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"I`m ready to take the plunge," a friend told me one day.
"You? Get married? You gotta be kidding!" I said. "If anyone is a confirmed, dedicated bachelor, it`s you."
"No, no, no," he responded excitedly, "Not that plunge! I`ve decided to give the Web thing a go. I want you to put my business online for me."
"Ahhh, well, that`s more like it," I said relieved. "It makes far more sense for you to commit to doing business online than to commit to another human being for the rest of your life." I loved my friend dearly, but he had left a trail of broken hearts around the planet and a long-term relationship for him lasted in the neighborhood of four to six weeks.
The funny thing was that Willard was a good businessman. He had built his own company from the ground up. Over the last eight years, he had created his own unique niche in the highly competitive fiberoptic market, making custom fiberoptic components and devices for companies that could not get what they wanted anywhere else. He now had a dozen people working for him, and planned to double that in the next year.
So what was the funny thing? The funny thing was that he viewed taking his business online as a big step, something like a third date for him. I realized once again that there are indeed very intelligent and successful people out there, making a good living, but with no idea as to what cyberspace is all about. Nor that maybe they could turn a tidy profit without a major investment.
Of course these people have email, have surfed the Net a bit, and have paid some attention to what has been going on in the dotcom market. Thus they have even more reservations and apprehension about this "dotcom thing." Much of the news recently has not been good. But how much is their business really like those big dotcom`s that have been crashing - in most cases, not that much.
The purpose of this article on e-commerce is to help you break that media barrier, as I call it, and march confidently into the world of e-commerce. The Internet is obviously a great new medium, and brings with it untold opportunities and potential, most of which we cannot yet comprehend or imagine. But what most people don`t realize is that it requires a whole new way of thinking, what the philosopher Thomas Kuhn called "a paradigm shift."
I say this because I`ve seen so many people take their offline, brick and mortar, businesses, and simply transfer it online, often putting up what amounts to an online catalogue. Admittedly, this may work fine for some people and some products, but it is not taking advantage of the new medium and all that it has to offer.
One big problem here is that there have been so many so-called experts wanting to cash in on the Net phenomenon yet so few of them who really know what they are doing and how to maximize the opportunities for their clients. They know a bit more than their customers, shroud their work in secrecy, and make it appear far more technical and difficult than it actually is.
It is our intention here to both de-mystify cyber-business and to clear some of the debris and hubris from the e-record. In other words, what follows is some straight talk, tips and insights for those considering doing online business, whether you are just starting a business or already have a business and wish to add an online component.
Let`s start with my introductory list of the ten basics of taking it to the Web.
Baby Steps: The Top 10 Basics
1) Do the research. Study and learn as much as possible.
This general rule of life certainly applies to a successful online business. Do your homework. Take some time and familiarize yourself with the online world, focusing on business sites in particular. Look how the big boys do it.
Determine what you like in a website and begin to envision how your own will take shape. If you have no standards or criteria on which to judge the work that someone is doing for you, they can get away with a lot, and often do.
Electronic commerce is a huge, multi-billion dollar, rapidly changing field and it is vital for all new merchants to learn as much as possible - and then to keep up to speed with the changes. Fortunately, there are many great resources available online - all you need to do is find the time to read them!
The shortcut here is to find several very professional, trustworthy sites, and learn from them. Sign up for several good mailing lists on topics that interest you and try to at least gist them every day. And finally, find and retain a good consultant - you will not regret this.
2) Take aim. Choose your niche and focus
For those considering starting a brand new online business from scratch, consider the following. There are literally thousands of potential web-based businesses to choose from, but if you try to address too broad an area or market you`ll probably fail - unless you have the funding available to become a major online player right from the start. Even then, you`re playing with fire.
The secret of success for the small online business is to choose a niche and then focus, focus, focus. Develop a set of rules or guidelines that tightly define the boundaries of your business. Then, the next time you get a "hot" business idea in the shower you can use your rules as a litmus test: if your idea meets these rules, falls within your strict guidelines, then by all means go-ahead and follow it through; otherwise, ditch it fast.
If you fall into the category of my friend, with his well-established offline business and niche, then you needn`t worry so much about this point. You will want to check out your competitors online, see what and who you are up against, and then work together with your Web consultant to bury them.
3) Chart your course. Plan carefully and realistically.
One of the biggest mistakes that newbies, start-ups, and would-be Web entrepreneurs make is to assume that "normal" business rules do not apply to the Web and therefore there is no need for business and marketing plans. However, all businesses need a plan or they are like a ship without a rudder, aimlessly floating about and very vulnerable.
When drafting your business plan, strive to remain realistic, particularly about the number of visits your site will receive, the percentage of visitors that will actually make a purchase, and the time and money it will take to build your business.
Be sure you understand your statistics. Have your personal consultant (see below) explain them to you.
Your focus should be on the needs, desires, and expectations of your customer, not on your entrepreneurial wish list. If you follow all of these steps patiently, and with due diligence, the latter will follow automatically from the former.
4) Brand yourself. Create a unique and professional website with your own domain name.
Your website will be the cornerstone of your success online. It should stand out from the rest of the pack and it should have a unique domain name.
Consult the professionals - in this case, someone in advertising, ideally Web advertising or marketing. There are considerations for names online that do not apply offline, which will enable your site to attract more visitors.
And get a good web designer, someone whose work you like, and someone with whom you will be able to work together with to create your company`s distinctive website.
5) Find a home on the Web. Get a good host.
Your consultant should be able to help you with this. There are many, many hosts out there and the whole scene can be very confusing indeed.
This is why HostSearch exists. We have done all the homework for you in this area already. You just need to determine the basics of what you need and enter this criteria into our search engines. For example, once you know how much you want to pay, how much disk space you will need, and what platform you will be working on, HostSearch generates a list of reputable web hosting companies where you can situate your site in cyberspace.
6) Automate. ASAP.
Many new Web merchants wrongly assume that automation is something they need to think about only once their business gets bigger. However, the best time to set up automated systems and procedures is before a Web store opens its doors for the first time.
The important thing is to at least have a plan in place that details what tasks you are going to automate, and when you are going to automate them. For tasks that you decide to automate later, check to make sure that your initial Web store can be expanded to include them.
For example, if you decide not to implement real-time credit card authorization initially, ensure that your merchant account, your shopping cart and your host (ISP) can support this at a later date and that you will be able to upgrade easily.
7) Think "dynamic." Provide new products or services on a regular basis
If you can create a new product of your own once or twice a year, you`ll stand a better chance of growing your income continually. Also be sure to update your existing products on a regular basis to keep content and sales fresh.
If you`re not able to create your own products that often, then consider finding a product you could get behind and do a joint venture with the owner. Even if the owner does not offer an affiliate program, you can offer to promote their product or service for a percentage of sales. Let them know you have a targeted list of prospects that would love their product, especially if they could get it at a reduced price through you!
Ideally you should sell at least one product or service that you own completely. If that`s simply not possible right away, then make sure you align yourself with only the strongest companies that you can rely on going forward.
Your site needs to be kept fresh and dynamic. Surfers need to know that someone is minding the store. Tell them about yourself. Make yourself real. Put up pictures of your staff and your office. Sell yourself!
8) Be in touch. Design an opt-in email strategy.
You must always be growing a tightly targeted list of prospects. It`s the only way you can "capture" a percentage of the folks who visit your site and do not buy the first time (which is unfortunately nearly all of them!).
An opt-in strategy works best when you give something of value away in exchange for a visitor`s name and email address. Then, you must stay in touch with these people on a regular basis, while providing value for them.
Be professional and polite to them since we are all receiving far too many emails from people and companies we have absolutely no interest in. Make it easy for them to "unsubscribe."
9) Direct traffic to you. Design a viable marketing strategy.
Lets face it, in order to make money online, you must get visitors to your site. There are tons of ways to do this on the Internet and people are inventing new ones every day. But what works for one site may not work for the next. It all depends upon your target market and your products and services.
If you need to pay to get listed on Yahoo!, well then pay. $199 to be listed may seem like a lot, but how many orders would it take you to recoup this? The same with GoTo - if you must pay for keywords or "click-thru`s" then so be it. This is business after all. Nothing personal.
You say you don`t know where to begin with this. Well then...
10) Get a Guru. Retain a Web man. Hire a Consultant.
Everyone thinks they are a writer. Or a musician. Or an actor. And now, or so it seems, a Web Designer.
Believe me. Everyone is not.
The single best investment you can make in launching your online business is to have your own personal Web consultant by your side, holding your hand, guiding you, working with you, plotting with you, strategizing with you.
There are many candidates out there for this position, so finding a handful to interview should be no problem. Check out their portfolio of clients. Look at their web sites. Assess their strengths and weaknesses. And decide if you could work with this person in your online business.
In the best of all possible worlds, this person would possess a package of skills, from designing web sites, to maintaining and promoting them, to sales and marketing. Although this may seem like a lot to ask for, these people are around and are well worth paying a monthly retainer to - or hiring - in order to help you realize your online business goals.
You may need to motivate this person with a cooperative package; for example, they get a certain percentage of online sales, or even handle all the orders. Different companies and individuals can tell you what they have to offer. The point is not to think you can do it all yourself, or simply delegate an already busy employee additional responsibilities they do not have a clue about. Invest. You need to speculate to accumulate.
It`s often difficult to separate the hype from the reality, but if you do your homework, read a bit, surf around and look at professional sites, and use professional resources like HostSearch, you will be well on the way to putting up your own e-commerce site. With a good product, a good site, and some perseverence, you may soon find yourself with a successful online business. Committing to doing it right is the first big step in anything you undertake, and online business is no exception.