Starting an Ecommerce Business at a Moment of Crisis

At this momentous time, when incomes and health are in flux, it is important to remember that on the small business side, there is a lot of free help available. Aside from a site like Small Business Connection, there is a lot of other help available, and thankfully, much of it virtual.

Recently, I held my most popular webinar ever (almost 4,000 people) for SCORE, called 7 Steps to Starting on a Shoestring. SCORE is an amazing organization; more than 10,000 business volunteers who can help and mentor you (physically or virtually) on almost any aspect of your business – marketing, sales, taxes, whatever. And, like my webinar, many of SCORE’s offerings are free.

You can also get free help from your local Small Business Development Center and the Small Business Administration.

The point being, if circumstances of life dictate that you may want to start a business right now, and especially if you need to do so on a shoestring, it is very possible.

So just how do you jump on the e-commerce bandwagon? Here are the steps to take:

1. Decide what you want to sell: If you already have a business then of course the logical step is to make your website an extension of that business. You can sell products you already stock, or your services, or other things altogether.

If this website will be your new business, then the question is: What will you sell? If you have something in mind already, great, and if not then the key of course is to find something people want and being able to buy it, and then sell it, at a fair price. Keep in mind that the culture of the Internet in one of discounts. That doesn’t mean that that is a requirement, but it is something to remember.

2. Build your online store: You don’t need to hire a Web designer or reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of very good companies that offer e-commerce website templates that you can customize, like Yahoo Small Business. Look for a partner that offers a shopping cart, easy uploads of your product catalogue, payment solutions, and easy handling of order fulfillment.

Once you pick a provider, you will use their point-and click tools to create your e-store. Be sure that you use a template and colors that build the brand you want. Add logos, taglines, and all the rest.

The fee you pay will be based upon the number of products you will be selling, your bandwidth, etc. A new e-commerce website should run you less than $100 a month.

3. Get a merchant account: When you sell something online you need to be able to take payments online. That comes from having a “merchant account” that processes credit card payments. A Google search can do the trick, and PayPal works very well too.

4. Get your ducks in a row. Incorporate, and get the right kind of insurance (this is where our friends from Allstate can help.)

5. Upload your products, or consider drop shipping: Once you have the skeleton of your site in place, it is time to upload pictures of your products. Make sure they are beautiful, and equally, make sure to use beautiful words to describe them. This is your chance to sell, so sell. Online shoppers can’t actually touch your products, so you have to create that experience for them with words and pictures.

In the alternative, if you don’t have any products or don’t want to deal with inventory, as mentioned, consider something called “drop shipping.” Drop shipping is an amazing deal where you find a wholesaler who will house and ship the products for you. You simply list their products for sale on your site and when a sale comes in, the drop shipper is given notice, they ship the product, and you the drop shipper split the sale.

Kind of amazing, right? Without having to actually stock products, or ship those products, you can still set up an online store.

6. Market your business, and then market it some more. This is where an online business is just like an offline business. Marketing is key. You need to let people know you are open for business. How?

  • On your website
  • In your physical store
  • In your e-newsletter
  • Using social media
  • Via advertising
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

One final note: Be sure to sweat the small stuff. Account for shipping costs when setting your costs. Figure out how you will handle returns. What about customer service?

The e-details matter a lot.


Steve Strauss

Steve Strauss is the senior small business columnist at USA TODAY, the Editor-in-Chief here at Small Business Connection, a speaker and spokesperson. He can be reached at

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