How to Start Your Own Online Business

If National Small Business Week has given you the entrepreneurial bug, it's never been easier to make that dream a reality. But before you make the leap, here's what you need to consider.

Updated September 14, 2021
(Photo: Yuri Arcurs / Getty Images)

If return to work isn't your bag and National Small Business Week has you getting excited about an entrepreneurial dream, maybe it's time to take a closer look at starting something of your own. Fortunately, it's easier than ever to start your own online business.

But before you run out and start clicking that mouse, know that even though there's a long list of services that claim to be able to get your venture up and running in minutes, there's more to it than simply popping up a web page. To give yourself a good chance at success, you need to sit down and carefully plan. The upside is that e-commerce levels the playing field and allows smaller startups to spin up quickly and start turning a profit, provided they're careful.

When you really think about it, starting an online business is actually fairly complex since consumers are much more sophisticated online buyers these days. Even if you're already fixed on the product or service you want to sell, selling online now presents a long list of variables. That starts with finding the right audience and then most likely dealing with one that'll be much larger than what you'd have via brick-and-mortar. After that, you'll need to handle payment options and the right online marketing approach as well as the tools you'll need to run it. Then there are operational considerations that include accounting and tax compliance, customer management (which might include a CRM, a help desk, or phone sales), and inventory management and fulfillment.

To help make sense of it all, we've compiled a simplified e-commerce planning checklist below. We've added insights on a broad swath of potential e-commerce business decisions so you can sit down and build yourself an actionable e-commerce business plan right now. As you go through this list, however, keep in mind that no one article about e-commerce can contain all of the information you'll need to build a working business. So start here and then examine other options to turn your plan into reality.

An Oft-Overlooked Resource

A great resource for starting any kind of business, and one that's often under-utilized even by seasoned entrepreneurs, is the US Small Business Administration (SBA). This agency drives National Small Business Week (NSBW) every year, which is an event no startup entrepreneur should miss. Most people overlook the SBA because they believe it exists solely to provide small loans to people looking to start local storefront-style businesses. In actuality, the SBA is a mature and well-funded organization that offers all kinds of resources to many sorts of businesses, including online ventures. Those resources cover several funding paths, mentorship, learning resources, and even talent acquisition. And, yes, they understand e-commerce.

Start by visiting the agency's website to familiarize yourself with its latest tools, like Lender Match, which will help match your venture to the right kind of access capital. Then make an appointment with your local SBA office or resource center (the site will have location and contact information for an office near you). Once you've got a business plan down on paper, connect with your local SBA SCORE chapter and have an experienced mentor vet your work. You'll be surprised at how much value they can add.

Pick a Business

Market research firm, Statista, finds that affiliate marketing spend in the United States will grow from 1.6 billion USD in 2010 to 8.2 billion USD by 2022.

E-commerce has more options these days than simply starting your own storefront, so do your homework here to make sure you're starting the right kind of venture. One increasingly popular example of an alternative e-commerce business is to build your own affiliate marketing network. Basically, affiliate marketing is where several brands combine forces with other third-party promotion and content channels to market their wares. It's both popular and rapidly growing, with research firms like Statista predicting up to $8.2 billion in US affiliate marketing spend by 2022.

Getting into this game is relatively easy as most affiliates can be organized into three basic categories that include single-person marketing operations (an excellent place to start), brand influencers (similar to solo marketing except with a focus on thought leadership content), and larger publishers, which might still apply if you've been running a content-oriented site for some time, especially if you've developed friends who run similar sites with whom you can ally and form your own network.

Affiliate marketers from the brand side will look to spend money with third-party marketers who can attract the right kind of audience, one interested in whatever the brand is trying to sell. So for example, if you've been uploading articles and Youtube videos teaching people how to paint fantasy wargaming miniatures for the last several years, you'd be an excellent solo marketing or influencer affiliate candidate for brands like the miniature makers, Hasbro (which publishes Dungeons and Dragons), as well as the companies that make hobby paints and tools.

The trick is establishing those affiliate relationships. Affiliate marketing has its own set of software tools, including everything from mature leaders, like LinkTrust, to specialty services like Tipalti, which only manages your affiliate payments. Pick your tools carefully and then focus on outreach to start your relationships.

"Develop a partnership target list," said Michelle Dwyer, Ziff Media Group's Director of Partner Management who handles many of the company's affiliate marketing activities. "Find out who is covering the topic and from there, figure out who would be a good fit for content covering your brand, product, or audience." (Disclosure: Ziff Media Group is PhonespySoftware24.com's parent company.)

Choosing a Platform

If straight e-commerce is still your preferred route, remember that the best e-commerce software providers help you with more than simply setting up a website. They can track and manage inventory, fulfill and ship orders, maintain a product database, track sales, market to customers, maintain a loyalty program, use offline channels to sell, and even run a marketing blog. These tools essentially pull in the various elements that automate, digitize, and track how and when products are sold on your website.

Tools like Shopify and PinnacleCart provide comprehensive solutions that let you edit your site. They can also facilitate connections with third-party software solutions like email marketing and customer relationship management (CRM) tools, all from within one dashboard. But remember, these services won't do the work for you, they'll only supply the tools. It's on you to learn all the features and capabilities of your chosen e-commerce platform and then make use of them.

So a big part of choosing the right partner is to focus on ease of use, especially if you're a first-timer. But after that, there are other considerations, including scalability, cost, and especially third-party extensions. That last one will become important as your business grows because while your e-commerce platform will continue to be an important tool no matter how large your company gets, its data will need to be shared with other tools as your company expands. That could include the customer and marketing tools mentioned above, but also accounting systemsinventory management systems, and even different payment processors.

Those factors will be among the most important aspects of your day-to-day e-commerce website management. Once you've chosen a software partner, they'll help guide you along the rest of the processes mentioned in this piece.

Building a Website

Concept image of the elements in a web page
(Image: filo / Getty Images)

A web hosting service stores your website's files on its servers and delivers them to your customers' browsers. The best-in-class tools will help your website load quickly, stay secure, and seldom if ever, go offline. Tools like our Editors' Choice winner, Bluehost, are synonymous with a solid uptime, reasonable rates, and excellent client support.

When you're compiling all the reasons for choosing a web hosting provider, you'll want to query their client services team to see how quickly and often they'll respond to you, and you'll want to ask about the company's security policies to ensure that your data is protected. Your e-commerce software can also serve as a web hosting service, so be sure to ask each vendor if this is possible when selecting an e-commerce tool.

How your website looks and feels will impact whether or not customers decide to stay on your website or shop on a competitor's website. Design elements like sticky header navigation, hamburger menus, and parallax scrolling are just a few of the e-commerce design elements you'll need to know to design a fantastic shopping experience.

In our article covering how to design a great web storefront, we list the most important features designed for desktop and mobile e-commerce. We provide examples of best-in-class websites and how they use each design element to enhance the shopping experience. The most successful businesses know that having a website or a Facebook page is just the starting point to building an online presence. More people access the web and services from mobile devices now, so having a website that caters to a responsive design, which can shift seamlessly from small screen to big screen, will give your business a huge advantage.

If, after reading this article, you're still confused about how it all works, talk to your e-commerce software vendor as well as your SBA mentor if you've engaged with one. They'll be able to explain what is possible, whether or not you should implement it on your website, and how it will impact sales.

Technological Know-How

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to build an e-commerce website. That's because most of the brainpower is provided by your e-commerce platform provider before you even start designing your website. However, it's still important for you to understand the technical elements that should be monitored and tweaked to keep your website running optimally.

Does your website offer 256-bit Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption? If not, you need to look into purchasing an SSL certificate immediately to avoid being flagged as potentially dangerous by Google. Does your webpage load in less than 100 milliseconds (ms)? If not, you need to go back to your web design tool and start tweaking settings. Does your vendor consistently deliver new code to your website for performance improvements or new features? Those need to be tested under various conditions if you don't want a 911 alert from your website monitoring tool when the site crashes. These are just a few of the technical aspects you'll need to consider as you choose a vendor and as your website grows.

One of the biggest headscratchers for any new online entrepreneur is search engine optimization. SEO is a long-term investment, but for business operators, it can be straightforward. So, unless you’re a huge company, it’s probably not worth hiring somebody else to do. Heck, we even have a handy dandy article on the best SEO tools you can use to get your business noticed!

Building an Audience

Image of digital shoppers pushing shopping carts into a computer screen.
(Image: erhui1979 / Getty Images)

Content marketing, email marketing, and affiliate partnerships with other websites are excellent ways not only to make money in the short term but to build momentum for your e-storefront gradually, too. Unfortunately, not everyone has resources they can dedicate to these tasks. Most will be solo operations where a single person is trying to get by wearing many hats, and, unfortunately, marketing often gets short shrift, especially in e-commerce businesses.

That's a problem because customers can't come to your store if they don't know about it. But lack of marketing continues to be a problem among new e-commerce businesses because newcomers often believe that e-commerce marketing will take care of itself in the background. As the affiliate marketing business (above) amply demonstrates, however, that's not the case. Sure, you can set up an Amazon or eBay storefront and hope the larger sites and their search engines will bring customers to your page organically, but you'll have much better results if you put in some actual effort.

Fortunately, there are several surefire ways to market your new e-commerce website without having to spend a ton of time or money. These tactics are focused on quick wins that drive traffic to your website within the website's first few weeks. Options like Facebook and Google ads, earned media, influencer endorsements, and even good old-fashioned in-person hustling at events will help you generate proverbial foot traffic even as you're still building out your inventory.

Good first steps include pricing out an email marketing list for your target customers. If you can afford one, you can easily begin marketing to that audience using tools like Mailchimp, which have a low cost to entry and let you slice, dice, and monitor your customers and their reactions from multiple angles. After that, look into marketing automation tools, which let you generate one set of marketing collateral and then deliver it through multiple channels automatically.

Payment Processing

Just because a consumer has gone through the browsing and selecting process on your website, it doesn't mean they will actually make a purchase. In fact, up to 74.5 percent of shoppers abandon carts, according to SalesCycle data. Additionally, many new payment options are popping up on a typical consumer's radar, so you should stay informed on what kind of payment methods your customers most want to use.

To guide users through the payment process, you'll want to choose a vendor that can deliver seamless, secure, and intuitive checkout. What kinds of payments will you accept? How simple can you make your payments form? Is your website PCI Compliant? You'll need to consider these factors and more when choosing a payment processing partner. 

Several strategies exist to make this process easier. For one, consider a merchant services provider as your payment processor rather than a regular bank. These operations are laser-focused on just payment processing. They can help not only on a per-transaction price, but also on accepting the latest forms of mobile payments, keeping your payment process secure, and remaining in compliance with the latest payment regulations. 

E-Fulfillment

What good is luring customers to your website if the products they purchase are never delivered? E-Fulfillment companies help manage inventory availability, packing, shipping, and handling returns, among many other things. To choose the right fulfillment partner, you should consider flexibility and pricing, storage capacity and fees, scalability, and process automation.

Companies like eFulfillment Service (EFS) integrates with online shopping cart platforms to help communicate data from the website to the warehouse to the customer and back to you. Choosing an e-fulfillment partner can be quite daunting, especially if you've never gone through the process. Speak with your intended e-commerce software company about the companies they partner with and which they think will provide the most seamless integration.

Website Performance

Screenshot of Dynatrace web management home screen
(Image courtesy of Dynatrace)

Once you're up and running, take some time to evaluate your efforts. Has your website been successful? What needs to be improved? How easily are customers making their way through your website architecture? Conversion Rate is the most important statistic to measure when determining how effective your website is at driving sales. Conversion Rate math is simple: What percentage of website visitors actually purchase a product? Bounce rate is another important one. Bounce rate is measured as the percentage of visitors who leave your website without clicking on a second page. For every 100 website visitors, 64 should navigate to a second page.

These are the metrics you should track to measure website performance, but it doesn't stop there. Your software partner should help you monitor all of these metrics and clue you into additional metrics that provide insight into your website's performance. Use these numbers to adjust and revamp as your website requires.

The Holiday Season

The fourth quarter is the biggest time of year for online merchants. Starting with Black Friday and Cyber Monday and stretching through New Year's Day, you're likely to experience your largest volume of website traffic. To ensure that you're prepared to capitalize on this coming rush, you'll need to generate a list of holiday survival procedures to follow. You'll also want to incentivize as many consumers as possible by loading your e-commerce website with promotions and giveaways.  

For example: ensure that your inventory is replenished, your promotions are ready to run, and that your web hosting service is ready to handle a sudden uptick in traffic. Once you've done those things, you'll want to promote your website as much as possible, including tactics like social media contests, pay-per-click advertising, an email blast, and maybe even free extras with every purchase. Once that's all taken care of, grab some egg nog, sit by the fireplace, and pray that your website experiences no downtime whatsoever.

Grow All Aspects of Your Business

Building a new business, regardless of how easy a turnkey service may make some of the mechanics, takes lots of hard work. Technology can't provide a substitute for that. But while many entrepreneurs happily throw themselves at that challenge, many forget to take some time to step back and consider the bigger picture. Sure, optimizing your e-commerce inventory, shopping cart, website, and payment flow are all critical to success. But getting laser-focused on just these aspects simply because they're the most top-of-mind can mean missing out on important opportunities to grow your venture. 

A key example is growing your business' credit. This may seem like a luxury or a secondary consideration, but that attitude will change the day you run into an opportunity that needs speedy capitalization and your business isn't ready. Sure, applying for a business credit card, for example, can help strengthen your company's credit score, but that doesn't happen overnight. New companies should make it a priority to discuss building credit with their accountant and financial services provider and then take the necessary steps at the outset of the venture rather than waiting until an opportunity is time-crunched and it may be too late. 

Paying attention to detail here is key. In the case of the business credit card, these are good for far more than simply building credit. They can be a fast source of bootstrap-style capital should a fast-moving opportunity present itself. In the case of very small or solo-operator startups, they're also an excellent way of clearly separating business versus personal purchases. This same ability also lets you track business purchasing trends very accurately, which can help you run your company more efficiently. 

These considerations may not be at the forefront of your thought process when you're sitting down to build an online catalog that's attractive to customers, but building a business isn't always a one-day-at-a-time process. Planning for the future is just as important as working hard for success today, so discuss necessary steps with all your key operational providers, including not just financial but also your legal counsel, inventory and fulfillment manager, and especially your employee and HR manager

Have any questions about e-commerce? Sign up for the PhonespySoftware24 BusinessWatch newsletter and join the [email protected] business community on LinkedIn, and you can get answers from vendors, other professionals like yourself.

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