Build an eCommerce Business From Start To Finish In 6 Steps
Discover a step-by-step strategy that will help any start-up entrepreneur create and run their own eCommerce business.
The word is “build”. That’s the most important word to understand as you set out on your journey to create an eCommerce business.
Forget “tips,” “tricks” and forever-changing marketing concepts. Focus on building a brilliant eCommerce business, from start to finish. Step-by-step, brick-by-brick. Build a business that you are proud to show other people.
Listen - the world wide web is a speedy place.
15 years ago, I was right where you are.
Like you, I set out to build an eCommerce site from start to finish.
The trouble is, as a beginner, eCommerce seemed a hurried world to me, one in which speed and change ruled.
Flash forward to 2017: I have generated over $50 million in worldwide sales, plus I am privileged to run various eCommerce businesses, including Jersey Beauty Company – one of the UK’s best-loved skin, health and beauty websites.
Throughout my experience, I have have developed a sound, step-by-step strategy that will help any start-up entrepreneur create and run their own eCommerce business.
Want to know where to start?
Maybe you don’t know where to begin. Or how to turn your first sale...
Until now, the art of creating, buying and selling products online has been relatively untaught, in its entirety. Sure, online marketing experts and Shopify gurus exist. But, what if you could have all-access to someone who understands the whole of eCommerce?
Not only can I teach you eCommerce systems, I also have an inbound marketing agency, a web development team and an eCommerce fulfilment squad that ship products all over the globe on behalf of various eCommerce companies. Why? Because I am crazy-passionate about helping people like you run excellent eCommerce businesses.
Forget run-of-the-mill, everything I teach has been developed, tried and perfected, over and over again. I’ve launched 18 online businesses! Currently I consult online business owners one-to-one using the same methodical strategies that I will teach you on this page.
This is what I have learnt: eCommerce is a process.
You will require a step-by-step methodology to launch a new, online business well. On this page, you will find a detailed, six-step guide outlining the critical steps to take, if you want to launch a brilliant eCommerce website, one that excels in excellence, makes sales AND - brings you enjoyment and satisfaction.
(Let’s face it - nobody wants to launch an eCommerce site that looks rubbish, feels complicated and generates ZERO sales.)
Take it step by step.
Step 1: Set Realistic Goals
Step 2: Set Your Values
Step 3: Validate Your Product Idea
Step 4: Build an eCommerce Platform
Step 5: Make it Work For Mobile
Step 6: Secure Your First Order
Your Next Step: A Website You Can Be Proud of
Step 1: Set Realistic Goals
Social media. It is so easy to get caught up in a world of posting, tweeting, buzzing and waving. You can soon lose 30 minutes of precious time and learn a whole lot about nothing.
All that to say, if you want to learn about eCommerce, you may choose to get caught up in researching platforms, marketing tips and Shopify apps. But I have found that the best eCommerce sites don’t happen by hustle, grind or guesswork. Knowing and studying your craft, step-by-step is key. So first, you need to understand the process of eCommerce growth.
I have turned over $50 million in eCommerce sales to learn this: running an eCommerce business is an enjoyable process. It is not realistic to think of your website or business as a way out of work! Truth be told, your homepage and web content will continuously change. Your business will grow, develop. And you will love every second of it.
I’ve always wanted to help people create businesses that they can enjoy and be proud of. Businesses that enrich lives, not disrupt life! Fun and fulfillment are 2 key aims here. And, there are 4 stages of eCommerce growth that every online business can enjoy.
Phase 1: Start Up Phase
The start-up phase occurs within your very first year of running an eCommerce business. If you are in this stage it is likely that you will be a one-(wo)man team… YOU!
During the start-up phase, you are probably only able to give minimal financial investment. In fact, your main investment will be time. Sales are slow to begin, mainly coming from your closest contacts or networks. Technology is low cost and you will either ship products out yourself (via snail mail) or look into drop shipping.
Phase 2: Operations Phase
Typically, you will cross over into the operations phase when your eCommerce business is 6-18 months old.
At this stage, you will require an extra helping hand - outsourcing is usually the best option. In terms of profit, you should have enough to cover your salary in the operations phase. You may also think about expanding your options when it comes to shipping and buying in stock.
Phase 3: Expansion Phase
Time-wise, it is about 2-3 years before most companies get here. You are established in the business, you have got a good operations base, the team is well developed and you are cooking with gas.
Team-wise you are probably now looking for specialist help in specific areas. You will have a good base of people, but you are looking at very specific areas which makes sense for your business. For example, you might want to outsource a social media marketing specialist, a design specialist or a copywriter.
Profits and confidence will have developed at this point. Your site is growing, you will have acquired repeat, loyal customers or fans.
The problem here is your technology platform. Because your site is really growing, your technology can start to creek. You might have a customised site through Magento, yet you may have to invest a significant sum of money. This is not a hard and fast rule, but I would highly recommend spending time researching what your customers need and invest in your tech. $50,000 - $100, 000
Phase 4: Fly-Wheel Phase
Phase 4 is the final stage of eCommerce growth. When you reach this stage you will have a team of people, constantly working to develop your business and make it the very best it can be.
In terms of profit, you will be making an extremely healthy turnover with regular customers and sales. In order to keep your customers happy in the fly-wheel phase, you and your team will likely have high-performing technology developed internally or externally. This tech is stable, always up to date, always being worked on and will solve any problems your customers have in relation to website engagement.
As for fulfilment, scanning, packing and shipping will be done in house with specialist technology and equipment.
Remember: running an eCommerce business is a continuous process.
What stage are you in right now?
It is important to know where you are at so that you can strategize carefully to reach the next phase of growth. Too often I see eCommerce owners overwhelmed by advice, none of it in clear a structure. This is what causes analysis paralysis. Without understanding the 4 stage of eCommerce growth, you may become disheartened by your website and work on the wrong elements in the hope that it will grow.
I don’t want you to simply wish for eCommerce growth, I want you to experience it. That is why beginning with this growth assessment will surely help.
Step 2: Set Your Values
It is my genuine desire that you would create an extremely successful eCommerce store. I want you to do a great job!
People will try and over-complicate the process of running an eCommerce business, so that you lose enjoyment and eventually grow tired of your business. I honestly believe that you don’t have to go down that route. That is why, step 5 of building your eCommerce business requires you to think about the company culture you are about to build.
What is brand culture?
When I consult with e-commerce businesses, the first thing I look at is the culture of the brand, even if this is a new company. Because it is your brand culture that will come through in all that you do. If your sales and marketing tactics are at odds with your company values, then guess what? your sales and marketing won’t work in the long term because where there is a clash. Culture wins every time.
Brand culture is the culmination of your attitudes, behaviours and values as a company. Every company has a culture, even if it is not defined. Your company, your online store, your team, your technology, the way you sell and the way you do customer service are outcomes of your company culture. You’ve either designed this or it has happened by default.
So why define your brand core values?
This is both a great question to ask and a really important one to answer. Why spend time and energy thinking about core values? Why not just get on and sell without all of this?
I’ve tried to answer that a little, but here are some key ideas that I learned from the guys over at Zappos about core brand values. Given that they built a multi- billion dollar company in a few short years around the idea of their values – then they are definitely worth listening to.
Values create a self-managed company
By defining the values of your eCommerce business at this early stage, you will know exactly who you want to work with. The key point here is that when you hire people or outsource work to somebody with similar core values to you – you bring people who already resonate with your culture – so their attitude and behaviour will already be in line with what you are a looking for in team members which ultimately drives results.
Values help you make decisions
This really is critical for your long term survival as a company. Without clearly defined brand values, there is no basis on which to make solid decisions – especially with a team in place. Without them, people begin to rely on their gut feel, or even worst – a script.
Values create the right eCommerce experience
The world is now a world of communication. It loves communication and great communication is based on trusting relationships. Relationships are based on core values. Rarely are we friends with people that are the extreme opposite of our values, so we hunt out people that are similar to us. The same is true with companies – we hunt out companies that we want to do business with, which gives us a great experience that we can feel proud being a part of. What do you want your company to be like? How do you want your company to make people feel? If you define values, you will attract loyal clients, the kind of ‘dream clients’ you have been hoping for.
Values are bigger than people, trends and vision
It goes without saying the the values of the company are bigger than anyone person in it. If I was no longer involved in any of the other companies I am working with at the moment – they would still survive, because the values are good and people connect with them. The company, thankfully, isn’t built around me!
Honestly, if you want a to run a successful, eCommerce business - one that you enjoy - you must set values before you begin marketing or advertising your company. So many eCommerce start-ups will tell me that they are concerned about the fast pace of change and overwhelm, or that they are burnt out from trying to keep up with trends. I believe that if an eCommerce company wants to thrive they have to set values early doors, and stick to them.
People who understand ‘why’ their eCommerce business exists ultimately move forward into new realms of growth, quicker than others. Setting values is parallel to your success - so don’t skip this bit!
Step 3: Validate Your Product Idea
The nature of running an eCommerce business is change. Online marketing changes fast. Social media is swift. The wonderfully, wild web progresses speedily. As a consequence, one familiar problem exists: many eCommerce start-ups will change their business idea before giving it the care and investment required to be successful.
Sure, most eCommerce entrepreneurs are driven by new ideas and so it can be difficult to land on one product to sell online. But, even if you are making your own product, you will have to validate your idea and ensure that a market exists.
I have seen so many eCommerce start ups rush to building a platform before they have validated their idea. You can choose to spend hours and hours building a website, writing content for your site and even invest money in marketing - BUT - you will not make sales unless you initially validate your product idea.
In all of my eCommerce consultancy, I promise that running an online business will be an incredibly enjoyable process only if you follow a step-by-step plan, without skipping ahead. Chances are, some of you have eCommerce sites with very little sales. My advice would be to validate your product idea and you can do that, completely free of charge, using Amazon’s website. Simply put, you need to use Amazon to research bestsellers, understand positive reviews and check poor product performers. I tell you exactly how to do this in a video series that I created. Link: Amazon Video Series.
Don’t forget: the goal here is to check your product idea will be popular enough to sell in high volumes before you order stock or invest any more time and money into your business.
Step 4: Build an eCommerce Platform
Confession time: you jumped straight to this section, didn’t you?
I get it - if you want to launch an eCommerce business, you are eager to get your website up and running. That is totally normal. But trust me, if you haven’t read the above steps to build your eCommerce business from start to finish, it might cost you sales and enjoyment in running your online business.
OK, onto the most-coveted section of setting up your own eCommerce business - platform ponderings!
What is an eCommerce platform?
An eCommerce platform is a piece of technology that allows you to build a storefront on the world wide web. Simply put, it is the software that creates your online store, and helps you process internet transactions. It is a website, with a back end that will help you easily view your pending orders and complete them.
Let’s break the stigma: you don’t have to be techy to run an ecommerce site. If you are techy: brilliant. You are going to love this venture, and you might find yourself progressing to set up a hosted site before others.
But – to be honest there are some brilliant platforms out there you just have to know the pros and cons of the very best platforms, in order to make a decision. Don’t dwell at this step.
Here’s what you need to know about choosing an eCommerce platform:
There are 3 basic levels of platform.
This is where you use somebody else’s web solution to sell your products. For example: sites like Amazon, Not on the High Street, Esty or Ebay.
A lot of people do this and make significant incomes as a result. You get access to their reputation and traffic and with Amazon you can use their fulfilment and their payment system. This is brilliant if you just want to sit back and let them take care of it all. However, being ‘found’ on Amazon through its search function is almost a course of learning in its own right. As with Google and other search engines, the same rules apply. If you are not in the top few search results – you won’t sell anything. The other thing about sites like Amazon and eBay is that you are just a reseller through their system. You are reliant on them for everything so there is no real way to bring your own brand culture through. It’s a bit like being on a shelf in a supermarket – you can easily be anonymous as the big boys take all the best space. I know that there are companies that do well on Amazon and eBay, and if you have a simple high margin product that just needs shipping and can easily be found, go for it – it’s a no brainer. However, my feeling is that you will need your own website if you are to build a community of customers and engage with them.
I own a beauty company that sells products on Amazon. From this experience, I have learnt that selling on Amazon is hyper competitive and, perhaps more critically, you don’t get access to the customers. The customers that you sell to on Amazon, belong to Amazon. That is, you cannot market to them or connect with them easily or with your own, brand personality.
The second option, is to use an existing software package that has already been developed. Nowadays, there are a lot of options when it comes to eCommerce software providers. If you go down this route, I would suggest you use a subscription, cloud based model like Shopify or Squarespace. They host the site, they constantly develop the code and update it which saves a big headache for you. They often have apps that you can use to help your site function well, so whilst it is not as tailored to your needs as the bespoke option, it is pretty good.
The benefits of this system are also significant, you can have a site set up pretty quickly, the framework is very robust and always up-to-date. You don’t have to think about hosting the site which solves another headache, and there is more than likely an app to give you the extra bit that is missing from the standard site. You don’t need a specialist team to help you build the site and this can save you a small fortune. It’s a great option for those starting out in e-commerce or those established sites that have a niche base and steady income.
All you have to think about is selecting the images, features and text that you want. However, as your business grows, hosted solutions become limited - perhaps you will then want to move onto self-hosting.
Self Hosting eCommerce Platforms
Self hosting requires you to set up an account with a hosting company and then install your chosen eCommerce platform. You will own your domain and then you can install software such as Magento on your server. Simply put, you get to host website for yourself. A self-hosting software system like Magento will cost you £30-£100k, so this is a pricier option. Our very first e-commerce website, which sold tanning products years ago, was such a site. We used a software package from Actinic, and it served us well, as I learned the fine art of writing code.
Personally, I chose to build my own platform, in house. I have a team of developers that build the platform I want (you can hire them here.) This is by far the most expensive option, but gets the best results.
Step 5: Make it Work For Mobile
The golden rule: your website has to work for mobile.
The smartphone, this mini-computer in our pocket, is now an integral part of everyday life. Where would we be without them? However, there is nothing more annoying that a website that doesn’t work, runs super-slow or seems impossible to navigate.
I’ve seen eCommerce entrepreneurs spend thousands of pounds on their website, yet they haven’t thought about how their website will function on a smartphone. This is a huge mistake.
Over half of your online traffic is going to come from a smartphone - so you have to make sure your eCommerce store works for mobile devices.
In fact, if your ecommerce store is up and running and NOT making any sales my first question to you is “does is work on mobile?” Many of you reading this page and struggling with low sales will find this one piece of advice revolutionary!
What is a ‘mobile responsive’ website?
We’ve established: mobile is important. A responsive site it one that has been optimized for mobile so, when you shrink the screen, it automatically jumps to work for mobile. This makes it easier for customers to click your web shop using their thumb, it gives them space.
One key thing to note: Google prioritize mobile responsive sites. If you have small links on your mobile site, people will not be able to click them and so Google will not recommend your website on its search engine.
For a lot of us e-retailers, the success of our business depends, to a large extent, on our website, how it looks, how it feels and how it works. Does it give our customers a great online experience or does it fill them with dread? Will it encourage them to buy from us and hopefully start that life journey with us, or will it cause them to run for the hills in fear?
Step 6: Secure Your First Order
There are 3 payment options that web browsers expect to see on every eCommerce site.
Your website needs to accept and process payment from credit and debit cards. In order to do this, you can use an external payment provider - like Braintree. Alternatively, if you are using a hosted platform like Shopify, this feature will already exist on your website.
Apple pay allows customers to make purchases with just one click, using an iPhone. You should definitely consider adding this payment option to your eCommerce site! Most customers use a smartphone to shop online, so make sure you have the technology these users expect, for a swift and savvy checkout experience.
Paypal is a company that enables customers to pay securely, when shopping online. Customers don’t have to re-enter bank details or billing addresses using Paypal, making it an extremely popular option. You should definitely include this payment option on your eCommerce site.
At this part in the process of building an eCommerce business from start to finish, you should have:
A clear understanding of where you are heading.
A set of values that will help you drive the course of your website.
A product that you are invested in, and proud to sell.
A web platform that suits your circumstances.
A fully mobile-optimised website.
Congratulations. You are almost ready to go! Now, you need to spend a little time deciding where you will keep your stock and how you intend to ship it to your customers. You can either rush this process, using plain and simple boxes and envelopes, or you can go the extra mile and WOW your buyers. (We advise the latter.)
But first, allow me to introduce 3 shipping options that are open and available to you:
What is drop shipping?
When I started my journey in eCommerce I owned a small office, situated on the Isle of Jersey. Products were packaged in simple envelopes and taken to the post office, on a daily basis. Eventually, we sold high volumes of stock and were able to arrange daily postal collections.
But, here is the reality of that situation: I had to take a risk. I had to pay for stock and hope that someone would buy it. Stock is dead money - until it is sold it is cash sat on the shelf.
So what is the alternative? Drop shipping.
Drop shipping is where you entrust your shipping to a wholesaler - so you don’t have to carry stock. The downside to this is that drop shipping companies typically stock highly competitive products. My advice would always be this: sell something you love. It will be crazy-difficult to sell a highly competitive product if you do not have one ounce of interest in the item at all. In reality, this is where most eCommerce start-ups fail. Beginners often set up their eCommerce website BEFORE thinking about growth stages and then struggle to find an item to sell, and sell it well.
If you don’t have the space or time to hold your stock, you can outsource fulfilment. You buy the stock, but somebody ships it out on your behalf. With drop shipping, you don’t own the stock. However, with outsourcing fulfilment, you own the stock and typically generate greater profit margins.
This is where you own stock and you are responsible for shipping out orders to your customers. It may take some time before you are able to run a warehouse - but this is the goal here.
Rules for Packaging Your Product
Like we said before, we want to help people create eCommerce businesses that are brilliant and enjoyable. For most part, packaging is seen as unimportant, it gets placed at the bottom of the list. Let me tell you this: if you want to stand out against your competitors, you must consider packaging. What is the experience going to be like for your customer, as they unbox their first order, from your eCommerce store? Will it be memorable?
5 things to remember when packaging your products:
Don’t Neglect the Packing Slip
Packing Slips are important. Sure, they are a humble piece of paper that is put in the box but don't make them an afterthought. Really think through what you can do with your packing slip to better engage your customers.Make sure it looks good, and include an offer on there or a way to connect with you on social media.
Think about your international audience
The Internet has made the world a much smaller place and you can not order anything from anywhere. So as eCommerce website owners, we should be aware of our international audience. Make sure your parcel ensures no items will get damaged whilst travelling overseas and find ways to connect with your international audience (use different languages, etc.)
Add Free Gifts to your order
Wherever you can, add a free gift.
Top tip: label the free gift so it obvious that it's free. It may sound simple, but a sticker adds a lot of value to the gift. Your customer will remember you as the company that went the extra mile and personalized their order. This will not go unnoticed.
Packaging for small items
When sending really small items in large boxes, make sure that they stand out so that customers don't accidentally throw their item away.
Use eco-friendly packaging
We've all seen the images on TV or YouTube of animals caught in plastic straps. You and I have a responsibility to make eco-friendly choices. Think about recycling and biodegradable options. At Jersey Beauty Co, we use popcorn as a method of packaging skincare products. The popcorn brings a fun alternative to plastic bubbles and is 100% biodegradable.
Your Next Step: A Website You Can Be Proud of
First off, thank you for working your way through this page. You are creating a brilliant and bold website, that will stand out from the masses. Building an eCommerce website is a continuous process and the truth is that you will always find new ways and means to improve your online business. The problem is, too many eCommerce start ups don’t usually follow a step-by-step method to get their business up and running. They guess at where they are going and end up feeling disappointed and discouraged, with little traffic and few sales.
I want you to do this thing properly. Run a really good eCommerce site. Don’t dip your toe in the water and play around with the idea of running your own, online business. Dive right in! If it’s the right time for you, do it properly. Start an ecommerce site that is going to be successful, one that you can be proud of, one that has value, one that you can grow.