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16 successful creators weigh in on making your first online sale

Starting your first online business? Learn how to make your first sale from entrepreneurs who have been there, done that, and are sharing their tips.

Your first sale is a moment that every entrepreneur remembers, whether you're starting an online business, opening a brick-and-mortar storefront, or launching an ecommerce store.

As a creator, it's an amazing feeling when someone trusts and appreciates your work enough to pay you for it. But there are plenty of challenges when it comes to turning your side business idea into profits.

Today, 16 successful Podia creators share their advice on making that first sale. While every entrepreneur's journey is different, these creators have been in your shoes and are offering up their expertise, from building a marketing strategy to embracing failure. 

We've rounded up their advice into six simple, digestible tips, so whether you're struggling to sell your first product or are a seasoned creator looking for a boost of inspiration, here’s what people who’ve been there and done that had to say.

#1: Get to know your customers

“Sales come more easily when you know exactly who you're selling to.

When I launched my ebook, The Swap, I was tempted to serve the decluttering needs of every person with a closet, but the language was broad, muddy, and for no one.

When that customer became specific -- someone who conceptually loved KonMari but couldn't practically get on board -- I was able to surpass my secret, it'll-probably-never-happen goal.

The lesson? Know. Your. Customer."

- Kendra Adachi, The Lazy Genius Collective

To make your first sale, you need to know what your audience wants.

And to learn what your audience wants, you need to get to know them.

76% of customers expect companies to understand their needs and expectations, but more than half don't believe that companies have their best interests in mind. 

With so many businesses missing the mark, showing your customers that you understand and care about them makes you stand out from the competition.

That's where customer research comes in.

Customer research involves gathering as much information as possible about your target market, so you can create a customer experience that makes them feel seen and valued.

One of our favorite customer research techniques is review mining. Use a search engine or Amazon to find other products geared toward your target audience, then read the reviews. These product reviews offer qualitative insights into your customers' wants and expectations. 

Imagine you want to sell an online course on songwriting for beginners. You could search "songwriting for beginners" on Amazon, then read the reviews of books like The Art of Songwriting:

From these reviews, you can tell that aspiring songwriters value insightful, actionable tips for songwriting, with a focus on both lyrics and music. You can use these insights when building and marketing your course to make sure it meets your audience's needs. 

If you want to learn from your audience directly, surveys are another excellent customer research tool. Here's why:

  • Surveys show your audience that you care about their feedback.

  • They provide first-hand insights that no other form of research can.

  • Surveys help you measure the market need for your product.

  • Companies that invest in collecting customer feedback see higher customer retention rates.

Gathering feedback directly from potential customers can help you avoid the number one reason that startups fail: Their products or services don't bring anything new or valuable to the market. 

It's easy to assume that we know what our audience wants. That's what happened to John D Saunders when he launched his first course. As a newbie entrepreneur and course creator, he assumed what his customers wanted.

“It was a feeling in my gut that I felt the world needed this, and that was the first mistake,” John told us. “What I should have done, and what I do now, is properly pre-sell the idea to an audience and have them invested before even developing the course.”

Now, John talks to his audience to validate his product ideas and get feedback before creating a new product.

Don't be afraid to ask your customers what they want. Tiffany Williams, the founder of Rich Girl Collective, learned what products and content her audience wanted to see from her by asking them directly -- and listening to them.

Tiffany found that people wanted to learn about what she did to grow her side-hustle into a full-time online career. 

“People really want to learn and know what they can do to start either a side hustle to make some extra money or to be able to leave their job so they can do it full-time," Tiffany shared with us.

“I just ask my audience what they want, what they want to learn, and if it matches something that I have done, and I have been successful with, then I teach it to them,” she explains.

(For even more ways to learn more about your customers, check out our full step-by-step guide on how to do customer research.)

One more thing before we move on to our next tip: Getting to know your customers shouldn't stop after they make their first purchase.

“Be empathic with your audience. Speak to them as you would a friend. Always, always reply and respond to any communication from your tribe. It shows you care.”

- Robin Harford, Eat Weeds

In other words, show your customers that you value them long after they spend their first dollar with you. It makes a big difference in your bottom line:

  • 52% of customers go out of their way to buy from brands they're loyal to.

  • Repeat customers are nine times more likely to convert than a first-time shopper.

  • It can cost up to seven times more to acquire a new customer than retain an existing one.

If you treat them well, your first customers can become some of your most loyal advocates, and more importantly, willing to tell others why. 

Of course, word-of-mouth (WOM) isn’t the only tool you need to make your first sale. You need to polish up the rest of your toolbox, too.

#2: Make the most of your marketing

“Having a large social following? Sure, that's cool.

Having a lot of YouTube subscribers? Great.

But the platform I focus on when it comes to marketing is email. With email funnels and sequences, I think there's huge value because that is just one step closer for them telling me that they are really interested in the stuff that I have to offer or give.”

- Sef Chang, House of Royalties

The average small business owner is responsible for 4.2 roles, and when you're first starting out, "marketer" is definitely one of them. 

From Google AdWords to search engine optimization (SEO), there are a ton of different ways for you to market your business. But for Sef -- and nearly every creator we talk to -- email marketing is one of the most effective ways to reach your audience and sell more products.

And the stats agree -- email marketing has an ROI of $42 for every $1 spent.

(That ROI can be even higher when you use an all-in-one tool like Podia.

With Podia, you’re not just getting email campaign tools -- you’re getting a complete sales funnel that includes a website, product hosting, marketing tools, and so much more. Try it for free with a 14-day trial.)

To reap the benefits of email marketing, you need to build your email list. 

If you don't already have one, building an email list from scratch might seem intimidating -- but it doesn't have to be. One of the best ways to build an email list fast is through lead magnets. 

A lead magnet is a resource -- often in the form of a free digital download -- that your subscribers receive in exchange for their contact information.

Lead magnets are a great way to get new email subscribers, but you need to create lead magnets worth handing over email addresses for. People want actionable, high-quality content in exchange for their contact information.

For example, Sef offers subscribers a free list of inventor-friendly companies accepting new products. Sef's target audience is inventors looking to learn more about product licensing, so that list is a valuable asset.

Giving away free content can also help you build credibility with your audience. 

“I got my first sale because people follow my work and download my animation tools. So my advice would be, provide free help and advice to the community you’re in, before you start offering something for sale.“

- Sander van Dijk, Regulus

Think of lead magnets as a free sample of your digital product or course content. Give your audience an idea of who you are and what they can learn from you.

Lead magnets don't have to take a lot of time and work to create, either. Check out this guide on how to create a lead magnet in 90 minutes or less for five fast, high-value lead magnet ideas.

Or make it even easier for yourself and use our Digital Download Generator, which creates a downloadable PDF for you. 

Other tools and strategies to add to your marketing toolbox include:

  • Following some simple SEO tips can help bloggers get more eyes on their content.

  • If you have a marketing budget to spend, influencer partnerships and paid social media ads can broaden your reach.

  • Building a presence on your audience's favorite social media channels can help you build a following and showcase your expertise. 

That last piece is how Min Liu drives online course sales. 

"After trying to sell a course on Udemy (a course marketplace) to almost no avail, I decided to market my course (hosted on Podia, of course) myself.

The most important thing I did was create my own YouTube channel, The Art of Verbal War, in order to build an audience. I made short videos about my subject matter (verbal skills) and linked my videos to my website in order to capture subscriber emails.

Now, I have a substantial email list to launch my courses to anytime I want, but mostly just to share information and give value (which is much more important than merely selling to your subscribers). To this day, YouTube is my primary marketing channel for my courses.”

- Min Liu, The Art of Verbal War

For more guidance on using social media to sell digital products, check out our small business social media guide.

All in all, your marketing strategy should reflect what works best for you, your business, and your customers. You may not get it right on the first try -- and that's not always a bad thing, and exactly what our next section covers.

#3: Be open to experimenting

“Experiment! It's hard to know how to market online, and every group of potential customers is a bit different. So you'll have to experiment to find out what's effective (and what isn't).

I've found that posting to my blog, and then getting blog posts repeated and re-posted by others, and then having an opt-in widget on my blog, is a great way to go.

I've bought advertising on Facebook, Quora, and Reddit, but with very limited results. I've started a YouTube channel and started posting content there with some decent results, as well. 

With everything you do, consider, measure, and then modify your techniques to improve them. There's no one magic bullet here!"

- Reuven Lerner, Reuven Lerner's Python Courses

You don't have to do everything perfectly the first time you launch a new product -- or ever.

Maybe your first try at pricing digital products is too high or too low. Or you run a social media campaign that doesn't get any engagement.

Or maybe you end up with a failed product launch

If you're coping with perfectionism, the idea of trying something without knowing that it'll work out can be a scary one.

But trying new things and allowing yourself to make and learn from mistakes is a vital part of the entrepreneurial journey.

In the Startup Curve, coined by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, failure is a standard phase that happens right before your business starts heading upward toward scaling and growth.

Embracing the experiments that don't work out is a major part of succeeding in business, says Ryan Kulp, founder of Micro Acquisitions. "To run a successful business, you have to first get comfortable running an unsuccessful business, because most of the time, success comes later."

Business coach Minessa Konecky agrees.

“I think that what we really need to do is look upon past failures and mistakes as wells of information that we can then use to feed whatever it is that we're doing now." 

To let go of some of that perfectionism, try to embrace what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a "growth mindset". A growth mindset helps you embrace, overcome, and learn from challenges by focusing on continuous learning rather than achieving perfection. 

So, give yourself permission to try new things as your business grows -- just make sure to hold yourself accountable along the way. 

#4: Hold yourself accountable

“To be accountable, I told friends I would launch my product in 30 days. And they sent me an email every day with D-15, D-14 in it.

Peer pressure worked great for me!"

- Alexis Santin

Whether you bring in outside reinforcements as Alexis did or handle it on your own, accountability is an essential part of entrepreneurial success. In fact, self-discipline is one of the top characteristics for running a successful small business.

One way to hold yourself accountable is by pre-selling your digital products, as marketing expert and creator Val Geisler recommends. 

“Sell it before it's built! 

If you can think about the outline, map out the content, and build a sketch of what's to come, you can likely pre-sell the course to your inner circle before you even create it.

It's incredible motivation to actually create the course, and you have a little money in the bank to support you in doing the creating."

- Val Geisler, Your Signature Experience

When you pre-sell products, you can start collecting money and signups before your product is finished. Creators like Val and John D Saunders use pre-selling to build excitement before they launch an online course.

John’s tweet thread explains how he uses pre-sales:

John asks his audience to fill out a landing page and pay $7 if they're interested in enrolling in his new course. Those who invest the $7 receive 50-60% off the course on launch day, when John charges the remaining fee.

Pre-selling his course helped John make $10k on his first launch on Podia -- and net $100k selling online courses

Holding yourself accountable can mean committing to a certain launch date, but it can also involve breaking self-sabotaging habits and overcoming excuses as an entrepreneur

Minessa Konecky calls these acts of self-sabotage "business prisons": 

“I started to explore this idea that we were actually building our own business prisons, where we basically set up a structure in our lives, where the only possible outcome was failure and exhaustion because we’re not taking care of ourselves."

Maybe you're working on overcoming imposter syndrome or need to learn how to procrastinate less and master time management. Whatever your personal form of self-sabotage may be, it's holding you back from success. 

Mindset coach and entrepreneur Becky Mollenkamp explains

"Even if you don’t realize it, you likely have a whole host of limiting beliefs that are causing you to self-sabotage and stay in your comfort zone. Invest in yourself(and your self-belief), and everything will change."

Successful entrepreneurs like Becky and Minessa have these insights to share because they've been in your shoes. That expertise makes their advice an excellent resource for new creators to learn from -- which is, not incidentally, what our next tip is about.

#5: Learn from each other

“Whatever it is you want to do -- blogging, creating products, building a list -- start by emulating the people who do it well. Everything you need to do has been done by many people already, and you can see how they did it on their websites.

That might sound really obvious, but emulate the successful. I think a lot of us waste a lot of time re-inventing the wheel, thinking we need to do everything in an epic, unique way.

The beauty of the internet is that abundant examples of everything you need to get it right are at your fingertips."

- David Cain, Camp Calm

No matter what you're trying to do,"learn from the best" is a great way to start. That's what makes platforms like MasterClass-- a collection of online classes taught by"the world's best minds," from Neil DeGrasse Tyson to Margaret Atwood-- so popular. 

When it comes to starting and running a business, there's no shortage of advice and resources out there. But the best advice comes from those voices of experience -- people who have been there, done that, and know that you can do it, too. 

Find others who have gone through the same process you're going through, whether that's launching an online course, writing an ebook, or ramping up a new marketing strategy, and learn from their experiences.

There are countless groups out there for new creators and entrepreneurs to connect with one another, from free Facebook groups to exclusive mastermind groups.

A mastermind group is a collective of like-minded people who offer each other advice and support, have a common goal, and help solve problems together.

Brit Kolo, the founder of Marketing Personalities, told us that joining a mastermind group is one of the best investments she’s made in her business.

“Business growth is just the beginning of the incredible effects ... I've also grown as a human being, a leader, and a CEO. The other business owners in my mastermind group have become lifelong friends, and I do not say that lightly.”

Communities of other creators in your niche can also serve as valuable and necessary support systems. Being a new business owner can be isolating, especially if you work remotely. Loneliness and remote working often go hand-in-hand.

A study on remote work from Buffer shows that the top two struggles of working from home are collaboration and communication, and loneliness -- two obstacles that joining the right online community can help you overcome.

Finding a support system can be a way to practice self-care for entrepreneurs, too. Studies have shown that merely feeling supported socially can make a significant difference in your mental health, regardless of how much you're socializing.

You can find a membership community for almost any type of creator or niche. You can also create a membership site of your own and sell memberships online, as Justin Jackson did with his MegaMaker community.

MegaMaker is a community for developers and designers who "want more than a regular 9-5". It connects people with similar goals, so they can form partnerships, share advice, and learn from each other -- just like David Cain recommends.

However, to get the most out of these membership communities, you need to bring your full self to the table and be open about your experiences and obstacles. To make your first (and second, and 100th) sale, you need to do the same with your customers, too. 

#6: Be yourself

"Be yourself. People can spot a fake.

Find your niche and your unique voice within it. No one can say what needs to be said exactly the way you can.”

- Katie Orr, Bible Study Hub Shop

This is the most straightforward tip on our list, but it might also be the most important -- especially if you find yourself worrying that you're not an expert

Your customers don't want or need you to be perfect.

They want authenticity and value. 86% of consumers say that authenticity is a key factor when deciding what brands they like and support. 

And a lot of your value comes from your unique perspective and experiences.

Few people know that better than Minessa Konecky.

“Stop trying to pretend to be who you think your customers want you to be.

We crave authenticity, and when we buy from a boutique business owner, we aren’t just buying a product, we’re buying a point of view.

If your prospects don’t know who you are or what you stand for, no amount of photoshopped photos and perfectly crafted posts will convert them. This gives you enormous freedom to be yourself, warts and all. They’ll love you for it.”

- Minessa Konecky, Direct to Success

During her early days as an entrepreneur, Minessa learned a hard lesson that ‘hustling’ wasn’t worth sacrificing her health. Now, she uses that experience to teach other entrepreneurs how to build a"hustle-free" business.

By bringing her full self to her work, Minessa built a successful business that helps others.

Now that's a win-win.

At the end of the day, your unique perspective and experiences are what will help you connect with your customers -- not a flashy website or perfectly-crafted copy. 

Just show up as you -- that's enough.

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Make your first sale and grow a successful business

Whether you're new to all things online entrepreneurship or just launching a new product, the journey from a product idea to your first sale can be full of ups and downs.

Based on the real-life advice of 16 successful Podia creators, here are six tips to help you navigate that bumpy road: 

  1. Learn as much as you can about your customers. Conduct customer research and talk to them directly -- chances are, they'll be happy to share their feedback with you.

  2. Find the marketing channels that work for you and run with them. Email marketing is a great place to start, and lead magnets are a tried-and-true way to grow your list.

  3. Embrace experimentation, iteration, and failure. It's okay not to get things right the first time around -- in fact, it's part of the process.

  4. Hold yourself accountable, internally and externally. Pre-selling your products keeps you on track to create your course, and stymieing self-sabotaging habits sets you up for success.

  5. Learn from the leaders and your peers in your industry. Find communities that not only teach you something new but offer a support system, too. 

  6. Be yourself. Your customers want to get to know you, too, and your experiences bring value and perspective to your work.

Now go out there and make that sale. We’re rooting for you.

A portrait of Rachel Burns

About the author

Rachel is a content marketer for Podia, an all-in-one platform where online courses, digital downloads, and membership websites – alongside their creators – thrive. When she’s not writing, you can find her rescuing dogs, baking something, or extolling the virtue of the Oxford comma.