Yep. You read that right, I made money selling used cardboard boxes. It sounds ridiculous, and it is, which is why I love telling this story. It was one of my earlier lessons in business, entrepreneurship, web development, and luck. I learned a huge amount from this side-business, but the key takeaway for me was the concept of resources, how they can be overlooked, mis-spent, and how one man’s trash truly can be another man’s treasure.

This venture was back in 2006-2008. I learned an absolute ton, and made a lot of mistakes too, which I’ll get into. It’s also how I got into web development as a career, but that’s another story. Let’s start at the start.

A Retail Upbringing

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My parents started and grew their own brick-and-mortar retail business “Get Fresh”, selling fruit and vegetables to Dublin (Ireland) and the surrounding area for over 30 years. It was more than a mom-and-pop operation, with 15 stores across Ireland’s capital at its peak. Not to be sniffed at by any means.

Naturally, as soon as I was able to carry a bag of spuds to a customer’s car, I was working in one of the shops. Throughout my teenage years it was mainly part-time work. Then, after completing a degree in Product Design, due to a downturn in the economy (totally not because I was a bad designer), I went full time as a greengrocer.

Eventually, I moved into the wholesale operation of the company. I was driving a van, a welcome change from forcing smiles for customers. However, with fruit and vegetables being essentially all I had done for work up until this point, I was looking for something else, anything else, to turn my hand to.

The Opportunity

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A regular problem we encountered was when customers would request that we keep them empty boxes for moving house. The boxes that the trays of eggs came in were highly sought after as they were plain brown cardboard, were usually reasonably clean and in good working order, but most importantly, they were large.

This posed a problem. Space was always at a premium in the store, with every nook and cranny usually filled with stock. It was frustrating, but we aimed to please, and so we did what we could in the name of customer satisfaction. As a store, we didn’t want to keep what was essentially rubbish lying around because it got in the way, was untidy, and more than half the time, the customer wouldn’t even come back, probably forgetting they ever asked us to keep them in the first place.

For customers moving house, it must have been time consuming, inconvenient and unreliable to drive around to multiple small retailers in the hope they kept you boxes. Surely there’s a better way…

The Idea

Ok, I can’t take full credit here. The idea originally came from my mother (thanks Mammy!). “Why don’t you try to sell them online”, she said to me one day. At first I thought it sounded ridiculous. I mean, who would pay money for a used cardboard box? That couldn’t possibly work… could it? But, if it did, it would solve all of our problems. The store gets rid of rubbish, the customers get a steady, reliable supply of boxes for moving house, and I get something new to try out.

So, I had a Google. There were indeed companies selling cardboard boxes online. However, I didn’t see anyone selling used cardboard boxes anywhere. Another thing I noticed was that their websites were terrible. They were slow, difficult to navigate, and difficult to buy from. They had low-res images, and often had a checkout process that required 5 steps and creating an account. It was clear they were targeting industrial clients, not individuals looking to move house.

As well as website issues, I noticed other issues. Delivery would take up to 10 days, far too long for someone panicking because they left it till the last minute. Also, figuring out the physical sizes of boxes on offer, as well as figuring out how many you’d need in a given size, was like some high level math question. Buying boxes should NOT be this complicated.

All of a sudden, I start to feel like I could do a better job than these companies (just a hint of arrogance). I had been looking for an excuse to teach myself web development anyway… hmmm (strokes beard)

Validation

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So far all I’ve got is a market that seems to be under-served, and notions of selling second hand egg boxes. Before I could proceed with this hilarious idea, I needed validation. I figured this is where the idea would falter. I like to think of myself as the efficient type, so I didn’t want to spend much time or money finding out if it’s a runner or not. I turned to local classifieds sites.

I had recently picked up a whopping eight megapixel point-and-shoot Canon camera, the height of photographic sophistication at the time, and decided to put it to some use. I took some really poorly lit snaps of the boxes, arrange all fancy like in zig-zag patterns and everything. I suppose I was trying to be interesting…

Up they went on some local classifieds sites, Donedeal, Adverts and GumTree. A few lines about what they are, and how big they were. The price? €2 per box, with a €5 delivery charge anywhere in South Dublin. I really, genuinely thought I was going to get calls and messages laughing at me that I’m an idiot for trying to sell used cardboard boxes.

A Sale!

Someone bought ten boxes. What??? Is this real life?? They send me a message with their phone number, asking me to call them, so I did. They were in Knocklyon, a 5 minute drive from one of the stores. All they wanted to know was can I deliver the next day. “Sure”, I said, followed by “so that’s €25 euro total then?”. “No problem”, the customer replied. Well… ok then.

Big whoop, one sale, wanna fight about it? A fluke, surely. The next day, 1 more sale for €35. €10 the next. Then, on the Thursday, a call. It was a primary school in Tipperary who saw the ad and wanted some boxes. I explained to them that I don’t deliver to that part of the country. They then replied saying “We need 200 boxes for next month”. That’s €400, for used, second-hand egg boxes. I decided to start delivering to Tipperary…

Logistics

Now, at this stage, I had about 5 stores that were kind enough to keep me their egg boxes. Each store went through about 10 boxes per week. Roughly a third of the egg boxes would get damaged in transit, or an egg would break on them, and they’d be unusable, or at least I was uncomfortable charging money for them. That meant I had about 35 boxes per week at my disposal. Even if I had zero other sales, I still didn’t have enough to fulfill the order. But I wanted that €400.

During my time working in the warehouse, I had gotten acquainted with our “egg guy”. I casually asked him where he gets his egg boxes, and he told me about a box factory up in Navan, about an hour’s drive away. I got their number and called to ask if I can pop in and pick up some boxes. It was clear they usually only sold to businesses, but they also weren’t going to turn away some kid with a bunch of cash ready to buy. I get there, and discover that I can get any amount of boxes I want, brand new, for €1. Well there’s my supply issue sorted, and my margins are still solid!

The next problem was getting the boxes to the customers. This was fine at the start when I was only selling to my local area, but more and more people from further afield needed the boxes too, so I took the opportunity with the primary school to set up an account with a courier company (shoutout to Vincent on the Sandyford beat for FastWay, top guy). They could take 35kg to anywhere in Ireland for €11, with next day, signed-for delivery. Amazing, I just solved my distribution problem too!

A Website

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So far, I was only making sales via online ad sites. As I mentioned earlier, I was looking for a reason to get into web development, and took this as my opportunity. Aside from about 2 hours learning about the existence of HTML in college, I was a total newb. But one of the great things about web development, is that anything you need to know is just a Google search away. It’s one of the few creative outlets where you can find information about the craft through the craft. You can’t ask a tree how to make a dovetail joint, or a jumper how to do a cross-stitch, but you can ask a website how to make another one just like it (sorta — you know what I mean). Through a combination of Google, random blogs and StackOverflow, I cobbled my first website together.

It was basic, but my lack of skills forced me to keep it simple, which solved one of the problems I identified earlier with my competitors. Their websites were complicated, with long checkout processes. I wanted it to be as quick and simple as possible, so I went with a Paypal “buy now” button. It worked a charm! I did have some feedback from customers who didn’t trust Paypal, and rathered cash. These were usually in Dublin so I could deliver them by hand and accept cold hard currency.

Amateur Photography (First Mistake)

It was around this point that I made my first misstep. I knew I needed good product photos, but I also knew from a little research that photographers are expensive. I was trying to bootstrap the business as much as possible, so I tried to manage the photography side of things myself. What followed was 2 months of buying a camera, buying a lighting setup from Amazon, and spending weeks trying to take good photos, and then when I couldn’t, butchering them in Photoshop while trying to make them better.

Finally, I gave in and enlisted the help of a local photography professional. She was amazing, and actually helped me come up with a solution to the problem of conveying size of the boxes. We agreed on a package of 7 images, and within a week I had the high resolution images on my site.

Using Images To Improve UX And Sales

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From my initial research into the market, I saw that my competitors weren’t paying attention to the images they were using. Often they were tiny, poorly lit and generic. Different sized boxes had the same standard image. The pictures were doing nothing to help the experience whatsoever! I saw this as an opportunity, somewhere my site could outshine the others.Another issue that quickly became apparent from the get-go was that people couldn’t understand the size of the boxes. In every ad I posted, I clearly stated the size in both metric AND imperial. And yet, the questions kept coming in via message and phone, “how big are the boxes?”. This was causing friction in the buying process, and was frustrating for the customer, as well as myself.

A simple solution that came up during discussions with the photographer was to include common household items in the product images. This serves to not only add colour and life to what would otherwise be a monotone and boring affair, but it also immediately provides the user with a scale of reference. They intuitively know how big the boxes were without having to ask.

Problem solved, and lesson learned. If something isn’t one of your personal core strengths, outsource it to a professional before wasting time and money.

Getting Traffic (Second Mistake)

Great, I had a pretty website that was miles ahead of the competition in terms of both user experience and ease of checkout. But, like most first-time website owners, I had never considered how people would actually get to my site. I naively believed the trope “build it and they will come”. That may be sort of true about problems in general, but Google’s algorithms don’t seem to abide by that law unfortunately.

Again, stubbornly, I refused to pay someone to solve this problem for me. I was determined to figure it out for myself. Long story short, I ended up spending months and a lot of money on wasted ad campaigns trying to get Google to notice me and send me traffic.

Eventually, I relented. A company got in touch that promised to get me ranking higher for some targeted keywords. Now, I don’t think this approach would work nowadays, as Google is fairly clever in how it deals with sites that are being artificially bumped up the rankings by dodgy links. After some back and forth regarding pricing and timelines, we eventually came to an agreement.

Within 3 months I was receiving regular traffic from Google for those keywords and keyphrases. Again, I’m not advocating for shady online business practices, but the lesson here still applies, when something isn’t a part of your core strengths, outsource it. For me nowadays, this might be content marketing, or building an ad campaign, but not paying a company for links.

Cruise Control (Third Mistake)

And here, we see the third mistake I made. It spanned the entirety of the business’s life, and is potentially what killed it.

I went into a sort of autopilot mode. What I should have done is outsource the nitty gritty. Instead, I stayed in the trenches collecting cardboard boxes and packaging them to be shipped. This meant I got bored, and the business didn’t grow as much as it should have. How could it, when the only person working on it was me.

This was doing the business an injustice. I was working in the business, not on it. I’ve since read this common pitfall again and again in numerous books and blog posts. It’s a common occurrence it seems, when founders don’t realise that what got you here won’t get you there. It’s essential to grow and adapt with the business, otherwise it will likely stagnate, and you won’t be ready when disaster inevitably hits.

And Then… It Hit

The housing crisis of 2008. Suddenly, people stopped buying new houses, and instead opted to improve their own with renovations or simply held off on moving until the value of their homes recovered.

Part of me felt absolved of responsibility. What can you do when an entire industry collapses in front of you. But in retrospect, I could have been more prepared, or at least have grown faster and made more money by getting out of the trenches and focusing on the next thing that would push the business forward.

I wound the business down, locking the lessons away in my head, to be fed into my next idea. It might be one of the projects in my portfolio, or it might be something new altogether. Who knows.

The business collected me over €20,000 in one year (its best year). There was a year and a half building up to it, and about 6 months afterwards. The real value for me, however, were the lessons.

Why It Worked

Buyabox.ie worked because it was filling a niche in a market. An underserved portion of the box-buying community. It didn’t work because I was selling cheap boxes, or a green reduce, reuse, recycle type of product for the eco-conscious. It worked because I was selling convenience. Customers often knew they could drive around to lots of shops and ask them to keep boxes for them. But it could take them a whole day and it wasn’t guaranteed.

Figuring out what the actual value proposition was took me a lot longer than it should have. I thought it was the price, or the eco-friendliness. In the end though, if you simply appeal to people’s laziness well enough, you can make money.

The business collected me over €20,000 in one year (its best year). There was a year and a half building up to it, and about 6 months afterwards. The real value for me, however, were the lessons.

They are

  • If you’re looking for an idea, look around and see what resources you have. It could be time, money, knowledge, cardboard boxes even. Use that as your unfair advantage to get a foothold in an established industry
  • Know what you’re selling. It might look like I was selling cardboard boxes, but the actual product was convenience. Most people knew they could get boxes for free by asking local stores, but they wanted them delivered to their door the next day, and were willing to pay for it.
  • Know when to outsource. If it’s not one of your core strengths, then you need to delegate it to someone else, or run the risk of wasting a lot of time and money.
  • Talk to customers. Use any opportunity you can to engage personally. Pay attention to repeated customer enquiries. If you’re getting asked the same questions again and again, address the problem at its source.
  • Make sure you grow with your business. If your day-to-day at the moment is the same as it was 6 months ago, something’s wrong and you need to fix it

Since wrapping up this business and moving onto building and managing websites as a career, the housing market in Ireland has bounced back. Perhaps there’s an opportunity for an enterprising warehouse or factory worker with lots of boxes lying around to pick up the torch? Get in touch if you think that’s you. :)

Did you like this story? I’ll be adding more soon, with other projects and side businesses I set up in the past, and want to set up in the future. Follow me on Twitter and sign up for email updates below so you don’t miss out.