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+++ S P E C I A L R E P O R T +++
"How do I start an e-tail store?"
Robin Bassett, Publisher
Absolutely Victorian Greetings
January 22, 2001
(Click here to get an autoresponder of this report and the part two)
First, let me quickly tell you about how I got into my online business. About four years ago I needed to be able to work from home so that I could care for my grandchild. I grew up in the one of the first offset printing businesses in New England, so I had lots of various skills in that arena. And I had acquired a wealth of computer skills when I returned to college at 40 and found myself the only person on campus that could turn on a Mac - ended up running the computer lab 5 nights a week. So, looking at a home-based business on the Internet was a "natural." I got myself a free account over at Geocities and sat down and learned HTML - which has grown into a multitude of other programming skills.

On that very first Geocities website I put up one little page of free postcards, which proved to be very popular, so when I acquired my own domain name one of my daughters rented a postcard script for me for several months. I built a much larger postcard site and my traffic boomed - of course back then there were only about 10,000 postcard sites online and about 9,985 of them were little one page sites.

Traffic was high, so I purchased the card script that I had been using after several months of courtship by the developers, who "assured" me that banner advertising would pay for the script and provide a nice income besides. Yes I did take Business 101 - and let me tell you I had my doubts from the beginning - but traffic was SO high. Back then traffic was GOD.

As a result, my original concept of an online business became lost in the shuffle and I became the full-time, 20 hour a day webmaster & designer for one of the largest greeting card sites online and as banner ads have fallen through the floor, I've scrambled for products to support the site, which uses completely outrageous amounts of bandwidth and space. I've become a fair-to-middling "expert" on driving traffic, keeping traffic, customer service - and of course graphics & website design. Many of our Guests have been using the site for years - but I earn my income by doing graphics, site design and consulting for other internet sites. 

Lesson #1 - Have a firm business plan and stick to it!!

Do not allow yourself to be attracted or distracted by the myriad of "build it and they will come" promises and sales pitches that you will hear online. Once upon a time sites could support themselves solely from the proceeds of banner advertising but those gravy days are over - notice that even Yahoo now charges for a site listing. 

Step 1: Start with a product or product line. It does not matter too much what product - its HOW you sell it, not so much what you sell. Then determine who the target audience for that product is. It is FAR easier to pick a product, then target the audience than it is to find the "right" product for an audience that you have already targeted.

Once you have identified a target audience for your product, invest some serious time into researching that group of people: what else are these folks interested in? What sites do they visit online? What ezines do they read? How much shopping do they do? What are the demographics? All of those things will influence your eventual site design and offerings. Keep good notes - you're going to want them later.

CAUTION: The net is full of opportunities that allow unsuspecting wanna-be site owners to purchase "sales" sites that are nothing more than near-identical copies of some base site with an outside fulfillment house. You will lose your shirt. Whatever you do, do not "buy" some already built site.

You asked:
>How much experience? In what areas?

Well, I don't think that I would try to sell motorcycle parts if I had never ridden a motorcycle for example - and I suspect that women would do better selling cosmetics than male webmasters might. It's important to have some interest in whatever product or service that you offer.

For the most part you need many of the same skills online that you do offline - though that is highly dependent on whether you will run your site alone or hire others to do much of the work. If you're in this alone, then you need customer service skills, bookkeeping skills and so forth. If you don't like to interact with people offline, you probably won't do any better online - and sites without good customer service don't last long.

How much money do you need?

Well, that depends. Anywhere from $50 to $5 million or more. Depends on the product and it depends on the skills that you have. I've built my own site from soup to nuts, so my grand total expenditures are these:

postcard script: $450
domain name: $135
graphics printer for new product development: $1000

I've left hosting and bandwidth off the list as I consider that an operating expense and that varies considerably by where you host, the size of your site and the amount of bandwidth that you use. 

If yours is going to be a small site for one or two products you can probably host it nicely in the 5MB space that your ISP gives you for free with your internet access. In such a case the local guy that I work with charges a $50 set up fee for the virtual domain name hosting and a $10 a month fee.

On the other hand, if you are planning a large site and expect a million page views a month, then do some serious investigation into excess bandwidth charges. You might do better to pay for an entire server at Rackspace than to pay for excess bandwidth locally.

You should budget AT LEAST one full year's worth hosting into your basic startup costs. If you haven't a clue in this area and are attempting a budget as part of your business plan, then allow $50 a month for hosting a small site and $350 for a large one, then double that amount and multiply by 12. 

NOTE: Do not rent the space prior to hiring a consultant. Another thing that the Internet is full of are hosting scams that you probably don't know enough to avoid.

How do you get a web site developed?

If you are brand new to the Internet and the world of online business, then I advise that you first hire a consultant. A good consultant is really a "hand holder" that will talk you through your plans, point out deficiencies, help you to choose an effective domain name (you really don't want to be stuck with something like "robinsplace :), keep you from signing up for one of the multitude of scams that will lose you both your website and your domain name and help you to choose a design and program team. A really good consultant will also have a dozen ideas that you would never think of. Expect to pay anywhere from $200 to thousands, depending on who you hire and how much consulting and hand holding you need or want.

From there again, it depends. What are you selling? Products like books tend to do best on a small website that is targeted specifically to that single product or a very small group of related products - Doug Greene does very well with his gardening books, for example. In that case, you can probably do a decent job of building a small website with a copy of Dreamweaver, the HTML Bible and a bit of time and effort - plus, of course, some good advice from a consultant.

Are you going to process credit card orders yourself or work through an agency? If you have lots of products you'll need a shopping cart and so you will need your own merchant account. This requires a cgi-script and you're going to need a web designer that knows how to install scripts. Let me put that in bold for you - KNOWS HOW TO INSTALL SCRIPTS! 

There are a million "web designers" out there that will throw you up a website from a template with a copy of Frontpage for $400 - avoid these guys. You can buy FrontPage yourself for about $200. 

Don't bother to rent one of those one size fits all webspaces that come with pre-installed scripts. I have yet to see a single script offered that is not available anyway for free and invariably the scripts utilized are definitely not "best of class" - even amongst the free scripts available.

If you sell software type products for online delivery, then I can strongly recommend Digibuy, the folks that have been processing my orders for years. You'll find them at http://www.digibuy.com/ - as I recall the membership fee is something on the order of $250. No charge backs here at all as long as your product is delivered online, and I have never once missed a check or had even the slightest mixup in the bookkeeping.

Avoid PayPal like the plague! Better you should make everyone order by snailmail! BTW, don't forget to plan for snailmail or phone orders - women in particular often prefer not to give their credit card or bank information online.

Planning a really big site, with lots of proprietary features? Now you need a design team - and that consultant to help you pick one. A good place to start is to go back to that list of sites that your target audience frequents. Look for information about the site designer either as a small logo at the bottom of the page of by going to View/Source in your browser window and looking at the META tags at the top of the page. Many designers have a short list of programmers that they often work with, so start with the designer.

How do you promote the site?

Grandma's #1 Commandment of Site Promotion:

A happy Guest is the best advertisement that you can buy!! 

I have never spent a single red cent on advertising - ever. I have never spent a single penny on any of those programs that "promote your site" to the search engines. Yet my Guests come back over and over for years and bring their friends.

1. Provide fantastic customer service - answer the mail as rapidly as possible, at the very least on the same day. Install a realtime chat support channel such as HumanClick http://www.humanclick.com/ Move heaven and earth to resolve complaints immediately.

2. Ask your happy guests to Tell A Friend about your site. 

This is our #1 promotional effort. Works best with your own script rather than one from an online service. Works even better if you offer a weekly drawing for some small but attractive prize. Works better still if you promote the Tell A Friend contest weekly in your ezine or on your website, maybe in a pop-up window (with cookie so that it appears only once a week.)

Other effective ways to promote your site -

Ezine advertising - 

Advertising in TARGETED ezines is highly effective - but note that the keyword is targeted. Refer back to that list you made regarding other interests of your target audience, then search out quality ezines that target those interests. Do not advertise in an ezine from a competitor site. Avoid ezines that show more than 3 ads per issue. You'll probably have better results with several less expensive ads in ezines with circulations of 4K than you will with one ad in a larger ezine.

If you publish your own ezine, swap ads with other publications that reach your target audience once you've developed a decent subscription base.

Trade Links -

Some search engines include a "popularity" factor as part of their ranking strategy. The more links in to your site, the higher your popularity. Write to webmasters of other sites that reach your target audience and ask them to trade links with you.

Get Published -

Respond (keyword respond - not just post!) to newsgroups that reach your target audience and include your URL in your signature.

Send a press release to your local newspaper announcing your new website. Small papers might very well feature you on their business page, bringing many local people to visit - and Tell A Friend.

If it's appropriate for your site and skills, write an article or two and offer it to various newsletters as free content. Be sure to send a letter of inquiry first. Articles should be informational rather than promotional if you expect them to make it beyond the editor's desk.

How NOT to promote your site:

I'm sure that with a little imagination you can think of dozens of ways to promote your site effectively for little or no money. There are strategies to avoid like the plague though -

NEVER post your site to a newsgroup in a "visit my site" type of announcement. Readers consider this spam.

Do NOT rent or buy a mailing list. Everyone considers this spam and the use of such a list might very well cost you both your webspace and your Internet connection.

Do NOT collect email addresses from other publications that you receive. The Gods of the Internet will get you for this one!

DON'T bother to waste your money on any of those software programs that "promote your site" to the search engines. Submit once. Submit by hand. And then relax. Not everyone gets listed in every search engine. You might never get listed at all - even if you pay. There are only TEN Top 10 slots for any keyword - and somebody is already in them, most likely somebody with lots more experience getting into them than you have. Once upon a time sites could expect huge chunks of traffic from high search engine listings, but there were fewer sites and fewer search engines back then. Most sites get less than 20% of their traffic from search engines, so put your time, effort and money into strategies that work. 

DO NOT allow yourself to be conned into installing scripts that will show a search engine robot one page and a live Guest another, or building ugly "doorway" pages, or putting keywords or other text "invisibly" onto your pages. All of these strategies might very well get you permanently banned from many search engines.

Have a wonderful day!

Robin Bassett, Publisher
Absolutely Victorian Greetings

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