Starting a Startup: Tips for Budding E-Commerce Entrepreneurs

This is Part 1 in our five-part series “E-Commerce Gone Wild,” which offers tips and information for e-commerce businesses on the road to going viral.

So you’re thinking of starting an e-commerce business. It’s an exciting prospect, but it also can be daunting. How do you even begin? How can you ensure that your startup gets past being a startup?

It’s important, first of all, to understand one thing about e-commerce: Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s easy. In fact, many of the basic business principles are the same for both online and brick-and-mortar stores.

With that in mind, here are a few tips to get you going with your new enterprise.

Start With a Good Idea

The success of any startup relies on having an idea whose time has come, then having the passion to see that idea become a reality.

While traveling around India in the 1990s, David Gersenson realized he’d been eating fresh, local, often organic food on a regular basis, and he felt better than he ever had.

When he returned to the States, he saw companies in the grocery delivery business, like FreshDirect, taking off, and those successes inspired him to start an organic version, Door to Door Organics.

“He thought, ‘I could do that. There’s got to be a market out there,'” said Cambria Jacobs, vice president of marketing for Door to Door Organics.

Since then, the e-commerce company has grown to serve thousands of customers in 15 states.

“Gersenson continued growing and building the business because of his passion to inspire people to eat good food,” Jacobs told the E-Commerce Times. “It became a very mission-driven company.”

Having a vision for the future means looking at what’s out there and extrapolating about what needs to come next. This is the kind of thinking that inspired the formation of VirtualEShopping.com, a 3-D social online shopping mall.

“Shopping is virtually the only online activity that is not yet social,” said Mark Stein, president of VirtualEShopping.com.

“Web shopping is a solitary experience on a boring, two-dimensional interface. Conversely, the physical shopping experience lacks the amount of product information available online,” he told the E-Commerce Times, and “carrying an iPad while shopping is cumbersome and inconvenient.”

While mulling over the inadequacies of physical and online shopping experiences, Stein began to develop his vision.

“The idea of a virtual 3-D shopping mall followed these realizations. Given advancements in 3-D technology, it’s a logical next step, like the transition from black-and-white TV to color,” he said.

“Who wouldn’t want to shop in a visually stimulating 3-D environment with their friends if the technology exists to do so, rather than shopping on the current Web?” Stein asked.

Do Your Homework

No matter how good your idea is, it’s worthless if you don’t understand your potential customers. That means doing in-depth research before you launch your business.

“Do due diligence on what your best customers want or consume, know their options, and spend some time on differentiating your e-store from others,” said Yulia Smirnova, CEO ofCommerceBrain.

“There are many that already exist. If you can find your unique benefits or customer outcomes, you will be successful,” she told the E-Commerce Times.

Startups need to be creative when it comes to doing market research, since there are a variety of places to get the kind of information they need to understand their potential customers.

“I would do market research on the available alternatives,” explained Smirnova. “Talk to people online who could be your audience. You can also find an organization that has a pool of your potential consumer base, and go to a big event and do some interviewing there.”

Build an Effective Team

Working with the right employees or contractors can make all the difference in a startup’s success. Creating the right team, however, will take some time.

“This will be a learning experience, because you might like someone initially and experience some setbacks later when they are hired,” said Smirnova. “It is like dating. You will learn about people more only after you spend some actual work time with them.”

Make sure to have a clear sense of your business’s goals when hiring, since those goals will determine the kind of people you want to attract.

“Hire great people who believe in your mission, and don’t grow too fast,” Door to Door Organics’ Jacobs cautioned. “What worked when you’re small might not work when you’re larger. Make sure that your core is really solid before adding on.”

Get Expert Help

Finally, there’s a world of e-commerce consultants and services out there, and startups would do well to seek them out.

“Today’s digital commerce and omnichannel retail environment can be overwhelming, even for the most seasoned professionals,” said Kathy Kimple, senior consultant atFitForCommerce.

“Yesterday’s best practice is today’s old news. Today’s ‘nice to have’ is tomorrow’s ‘can’t live without,'” she told the E-Commerce Times.

Consultants can help ensure that your business has the kind of guidance it needs to navigate — and move beyond — the rough waters of the startup.

“The right foundation, infrastructure and supporting technologies are instrumental to achieving long-term success,” noted Kimple.

“The investment, resources and time required to build a solid foundation is significant, for large and small retail organizations alike,” she said. “Making the wrong decision is not only costly today but could mean additional time and money needed to catch up on the competition tomorrow.”

Part 2: “Channel Choosing: Where and How to Sell Online.”

Freelance writer Vivian Wagner has wide-ranging interests, from technology and business to music and motorcycles. She writes features regularly for ECT News Network, and her work has also appeared in American Profile, Bluegrass Unlimited, and many other publications. For more about her, visit her website. You can also connect with Vivian on Google+.

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