Starting an online store takes a lot of time and dedication. You’re also going to have to be a jack of all trades or be willing to hire some good help. You’ll need to be able to do ad copy, photography, graphic design, web coding, inventory, packaging, shipping, computer troubleshooting, and taxes just to name a few.
If you think you can handle all of that, then get a fresh cup of coffee and maybe even some lunch, this is going to be a long one folks.
We’ll begin with a list of things you’ll need to consider before you start. After that we will discuss the best places for actually building your eCommerce website and give you some helpful links to get you going.
The Basic Things You’ll Need to Get Started
An Accountant – Hire an accountant first. They don’t charge a fee until they do some work for you so there’s no reason for you skip this step. You need to have a book-keeping system set up that you both agree on before you start handling money. If you put this off, you will regret it. Paying your taxes on time is your #1 responsibility above all else. An accountant can also help you incorporate your business and get you a federal tax ID number if you need it.
Resale/sales tax license – Also called a Vendors License. You are required by law to collect sales taxes for the state that you do business in. You have to pay for the license to do so. It’s $25. Yep, you have to pay a fee for the “privilege” of collecting taxes. That’s just how it works folks. You can get one from your local courthouse in the county auditor’s office. They are also available online, but you should go in person so they can explain everything you need to do. While you’re there ask them why you have to pay them to collect their money. I always do.
Reliable Computers – I have two identical laptops sitting side by side on my desk. I only use one, but I back it up to the second one every Sunday. If my primary laptop fails, I can flip open the second and be back to work in under 5 minutes. In eCommerce there is absolutely no time for downtime. My example is a bit extreme, but you do need to have an absolutely fail safe computer system of some sort.
Catchy Name – Think long and hard about what you want to name your company / online store. It should be likable and unique. Remember that people will be searching for you on Google one day and if there are 1 million results for the name you picked, then you picked wrong. It should also be something that can be easily used in a domain name for your website.
Domain Name – This should be your company name or a variation of it. Ideally it should be less than 12 letters so that people can easily remember it. Don’t use non-standard spellings, hyphens, or numbers in the name. And don’t bother with anything except a .com name. Nobody cares about .net or .org. and they won’t remember it. Really think this one through. In eCommerce, a domain name is everything.
Logo – Once you have a name and a domain you’ll need a logo. Don’t think just because you have a copy of Photoshop that you can make one yourself. Remember that if your competition looks better than you, then they are better than you. Luckily, you can hire a graphic designer cheaply. Go to eLance and make a job posting. Within 24 hours you’ll have a dozen bids by certified graphic designers to create your logo.
SEO Knowledge – Stands for Search Engine Optimization. SEO is the art of creating a website that will show up well in Google search results. It centers around placing key words in your website page titles and descriptions in such a way that you will outrank your competition when someone searches for an item that you are selling. It’s a complex topic beyond the scope of this article so I recommend that you read the Beginners Guide to SEO by Moz before starting an online store.
Ad Copy – If you’re a good writer you might be able to do this yourself. But be honest, are you a good writer? Can you write a description that is compelling enough to make your viewer put an item in the shopping cart immediately and be search engine friendly at the same time? If not you might want a little help. eLance can help you again with this one.
Photography - If you’re really lucky the items that you sell will come with photos that you can use. Be sure to ask your supplier. If not, you’re going to have to buy some good photography equipment and learn how to use it. A good setup can easily set you back $1000. Learning photography can take several months. Maybe hiring a professional isn’t such a bad idea. DO NOT use crappy photos. You will have crappy sales.
Postage Scale – You’re going to need one. I have a digital scale that I bought a Wal-mart for $20. Works great for small stuff. It doesn’t work on anything over 3 lbs though. For that I bought a shiny state of the art kitchen scale. What? Yeah, a medium capacity postage scale is pretty expensive. An ordinary kitchen scale does the same thing for $12. For the real big stuff I use the bathroom scale. Gotta cut costs somewhere .
A Label Printer – Actually buy 2. They break. A lot. An eCommerce store cannot be without one. Maybe buy 3 just in case. And lots of ink cartridges too.
Social Media Knowledge – Are you on Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr / Linkedn / Google + / Pintrest / that new site that came out 5 minutes ago? Your customers are. Making a profile on every popular social media site out there is well worth it because it’s free advertising! Be sure you put links on your website to these profiles so that people can go friend / like / add / circle / pin / or +1 you where every they like to hang out online. You’ll have to learn their annoying jargon too.
Advertising Budget – If you spent all your money before you got to this one, well, it was nice knowing you. Advertising is the most overlooked part of starting an online store. Customers don’t magically show up no matter how awesome your site is. The ads you seek are called Google Adwords. Go forth and buy them, as many as you can afford.
Beyond Startup: eCommerce Platforms
Once you have got all of the above covered, it’s time to move out of the startup phase begin the site itself. You can purchase dedicated hosting and code your own website from the ground up, but that’s not the smart way of starting an ecommerce site. There are services out there specifically for start ups like you.
The better route is to choose an eCommerce platform that has all of the options you want already built-in. A good platform will take care of hosting, provide some website templates, a shopping cart, and an integrated merchant account for processing payments. They may also offer inventory management, book-keeping, and advertising for an additional fee.
In my opinion the big 3 eCommerce platforms to consider are Magento, Amazon Webstore, and Shopify. But there are lots of options. Actually so many that it deserves a separate article. When you’re ready to move forward, check out our piece on the best sites for hosting an online store.