
Top dropshippers say they have made “millions”, per a 2020 BBC report. How? Unlike your usual online store, dropshippers don’t handle stock. Once a customer makes a purchase, the item is shipped out by a third party (usually the Chinese e-commerce website AliExpress). Dropshippers are just the middlemen making the profit.
Dropshipping can be very attractive compared to the slow, boring cash flow of brick-and-mortar businesses. YouTube explainer videos lead with attention-grabbing headlines like “How I Make $10,000+/Month on Shopify at Home” and “How I Made $6,100 Drop Shipping In 1 Day”. Why wade through the laborious process of applying for loans and renting a shop front when you could start up an online business and become extremely rich in less than a fortnight?
Much like beauty influencers and forex traders, dropshippers also post often online to make their lives look alluring and aspirational to average people like me, whose primary form of transport is a bus.
Business YouTubers like J Rich (182,000 subscribers) and Matt Lorion (21,000 subscribers) have popped up on Instagram in luxury electrified vehicles (the former, a BMW i8, the latter, a Tesla Model 3), giving the impression that dropshipping pays the bills if you commit to the lifestyle – one which, on the outside, involves selling a product on a website that can be set up with little more than a few clicks.
This all sounded easy enough.
All I needed to do was watch a brain-numbing amount of educational YouTube vids (boring but easy) and source the right product (also easy) and I would rack up phat sales by the minute.
I decided I would try dropshipping using as little money as possible, much like I would if I was trying it as a means of making money during a trying time. And so, in August 2020, I signed up for a Shopify account and embarked on my journey to becoming a dropshipping king.
Alan eCom Sugar, here I come. #goals #dropship #gucci
Because dropshipping exists online and not as a physical market stall, a successful dropshipping store needs branding, a name and a lifestyle.
Seeing as the tectonic plates of culture are shifting and we’re still in lockdown due to COVID-19, my target audience was wannabe wealth magnates who work from their sofa. I would offer items to business people who live by phrases like “if opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door” and gear them toward the new WFH environment.
I typed my ideas into the Shopify website: “Lounge Living” (taken), “Be Your Own Boss” (taken) and “Lounge Boss” (tagline: “be the CEO you want to see, from the sofa”; also taken).
Not surprisingly, creating a business without an actual business plan beyond Being Successful is very hard. This is especially true when thousands of people have clearly tried and failed to lazily set up e-commerce businesses in the several decades since Amazon began selling cheap and reliable product, meaning all the good names are taken.
After an agonising day and a half thinking I needed the Best Name Ever, I remembered that businesses can literally be named just about anything. I landed on the name “Doze…”. I’d heard loads of people complain they struggled to sleep during lockdown, plus I liked the sound. It rang loud, like McDonalds or Apple.
According to my YouTube research, most dropshippers spend weeks and months scouring the backpages of AliExpress to find a sellable product. Usually, the product is something you might find in the local gadget store. Popular dropshipping products include the wacky phone holder, a pet accessory to turn your cat into a lion or cleaning slime. That’s one approach.
Another is trying to hit the mass market with a more generalist approach, which is what I chose because I wanted the big bucks and I wanted them quickly.
My brand was “Doze…”, so my company focused on sleep. I would sell eye masks, premium hot shit eye masks, to help “Doze…” buyers have a luxury snooze.
From my corner, trying to get a good night’s sleep has been a hot subject for a couple years now. Millennials don’t get the hours they need and countless products have popped up on the market to fix this problem, from books (like Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker) to lavender-scented pillow sprays and jersey bed sheets. I wanted in.
My eye masks were simple enough to fit the dropshipping criteria, and most importantly, they were really bloody cheap.
I found what looked like a premium silk sleep mask for $0.95 (about £0.74) on AliExpress and imported it to my Shopify store using an app called Oberlo (a technological middleman, if you will). I would then sell this product on at the astronomical mark-up of £10. I thought this unreasonable too, but you gotta think like a winner to be a winner, baby! #entrepreneur #ship
LAUNCHING A DROPSHIPPING STORE
Setting up the store using Shopify’s in-built themes was easy enough. What I hadn’t factored in was the time taken to write product descriptions, tag-lines, link-outs and the best way to do all these. Dropshipping influencers on YouTube often speed through the process of building their store (J Rich created one on his YouTube in 20 mins), making the process look swift.
In reality, it’s the opposite. I had to create a home page, a landing page for each product, a drop down menu and a bunch of other stuff that you’d usually find on a legitimate, premium product website. I also sourced a URL that hadn’t already been taken (£13) and spent a little time in the website code, making everything look right and ensuring all my product pulled through correctly.
It took me somewhere between a week and two weeks to get everything sorted in between doing my associate editor job at VICE. I launched dozelseepmasks.com on the 6th of September to a mild feeling of satisfaction and literally no recognition from anyone else, anywhere.
It was time to advertise, letting people know the premium sleep masks were here. Honk honk.
ADVERTISING MY DROPSHIPPING STORE
Lots of dropshipping guides say the best way to get customers is reaching out to an influencer on Instagram to see if they’ll post an affiliate link, where the Instagrammer gets a small percentage of any potential sales from their hundreds of thousands of followers. Obviously this would be very successful if I had access to Kylie Jenner, but I don’t.
I decided to advertise the old school way: using paid-for Facebook ads.
This took a long time as I couldn’t work out how to use Facebook’s Business Manager portal. (Imagine me now screaming into a week-long void.) The process was extremely frustrating (my notes say “SETTING UP THE FACEBOOK ADVERTS FOR A BRAND WITH ABSOLUTELY NO PRESENCE WHATSOEVER IS A MASSIVE FUCKING HEADACHE. I HATE IT. I HATE MYSELF. I WILL NEVER BE RICH. IT IS VERY VERY HARD”).
The more I went down the dropshipping rabbit hole, the more it reinforced the idea that dropshipping isn’t just about pushing buttons. It requires a skillset – in this case, how to market an e-commerce product and a professional understanding of the content management systems and terms involved in doing it.
Taking on a role I didn’t know how to do wore down on me. Each question revealed another question that unveiled how inept I was at creating an e-commerce business in a largely new field with little money to spend on it.
I would go to sleep with my brain buzzing with dropshipping info and wake up with dread about all the dropshipping info I still had to learn to make a sale.
Still: hashtag #goals.
I carried on and launched my advert on the 7th of September.
This ran for a week, cost £17 a pop each day and got me a grand total of zero sales. Welp.
On the eighth day, Facebook banned my ad account permanently because they said the ad “didn’t comply with our advertising policies” and was “controversial”. The algorithm had presumably confused my eye masks with face masks and thought I was profiting off the pandemic – something that the platform bans for exploiting “crises or controversial political or social issues for commercial purposes”.
Ugh. I spent a week challenging the response via an automated review form. An anonymous member of the Facebook ad team emailed me to say they had looked over my case but wouldn’t be able to re-enable my account as I had consistently violated advertising policies. My response: “Is it because the Facebook tech has confused ‘eye masks’ with ‘face masks’, perhaps?”
Five mins later, I received another automated email saying my account had been reinstated and that Facebook were sorry for the inconvenience, which was a great reminder we are all heading into an automated pit of doom.
My ad was finally live.
One person “liked” the post on Facebook and tagged a friend in a comment, but no success otherwise. Dropshipping, it seemed, was a lot harder than the lucrative money-making scheme told of by young YouTubers. There were no Big Wins – just the dull ache of looking at a laptop for too long.
So what was I doing wrong?
A week later I jumped on the phone with Kamil Sattar, British entrepreneur and self-titled “Ecom King” to get some advice on how to ship with the best of ‘em. His YouTube channel features over a hundred videos that dish out dropshipping tips to his 129,000 subscribers, making him a mentor to countless budding d-shippers. He also runs a free course on dropshipping.
I linked him to my store. “Kamil, is my shop any good?”
“Dude, without me being too harsh or rude, this isn’t going to do too well, mate,” he replied. FFS.
Kamil said the landing page for the site was nice, but the product wasn’t unique enough. I needed a product that screamed innovation; something that would make people look up and say “shit”.
Not actually being an inventor, the closest thing I could think of was something I’d seen do the rounds on Twitter called the Galaxy Light projector.
Toeing the line between tat and innovation, this is a small plastic looking projector that illuminates your bedroom wall with loads of tiny stars, much like looking onto the night sky on acid or looking at your screensaver for too long. It’s also a prime dropshipping product and regularly promoted under viral tweets.
I decided I would try dropshipping once more with another product and re-organised my store so that it would sell a Galaxy Light projector. I wrote up new product descriptions and new ads. I would advertise my illuminating light monstrosity for a cost of £5 per day of advertising with adverts running for four days.
This time, I thought I’d try a cheaper option to see if there were any change. I got 56 link clicks and the advert reached 3,920 people. It resulted in zero sales. On the fourth day, Facebook disabled my ad account for “suspicious activity”.
THE PERILS OF DROPSHIPPING
Dropshipping is the single worst self-imposed journey I’ve sent myself on in recent memory. Alluring YouTuber promises collapsed into a web of stressful micro-processes that only multiplied with every new step. (Who should I market my ads to? How do I reach them? Should I carousel my images? How do I convert viewers into customers? What’s the return process? And on and on.) I spent close to £200 setting up a site and advertising my products, and never saw any return.
But hey, perhaps it’s just me who doesn’t understand the operational side of dropshipping and I’m not business-minded enough to join the dropship elite. Countless people online say they’ve had success with dropshipping. There are loads of articles and tweets about it, as well as an 86,000 strong subreddit.
But the more I peeked beneath the surface, the clearer I see that a lot of professional dropshippers are in fact peddling various online courses to their subscribers, with the number of unsuccessful dropshippers far outnumbering those who have managed to make a good amount of coin.
Eighteen-year-old Jared West is a YouTuber with 98,300 subscribers, who focuses on financial content like day trading and making money on freelance service website Fiverr. He also had a go at dropshipping.
The first time he tried, he was a self-described “beginner” with “bad product” who made no sales – a process he documented in a video called “SPENDING 1 WEEK STRAIGHT DROPSHIPPING”. The second time round, he says he “genuinely believed” in the product, had a “decent” storefront and spent a small bit of money on adverts to gain 200,000 impressions on Instagram. But again, no sales. Nothing.
Is the dropshipping era bogus?
“Like anything, if you get it right – it’s viable,” Jared tells me. “But it seems to me that dropshipping has become a get rich quick scheme for beginners. It’s not that. You need to be a very successful marketer and very skilled in a huge plethora of skills when it comes to sales. It’s not an easy thing to just go and do.”
To me, the idea that you can get rich from dropshipping reminds me of paper flyers stuck to motorway junction lampposts that promise an opportunity to “make fast cash while working from home”. Sure, there are some people who might be able to make massive sums of money sitting on their arse. But if someone’s shouting about it, it’s probably also not true.
Plus, as I learned on my journey, dropshipping’s golden era is over. The market is oversaturated with wannabe magnates all selling the same item, while COVID-19 has lengthened shipping times from China, meaning products can often take a month or so to arrive – not ideal if you’re selling direct to consumer and have to foot the bill of any returns.
I began my dropshipping journey ramped up on the fumes of high-budget Instagram videos and ended it lost in a sea of neverending questions about marketing, sales and product. I don’t doubt there are successful dropshippers out there, but if you’re anything like me (AKA an average person without e-commerce knowledge), that’s not gonna be you. Please don’t waste your time and money. Sell something on Depop, get a side hustle – do you. But don’t fall for the dropshipping dupe.