Starting your own online business is a challenging, yet rewarding experience. Gone are the days of needing huge capital to open a brick-and-mortar store; nowadays it’s possible to open an online store without breaking the bank. Opening an online store is a viable way to make a living and create your first successful business, but it’s also the perfect way to scale an already established company — connecting with a whole new online customer base. If you are eager to get your own ecommerce operations up and running, but are not sure how to go about it, then here is a step-by-step guide to making it happen.
Dare to be different: pick your niche
Online selling is very niche-led — you can’t just open a random catch-all store: you need to really think about the audience you are serving and make sure that EVERYTHING about your store appeals to them.
Whether you are a newbie, or an established business, it makes sense to hone in on a few core products or services at first, so as not to confuse your first online customers.
You will have more luck closing online deals if people start to recognize you as a specialist, rather than a generalist.
How do you pick the right product?
There is no hard-and-fast rule to picking the right products to sell online — much of this will come down to competitor research, feasibility, and gut feeling.
- You might want to pick something that is popular — trending products and seasonal merchandize can make a killing online, but just make sure that your store doesn’t just descend into cheap gimmicks
- You can find promising niche products using keyword research – this shows you what people are actually looking for online. Use free tools like AnswerThePublic or io to conduct research and find out what customers are searching for
- Sadly, it’s not enough just to have a killer product idea. You will need to make sure this product is in high demand, with relatively low competition. Find a gap in the market to give customers a product they actually need — there is no point in starting a store that’s doing exactly the same as hundreds of others. Try to be different, or offer extra value (product customization, subscription model etc.)
- Stick to just a few products at first. If you go ahead right away and sell lots of different products, then you risk spreading yourself too thin and not being focused enough to define your store. Review early sales data and order stock accordingly — you may be surprised at what’s proving popular!
Make a plan: create a business strategy
You can’t leap into the world of ecommerce if you haven’t got a well thought-out, comprehensive plan. Even if you already run a successful business, take the time to create a solid online business plan for your ecommerce store that reflects your current business goals, budget, and capabilities. This will give you something to measure your success against, and will help you make the leap from offline to online retail; remember, even with an online business, there’s still a lot of offline planning that needs to take place!
- Logistics and fulfilment are super important for ecommerce. Customers are looking for fast delivery and a smooth customer experience from start to finish, so make sure that you are able to support robust delivery operations. Even if you get a carrier to handle this side for you, you need to still be on-hand and implement customer perks like delivery notifications and easy returns
- Using dropshipping services is an option if you are buying products, rather than manufacturing them yourself. Even customized products like tees and phone cases can be shipped using a dropshipper, and the better ones allow you to brand up your packages. It’s never advisable to sell something you haven’t robustly tested first.
- Branding is key for online success — you will need a lot of design assets, from your logo to social media graphics and product packaging. Don’t underestimate the power of great branding — it’s what will set you apart from the competition; great branding is the secret to many recent online business successes. Especially on the premium end, a great brand is a must-have. 99designs is a great option for running professional graphic design competitions if you are not 100% sure on your visual strategy yet
- Plan your marketing strategy well in advance. You don’t have to wait until your ecommerce store is up and running to start getting your brand name out there. Start marketing before your store is complete to build up your customer base — this may be up to a full year before you sell your first product. Social media platforms like Instagram are a great place to go to to start building a receptive audience and customer base — go to social to validate your store’s marketing
- Offshore staff and VAs are crucial to the success of many online businesses, but there is nothing wrong in hiring local staff if your overheads can take it. You may want to hire at least one digitally-savvy team member to spearhead your new online operations. The beauty of ecommerce is that with all the available automations and integrations it can be relatively hands-off, but you still need someone with overall project responsibility
- The world of cyber security is something that you also need to get to grips with — it’s the equivalent of locking your business up at night. Take control of the online security of your business and invest in secure firewalls and a safe IT infrastructure.
Build your store: bring your dream to life
Once you have decided on your niche and made a solid business plan, it’s time to build your ecommerce store. You want to make sure your store is something that reflects your brand and is easy to use, especially if you are taking responsibility for content updates in-house.
The web environment you decide to use to create your store is crucial to your overall success, because it will determine how fast your business can grow and evolve. Start with a too-basic website and soon you won’t be able to handle customer demand — opt for a professional site now and grow into your success later.
- There are many custom ecommerce content management systems out there, some of them niche-specific. Going with a fully custom system built by professional developers is a good enterprise option, but you may not have the budget for it at first. Custom ecommerce websites that are being sold out as subscriptions or templates are more cost-effective, but you may end up running into roadblocks down the line due to lack of functionality and customization.
- Easy online store builders work well because they are designed specifically for the purpose of DIY ecommerce. They take care of all the fiddly parts, like customer detail security and processing orders. Stores like these are great for those who haven’t already got a blog or another website and are looking to build a store from scratch.
- Other options include software like Woocommerce that integrates with any WordPress blog or website — a good option if your store is going to be an add-on to an existing site.
The best thing to do is to shop around — speak to other business managers and take advantage of free trial periods.
Technical SEO: what you need to know
Lots of people are thrown by the very notion of technical SEO, especially when it involves them getting their hands dirty and auditing their own store. But if you want to run a money making online business — you need to get to grips with how search engines work.
There are a few things that are crucial for every ecommerce beginner to know and implement on their online store.
- Keyword research – this is very important to ensure that your store shows up in search engine results for the right queries. Again, use free tools to find what keywords you should include on your site. Don’t go overboard and start repeating empty phrases like a robot — use the research to help you structure a content and optimization plan that includes blog posts and FAQs
Tip: Take a look at your competition to see what keywords they are using to give you a headstart.
- Make sure your site structure is optimal, ensure there are no 404s or unnecessary redirects, and review your website code on a regular basis. Get a developer to help you audit your technical environment — but learn as much as you can yourself too
- The devil’s in the details when it comes to SEO — don’t forget about your alt tags, meta descriptions, and URL structure to ensure your site is optimized for search engine crawling and indexing.
Get creative: market your online store
Online marketing is a great way to increase the visibility of your site. This is something that you can do yourself and can be very powerful. Whatever marketing campaigns you decide on, make sure they’re engaging and follow your brand values.
- Create social profiles for your online store so people can reach you on multiple different platforms. Run powerful social media campaigns back to your site to reach a wider audience. Things like competitions and giveaways work really well to engage your audience and reach more people
- If you haven’t already, consider starting your own blog to help spread the word about your business. The benefits of this are threefold: it helps your site rank for more keywords in your niche, it offers customers another way to find your business online, and it also gives you the opportunity to guest post on other niche relevant blogs for a backlink to your site. Running a blog alongside your online business will also create a linkable asset that people will want to link back to naturally
- Online video marketing is on the rise — shoot some fun branded videos and see where that takes you!
Setting up your own online store is a rewarding experience, one that is full of ups and downs. As long as you are willing to put the hard work into your store and create a brand that you are proud of, then this will show to your audience. Stay dedicated and committed to build the online empire you want. Will you set up your own ecommerce store?
Patrick Foster is an ecommerce consultant and freelance writer. He loves to share his knowledge with other entrepreneurs and small businesses to help them succeed online. He writes about ecommerce, marketing, and lots more on his blog, Ecommercetips.org.