How to Get Started with e-Commerce

small biz chat with melinda emersonEach week as Smallbizlady, I conduct interviews with small business experts on my weekly Twitter talk show #SmallBizChat. This is excerpted from my #SmallBizChat interview with Matt Mansfield @mattsmansfield. He’s been helping businesses both large and small accomplish business goals using technology since 1993. He blogs at Matt About Business where the story is not about technology; it’s about how people use technology to achieve business success. He also runs a membership site for all things e-commerce at http://www.mattaboutsolutions.com There he helps small businesses choose, and learn to use the best online software, tools and websites.

 

Smallbizlady: What is e-commerce?

Matt Mansfield: Simply put, e-commerce is the act of selling goods and services online. The interesting thing about e-commerce is that it does not have to be a “thing” that you sell. You can even sell time and knowledge online as well. You can sell just about anything online.  Here’s some options….

●     New and used physical or “hard” goods – such as art, furniture, crafts, books and cars

●     Virtual or “soft” goods – such as ebooks, videos, courses, webinars, music, gift certificates and images you’ve created.

●     Services – such as coaching, consulting packages, building websites and creating social media campaigns

●     Online e-commerce can just be used as a virtual cash register for your offline clients to pay you.

 

Smallbizlady: Why should you sell online?

Matt Mansfield: The number one reason to sell online is increased exposure to potential customers. Simply put, there is no way in the offline world to match the reach of the Web for the same time and money. Of course, there is a lot of chatter to break through to get noticed, but that’s true of the offline world as well and, with niche marketing and social media becoming more and more sophisticated, reaching your target audiences is, if not easy, at least do-able.

The second reason is to broaden your product offerings. Perhaps you are a coach who primarily gets clients via offline referrals. Wouldn’t it be great to earn more income by selling some self-help materials (e.g. ebooks, courses, etc.) from your website?

The third reason to sell online is because it helps you get through a big barrier – the process of accepting payment the way your customer wants to pay (e.g. credit card, electronic transfer, electronic checks). Online solutions, for the most part, take care of this for you and allow you to accept payments in many ways and in many places. Customers love options!

Lastly, yet another reason to sell online is automation. You can peel away hours from the time it takes to run your business by providing customers with a way to pay you and check things such as order status (i.e. customer self-service) without having to see or contact you in anyway. Those hours can then be spent on more important issues such as getting more customers and delighting the ones you already have.

 

Smallbizlady: Is e-commerce right for every type of business?

Matt Mansfield: Yes and no. Yeah, that’s a strange answer however, making the decision to enter the e-commerce world is a big step and before you do it, you need to assure that doing so matches your business’ goals.

If yes, go for it; if no, forget it. For example, if you run a restaurant that will never sell food online, you may think that building your site on an e-commerce platform would make the process overly complex and take more time and money. And you would be right; e-commerce is not right for you at this time.

But what if your business goals evolve and you now want to start selling gift-certificates for your restaurant? What if your restaurant caters or delivers and you want to automate the process and provide customer self-service (e.g. where’s my order?) by having your in-house system integrated with your online e-commerce solution?

Now it’s time to get an e-commerce solution in place!

 

Smallbizlady: What are the downsides of e-commerce?

Matt Mansfield: E-commerce does have a couple of downsides which you need to consider before taking the plunge. First, there’s the cost. Almost every system you use to accept payments online will charge a fee per transaction. Most charge monthly or yearly fees or charge you up front for their software and support. In addition, unless you are comfortable with setting up these systems yourself, you may need to hire someone to do it for you, either the vendor or an outside party. If you believe you will be doing enough business to support these costs, great! If not, you need to think twice. Second, every system, no matter how simple, has a learning curve. Many of the online solutions have made that curve less steep in the last couple of years, but you still need to set aside time from other business tasks to learn how to use and manage the e-commerce solution you are putting in place.

 

Smallbizlady: How hard is it to sell your goods or services online?

Matt Mansfield: It used to be a lot harder, but these days, it’s getting easier and easier. That’s because a number of powerful and easy-to-use solutions have arrived on the online scene. With some of the new solutions, instead of having to build your website from scratch and then integrate in all the e-commerce functionality from all over the place, it’s all provided to you in one nice “all-in-one-solution” package.  Of course, you can still go the “build your own site and integrate stuff in” route, and there are certainly appropriate times to do so (for example, if you have a great site already in place or to support custom business needs).

 

SmallBizlady: How important is email marketing to e-commerce success?
Matt Mansfield: As important as it is to the success of any online marketing campaign.

Dollar-for-dollar, you will find that building, and using, a solid e-mail list is the highest-converting marketing approach you can use. That’s because, these days, most e-mail lists are “opt-in”, meaning that a subscriber has to WANT to receive your e-mails.

If they want to receive your e-mails, they are interested in you; either what you have to say or what you have to sell. Your e-mail subscribers are your “warm” prospects; the group you can go back to again and again to make new offers and to sell new products and services.

Even better, when used properly, a solid list of subscribers can be used for market research. Here’s how it works: come up with two or three product ideas, send them out to your list and ask them which one they would like to see created next. Even better, leave it open-ended so that they can suggest some ideas. The responses you get back from this approach is gold because now you will create a product that your “warm” list wants. It will be the easiest product launch you will ever have.

 

Smallbizlady: What is an “All-In-One” storefront solution?

Matt Mansfield: Ranging from very robust and capable to more simple approaches, storefront solutions provide you with an online store where you can sell your good and services.

Often, you can integrate with your online systems (such as a multitude of spots to have your products listed) as well as offline systems (so you can manage details such as inventory whether the sale happens online or off).

Examples include:

●     BigCommerce

●     Volusion

●     Jimdo

Smallbizlady: Are there any “All-In-One” solutions for selling things on the internet and doing email marketing?

 

Sure there are! Many of the “All-in-One” solutions offer integrated e-mail marketing functionality as part of their “All-In-One” package. Sometimes that functionality is in-house and sometimes that functionality is via a third-party integration, but in most cases, the features are baked-in and fairly easy to use.

 

Some examples include:

  • BigCommerce – they integrate very well with iContact and include the ability to create rules so that follow-up e-mails can be sent automatically to customers.
  • Volusion – they offer newsletter functionality.
  • Jimdo – they offer newsletter integration.
  • CafePress – they offer newsletter functionality

Smallbizlady: What is an “All-In-One” dropshipping solution?

Matt Mansfield: A dropshipping solution allows you to gather products together from many vendors to create an online store that can specialize in selling one type of product or selling products that are discounted and more. You take the orders, the vendors handle the shipping, returns and more (nice, eh?).

You can also BE a vendor at these sites, making your products available to a big network of resellers.

 

Examples include:

●     Shopster

●     Zlio

 

Smallbizlady: What is an “All-In-One” auction and marketplace solution?

Matt Mansfield: Yep, believe it or not, there’s money to be made selling new and used products on eBay. Another advantage is that eBay links into a lot of other sales channels which extends the reach of where your product is displayed.

Aside from auctions, you can offer your products on marketplace sites – including ones that print your book on demand for a customer (a great way to sell a photography or art book).

Examples include:

●     eBay – selling anything

●     Etsy – selling crafts

●     Lulu – selling books

●     CreateSpace – selling books, music and video

 

Smallbizlady: Are there any “All-In-One” solutions to sell my expertise?

Matt Mansfield: If you want to sell what you know, there are some great solutions that allow you to do just that. You can sell videos, documents and more and split you products into units or just sell the whole thing at once (or do both!).

 

Examples include:

●     MindBites

●     Sparkeo

●     Knowledge Genie

 

Smallbizlady: What are your options if you don’t want to use an “all-in-one” solution for e-commerce?

Matt Mansfield: There are a ton of ways to sell from your existing website which is what makes selecting an option a bit overwhelming.

If you have a site built on WordPress, Joomla, Drupal or other such platforms, you can use a “some-in-one” solution. These solutions provide packaged functionality which you can then implement on your site.

To find a “some-in-one” solution, look in the appropriate platform’s plugins/extensions directory to view the available options. Often, there are ratings and comments to help you select which one to use however, if those are slim or absent, you can search for reviews on Google (search for “<name of plugin or extension> review”).

If your site is not built on one of those platforms (or even if it is) and your needs are more simple, you can use a shopping cart solution such as E-Junkie (my favorite of the stand-alone shopping carts) or just use PayPal directly.

 

If you found this interview helpful, join us on Wednesdays 8-9pm ET follow @SmallBizChat on Twitter.

For more tips on how start or grow your small business subscribe to Melinda Emerson’s blog http://www.succeedasyourownboss.com.

Melinda F. Emerson, known to many as SmallBizLady is one of America’s leading small business experts. As a seasoned entrepreneur, professional speaker, and small business coach, she develops audio, video and written content to fulfill her mission to end small business failure.  As CEO of MFE Consulting LLC, Melinda educates entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 companies on subjects including small business start-up, business development and social media marketing. Forbes Magazine recently named her one of the Top 20 women for entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter. She hosts #SmallBizChat Wednesdays on Twitter 8-9pm ET for emerging entrepreneurs. She also publishes a resource blog www.succeedasyourownboss.com Melinda is also the author of the national bestseller Become Your Own Boss in 12 months; A Month-by-Month Guide to a Business That Works. (Adams Media 2010)


 

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