How I created a profitable e-commerce business from scratch

Shaun Phelan
8 min readMar 6, 2021

In this post I’m going to explain how I created a profitable e-commerce business from an insight, to a brand with a global customer base. Through rapid prototyping and real customer feedback I was able to validate the idea and launch a product that was profitable within two weeks of hitting the market.

My journey into the e-commerce world started where many product success stories begin, by simply observing a problem that didn’t have a good solution… yet!

The Insight — Finding the right yoga mat.

I’ve been part of the yoga community for many years, firstly as a student and more recently as a teacher.

I’m passionate about solving problems for the wider yoga community as I’ve seen the positive impacts the practice provides for our society.

Yogis care deeply about the environment and reducing their ecological footprint. They also care about practising on a yoga mat that they won’t slip on during challenging flows, as this can be both dangerous and distracting.

The mats available were either high-performance but made with unhealthy toxic rubbers or they were eco-friendly but sub-par when it came to performance factors like grip and durability.

So it seemed something was missing here…

Insight: There were no yoga mats that were both high-performance and eco-friendly.

Cork — A high performance eco-friendly solution.

Armed with this insight I set about researching to find the right material for a high-performance and eco-friendly yoga mat. A search that led me to the incredible material that is cork.

Why cork? Isn’t that used for wine bottles and mouse coasters? Wouldn’t it be rough and not suited to hot sweaty yoga practice?

These were all assumptions I struggled with initially. However, I quickly realised they were wrong as I noticed other businesses already starting to use cork for products like surfboards.

Mother nature had engineered the perfect material for what I was looking for. Cork is both non-slip and can be harvested in a completely sustainable way. Rather than cutting down trees, the outer bark layer is shaved off. This encourages the tree to regenerate bark and filter more CO2 from the atmosphere. Quite an incredible series of events!

Cork seemed to provide the perfect balance of eco-friendly and performance factors, especially when compared to the alternative materials on the market.

How does cork stack up against the other popular materials?

There were already some companies using cork in their products but it was a material that was underrepresented in the yoga market, especially in Australia.

Competition — Understanding strengths and weaknesses.

At this stage I had an idea of my solution but needed clarity on where my brewing product idea sat in relation to the product / marketing strategies of other yoga suppliers.

Understanding how and what others were offering would allow me to identify both opportunities and weaknesses that I could capitalise on.

I put together a competitor analysis to quantify and baseline exactly what was currently on offer to the Australian market.

It became clear that my major threats were well-established companies offering plastic mats with high price points and minimal reference to the environmental impact of their products.

Again, I was amazed that these companies were overlooking cork, a material that aligned with what yogis care most about, performance and the environment.

Supply & Demand — Identifying trends in the yoga industry.

I needed tangible proof for (or against) my decision to enter the market as I knew there was a bias in my thinking due to my passion for yoga and cork.

I used Google trends to analyse common search terms and metrics surrounding the health of the market. I found that:

  • There was a positive trend in search history for all types of yoga activities.
  • The two areas I was particularly interested in regarding “non-slip” and “eco-friendly” yoga products were popular search terms.

Another factor was that Covid-19 had forced the majority of Australians to exercise from home, resulting in yoga equipment search queries skyrocketing.

Experimentation — Quickly testing my hypothesis with real customers.

At this stage I’d gained confidence in the market and demand for my product but I still didn’t have any actual customer validation. I needed to know if cork would resonate with customers, without this I would just be guessing!

To test my hypothesis I set up an MVP experiment:

  • The question: Will real people buy cork yoga mats?
  • The method: realistic online store with a “sorry we’re sold out” on checkout
  • Success criteria: conversion rate of greater than 1% (average is 1–2% for e-commerce)
  • Duration: 2 weeks
  • Cost: $250 in google advertising

How it worked:

I knew the best way to gain customer validation was to make this experiment as real as possible. I wanted to steer clear of asking friends or other yogis what they thought of my product idea and if they would buy. This path would inevitably lead to an inflated sense of confidence as participants (especially friends / family) were more likely to say they loved it.

It’s not until you actually ask someone to pay for something that you really learn the truth.

So with that in mind, I set about creating a real life MVP experiment for my cork yoga mat idea by setting up a realistic shop front.

I got people to my page by running google ads on relevant keywords like “non-slip yoga mat” or “eco-friendly yoga mat”.

Wait, don’t you need photos of the product? Of course, this was another area I had to be creative. I photoshopped cork yoga mats I found online into yoga scenes. It was definitely a little bit scrappy but it worked!

When users clicked the add to cart button, instead of taking them to check-out I redirected them to a form. Here they could fill-out their details which would allow me to contact them when the product would be back in stock (these were real customers after-all!).

This was effective because it showed me:

  1. How many people went to the site.
  2. How many people went to the site with the intention of buying my mats.

During the two weeks I ran this experiment I saw a 3.5% conversion rate which is right on par with the industry average for ecommerce, a conversion rate that would lead to a profitable business when selling my yoga mats at the price point of $100.

This was an incredibly fast way to get real market validation before I even had a single product.

Prototyping — Conducting real world user-tests.

At this point I was excited as it seemed like my initial insight was correct. Yogis were desperate for a better yoga mat!

Armed with a dose of real customer validation the next step was to actually source my product. I found a number of eco-friendly cork suppliers and organised prototypes.

The prototypes were important as they allowed me to test whether yogis liked practising on cork. I was also able to determine the right thickness, logo placement and size of the mats.

I handed mats out to literally anyone who would agree to use them and taught free yoga classes as payment for honest feedback.

Prototyping different cork grains, printing styles and mat designs.

This was an eye opening process, where I learnt what resonates with real yogis:

  • Yoga mats need to be thick enough to support their knees and wrists but not so thick that the mat is too heavy to carry around.
  • The original logo placement (top centre) was too large and distracting.
  • The mat didn’t originally come with a carry strap but this was a must-have.

But most importantly I learnt that overall yogis love cork!

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive from those who tested my first iteration of mats.

By gathering this real user feedback I had now refined my prototype and was confident I had arrived at the right solution.

Product Launch — Keeping costs low by learning new skills.

I still didn’t actually know if this was going to work but my garage was filled with 350 yoga mats so there was no turning back.

Thanks to all the groundwork, validation and testing within a week of the mats arriving I started to make consistent sales. I was able to make a profit right away which was a rewarding feeling.

Product listing at launch — featuring real product photos rather than stock.

After orders started going out, reviews started rolling in which proved that cork was the solution so many yogis had been looking for.

Aside from the initial research and testing, a big reason for my immediate success was my ability to keep costs as low as possible.

After going live in October 2020 sales started to role in consistently, and then Black Friday Sales hit!

Rather than paying for traditional e-commerce tools like Amazon, Shopify etc. I bootstrapped everything and did as much as I could myself even when that meant learning completely new skills:

  • I designed and developed our own website using Wordpress (free).
  • I processed orders through WooCommerce (free).
  • I captured and edited our own product photos using Adobe Lightroom.
  • I packaged and shipped our products via Aussie start-up Sendle.
Keeping costs low by modelling the product for the website!

My only running costs to this day are Google Ads and my conversion rate means that this is working out to be quite a profitable marketing strategy. With these profits I have committed to planting one tree for every mat sold as an investment towards creating a healthy environment for future generations.

Left: My fulfilment team hard at work after Black Friday sales | Right: Mats ready to be picked up by Sendle

Now I’m busy trying to solve the next problem for my customers by expanding the Happy Nomad range of mats and offering eco-friendly yoga accessories. All the while continuing to improve and iterate on my initial product offering.

I’m proud that I was able to find and implement a new solution to a problem that yogis have been struggling with for decades and connect them to a product that is not only great for their practice but also for our planet.

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Shaun Phelan

I’m a product leader and yoga teacher. I love writing and sharing my career experience with the world.