It’s a war out there: Seven rules of survival for your ecommerce start-up

From tales of an online store builder.

By: Howard Rybko, CEO at Syncrony

Have you seen the movie that starts with a group of terrified soldiers in a bobbing boat, being tossed onto a blood red beach erupting in sand and bodies?

None of those soldiers can be sure they will survive. Neither can you, if you are looking to go into business online.

Here are some rules to ensure your survival:

Seven Rules of Survival for a Successful eCommerce Start-up

  1. It’s never simple or easy; building an online store is HARD
  2. Building an online store ALWAYS takes MUCH LONGER than you expect
  3. Keep it simple in the beginning
  4. Avoid technical complexity
  5. Don’t be lazy: Do as much as possible manually
  6. You don’t need integrations
  7. Get online ASAP

It’s a War Out There

If you have a great idea and you’re rearing to start an ecommerce website, I encourage you to do so. If you plan carefully and read this article, there is money to be made online.

However, you have to make the right moves in the beginning. Mess it up and your website will become an open drain, swallowing your time and money.

Follow the seven basic rules below to make your internet sales venture more enjoyable and more profitable.

Rule One: Building an online store is HARD.

If you survive to eventually make money online, it will be much harder than you expect.

Self-confidence and rock-solid belief in your business plan can only take you so far. A little fear and doubt will go a long way to avoiding failure. The days are gone when you could make a splash online by showing up with a half decent product offering, semi-comatose delivery and take-a-ticket post-sales service.

It’s a game of endurance.

Rule Two: Building an online store always takes MUCH LONGER than you expect.

If you’re an entrepreneur with a sweet plan to sell online and you’re itching to quit your day job to get started, don’t! Things always takes longer than expected. This means that you need to plan carefully and think hard before you jump ship. Deadlines always stretch. So, spend your money carefully. Beware of taking on recurring expenses as they can go on for much longer than anticipated.

Rule Three: Start with a Simple Business Plan

Think hard about your idea. Write it down and don’t stress if it starts with a few lines. Add and adjust as you go along.

Do endless research, spend time online, search for examples of operations similar to yours. Look for potential competitors, study them, learn from them. The web is built on copycats, so don’t be afraid to copy (ideas, not the text!).

Always keep things simple:  Strive to reduce features in the beginning; build on what works; don’t add functionality that sounds cool; wait for your customers to tell you what they want.

The more you try to achieve in the beginning, the harder it becomes to be successful.

Share Your eCommerce Plans

Share your idea with the people around you. Listen and learn from their reactions. Don’t shy away from criticism, learn from it. Don’t be scared to lose your idea. Ideas are cheap and plentiful, it’s the execution that is hard. If you think your business plan is unique, snap out of it. There are thousands like you, each with a killer idea to coin it selling online.

I know. I’ve had so many starstruck online plans talked at me over the last 15-years that I can usually complete the sentences before the entrepreneurs say them. Of all these plans I’ve endured, almost 100% have either died of debt or live in the valley between life and death, with just enough operating income to run the ventilator.

Linda’s Great eCommerce Idea

Learn from the tale of Linda, a high flyer who ditched a twenty-year career in banking to start an online store modelled on a USA-based niche market leader. She believed she could emulate it locally with open-source software and her inventive do-anything nature.  She raised money, sold her house and worked like crazy for two years, only to drown in a stew of technical debt and software issues. The more she sold, the deeper the hole she sunk into.

Which brings us to the Fourth Rule, namely technical complexity. It works exactly like viralload: swallow too much virus, go to ICU and maybe the morgue. Technical complexity works in exactly the same way.

Rule Four: Avoid Technical Complexity

If at all possible, start with entry level online store, hosted and managed in the cloud.

Shopify (or a similar popular platform) is the perfect place to start for over 90% of online ventures. Arrange to setup a demo store (or get someone to do it for you) so that you can have a working model to test your plan. A store that is hosted and managed for you in the cloud at a fixed cost for the first year or two, is your best bet for survival in the early stages.

If anyone comes to you with a plan for WordPress and a WooCommerce, I suggest that you say no. The time for going with a stand-alone ecommerce platform like WooCommerce or Magento will come later.

Resist the urge to have any custom functionality written (refer to Rule Five). Custom “anything” can kill you quicker than an exploding shell on our mythical beach. It takes deep pockets and deep patience to make custom development work.

If any of your technical contacts says “Let me write this quickly”, simply leave the room. There is no “quickly” in custom development. Only go custom if you have absolutely no choice.

Rule Five: Don’t be Lazy

Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates said that he would only hire lazy programmers because they hated doing things manually and would spend time automating any time-consuming repetitive processes.

Not true for online start-ups!

Unless you’re a billionaire, stifle any urge to automate manual back-end process in the planning phase. Keep processes manual for as long as you can. This will allow you to “turn on a dime” and ensure that your operation is agile enough to change a process in a heartbeat. By all means, automate when processes are bedded-in and become constipation points.

Take courier delivery for example. Many ecommerce operations struggle with courier integration issues such as estimating delivery pricing, coordinating pickups and tracking parcels, which can be major concerns for any busy online operation.

But not yours. Yet.

Do as much as you can manually, use a global estimate for delivery costs initially. Learn from your customers buying habits and don’t waste time and resources getting delivery right until you have too many parcels to deliver. Wait until your website is cooking on gas and for sales volume to climb before fixing your courier issues.

Rule Six: Don’t Integrate (initially)

Another tripping point is system integrations. Typically, the accounting system is the first place for integration into your ecommerce website. I know that it’s possible to have almost-live pricing, stock levels and order integration into your account system, but do you really need this in the beginning?

Do as much as you can manually.

You will soon have more than enough headaches without having to spend time dealing with the intricacies of integration into other systems.

Rule Seven: Get Online as Soon As Possible

This rule is the only time that I suggest early action. This is because Google, who is the source of traffic to your site, partly judges you based on the age of your domain and the trustworthiness of your content.

Like a Karoo farm which lives or dies on its water supply, your ecommerce success will depend on the traffic Google sends you. Become known to Google by getting out there in some simple way, as soon as possible. It will pay off at go-live time.

Start with a single splash page. All you need is some brief text explaining that your new site will soon be launched and some light graphics and colours. Say as little as your need. What counts, is that your venture becomes known to Google at the earliest opportunity (don’t stress too much about what you say, you can change it as you go).

The process of getting your page up, will bring a host of small problems that will do you the world of good to solve early on. As part of solving these problems, you will find that you have to:

  • Pick a name and buy a domain that’s as close as you can get to your desired business name;
  • Get your domain up and hosted as soon as possible;
  • Create at least one email address for your domain (info@yourdomain.com is enough) and start using it as soon as you can;
  • Design and put up the one-page website mentioned above;
  • Add a contact number and email to your page;
  • Get Google listed with an Analytics tracking code for your splash page;
  • Create a Google My Business listing. It will greatly boost your visibility in search.

As you go through the journey of building and growing your online store, post some updates to the webpage. It may feel like you’re wasting your time, because no one seems to be listening. But don’t worry, but your domain will slowly gain traction, ensuring that your shop items will start appearing in searches much quicker when you go-live.

The good news is that if you have made it this far and gained some wisdom without losing your enthusiasm, then you have what it takes to get an online store up and running.

Remember, you need to crawl off the beach in the morning to still be in the fight.