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A guide to starting and growing an ecommerce business

Being your own boss – it’s a dream that many of us have. The idea of being able to work from home and run a business you’re passionate about sounds too good to be true, and yet it’s a goal that many manage to achieve every year.

Of course, starting an ecommerce business from scratch isn’t easy; it takes a lot of hard work and some serious commitment on your behalf. You’re going to need some help, so we’ve created this useful guide, which contains tips, trick and lots of handy information. We even spoke to a few small business owners and asked them to contribute.

Here it is, your guide to starting and growing an ecommerce business.

Define your business and its product/s

Whether you’re going to sell a physical product or provide a service, you need to decide what you want your business to be based around. If you have an idea for a brand new product, you’re probably planning to make or manufacture your stock yourself. Alternatively, your plan may be planning to make a profit through reselling existing products.

Whatever you’re planning to sell, be sure to start off small. Don’t try and sell 50 different products at once, as you won’t be able to keep up with the order numbers, especially if you’re creating the items from scratch yourself.

Do your research

Obviously you want to sell something you’re personally passionate about, but you also need to see whether the market needs your product right now. Check out the latest trends and see if there’s anything you can capitalise on – perhaps a certain piece of pop culture has made a return, or a particular accessory is being featured in all the fashion magazines at the moment.

You then need to research your target audience or ideal customer. What interests do they have? What social networks do they use (if any)? What age group do they belong to? And, most importantly, do they want or need your product? By doing your market research, you may even be able to identify gaps in your audience’s needs. Make sure you gather some feedback on your product/business idea – if your audience isn’t really interested, you may be trying to attract the wrong type of customer.

Sarah Greenwell, who started Elf for Christmas, believes that doing the right amount of research will help you to build strong business foundations.

“There are so many different solutions for everything – many ecommerce platforms, many social media tools, analytics tools – it’s really important that you do your groundwork and choose the right tools that will work for your business,” she says. “Don’t run before you can walk and don’t expect it to be easy. We’ve worked really hard.”

Find your niche/differentiator

Unless you’re creating a product which doesn’t exist anywhere else yet, your business is going to need a differentiator to stand out from the thousands of others online.

“Find a niche and unique selling point,” Louise Downing, founder of Spotdeco, says. “That will equip you to stand out from the crowd from day one. Study the competition and work out how you can differentiate yourself from them.”

For example, Spotdeco is a furniture and homeware ecommerce site that sells products from well-known high street brands – what makes it different, is that it donates 50 per cent of its profits to community project and local charities.

Put together a business plan

Your business will never be a success unless you determine what success looks like to you. Writing a business plan is vital – it’s where you will outline your idea, short-term and long-term goals, sales and marketing strategies and much more.

Here’s a list of what your business plan should cover:

  • An executive summary aka the business proposal
  • A clear explanation of what your product or service is and why it’s different to what’s currently on the market
  • Details of the markets and its competitors
  • An explanation of how you will make your first sales and who your first customers will be
  • Details of how your product will be promoted
  • An outline of the management team and everyone’s skills
  • Business operations details
  • Financial forecasts and how much money is needed to get the business off the ground
  • A risk assessment – what happens when things go wrong?

For more details on how to write an effective business plan, check out the gov.uk website.

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By now, you should have decided how you’re going to sell your product/s. Either you’re going to set up your own ecommerce site or you’re going to sell through an existing platform, such as Etsy (great for homemade goods) or eBay (ideal for resellers). If you’re creating your own website, make sure you nab the domain name you want as soon as possible.

Whichever option you choose, you must have a catchy, unique name for your business. Hopefully you have one in mind and have double-checked to see if anyone else is already using it. Once you’re happy with the name, it’s time to register your business. Again, there’s some great information on how to do this on the gov.uk website.

Design your website

As an ecommerce business, your website is one of the most important aspects. After all, it’s the platform through which your sales will be made! If you don’t have the skills yourself, hire a web design company to create a website for you (and then maintain it afterwards). It won’t be cheap, but it’s well worth the investment.

Louise notes that it’s important to let the designers and programmers know what your vision is for the business so that you get exactly what you want:

“When it comes to building your site, know what your end goals and vision are for and communicate these to your programmers/web developers. This will ensure they design a site that can adapt and grow with your business.

“For example, this means having a clear idea of how many products you want on your site now versus in three, five years’ time, etc. Be aware that if you don’t have this vision in mind, it isn’t always easy to adapt a site to fit with your evolving business – this is a problem I countered and it meant I had to build a new site from scratch!”

Even if you don’t need a dedicated website, you’ll still require a logo and some banners for whatever seller platform you’re using. Your brand has to stand out amongst your competitors! Again, this will probably mean hiring a designer. If you’re on a tight budget, why not try a website like Fiverr – here, you can hire someone to design a great logo for as little as $5 (£3.85).

Acquire your stock - and find somewhere to store it

If you’re planning to buy in bulk and then resell for a profit, there are plenty of places from which you can get stock, such as Costco and Alibaba. Otherwise you may prefer to scour charity shops, car boot sales and eBay for items you know you can definitely make a profit from. If you’re making your own products, you’re going to need to source the materials to make them – start by creating one or two and see how popular they are.

While you will only need a few products at first (don’t buy 1,000 items if you don’t yet know how well they’ll sell!), your house is going to feel pretty cramped if you keep everything there. A business storage solution is your best bet – not only can you store your stock securely, it will allow you to make space for a home office and a workshop (if you require one).

List your first product

It’s time to make your first sale, but first you need to get at least one product onto your site. The presentation of your products is key to making sales. Magdalena Marsden, who runs several small businesses, including Cocoa & Heart and WowThankYou, says great photos and compelling web copy is vital for any ecommerce site.

“Your website is the dressing window for your business, so it’s really important to get it right,” she notes. “Your customers can’t see the product in real life; they can only go on what your website shows.”

A bad product description can affect the organic traffic you’re bringing to your site too. If you don’t know anything about search engine optimisation (SEO), it’s well worth taking a course on the subject, as understanding it could mean the difference between a successful ecommerce business and a failing one.

“Just remember that search engines don’t see your website as a whole – each individual page is a ‘website’ to them,” Magdalena explains. “That is why comprehensive product descriptions are so important. Not only for your customers, but also because you want to be found online.

“If you have just a one-line description with a bad photo, your page is basically invisible.”

Make sure that your description not only describes the product itself, but the benefits it will bring to the buyer’s life. Essentially, you need to put yourself in your customer’s shoes – what would convince you to buy a particular product?

The photos, on the other hand, need to look professional and ensures the item stands out on the page. Imagine your customer is flicking through a catalogue, what would make them stop to look at your product? Upload several photos of each product – the customer will want to see it from each angle, close-up and ‘in action’. Consider hiring a professional photographer (or a friend with a decent camera and the right skills) if you’re struggling to take clear images yourself.

Potential problems and how to overcome them

Every ecommerce business runs into problems at some point – the key to success is being able to overcome them quickly. Let’s take a look at the most common issues and what to do should they happen to you.

I’m not getting enough traffic to my site

As we mentioned earlier, understanding the basics of SEO is absolutely vital for any online business owner. If you’re not technically-minded and don’t have time to take a short course, it may be worth considering hiring an SEO agency instead. They will manage the technical aspects of your site for you, and let you know where you’re going wrong.

Using social media to drive traffic to your site is important too – you’ll need to set up Facebook and Twitter accounts for your business at the very least. Again, if you need help with this you can employ an agency to give you some advice. Alternatively, the small business community is fantastic and there are plenty of people that would be willing to offer some tips.

I’m running out of money!

Never, ever assume your business will turn a profit in the first year; growing takes time and your budget needs to account for that period. Try to reduce start-up costs by being restrictive on your spending – don’t hire another person straight away unless you absolutely need to, and do you really need a brand new desk, or is that more of a treat? Saving a few pennies here and there will really help.

If you do get desperate for extra funding, you could try sites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe. Tens of thousands of businesses and creative projects have become a reality thanks to these fundraising sites, so it’s well worth a shot!

I’m not selling anything

You have amazing photos, a killer product description, and a beautiful website, so why are you not selling anything? A lack of sales could be a down to a number of reasons, including:

  • The checkout process isn’t working or is too cumbersome
  • The product or postage is too expensive
  • You’re not targeting the right audience
  • Your business doesn’t have a differentiator and is struggling to stand out
  • The site isn’t being promoted enough via social media, advertising, etc.

The solution to all these problems is to simply ask for feedback – get a few friends and family-members to take a look at your website and identify any problems or concerns. That way, you’ll get a better idea of what you’re doing wrong and can adjust your site and practices accordingly.

Amy Jordan, founder of POP Content, says that many business owners forget to test their site:

“Get your friends and family to test out the buying process once you’re up and running – I’ve seen many people fall at the first hurdle because there was an error within their checkout process!”

I’m working too much

Starting your own eCommerce business can turn you into a bit of workaholic, because it’s your baby. Plus, when your office is at home it can be far too tempting just to quickly check your emails or do some more work on your website for half an hour. Keep this up, however, and you’ll quickly feel exhausted and pretty sick of your business.

To avoid this, decide in the beginning what your working hours will be and stick to them – if you finish at 6pm then that’s when you need to step away from the keyboard, unless you have an absolute emergency.

Another great tip is to not take on too much work yourself. Brian Kidwell, partner at Scott’s Cheap Flights, explained he and the owner decided to hire someone once workloads got too much for them both.

“After a while we started receiving so many emails from subscribers that we’d spend most of our time answering emails rather than working on the business,” he told us. “This led to our first hire. Our customer support team member now is absolutely awesome and lets us focus more time on the other aspects of the business.”

While starting and growing a business certainly isn’t an easy task, it sure is a rewarding one. You get to be your own boss and work on something you’re truly passionate about. Who knows, maybe one day it will be big enough to earn you some serious money.

Although we can’t help you run your business, we can provide stock storage and meeting rooms when required. You can be sure your stock is in safe hands with us and our helpful staff will even collect any parcels you have delivered to our stores too. Give us a call on 0800 644 0018 for more details.

7 step summary to starting and growing an eCommerce business

  1. Define your business and its product/s
  2. Put together a business plan
  3. Name and register the business
  4. Design your website
  5. Acquire your stock and find somewhere to store it
  6. List your fist product
  7. Overcome any potential problems