This post is by James Fend, a veteran online marketer, web designer, and developer. He is also the founder of Feedbackz, software which can automatically email Amazon buyers with follow-up requests for seller feedback and product reviews. This post was first published in two parts on the Feedbackz blog: Amazon Success Story and Amazon Horror Story.
I am writing this long-overdue story about my journey on Amazon FBA. I’ll try to get into some good stuff from humble beginnings to month 8.
First Trimester: From $0 To $500 – Month 1 to Month 3
Ahh… yes, I’ll start here. I kind of jumped late into the Amazon game, well at least I believe it was late. Like anything in life in hindsight; I wish I had known about Amazon in around 2011 so I could be a BIG DOG before there was any comp. Wouldn’t that be lovely. Truth is: I actually didn’t start pursuing Amazon until May of 2014.
The first time I heard Amazon FBA mentioned was at a internet marketing conference in San Diego around January 2014. It was the biggest internet marketers in the world there, and I got invited out to a mastermind session. Well in this session, Amazon FBA kept coming up amongst other money making things on the internet, and I shrugged FBA off. No one mentioned any amount they were making, so I just thought:
“Oh great, another eBay, nobody is gonna make legit, long-term money more than couple hundred a month except the few fish… I don’t have time for that.”
Also, that was back when I didn’t even think about private labeling… but the pre-conceived notion in my mind was that all Amazon sellers were “re-sellers” because that’s all I saw shopping on Amazon for years.
Then I grabbed coffee from the conference with a person I just met there, they mentioned they broke $5k in sales and they just started 2 months ago. They were in the beauty skin care niche. “Oh, cool” I thought. “Still not worth it, I could be pursuing million dollar ideas, not Amazon.”
Selling on Amazon actually didn’t quite click yet in my head until I heard a podcast a few months later about this guy doing a million a month. That caught my attention.. too many mentions and for the first time, I heard millionaires could be made without having to “re-sell”. Jumping from store to store looking for clearance products wasn’t my cup of tea. I know in order to make real money, you have to disassociate a dollar amount to an hour of your life. Passive income, as much as possible.
With private labeling.. I knew this could be achieved. I jumped in head first… WITH A MEAGER $500.
Did You Start Before The Competition Grabbed Hold?
When I first started, it was already saturated (so those of you just joining, don’t side-eye me! haha). The big guys and products were already ranked 1,000+ reviews in and established. So it’s not much different than it is today, there were a bit less (what I coin) TIER 2 and TIER 3 private label products… those are probably the majority of us:
TIER 2: Ranked 1st page, 50+ reviews, steady selling 20-30 units per day, but not quite beating out the top two dogs.
TIER 3: Ranked 2nd+ page, 25+ reviews, selling 5-20 units a day, but ranking up quite quickly. Fighting to gain traction against Tier 2 guys.
So yes, the competition has gotten much stiffer, but not something to be scared of. BECAUSE DOMINATING NICHES IS A WIDE OPEN BALL PARK ON AMAZON. Get in the gold rush while there’s still gold in the rivers.
With $500 in my hands… and a few years experience on running online businesses. The name of the game is: speed to market. Launch. Get a product up. Prove it sells. See if volume and everything else on your checklist is actually viable. Perfect things later.
Tip: You can’t sit and research and research and research. You’ll never get anywhere. You’ll simply remain a want-trepreneur. One who talks a lot, does nothing. The only true way to know if something sells is to sell it and see how it goes. (Doesn’t mean completely disregard basic viability checklists.) But out of 30+ products I’ve launched, I have come across 6-7 gems aka keepers. It’s only when you get these gems that you hunker down and try to rank the sh*t out of them.
With this in mind, I wanted to get 4-5 products up. Perfect labeling and packaging? Forget that… I went to Office Depot, got some clear return address labels, printed my logo on there and slapped them right onto the product. Enough to legitimately sell as a brand and new listing.
My first product ideas came directly from stuff I found around the house. I looked around at what I used, what I bought in the last months, anything.
Some products in my initial list:
- body fat calipers,
- body measuring tapes,
- jogger pants,
- dog shock collars,
- led dog collars,
- and three more products (that I still sell today).
I wrote them down; I thought… how many of these sell in the world a day? Hundreds? Cool… on the list. Were they difficult to make/ship/package? No, cool… on the list. A few more filters, and off to AliExpress.com I went.
AliExpress… not Alibaba.com. Want to know how to waste a huge amount of time and money on a product you may or may not even be able to sell or sell well or (insert million other disadvantages). MOQs alone turned me off because I needed to prove these products first.
AliExpress, I can buy them individually. Would I profit? No… no I didn’t. Did I break even? Barely. But I got something much more valuable: proof and traction. I bought 4-5 of each product on my final list. Used free shipping via EMS. Got my products 2-3 weeks later. Create my listings, slapped some labels on, sent them into FBA. A couple weeks later selling with live products, I found out if:
- They sold? At what price? How many moved? Conversion rate?
- How much they sold compared to my rankings and what the top dogs might be doing
- Was it a pain in the a** to package/prep/ship/etc.
- Is it actually providing value? How was the return rate? Were folks complaining left and right? Could I fix it?
- Guesstimate how far I could take this product if I ranked the crap out of it and with X amount of reviews and optimized the listing even better.
Enough yes’s… and then that’s when I hit Alibaba (and even AliExpress again if MOQs was still too low for any good margins) looking to make the first initial 100-300 unit bulk order. I put this purchase on my credit card. And paid it off as soon I re-made the money.
Second Trimester: From $500 to $5,000 – Month 3 to Month 5
So I bought around 100 more units of jogger pants, dog shock collars, led dog collars, and three more products. I dropped the body fat calipers and body measuring tapes.
That’s when I started drilling down into the meat of ranking. Luckily, I’ve had years and years of experience with SEO and online startups, so I’ve seen and done it all; and directly applied it to Amazon and what I thought and observed things to work. (BTW: IMO Amazon’s search is a version of Google in 2008. More on this later.)
Three major improvements I attacked first:
- More reviews.
- Optimize the listings better (better pics, better keyword research and applying them into the listing anyway possible, better copy writing).
- Make the packaging and labeling more legit.
More on these tactics later… but a general overview:
More Reviews – Hustle, hustle, hustle. I hit up all my family and people I knew I wanted to share what I was selling (without feeling too embarrassed haha). I also started hitting up forums and started giving them away for free. I hit the major forums in each niche where people that would use the product hung out at. Many of these forums are gated, so a lot of times my post threads got deleted. The ones that stayed and flew under the radar paid off in big dividends. I would repeat this process of giving away product on forums until I reached 50+ reviews.
Optimize Listings – I sat for hours and went through things I bought on Amazon over the years… what made me purchase what I did and why? The subconscious stuff, the things I didn’t realize I did at the moment. It was mostly around reading reviews. And when I say “reading”… I mean more like “skimming” reviews of products. Good pictures was another trigger. Most times, I was looking for something small or specific and many times a picture just so happened to have it in there. Well, enough in the picture that I could put 2 and 2 together and assume the product would probably fit my needs. Same thing with copy text in the description: there were subtle things I was looking for. Many times, I had multiple tabs up and most of the products were the same exact… but there was something specific I was looking for. Most times, if you aren’t a user of the product yourself, you wouldn’t even know it made that big of a difference. I call this ST Factors (I’d eventually like to get big enough where I can start coining terms and people actually use them! Maybe even get credit for?)
ST Factors = Subconscious Trigger Factors
With hawk-like vision, I hunkered down on why I bought the products I was selling. What were the ST Factors? Truth be told, many of the ST Factors are actually sitting right in your face… read through reviews on your competitors and you’ll quickly realize what those things are. And you need to address those that aren’t in the listing.
Once you find them:
- List them on the product titles (especially if it’s major ones)
- Address them in bullet points up top.
- Address them in the description.
- Show them in your product images.
Oh, another tip on ST Factors:
Don’t just read the negative reviews on your competitors, read the good, positive ones. And thoroughly… Many times, the good ones are good because they are re-confirming a ST Factor that the product listing missed, and (most times get upvoted by others) because they assure the potential buyer that this product fits that specific ST Factor.
Take for example: I was buying a new basketball, a Wilson Composite ($50+ basketball). The listing had tons of reviews, etc. etc. but it didn’t list the exact size. Like any person in this century, a quick Google search brought up that they come in junior and regular size. Well, this listing didn’t say either. And with the price being way below anything you’ll find offline, one would think it’s the cheaper junior size, right?
Well… guess what one of the top reviews was? Someone saying… “hey guys, took the risk… the ball is actually the regular size and not junior FYI.” Anyone selling the same ball with the size in the product title… I guarantee you their sales would kill that one.
After optimizing, conversions were sitting at a whopping 15% to 20% on all of my products. Even ranked at 8th or 9th on the 1st page, more people were choosing to buy mine. That’s how I moved up… Amazon likes to rank those that sell best and generate them the most revenue in the shortest amount of time (go figure).
Packaging and labeling – No more Avery labels with a simple logos. I moved onto more custom size labels I bought off eBay that fit the box or packaging better and more crisp. I took the time (thank God I can graphic design as well) and designed completely new labels to make sure these things looked like a legitimate brand. I’d go through stores and look at actual products and their packaging and how they did their branding and design, then added my own remix to my products. I re-did the product pictures with the fancy new labels and updated my listings.
Also to add, it was during this phase when I was gaining epic growth. Products were moving fast… and more and more I was gaining traction and catching up.
Last Trimester: From $5,000 To $50,000 – Month 5 to Month 8
Yeah… you read that title correctly. $5 to $50k… a big damn jump huh? My growth at that point was exponential… I hit that part of the bell curve. Even with dropping most of the listed products (due to various reasons)… 80/20 rule. 20% of the products I had listed up were making 80% of the money. So I cut off the other 80% of the products, focused on ranking the 20% and finding more 20%’er products.
The only thing at that point I was messing up on was inventory issues. Keeping products in stock. Cashflow. Timing my inventory purchases so that when I ran out, I got xx,xxx units arriving from China a few days before to pack/label and ship out to FBA centers.
Through my ranking tactics and techniques; I had:
- Three products ranking in top 3 for main volume keywords for the niche and ranking #1 for lesser volume keywords.
- All others ranking minimum page 2 of search results.
- My lowest revenue product was moving 30 units a day, most were hitting 50+ units a day.
- All my products had over 50+ reviews.
- Three of them with over 100+ reviews (they were coming in organically… big factor here).
- One with 175+ reviews.
- All had video reviews ranked at the top.
- All of them super optimized with ST Factors.
During this time, I had to tap into a Kabbage loan… twice. I was on fire. I started looking to add more products and did just that. Same process… same bootstrapped process from AliExpress.
Moving that much product; I could start testing out what factors I thought Amazon was using to rank products in their search results. I learned a lot. I went after reviews and other things like a mad man.
Life was good. Life was passive. Money was rolling in. Took a few (3 to be exact) trips out to Vegas in 1 year.
As mentioned before; I was adding more products to my portfolio. Diversifying as much as possible across completely different niches.
Then… Amazon suspended one of my accounts. Held $xx,xxx’s in deposits, froze all my listings.
Which leads into my two-left-footed dance with Seller Performance.
How Suspension Crashed My Sales
My Amazon account got hit with a suspension that nearly wiped out all of my sales. I know there’s some pressing questions:
- WTF did you do?
- Are you back?
I’d like to first spoil the story by saying, yes, I am back selling on Amazon with my account back in good standing, but unfortunately, I was forced to delete my listings which meant I had to drop a lot of my high flying products. I am not quite back to my old numbers but closing in fast.
Second, I’d like to also address that… to this day, I still really have no clue or idea as to why I was suspended and my listings had to be deleted. There was in no way any foul play or black hat (term coined in online marketing world as illegal or shady tactics) used to get those product listings going.
Out of my many years of online business, I learned quickly: you play with fire, you get burnt. In this case, I knew selling on Amazon was (and still is) too much of a gold mine to be playing around with the BanHammer, so I kept and still keep everything 100% legit.
Besides if you sell a quality product and optimize the listings in a viable niche, the nearest competitors have a couple stock images and poor descriptions; your product is gonna eventually make it to the top anyways without gaming.
Unlike Google, where you might get ignored or worse case slapped back down in rankings for “black hat” tactics, Amazon will boot you and everything tied to your social security, slam the door, flip the CLOSED sign in the window, and you walk home… alone… to never come back… ever.
With that said, I know this may strike some fear in you:
- WHAT THE HECK IS LEGIT?
- WHAT IS CONSIDERED BLACK HAT?
- WHAT IS CONSIDERED GREY HAT?
With that out of the way, let’s jump into the story!
The Gut Wrenching Suspension Email
Around noon on one of the worst Mondays ever, I read an email off my phone that I had to re-read five times. Was this for real?
I KNOW I was playing by the rules… so how could this happen?
Every product I had/have was private labeled and completely (logos, website, packaging, Amazon brand registered, etc. etc.) created by me so no way any counterfeit, authenticity, conditions, etc. could bite me in the butt, right?
Outside of the products itself, I was totally white-hat… didn’t do any crazy Illuminati review pyramid scheme, no fake sales, no fake reviews… nothing. I was sleeping at night confident I was building a real brand and real business.
But sure enough… this was in my inbox:
We are writing to let you know we have removed your selling privileges, cancelled your listings, and a temporary hold has been placed on funds from your Amazon.com sales. Any new selling accounts you open will be closed.
We took this action because it has come to our attention that you have continued to list items which violate our Condition Guidelines and/or our policies regarding product authenticity.
A quick back-story: due to stupid, low life, unethical competitors, I’ve actually had times where I had some product listings suspended due to false counterfeit or authenticity claims. Of course, I got all that straightened out without trouble because I could easily prove I was the one and only manufacturer, distributor, and retailer of my brand(s).
But I’ve never had my total account suspended. This was a different beast. You can kind of imagine how my day went since I got that email: confused, destroyed, anger, sadness, extreme worry, etc. etc. Worse yet; on top of all this, I’m an expecting dad in the next months. I quickly thought about what my cash flow would be like when the little one arrived… if I could even get my cash flow back.
When they suspend your account; they:
- Hold any deposits you have due back for 90 days! (totally messes up your cashflow and future inventory schedule)
- Cancel out all your precious, self-made product listings.
- Many things on Seller Central are restricted so you can’t make edits, check data, etc. etc.
My one glimmer of hope:
APPEAL THE SUSPENSION TO SELLER PERFORMANCE…
This must just be some big misunderstanding, right? The email clearly states that it’s related to either misinformation on the listing or authenticity issues.
I mean… I’ve done it before successfully with the false accusations on my listings.. and those were “misunderstandings” too. I was optimistic.
The Most Painful Dance/Fight Ever With Seller Performance
Cool… so before you read on. I must warn you… nothing makes sense. Which is why I’m still kind of dumbfounded as I write back on this. (I moved on… I had to.) So if you’re looking for some magic hoo-rah where James comes back like MJ in the 4th quarter type thing… it doesn’t happen. BUT… it’s nice to know how I played my cards versus if you (hopefully not!) ever find yourself in the same position.
A few facts to know about seller performance:
- They can only be contacted via email.
- They take their time to respond (anywhere from 3-5 business days as I’ve experienced to horror stories of them taking up to a month).
- Get straight to the point. They do not empathize with your sob story nor have time to read through any sugar coating.
A few guesses and observations about seller performance.
- A different person reads your appeals depending on who’s on shift. So one time you might get told one thing and then something completely different the next. There is not one person assigned to your case.
- They are a rogue SEAL Team Six department. There is no checks or balances in this branch.
- Email firstname.lastname@example.org? Good luck.
Submitting My Official Appeal
So I hit the first thing anybody would do: Google. I come across an article by Cynthia Stine which gave some tidbits on how to structure your appeal like:
- Be short and to the point.
- Don’t write about your personal losses and hardship.
- Take full accountability.
- Offer an action plan on how you plan to solve the problem.
- Address that your problems affected Amazon’s customers.
So within a few hours of thoughtful crafting; I jump onto my seller central and submit my appeal.
My whole logic behind this appeal submission was to try to:
- Get a bit more information on what the actual, specific violation was so I could fix it directly.
- Reiterate that all my products are indeed fully owned and sold by my company.
- Reiterate that I take full responsibility for any violation and any harm caused to Amazon’s customers, in addition; I am trying to build a legit, long-term business on Amazon.
Things I wish I could of done better in the appeal:
- Make it much shorter, it was too long.
- Added in a bunch of stuff that wasn’t needed? (Even though I didn’t even know what exactly to appeal so I was throwing darts on what I thought was the violation from previous email.)
The Following Back And Forth Responses
Seller Performance Responds To My Appeal
They ask for three things: an action plan, copies of my receipts/invoices, and my suppliers information. Cool, I thought… they just want to make sure that I am indeed the owner of my brand and that they just need to verify. Must of been too many flags on the account for false authenticity accusations on my listings; maybe I had hit the tipping point and they needed credentials. I was optimistic.
I totally comply and send them back all the information they want and need.
Seller Performance Responds:
Thank you for writing regarding your account that was recently blocked. We have reviewed this situation, and have decided not to reinstate your account.
As we have indicated in our previous warning to you, listing generic or off-brand items against detail pages for specific brands is against our terms of service. Sellers are asked not to deviate from the format or product listed in our retail catalog. As stated in our policies, sellers may not list items against detail pages for different products.
Then I was hit with the WORST NEWS EVER… A denial on my appeal. My heart and stomach sink into the absolutely worse feeling ever. I just didn’t understand?? I just complied with everything asked of me. What made it worse was that: I had absolutely no idea what the problem was. So the first email they sent states that there was a “product authenticity” issue, and now they are saying pretty much saying my listing descriptions don’t match my products?
Confused as ever. At this point, I just went into a straight emergency mode. With zero idea of what to fix. I just decided that with the money they are holding from my deposits and importance of me having seller privileges long-term again, I would remove all listings and never sell these particular products again. I was desperate; that was the only real way to comply with it all. I couldn’t afford the time to go back and forth with seller performance (if they would even entertain or respond to any more of my emails since they denied the appeal) to try to figure out what the real direct problem was… it was all or nothing at this point. How will I get rid of all the extra inventory? I’d have to do it offline or other marketplaces like eBay… problems I will worry about later. So I prayed and prayed and sent another action plan (and prayed some more, hoping they would respond).
Seller Performance Responds
They respond! Whew… at least they are giving me a shot to continue my appeal. But now I’m more confused as ever. I send them an action plan and they send this:
We appreciate the information you have provided. However, a review of your account indicates you have listed against detail pages that do not accurately describe your items or are not in accordance with our Condition Guidelines.
Huh? Oh… kay? So in my mind; I am thinking okay, they liked my action plan but they needed to see some action. So I go through and start executing through them, and send them an updated response.
Seller Performance Responds
Same exact response as before.
Okay? I must of not done enough of the action plans yet to satisfy them. Between doing removals and other things, I did about 9 out of 10 of the action steps and send a response.
Seller Performance Responds
Same exact response as before.
Uh… okay? At this point; it’s been over a month or so since my suspension. I am finally at a point where I just delete everything, listings, etc. and send them back my response.
Seller Performance Responds
Finally a different response. They state that my account is under review! And a few days later I get a notification that my selling privileges have been reinstated. I got my deposits unfrozen and everything else with the reinstatement.
It was the most bitter-sweet moment in a long time. On one hand, I lost a lot of my products and everything I built up for them. Completely gone. On the other hand, I am back in good standing with Amazon and can sell again.
Present Day And How I Am Doing Now
Although I haven’t completely recovered from what I was bringing in before, I am closing in fast. Luckily, during that time, I was building more brands and more products so I had a couple under the wings just about ready to launch. I was just either waiting on samples from suppliers or had already put in my first bulk order. So my recovery didn’t take that long. Thank God. But it did mess me up cash flow wise pretty badly. Most of my money was tied into inventory; I had to liquidate the rest of that inventory offline and other marketplaces. Had to juggle a bunch of things to pay off a Kabbage loan on time while waiting on the money, etc. etc.
So… there it is folks. There’s my suspension story.
What did I learn from it? Oh, man… A LOT. Mainly:
DIVERSIFY YOUR CHANNELS AND INCOME. As soon as you possibly can.
You are playing in Amazon’s play ground; they own the rules. You are riding shot gun, you are not driving. Peace of mind is a very underestimated feeling and emotion.
Hope you enjoyed the article. If you have a suspension story you want to share, I’d love to hear it in the comments!