It’s a reality.
Our world is becoming more automated every single day. Integrations connect different apps, plugins are able to handle large amounts of information with ease, and businesses are turning to automation for a competitive edge.
At first glance, automation might seem out of reach for many Amazon sellers. What was once the domain of large organizations with deep pockets is now accessible to anyone with a laptop and a ‘can do’ attitude.
Earlier this year, our team at A2X attended the Prosper Show in Las Vegas. At the event, Karen Ellenberger (co-founder of Agile Merchant) gave a presentation on how sellers can use a combination of four free and cheap tools to automate a wide variety of processes in a simple and effective manner.
In this article, we discuss the main points that Karen covered in her speech.
It all started in 2008. Initially, Karen was selling books on Amazon using a retail arbitrage strategy. This basically involves finding deals on fast moving items that can be purchased in a retail shop for less than it sells for on Amazon (then proceeding to resell the book online for a profit).
This method product sourcing proved to be quite inefficient and time consuming:
“My business partner and I had an idea that rather than going out and finding the books, we could get the books to come to us. So we had an idea to start a website where students could come to the website and enter the ISBN of the book themselves, get an instant quote for how much we would pay them for the book, get a shipping label so they could send us the book online. Then we could receive it in our warehouse, package it up for FBA and Amazon could sell it for us.” – Karen Ellenberger
To make this happen, Karen and her business partner worked with a developer to create the backend systems. This software was instructed to fetch the price on Amazon, work out the applicable fees, estimate the probability of being able to resell the book through FBA and calculate the necessary margin required on each book. It would then use this information to provide the student with an instant quote.
The business grew rapidly, and they went from being proactive to reactive very quickly. At this point, the need for fast and easy automation became clear.
Automation Automation Automation
“Automation is a way of being kind to your future self.” – Karen Ellenberger
By putting systems in place that handle repetitive tasks, it is possible to build a business that liberates staff and owners from much of the workload. There are often a number of different ways that a task can be approached and automated. The most important thing is that it works properly and actually adds value.
As a broad overview, the two key steps to designing an automation are:
- Define the goal and identify the steps required to get to that goal.
- Find a way to replace the manual tasks.
“Automation is a shortcut to future success. When you do automation really well, it shifts you from being reactive to being proactive in your business.” – Karen Ellenberger
Before you start automating every task under the sun, it’s important to consider which parts of your business are best suited to automation. Great automation opportunities arise when:
- There is already a well defined process in place.
- It has already been optimized.
- It is repeated often.
When you’re just getting started, try to begin with jobs that are not business critical, have a clear goal or endpoint and that you can fix manually if the automation doesn’t work properly.
There is an upfront cost to putting automations in place, so make sure that you are automating tasks that are repeated often enough in your business to make it worthwhile. They are an investment that will pay back tenfold if set up in a thoughtful way.
“Once you’ve identified the value in automating something, don’t scrimp on it. Spend the time and money to do it right.” – Karen Ellenberger
Measure your results before and after implementing the automation. This way, you will know if the automation is having a positive effect on your business. It’s also important to check from time to time that your automations are working properly.
The four tools
- Google Apps – a suite of cloud-based apps and tools that can be used for a wide range of purposes.
- Zapier – Creates easy integrations between apps with just a few clicks.
- Manifestly – a powerful checklist app with a range of capabilities. Great for creating workflows and processes for automation to execute.
- AutoFill by Tohodo – customizable autofill forms to save time on repetitive data entry.
Automation are often designed to solve a very specific problem. These tools are platform agnostic – meaning that they work in a wide range of scenarios across different apps and platforms. By creating ‘plug and play’ automation loops, it is possible to design systems that are simple, flexible and can be easily adjusted to account for changes in the business and marketplace.
G Suite is a powerful set of cloud-based tools that businesses can access for around $5 per user per month. These apps include Google Mail, Sheets (cloud based spreadsheets), Docs (cloud based Microsoft Word alternative), Calendar, Hangouts and much more.
Mail and Sheets are generally the most useful for Amazon sellers. Google sheets can handle extremely large amounts of information and work with a wide range of integrations. As a core software package, G Suite is almost indispensable for online sellers.
Ways that you can automate and improve spreadsheets:
- Macros – this is an excel-specific coding language that is very useful for linking things together. Google offers a similar alternative.
- Pivot tables – great for aggregating data and quickly analysing information.
“Easy automation for busy people. Zapier moves info between your web apps automatically, so you can focus on your most important work.” – Zapier
Using Zapier, it is possible to integrate thousands of apps with one another. This is done through the use of ‘Zaps’. To create an integration, simply set a trigger that activates a Zap, tell the software which information to copy and what to do with it. For example:
If you’re creating an automation to track returns on products sold through Amazon, you could configure Zapier to use the returns email from Amazon as a trigger to copy the relevant information and enter it into a ‘returns’ spreadsheet.
“Point, click, automate. Go from idea to workflow in minutes.” – Zapier
There are unlimited ways that Zapier can be used to automate processes. With a simple and intuitive interface, Zapier is an essential part of the DIY automation toolkit.
Manifestly is a checklist app that comes with a range of advanced capabilities. It is great for designing workflows, standard operating procedures and automation checklists. When a task or checklist is created, the person setting it up can assign responsibilities, require that documents are uploaded before a job can be ticked off off and much more.
There are over 1000 integrations between Zapier and Manifestly, making it a perfect workflow automation tool for designing and monitoring processes.
Why automate workflows?
- Saves money by cutting down on the amount of human labour required.
- Reduces mistakes.
- By creating workflows that result in great record keeping, it helps to ensure that you are compliant with the applicable laws.
- Avoids duplication of information.
Each checklist on Manifestly has its own title, records, sets of notes and due dates. Different teams can collaborate on each checklist and leave comments if there is anything that needs to be pointed out. This information is stored in the cloud, and can be accessed as required.
Steps to creating a workflow automation with Manifestly:
- Create a template.
- Start a run.
- Schedule and delegate.
- Build in documentation and standard operating procedures.
You can have Manifestly start a workflow on a scheduled cadence (for example: first of the month). Alternatively, you can use Zapier to set an outside trigger that starts a workflow (e.g: low stock level for a particular SKU triggers inventory reorder workflow with the respective supplier).
Zapier is good for automating checklists that don’t happen very often, and monitoring information flows on external apps and websites.
Remember to add in documentation and write up standard operating procedures. This will help to ensure that everyone is on the same page and reduce the amount of questions that need to be answered.
As an Amazon seller, there are a range of requests and forms that need to be filled out on an ongoing basis. Tasks like messaging suppliers about product variations are often done over and over again. Whilst it is easy enough to save message templates into a text document and copy them over, it can become a bit frustrating after a while. This is where Autofill really comes in handy.
Autofill is a very simple, free Chrome plugin that can be downloaded from the Chrome Web Store. Although it doesn’t look very aesthetically pleasing, Autofill is compatible with almost any web form, making it a great way to save time on regular requests.
“What I love about this tool is that it’s nearly universal. I have not yet found a site where this doesn’t work.” – Karen Ellenberger
You can have multiple ‘profiles’ for the same webpage. This makes Autofill is particularly useful for interacting with Seller Support forms such as:
- Feedback removal requests.
- ASIN reinstatements.
- Reimbursement requests.
- Status updates and follow up.
To set up a ‘profile’, simply enter your information into a form, right click on the text field and select ‘add rules for this page…’ This will automatically copy the information you entered into a template. You can edit this template at any point, making it a great way to build flexible forms.
Autofill will normally generate extra lines whenever a new profile is created, so make sure to delete any unnecessary information before clicking ‘save’.
Keep it simple
Less is more.
Before automating processes, it’s important to cut out all of the unnecessary actions. Efficient automations are capable of providing excellent results that propel the business forward. However, inefficient automations do the exact opposite.
Here are a few examples of where these automation stacks are very useful:
- Automating inventory reorders.
- Processing negative feedback.
- Submitting reimbursement requests.
- Onboarding new suppliers.
The possibilities are endless. By using an extremely flexible tech stack, automation becomes much easier and cheaper than ever before.
If you would like assistance with automating your Amazon business, you can get in touch with Karen here.