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Here's an inspiring fact for anyone starting an online business: If you gather everything you need before you launch, you'll be far ahead of most people who start online stores.
Believe it or not, thousands of people launch e-commerce sites only to realize they lack an essential element. Six months in, after spending their nest egg, they ask: "You mean I need a pay-per-click campaign? But I didn't budget for that." Or, "I need Web analytics software? I had no idea."
Assembling everything you need prior to launch will save you numerous headaches. And it will better prepare you to compete with established businesses, which are operating with full toolboxes.
The list below contains everything you'll need to get your online store off the ground. Read it, assemble the items and prepare to work long hours.
One more thing. This list assumes you already know what you'll be selling. Of all the things you need to figure out ahead of time, deciding what to sell is the most important. It must be an item or service that few businesses already sell, one you can get for a low wholesale price or one about which you have a special knowledge.
Something about what you sell has to let you stand out from the herd — at least a little bit — otherwise you'll be trying to sell snow to Eskimos. And that's discouraging.
Assuming that you have something truly great to sell, gather or create the following 15 items, and you'll have a reasonable chance at making some money online:
1) A Business Plan
Writing a business plan seems daunting. You might say, "I'm starting a business, I don't want to sit down and write a paper, like I'm in school." But think of it this way: it's free, and it will help you immeasurably.
Real businesses have business plans. For guidance on how to write a plan for an e-commerce site, go here.
2) A Reliable Source for Your Product
If you're selling hand-sewn Korean quilts, are you confident the price of yarn isn't going to skyrocket three months from now? Do you have more than one wholesale source? Hopefully yes, otherwise you could be in trouble.
The best problem of all: if you make your product in your basement, can you handle success if you suddenly get 125 orders? Make sure your supply line is steady before you plunk down your money.
3) A Good Domain Name
When you try to register your business's domain name, you'll probably find that the name you want is already taken.
In response, some people choose terribly cumbersome names. They find out that "Tshirt.com" is taken and then learn that "HockeyTshirt.com" is also taken. So they create an unworkable domain name like VeryCool-HockeyTshirt.com. Not only is it too long, it contains a hyphen, which should be avoided (some users forget to put them in, sending them to your competitor's site.)
A good domain name is short and memorable and — most important — easily typed. Ideally, a user can simply hear it and know how it's spelled. So GoodShoe.com is much better than GoodeShoe.com. In fact any word that's hard to spell should be avoided.
The ".com" version is typically far better than ".net," because browsers default to ".com."
Be aware that your URL affects your search engine ranking, so if you want to be found for "shoe," it's a good idea to fit "shoe" into your domain name. One way to do this is to use your brand name along with a keyword term. So MillerShoe tends to work better than FantasticShoe.com. (Which is why MillerShoe is taken, but FantasticShoe is still available.)
4) A Reliable Web Host
Your Web hosting service is the technical backbone of your site: its service and support options will play a big role in your business's operation. Hosting companies usually charge monthly, and the cheapest company isn't always best.
Choose carefully the first time: once you pick your Web host and install your files there, moving to a new host is, at best, a major headache. Ideally you'll choose a good one and stay there.
To see a couple popular choices, take a look at Small Business Computing's 2005 Product Picks.
5) A Web Designer
Many Web design software packages are so easy to use that business owners think they can design their own site. That's a mistake.
Homemade Web sites aren't like homemade cookies. No one likes the way they look. Worse, an ugly site makes shoppers wonder: should I enter my credit card number in this funky looking site?
Select a Web design firm with great care, and be prepared to pay for quality work — you'll get nowhere without it. On a related note, you'll need a steady flow of product shots. Can your Web designer handle your photo needs?
6) E-Commerce Software
This is the software that will run your store, from product display to inventory management to checkout. Selecting your e-commerce software is one tough choice. You can try it out ahead of time, but you won't fully know how you're going to like it until you're up and running for a while. At that point, changing your e-commerce platform is like changing boats in the middle of the ocean.
Consequently, you want to do a lot of research before you choose. For more information and a list of well-known e-commerce programs, go here.
Realize a couple of key facts: A) the prices for e-commerce software have fallen, so you don't need to spend a fortune unless your needs are complicated, and B) many of today's e-commerce packages include a full range of tools in one package, from an inventory management system to marketing tools. Many of today's merchants prefer this "all-in-one" approach because it makes life simpler.
7) A Credit Card Merchant Account
To accept credit cards online, you'll need a merchant account, which is an account with a bank or other financial institution that allows you to accept your shoppers' credit card numbers.
Setting up a merchant account gets pricey. Banks typically charge a set-up fee, a monthly fee, and a percentage of each transaction. (So even if you have just a few customers, you pay the set-up fee and the monthly fee. Ouch!)
To learn more about setting up a merchant account, go here.
Many first-time small merchants get a merchant account through PayPal. The company is moving aggressively to gain clients, so it offers a no set-up fee method of accepting major credit cards.
Coming in Part II: Top Tips 8-15.
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