I Created a Dog Eye Crust-Removal Comb — And Made $74K on Amazon

Amazon helps independent sellers, for a price

Photo: Danita Delimont/Gallo Images/Getty Images Plus

My dog, Jack, is a Bichon Frise. Bichons often get tear stains under their eyes — nasty discoloration that dyes their fur a reddish, rusty color. Jack had them, and my wife and I could never get them to go away. After a vet visit in 2013 to get some shots, the vet brought Jack back to us in the waiting room, and his tear stains were almost totally gone.

Shocked, we asked what they’d done. A vet tech showed us a small comb from a specialty vet supplier. Made of surgical-grade stainless steel, the comb worked incredibly well to remove tear stains, she said. I know a lot of Bichon people. So I immediately knew there would be huge demand for the comb if it was marketed to the right audience. We had no idea how to create a product, but we were about to get a crash course.

A few days later, I reached out to the comb’s supplier, Jorvet, a small, family-owned company that has been around since 1965. They sell everything you’d find at a vet’s office, from surgical supplies to dog acupuncture needles. I told them we wanted to white label the comb — a process where a manufacturer makes a product and a different company sells it under their own brand. Think Trader Joe’s — almost all of the store’s products are actually made by giants like PepsiCo and Synder but are sold with Trader Joes’ own branding and packaging. We worked out the specifics of pricing and sent Jorvet just over $1,500. In a few days, we received a box with about 600 combs.

Now, we had to transform them into our own product. Bichon people often call their dogs’ tear stains “eye crusties” (charming, I know). So we brainstormed names based on variations on “crusties,” “stains,” and “gunk.” To test them out, we bought Google Ads with each name as the ad title and looked at the click-through rates to see which was most popular. This technique — championed by Tim Ferris — is a great way to get real-world feedback on a book title or product name. The clear winner was “Crusty Comb,” so we went with that name.

Our next step was to get a UPC. These 13 digit codes act as a unique identifier for products (almost like a website’s domain name) and are required in order to sell on many marketplaces. It’s the same number that gets scanned by a barcode reader at the checkout line in a physical store. We bought one from CODEUPC (now defunct) for $9.95. We also spent $1,000 to hire a designer, who created a product label with cartoon images of Jack and our other Bichon, Max. We had these printed on vinyl bags by a company in China and shipped to us. We then placed each comb into a bag — by hand.

The Crusty Comb with packaging. Photo courtesy of the author.

The Crusty Comb was now a real product, with a brand name, a logo, packaging, and a UPC. We wanted to sell the combs online. But we didn’t want to spend all day manually shipping them to buyers or to go through the hassle of creating our own online storefront. So we did what more than 2.5 million brands and product creators had done before us: We turned to Amazon.

As of Q2 2020, 53% of the products Amazon sold were from third parties. Even many items that come in Amazon’s signature boxes, directly from an Amazon fulfillment center with free Prime shipping, are from independent sellers.

This is largely facilitated by the company’s Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) program, which we joined. As an FBA seller, you send Amazon your inventory, which the company catalogs and stores in their massive warehouses. Your product then appears on the Amazon site, where it’s nearly indistinguishable from products the company sells itself. The only hint that it’s from a third-party seller is a little snippet of text reading “Sold by” under the “Buy Now” button on the product’s Amazon page.

When someone purchases your product, Amazon’s fulfillment center workers package it in an Amazon box and ship it out to the customer using Amazon’s shipping contracts. Amazon also handles all aspects of customer service for you, as well as returns. For small sellers like us, FBA makes the process of selling a product almost entirely hands off.

Of course, this all comes at a price. Amazon charges storage fees every month based on the physical size of your product and how many units you’ve sent them, a set fee per unit fulfilled, and another fee based on the item’s weight. That’s on top of their standard commission for third-party items, which varies by category (it was 15% for the Crusty Comb). You also have to pay to ship your products to Amazon’s warehouse.

Since Amazon controls almost half of e-commerce spending in the United States, we didn’t have to work very hard to find an audience.

The end result was that for each comb we sold (which we initially priced at $11.99), we paid Amazon fees totaling $4.28. The combs cost $3.46 each to purchase (including inbound shipping and the cost of labels). That meant that each time we sold a comb, we took home around $4.25. The big lesson here is that with online selling, costs add up.

Still, working through FBA made the selling process incredibly easy. And since Amazon controls almost half of e-commerce spending in the United States, we didn’t have to work very hard to find an audience. Almost as soon as the Crusty Comb arrived in Amazon’s warehouses, it began to sell, even with essentially zero marketing outside the platform. In the first week, we sold six combs. Over time, the product gained traction and sales increased.

The Crusty Comb also started to earn some positive reviews. For Amazon sellers, reviews make a huge difference in how your product performs. When the Crusty Comb went from a 4.7- to a 4.9-star rating, sales doubled from three to four combs per day to seven or more.

Safeguarding the Crusty Comb’s reviews became absolutely crucial. Whenever someone left a negative review (usually complaining about the comb’s price), I would immediately refund their whole order. I’d then reach out with a message through Amazon’s system and apologize profusely.

Over time, I came to realize that many people who leave a bad review ultimately just want to be heard. Many people would write back to my messages with detailed feedback about the comb, as well as their concerns. Once they got a chance to express how they felt, I’d ask if they were willing to delete the negative review. The vast majority did.

I can easily see how with five to 10 products and more marketing, someone could make a good living exclusively selling products on Amazon.

My strategy of overly effusive, grovel-y customer service (coupled with liberal refunds) worked well. But even for the few days that a negative review was live, sales would drop dramatically. Remember that the next time you decide to spite-review a mildly defective product. Because Amazon obscures the extent to which they work with third parties, leaving an angry, negative review feels like harmlessly lashing out at a tech giant. But in reality, for many products it’s more like leaving a 1-star review for an Uber driver — you could be seriously affecting a real person’s livelihood. Try reaching out to the seller instead — many are perfectly willing to refund your whole order to avoid the risk of negative feedback. They can even offer a slight refund beyond the price you paid for the product, which we often did for people who reached out to express concerns.

As more positive reviews came in, the Crusty Comb’s sales continued to increase. We raised the price to $14.25, which had zero impact on sales, but it put a few more dollars in our pockets (and Amazon’s) for each sale. Especially around the busy holiday season, we could easily sell 10–12 combs per day. We started placing an order for more combs every few months and would bribe family members with free food to help us label and package them — assembly-line style — on our kitchen table after hours.

We sold the Crusty Comb for three years, from 2014 to 2017. In that time, we sold over 4,950 combs, bringing in $74,900. Of that, we took home about $31,000, or a bit over $10,000 per year — a respectable side hustle. I can easily see how with five to 10 products and more marketing, someone could make a good living exclusively selling products on Amazon.

That was ultimately the most interesting realization from the whole process of becoming an Amazon seller. Amazon is often portrayed as a destroyer of industries and an enemy of independent business. Much of this may be deserved. But Amazon and its ilk can also be an incredible leveler, giving micro-businesses (or even individuals) access to infrastructure they could never afford on their own.

With services like FBA, you come up with nearly any idea for a product, enter it into Amazon’s catalog, ship inventory to the company’s warehouses, and have immediate access to fulfillment, 24/7 customer support agents, a nationwide shipping network, and the largest e-commerce audience in the world, all for a per-unit price. That’s a remarkable capability for a small seller.

Yes, that per-unit price is high. But if you can make the economics work — as we did with the Crusty Comb — you can scale up your business rapidly, with almost no investment in infrastructure. The downside is that you’re then entirely dependent on Amazon. The company can arbitrarily change its fee structure, force you to split up incoming shipments to distribute products evenly among the Amazon’s fulfillment warehouses, or stop selling your product altogether, as they did with certain products at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Beyond Amazon, though, Big Tech facilitates micro-sellers in other ways. We used Alibaba to find a Chinese factory to make our packaging, hired a designer and collaborated with her via Dropbox despite never meeting in person, and chose the name for our product based not on intuition, but on the result of a Google ad campaign.

It’s one of tech’s many strange dichotomies. On the one hand, big tech companies like Amazon are rapidly dominating the e-commerce space, making it nearly impossible for anyone else to compete. But at the same time, they’re providing the tools which allow someone to find inspiration in a place as unexpected as a veterinarian’s waiting room, and rapidly create a product with a global reach that brings in tens of thousands of dollars.

Update: A previous version of this story suggested Amazon made a greater profit from the comb than the writer did — which is not necessarily the case. The language has been updated to clarify.

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography. tom@gadoimages.com

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