Web advice and services for small UK businesses

Things to think about before starting your online business

Introduction

This article provides free advice for UK businesses starting an online website or e-commerce store. It covers the things to think about before starting your online business.

Starting any business takes a lot of preparation. Opening an E-Commerce online store is no different. Even if you already have a business, you will need some new skills and tools to run your online store.

This is the first in a series of articles on how to set up an E-commerce store. I will outline every step of the process. From the initial concept of a business model, through to processing the first online order.

Be honest with yourself

The most important advice I can give to anyone starting an online business is to be honest about why you want to do it. You should also be realistic about any obstacles that you will need to address. For most people this will be a limitation of time, or money or both!

Maybe you to want to work for yourself instead of being employed. You know what income you need to live on right now, so you already have a target income to aim for from self-employment. That’s a good starting point.

But how will you manage the time and cost of setting up your online business whilst still in employment?

Perhaps you are looking to earn additional income and remain employed. However, the same question applies – how will you find the time and money to start up your own business?

Many businesses make a loss for at least the first year of trading. How will you manage that?

If you are hoping to work less hours by being self-employed and running an online business, forget it!

Working for yourself almost always requires MORE TIME than when you are employed. This is certainly true when setting up your business.

Don’t be put off by the limitations of time and money. They are simply challenges you need to overcome to start your online business. Like solving a jigsaw puzzle – if you’re persistent you will complete the task.

Being your own boss is extremely rewarding. The effort you put in to become self-employed is paid back many times over when you’re earning money for yourself, and not for someone else.

Evaluate your business idea before investing

The next most important advice I can give is to fully investigate your business idea before you spend any money!

Many successful businesses and entrepreneurs will tell you that their first business idea was not great. It often takes a few ideas, or a lot of refinement of an initial idea, before coming up with a successful business strategy.

See my article on How to Write your Business Plan for a summary of the steps to follow to evaluate your business idea.

The main things to consider include knowing your competition, having a unique selling point (USP), and fully understanding the cost of setting up and running your business.

Be prepared to learn, learn, learn!

You’re reading this article because you’ve already started researching how to start an online business. Fantastic! However, the learning won’t stop with just reading a few articles.

If you have never run an online business before (and I’m assuming you haven’t), then every day will be a new lesson. The knowledge you gain often comes from simple mistakes. That’s all part of the learning process. But in time, you will have mastered your own enterprise.

Technical Knowledge

If you have the finance to pay a techie to set up your online store, great. A retail shopkeeper will often pay shop fitters to fit out their bricks-and-mortar retail shop.

But would you call a shop fitter every time you need to change your shop display around? Or to dress your shop window? Probably not.

You will need at least some technical knowledge to run your online business. A high street retailer needs to learn how to use a till and a PDQ machine to process payments in a shop. Similarly you will need to learn how to print out and email invoices and delivery notes online.

If you are selling products online, you will need to know how to manage stock levels. You’ll need to be able to add new products, including photos, descriptions and prices to your online shop.

The more technical knowledge you gain, the more rewarding it will be for you. Thankfully, most of the knowledge you need to learn is simple. You will be more confident and have more control of your business. Which is what you want, isn’t it?

Marketing Knowledge

Similar to the tech work, you could pay someone to do your online marketing for you. But why would you? If selling is your business, then learn the tools of the trade to sell online. Sure, it’s worth getting some expert advice initially. After that, you can do it yourself.

Advertising and marketing are the most time-consuming tasks of running an online business. It is harder to do and with more competition than anything comparable in a bricks-and-mortar business.

A retail shop owner can usually rely on local trade and tourist visitors. The shopkeeper will make an enticing window display that people passing by cannot fail to miss. A technical services business can build a strong local reputation through word of mouth.

Online, your business is in a high street with millions of other stores! How on earth will anyone find you? Marketing is essential to promote knowledge of your business and products online.

Google is like the printed Yellow Pages (remember them?) of businesses, except that it contains every single business website in its directory.

As with Yellow Pages, you have to pay Google for advertising space to stand out among the other listed businesses. The more you pay, the more likely you are to find yourself on the main internet high street – Google’s first page of search results.

Without advertising, your online store will be like having a shop at the end of a cul-de-sac, in the worst area of the worst town. No-one will come and visit you. They won’t even know you’re there.

There are other ways to market your online business without having to pay a fortune to Google. Social media is a great tool for spreading knowledge of your business and services. You can connect directly with people who are likely to be your customers.

Learn as much as you can. Firstly to save money and secondly to get more satisfaction from your own creativity. Reach out to customers yourself instead of paying someone else to do it.

What fisherman would have someone else bait his line and cast his rod into the lake for him? And then be proud of himself when he’s caught a fish?

Open All Hours!

Your online business will be open 24/7. That’s a different business model than the one you are probably used to.

Online customers expect fast deliveries and a fast response to their enquiries. In return you will get great reviews. Customer recommendations are a key factor in growing your online business.

How will you run your 24/7 online business during your 2-week annual holiday with your family? Or when you’re looking after your kids during school holidays? How can you keep your customers happy at all times?

Some online businesses do close for a holiday period, but very few. Even a short break in the continuity of your online business can hurt your position in search engines. You could lose your place on the online high street.

Customer service is key to running an online 24/7 business. Research your competitors. Know their delivery times, find out what they do that gets them great reviews from customers. Copy, and do better if you can!

Resources

Below are some useful links to give you more things to think about before starting your online business. Many start up businesses miss these important steps. And many online businesses fail in their first year. You don’t have to be one of them!

Planning Your Business

How to write your business plan
Business Plan Templates at Gov.uk

Funding Your Business

Links to business funding at Gov.uk
List of Grants and Loans by Entrepreneur Handbook

Other Information

Useful websites for small UK businesses

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