The Zen Of Selling On Amazon

This blog first appeared March 28, 2013.  Written originally for new sellers, it strikes me today as being more relevant than ever.  So many things have happened in the world that the Cynthia of 2013 never could have anticipated.  All sellers are finding their businesses affected by the global pandemic.  Amazon took drastic and radical steps.  A best-selling product during the early days of COVID-19 suddenly was restricted.  Amazon couldn’t deliver in a timely way.  Chaos is isn’t a big enough word to describe 2020.  Sellers are adapting with almost daily changes.  I hope this helps you find a moment of zen during the insanity.

In this blog I write a lot about the tactical elements of running an Amazon FBA business, getting your first box to Amazon, using the tools, new rules from Amazon, that kind of thing. I get a lot of questions that are ostensibly about running a business but essentially boil down to “Is this going to work for me?”  It’s a good question to ask and the reason that I’m going to talk today about YOU – the inner qualities that help determine success.

While only you can truly answer this question for yourself, Grasshopper*, I have found that successful sellers tend to have these characteristics that keep them going in the face of set-backs, adversity, mistakes and negative emotions.

I refer to “Zen” in this blog as a reference to our poetic, intuitive self rather than the logical, analytical self. I am not referring to the ancient spiritual practice, per se. These characteristics to which I refer are not typical business advice but reflect the poetic contradictions often found in Zen:

Embrace Uncertainty

Many people trained by years in corporate America think about business in terms of goals and achievements. They start their Amazon businesses with grand plans. They think they can control the outcomes and get very stressed out when it turns out not to be true.  They see business as an equation: A(mazon) + M(e) = I(ncome).

Control is an illusion. The real equation is A(mazon) + M(e) + C(haos) = I(ncome). There are a lot of factors you will never be able to influence including when someone will buy your item and for what price, exactly how much money you are going to make each month, how long it will take you to get comfortable with the tools, Amazon’s fees and rules, how many mistakes you are going to make and on and on and on.

Those who are able to embrace the uncertainty are much calmer in their businesses.  They do their best and let it be good enough.  They let go of the expectations, “rules” and timeline in their heads. They forgive their mistakes and take them as learning experiences. When possible, they laugh at themselves. They are confident in themselves and their ability to adapt to change whether it is new fees, new rules, and new taxes: whatever it is they know they will rise to the occasion.

My personal goal when I started this business was to make at least $1,500 net each month so I could pay my son’s school tuition.  I had no idea how long it would take or exactly what it would take (how many sales? how much sourcing?), but I was resolved to keep working at it until I achieved it. I was OK with not knowing and learning as I went. Having run other businesses in the past, I expected uncertainty.

Be Simple

It is easy to get overwhelmed with this business. There are many options for sourcing inventory, many techniques. There are gurus with advice and courses. Some folks want to jump in, learn everything and set up some ideal, perfect business for themselves that optimizes profits, reduces out-of-pocket expenditures and leads to a business nirvana.

What more often happens is they get frozen with too many choices and options. There is conflicting advice and they are afraid of what they don’t know. It paralyzes them. They don’t have enough experience to know the right path for themselves and they sometimes make mistakes which causes anxiety.

The Zen approach to Amazon is to be simple. Don’t try to do everything. Don’t read everything or take every course. Get your first boxes off to Amazon. Make some money. Learn what is working and build on it.

As you master your tools and how Amazon works, add something new to the mix like a new category, repricing or take a course and get inspired by a super seller.

I gave my Dad Retail Arbitrage by Chris Green when it first came out hoping it would help him with his Christmas sales. He didn’t read it until well after Christmas but when he did he was delighted and said “there’s some really great stuff in here.” I realized that if he had read it when I gave it to him, a lot of it would have been over his head and he might have been overwhelmed. Because Dad had some sales experience under his belt, he was inspired by what he learned and ready to incorporate new ideas into his business.  In 2020, much of the advice from that book is outdated because Amazon is constantly changing, but the need to learn constantly is eternal.

Most of the experts in this business started small and simple.  Chris Green sold tools on eBay and moved up to Amazon FBA later. Others like Skip McGrath started with books and branched out to other categories over time. Eddie Levine was scalping tickets on eBay in college before he discovered Amazon.  My friend Barbara Boschen started with party supplies and now runs an eCommerce empire of multiple eCom-related businesses, and sells on multiple platforms. They learned how to be online sellers by being an online seller and you will, too.  The best teacher is experience. 

There is a lot to learn when deciding to sell on Amazon and it can be overwhelming.  You don’t have to do it all from day one, however. Today I’d advise new sellers to set themselves up properly as a business. Get the infrastructure in place. Get your tax ID and/or VAT.  If you have intellectual property, make sure it is protected through the USPTO.  Make sure your inventory is coming from an authentic source or, if it is your own product, make sure it is safe and follows all safety regulations.  Sometimes people jump in too fast and they pay for it later because Amazon shuts them down for labeling laws, safety complaints or selling illegal products for a particular country.  Understand that selling on Amazon is a business and you need to be serious about it.

Amazingly, it will happen sooner than you think. After the first few months of learning, you will suddenly find it easy and quick to send your inventory to Amazon or direct to a buyer.  Then it is time to up your game. Take it one step at a time and one day you’ll be a super seller, too.

Change Your Day, Change Your Life

Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution and then not kept it? What happened? If you are like most people, you either tried to change everything at once and got overwhelmed, tired and gave up; OR you failed to figure out how to make that resolution part of your daily life and once something “urgent” came up, you dropped the resolution.

Rather than making your Amazon business an “add-on” to your life, it needs to be a daily part of your life: a habit like eating lunch.  And…compliance needs to be a priority for every Amazon seller.

Selling online can be a force for huge change in your life. It can bring you income, security in uncertain times and it can be fun. To get these benefits, however, takes daily action on your part and a constant focus on compliance as well as sourcing and selling.  Amazon’s rules change often.  Be sure that you are keeping abreast of these changes or it can be a problem.

Change your life and make compliance with Amazon’s policies a resolution you keep – make it a part of your Amazon life like brushing your teeth.

Get Support

Many people when they start something new get excited and tell all their friends and family. Sometimes they get shot down like a clay pigeon and lose heart before they even get started. They are asked a bunch of questions they can’t answer yet and regaled with stories of people who tried to sell stuff online and failed.

My suggestion? Wait to tell everyone until you’ve actually sold some items and mastered some of the process. Then you can address the concerns of your well-meaning friends and family from a position of strength and competence. You may find some are inspired by you at that point which will make it even more fun for you as you become the teacher. So what do I mean by “Get Support?” if not from friends and family?

Get support from others who are doing what you are doing. There are wonderful Facebook and Reddit groups where you can ask questions in these forums and get answers from folks who are doing it and know where you are coming from. Amazon sellers in these groups are warm, supportive and generous people in a way I’ve never seen in any other industry.

In addition, by putting out your commitment to others “I am doing this,” it reinforces your desire to see it through even if you are confused or frustrated at the moment. The fact that you are not alone is comforting and encouraging. Other people’s success stories can be inspiring as well.

Keep Going

Life events come up that can interrupt your business. In the years I’ve been doing this there have been deaths, huge family dramas, summer vacation (a huge disruptor every year), school events and more that impacted my sales.  

During those times, my business would dwindle as I neglected it.  And yet, it was always profitable. I would come back weeks, sometimes months, later with a rush of new inventory up to Amazon and push up my sales again. This was a part-time business for me so my expectations were different than someone who is relying on this business for full-time income, of course.  My point here is that I kept coming back.

Also, you will make mistakes – some of them more expensive than others. It is inevitable. During these times, you need to forgive yourself and keep going. Remember that if you weren’t making mistakes you would be a freak of humanity and that every successful seller has made plenty of mistakes that cost them time and money and possibly earned them negative feedback, ASIN or account suspensions.

As long as you keep coming back, you will realize the benefits of this business of increased income and greater security. Make a commitment to yourself that if you get derailed by life or make a big mistake, you’ll come back.  That’s it. Pretty simple.  And yet, so many people don’t come back, which is why they fail. They take mistakes as a sign that they shouldn’t keep trying. This is the wrong message. Mistakes are a sign that you are on your way to success. You are taking action.

Redefine Success

Success is a highly subjective word…one that people incorrectly try to define with objective terms. Successful sellers recognize that money is only one of aspects of “success” as an online seller and even money is subjective.  Is $2,000 a month successful? What about $40,000 a month? It really depends on who you are and your desired achievements.

In my first book I asked my readers to consider why they were reading my book and what they want to achieve in personal, emotional terms. For many people it is about freedom from uncertainty. Here is something that is theirs even if they lose their day jobs, for example. For others it is about a particular goal like paying for a child’s private school or paying off a particular debt like a credit card or a home mortgage.

It is not about the money, it is about what the money allows you achieve – an education, ownership of an important asset, freedom from creditors, freedom from insecurity, the ability to retire, etc. These are the real goals that give people “juice” and excitement about their businesses, not a particular dollar figure in the bank.

Successful sellers are excited about their businesses and they don’t measure success by someone else’s yardstick. They start simply and grow from there. As they achieve more, they are happy. It makes it worth the work they put into the business. They are taking care of themselves and their families.

One of my readers is a busy teacher. She works her business around Christmas time pretty hard and in the summer. The rest of the year she’s happy if she gets in one shipment a month to Amazon.  Her business has allowed her family to take vacations, pay for needed repairs around the house and pay for her son’s private pre-school. Her business is a success for her.

I started off in 2010 with the goal of paying for my son’s tuition in 10 hours a week. In 2015, I started eGrowth Partners to help sellers recover from suspensions and grow on the platform which was a huge change.  It went from me as a lone seller to today’s team of 40+ Amazon consultants in two countries. I have succeeded far beyond my early goal of paying for his tuition.  I will keep succeeding…on my own terms.

Let Go

Starting a new venture is full of uncertainty, insecurity and anxiety. There’s a lot of unknown stuff. You’re excited by the possibilities, nervous about what you don’t know.  You will be happier and more successful if you can let it go.

This is one of the hardest Zen ideas. As humans, we get attached to things, people and outcomes. We take outside ideas/people/things and make judgments about ourselves from them.

Zen recognizes that none of these things, people or ideas defines us or is us. We are separate from them just as we are separate from our thoughts. Zen recognizes that attachments and thoughts can cause us pain. The more we are able to let go of our attachments, the happier, calmer and more productive we are.

Letting go means not fretting over the things you can’t control. It means not comparing yourself to others. We are all inspired by the super sellers who have achieved huge incomes, but if you dwell on the discrepancy between them and where you are right now, you’ll be unnecessarily discouraged. They were all small once.

Letting go means that if you make a mistake or if your business isn’t making what you’d like right now, you stay the course. You don’t let set-backs stop you or prey on your mind. Resilience requires persistence, patience and confidence.

Most importantly, letting go means freeing your heart from negative feelings that are absolutely deadly to entrepreneurs and fledgling businesses. Tell yourself, “I’m doing the best I can and I’m going to continue to do the best I can.” You may have to say it dozens of times on some days until you feel it inside. Give yourself a break.

This is easier said, than done and I don’t want to imply that I’ve mastered “letting go” or don’t struggle with negative feelings. I do. All the time. Letting go is an ongoing life process. When negative thoughts and feelings start to take over, take several deep breaths (it really works – why do you think smokers smoke more when they are stressed? Their bodies want oxygen, ironically).  Walk away from the computer and take a break.  Get some oxygen by walking, biking, yoga or working out. Call a friend and cry on their shoulder and listen to their pep talk. Eat veggies at dinner. Get a good night’s sleep.

All these techniques you know about, but how often do you actually do them? As a business owner, it is absolutely imperative that you find what helps you let it go. You need a clear mind and heart to tackle the problems that will come up in your business and in life.

Rather than “manage” negative stress, successful sellers work to let it go. They feel their negative feelings and then let them go so they can get back to work.

It is normal to get upset and distressed.  Letting go will help you get back to equilibrium. It will help you focus on solutions rather than problems. It will help you get back to your business and keep going. It will help you remember your successes to date and be OK where you are right here, right now.

So what is the Zen of Selling? Self-management: your expectations, your feelings, your discipline, your persistence, your trust in yourself, your patience, your ability to forgive yourself and your ability to let it go. It’s true, Grasshopper*, the answer to success is inside you.

Cynthia's 2020 observation -- There are huge, scary forces in play in our world right now. We have no control over any of them. Many of us are plagued by negative thoughts daily. We can't ignore or escape what is happening, but we can let it go. Letting go is an act of will we each possess. 2020 is a hard year, but I have faith in all of us. Sellers are adaptable, resilient and persistent people. Don't give up on yourself and don't give in to the fear.

*If you don’t get this reference, you are young my friend. Way younger than me.

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