Hot take: These days, we do almost everything online.
We shop online. We bank online. We can even order groceries online and have them delivered all within the span of an hour or so.
So when it comes to starting a business of your own, why not learn how to start an ecommerce business?
An “ecommerce business” is simply another way to say an online business, online store, or online shop. It’s an umbrella term that can usually cover many types of online businesses, like a massive online store or something as low maintenance as an Etsy shop.
But the essentials of an ecommerce business are still generally the same: You’re selling a product or service via a website, rather than in person.
That means if you’re interested in learning how to start an ecommerce business that can actually work, you need a guide that focuses on:
Fortunately, that’s where we come in. Check out our helpful guide on how to start an ecommerce business from the comfort of your own home!
Before we dive into the signs you’re ready to learn how to create an online store, let’s take a minute to talk about who this article is for.
This article can be used by:
Some of the tips will make sense for one audience and not another, but don’t worry: No matter what your goals, this article will give you great ideas on how to start an ecommerce store.
Let’s get started!
If you want to start your own ecommerce business, one of the first things you need to figure out is what you’re going to sell.
It’s an important first step — and one that can feel the most overwhelming. After all, if you’re new to the ecommerce world, how do you know where to find products to sell? And how can you tell if a product is worth selling?
Don’t worry, we’ll address both of those questions throughout this article. But first, let’s focus on how to find products to sell, and how to tell if your product idea may be a good one.
In short, there are three options for finding products to sell in your online store:
Sure, it can be expensive to make and sell your own products. There’s typically inventory, manufacturing, labor, shipping, and all those other fun costs to consider. But making your own product also gives you greater control over your brand and how your business is marketed (which we’ll go over later in this article).
Dropshipping usually has plenty of advantages (no inventory storage!), but it is important to note that you’ll need to stay on top of any transaction fees or membership fees. Plus, if the warehouse can’t ship to your customers for any reason, you will likely be the one who has to deal with unhappy customers.
This may be the more expensive of the three options, but it typically gives you the ability to directly manage your inventory. You’ll just need to ensure that you have enough space to accommodate any inventory you order from your suppliers.
If you already sell products — whether it’s in a brick-and-mortar location or at local fairs and events — an ecommerce store might make sense for you if your products are selling well.
If your products sell really well or you are always running out of supply, there’s a good chance that there’s significant demand for your products online.
In that way, you’re lucky — you already have a lot of research to help you understand if your online business could potentially be a success!
So what does “selling well” usually look like?
Well, it varies, depending on the product you sell. For example, if you make nautical-themed clothing and regularly pull in enough profit to keep yourself in business, that could be considered “selling well.”
As another possible example, if you’re constantly being asked to make cosplay outfits for your friends and their friends, that could be another version of “selling well.”
Either way, you should likely have a good feeling about how your product performs, whether that data comes from a profit-loss spreadsheet you create or the number of requests you get for your product.
Sometimes when we have a great idea for a product, there’s such an overwhelming desire to get set up that we often skip one of the most important steps of creating an online store:
Understanding if people actually want to buy that product.
This is where market research can come into play.
Market research simply means taking the time to understand if there’s demand for a product you’re interested in selling. It helps ensure that you don’t invest tons of money into starting an ecommerce business, only to find out (too late) that your product may be a dud.
Here are a few quick and easy ways to consider using to conduct market research:
Check Quora, Facebook, Reddit, and other online communities to see if there’s chatter around your intended product.
Do a quick search of your product to see how many search results come up (more is typically better, with a caveat we’ll talk about in a bit).
Ask your network of friends and family members what they think about the product you’re interested in selling (ask for honesty in their feedback!).
Take a look at what your competitors are doing, what they’re selling, and what customers are saying about them.
Analyze if that demand is seasonal (meaning it’s only in demand at a certain period of time) or if there’s usually a long-lasting demand for what you want to sell.
If you want your e-commerce store to succeed in a noisy online world, it’s important to have a good understanding of what makes you different from everyone else.
That’s why you should come up with your unique selling proposition (USP), which is a term that describes the specific angle or story your ecommerce business brings to the table.
Ideally, your USP should be different from your competitors’ — enough so that customers start to see you as a distinct brand from everyone else.
Here’s an example of how a USP can really make a difference in running a successful ecommerce business. Let’s say you’ve been making goat milk soaps for friends for the past year, and their reaction is positive enough that you think you could turn an online business out of it.
Now there are a lot of goat soap businesses out there. But what makes your goat soap business different is that you’re donating 20% of your profits to a local farm that rescues goats.
With that kind of USP, you aren’t just an entrepreneur with an ecommerce business — you’re also someone who gives back to the community. That’s the kind of messaging that can really make a difference with customers who are trying to make smarter, more ethical decisions with their money.
Now you don’t need to have a USP that includes giving a share of your profits back to goat farms. But the point is that you should be able to communicate what makes your online store unique, to the point where customers may be more interested in buying from you versus your competitors.
So what’s your USP? What makes you, you?
Public information of your competitors can be a great source of information, especially when you’re just starting out in the ecommerce world. For example, your competitors can:
When looking for your biggest competitors, pay attention to the online stores in your industry and the online stores that have similar products to yours — just in a different industry.
It’s important to keep an eye on both of those groups, as people with similar products to yours could end up launching another business in your space.
If you’re not sure how to find your competitors, a quick Google search can typically provide you with an overview of the ecommerce businesses dominating in your space.
For example, if you’re building an online store that sells Keto-friendly protein shakes, try searching for the term “Keto-friendly protein shakes,” and take a look at who shows up on the first page of those results.
Those are the businesses that you’re probably competing with. And if your ecommerce industry is particularly competitive, you’ll want a good grasp of who the big players are with plenty of research.
While researching your competitors, pay attention to things like:
For example, if your research reveals that most of your competitors price their products around $19.99, it’s probably not a great move to price your products at $39.99, as that’s not the standard within your industry.
Running a business is hard.
Running an ecommerce business can feel a thousand times harder.
It takes discipline to stay on top of everything involved with your business. After all, you’re responsible for getting your product together, updating your online store, shipping, responding to customer service requests, and more.
With all that work, it’s no wonder the most successful ecommerce business owners have plenty of discipline!
That’s why, if you’re thinking of creating your own online store, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. At some point, running an ecommerce business can feel like you’re working two full-time jobs — and that can be exhausting.
But if you’re disciplined, on top of your game, and don’t mind putting in the work, there’s a good chance you’ll be well on your way to setting up a successful online business.
Don’t go into your new online venture blind — make sure you have a plan and process in place for your biggest milestones, including:
Having a solid business plan in place can be critical to keeping you on the path to progress, especially during your busiest times.
Don’t worry — you don’t necessarily have to build your plan from scratch, because we’ve got you covered. Scroll to the end of this article to download your FREE business plan template.
Whether you’re creating an online store from scratch or transitioning to one, make sure you have plenty of time to devote to your business.
Running an online business might seem a lot easier than running a brick-and-mortar store, but don’t be fooled — there’s a LOT of busywork that goes into maintaining an online store.
From updating product inventory and descriptions to staying on top of your marketing campaigns, there’s always something to do. So if you don’t have the time or aren’t willing to commit the time to your online business, it might be worth waiting until you do.
It goes without saying, but the best ecommerce businesses are run by people who either know enough about online marketing, OR they’re willing to hire the right people who do.
Now this isn’t meant to discourage you from running your own ecommerce business if you’re passionate about it. But it is worth taking the time to think about your own online skills, and where you may need help from a professional to get the ball rolling on the important parts of your business.
If you’ve never designed a website, you may want to delegate that to a professional website designer.
If you hate writing or just don’t have the time, consider hiring an online copywriter to help with product descriptions.
If the thought of keeping up with multiple social media accounts makes you feel tired, it may be worth hiring a part-time social media manager.
No one person can be expected to cover EVERY aspect of their ecommerce business. So if you need a little help either starting or running your online store, don’t hesitate to ask for it!
Setting up any business — whether it’s online or not — will involve some legal and administrative work. Here’s just a small example of the kind of work you can likely expect to encounter while creating your online store:
Don’t hesitate to delegate some of the admin work to a trusted employee, friend, or family member.
For example, if you don’t know how to set up a website, get someone to help you do exactly that (we’ll talk about this later in the article). If you have questions about business taxes, ask an accountant for their advice.
Again, this isn’t meant to scare you off. If anything, giving you this information is designed to be as empowering as possible, because you’ll have a better idea of what to expect as you set up your business.
This is essential if you’re planning on selling a product in your ecommerce store.
Unfortunately, this is a step that most online business owners tend to overlook. It’s one thing to start an online business selling a product; it’s another thing to manage daily trips to the post office.
If you’re in a remote location or your post office isn’t well-equipped for the kind of shipping you may need to do, consider using a shipping service, such as Stamps.com. This type of service allows you to print out shipping labels and mail packages directly from your home.
If you utilize this resource, the only thing you’ll likely have to do is order enough packaging supplies for shipping your orders.
Some are even able to integrate directly with your online store, depending on the type of ecommerce platform you use (for example, Stamps.com integrates with Amazon, Etsy, and Shopify stores).
So regardless of whether you plan on making daily trips to the post office or you’ll be mailing packages from your home, make sure you have a solid plan for how you’ll get your products directly into your customers’ hands.
At this point, you should already have a product in mind for your online store. If you don’t, head back to the first section in this article (“11 Signs You’re Ready to Create an Online Store), as it has a lot of good tips on how to decide on a product to sell.
If you’re transitioning to an online store, this step is a fairly simple one. If, however, you’re starting an ecommerce store from scratch, take the time to think of your business name, along with the logo that will accompany it.
If you need help coming up with a business name, check out our guide on how to name your business.
And if you’re keen on designing your own business logo on a budget, read our guide on how to create a business logo.
Your ecommerce platform is where your business is going to live, so make sure you choose carefully. After all, you’ll want to consider a number of different things, including:
Picking the right ecommerce platform is a job in itself, which is why we dedicated an entire section to this step. Scroll down near the end of this article to learn more about how to pick the right ecommerce platform.
Depending on where you live, your state may require you to get a business license (or a retail license). Getting a business license can be a bit complicated — especially as an online business — but don’t fret, we’ve got you.
Check out our definitive guide on how to get a business license in your state. Just click on the state where your business is located and follow the step-by-step guide on how to get licensed.
It’s really that simple!
We also can help with business insurance (we are a business insurance brokerage platform, after all!).
And before you potentially write off getting business insurance, let’s talk about why it’s important for ecommerce businesses to consider — especially those that want to stay in business for a long time.
At its very core, business insurance is coverage that can help protect your ecommerce business from very expensive claims if you choose the applicable coverage in your policy, typically those like:
Business insurance can be customized to fit your needs, so depending on what you’re selling or where you’re located, your insurance policies may be different from another online store.
For example, if you’re storing inventory in an office or your home, you may need a business insurance policy that protects your products from damage or theft.
If, on the other hand, you’re working with a dropshipping company, you don’t store your own inventory, and therefore, probably wouldn’t need this type of coverage.
The type of policy you may need will be determined by a number of factors, including:
But rather than spending your valuable time trying to find the right policy, why not let Simply Business help you?
You see, we’re an online insurance brokerage platform that makes it easy to get FREE quote options from the nation’s top insurance providers. All you have to do is answer a few easy questions to get your quotes. If you see one you like, just click on it to buy, or call one of our licensed insurance agents for help or additional information.
Because at Simply Business, we make getting insurance for your ecommerce business, well, simple!
Get an affordable & customized policy in just minutes. So you can get back to what matters: Your business.Start My Quote
As soon as you know which ecommerce platform you’ll be choosing for your online store, it’s time to start creating your product descriptions.
But don’t just whip up your descriptions in a vacuum. Definitely take the time to think about how these descriptions will entice your customers to buy. Consider asking yourself the following questions to help create your best product descriptions possible:
This information can be pivotal in helping you identify the key selling points of your products.
In other words, the info that drives your customers to want to buy!
Be sure to include this information in your product descriptions. For example, if you sell face masks for athletes (thanks, pandemic), you probably know that breathability is key to people who are working out. Plus, athletes may be picky about face masks that actually stay up during a workout.
That means, for example, a product description could potentially look a little something like this:
“Durability, breathability, and stay-ability: That’s exactly what you’ll get with these face masks for athletes. Whether you’re running on the street or squatting at the gym, these athletic face masks are designed to stay on your face, even when you’re notching yet another PB.”
See? Product descriptions don’t necessarily have to be cut-and-dried — in fact, you should aim to make each one as personable and descriptive as possible. It can give your ecommerce store a real sense of identity, as well as help customers build affinity with your brand.
Once you have those descriptions written up, it’s time to optimize them for online searches.
Your product descriptions may read like the second coming of Shakespeare, but unless they’re optimized for online searches, your customers likely won’t end up seeing them.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is a type of marketing strategy that makes it possible for your product descriptions to show up on that first page of search results. A significant part of SEO involves using specific keywords within your content (or in this case, your product descriptions) to let search engines know what your ecommerce store is all about.
Eventually — and with enough focus on SEO tactics — search engines will typically start to show your ecommerce site when a customer searches for a keyword that you’re targeting.
For example, if you sell custom T-shirts, it makes sense to use “custom T-shirts” in your product descriptions, as well as other related keywords (like “personalized T-shirts”; “design your own -Tshirt”; and more).
As you begin optimizing your product descriptions, be sure to keep the following quick tips in mind:
Don’t go overboard with your keywords. If you have too many in your product copy, search engines will penalize your ecommerce store.
Write with your customers in mind, not search engines. If your copy is engaging, informative, and drives conversions, search engines will usually reward you with better rankings.
Make sure every product gets a decent amount of copy. Recommendations may vary depending on your product, but aim to have anywhere from 150-200 words in each product’s description. This allows you to get in your keywords without coming across as “spammy.”
Need more SEO tips? Check out our infographic on how to get started with SEO.
Your customers want to see your products, so make sure your product photography is good enough to entice them to buy!
Unless you’re a good amateur photographer or know exactly how to photograph your product, it may be best to outsource this task to a professional photographer.
Your product images will play a huge role in convincing your customers to buy, and if the images are blurry, pixelated, or don’t properly show every angle of the product, your customers may not buy.
So it may be worth the extra money it takes to hire a professional photographer!
In addition to photos, consider hosting videos of your products on your ecommerce website. For example, if you sell cosplay costumes online, a video of someone modeling your costumes may convince someone who’s on the fence to buy.
If you have more questions about product photography, consider checking out Shopify’s guide on DIY product photos.
Now that you’re getting closer to the launch of your online store, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to market your business.
While every business is different, it’s worth researching if the usual online marketing channels make sense for you. For example, your marketing plan could include strategies for:
There’s a lot that can be done with online marketing — so much so that we have a number of other articles that can help you build your marketing plan:
Don’t worry if you’re still not 100% sure where your customers will come from; we’ll address that in the last section of this article.
We mentioned earlier that it’s a good idea to know ahead of time what you’ll be using for shipping once you start your ecommerce business.
With regard to shipping logistics, it’s worth mapping out a plan for how you’ll address the details of how your business will handle shipping, like:
If you need help determining how much your shipping costs might be, try using the free USPS calculator or the FedEx calculator. Both can estimate how much your shipping may cost, depending on your order volume.
There’s a lot to building out your shipping plan; fortunately, this shipping fulfillment guide can get you started on the right track.
You made it! After following all of the above steps, you’re finally ready to go live with your ecommerce store.
Enjoy this moment — you’ve worked hard to build your online store. Sure, there will be much more work to come, but you’ve done one of the hardest things: you started a business.
Now that we’ve covered the exact steps to starting your ecommerce business, let’s take a closer look at a few other important topics, like how to avoid scams and how to pick the right ecommerce platform.
Finally, we’ll round out this article with a look at how to bring customers to your newly launched online store.
Whether you’re starting an ecommerce business from scratch or shifting your brick-and-mortar business to an online store, here’s what you need to know:
There are a lot of scammers out there who want to take your money.
Now, that’s not by any means meant to scare you. It’s more of a heads-up that the internet can be rife with scams, many of which are focused on getting people suckered into ecommerce business “opportunities” that turn out to be nothing more than empty words.
This is especially true for people who want to start an ecommerce business from scratch. That’s why we’ve divided this section into two parts:
Make sure you can order your own inventory. Don’t do business with a supplier that doesn’t let you select your own inventory to buy. This is usually a hallmark sign of a multi-level marketing (MLM) scam.
Not being able to order the inventory you want based on customer demands could put you quickly out of business.
Look out for supplier identity fraud. This is a scam that happens when you sign up with a supplier who agrees to provide you with a product, but turns around and runs as soon as they have your money.
To avoid this fraud, make sure you’re doing plenty of research on your suppliers before you sign the dotted line. Look for reviews, check the Better Business Bureau, and ask around to see if other ecommerce companies have heard of them.
You’re being rushed to make a decision. This warning sign can come in at any point during your ecommerce business set-up, whether it’s deciding if you want to work with a supplier or working with a website development company.
Any legitimate business partner will give you the time you need to research all of your options, as well as ask questions. If you feel like you’re getting the brush-off or you’re being pushed into making a decision, trust your gut and move on.
Avoid anything that sounds “too good to be true.” If a supplier or ecommerce business opportunity is promising you the moon, or instant profits, or a hundred times your investment in just a few short months, it’s likely you’ve stumbled onto an ecommerce business scam.
If you’re making the shift to an ecommerce business, good news: you may be more protected from scams than someone who is searching to sell merchandise online from scratch.
However, that doesn’t mean you’re invulnerable. There are plenty of business scams that could trip you up on your way to launching your online store, including:
Read more about how to pick the best credit card processing company.
Read more about triangulation fraud here.
There are plenty of ways you can avoid running into frauds and scams when shifting to an online storefront. The PCI Security Standards Council offers a helpful guide for small business owners who want to make sure they’re meeting all of their requirements when launching an online business.
There are dozens of approaches to building an ecommerce platform, with many store owners opting to build one right from scratch.
For the purpose of this article, we’ll limit the exploration to ecommerce platforms that are more plug-and-play, meaning you don’t have to hire developers and designers to build your store.
Before picking your ecommerce platform, there are a few essentials that you should look for in a potential ecommerce solution, like:
Plus, your ecommerce platform should be well-known enough to have SEO value of its own. For example, your store might have a harder time competing in search engine results if it’s hosted on a platform that hasn’t been around as long as, say, Shopify or SquareSpace.
Find an ecommerce platform that’s intuitively easy to use, whether you’re building your storefront or adding more products. Bonus points if the platform is easy to secure with HTTPS/SSL for a secure checkout process.
Integrations are available. Unless you’re very lucky, your storefront probably won’t have all the features you want right from the get-go. That’s why it’s important to choose a platform that offers multiple integrations, whether you want to show off your Google reviews or display a live feed of your store’s Facebook page.
Analytics. An analytics dashboard is critical for understanding how your online store is performing. Without this data, you may be missing out on important customer insights that could fuel your business’s growth.
More importantly, make sure the analytics you’re provided make sense to you. There’s no use in an ecommerce business’s analytics if they’re presented to you in a way you don’t or can’t understand.
If a potential ecommerce platform doesn’t have one or more of the above essentials, then it’s worth looking for another solution that does.
Fortunately, you don’t have to do too much legwork on your own, because we researched some of the more popular ecommerce platforms out there.
According to online reviews and industry professionals, the most recommended ecommerce platforms include:
This ecommerce platform is probably the most famous of your options, and for good reason: It provides solutions for both new ecommerce businesses and seasoned store owners alike.
Depending on the option you pick, Shopify can set you up with a website, integrate with over 2,500 apps, provide a mobile-friendly platform, and even set you up with popular customer payment options.Learn more about Shopify.
If you make your own crafts or want to start a smaller online store, Etsy could provide you with a good jumping-off platform. Etsy can set you up with your own store, as well as provide you with a templated approach on how to host your products.
Etsy also handles customer payments and provides a messaging platform, leaving you with more time to focus on selling your products.Learn more about Etsy.
Another popular ecommerce platform is BigCommerce, which provides online store owners multiple solutions for an ecommerce store that works for them.
BigCommerce provides easy-to-set-up store templates, with lots of fun plug-ins to play with (including an abandoned cart feature that can help increase sales). Additionally, BigCommerce provides an analytics dashboard that allows you to see how your store is performing.Learn more about BigCommerce.
SquareSpace isn’t just a platform for building a blog or a website; it also offers an ecommerce solution that’s fairly easy for new online store owners to use.
SquareSpace gives ecommerce business owners the opportunity to choose between multiple mobile-friendly store templates. It also features multiple plug-ins, including appointment bookings, online chat, customer payment processing, and more.Learn more about SquareSpace Ecommerce.
Now that you have the online store set up and ready to go, how are you going to get customers to show up?
Good news — we can help with that, too. Check out our quick guide on how to get more customers to visit your online store.
Google AdWords makes it possible for your ads to show up in front of customers when they search for specific keywords related to your product. For every click on your ad, you pay a predetermined amount, up to the limit of what you’re willing to pay.
Get more info on how to use Google AdWords here.
If there’s an online community dedicated to a product you sell or the community that is made up of people likely to buy your product, consider posting links to your site within these social media communities.
Try to be not too spammy about it, though, as that’s a good way to get yourself kicked out of those communities.
This tip is especially useful in today’s marketplace, as more customers are attending online events and auctions to buy versus going to a vendor fair or show. Partner up with another vendor and announce your event on social channels like Facebook and Instagram.
Facebook advertising can be a great way to reach out to potential customers directly in their social feeds — but only if you know how to do it correctly. Fortunately, our own social media expert wrote a helpful article on how to use Facebook advertising.
In addition to the above steps, there are plenty of other digital marketing basics that can help bring more customers to your online store, like link-building, PPC ads, and even email marketing.
Check out our guide on digital marketing to make sure you’re using them!
Want more useful tips on how to get more customers to your online store? Check out the Get Customers section of Simply U, our small business advice blog.
You’ll see a ton of great information on small business marketing, with lots of tips and tricks on how to attract customers and get them to buy from your business.
So there you have it — the definitive guide on how to start an ecommerce business!
We know this was a big read, but hopefully it helped answer some of your more fundamental questions on starting an online store.
But before you go, we want to give you something special just for sticking it out with us. To help you plan your online store launch, check out our FREE downloadable business plan template!
It’s an editable template with plenty of prompts and helpful advice on creating a plan that can help you successfully launch your online business (and did we mention it’s free?).
Best of luck with your ecommerce business!
Want some help creating your best business plan? Download our FREE business plan template here!
I love writing about the small business experience because I happen to be a small business owner - I've had a freelance copywriting business for over 10 years. In addition to that, I also head up the content strategy here at Simply Business. Reach out if you have a great idea for an article or just want to say hi!
This content is for general, informational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal, tax, accounting, or financial advice. Please obtain expert advice from industry specific professionals who may better understand your business’s needs. Read our full disclaimer
28 November 2018 • 6-minute read
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