You know that old tale about keeping all your eggs in one basket?
In 2017, working a single job is pretty much akin to having that basket loaded to the top (while walking across a tightrope. Blindfolded.) With the uncertainty facing us every single day, there’s never been a better, or more prudent time to become an entrepreneur.
But making the transition from working a job to becoming an entrepreneur is hard. I know. I’ve been there. Jumping into the deep end with the pressures of everyday life still weighing you down can feel like an impossible task. That’s why I recommend taking it one step at a time. Find a business you can start and grow while you continue to work or go to school.
In my mind, (and from my experience co-founding Case Escape) one of the best ways to test out the entrepreneurial lifestyle is trying your hand at starting a phone case business.
Sure, this might seem a bit out of left field but stay with me here.
In the past 10 years, global smartphone sales have gone from 122 million in 2007 to almost 1.5 billion in 2016.
And last year alone, the smartphone accessory market was worth $66 billion dollars with 36% of that being protective cases. For those of you not up on your math skills (or if you don’t want to open your calculator) that works out to a mind-boggling $23.7 billion spent on phone cases in 2016, with no signs of the market slowing down anytime soon.
The size of this growing opportunity is why today, I’m teaming up with my former business partner and the owner of Case Escape, Matt Feldman, to talk about how we started our own phone case business and grew it to $160,000 in less than 1 year on the side of our day jobs back in 2013.
Here’s a picture of us at one of the first trade shows we did (and no, we’re not holding hands). That’s me on the left, Matt on the right:
Since starting our phone case business, Case Escape, back in 2013 together, Matt’s gone on to help more than 100+ other people get set up with the equipment they need in order to start a phone case business of their own.
Many of them are earning well into the four and five-figures each month selling phone cases on sites like Etsy, through other eCommerce channels, at in-person events, and otherwise (which we’re talking ALL about in this post). But first…
The Psychology of the Phone Case Business.
With new phones being released yearly, users are constantly on the hunt for a new case—either because they’ve upgraded their phone and their old one doesn’t fit, or they’re simply looking for a unique and interesting design to give their old phone an upgrade.
With every new phone model, you have a new product.
Not to mention the perceived value of a phone case. With smartphones costing between $500 – $1000 (or more), customers have no problem shelling out a measly $20 – $80 on a case that will protect their substantial investment.
So, we’ve got a huge market opportunity coupled with a high perceived value and low overhead for getting started.
Now, I’m sure you’re thinking “Yes Ryan, this all sounds good. But I don’t want to have to find a factory overseas that might flake out on me or deal with hundreds of boxes full of phone cases in my apartment.”
I feel you. I don’t either. And luckily for us both, you don’t have to.
In this post, I’m going to break down exactly how to start a phone case business that leverages your creativity and entrepreneurial passion, without dealing with the headache of order logistics, flakey factories, or massive ‘minimum’ orders.
And to get this party started, I want to share a video interview with Case Escape’s co-founder, Matt Feldman and I, where we talk all about how we grew our phone case business up to more than $160,000 in our first year on the side of our day jobs.
Then, later on in this post, you’ll find video interviews with a few of Matt’s clients who’ve also started their own phone case businesses.
Now, let’s dive into today's post about how to start a phone case business.
9 Steps to Start a Phone Case Business While Working a Full-Time Job
Because... you don't need to give up the security of your full-time pay before earning a healthy side income selling phone cases. Take it from me, I've done it 😊
And give Case Escape's quick how-to video a watch right here:
Step 1: Discover a Profitable Niche (For You)
Whenever I start a new business, I get excited and start running at full speed, coming up with marketing ideas and growth hacks, potential partnerships, thinking about sales funnels and customer support and how this could change my life, and… whoa there.
Yes, it’s all very exciting and you’ve got a million ideas. That’s amazing.
But first, let’s take a massive step back and answer one key question: Why?
So, why do you want to start a phone case business? Ask yourself questions like...
- What's really motivating you to start this phone case business (hopefully more than just a motivational quote you saw on Gary Vee's Instagram)?
- Who are the customers you want to sell to? Why?
- What’s your connection to them?
- Why should they care about what you’re making?
The easiest way to answer all these questions at once is to define your niche.
What’s a niche? Essentially, it’s what your business specializes in.
But it goes deeper than that. A niche is the space your business occupies, not just with your products, but with your content, your company culture, your branding, and your message. It’s how people identify with you and seek you out over the competition.
Now, we know we want to start a phone case company, but with the amount of competition out there, you need to be more than be just another case. You need to speak directly to a group of people.
Do you care passionately about animals? You could create cases using wildlife photography and give a portion of your proceeds towards a charity that protects endangered species.
Or, do you specialize in a certain type of design or illustration? You could use your personal designs to create beautiful phone cases and show behind-the-scenes videos of your artistic process on social media.
Whatever you do, it’s up to you, but the thread that runs through all this is that your niche needs to be about more than just how the case looks. What do you actually care about? What do you love? What can you speak passionately about so that others will stand up and take notice?
Start by listing out your own interests and topics you care about. If this business is going to be a success, you need to have a story behind it. And there’s no easier story to tell than your own.
Step 2: Develop a Visual Style for Your Brand
Now that you have your niche nailed, it’s time to translate that niche into the visual style of your brand.
Your boards don’t need to just be pictures of phone cases either.
Think broader about your brand and your message and put together examples of different:
- Color combinations
- Visual styles
As you build out your board, a visual style will gradually start to emerge. From here, you have two choices: Design your cases yourself (if you’re artistically inclined) or bring on a designer to help you.
If you’re going to design your case yourself go for it! Otherwise, it’s time to hunt out a designer that works in the style you like and can bring your brand to life.
Finding a designer doesn’t have to be difficult or overly expensive.
Here’s a few ideas to get you started:
Check out portfolios on sites like dribbble
Dribbble is a cornucopia of designers showing off their latest work. You can browse and even hire directly on the platform by upgrading to a Pro account ($20 a year). And because of the platform’s appeal in the design community, you’ll be hiring an experienced designer who knows how to work with new clients.
Hire through a freelance marketplace
Upwork, Fiverr, and Freelancer.com are all loaded with freelance graphic designers ready to work with you on a project. However, in many of these ‘hired gun’ situations, you’ll need a pretty clear idea of exactly what you’re after rather than expect to be working with a collaborator. If this is your first time working with a designer, it might be more effort than it’s worth.
Reach out on Twitter, Facebook, or your personal network
Chances are you know a designer, or someone you know knows a designer. Sometimes looking through your own network is the best place to start as you already have a warm intro and (hopefully) don’t have to worry about the potential issues that come with working with a complete stranger.
Step 3: Leverage Your Community
Before we get into the specifics of making, marketing, and distributing your new phone case business, there’s one last step we need to take. I call it the Friends and Family test.
When you’re starting out with any new business, your personal network is the best place to get honest feedback, advice, and even your first few sales—this is called validating your business idea.
Talk to your friends, family, and co-workers about what you’re doing.
Is this something they’d be interested in? If not, why? What would they be more interested in? You can even grab a sample pack of custom phone cases from a company like Case Escape to show off your designs and product quality in the flesh.
Remember to stay objective during this entire process. You’re just trying to get a clear idea of what people think about your idea. Your network might not necessarily be in the same demographic as your niche.
On the other hand, if you get an overwhelmingly positive response, then you know you’re onto something. Go deeper at this point and ask questions like:
- How often do they buy a phone case?
- What are they willing to spend on a case?
- What are the qualities they look for in a case? Is it purely aesthetic or functional?
- What phone do they have now? Are they going to upgrade in the next few months or year?
Starting your research off in a supportive environment is a great way to get initial feedback about your idea and help steer you in the right direction. Just remember to not weigh this information too heavily if your sample audience is mostly friends and family—step outside of your personal network if possible and send a few cold emails to people who've left reviews for phone cases on sites like Amazon or Etsy.
The bottom line is that you need to make sure you’re making decisions based on your own gut and what the broader market is telling you, not just what your closest network tells you is a good idea.
Step 4: Decide How You’re Going to Sell
At this point you should have a pretty clear idea of what you’re going to create and who your audience is.
It’s now time to make a decision about how you’re going to actually start your phone case business (and get a few quick wins).
There are a few different types of business models you can choose, each with their own pros and cons.
If you’re ready and excited to dive headfirst into your business, grabbing a phone case startup kit is one of the best ways to go.
Most startup kits come with everything you need to start making custom cases yourself, including printers, heat presses, templates, and blank cases—everything you need to start making your own cases.
Case Escape startup kit clients and high school entrepreneurs, Hunter Conklin and Luke Updyke from ProTechtIt Cases, have been selling phone cases on the side of their coursework since they started their phone case business last year.
As Hunter and Luke did with their side hustle, ProTechtIt Cases, when you grab a startup kit to start your phone case business, you’ll be making a bit of an upfront investment (from $3,000 - $5,000 depending upon the package you order).
But the good thing is, your margins will be higher than any other production process, and you'll be able to recoup those costs quickly once you start selling cases (which we’ll get into later in the post).
What is dropshipping? Simply put, dropshipping is where a 3rd party company handles all the logistics of creating and distributing your phone case, while you’re responsible for design and marketing (like putting together a content marketing strategy). You keep no inventory and deal with no shipping woes. Orders are printed on-demand as they come in and delivered on your behalf.
Earlier this year, Alisa added phone cases to her product lineup (using order fulfillment) and her sales have been skyrocketing...
In this interview, Alisa and I talk about her decision to add phone cases to her Etsy shop, how much she's been earning from selling phone cases, and her personal design process.
Clearly, going with order fulfillment is a fantastic option for people with established selling channels—or a network that they can reach out to already (like Alisa has), or even for artists and more creative entrepreneurs who want to skip some of the headaches involved in starting a product-based company.
Of course, nothing this good comes cheap though. What you save in time, you’ll make up in additional per-case costs when you choose to go with the order fulfillment route. But, the point of this phone case business model is low effort—and validation.
If you get a line on a ton of orders off the bat or would rather have more control over your operation, you can also go the other route of ordering your stock and handling shipping and customer service yourself (or through your selling channel, which we’ll get into next!)
While this is much more labor intensive and requires more capital upfront, the per-case savings make it an exciting option for those who dream big. With Case Escape, ordering in bulk can save you up to two-thirds of the cost of paying per-case with dropshipping ($6 per case in bulk vs. up to $18 for dropshipping).
You need to decide what’s more important to you off the start...
Is it being set up for the long-term (making cases yourself with startup kits)? Or do you want the ease of selling to test your idea in the market (dropshipping/order fulfillment)? Or should you go for maximum profit potential on very large corporate orders (bulk)?
All paths lead to starting your own phone case business, it’s just up to what you feel comfortable with.
Step 5: Choose Your Selling Channels
Now it’s time for us to start looking at the specifics of selling your new phone cases.
Let’s start with the most obvious question: Where do you sell phone cases?
There are more online and offline marketplaces than we could list where you could potentially sell your cases. And where you choose to sell your case will depend on a number of factors, including:
- Your niche (who are your target customers and where do they hang out?)
- Your style (are there communities that would be more interested in how your cases look?)
- Your positioning (Are you positioning your case as a luxury item? Or something utilitarian?)
Based on your answers, here are a few ideas of places to sell your phone cases:
Etsy is an online marketplace that specializes in vintage, handmade, and custom goods.
With its 54+ million monthly users and slogan of “Shop for anything from creative people everywhere”, Etsy is a great choice if your phone case business is design-focused and fits the ‘Etsy style’ (just spend a few minutes on the site and you’ll know what I mean!)
Setting up an Etsy shop is easy to do and selling fees come in at a modest USD $0.20 + 3.5% per sale.
Here's the Case Escape Etsy Shop that you can get some inspiration from.
Amazon/Handmade at Amazon
It’s hard to think about selling anything online without at least considering Amazon.
With more than 310 million active users and sales of $136 billion on the platform in 2016, it’s easily the largest e-retailer in the US. However, bigger isn’t always better, and just as Amazon is a great place to be found, it’s also just as easy to get lost in the seas of competition.
Handmade at Amazon, however, is an interesting idea for most phone case businesses. Launched in 2015, Amazon’s ‘Handmade’ section is an invite-only marketplace, which still offers you access to Amazon’s massive amount of monthly buyers, but in an experience curated for designers and artisans. The downside? Your product must meet Amazon’s specifications of what’s ‘handmade’ as well as a whopping 15% ‘referral’ fee for every sale.
Shopify, or your own online store
Want total control of how you sell your phone cases and skip out on marketplace selling fees? Services like Shopify, Squarespace, or BigCommerce let you set up your own online storefront in minutes. However, what you gain in flexibility, you lose in traffic.
Without a built-in or monthly audience, you’ll be responsible for attracting all your own customers (we’ll get into how once Case Escape customer, Boss Case, has done this later!)
Local craft fairs, trade shows, and events
You don’t only have to sell your phone cases online. There are plenty of opportunities to sell your beautifully designed cases locally and in person. Check local event listings to see what sort of fairs are coming up where you might be able to sell.
Are there weekly or monthly markets where you can rent a simple stall? Not only will you get a chance to show off and sell your goods, but you’ll be able to talk to real customers and find out what they like (to help you design future cases!)
There’s a reason you see so many kiosks selling phone accessories. High traffic and moderate overhead makes a mall kiosk a great option for starting your business. Find a good location and set yourself up for passive income by hiring and training someone to run the stand for you.
Corporate promotional products or brand partnerships
Connecting with companies and brands is also a great way to make significant sales for your new business. Lots of larger companies buy bulk gifts for employees or giveaways for conferences and events. Partnering with an event organizer or reaching out to a brand marketing or partnerships manager at a company you think might be interested in working with you is a great way to build relationships and hopefully land some big sales.
Step 6: Perfect Your Production Process
However and wherever you choose to sell your phone cases, you’re going to want a dialed in production chain to make sure there are no issues fulfilling orders.
This is the crux of your operation and getting production right is the difference between creating a business that brings in extra income month after month, and one that only brings you headaches.
Ok. I’m being a bit dramatic here. But it’s hard to understate the importance of having a solid production process in place. Just look at Kickstarter, where over 80% of larger projects are significantly delayed on their release (or never even make it!) due to production issues.
If you want to make custom cases or just have control over your full production process, one of the best options out there is the Startup Kit from Case Escape. Each Startup Kit comes with everything you need to make a custom phone case in less than 5 minutes, including a Case Escape Custom 3D Sublimation Heat Press, Photoshop templates, blank cases, a speciality sublimation printer, custom packaging, and training videos.
There’s a small learning curve when creating your own cases, but being in control of the entire process from start to finish will cut down on customer support issues and streamline your entire business. Just be sure you have a good handle of the entire process before taking on too many orders!
Step 7: Create Your Listings
Now that you’ve figured out your niche, marketplace, and production process, it’s time to get into the specifics of selling phone cases online (if that's a channel you're going for).
If you’re selling your phone cases online, you’re going to want to take some time now to set up your listing and some basic advertising to help put your business on autopilot. A good listing will do the heavy lifting for you—attracting customers, selling them on your brand vision and unique selling proposition, and even closing the sale.
Here’s the anatomy of a phone case listing that sells (based on the more than 12,000+ sales on the Case Escape Etsy shop):
Take great product photos
When was the last time you bought a product sight unseen? Yeah, I can’t remember either.
Because most phone cases are bought for purely aesthetic reasons, your photo plays a huge part in attracting customers. Use a simple white backdrop to put the focus on the product. For an even more professional look, you can buy a simple lighting kit on Amazon otherwise try to use indirect natural lighting by setting up near a window (as long as there aren’t any shadows being cast).
You’ll want to do some basic photo editing or hire a graphic designer to edit your photos to bring out the best coloring before posting. Again, check out our list of places to hire a designer above if you need help with this.
Create a virtual mockup
You can also create a mockup of what your phone case will look like using a template in Photoshop. This is a more intense process but can yield you a cleaner look if your photos don’t turn out well.
Grab this set of phone case Photoshop templates from Case Escape and give them a try with your designs.
Optimize your listing
With a good photo or mockup ready, let’s move onto the rest of what you’ll need to list your phone case.
Start with the basics: Title, description, and any keywords (from your research earlier).
When writing about your case, be descriptive without getting overly lengthy. There’s a good chance your potential customer knows what a phone case is, just tell them what they need to know (phone model, key information) and a line or two about your style and any features specific to your brand or niche.
Next, you’ll want to go through your listings and pick which one you feel will sell the best and ‘feature it’ on your marketplace. That is, place it at the top so that it comes up higher in searches or shows up as your profile pic.
Lastly, it’s a good idea to set aside a small advertising budget for advertising directly through the selling channel you’re using. For example, Etsy allows you to promote your listing and advertise against certain tag words related to your business. You can even use this as a chance to see what styles resonate the most with your niche. Experiment a little. People vote with their wallets and what you think is your best offering might not be what actually sells best.
Down the road, you can do more to optimize your listing like adding product videos, testimonials, or reviews, but for now, this should be more than enough to get you started.
Step 8: Drive Traffic to Your Online Store
Ok, we’re almost there!
We talked briefly about setting up a small ad budget for your listings, but there are lots of other free ways to drive traffic to your shop. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t at least experiment with some paid advertising, but that you should complement that advertising with some organic methods.
Here’s a few ideas to get you started:
Promote on Pinterest
Did you use Pinterest during your research phase? If you did, there’s a good chance you clicked through on some of the photos. With the right kind of strategy, you can get people to do that on your case as well!
Start with your own boards targeting your niche audience.
Then, look for group boards that match your style and work your way in there.
Lastly, if you have some traction going for you, reach out to influencers (people with large followings who are members of high-traffic boards) and see if you can work out a deal for them to promote your phone case images.
Get on Instagram
As a visual platform, Instagram is a great way to get your cases seen by millions of people.
Take interesting photos and use hashtags that relate to your niche to get in front of as many people as possible.
You can also pay to promote your posts or use targeted advertising to gain a following fast. And just like Pinterest, courting influencers on Instagram with a high-following is a great way to drive traffic to your shop.
Buy targeted Facebook Ads
If you’re targeting a specific group with your phone case designs (like your niche!) Facebook ads can help you target them to people who fit that profile. Here's an example of a recent Case Escape ad campaign that converted into dozens of new sales.
While this campaign spent only $50 over the course of a couple days, these Facebook Ad campaigns can get expensive quickly, so be sure to keep track of your sales and make sure it’s worth it for you.
Blog or contribute to relevant sites
If there’s a message or a higher purpose behind your business, you can look for relevant blogs or publications and pitch them your story.
Why are you making your phone case business that donates part of its profits to the SPCA? There are tons of sites, both local and global who might want to hear your story.
Run contests and giveaways
With low overhead, starting a phone case business is the perfect candidate for giveaways and contests.
Run them on your social networks, asking your followers to share or sign up for your newsletter for a chance to win. Or why not run a design contest, asking fans to submit their own creations? You pick the best and sell it in your store, with a portion of profits or a prize-pack going to the winning designer.
Step 9: Fulfilling Orders and Getting Repeat Customers
The last thing we need to cover is how to ship all those sales you’ll be making from your phone case business.
As we went over before, you have a few options when setting up your phone case business: DIY, drop shipping, or bulk orders.
If you opt to drop ship, then congratulations! You’re all set up.
On the other hand, if you’re going the DIY or bulk ordering route, you need to think about how you’re going to take care of shipping and order fulfillment. Here’s a few ideas:
Work with a fulfillment partner or shipping facility
This is a company that for a small fee will handle all of your shipping and returns.
You simply link your online store to their system and they handle the rest. Again, Case Escape is a great partner for this, and you can even have them create custom window boxes with your business logo, color scheme, tagline, etc…
Use an online shipping service
If you want to go full DIY, you can just use Stamps.com or another online shipping service to print shipping labels and personalize your packaging with stickers, business cards, or handwritten notes to your customers. It may seem like a small gesture, but including these simple ‘bonus items’ can go a long way in building word-of-mouth hype and attracting repeat customers.
Should you be building an email list?
Yes, I’m so glad you asked! During this entire process you should absolutely be building a list of contact information for all of your customers or people who sign up on your site. Having direct access to their inbox is an incredibly useful tool for telling them about upcoming deals, special offers, or new designs and products.
Imagine this: The new iPhone is coming out and you send an email to all your past customers who bought iPhone cases telling them you’ve got cases for the latest model. With 51% of iPhone users reporting that they upgrade their phone at least every 2 years, you’re opening yourself up to a whole bunch of business, just with one email.
As with any marketing campaigns, be conscientious of how you use email. Be honest and only send emails that are actually valuable to your customers. Getting marked as spam can harm your list and make all your emails end up in spam filters.
Concluding Thoughts on How to Start a Phone Case Business:
So what do you think? Is starting a phone case business right for you?
It was for me, and has turned into six-figure businesses for hundreds of people I've met and worked with through Case Escape.
With an ever expanding user base needing regular upgrades, a high perceived value, and a strong psychological connection to your customers, running a phone case business is the perfect way to start down the path to entrepreneurship, whether you’re a creative or not (yet).
And, with partners like Case Escape making it easier than ever to start a phone case business and get up and running the way you want, you can get your own side hustle up and going in no time, with little overhead.