[Note: This is the second in a series of case studies of readers who've tried out my techniques. here is a case study from last week. Have you tried out anything from Hack the System and either succeeded or failed? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know]
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There once was a retired engineer who is asked to come fix a major malfunction in a company’s product. He comes in, turns on a simple switch, and the unit works perfectly. He bills for $101,000.
“How could you possibly charge that much!” said his old boss.
“Simple,” the old man responded. “It’s $1 for the labor of flipping the switch—and $100,999 for knowing which switch to flip.”
Mentor, one of my readers who blogs at Skillcollector, argues that a lot of the difficulty in getting started in your own online, location-independent business, is simply knowing which switch to flip—that specific example or step-by-step method to get your first business launched.
I’ve taught dozens of students how to build a successful online business, so it’s always a pleasure to hear some of the success stories.
Mentor Palokaj, decided to start his own—and build a dropshipping business in under a week.
I’ll let Mentor take it away.
Having no boss but yourself, reaping the rewards of your own efforts, and working from wherever you want: these are all perks of having your own online business. It’s possible to write a whole article on how the Internet revolutionized how we’re working nowadays, with new articles emerging all the time. However, when people think about starting their own online business, they often think one (or even more) of three things:
- I do not have the time
- I do not have the money
- I do not have the skill
Well, this article is here to burst that bubble. Because guess what:
You don’t need a lot of time, or at least not as much as you think.
One of my favorite quotes is “It’s easy once you know how it’s done.” Last week, I created a fully functional webstore, including a supply chain and everything, in less than 12 hours. That is not because I am a genius, but because I happen to know how. With a little willpower, you will know how to in no time.
You don’t need money to start an online business
Total investment for a webstore, provided you do it the way it’s described in this article is (hold on to your sock)…29 Euro (35 dollars or so). That’s purely a domain name and web hosting. You can find even cheaper, but I use my favorite web host.
You do need some skill, but in this day and age that is easy to come by.
The web shop framework was up and running in, drumroll please, 15 minutes. The biggest job is tweaking little things and putting your products in the store. Guess what, there is no need for programming anymore if you want a website or webstore. Unless you want to, of course.
The three elements
Venn Diagram by Mentor Palokaj
There are three main components of a functional and successful webstore.
- The webstore
Your products need a home. The webstore is the functional part of this whole system. It’s what your customer sees, never knowing or caring what happens behind the scenes.
- The supply chain
Your products need to come from somewhere. In the past, you needed to stock up on products from a supplier before starting your webstore, resulting in high investment costs. Well, there is a new game in town preventing such a situation (hint: you won’t even have your own stock).
- The marketing
What good is a webstore if nobody knows about it? There are many tactics to promote your webstore and we’ll run through some of the most successful ones.
Screenshot of WooCommerce theme. GPL licensed visuals by Woothemes.
In the past, coding was the only way to make a website. By now, things are pretty much automated. Here’s the boiled down process in a few steps:
- Get a domain + hosting
- Install WordPress
- Install a theme
- Configure the theme
- Install an eCommerce plugin
- Configure the plugin
- Add your products
- Structure your website
Let’s run through these steps one by one. Most people will be able to do all this out of the box. If you are not one of those people don’t worry, it is a relatively simple and structured process.
1. Get a domain + Hosting
Screenshot crop of GoDaddy homepage. Visual copyright by GoDaddy.
In theory, it’s possible to get free hosting and a sub-level domain (yourshop.somerandomwebsite.com for example), but both of those do more harm than good. Both for user experience and search engine ranking you want a fast website with its own brand. There are two distinct decisions you need to make:
- What domain name do you want
- What host will you choose
The domain name has a couple of criteria it needs to fulfill. Not all domain names are created equal. If you compare onlinesupplements.com (random example) to suppz4uonline.com (again random) you can see why the first creates a more trustworthy image. You can check domain name availability at the websites of most webhosts.
Here’s the criteria you will want to keep in mind:
- The name should be relevant
- It should be as simple and short as possible
- It should be easy to remember
- It should look professional
- It has to be available
The second step is choosing your webhost. A domain name is just a label; it points to a physical server that holds your webpage. This server should be able to run what you need it to run, in the way you want it to run. The hosting is the most expensive part of your website (usually), but it should cost no more that 30-50 Euros/dollars a year.
Here’s some of the criteria to choose your webhost:
- User reviews. Check if other people liked them (on an independent site!).
- Make sure they can run WordPress (email them if you are not sure).
- They should run cPanel / DirectAdmin or a similar system as a back end. This basically means you can install WordPress with one click.
- Their customer service should be good.
- Their servers should be fast and in the country you are targeting with your web store.
Once you have ordered your amazing domain name with adequate hosting, you can move on to the next step.
2. Installing WordPress
WordPress logo, released under the GPL license
WordPress is a framework in which blogs, websites and web stores can be built. It takes the coding out of the process so you can focus on content. The two main players in webhosting backends are DirectAdmin and cPanel. You will have received login details for one of these systems with the confirmation email from your webhost. Installing WordPress sounds like a big task, while in fact it takes about 5 minutes. In DirectAdmin, you will find a link to “Installatron Applications Installer”, in cPanel most hosts put “Install WordpPress in 1 Click” in the main menu. If you can’t find these links, contact support and ask for their help. To illustrate how easy installing WordPress is, have a look at the process in Installatron:
Installatron screenshots. Logos are GPL licence. Interface copyright held by Installatron (left); WordPress visuals released under the GPL Licence. Installatron visuals copyright by Installatron.
Here you just click on WordPress, and you will be presented with a screen where you click “Install this Application” and it’s all automated from there. No hassle with databases or anything.
3. Install a Theme
WordPress default theme. Released under GPL license.
WordPress is a framework, which means that it can be customized by filling up the framework with what you want or need. By default, WordPress looks rather basic. Of course that is not how you want to present yourself to the world. You want your webstore to look slick and well organized. What you need is to install a theme. Themes are basically templates that you stick over WordPress. They can be found in many flavors and prices. Luckily, some of them are free. Of course, you can always decide to pay for a theme if you think it would benefit your web store’s income.
I personally like WooThemes, which also means that this guide will suppose you do too. If you are a fan of other systems that is no problem, the process will only be marginally different. The advantage of using WooThemes is that they offer an eCommerce plugin, and themes that are compatible with it. Go ahead and choose a WooCommerce compatible theme. You will recognize them by the icon on the right. When you have found your theme, go ahead and download it. You will be presented with a .zip file. This file contains all the information WordPress needs to make your page look pretty. To install the theme:
- Log into your page at the url yourwebsite.com/wp-admin
- Head over to Appearence
- Select themes
- Click upload
- Point WordPress to the location of the .zip you just downloaded
- Activate the theme
WooCommerce theme example. Released under GPL license.
4. Configure the theme
And voila, your website now looks amazing. There are, however, some things you will want to change. The default logo for example. Here are some things you want to change in the theme before considering it fully “configured”:
- Change the logo. If you have none, configure it as a text slogan.
You can configure this under “your theme name” (it has a Woothemes logo). Click on “theme options”. The first option you will see is “Custom logo”. If you want a text logo, click “Enable text title”.
- Configure the general settings
If you want Google Analytics, paste the tracking code into the tracking code box. It is also a good idea to set your contact email. The “favicon” setting configures the little logo you see next to the page title. If you have one, upload it there.
- If you have a theme with featured panel / slider, configure it to have some content
Note: You can also do this later if you want your slider to link to products, for example. A featured panel can be configured under your Theme > Theme settings > Featured Panel. A content slider will have its own link in the left bar, where you can make separate slides. To make sure images are shown properly set them as featured images in the slides.
- Configure your Subscribe & Connect module
Under “your theme name” > Theme options > Subscribe & Connect. This module can be shown in your sidebar or under your post. It allows your users to subscribe to your newsletter and relevant social media profiles.
5. Install an eCommerce plugin
WordPress itself does not have integrated webstore functionality. It does, however, have a structure that allows plugins. In the left bar you will find “Plugins”, where you can find your plugins, update them, and install new ones. There are multiple eCommerce plugins, but the easiest to use in my opinion is WooCommerce. This is why we selected a WooCommerce compatible theme. Go ahead and head over to “Add New” under plugins and search for “WooCommerce”. Then install and activate the plugin. If you installed WooCommerce properly you will see the following item appear in your left menu bar:
WordPress interface, released under GPL license (above) and Woocommerce logo, released under the GPL license (left).
6. Configure the eCommerce plugin (WooCommerce)
The theme has most of its functionality out of the box. It does, however, need some of your basic information; things like: what currency you use, and how much your shipping costs, will be needed. Go ahead and go to the WooCommerce menu item and click on “Settings”. Configure all of the tabs according to the settings that apply to you. Pay special attention to:
If WooCommerce misses any pages, that part of its functionality won’t work properly. Make sure all pages are configured properly. If you don’t want them to show up in the menu, configure the menu separately under Appearance > Menus
In most countries you have to make clear what taxes are applied. Make sure you configure the taxes you use under that tab. Also, check the settings that make sure taxes are shown at the checkout.
- Payment settings
Customers that want to buy your stuff are great, but you do need to make sure that they have a means of payment. Under “payment gateways” you can configure the most popular systems, like PayPal.
Your customers need to know how much shipping costs. Even if you charge no shipping cost, make sure shipping is configured properly.
7. Add your products
From WordPress. Both released under the GPL license.
So we are going into where to get your products in a minute. But for structural purposes we’ll discuss how to add products now. You will find a separate tab for products under your WooCommerce menu item. Under that heading you will find the link “Add Product”. There you can enter the following product information:
Make sure your product title is easy to understand, and not too long. The title will be reflected in the link (unless you change it).
- Product description
The first (big) field will be shown at the bottom of the product page. It should contain details of your products. This is the right location for specifications and such.
- Short description
This field is a little to the bottom. It will be shown next to the product image. This is a good location for brief information. I like using bullet points to highlight the most amazing features of the product.
- Product categories
This module I found, is used to structure your products. You can add categories from there or you can configure them in detail under Products > Product Categories.
- Product information
VERY important. This box contains the product information, like the price, article code, shipping type, and so on. Always configure this as fully as you can.
- Featured image
Products with images sell better. Adding a product photo as a featured image will make WooCommerce show it nice and integrated.
8. Structure your page
This depends on what you want on your page. I personally prefer a clean front page with a nice slider and some sort of weekly deal. Pay special attention to what widgets you use, and how you configure your menus. Some personal tips:
- Don’t use unnecessary widgets, especially in the footer
- Have only relevant WooCommerce links in your menu
- Keep it simple and clean
- Have a subscribe & connect module that offers some sort of free eBook or discount code
- Use high quality images in your slider/featured panel
- Use appropriate tags
If you are wondering if your page is good as you think it is, have a look at some successful web stores and compare yourself to them. Ask potential customers what they think. I’m a big fan of putting new things on Facebook or Twitter and asking for feedback. Keep in mind that your friends will usually try to be nice though.
The supply chain
Your products need to come from somewhere, which means you need a supplier. They also need to be stored somewhere when they are not being ordered. Traditionally, owning any sort of store would mean you’d need to take care of the following elements:
- Having all relevant products
- Making sure your stock is full
- Dealing with supplier issues
- Order processing
- Order packaging
- Shipping to your customers
Most of these things can be done by other people though. These things are also not what makes a webstore successful or fun. They are more prerequisites than anything. There is, however, a simple workaround to most of these activities, and it is not hiring an expensive employee. For a small price you won’t have to:
- Make sure you have all products
- Manage your stock
- Deal with suppliers (not in the traditional sense anyway)
- Order packaging
That leaves only a small amount of things you have to do yourself. To run a webstore, all you basically need to do on the product supply end is:
- Order processing
Diagram by Mentor Palokaj in Driodia app for Android.
And most of this is automated by the system we are creating anyway. So what is this supply chain we will be using? Well, you may have heard of it. It is called dropshipping. It basically means that instead of buying your own stock from a distributor and managing it yourself, you let the distributor do the managing. They even send the product to your customer in your name! From your workflow the following will happen:
- You get orders in your store
- At a set time, on the day you report the orders to your dropshipping provider
- You pay the dropshipper with the money you just got off of your customer
- Your dropshipper handles the order
- Processes your order
- Finds the products in his stock
- Orders new products when stock runs out
- Packages the order
- Adds an invoice with your name (sometimes logo too) on it
- Ships the package to your customer, often internationally as well
- You go drink some tea
Finding a supplier
The biggest challenge in this whole process is finding the right dropshipper for you. Before you go out and look, make a list of things you want from your dropshipper. Things to keep in mind are:
- Does it have all the products I need?
- If not, you may need multiple but this is not advisable
- Does it ship to the countries I’m targeting?
- Are the product and shipping costs within a profitable range?
- Are their delivery times good enough?
- Do they have good service?
- And of course, anything else that applies to you specifically
As you can see this process is very straightforward and takes a lot of work off of your hands. Apart from the work, it also takes any financial investments out of the supply chain. There’s no initial investment to make and you pay the orders with the money you just received. The worst case scenario is that you need some cash flow buffer in case credit card payments take a while. In most recent bank systems, they should be quick though. You can search for dropshippers in multiple ways. My favorite is just to use Google. You can search using the syntax <your product> dropshipper, plus any criteria. For an international supplement store, for example, you would look for “International Supplement Dropshipper”. There are also a number of directories for dropshipping providers. The most popular are:
- Drop Ship Sites
- GoGo Drop Ship Directory
- Wholesale Central
- Free Dropshippers List
- Worldwide Brands
- Free Dropship List
When you have decided upon a dropshipper, always test their claims first. Order some small order to your personal address and assess how well they operate. Things to keep in mind are:
- Is their shipping time what they say it is?
- For international orders: do customs let the package through or do they delay it?
- Does the package look good enough?
- Is the invoice complete and without prices?
When you have assessed these criteria, and any others you find useful, you can start adding products from your dropshipper to your webstore. Most of them will offer a dropshipping package that contains high resolution images of the products and a price list. The dropshipping prices are usually below the prices the shipper shows on the main page to individual customers.
Business Model canvas my Business Model Generation. Released under Creative Commons license 3.0
A very helpful tool when defining your customers, is a customer development tool called the business model canvas. It will help you define exactly why you are doing what you are doing and who your customer is.
A little example: Say you sell protein shakes. You sell these to gyms, who use them in their cafeteria as a sports beverage for the people who are working out. Your customer here is not the people doing sports, but the gym. So make sure your web store and marketing is aimed at them. The user and the customer are not the same.
You can download the business model canvas here. Fill it out completely to get an overview of what your position is and who you are targeting. Once you have determined who your customer really is, find out how your customer is likes getting said information. Find out why and where they buy things. Always make sure you get this information from the person who decides what is being bought. If we go back to the gym example, talk to the person who buys the cafeteria supplies. Don’t talk to the guy behind the bar unless that is his job.
When it comes to promoting a web based business there are basically two ways of marketing: online and offline. They are similar but by no means the same. Both of them have a number of ways in which advertising is usually done. Here are some examples you can choose from:
- Google Adwords
Google Adwords interface by Google. Copyright by Google.
Using Google Adwords you can get visitors to your site relatively cheaply. Configuring the right keywords also means you will get a specific type of visitor, contributing to your sales.
- Social media
Choose your profiles carefully. An empty shell on a social network does more harm than good. Remember it is social media. Use it to interact with your (potential) customers. Share meaningful articles, ideas, and promotions. Make sure you choose to use the social media that your customers use too.
- Quality blogging
This will put you higher in Google, and give you more credibility to your customer. Make sure you write relevant and quality content. Always combine blogging with appropriate SEO (Search Engine Optimization).
- Guest blogging
Writing for an established blog can cause a good amount of traffic to your page. The same goes for guest blogging as normal blogging. Make it quality.
Getting more popular can be done very well through a competition. Find some sort of sponsor for a prize, and hold a sweepstakes or some other form of contest. Make sure that entering the contest creates exposure. You can for example ask people to follow you on Twitter, or share some of your articles.
- Mailing list marketing
Always build an email list. Let your minimum goal for a customer visit be that they sign up for your newsletter. This is no license to spam, but a great way to let people know about any promotions you may have in the future. People respond much better to an email than to a Facebook update in their stream.
- SEO (Search Engine Optimization) techniques
Google wants to present quality articles to its customers. That means you need quality content. But what’s more, you need Google to understand the content of your article. You need to have relevant titles and make sure you have meta descriptions. Every website should be SEO optimized.
Royalty free stock image. Source: sxc.hu
Flyering is old school, but does work if it is used properly. Don’t just spam flyers around–put them at strategic positions where your potential customers see them. If you want to leave them in businesses (like the aforementioned gym), be sure to get permission first. Just remember: spamming gives you a bad reputation.
Same story as the flyers. They are old school and you should place them at locations where your customers will see them. Always have permission to put one up.
- Word of mouth
Make your service or product (preferably both) are so good that people can’t stop talking about them. You want people to talk about you to their family and friends.
Being present at other people’s events can get great exposure. Things like conventions can get you great exposure. Some cost money, some are free. You can also host your own events. You should see my girlfriend when she’s at a clothing swap party with friends! An event around your products can be an all-night promotion that is fun for everyone involved.
- Affiliate programs
Getting people to talk about you is great. You can actively stimulate it by using an affiliate type structure. Give people a discount code that their friends can use, and offer them 5% off all profit you get from those orders. This can work very well if you get a relevant organization to partner up (like the aforementioned gym).
- Advertising deals
Find related businesses and offer a mutual partnership. You can, for example, promote a sports clothing brand in return for them promoting you as well. That way you offer your customers related products, and you can both benefit from each other without losing profits.
Each of these techniques have their own best practices and need to be modified to fit the situation you are using it in. Get creative with your promotion. Use the possibilities at hand, and remember that your web store is only as useful as the amount and quality of its visitors.
Getting Started Package
Reading is one thing, starting another. To help you out as a thanks for reading the article, you can receive this package for free:
- A summary of the article in checklist form
- This will prevent you from overlooking something
- Links to the articles that helped me a lot
- E.g. Total wordpress SEO checklist
- The WP plugins that keep me sane
- My personal help if you need it
- I care about me readers, I really do. I’ll help you out if you need it.
Thanks for reading, I wish you the best of luck.