How Any KC Entrepreneur Can Build a Successful E-Commerce Business, Step by Step
Every day, millions of consumers around the world purchase goods, services and courses online. In fact, an estimated 218.8 million people, or 65% of the U.S. population, will shop online in 2023, and that means there’s potentially a huge market to be had if you want to start an e-commerce business. From education to health and wellness, clothing, home goods, food and more, there are many different types of web-based businesses and many areas you can pursue if you’d like to run an online business yourself. With nearly limitless options, a wealth of potential customers and a lower barrier to entry than in brick-and-mortar enterprises, it’s no wonder why e-commerce is an attractive business model for many entrepreneurs.
In a SCORE Kansas City webinar, Joseph Maxwell, founder and director of e-commerce agency SwiftOtter, shared his expertise on navigating the challenges of starting and growing a web-based business so you can get your operation off the ground.
“In e-commerce, you’re going to have some wins, and you’re going to have a lot of failures,” Joseph says. “Are you willing and able to dedicate the time and money needed to get your business off the ground and see it through the long haul? It’s the sacrifices that will ultimately make your business successful.”
Do you want to start a new business? Let KCSourceLink create your custom personal action plan, a free checklist of the things you need to do and the people you need to meet to move your Kansas City business (or business idea) forward.
Here are more key takeaways and steps if you are looking to build and maintain an e-commerce business.
Preparing your product or service
Knowing what you want to sell is just the first step. You’ll also need to prepare your product or service for the marketplace. These are some questions e-commerce entrepreneurs need to answer before launching a business.
What’s your value proposition? Founders need to explain the attributes that set their product or service apart from the competition. While the price or uniqueness of a product can be differentiators, Joseph says the experience you create for your customers is often the biggest advantage.
“Every entrepreneur should leverage and embrace their unique experience and personality to stand out online,” Joseph says.
Where are you going to sell? Websites like Amazon, eBay and Etsy provide access to millions of customers alongside other merchants in a shared internet marketplace. Platforms like Shopify, BigCommerce and Teachable allow you to build your own brand and online storefront. There are pros and cons to each type of platform, so the choice to use one or the other or both will depend on your goals and the needs of your business.
“If you sell on Amazon, eBay or Etsy, you’re going to have competition like you would not believe,” Joseph says. “Rising to the top is incredibly lucrative, but it’s also incredibly hard to do. The fees are much higher than having an independent store, and there can be rules that prevent you from building your own brand. However, I recommend getting started on these types of marketplaces because it gets your product out there and allows you to vet your audience.”
What will you name the product or service? Think of names that are one of a kind and likely to stick in people’s minds.
How will you describe your product? Descriptions should be interesting and answer as many customer questions as possible.
“For every question you get about a product, you lose at least 10 other interested people,” Joseph says. “Consider updating your product descriptions every time you get a question that hasn’t been answered. You can also publish an FAQ list.”
How much will you sell it for? Joseph’s advice for pricing is simple: sell your product for what it’s worth and don’t undercut yourself. You also need to collect sales tax. Platforms like TaxJar and Avalara can help DIY sellers with compliance. Amazon, eBay and Etsy automatically calculate and charge sale tax at checkout.
What are your product types? There are single products and product variants (eg. A T-shirt in different sizes and colors).
How will you handle shipping? Shipping is complex but unavoidable. Many people expect free shipping, so if you decide to charge, you should explain why in a way that ensures customers you’re not taking advantage of them. Free shipping can be done across the board or only for a minimum order amount. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, so experiment with what works best for your business.
Developing an e-commerce website
All entrepreneurs should have their own websites for full control over how they present their goods to the world. Joseph recommended purchasing the name of your website through Google Domains. Website builders like Squarespace, Wix, Shopify and BigCommerce provide hundreds of customizable templates that enable business owners to quickly create professional online stores and websites. They also offer built-in tools for search engine optimization, analytics, blogging and more. Founders who want to write and edit code for their sites benefit from managed hosting platforms like WooCommerce and WordPress. Joseph says entrepreneurs should set up Google Analytics for their websites as soon as possible.
“You need to track your visitors to understand who is on your website and the engagement within specific demographic ranges,” he says. “You also want to know how many people come to the website versus how many people actually make a purchase. This data is invaluable to know if your investment of time and money is paying off.”
An effective e-commerce site is streamlined and easy to navigate. Accessible design that ensures everyone, regardless of their disabilities or limitations, can use your website is critical. Entrepreneurs can use the web accessibility evaluation tool to make sure the format, structure, navigation, visuals and written content of their websites are accessible to all end users.
These are other essential elements for an e-commerce site:
Simple header with business name and logo
Breadcrumbs (navigational aid that allows users to keep track of their current location on a website)
Prominent call to action (such as an “add to bag” button)
“People will look at your website in an F browsing pattern, so the header and breadcrumbs are important,” Joseph says. “It’s like going through a grocery store and seeing the markers that tell you what’s on the different aisles.”
Beyond the functionality of your site, high-quality content is crucial to building trust with your customers and ultimately driving sales.
“Look at your website with an objective lens,” Joseph says. “If you were your own customer, would you find your website engaging, interesting and helpful?”
These three things will have a significant impact on your website’s success:
Value proposition: Provide three to five reasons or incentives to encourage people to make a purchase (ex. 30-day satisfaction guarantee, 1-year warranty, lowest price guarantee, free shipping, in stock, refer a friend and get a coupon, etc.) and prominently display these statements throughout your website. Also, showcase any industry-specific awards.
Descriptions: Write compelling product descriptions that paint a picture in the customer’s mind and provide as much information as possible. Unique meta descriptions are also imperative because they power your search results.
“SEO is important so you want to think about keywords, but don’t overdo it,” Joseph says. “Write like you’re talking to a human, not a search engine.”
Photos and videos: High-quality photos for your website are a must. Joseph recommends using Square Photo Studio for affordable and professional product images. Videos that give a more in-depth view of a product are also popular and can easily be recorded on a smartphone.
“For the cost of a Big Mac and fries you can get good photos that build trust with your customers,” Joseph says. “If you can’t pay, the cameras on our phones have come a long way, and you can take decent photos by yourself. If you need models, ask family and friends to help in exchange for free products or services.”
Building and maintaining your audience
You’ll need to build awareness of your brand to attract the people who want what you’re selling.
“People say, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ but that’s emphatically false,” Joseph says. “You have to be intentional to get and keep customers. Your audience is critical to your success and just as valuable as the product you’re selling. Go beyond advertising products to build a connection that puts you top of mind with consumers.”
Earning the trust of potential customers has to be at the center of everything you do. Something as straightforward as introducing yourself can make a big difference in how your audience views your brand.
“Putting a face to something is always going to build trust,” Joseph says. “Put your photo on your website and share the inspiring and interesting parts of your story. Embrace the uniqueness of who you are as the driving force behind the business and their purchase.”
Creating value is another way to build trust and customer loyalty. Newsletters, blog posts, podcasts, e-books, quizzes and other content marketing pieces can provide your customers with useful information rather than a sales pitch. Automation and email marketing platforms like Mailchimp, Convert Kit and Klaviyo offer tools that can help you connect with and better understand your audience.
“A lot of emails you receive from businesses are junk, and nobody wants them,” Joseph says. “I highly recommend sending out emails at least once a month to offer your subscribers something you’ve invested a significant amount of time into creating and is ridiculously valuable. Answer the question, would I want to read this and send it to a friend?”
A successful review program can have a significant impact on increasing visibility, web traffic and sales. Research shows 91% of people read online reviews and 84% of people trust them as much as a personal recommendation. Tools like Shopper Approved, Trustpilot and Yotpo can help you capture verified product reviews and star ratings and display them strategically throughout your website and Google.
“Reviews are absolutely critical,” Joseph says. “Everybody wants to see if people have enjoyed or appreciated a product or service. The more reviews you can get the better, but you should never write bogus reviews or delete or edit negative reviews. People lose trust when it’s 100% five stars and nobody is saying what’s wrong with the product.”
Don’t forget about the power of social media. Updating your bios with a link to your website, posting useful content that positions you as a subject matter expert and getting plugged into relevant online communities can help you build a following and get insight into what’s happening in the market.
“Network, provide useful advice and suggestions and post feedback,” Joseph says. “It takes time, but if you’re consistent, helpful and supportive, you’ll gain traction.”
Paid advertising on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Google can also boost your chances of reaching your target audience.
“You need to watch your ad spend like a hawk because those dollars can disappear fast,” Joseph says. “Pay attention to how much money you have to put into every ad to get a sale to see if you’re getting a good conversation rate.”
Prioritizing customer service
Excellent service is a winning strategy for creating strong customer relationships. Joseph says e-commerce business owners should strive to be flexible and transparent and communicate early and often with customers about any issues.
“It’s important to turn unhappy customers into happy customers or at least neutralize situations even if it costs you money,” he says. “When you’re competing for trust and loyalty, you want to quickly reassure customers that you’re going to take care of them.”
These tactics can help increase customer satisfaction:
Accept multiple payment methods including credit cards, PayPal, Apple Pay and Google Pay.
“This gives your business a greater air of legitimacy and reassures customers you’re there to help and not hiding behind invisible walls,” Joseph says. “You should also hire people to answer your calls, emails, and live chats.”
Use an online appointment scheduling app like Calendly to make it easy for clients to book meetings.
Allow free returns (within a certain time frame if you’d like) and clearly spell out the details of the policy to boost customer confidence in purchasing your product.
“Returns are the ultimate feedback loop and provide you the opportunity to learn why people didn’t like a product or service and to make improvements,” Joseph says.
Still stumped about e-commerce or does your business (or business idea) need help with something else? Just tell us here at KCSourceLink what you need or give us a call at 816-235-6500, and we’ll craft your custom set of next steps and the experts who can help.
Thumbnail photo by Karolina Grabowska via Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/shopping-cart-next-to-a-laptop-5632397/