How I Built a Brand and E-commerce Website in Three Months — With the Help of AI

Introduction

Passion, wanderlust, and a dream: the perfect formula for creating Simply Santa Barbara, a lifestyle brand inspired by a slice of California paradise.

Join me as I share how I built this e-commerce venture in just three months for under $500, and discover how you can turn your passion project into reality.

The back story is I first registered the domain “SimplySantaBarbara.com” (and “SimplySB.com”) in 2009, intending to launch an activity-based business. While the idea remained on the back burner, I kept renewing the URL year after year, knowing I’d eventually do something with it.

Fast-forward to the end of 2023. With my graphic design and marketing background, I decided it was time to pour my passion for the Santa Barbara lifestyle into a creative venture. And so, Simply Santa Barbara was born.

I’ll share how I harnessed AI’s efficiency and affordability to create Simply Santa Barbara in three months, costing less than $500. If you’re an entrepreneur, creative, or marketer looking to bring your ideas to life cost-effectively and efficiently, read on.

Why Use AI?

Before diving into how I used AI to help create Simply Santa Barbara, let’s take a moment to understand why technology advancements are such a game-changer for entrepreneurs and marketers.

In the early days of e-commerce, launching an online store was a massive undertaking. In fact, Kieran Flanagan Zapier’s CMO and co-host of the ‘Marketing Against The Grain‘ podcast shared a story on their March 26, ’24 episode.

He explained that in 2009, early in his career, he worked for a radio station in Australia. At the time, the station chose to create an e-commerce website for merchandise, investing a mind-blowing $7M to launch their e-commerce store. In today’s dollars, that would be nearly $10M! It seems insane now, but that’s the difference technology improvements have made over the past 15 years!

The radio station shut down the site a couple years later because it had no traffic, which was the point of Kieran’s story—Without awareness and distribution, you’ll fail.

Fast-forward to today. Launching a fully functional e-commerce brand for next to nothing is possible. Let that sink in—a process that once cost millions a decade ago and would take more than a year to create can now be accomplished in months and for less money than the tab at a nice restaurant. However, creating awareness and demand may not be as easy.

But it’s not just about cost savings. Technology advancements and AI tools offer a level of efficiency and scalability that was once unimaginable. From generating design concepts and product descriptions to creating engaging marketing content, AI can handle tasks that would have previously taken way more people, time, and effort. This frees up resources for entrepreneurs to focus on their business’s creative and strategic aspects.

Think of AI as a powerful set of tools to augment and enhance your abilities. It’s still up to you to provide the vision, direction, and personal touch that makes your brand unique.

In my case, AI allowed me to bring Simply Santa Barbara to life in a way that would have been impossible just a couple of years ago. By leveraging these tools strategically, I could create a professional-quality e-commerce site, lifestyle images, and marketing materials in a fraction of the time and cost it would have taken using traditional methods.

Turbocharging Development Time

One of the first challenges I faced when creating Simply Santa Barbara was choosing how to manufacture and fulfill products, at least at the brand’s early stage.

That’s where Printful came in. Printful is a print-on-demand service that allows you to create custom products without holding inventory. You simply upload your designs and choose your products, and Printful handles the printing and shipping. This meant I could test out designs without committing to large production runs. And I like the quality of direct-to-garment printing vs. silk screening. DTG doesn’t have that heavy, rubbery feeling that silk screening does.

My goal for the brand direction is to keep the creative simple and focus on the Santa Barbara lifestyle. I started with designs highlighting the marine life, yachting, and surfing niches.

I created the graphics using my design background. However, I wanted to showcase the products as more lifestyle-oriented, with models wearing the gear in real-world settings. This is where Midjourney, an AI-powered image generation tool, was the game changer.

If you haven’t used Midjourney yet, I recommend following @nickfloats on X. He has done all the heavy lifting and experimentation and shares what he’s learned.

For this image, here’s a prompt example:

/imagine: an image of a mockup of an adult pristine black colored LONG SLEEVE Next Level 3601 unisex crew neck T-shirt, worn by a woman sitting on a blanket. her hair in a bun, WITH AN ARTISTS DRAWING PAD ON HER LAP ON THE BEACH in Santa Barbara, California, she stares at the drawing pad which is currently blank searching for inspiration, shot on FUJICHROME Velvia 100 –ar 9:16 –cref https://s.mj.run/iOtA3-h41Q0 –cw 20 –s 250 –v 6.0 –style raw

The –cref parameter points Midjourney to another image to use as a character reference. Then the –cw parameter assigns a weight to that original image, with 100 being the highest and 0 being the lowest. I’ve found 20–50 to work the best. As a photographer, I loved shooting with FUJICHROME Velvia 100 pre-digital photography, and Midjourney seems to understand the difference. The –s 250 style parameter is set to high detail, and –style raw is a parameter that leads to images with less ‘beautification,’ presenting a more ‘raw’ and unfiltered result.

The benefit of this new character reference feature is that you can create images that share the same model, which feels more authentic.

(A complete Midjourney parameter list can be found here.)

I encountered a challenge in ensuring the AI-generated images accurately represent the real products. Sometimes, the colors or proportions would be slightly off, requiring manual adjustments in Photoshop. Combining my Photoshop skills with the AI-generated images helped create a more cohesive and authentic representation of the products.

In this example from the character reference above, the actual product tank top offers raw edge seams, which Midjourey could not accommodate, no matter how many times I tried variations in the prompt. I found that a combination of using Photoshop’s generative AI feature and selecting the seam using the prompt “remove seam,” and a little touch-up with the clone tool did a good job of creating the look I was striving for.

This is what I mean by AI being a tool. While every image required a significant amount of Photoshop work, the time and costs associated with producing these in “real life” were not something I could afford.

Here’s the image that was used for the character reference.

Here’s the final image from the Simply Santa Barbara website

Before starting on the website, I wanted to get a feel for market fit. So, for my first public share, I created 10 unique product mockups and posted them on my social media channels. As my followers are brutally honest, the positive feedback and suggestions that aligned with the concerns brewing in my mind gave me the confidence to move forward with the website.

Building the Website

When it came to building the Simply Santa Barbara website, I had a few key considerations. First, I wanted to leverage my existing web hosting to minimize costs. Second, I needed a platform that allows easy customization and integration with Printful. Finally, I wanted to ensure the site was fully ADA-compliant to avoid potential legal issues. (Yes, predatory law firms are hunting for e-commerce sites that lack compliance and usually settle out of court for around $10k.)

After weighing my options, I decided to go with WordPress and WooCommerce over Shopify. While Shopify is a great platform, it can be costly, especially for a new brand. Since I already had web hosting and experience with WordPress, I decided to go that route.

One of the challenges I faced when customizing the site was making CSS changes. While I have some coding knowledge, I’m not a developer. This is where ChatGPT came in handy. By sharing code snippets and describing the changes I wanted to make, ChatGPT provided me with the CSS I needed. This saved me a ton of time and frustration, along with the costs of hiring a freelance developer.

Another area where AI tools proved invaluable was streamlining the product creation workflow. Here’s a breakdown of my process:

  • Create a design using my graphic design skills.
  • Apply the design to a product template in Printful.
  • Generate a lifestyle image using Midjourney, showcasing the product in a real-world setting.
  • Use Photoshop to modify the image where necessary and superimpose my design on the apparel.
  • Use ChatGPT to write an ADA-compliant alt tag based on the image.
  • Iterate the product description with chatGPT and Claude to match the brand voice.

By using AI to assist with these tasks, I could create a professional-looking product page in a fraction of the time it would have taken me to do everything manually.

While building the website was a significant undertaking, using AI tools made it much more manageable. By leveraging ChatGPT for CSS customization, Midjourney for lifestyle images, and Claude for product descriptions, I created a stunning website that truly captures the essence of the Simply Santa Barbara brand. I started the project the first week of January 2024, and went live with a fully functioning website April 4th. Not to toot my own horn, but beep beep 😉

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