Several years ago, when I was a poor college student, I started a little business airbrushing pictures and designs onto T-shirts and sneakers. It began with me taking special requests from friends. They would supply the shoes and shirts, and then I would complete the design and make a little money. Eventually, I started getting requests from friends of friends. Soon, I was even renting booths when comic book, sci-fi, and anime conventions came into town.
After a while, I made enough money to upgrade my equipment. I also expanded into creating hand-designed posters (mostly psychedelic and geometric designs). When I became prolific enough to build up an inventory, I started placing ads on Craigslist. Unfortunately, that was a hassle.
Then I tried Etsy, but I didn’t find it to be robust enough to support the volume of orders I was receiving. I needed something bigger and more functional. This is why I decided to launch an e-commerce website to sell my products and get my brand out to the masses. Though I no longer sell products for personal reasons, my first project turned to be rather successful and helped me fund a six-month trip around Asia.
The following were the steps that I took to make this happen.
For me, this was a no brainer, because I had already established my business, at least on a small level, before it came time to launch my e-commerce website. However, if you don’t have a business in place, you’ll need to figure out what you are going to do. Ideally, your business idea will involve you doing what you love. Of course, you’ll also have to consider market demand and where your skills are.
What you really want to avoid is getting into a space that is saturated with competition. Whatever niche you choose, try to find a target customer group that is being ignored, or find a way to specialize your offerings so that you stand out. You can also check out Amazon to find the top-selling items and do a bit of unofficial market research to see what your friends and family members are buying.
One of the novice mistakes I made when I first went live was that I assumed that simply because I could reach any and every person with my marketing efforts that I should do that.
I learned the difficult lesson that the majority of people out there weren’t interested, and that I was wasting time and money with my very generalized promotion efforts. So, I went back to the drawing board and changed both my website and my marketing efforts to target the same groups of people who had been buying my items back when I was selling them from a card table.
Don’t make the mistake I did. Take the time to create a series of customer profiles identifying the demographic characteristics, values, interests, behaviors, and needs of each group of people who are most likely to spend money in your store. Everything about your website and marketing should be geared towards those personas.
The first thing you should do is create an LLC. This creates your business as a separate entity from yourself. There are both legal and tax related benefits to doing this.
However, you should consult an attorney for more information on that. Another thing to take into consideration is your intellectual property rights. Remember, if you launch an e-commerce website, you aren’t just exposing your products to potential customers. You are also exposing them to people who may want to co-opt your ideas for themselves.
If you are selling anything that you have developed yourself, which you believe is truly unique, you may wish to speak with an attorney who specializes in intellectual property rights. This is to protect your ideas. It is also to create a barrier to entry for anybody who might try to compete with you. Finally, you will want to make sure that you are on the good side of the IRS when it comes to sales tax. Contact them for information on getting a tax and use permit.
You’ll want to open a checking account using your business name, and get a charge card. If you plan on hiring employees to pack and ship orders, for example, you will want to establish an Employee Identification Number with the IRS, and find a software package to help you do payroll and handle your employee-related taxes. This is a good time find out whether or not you have to register your business with the county that you live in, and take care of any other paperwork-related issues.
Unless you have extensive experience in website development, you don’t want to do this from scratch. You’ll have too much to do to worry about troubleshooting scripting errors and website coding issues. Many first timers use WordPress. This was the choice that I made. You may think of WordPress as a service for bloggers. In reality, you can open up a full-service website. They even have specific options for people who wish to design and launch an e-commerce business. These subscription options include a free domain name, email hosting, access to website metrics, and a variety of options when it comes to accepting electronic payments when customers make purchases.
I was able to select a theme, choose all of my options, pay for a year of hosting, familiarize myself with the dashboard, and get the plug-ins that I wanted in one evening. Of course, that didn’t mean I was ready to launch. Setting up the back end of a website is only the first part of getting that website launched. You also may want to choose a specialized system for electronic payments that shows your customers that you are serious about protecting their financial protection.
Think about the last e-commerce website that you visited. If it was a well-developed website, it probably had all kinds of great information about the company that was selling the products, about each product that they sell (along with pictures), and the policies that they have established in order to be sure that their business dealings are as fair as possible and that everybody’s interests are protected. That’s a lot of words and pictures.
This is one area where you may want to spend money to get help from an experienced professional. Writing content for websites and deciding how things should be formatted requires very specific knowledge and expertise. In fact, the way that your content is written and designed can have a direct impact on the ability of your customers to find your website when they search Google for the products that you sell.
The images on your e-commerce site should also be taken by a professional. Even if you decide to do everything else on your own after you launch, you can at least gain a bit of education from by using the pros to help you get started.
Before you launch your website, test everything. You want to be sure that every link works, that all of your pages load quickly and correctly on a variety of devices, and that making a purchase on your website works smoothly. The last thing you need to do is launch your website and have it crumble under the volume of your customers. This is why one of the tests you perform should be to determine that your website can withstand a lot of active traffic.
Before you take the option to make your website public, you’ll want to create a social media presence for your new business. Create a Facebook page and other social media pages. Then, start a pre-launch social media promotion campaign to get people interested in your products. Don’t be modest. Ask your friends, family, and existing customers to like and follow you on social media. This is what I did, and I would say that 75 percent of the orders I received in the first six months were from word-of-mouth and social media sharing.
I had a lot of product on hand when I launched, so I assumed this would not be a big issue for me. Here is where I was wrong. I had a poster design that I had presented at a couple of conventions, and it never really took off. When I was putting my website together and taking an inventory of the products that I had to sell, I realized that I had about three dozen of these prints left. So, I offered the poster on my products page, but no one was ordering it and I needed the space. Three weeks later, I had over 100 orders for this poster. Not only did I not have enough posters, I had tossed everything.
I would like to say that I was able to rally, redesign the poster, and fill the orders. I’d like to, but I can’t. Instead, I had to deal with egg on my face, take the product off of my website, and make amends to disappointed customers.
Once you finish all of these steps, you are ready to make your website available to the public.