Starting an Online Store - For Small Businesses

Sterling Jackson - May 4, 2012
Speaking from experience, an online presence for your business is valuable but can be a lot of work. Here's what you need to know about starting an online store quickly and effectively.

Here's to Your Success

First off, if you're starting a new business or store, congratulations and welcome to the world of being self employed (or tentatively working toward that goal!) From my experience, it's exhausting ... will drive you insane at times ... and is by far one of the most rewarding things that I ever did with my career and it gave me incredible freedom, both financially and with my life in general.

Starting an online store for your business can be quite an adventure. It can be a huge amount of work but also makes the entire world your marketplace, which is pretty awesome.

Reasons You Should Have an Online Store

It's convenient for your existing customers.

It's easier to refer friends to your website.

It works for you 24/7 (and never complains.)

It's much cheaper than renting a storefront.

The Basics

Create a basic plan for your store - what are your goals and needs? This will help you determine what solution to use for your online store and what features to look for.

Next, decide what your budget is - are you willing to spend some money or do you have the time to try to put it all together yourself? Look for a solution that will provide for all of your needs so you don't have to try to cobble something together.

Important Questions to Ask...

1. Do you need your own domain (www.yourstorename.com)?
Recommendation - Do it. It adds credibility. GoDaddy offers affordable domain registration.

2. How will you handle shipping?
Recommendation - USPS offers several affordable flat rate shipping options. You can use the shipping tools at Stamps.com, FedEx and UPS until your volume of sales increases and you need a more powerful shipment management system.

3. How will you track orders and shipments?
Recommendation - This one is tough. Software to help manage this information isn't critical at this stage, but it can save you a lot of time. Mistakes can be costly and for startups or small businesses you probably shouldn't take the chance of building a negative reputation. Plus the time you save allows you to focus on your most important task - building your business.

4. What types of reports will you need?
Recommendation - As a small business owner, information can be one of your most valuable tools. Just about any insight that you can get into your customers, sales and products will give you ways to improve your business and sell more.

5. What other features or tools do you need?
Is there anything else that you would consider essential for managing your business and online store? A few ideas are ... tracking inventory, inviting customers to try new products or specials, appointment scheduling or organizing supporting documents for your customer accounts.

6. How will you market or advertise your store?
Of course, you can invite your current customers to use your online store for their convenience and they will probably send some referrals your way, which is great. But what else can you do to bring in customers? More people coming to your store means more sales.

Who Are Your Clients?

As fundamental as this question seems to be, it's easy to get ahead of yourself or focus on too broad a demographic. The more specific you are about the customers you're trying to reach, the more easily you will be able to reach out to them. Trust me, it makes a huge difference.

Getting Started

1. Your Website
You will either need to register a domain and have it hosted so you can put a website there, or use a solution that provides a web address, such as (www.affinityinformatics.com/yourstore) and hosts it as part of their service.

You will also need someone who can create your website. I've included a link below to find website templates but someone with knowledge of web design, HTML or Content Management Systems will have to put together the look, feel and content for your website.

2. Shopping Cart and Product Catalog
You will need a way to organize and manage your products. Typically this will be integrated with your shopping cart, allowing you to create categories and display products for your visitors to purchase. The shopping cart brings all of this together, providing a virtual storefront for your business.

3. Payment Processing
This may also be included with your shopping cart software or service. Usually you will need a merchant account and payment gateway (like Authorize.net) that routes transactions through to your bank and helps you comply with critical Payment Card Industry Security Standards.

Keep in mind that if you are found to be in violation of PCI requirements your permission to process payment cards may be revoked. Save yourself time, use Authorize.net and don't store credit card numbers unless you absolutely have to. By the way, don't ever store them on paper. If they are stolen you may be liable for all damages and expenses.

Stability is Absolutely Critical

Your website and online store absolutely must be reliable.

This is my number one argument against free solutions for certain services. They have nothing to lose if your store is down and no service level agreement that promises you a set level of reliability. If a customer wants to come to your store to spend money, make sure that technical issues won't prevent them from doing so.

Having substantial downtime or slowness will drive customers away and you may be penalized by search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing - causing results for your site to be displayed lower. Personally, I'm accustomed to the web being instantaneous and when I come across a website that doesn't fully load within a few seconds then I leave.

If you're looking for website or server hosting, I highly recommend Liquid Web. They provide outstanding support and service and have provided me with 99.5% uptime for over 10 years.

Affinity Informatics provides a fully managed e-commerce solution (you don't ever have to deal with maintenance, updates, upgrades, security, and so on - it just works) that includes setup, domain registration, website hosting, website/template integration, branding and more.

A Couple of Notes About SEO...

I could easily create an entire blog just about Search Engine Optimization ... However, if you're getting started there are a few simple tips to keep in mind...

1. Provide quality content that isn't available elsewhere. This is one of the most common recommendations for SEO and for good cause. If you are consistent about providing quality content to your visitors, the results can be phenomenal and you will give them a reason to come back.

2. What is unique about your business/product? It's critical that you have a clear mission statement and incorporate it into your website. Very few (if any) businesses are truly unique and when you're online the next website is only a click away, so you need to be very clear about why your visitors should choose you.

3. When building links to your website, more isn't always better. Build links from relevant websites. If you sell laptops then links from a site that sells dog toys doesn't make sense (although my puppy thinks the laptop is a chew toy and would disagree...) If it happens, it's not a big deal but you get more value and credibility from focusing on links from relevant sources.

4. Take advantage of local directories. If your business is exclusively a local business, you're in luck because you've eliminated 99% of your competition. Make sure your company is added to the local listings on Google, Yahoo and Bing, as well as any local business directories.

Don't Undervalue Your Time

There are e-commerce solutions available that are incredibly complex. Many of them are also very powerful but have a steep learning curve or require you to have substantial technical understanding. I've worked with several customers who spent hundreds of hours trying to implement a solution that never worked correctly and I replaced them. Don't undervalue your own time.

In a Perfect World

Your e-commerce solution should be fast and easy to use. It should provide for everything we've talked about in this article, plus let you manage your customers and sales. It should give you insight into the buying patterns of your customers and reports on your sales and products. It should let you send targeted marketing campaigns to your customers to let them know about new products or special offers.

In short, it should facilitate everything you do and it shouldn't get in your way.

My Recommendations

Domain Registration - GoDaddy

Website Hosting - LiquidWeb

Website Templates - TemplateMonster

Payment Processing - Authorize.net

Local Search Listings - Google, Yahoo and Bing

Coming Soon...

My next update will be about getting more people to visit your store.