Top Tips from recent experience
From Dream to Reality…
So you’d like to set up and run an e-commerce business? For as long as I can remember I’d wanted to do the same-a fact which my long suffering family and friends can vouch for! They had listened patiently to my plans, encouraged my sometimes crazy ideas, commiserated when things didn’t quite go to plan- and always believed in me. I’ve learned a lot in a relatively short time and I hope my recent experiences will inform and encourage you to fulfil your dream.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I was finally in a position to do something about the idea that had been incubating in my mind for a few years. I finally had the precious gift of Time. And I had saved the sum of £7000 which I calculated would be enough to get me started. It was more of a guestimate actually-but it was all I had, and it felt like the right time. My life was about to be transformed! I had visions of becoming a global success. There would be riots as people fell over each other to own a Welcome Little One hamper! Hmm-not quite-I haven’t had to worry about stampedes yet! But I am now getting orders from overseas which is encouraging.
Worth the hard work?
I knew I would need enthusiasm, energy, motivation and organisational skills-and I had all of those. But there were several skills I didn’t even know I would need when I set out. I’ve cried with frustration, made mistakes and had many sleepless nights. But if I knew then what I know now, would I still set up my own business? Yes Yes Yes! I’m not making any money yet, but the satisfaction and sense of achievement when an order pings in is fantastic!
So if you’re thinking about starting an e-commerce business, here are some considerations and tips. These are in no way to be treated as a manual of how to run a business. I’m speaking only from my own experiences and I’m still only few footsteps along the path of a long journey of learning. But they will hopefully encourage you to fulfil your dream and save you some tears of frustration- and at least a few sleepless nights.
Find out if you’ve got what it takes…
Are you confident in your product or service? For me it’s important that I love my products. I want to enjoy thinking about the happiness of people receiving their hamper and gifts at a very special time in their lives. It helps me to remain passionate and motivated. I can’t imagine selling something I didn’t rate-but that might just be me!
- Do you know your target market? This is vital as you don’t want to waste time and money marketing to an audience who don’t need or don’t want what you are selling.
- Are you resilient and determined? A successful businessman told me that you must have a rhino hide to succeed in business. It’s hard to take criticism and to admit that you’ve made mistakes. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve felt like giving up. But a stubborn streak and a refusal to give up keeps me going. You will frequently be faced with a new challenge- stressful and worrying at the time, but worth facing for the feeling of satisfaction and pride in a problem overcome and a job well done. The joy of reading a positive review about a product produced by you is wonderfully satisfying.
- Are you prepared to learn? Unless you’ve got pots of money to pay experts to do all the jobs an online business, you’ll need to be prepared for not one but several learning curves. It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t know just how much I didn’t know when I set out.
- Are you well organised? Without the ability to organise your time, computer files, diary, stock control, finances and a thousand other things, you will find running a business at least frustrating and stressful and at worst, impossible. A jumbled desk doesn’t make for a clear mind!
- Are you flexible? Things change. A supplier might stop selling-or the quality of a product might change and no longer be suitable for your needs. You could need a new supplier quickly. This could mean having to sacrifice a night out -and often something even more disappointing. Which brings me to the next, vitally important requirement……
- Do you have a supportive network of family and friends? It’s highly likely that if you’ve been dreaming of starting a business – planning and thinking about it for months or even years- and have decided to take the plunge, you will become completely preoccupied and your family and friends are going to suffer, particularly the person or people you live with. It’s all too easy when you’re excited and full of ideas and plans, to neglect them. Be prepared to retain your sense of humour, see your new venture from their point of view and to keep things in perspective.
If you can answer Yes to all of the above questions, Congratulations!
Now the hard work -and the fun of running your own business can begin! Some readers will no doubt find the following information simplistic. I don’t claim to be an expert. These are just snippets that might be helpful if you’re as naïve as I was when I started!
You’ll need somewhere to work -preferably where you can be uninterrupted. But there are plenty of successful businesses that started off in a small kitchen or at a dining room table.
If you’re selling physical products you’ll need a space to store them. But again, don’t be put off if you haven’t got a dedicated room. As long as you can keep your products in good condition, a temporary storage place will be fine. Although your partner or children might not be too impressed if they suddenly find their wardrobes filled with computer components or whatever you are selling!
You’re going to need some financial resources. I was taken aback by the number of things I had to pay for in addition to my actual products. More on this later. Make sure you ring fence some of your budget for advertising. There’s no point in having a wonderful product if nobody knows of its existence.
You’ll need time to think, plan and put your plans into practice. If you’re starting a business whilst you still have a full time job, be prepared for the exhaustion! But hopefully the adrenaline created by your enthusiasm and excitement will help you to cope.
What’s your USP?
Your USP or Unique Selling Point needs to be decided alongside your choice of product or service. It’s integral to your brand and will affect many of your decisions as you create your business. What is missing in the market? What will make you stand out from your competitors? My USP is that every gift, including the hampers themselves, had to be made in Britain. I had already decided that my target market was people looking for luxury goods who shared my passion for products that were sourced ethically , were of high quality and were created and packaged in as environmentally friendly way as possible. And I wanted to support British businesses, which would lead to a reduced carbon footprint. Those initial decisions made other decisions much easier. My products needed to be of a very high quality, and my branding needed to reflect that.
Choose a domain name and see whether it’s available. I was concerned that mine was too long. But my heart was set on the name so I went with it. It doesn’t seem to have been a problem and it carries my main message so I’m happy with that decision. There is an annual fee to retain the name. Make sure you set up autorenew-you don’t suddenly want to lose your precious website address.
Set up a bank account and keep business and personal finances separate.
Once you’ve decided what you’re going to sell you need to think about your website. This is your shopfront so it has to reflect your ethos and your brand as well as display what you’re offering.
Creating a website can cost thousands. But luckily there are several options. If you have a very limited budget, you can build your own website. However, unless you are technosavvy or have friends who are, this is probably going to cause problems in the long run. As I mentioned earlier, your website is a vital part of your business. If you were renting or buying a physical shop, the cost would probably take a major chunk of your budget. So be prepared to make your website a priority when doing your initial costings. A bespoke website is usually very expensive. But look for developers who are prepared to adapt a secondhand website to suit your needs.
What do you want people to think and feel when they see the pages of your website? Your choice of colours, fonts, images, slogans and logo will all add to your brand image so it’s worth putting a lot of thought into the impact of each of these. I was fascinated to learn of the power of using a certain colour or font. You may love red, but do you really want your potential customers to associate your products with danger? If you’re selling to adrenaline junkies, maybe you do!
Legal requirements for e-commerce websites
Legally, you must show the following on your website:
Terms and Conditions-you can buy a standard T and C document and then insert your details where appropriate.
- Your contact details including your postal address
- Your Delivery and Returns policy-reading examples on a number of websites will give you an idea of what to include.
- Data Protection responsibilities-ICO stands for the Information Commissioner’s Office. This is the independent regulatory office which is responsible for “upholding information rights in the interest of the public.” What this means for website owners who process personal information is that legally they have to complete an annual PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) compliance questionnaire and pay an annual data protection fee to ico.org.uk
A means of selling
As an e-commerce business owner, you will probably want your financial transactions to be processed via your website. You will need a payment gateway such as SagePay or World Pay. There is an annual fee for this-and also a monthly fee from the merchant bank that they use. The payment gateway is a means of customers paying on your checkout page. The merchant bank handles the money.
A domain name is essential but lots of people don’t realise that every website also needs a host to enable the public to view it.
There are many hosts to choose from and choosing the best one for you can feel overwhelming. There’s an annual fee for this too!
You’ll probably need a paid business email address-this isn’t essential but it’s highly recommended to make your business sound professional . Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail accounts should probably be kept for personal use. There are hundreds of companies providing email hosting. If you’re techno-anxious, choose one that will help you configure all your devices so that you don’t miss orders coming in.
Technical stuff-this really scared me at first….
The back office
My budget was small but I was lucky to find someone who was prepared to adapt a previously owned website and as she said, ‘make it beautiful.’ Our dealings were all online and often when I asked a question about the working of the website, she said “Oh you’ll learn how to do that when we get into the back office.” I honestly thought this was a physical place and looked forward to the day when I would take the train to London and have all my questions answered in an office in her company building.
So I was taken by surprise when she phoned one day and said that we were going to have a phone tutorial to take me through the workings of the back office. I was gutted! My exciting day out had been snatched from me-and replaced by a phone conversation in my own home! It turns out that the back office of a website is accessed by visiting the website itself.
The back office is where amongst other things you write the text for your web pages and blogs, add images and set up shipping options etc. My website has a WordPress management system. It’s one of the most widely used systems, but there are others. And an e-commerce website also needs a means of adding and displaying products, whether physical or virtual. For that, my site uses Woo Commerce.
I love working in the back office. It has certainly been challenging-and occasionally catastrophic- when I’ve caused problems with the site due to inexpertly attempting to ‘improve’ things (see next paragraph.) But when I think back to those early days, I realise how much I’ve learned and achieved through hard work and hours of following You Tube tutorials, and reading hundreds of forum threads and articles.
The three main components of a website
The appearance of each website page is created in the Theme. So now we’ve got the management system (WordPress) a means of selling (Woo Commerce) and a theme (Xstore-theme 8) There are numerous choices for each of these essential components in the back office. And there are thousands of PlugIns which you can add to website -all of which add a function eg Flat Rate Shipping or Add a Wishlist. They, and the main components, all need updating regularly to ensure that your website works efficiently. I made the mistake of attempting to update them myself without understanding the implications. I wouldn’t recommend this – it led to several sleepless nights and in the end I had to pay an expert to sort it out. Know your limits!
Don’t skimp on the quality of your images. It takes visitors only 0.05 seconds to make the decision to stay on your website or leave it so you need to do everything possible to make that first impression a positive one.
It’s important to find a balance between image quality and the size of the image file. You want your image to look clear and professional but you don’t want to make navigating your site a slow and tedious experience. Visitors will just leave and go elsewhere to buy. There are lots of helpful articles on how to optimise images for e-commerce sites and it’s worth investing some time in learning about this before uploading images into your site media library. It will save you hours of editing later on.
Packaging and Delivery
This part of the selling process requires a mixture of creative and practical decision making.
Is it important to you that your packaging is eco-friendly and ethically produced?
What do you want your recipients’ first impression of your product to be? Your choices will have to take into account your product, cost, aesthetics, functionality and audience impression. Getting the balance right is a challenge but this is another of my favourite parts of the process because of the creative element. My aim is for recipients of Welcome Little One hampers and gifts to feel spoiled and pampered so I made decisions on ribbon, the design and quality of gift cards and tags etc based on that aim.
Decide who you’re going to sell to and what your shipping costs will be and add that information to your Woo Commerce or equivalent plugin. This information is necessary for your Checkout system to work efficiently.
Research postal and courier options. Don’t necessarily go for the cheapest-it could be a false economy. Reliability is paramount when customers are expecting a delivery.
Your Website is Live…..
The website is launched…. the champagne corks are popping….you’ve set up a business! Now all you have to do is wait for your first order-and then the thousands of ensuing orders. Right? Well, not quite! It turns out you’ve got to make that happen yourself through various means- the most effective being SEO or Search Engine Optimisation…
Potential customers will use various search terms to find products or services they’re interested in buying. Google’s search engine is the most popular but there are Yell, Bing and others. A couple of weeks after going live, your website will probably appear on around page 10 or even lower in Search Results. This is clearly not going to help with Sales. But don’t be dejected. Depending on your budget, you’ll need to either pay someone to improve your SEO-or learn how to improve it yourself which is what I did. There are lots of ways to do this and hundreds of great tutorials to guide you.
To make a significant difference:
1. Add the Yoast plugin to your website. This is a brilliant free plugin which points out in simple terms what you need to do on any given page to improve the SEO.
2. Join directories which are relevant to your product. I joined Let’s Buy British for example-and by doing that I increased my online presence but more importantly from a SEO perspective, links back to my website were automatically put in place. And search engines like back links.
3. Use a free Site analysis tool eg www.nibbler.silktide.com. These are brilliant as you are sent a report with a score on each aspect of your website and suggestions on how to improve.
4. Add Google Analytics to your website. Unbelievably this is free! It gives you data about visitors to your website and there are hundreds of filters such as location, gender, time of day, device used. You can see in Realtime if someone is using your website, how long they stay on, which pages they’re looking at and lots more. This information is invaluable in learning about your audience.
5. Add Alt text and Titles to images as you add them to your media library. This will significantly boost your SEO.
6. Use Social media for marketing. Having Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts is essential as a means of reaching potential buyers. But learning how to use all the tools they provide to reach millions of people is a job for life. Don’t be daunted! Take it slowly and follow tutorials. The camaraderie and support which emerges from using the social media grapevines is reassuring as well as being a powerful motivator, especially if you’re having a bad day. Be generous in your support for other small businesses-it only takes a few minutes to Like or Comment as you scroll and I know what a boost this gives.
Even after putting all these suggestions into practice, patience will again be required. It can take several weeks for your ranking to improve.
Day to day
- Set up simple spreadsheets for order and invoice records, costings, etc. It’s worth a few hours of initial work to create systems which result in a smooth running operation.
- Keep a comprehensive and constantly updated list of companies, organisations, usernames, passwords. I consult my two page printout with these details at least 30 times a day! It saves hours of searching for the elusive scrap of paper bearing an important telephone number or password.
- Keep track of stock so that you don’t have to panic when you realise for example that you haven’t got enough boxes to pack an order.
- Keep records of every order so that you can track it to its destination.
Value your customers
Excellent customer service is a priority for online shoppers. Return calls and emails promptly and remember that your voice, or in emails your tone, is all that a customer can use to form an opinion about you and your brand. Correct spelling and grammar usage is important in creating a professional image. If you’re not confident, use a spellchecker!
Show your customers that you care about their shopping experience and take the time to build a personal relationship with them, even if it’s only for one query or transaction. Hopefully, they will appreciate it, remember it and return to you. Even if they don’t, being friendly and polite makes for a more enjoyable day!
There are numerous aspects of starting and running an e-commerce business that I haven’t covered-I’d need to write a book to deal with them all. But I hope the information is helpful and that it encourages you to go ahead with starting your online business. Be patient. Be realistic. And above all enjoy the journey! If you get a minute, email me with your experiences at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to know how you get on.