The $0 Ad Budget: How They Grew Their Business Without a Single Advertisement
On paper, Mandie and Aubrey are very similar.
Calling Utah home, they both work full-time as well as handling the responsibilities of being a mom. And with their matching blonde hair, you’d easily mistake them for sisters.
As I speak to them, their differences start to emerge. Mandie is talkative and bubbly, a self-confessed online shopping addict with plenty of energy to burn. Aubrey is a little more reserved. I can see her listening carefully to my questions, and she answers me with thoughtful, detailed responses. Or as Mandie describes her, “She’s very responsible.”
But in the way of all great partnerships, they seem to balance each other out. The dynamic they’ve found has helped them hustle and grow their business quickly. Their success has been rapid. In the six months since launching their ecommerce store in April 2018, they’ve made over $100,000 in revenue.
And most unbelievable of all?
They did it without spending a dollar on advertising.
So what’s the secret to their success? Let’s find out.
Editor’s note: FYI, to protect them from extra competition we’ve chosen to not reveal the name of Mandie and Aubrey’s business. You will find a detailed discussion about the products they sell and how they attract their customers.
Hey, I Think There’s Something in This!
Mandie loves online shopping. That’s a fact. She’ll happily spend hours browsing online stores, looking for interesting new household gadgets, beauty products, and toys for her children.
When she first discovered the online marketplace AliExpress, which lists hundreds of thousands of items from Chinese manufacturers and suppliers, she was shocked by the variety and low cost of the items. Not a lot of people from the US are familiar with the platform, and she sensed an opportunity.
It was perfect. She could do what she does best (online shopping), and scour the platform for new and interesting products. Then she’d resell them to an audience back in the US, increasing the prices a little to make a small profit.
She could sense the potential to grow this idea into a little side-hustle, a fun way to satisfy her online shopping cravings, spend her spare time, and make a little extra money on the side.
She decided she’d start up a Facebook group where she’d advertise the products to a small circle of people. Facebook was already home to so many different buy and sell groups, and she spent so much time there already. It just made sense.
While she was confident that the idea could work, Mandie knew that she wasn’t game to go it alone. She needed a business partner to help balance the workload, and to help motivate her through those “Can’t I just take a nap instead?!” moments.
The Beginnings of Their Partnership
Mandie and Aubrey knew each other, sure. But you wouldn’t say they were friends.
“We knew each other a little bit,” says Mandie. “But I just knew that this girl knows what she is talking about, she knows what she’s doing, and I need her to be on my team.”
Mandie began “courting” Aubrey, trying to convince her to get her on board with the idea.
Aubrey was cautious at first, unsure if there would be anyone interested in buying, and worried they’d end up sinking a lot of money into the project with no return. But as Mandie talked her through the idea, it started to make more and more sense.
Mandie remembers the excitement of the day she convinced Aubrey to join. “I went home from her house that day and I told my husband, ‘She said yes! Aubrey’s in!’ and he was like, ‘Alright, so it’s really happening now!’”
(L-R) Aubrey and Mandie
Stage I: The Facebook Group
The idea behind their group was simple. Each week, Mandie would spend time looking for products on AliExpress that she thought the Facebook group would like. She’d find one or two, add a small markup to the item, and post about it in their group each Tuesday, encouraging people to place a pre-order of the items.
At first the plan was to sell locally to people they knew, other moms and friends of friends. People would place their order within the group and Mandie and Aubrey would record their order in a spreadsheet. They’d place the orders with their supplier in bulk and have the items shipped to their house, where people would come pick them up. It was a simple system, really, and it meant that they were able to develop a personal relationship with so many of their customers.
Up until then, the group had grown slowly, through word of mouth. Friends would add their friends, and others would apply to join after hearing it mentioned by someone. In December they decided to host a giveaway.
The idea behind the giveaway was simple – add your friends to the group and you could win some free product. Easy. They kicked things off and watched as the member requests started to trickle in. Quickly that trickle turned to a flood.
At the end of the giveaway, the group had swelled from 2,000 to over 8,000 members. For $15 worth of free product they gave away, it was a raging success.
But the success of the giveaway came at a price.
“The group really just exploded kind of out of control and unexpectedly,” recalls Aubrey. “We were sitting there like, ‘Oh my gosh. We have 300 orders for this one product.’”
Mandie and Aubrey were fulfilling each of these orders manually. They’d copy the customer’s address and order details over to a spreadsheet, and fumble through their PayPal receipts trying to match up the payment confirmation. Processing the orders for every new product would take them hours and hours of work.
Aubrey remembers how draining it felt for them both.
“I’ve got a full-time job, she’s got a full-time job. We both have kids. It was like, we love the success, but this is taking too much time. We just don’t have the time to be doing this. At the end of the workday, we don’t want to be up until two in the morning every single night, working so hard for brainless work.”
“We were making two to three dollars an hour for how much time we were putting into it, and it was becoming unappealing,” adds Mandie.
The pair were desperate for a solution. They knew they were onto something good – after all, their problem was dealing with too many sales rather than none – but they couldn’t continue like this for long.
The growth of their Facebook group has gone up and up.
How Can They Fix This?
Mandie thought about way they could streamline their ordering process. Their manual system was a nightmare to deal with, so she looked for a way they could collect payment and delivery details at once.
Building a simple online store seemed like a step in the right direction. With the shop, she would be able to collect orders and payments from customers at the same time and in the same place. Thankfully, this meant the end for their spreadsheets!
She began to build her Shopify store. While browsing through the app store, she came across Oberlo, a tool for sourcing products to sell from suppliers.
Oberlo would help her discover new products to sell and handle the connection between her online storefront and the supplier’s inventory. Once a customer bought a product from her store, Oberlo would automate the ordering process. It would automatically fill in a customer’s order and address details, and send them to the supplier. The supplier would take care of shipping the item directly to her customer’s door.
“I remember that very first night setting up my store with Oberlo after I watched a webinar,” Mandie says. “I watched all the instructional videos and read through all the pages of Oberlo until like 3 o’clock in the morning because I was like, ‘This is everything we’ve been looking for! This is incredible!’“
Mandie was sold. She realized how much time it was going to be able to save them. They’d finally be free from the late nights spent manually fulfilling orders
But now, she had to convince Aubrey.
“When she first explained it to me, it just seemed really complicated,” Aubrey says. “I was thinking that we weren’t going to have control over how the ordering works, and we’re not going to be able to check everything. It sounded like a nightmare.”
But Mandie persisted. She knew she had to prove to Aubrey that it was going to make their lives easier, not harder. She sat her down, and walked her through the process.
“I showed her all you have to do is to import a product to your store, you change the name and the description a little bit, pick what photos you want, and if someone orders it, this is what you do…” says Mandie.
Next, she clicked the “Order product” button. “We watched it go to the AliExpress page, select the options for you, and start filling in the address. Her eyes just got bigger and bigger.”
Aubrey remembers the moment, surprised about how easy it looked in comparison to their grueling spreadsheet process. “It was exactly what we wanted. We talked so many times about how we wanted more volume and less time. To be able to have more products and less time investment.”
Stage II: More Products. Less Time. More Sales.
With less time spent on the grunt work of fulfilling orders, they now had the freedom to start thinking about how to expand their business.
They noticed that their group was made up almost entirely of females from the US, between 21-39 years old. That put both Mandie and Aubrey smack bang in the middle of their target demographic.
When Mandie was looking for new products to sell, she would ask herself, “Would this be useful for someone like me?”
And so the goal now was to fill the store each week with six new products that their community could get excited about.
They’ve narrowed their focus by looking mostly for household items like kitchen gadgets and organizational products. They also look for interesting beauty products, as well as toys and clothing for children.
To find them, they scour top-selling items from suppliers, looking for trending products. “I really enjoy that aspect of business actually, the product sourcing. That’s a fun thing for me,” says Mandie.
Every week on Monday, they find the six new products for their store and hype them in the Facebook group. The vibe of the community is positive and friendly, and people are excited to jump onto the posts to comment and tag their friends.
On Tuesday, the products go live. Over the course of the week, the sales continue to flow in before slowing down to a trickle on Sunday evening, when the products are removed. After all the sales from that week are in, they’ll place a bulk order of the products with their suppliers. On Monday the whole process begins again.
Each week functions as a new round of product testing. They get to learn a little more about the types of products their community likes, and which ones they don’t. If a product sells well, they keep it on the site for the following weeks so more customers have a chance to buy.
But if the product bombs and nobody buys it, it’s no big loss. They haven’t spent any money on stocking inventory of the products, or any money on advertising it, so they take note, and move on. No heartbreak here.
This brings us to one of the most interesting parts of this story.
Mandie and Aubrey have spent no money on advertising.
“We’ve never spent any money on advertising at all,” says Mandie. “We’ve never done one Google ad or one Facebook ad, never.”
So while the rest of us are fretting over Facebook targeting and return on ad spend figures, they’re making money without any marketing costs. But how?
The Power of Community
Aubrey and Mandie have cultivated a dream situation for ecommerce owners.
They’ve got a group of over 8,500 people who are eager to hear about their new products and excited to buy them. These customers trust Aubrey and Mandie’s product recommendations and will buy from them over and over.
“Our repeat customers each week is about 40 to 50%. We’ve got some people where we know their name now and we’re like, ‘Oh love her, she buys everything every week,’” says Mandie.
But it didn’t happen just by chance. They’ve spent a long time building up a sense of trust with their Facebook group. They take the trust between themselves and their customers seriously and work hard to maintain it.
One of the steps they take to help build this trust is to test every product themselves before they offer it to their customers. They will order the product with their supplier and ship it to themselves so that they can take a look at it in real life and test it for quality.
Every week, parcels of new products turn up on Mandie’s doorstep for testing. “That’s my favorite part, but my mailman hates me,” she laughs.
Some products don’t make the cut, and they’ve got a big pile of rejects that never made it on the store for sale.
Once they’ve got the products in their hands, they’re also able to take more photos and show off how they work. They’ll even do Facebook live videos demonstrating how the products work.
Mandie product testing their black face mask
Aubrey thinks this is crucial to building credibility with their audience. “That way we can say, here’s the product, here’s me holding the product, and here’s me using the product. I know this works. So customers know that we’re not just selling cheap crap that might look great in the pictures, but isn’t good quality. The trust in our group is really quite strong.”
To help demonstrate one of their most recent products, charcoal tooth whitening powder, Mandie put her pearly whites on show.
“People saw the posts and they’d say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re using that charcoal tooth whitening powder! And those are your teeth?!’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, I swear! Here’s my face and here’s my teeth!’” she says.
“A lot of the good feedback we get from our customers is that they know they’re getting quality products because we use them ourselves,” says Aubrey.
Going live on Facebook to show off this week’s products
What Makes Them Great Business Partners?
While the two women had some concerns at the beginning about how they would balance the work between them, it’s turned out better than they could have imagined.
“There’s never once been an issue with us feeling like the other person is doing more or we aren’t doing enough. Because we both just really enjoy it so much, we work on it whenever we can,” says Mandie.
“It kind of organically fell into us both doing the side of the business that we’re more comfortable in. Mandie loves to do product research, and she’s constantly sending me pictures of new products. I handle things like checking on our stats, and almost all of our customer service,” says Aubrey.
When asked to reflect on what makes them such great partners, they start reeling off the great qualities of the other.
“She makes ideas into a business,” says Mandie.
“And she has the ideas,” adds Aubrey.
“Neither of us would be as successful without the other,” Mandie concludes.
The benefits of having a business partner aren’t just about sharing the workload, Mandie says, it also helps her get more done. “The fact that I have a partner means I want to do better. Sometimes I just want to go to bed, and I’ll think, ‘No, what would Aubrey want me to do? She’d want me to fulfill these orders. I owe it to her. I’ll go do it.’ And so it keeps me accountable.”
Now, the two are close friends and look forward to spending time hanging out and working on the business together. “Right before we got on this call we were watching Netflix together, and I had my computer and I’m holding it, and I’d stop to do a product description every once in a while. It’s really enjoyable,” says Mandie.
Now the business has found its groove, they’re thinking about where to go next. They’ve got plans to expand the business, reaching an audience outside of their Facebook group. Really, with such a strong partnership, anything feels possible.
“The dust has settled, it’s good now, and we’re in a really great place. So now what?”
Inspired to launch your own ecommerce dropshipping store? Get started with Oberlo here.