How to start an online business

There are many reasons for startups to sell online, whether it's as a standalone business or an addition to physical premises.You don't have the costs associated with a shop, there's loads of help out there for startups who want to create websites, and the whole world is potentially your audience. So how do you get started?

Katrina De Toney is the founder of Poppies and Polka Dots, an online shop selling a variety of fabrics and craft goods. She started up her business online - we asked her a few questions about her experience.

What have you changed about your website since the start?

The website is constantly evolving. As the shop has grown in size, I've realised things which I thought would work at first no longer fit. For example, one of the most recent updates was to change how customers navigate to parts of the site by adding in a drop- down menu on the home page. It is really important to make sure the site is working efficiently and effectively for the end user and, as I'm learning, that means being prepared to make changes and updates as the business grows and evolves.

Do you sell in a physical store or just online?

At the moment it's just online. It's crucial that I keep my overheads as low as possible, and the online market is perfect for facilitating this.

However, over the past nine months, I've tested the market at various craft fairs, sewing bees and knitting groups to see how the products were met and also to help promote the business to a local customer base. Off the back of that, I am currently investigating options for a pop-up shop or open weekend at some point in 2016, so watch this space!

Do you use a dedicated e-commerce platform?

I did initially consider using a platform such as Shopify, and can definitely see why this would be beneficial for lots of new businesses. For me, however, there were certain bits of functionality I required from the website, specifically to do with fabric quantities etc, and it was going to be better to design this elsewhere. In addition, I was trying to minimise ongoing monthly costs to the business once it had launched, so we were able to build the website using Wordpress and minimise the monthly subscription costs that other platforms incur.

What's your biggest challenge as an online retailer?

Without doubt the biggest challenge is SEO and exploring ways of getting potential customers to visit the website. I still have so much to learn on this front - it's very much a 'work in progress'!

What were the first things you did to get started?

This first thing I did was check whether or not another company existed with the same name at Companies House, then I registered the domain. Pretty quickly after that, I got set up with an email account using that domain name, so I could start conversing with suppliers etc. using the company email address. I felt it was important to start operating with the businesses identity as early as possible. I wanted to be taken seriously by potential partners and felt that it was important to start building a brand with them well before I was in a position to start trading and building a customer base.

How do you ensure your products look as appealing as possible?

I've always felt that photography was crucial when setting up an online shop. The homepage is my shop window and I've tried to use good photography to entice customers in to have a look around. Where possible, I use a professional photographer. However, that's not always practical, due to timescales and costs, so I have also had to learn a little about taking them myself (with varying degrees of success!).

How do you deal with common ecommerce problems such as abandoned shopping carts?

As I'm still a relatively small business, I am currently able to take a very hands-on approach to issues like this. So at the moment, I would simply write an email to the potential customer (if they have input their details) and politely ask if they'd encountered any problems with their shopping experience, or if there was something that we hadn't been able to assist with. The customer can then simply choose to ignore the email, should they wish, or they may like the personal touch and resume their shopping. Or they may take the time to give you relevant feedback - all of which is very useful for a small start up business!


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