How I Went from Zero to Creator and What I Learned About the Fastest-Growing E-Commerce Format, Live-Streaming
As someone whose professional life sits at the intersection of commerce and media, I’ve long heard about “shoppertainment,” the QVC-like live-stream e-commerce experience that will represent nearly 1/4 of all e-commerce in China this year. I read the think-pieces, scanned the reports, listened to the podcasts, gawked at the fundraising announcements. And it’s all happening: live-stream commerce has topped 2% of total e-commerce in the United States this year — and it’s become our fastest-growing form of e-commerce.
Last year, with some time on my hands, I decided to get off the sidelines and try my hand at becoming a live-stream host. And against all odds, it went pretty well.
What Am I Going to Sell? Identifying a Market
First thing: I’m not an influencer in any way, shape, or form. I’m not a person who has an audience at my fingertips and so my first task was finding an angle. I had to build this thing from scratch.
I sure wasn’t going to sell beauty, cosmetics, or fashion — by far the top categories in American live-stream e-commerce — because there’s no way I could even pretend to have the necessary expertise. The same goes for cooking where creators are having a great time re-creating the Food Network while they earn commission selling pots and pans. I don’t really play video games and was terrified by the barrier to entry — so many people do it well and that particular niche has greater technological demands than I was ready for.
Fortunately, a friend pointed out there was a lot going on in the sports card and collectibles vertical. Companies like Whatnot, DripShop, and Loupe were raising money and capitalizing on the recent resurgence of sports cards. Bingo. As a sports fan and casual baseball card collector, I had the know-how to speak about product and players. I just had to figure out, well, everything else.
Deciding What Kind of Content to Deliver
I watched hours and hours and hours of auctions and sales and box breaks. I listened. I took notes. The point of this post is more about live-streaming as a format so I won’t get too deep into the weeds here, but I landed on running “box breaks” of Topps and Bowman product where I would sell “team tickets” in a live auction format.
This meant a typical live-stream would include thirty one-minute auctions at the beginning — one for each Major League Baseball team. I’d then open the box, rip the packs live on-air, and team ticket holders received cards featuring players from the corresponding teams. (This is an appealing format because, among other reasons, some collectors may only be interested in certain players or teams and this allows them to save money — rather than buying a $400 box of cards, they can buy a $20 ticket a receive the cards they want.)
Other than securing the product (which I was able to do by buddying up with some local card shops), I had to decide on the tone of my live-stream. That was easy. I’d be myself, talk baseball, and hang out. (How sweet does thatsound?)
Figuring Out “How”
With the non-technicals (the “what”) ironed out, I had to work out the “how.”
This turned out to be the easier of the two thanks to all of the aforementioned investment in the live-stream commerce space. When I started on this journey, there were three competitors in the sports card live-stream space: WhatNot, DripShop, and Loupe. They all offer(ed) the same core experience and as far as I could tell, there wasn’t much difference between the three.
The question of which platform to use was less about functionality and more about marketing and visibility. Would I prefer to jump on a app that already hosted a lot of baseball card sellers and try to catch some passersby curious about a new streamer, or would it be better to be one of the only baseball card sellers on an app primarily trafficked by collectors of other sports (and types, like Pokémon)? I chose the latter, knowing I didn’t need quantity. It wouldn’t take hundreds of viewers to sell out on a given stream — I needed 6–30 people to show up to a stream and buy a ticket or four. Being the only (baseball) game in town would give me front-page visibility in the app, something I’d have a hard time with on a platform where there are hundreds doing the same thing.
That meant it was Drip for me (which, at the time, was primarily focused on non-sports cards — now it seems they’ve done a nice job balancing the market).
I couldn’t have been happier with the decision — Drip’s support team was helpful and responsive, and they did a lot to help support my channel visibility-wise. Lots of love for their team.
Another Key Part of the How: Hardware
I wasn’t going to invest in a standalone camera or top-flight tech stack but fortunately, there’s no need. The live-stream platforms made it easy to use my phone as the camera with an assist by the EpocCam app and I bought an overhead camera mount which would hold my phone over the table.
The downside of using my phone as the camera was that it ties up your phone for the duration — not a big deal, but that means you need to make sure you have a second device nearby to watch the chat and make any adjustments that might be necessary during the sale event. I kept my laptop on the table (and out of frame).
If you go the phone route, remember to go into Do Not Disturb mode prior to the stream — a phone call will disrupt the feed. (Whoops.)
With all of the pieces in place, I went live — apparently something that I did 52 times. (Whoa.) Here’s one such stream:
The Most Challenging Part: Logistics
Each step to this point was not all that difficult. Less than $100 in startup investment (the overhead mount, a break mat so I didn’t damage the cards on the desk, some packaging), a little Googling, not so bad.
The worst part, by far, was what happened after the stream.
Breaks had a few different forms and formats but it was fairly common to finish a stream and be left with hundreds of cards to sort by team (so the owners of the Atlanta Braves team ticket would receive all of the Braves cards, and so on and so forth).
I’d do this by bringing the stacks of cards to my living room and starting 30 different stacks on a coffee table while I half-watched a show or movie. Not so bad — but if I didn’t do it that same day and fell behind, it quickly snowballed into a real pain. I estimate post-stream handling and shipping took an average of 2 hours per stream. (And this really hurts your “is this worth it?” calculation.)
Obviously this particular challenge is specific to sports cards but I imagine it’s no walk in the park dealing with post-stream logistics for any niche and some may even have a harder time.
Free tip for the live-stream CEOs out there: there’s a tremendous value proposition sitting there for the taking if you want it — handle the post-stream logistics. Sort, pack, and ship out the sales for your creators — I’d happily double my platform fees (and maybe more) if someone would just handle it. Plus, I would have streamed more if I didn’t have the arduous post-stream responsibilities waiting for me. More volume for the platform.
Reflecting on the Lessons Learned
My three biggest takeaways:
- Domain expertise is critical. I came to the effort armed with baseball interest and knowledge that was enough to ramble on about the goings-on in Major League Baseball for hours each week. When I tried (once or twice) to do a football box break, where I am a far more casual fan, I was quickly exposed — the card types were different and I didn’t have enough to talk about so the vibe of the stream quickly went from “casual hang with your friend” to “this is some awkward dead air.”
- Logistics, logistics, logistics. Be prepared to spend some serious time — probably longer than you spent on-camera — in the post-stream logistics, sorting, packing, and shipping. It’s easily the most difficult part of this whole thing.
- This is a totally viable business with a low barrier to entry. If you have a creative angle and product to sell, there’s no reason you can’t get on a stream, have some fun, and earn some money. I often wonder how the format might fit for different product segments or structures. Could someone make a living being a live-stream host who goes to yard sales and shows off everything they have? I think so. (Another free idea for the people!)
Encouraged by the audience I built as a live-stream content creator and my 5-star rating, I dabbled in some off-shoot businesses, much like influencers on other platforms do. I launched my own card supply brand which went really well, and I got into the business of selling whole boxes (and cases, the same product I was buying to supply my own streams) which went okay until it regretfully imploded when my supply chain was disrupted. But those experiments had little to do with the live-stream shop.
From my time playing QVC host, I’m left with a clear view of where this thing is going: the format makes a lot of sense, especially in certain e-commerce segments and I’m totally bullish on American live-stream shopping continuing its growth.
Will this thing go from 2% to a China-like 20% of total e-commerce? Not this decade.
But there’s plenty of money to be made.