how to open your own online boutique

takin' care of business.

Photo via Amy Lynn Straub for Hello Holiday

Spending time searching for the most unique clothes and accessories, connecting with customers on social media, and putting together cohesive personal styles—online boutique owners sure have a dream job, and they certainly know their way around the web. While anyone may be able to open their own vintage Etsy shop, it takes a little more planning and strategy to start an online shop from scratch. That's why we talked to three of our favorite online boutique owners to find out just how it's done.

Lauren Jade Katz of Emerging Thoughts, Sarah Lorsung Tvrdik of Hello Holiday, and Lisa Williams of Lisa Says Gah weighed in on the things that help to make an online shop thrive from the get-go. Follow their advice and your shop-owning dreams may become a reality.

1. Make a Plan

Before starting any creative venture, it’s necessary to have a sense of the direction you’re moving in—no matter how much that direction may change over time. As a business, online boutiques require careful thought and planning, whether they grow slowly or become established right away. Depending on your background, current job, and current place in life, the ways you can develop your online boutique vary.

Lorsung Tvrdik developed her plan for Hello Holiday with her business partner Megan Hunt after a late-night meeting. The two wrote their business plan, formed an LLC, and took out loans to start up their business venture. “Looking back almost 3 years later, our business plan was pretty funny and our budgetary numbers were very off from reality,” she says. “But writing that plan really helped us in deciding how to spend our initial funds (mostly inventory and building out our website) and allowed us to decide early on what our branding identity would look like.”

While Lorsung Tvrdik and Hunt came to their business from freelance stylist and bridal designer backgrounds respectively, Williams opened her shop after years of e-commerce experience, leaving her buyer job at Nasty Gal to move to San Francisco and open Lisa Says Gah this past July. “It’s possible to start an online shop without any previous e-commerce or buying experience, but you’ll be years ahead if you put in the time at an established company first,” she says.

However, it’s still possible to start slowly, if you’re simply bored by your full-time job but unable to quit just yet or if you’re busy managing other side projects. Katz began Emerging Thoughts as a hobby in 2006 when she was living and working in New York City. “I started by purchasing inventory I liked off of LiveJournal—designers used to sell their stuff via blog posts,” she says. Once her shop started taking off, she quit her job and placed full focus on her growing business. 

2. Figure Out Personal Finances

Opening a shop is an investment—you won’t be rolling in the dough the second you open for business. These things take time, which means that you may have to wait a while before cutting yourself a paycheck and also strike a balance between working on your startup and earning a living doing other jobs.

While Katz kept her office job in NYC during the beginning phases of Emerging Thoughts, living in Manhattan made handling finances trickier. “I couldn't afford an office space so I stored some inventory, like the accessories, in my stove,” she says. After quitting her office job, she moved to Chicago to cut down on living (and office space) expenses.

Lorsung Tvrdik and her business partner Hunt also worked other jobs before shifting all their focus on their blossoming business. “As a startup, it’s really important to be able to focus your funds on the things you need to run your business right and most small business owners aren’t able to start out taking a salary,” she says. “But at the same time, you need to live, so having another job or another source of income is the best way to get by in the beginning.”

3. Find a Platform

Before you can sell a single item, it’s necessary to figure out just how you’re going to to sell things on the internet in the first place. “Building your own site from scratch isn't something you want to get caught up in first off unless you have a skilled friend that’s willing to help,” says Williams. Luckily, there are plenty of e-commerce sites available to make establishing your virtual shop a no-hassle experience. Lorsung Tvrdik swears by Shopify, an e-commerce software that can be used to sell items in-person and online: “It’s very user friendly and customizable from a design standpoint. We’re able to contact them easily about any issues we’re experiencing and they’re very quick to assist and are always adding new features to their platform.”

Photo via Lisa Says Gah.

4. Develop Your Style and Brand

Once you’ve sorted out your business plan and general set-up, the creative part can officially begin: branding. And with hundreds, if not thousands of online boutiques floating around the internet, it’s essential to make your shop stand out with an easy-to-remember name and a definitive, original style. “Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. It's the sincerest form of laziness,” says Katz. “People will commend you for being unique.”

While style can change over time, store offerings should reflect that change. “We updated our branding about a year ago to reflect the styling direction Hello Holiday had taken. We’re now a little less vintage-inspired, a little more vintage-modern, lots of ‘60s inspired pieces, funny prints, badass tees and some really smokin’ handmade lingerie. And we’re focusing on small designers now more than ever,” says Lorsung Tvrdik. As for Williams, Lisa Says Gah has always been about quality over quantity. “It’s not about pushing trends or fast fashion,” she says. “We take the guesswork out of shopping and provide a well curated selection for the conscious consumer by exclusively working with designers who are creating timeless original pieces.” With their unique perspectives, these shops have been able to stay true to their brand, making them distinctive and memorable in a sea of online shops.

5. Scout Out Inventory

With a personal brand established, a shop needs inventory to match. With so many online shops run by big brands and designers, what most helps an online boutique to thrive is unique products that can be found anywhere from Etsy, blogs, buying markets, and showrooms.

Lorsung Tvrdik and her team have started searching for inventory at the WWD Magic Marketplace in Las Vegas twice a year, and they have plans to travel to New York in the fall. While the co-founders established the general aesthetic of Hello Holiday, choosing exactly what to stock in the shop is a larger team effort. “I’ll often pick a dress up at market and say, ‘Can’t you see Jenny/Katie/Pavielle loving this?’ and our small buying team informally votes on how we think something will do, sales-wise,” says Lorsung Tvrdik.

For Williams, choosing inventory has been a more intimate experience. “To insure that our shoppers have an original selection to choose from we skip the major tradeshows and mostly shop in small showrooms of New York and LA by appointment,” she says. “Reaching out to designers directly has also been a big part of our process—working with international designers involves a lot of lookbooks and email correspondence.”

With a penchant for crazy-cool handmade goods, Katz has found the depths of the internet to be most helpful when stocking Emerging Thoughts. “I am an insomniac so I pretty much spend my nights on Etsy, obscure fashion blogs, and Googling weird search terms. I've found a lot of unique merchandise by clicking deep into Instagram accounts,” she says. However, working with small-scale designers and artists has its own challenges. “Last year I was working with a college student who handmade products in her dorm room,” she says. “I had to wait for her to fill my re-order because she was busy studying for finals.”

6. Ship Out Orders

Once products are selected for a shop’s inventory, they must be ordered, either from designers, individual artists, or wholesale companies. Katz, Lorsung Tvrdik, and Williams all keep their inventory on-site and have teams to help package and ship orders—but that means a lot of trips to the post office, so staying organized is crucial.

To make the shipping process less hectic, Lorsung Tvrdik recommends ShipStation, an an e-commerce shipping fulfillment platform. “ShipStation integrates with Shopify to easily sync our orders and do things like print packing slips and shipping labels,” she says. “We do all of our shipping in-house because it allows us to quality-control what we’re sending out, add signature packaging, write personal notes, and send a little something extra to customers from time to time.”

Photo via Emerging Thoughts.

7. Create a Reputation

To truly stand out from the crowd, Emerging Thoughts, Hello Holiday, and Lisa Says Gah shy away from traditional advertising, relying instead on blogger relationship and social media to help draw their followings.

While Williams and Katz point to word-of-mouth as their most tried-and-true form of advertising, Lorsung Tvrdik has found partnerships with bloggers to be especially beneficial. “We work time and time again with bloggers like Rebecca of The Clothes Horse, Kailey of Mermaidens and Jenny of She Loves Dresses because they’re genuine and creative people and I think that really shines through in the work they do,” she says. “We ‘advertise’ with them but since it’s from their point of view, it doesn’t feel like an ad.”

Through social media, these shop owners have also been able to connect and communicate with their customers, and develop a following on Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter. “A happy customer will post about their purchase on social media, and that organic, free advertising means more to me than paying a popular blogger to promote it,” says Katz.

8. Consider Expanding to the Storefront

After a boutique is established online, there still lies the potential to expand. Selling items in-person can help to advertise an online shop and create new connections.

Katz suggests that new shop owners go local to develop a larger network of customers. “Cross promote with local shops. If you're starting an online shoe shop, have a pop-up shop in your favorite coffee shop. Become a vendor at your city's artisan market. Have private shopping events every month,” she says. Besides helping to advertise your online boutique, holding a pop-up shop can also provide valuable face-to-face time with customers. “It gives us a chance to go brick-and-mortar without long term commitment and connect with our clients in person. Events like this provide an invaluable point of intersection for the creative community,” says Williams.

However, for other shops, establishing a brick and mortar shop ends up being the next logical move for expansion. Hello Holiday recently opened up a storefront attached to its Omaha offices. “We now run our online shop and can offer easy in-store pickup and shopping for our local customers. ‘cause ya know, online shopping is awesome and all but sometimes your cute-as-hell cousin comes in from out of town and you want to take them shopping—the world needs boutiques too,” says Lorsung Tvrdik.

Photo via Hello Holiday.

9. Don’t Give Up So Easily

From the very first moments of developing a business plan to connecting with customers and shipping out orders, starting and running an online boutique is not an easy feat—but that’s not to say that it isn’t rewarding. By putting their plans into actions despite any roadbumps, Katz, Lorsung Tvrdik, and Williams have all made their dreams a reality. “If you have a real vision that you know will eventually take off, then it will,” says Katz. “I've cried in post offices, considered throwing my printer out the window, wondered if I should just close my shop and get a regular office job. Find your vision and stick with it.”