What I Wish I Knew Before Starting My E-Commerce Business

5 e-commerce business owners share important insights they learned the hard way.
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Choosing the right provider can help you be better prepared when starting your e-commerce business. (Photo: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

It seems like everyone’s buying everything online these days, so for some entrepreneurs, opening an e-commerce store is a no-brainer, especially since you can do it from just about anywhere. But like any other kind of store, online retail is tricky business.

While the fundamental fact of entrepreneurship is “there’s never going to be a good time, so do it now,” most business owners have a few things they wish they’d known before taking the plunge. NCR Silver checked in with five e-commerce business owners to find out what they wish they’d known, and how it would have helped.

Related: Top 6 Reasons Why E-Commerce Stores Fail

“I had no idea it would be so hard to choose the right e-commerce provider”

Jennifer Boaro of The Cat Ball had been selling her colorful and creative cat beds on Etsy before she started her e-commerce store in 2011. “I realized people were opening Etsy accounts just to buy my product, so I figured I must be losing sales because I didn’t have an e-commerce store. I jumped right into action,” she said.

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After realizing people were opening Etsy accounts to buy her product, Jennifer Boaro of The Cat Ball, opened her own e-commerce store in 2011. (Photo: Jennifer Boaro)

But finding the right e-commerce provider to set up her website was a lot harder than she anticipated, in part because information about the services didn’t make sense to her and in part because she didn’t know what questions she needed to be asking.

“Now that I’ve done this for a few years and used three different providers, I have a better idea of what questions to ask and what is important to look for,” she said.

A few things she’s learned to look for in an e-commerce provider include the ability to collect state sales tax correctly, without having to add every five-digit zip code in the state; compatibility with multiple payment systems; a back end with built-in SEO tools that doesn’t require developer-level skills to use; and a built-in blogging platform.

“I wish I knew how hard it is to follow the data”

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Edward Aten, founder and CEO of MerchBar, notes the importance of understanding how to follow data when starting your own e-commerce business. (Photo: Edward Aten)

Edward Aten is the founder and CEO of MerchBar, an online music merchandise retailer working with 100,000 of the world’s most influential musicians and Spotify’s worldwide merchandise partner.

“I think the biggest thing is how hard it is to follow the data in the beginning. When traffic is low, sales will be low. Figuring out what’s working and what isn’t working is very difficult,” said Aten.

Now the company looks at each step of the funnel individually to determine if they’re getting in touch with the right people, selling them the right value proposition and offering a service that resonates. They also look at what might be hurting conversions.

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“Learning about SEO took time, but it was something that has been instrumental in the growth of my current company.” -Robert Ellis (Photo: Robert Ellis)

“And through each step, you’re fighting to ensure you’re getting enough input to make good decisions on tweaking the output,” he added.

“I wish I’d known more about SEO”

Before Robert Ellis started Massage Tables Now, he’d owned several brick and mortar companies.

“I wish I had known more about SEO when I started my company. As an e-commerce business, it’s critical we optimize our site for search engines to drive traffic and make sales,” he said. “Learning about SEO took time, but it was something that has been instrumental in the growth of my current company.”

“I wish I’d known how much time I’d spend on website maintenance”

When adding products to your e-commerce website, organization is very important, says Jennifer Canestra, owner of Whitecaps Marine Outfitters. (Photo: Jennifer Canestra)

Jennifer Canestra is an avid sailor based in San Francisco and the owner of Whitecaps Marine Outfitters, an online retailer for sailing gear and equipment.

“I vastly underestimated the amount of time I would spend on simple website maintenance — keeping products updated, adding new banner images and fresh content,” she said. “A retail business like mine has literally thousands of items, and these need to be kept up to date with current styles and colors, as well as ensuring that inventory is accurate and up to date because there is nothing worse than getting an order that you can’t fill. Adding a single new product can take up to 15 minutes depending on the number of color and size variations since you need to source the images and other page content, and then resize and format them for your site.”

Canestra said organization is paramount. She uses Dropbox to organize and store product images according to product number. And while it’s gotten a little easier over the years, she still has to enlist help from time to time with adding products.

“I wish I knew how important the 9 to 5 is”

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Charles Snider is the co-founder of American Geode, an online business specializing in geodes, gems and fossils. (Photo: Charles Snider)

When Charles Snider co-founded American Geode, an online business specializing in geodes, gems and fossils, they planned to run the business on “weekends and late nights ” – he and his partner both have day jobs. But they found out very quickly that while they could run their online business at any hour of the day or night, their customers, clients and suppliers were keeping more traditional hours.

“We found out that if we need to solve a problem with a distributor, resolve an issue or answer a query from a client, 9:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday is the only time you can get someone on the phone or expect an email response. The lesson we learned is that the online business isn’t 100 percent 24/7 just yet,” said Snider.

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