The Future of Retail: Your 5-Step Ecommerce Start-Up Plan

Friday, January 5, 2018 13:07

ecommerce-240So you’ve made the decision to launch an ecommerce business? Congratulations – you’ve chosen a great path for your new business.

But like every new venture, if you want to give yourself the greatest chance of success, you’re going to need a solid plan. Everything from the style and tone of your content, to your web design and even the products you sell will need to be carefully considered and worked into an overarching business strategy.

This might sound daunting, but if you know what you want to accomplish, then the planning phase will probably be easier than you expect. Nevertheless, let’s take a look at the first five steps towards launching a successful online store, so you can be sure to get your ecommerce business off to a positive start.

Don’t forget to also read these top start-up tips to help propel you into business success in 2018.

1. Find That Niche

You may already have a product or service in mind for your ecommerce business. However, with so many online stores vying for the top spot in search results, you need to choose your niche carefully. To do this, you will need to find something that your business can excel at, and that sets it apart from the competition.

The trick to this is to find something for which there is demand, but not too much competition. A good place to start your search is Google Keyword Planner, as this will enable you to see how popular a particular search is, as well as the potential competition for that keyword or phrase.

Search isn’t the only place to look though – mine for data on forums like reddit and Quora, and scour social media for relevant posts and updates.

Once you have figured out your niche, you’re ready to construct the rest of your marketing strategy. Remember, having a niche does not mean you can’t sell or promote anything else; it simply serves as the focus for your business, and the main draw for your customers.

2. Set Your Budget

Having a clearly-defined budget is essential if you want the launch of your ecommerce store to go smoothly.

●    List your confirmed funding sources, and reach out to potential investors. Don’t rely on any funding source that isn’t definite.
●    Plan for setbacks. Figure out the cost of remedying potential problems, and budget accordingly. Tying up a portion of your capital in a recovery plan is far better than falling short in an emergency.
●    Take calculated risks. No business venture is a guaranteed success. However, you can greatly increase the security of your investments by weighing up the risks against the likely ROI.
●    Don’t cut corners. Careful budgeting means you can make savings and spend more efficiently as a result of planning and forethought. But remember that a greater initial outlay can sometimes mean lower long-term costs. Always consider your future costs when weighing up a purchase. Is it scalable? Is it future-proof? How much will it cost to maintain?

Knowing exactly what you have to work with is extremely useful when constructing your business plan and content schedule. Even matters such as selecting your ecommerce platform are heavily dependent on your budget, as different platforms and packages come with varying costs.

Keep in mind that your budget can always be adjusted if you secure additional funding. However, it is far better to base your plan on funds that you have confirmed, than to have to start from scratch if a planned source falls through.

3. Scope Out the Competition

Now you have the bare bones of your business, you need to bring yourself up to speed with the competition. Visit their websites, explore their target keywords, and consider signing up to their mailing lists.

These insights will help you to understand the sort of things customers in your industry have available to them. This enables you to create something that is new and different, while still catering to the same needs. It is important not to copy your competitors, as not only will you fail to stand out, but you will also have a much harder time ranking in searches.

While checking out your competitors, you may even find some that you could collaborate with. Perhaps you fall within the same industry, but are targeting different, yet complementary niches. This could be a great opportunity for guest posting in their blogs, or setting up a mutually beneficial partnership.

Another way to scope out the competition is to find similar websites that are listed for sale and delve into their sales figures and results. It will give you a good idea of what’s been working (and not working) for other retailers, and may alert you to a niche that’s become oversaturated. You may even find the perfect store and domain name already built – ready for a savvy buyer like you to snap up!

4. Design For Your Audience

Once you know who your audience is, you can decide on your marketing message, the aesthetic of your store, and even the social channels you will focus on. While it is important that your brand’s image reflects your aspirations for your business, it is also essential that you keep the needs of your audience in mind at all times.

Of course, it can be hard to define exactly what your audience will like the most, so this step can include quite a bit of trial and error. Split-testing is particularly helpful here, as it enables you to make complex design decisions, while gaining an insight into the preferences of your customers. This can be used for everything from your landing pages, to ads on social media, or even targeted promotions.

Depending on your chosen platform for your store, you may have access to a range of analytical insights based on the interactions of your customers with your website. This data will be invaluable for the growth and evolution of your business, as you will be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses in your marketing strategy, and optimise your approach accordingly.

5. Plan Your Website

The final stage of setting up your ecommerce store will be creating the store itself. A great option for many budding entrepreneurs is to use an ecommerce CMS. Platforms such as Magento, Shopify, and WooCommerce offer a range of functionalities, and varying levels of customisation.

You should base your choice on your budget, as well as your specific aspirations for your business. Shopify, for example, has an app store with over 1000 applications to choose from to help you customise your store. Others, such as Symphony Commerce offer pay-as-you-go pricing structures, which can be fantastic for a fast-growing business with limited startup capital.

Before settling on a platform, make sure it has all the features you require, and that you are comfortable working with it. Don’t be afraid to contact support services for your preferred platforms if you have in-depth questions about their functionality. It is far better to make an informed decision than simply hope for the best.

Of course, you do not have to rely on any of these platforms. If you are a confident web designer, or you have a team in place to handle this for you, then the greatest flexibility can come from setting up your store from scratch. Keep in mind that there are important features that you will need to include, such as a secure payment system, and a legally compliant means of collecting and processing customer data.

Once you’ve achieved all that, you’re well on your way to ecommerce success. Of course, the work has only just begun, so don’t relax just yet. To ensure that you maintain this success, and give your business the opportunity to grow, you will need to keep improving on your work so far.

Start with your onsite analytics, to gain insights into how well your content performs, and how your customers interact with your website. From this you can learn which products are your most popular, and which might need a little more promotion. You can also see who makes up your audience, which will ultimately help you to make better decisions about future marketing campaigns.

The more you learn about your customers, the better you can cater to their needs. And, of course, happy customers are more likely to buy more, recommend your store to others, and come back to make purchases in the future.

 

Victoria-Greene-100Victoria Greene is a branding consultant and freelance writer. On her blog, VictoriaEcommerce, she shares tips on ecommerce and how entrepreneurs can develop their businesses. She is passionate about using her experience to help fellow entrepreneurs do better.

Top Tips for a Successful Start-up

Thursday, December 14, 2017 15:13

business startup tipsOver the years I’ve talked to many entrepreneurs who started with a great concept and high energy yet failed to launch a successful business.

I’ve also seen people who only had modest ideas and yet went on to establish large profitable companies.

 

 

These are my conclusions and top tips for a successful start-up: 

1.  Know your market. Many of the entrepreneurs that failed had dashed headlong into launching their business without having done the spadework of testing the market’s acceptance of their idea.

The ones that succeeded had worked out a practical marketing plan, knowing how they were going sell the product or service to an identified group of customers.

I’ve written on this before, see Marketing Planning and Marketing Ideas

2. Start with a co-founder or partner. Almost all the successful businesses had a partner.

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and even Richard Branson had co-founders. It takes some of the burden from you, inspires action and gives another person to bounce ideas off. See Should You Have a Business Partner?

But do make sure you put the business partnership in writing .

3. Start lean. In the early days those that were most successful focused their funds only on the areas that would make a difference.

No big cars or designer offices. The founders worked for minimum wages, ploughing all the money back into the business.

4. Measure and keep track of how you are doing. Knowing your costs vs sales and the timing of funds in and out is a necessity. Some that failed were profitable companies but sank because they underestimated the importance of their cash flow.

It doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive, use online accounting software like QuickBooks which is ideal for the small business. Because it’s online you are not trapped in the office to use it, vital when it’s you doing many of the jobs in the business and dashing around.

5. Use customer feedback. You won’t get everything right first time. Those that reacted quickly to customer feedback made the biggest strides. Also, in engaging with your customers you build loyalty and repeat sales.

In fact customer service is a great differentiator for you. Many that failed were somewhat arrogant in their customer dealings. Have a look at rather an old article now, but still relevant Provide a Better Service Than Your Competitors .

Yes growing a business is hard work, but also fun. With a little bit of foresight and doing the right things the business will blossom and provide you with enjoyment (and reward) for many years to come.

 

What will make my business more attractive to Investors?

Friday, October 6, 2017 14:28

How to get InvestmentInvestors have a lot of choice and you are in competition with all other investment opportunities, the final decision on which gets investment will be those with the best combination of good sustainable profit and lowest risk.

That may not be the highest profit, or the least risk, but an acceptable (to that Investor) mixture of the two.

The following will greatly help your chances of investment:

1. Know your market
- Show it is growing and sustainable (use facts)
- That you know the competition
- You can say what your competitive edge or uniqueness is
- What issue or need you will address
- Who will buy your product / service (your target customer)

2. Proof
Great ideas are a dime a dozen and investors have heard all the hype before, the more you can do to show your concept works and people will buy it, the better your chances of investment.
- Projects just at the idea stage seldom get funding
- For new products you at least need a prototype
- For services or retail you need at least some sales

3. Gain confidence in your ability to grow their investment and that you can work with the Investors
- Previous experience in this market
- Good work ethic and energy
- Confident, not arrogant, you must be open to input and be flexible
- Ideally an experienced team of people who can execute the plan, this isn’t always possible, so show you know where gaps may be and how you will fill them. Too many gaps however will start to increase the risk

4. Business model and implementation

- How you will make money (and a profit) from this great opportunity
- Understand all the costs and numbers, making sure they are realistic
- An exciting but achievable sales forecast
- It’s not often the idea but how it is implemented that counts, show that you understand this

5. Skin in the game
- Have you invested your own money in this? Investors like to see that you are committed and taking the same risks that they are. Sometimes your own funds may not allow much opportunity to do so; in which case you will need to talk about the other commitments you’ve made to the business.

6. Government tax breaks and Incentives
In the UK there is the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS), in the USA there are local State incentives to encourage new small businesses in their area. Some States have more advantageous and flexible tax breaks if you incorporate there, such as Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming.

Where ever you are, look into such incentives and show Investors you are knowledgeable. Don’t expect free grants to be available anywhere however, those days are past.

7. Lean start-up
Investors will expect you to use their investment to grow the business. Not mainly to pay you a salary or provide you with corporate luxuries. Show you are using the lean start-up principle; you can begin taking a better salary and working conditions as the profit grows.

Finally, make sure your plan is clear and that you are able to describe in a sentence what your business does. In one more sentence you should be able to describe your business model (how you will make money from the activity).

Clarity goes a long way in convincing Investors that you know what you are doing and that they can intrust their funds to you.

 

Do I need a Business Partner?

Thursday, July 13, 2017 9:29

Business Partners can be a help to every business from start-ups to established companies. A Business Partner will:

  1. Bring additional or complementary skills
  2. Have ideas that when added to your own create new opportunities
  3. Provide support and motivation when times are tough
  4. Share the workload
  5. May have contacts and some funding to grow the business

When taking on a business partner it is sensible to have a business agreement so that there are no surprises and it gives a chance to ensure that both partners are clear about the direction the business is going. See: Business Partner Agreement help

I gave some tips on forming a business partnership last year which is still up to date, have a look at How to Avoid Business Partner pitfalls

 

Once you have a business idea how quickly should you start it?

Monday, April 10, 2017 11:23

Business ideas need actionBusiness ideas are like freshly buttered warm toast, they look wonderful. But if put to one side for long enough they get cold, stale and uninviting.

The first surge of excitement at discovering an opportunity needs to then have action to build a momentum, which in turn drives further action.

If the initial process of research and getting products or services to market takes too long, it may never happen.

There is the real chance also that if the idea is topical and takes advantage of events or trends that are happening right now, others will go ahead and do it while you are dithering.

If you have a good business idea, check out that it is commercially viable and do it. Right now.

 

Fed up with working for someone else?

Monday, January 23, 2017 14:13

Follow your dreamsWorking for a company can bring security (less now than in the past) and for those that are fortunate, job satisfaction. However it also can bring the stress of not being in control of your own destiny and there is nothing like creating your own business, perhaps following a passion and using fully your skills.

If you are in a job at the moment but thinking of beginning your own business, here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years of talking to those that have been successful:

  1. Don’t immediately quit. Do as much research and planning as you can while still bringing in a wage.
  2. You may already have a strong idea of what you want to do. But if not, look at what interests you and makes you happy. Starting a business you enjoy means that you are more likely to make it a success.
  3. Write down your thoughts on the business. That makes you think it through rather than just keeping everything in your head. Yes it is the dreaded “Business Plan”, but this can be just a couple of pages and doesn’t have to be formal. Having said that, have a look at the areas that are important to consider when starting a business in these Business Plan headings.
  4. Starting a business with a partner can be easier. You will have someone to bounce ideas off and motivate each other. Putting people together to begin or grow businesses is the reason that Company Partners started. Find a Business Partner.
  5. Don’t wait too long. It can be warm and comforting to have the dream and scary to actually start it. Wait too long and it may never happen.

There are a record number of new businesses starting across the world as regulations and technology make it easier than ever. Will you live your dream, or work for someone else who is living theirs?

 

Should you have a Business Partner?

Thursday, December 1, 2016 17:04
Ben and Jerry Business Partners

Business Partners – Ben and Jerry

Running a business is a lot easier when you have a business partner to share the highs and lows, as well as all the work.

You may of course have all the skills needed for your business, but have you the time? Or are there some areas that you love doing and excel at, but would rather have someone who is an expert doing those areas you don’t enjoy?

 

Then you need a business partner.

Hang on, why not just hire someone, surely that’s faster and there is less commitment? Well yes, in many established businesses taking on an employee is the right thing to do, but if you are starting out or a small business, then having a Business Partner that can share the burdens, rather than just an employee that needs paying every month is the way to go.

Business Partner advantages:

  • Fully motivated
  • Someone to bounce ideas off
  • May bring additional funding into the business
  • Their payment can be linked to the business profitability
  • Can shoulder issues and share the responsibilities
  • Will bring skill-sets that you may not have
  • More will get done – having a Business Partner will more than double your efforts as each drives and encourages the other forward

When taking on a Business Partner it’s best to put together a Business Partner agreement (see Business Partner Agreements ).

Running a business by yourself is tough, almost all successful businesses had 2 or more Business Partners, even if one of them took on the role of media frontman.

 

 

Types of Business Funding

Tuesday, August 9, 2016 12:06

Seed money

Do you need funding?

Start-up businesses often think that they need to find an investor. We only have to read in the papers about the latest internet billionaire to know that big funding means big success.

Yet most businesses can get going, or even grow without external investment. It depends on the amount required to gain entry into your market and whether you have sufficient funds to make a start, perhaps growing organically through sales.

The injection of funds into a business can however jump-start a project, or allow a more rapid growth. So if funding is desired it’s useful to think about the options for doing so:

Investment cycle

There is a natural progression of how a business is funded. Initially it may be that the business is financed by the owner or by approaching family and friends. This may be sufficient by itself for your business.

Alternatively, or perhaps as a follow-on, a local bank might be approached. Although nowadays these have been less helpful for young businesses, so after proving the concept, many tend to seek business angels.

At the next stage beyond this, venture capital firms might be brought in. Few companies go straight out and raise multi-millions; those that do are often high-tech businesses with known entrepreneurs, or ground breaking technology.

Types of funding:

Self-funded
Traditionally the way that the majority of businesses get going. For further investment it also shows your commitment in that you have put your own money into the concept and is invaluable in gaining that first bit of traction that Investors look for.

If the start-up business is taking the form of a partnership it will need to be made clear in the partnership agreement exactly how much of the funding each partner is providing and whether this entitles them to a greater or lesser proportion of the partnership profits. See Partnership Agreements

Loans
Banks will normally only loan money against you having security to offer. These may be assets of the business or personal assets such as your house. They are not entrepreneurial and don’t take risks based on you having a good idea.

Many Business Angels will include a loan in addition to purchasing equity in the business as part of the way in which the funding deal is structured.

Private equity funding
This is the generic name for sources of funding, normally in exchange for equity in the business. It includes both Business Angels and Venture Capital companies. People sometimes confuse the two. The differences are:

Business Angels

  • Anything from £1000 to £1M (although that would require several banded together).
  • Will look at start-ups and young businesses
  •  Since they are investing their own money they can take more risk.
  • Often want to contribute knowledge or contacts

Venture Capital

  • £1M plus (normally)
  • Not for start-ups or just at idea stage
  • They are investing a fund comprised of other people’s money, so have to take less risk than Business Angels.
  • May place own people on board and require strict reporting

When exchanging equity in a business for funds a legal document must be agreed that specifies the terms of the investment. Venture Capital companies will have a range of agreements to use from Investor Rights Agreements, Stock Purchase Agreements and Term Sheets. It can be expensive and time consuming to raise money.

Agreements with Business Angels can be quicker and much less costly to organise, but never be tempted to cut costs so much that a well thought out signed agreement is neglected. There has been much woe and falling out of parties when issues occur that haven’t been previously considered and placed in a legal document.

Private equity funding can come in stages as the business grows:

• Seed funding
• First round
• Second round
• Later stage
• Mezzanine
See Types of Private Equity funding

Grants
There are only a few government or institutional grants available to businesses. These tend to be market sector and geography specific. Whilst serving a useful purpose for those able to claim them, they are so few that they are not applicable to most businesses and so not covered here.

For young businesses, the more you can do in proving your concept works and gaining what is called “traction” the more offers of help you will get and be in a better place to negotiate terms.

 

Small business marketing ideas

Tuesday, May 17, 2016 10:21

Marketing for small businessesSmall businesses can have great products and services but struggle to get sufficient customers to allow them to expand.

Often this is because the owners of the business are too busy dealing with day to day activities to have time to plan or initiate the marketing activity. Yet it need not be an overly arduous task and can fit the finance and resources available.

Here’s how:

  1. Firstly you need to establish some basics. You may think it’s obvious but just stop and jot these down on paper. Moving the information out of only being in your head on to paper (or to a PC), makes you have to think it through.
  2. Who are your customers? Describe them; gender, age, interests, were do they live, what do they read, what qualities are they looking for in a product / service.
    Are some types of customers more profitable, or even more enjoyable to work with than others?
  3. Write down who the competition is and what makes them good or bad.
  4. What is it about your offering that will excite your target customers and beat the competitors?
    I’ve already written on how to market smarter by using market segmentation. By understanding the above you’ll now be ready to do so.
  5. Look at your current branding, if any, and make sure it fits your identified customer. This is letterheads, logos, tag-lines (what you do in a nutshell) and the messages you want to convey.
  6. Now get those messages to the right customers. Marketing is a creative process and by doing some brainstorming with colleagues or even friends you may be able to think of many ways of doing so, here are some:
  • Team up with other businesses / organisations by offering their customers special deals.
  • Have you got a good web site? Do you sell on-line? Even if yours is not a product that can be sold on-line, ensure your web site shows you at your best, is found for your important keywords and has good marketing messages plus contact details.
  • Write a blog, put helpful videos on YouTube, become known as an expert, speak at suitable events, all the time getting your brand out there.
  • Engage your current customers. Seek, reward and use feedback. Start a loyalty club. Ask to be recommended. Get existing customers to return.
  • Use advertising wisely. This is where knowing your customer pays off. Only advertise where your target customers are looking. The more niche you are the easier it is to be precise, but even if you have a broad offering, think about the market segmentation mentioned earlier.

It is important finally to put together a plan to do the marketing, with dates against actions. If you don’t then the pressures of running the business will always make it something to do tomorrow.

 

Good reasons for the use of Business Angel investment

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 11:30

One of the key bits of information that Business Angels or Investors into a venture will want to see is how the funds are going to be used.

I’ve seen every possible use given, from the perfectly sensible – “product development”, to the unlikely to succeed – “no one will lend to me any more and I need money to pay my rent, then I can get a business going”.

For some time I communicated with a chap who needed funds to train as a commercial pilot, he would then pay back the funds with significant interest out of his subsequent earnings. Sounded risky, relying on his ability to pass the exams and training, but he was a pleasant and determined guy, I hope it worked out for him.

So what ticks the box for Investors? Generally this can be anything that helps to grow the business:

  • Additional market research
  • Product development
  • Manufacturing facilities or equipment
  • Marketing of the product or service
  • Recruitment of staff
  • Working capital

Within this you do need to explain why you feel this will expand the business and some explanations are more attractive than others. Throwing money at marketing a new business that has never been operational is risky, but bringing to market an exciting new product or service from an already established business could be a winner. Taking on more staff to meet a high demand is good, whereas taking on staff to simply start an unproven idea is not so attractive.

Note that Investors are not interested in reducing debts or to pay yourself a high salary.

Surprisingly, many of the business plans and requests for funding that we see have excellent write ups of the opportunity, but completely miss out describing how the Investment will be used. Not only should that be very clear, but it should be part of the financial spreadsheets, showing when tranches of investment come in to balance the operational costs.

If it isn’t clear how the investment will be used in your proposal, but you have been fortunate in securing a meeting with an Investor, be prepared – they will ask!