- Shan Shan Fu started her e-commerce business with less than $2,000 upfront.
- She keeps things lean by taking her own photos and launching products on Etsy before Amazon.
- In October 2022, she earned over $42,000 in revenue by selling socks and tights online.
When the Covid-19 pandemic sent the US under lockdown in the spring of 2020, Shan Shan Fu had a lot of free time — and an idea.
“All my friends needed face masks but they couldn’t find good quality ones,” she told Insider.
Fu was living in San Francisco at the time and working at an IT consulting firm, but she’d been thinking about starting a side hustle for a while: “I’ve always had a passion for passive income and e-commerce so I decided, ‘this is the time I’m going to finally launch my product — and it’s going to be face masks.'”
She launched her e-commerce company, Millennials In Motion, in April 2020 and immediately started making money.
Her timing was ideal, she explained: “It was easy to sell face masks in April 2020. I was very lucky that I was early. Normally it takes months, if not years, to climb up to the first page on Amazon; but for me, because there was such a huge shortage of face masks, I got pushed to the first page of the keywords I was targeting within two weeks of launching.”
After six months of selling masks, she was earning enough from her own business that she felt comfortable leaving her day job.
Today, at 34, Fu is a full-time entrepreneur based in Miami, Florida. In addition to running Millennials In Motion, she does consulting work for an Amazon advertising agency called Trivium and a legal start-up called OnlineVisas, which is the company that helped her secure her O-1 visa. (This is a type of visa for individuals with extraordinary ability.) Fu was born in China and her parents immigrated to the States when she was six. She’s currently in the process of getting a green card.
Building an e-commerce business from scratch with $2,000 upfront and a library of YouTube videos
Fu used YouTube to learn the ins and outs of running an e-commerce business.
“I would watch these ‘I made 20 grand a month selling on Amazon’ videos that walk you through the process step-by-step and think, ‘I can do this too!'” she said. “Some of them are quite broad but if you watch enough of them — I’ve watched hundreds by now — you eventually get the gist.”
After she decided on her product, face masks, her next immediate step was to buy inventory. She reached out to her dad, who works in import-export, to connect her with a manufacturer.
“Through our network, we found some factories in Asia and got the face masks to my door within two weeks,” said Fu.
She invested about $2,000 of her own savings into the company. Most of that, $1,250, went towards her first batch of inventory. She spent $370 setting up a limited liability company (LLC), $220 on a Rollo printer and labels, $70 on logo printing, $45 on poly bags to mail her product, and $13 on a Canva subscription, she said.
Once the masks arrived at her doorstep in San Francisco, her next immediate step was to take photos of them using her iPhone and write up a product description. She started by posting them for sale on Etsy, which is a little cheaper and easier to do than Amazon. She then took her most popular products to the Amazon marketplace.
Fu kept her operation lean. Instead of hiring professional photographers and models to showcase her products online, for example, she used her iPhone and asked friends to pose in the masks. She didn’t rent a studio; rather, they took the photos on the streets of San Francisco.
“I used the cash flow I made from my first run to do my second run, and then the cash flow from my second run to do my third run. It was all quite organic and bootstrapped,” she said. “I never got any loans. I never got any venture capital.
However, she put in a lot of hours. After wrapping up her day job around 5 p.m., “I would work on Millennials In Motion from 5 o’clock to midnight, trying to get it off the ground. It was exhausting.”
After six months of working both jobs, she was making enough money selling face masks to cover her bills. At that point, she decided to leave her day job and direct all of her energy towards the start-up.
Pivoting when face mask sales plummeted in 2021 and losing money on a failed product
As face mask mandates started to expire in 2021, Fu saw her sales drop.
“It really started to die in 2021, and it just kept dying and dying until, by 2022, there were basically no sales in face masks,” she said. “I was really stuck. I was kind of lucky with my first product and I needed to find a sustainable second product.”
Fu knew she wanted to continue selling small, lightweight items.
“When I sold face masks, I realized it was very important that they were small because the shipping and storage costs were really low, so you could make decent margins even though it was a low-cost product,” she explained.
With that in mind, she decided to launch socks and lingerie.
Her socks sold, albeit slowly, while the lingerie “didn’t work at all,” she said. It failed for two main reasons: “Amazon bans lingerie for their advertising, and it’s very difficult without Amazon’s advertising platform to get any traction on the product. The second challenge was sizing. I got the product from China and I would ask for extra large, for example, and they would show up and be too small on me — and I’m typically a size extra small. As you can imagine, they didn’t really sell very well.”
She lost whatever money she spent on inventory, she said: “Thankfully, because I’m quite conservative and I always buy a small quantity for the first batch, I didn’t lose that much: maybe a few thousand dollars.”
Fu didn’t have time to dwell on the lingerie failure.
“I was stressed but I kept going out of necessity,” she said. “I left my six-figure tech job in 2020, so all I had was Millennials In Motion. There was no option to fail.”
Earning up to $42,000 a month in revenue selling on Amazon
Fu decided to lean into what was working: selling socks.
“Although I was earning a very tiny amount of profit because socks are like $10 each, it was still succeeding. I was getting sales,” she said. “And with enough volume I could start marking decent money, so I expanded into offering products in that category, like tights and stockings.”
None of her products hit quite like face masks did in April 2020, but over the past year, she’s seen gradual growth. In August 2022, she brought in $12,100 in revenue and in September, she brought in $14,200, according to documents viewed by Insider.
Fu had a breakthrough month in October: Her revenue spiked to $43,500. The majority of those sales ($41,900) came from Amazon. The rest came from sales on Etsy, Walmart, and her website.
She attributes her recent success to working with Amazon’s advertising partner Trivium. Fu joined the team as the head of business development and also became a client in September 2022, meaning Trivium’s team of engineers work with her to set up advertising campaigns to help grow her products.
Up until she started working with Trivium, she was a solo act. Watching YouTube videos was enough to get her company up and running but what she learned from her failure with lingerie is that, “you can’t do it alone,” she said. “It was just me doing research and it was such a small error that I made, which was checking if Amazon allows lingerie to be advertised. But I missed it, and that miss cost me a failed product.”
Besides leaning on the team at Trivium for advertising advice, seasonality also contributed to her big October, she noted: “My product designs are edgy and trendy. It’s what people would typically buy at Halloween.” Plus, “any Amazon seller will tell you that Q4, the last three months of the year, is the best for a lot of product categories.”
Fu has also learned from experience and trial and error how to run a lean, profitable e-commerce business.
A key part of her strategy is launching on Etsy to test her products before taking them to Amazon. It’s cheaper and easier to sell on Etsy, she explained: “With Amazon, you have to have a barcode for every unique product and variation of a product. It’s not very difficult to get but you have to buy it, so it’s an extra cost.”
Typically, 20% of her products do 80% of her sales, she explained. Whichever products perform the best on Etsy, she brings to Amazon.
Using keywords is another part of her strategy. She’s looking for keywords with high demand, high search volume, and low competition. To find them, she uses an analytics platform for Amazon sellers called Helium 10.
You can search any keyword, such as “cute socks,” she explained. “And it will tell you something like, ‘cute socks’ has 10,000 monthly searches and 1,000 competitors. You have to compare all the keywords that are out there and find the ones that have the highest demand with the lowest competition.”
Once she finds the keywords that she thinks have the most potential, she reaches out to her contacts to find a factory that makes that specific type of product. She then picks 20 different types of the product based on what she personally prefers, has them shipped to her apartment, takes pictures of them, writes up descriptions, and posts them to Etsy. Once they’re on Etsy, she’s looking at click through rates and conversion rates to see which ones are performing the best. Of her 20 products, she’ll take the top four to five, launch them on Amazon Prime, and start to spend money on advertising to improve her products ranking on the site.
“For Amazon, ads are mission critical,” she said. “All Amazon sellers will tell you that the only real sustainable way to grow your businesses is to use Amazon’s advertising platform because that’s how you get pushed up in ranking.”
When you sell on Amazon Prime, you send your products directly from the factory to Amazon’s warehouse, “so you never have to personally touch it,” she explained. That’s when the income starts to become passive.
“When you first start out, it’s not going to be passive because you’re building a business,” she noted. “You’ll probably work more hours than you would in a typical job. But as your business grows it will become more passive. For me right now, that $42,000 I did in October, most of it was just automatic. I never even saw the product.”
Fu is working on testing more products and continuing to scale Millennials In Motion. She still works a lot, but expects her business to run in a relatively passive manner in the near future.
“If I stayed working in corporate America, I probably could climb up the ladder. But the higher you climb up the ladder, the more you work,” she said. “Whereas with e-commerce, the more you work now, the less you’ll work in the future.”