Recently I stuck my nose in a blog and left a rawther lengthy comment, which occurs to me might be a useful entry on its own.
Some folks make stuff and sell it, and some buy things to resell. This post is not so much for those who are interested in selling as an affiliate, whether it be books, music, software, insurance, or underpants. This is more for the small-business store owner who wants to branch out to online selling, or a Maker thinking about a webstore. A thrift-store guru or vintage collector wanting to make a few bucks online. For anyone who just wants to sell online, but doesn’t know where to start.
Here’s what I have learned and where I’m trying to go. I’m not all the way there yet, but I’m working on it.
From Day One, if you are serious about your business, buy a domain and use it as your email. You can never start too soon with branding yourself. Don’t use gmail or yahoo, use your own domain.
Make an online presence at your domain — however you do it, whether by using a template, a tool like Front Page, or hacking it out by hand, make a front page for your site that looks great. It’s better to have a good looking static page than a crap one (like mine). Update it sometimes to keep it fresh. WordPress is really easy to install and use, and makes it very easy to create pages that look nice and have a bit of news occasionally.
This turns out to be important later on down the line, because the search engines rank your sexiness based on a lot of things, one of which is how long you have had your domain. Later, when your products are at your domain’s website instead of eBay’s, this helps a little with their ranking. It could mean the difference between being on page 1 and page 2, which often means you won’t be seen at all.
Host your own blog. Again, WordPress is very easy to use. A recent survey in Country Business magazine showed that many online shoppers want to connect with a business through their blog. Even if a merchant feels that blogging is one-sided, it’s not; the customer builds a relationship with you by reading your words. It’s a little weird, but true.
A brief digression here — one of the neat things about WordPress is that you can change out the template without affecting the rest of your site. In other words, you don’t lose any SEO points you’ve scored if you redo the look of the site. I can change back to the dreaded sword (an early template I used here) at any time and all my content is still intact. I’ll probably change the look of this template a little, I don’t like some things about it, but it won’t affect the Google-fu I’ve earned so far. The main thing is, find something you can work with, and start working with it. Don’t change the basic structure of your site unless you have to. Try to keep your “site map” intact.
First, give selling a shot on eBay. Just list and sell a few things. Ebay is the bottom of the bottom, but it has a lot of users, international users! You’ll learn a lot of really basic things right off the bat.
Online selling isn’t for everyone and this is about as simple, and as annoying, as you can get. You will always have annoying customers, so wade right in and experience them full-force on eBay. On other sites, and on your own self-hosted store, you probably won’t have them in as strong a concentration as you get on eBay.
By having an eBay business, you will learn the following about yourself:
- Do you like packing and shipping?
- How about standing in line for customs forms?
- How do you feel about online “banking” (PayPal, etc)? Love the bite they take of your profits?
- Does your packaging look like crap, or do you put a little effort into making the customer feel rewarded for their purchase? It doesn’t have to get pricey, but if you can’t figure out how to make your packages unique at this level, you probably need to give it a bit of thought.
(Hint: wrapping the item in tissue and tying a simple ribbon bow is super easy, yet will separate you from the herd right away.)
This is also the right level for learning whether you enjoy the book keeping involved with online selling. Don’t leave it til the last minute — find an accounting solution that will work for you. There’s a lot of ways to keep the books. Everyone has a favorite, and if you find a way you like, it’s actually kinda fun.
If you find you have a taste for sales, open up an eBay, Etsy, or ArtFire store. Slightly less frustrating. Still easier than just jumping into the deep end. If you don’t like online selling, you have lost very little time and effort and gotten out super cheap. Sell or give away the rest of your inventory on Craig’s List and do something that makes you happy and fulfilled. Life is short. Don’t force something that just isn’t you.
These are training wheels. The next step involves doing your own marketing, because the shopping mall approach of eBay or Etsy or ArtFire can only get you so far. Eventually, your products will have to be found by Google searches, and getting there is a learning curve.
While doing the eBay/Etsy/ArtFire thing, make a business account for yourself on Facebook. Six months ago you could not have dragged me to Facebook, but your customers are there. I finally had enough people tell me to do it, so I tried it, and it seems to be working. But you have to actually provide quality content, as in, comment on people’s stuff in relevant ways, otherwise they just think you’re a spammer and block you. I do not share any personal information on Facebook — mine is strictly business. But it’s my “shopkeeper” persona, the person behind the counter.
It’s an extension of the blog/relationship thing. They have to get to know you, “trust” you, take your word that your products are awesome. Even if it’s not the exact same You who goes home at the end of the day, people want to think they know you a bit. They will come back again and again if they have even the smallest reason to be loyal to you. So give them a good reason!
After a while you’ll find that maybe you are limited by what you can sell on those sites. I know I am; I want to carry Nag Champa but can’t do it on ArtFire. You might want to migrate to a “hosted cart”, a subscription shopping cart you pay for by the month, while learning tougher stuff like making a marketable website. Work on your website, and learn about SEO. I don’t have a recommendation for a hosted cart (but know one NOT to use), so just try to pick one that will let you back up your info to a CSV to make it a little easier to insert into your new shop when you move to a self-hosted one.
Review and research your options. Be sure to search for reviews, and especially complaints, about any software you are contemplating. There are a zillion possibilities, so pick one you can afford and that you like.
You will know when you are fully ready to do a self-hosted webstore. You’ll be used to the procedure of listing and selling, your book keeping will be a routine, and you have established a good presence online. Your customers will have a lot of fun when you throw your grand opening (or grand re-opening). Coupons galore! Free gift with purchase! And what’s great is that by ditching all the pay solutions, you can actually afford to do it.
Yes, that’s one of the signs that you are ready — you have enough time to grind your teeth over the hosting fees. Channel this energy and let it drive you, motivating you to learn what you have to learn in order to carry you through the install and set up of your self-hosted store.
Remember that you are levelling up, so you’ll be a newbie again in some ways. It’s a big responsibility, like getting promoted. Give yourself permission to be “new” again and don’t get frustrated. Your business isn’t going to suffer by being at a hosted store, so take your time and find what you like.
You’ll need all your marketing savvy to keep your sales from dropping. When you change from a hosted to a self-hosted store, all the URLs change too. So they are seen as new listings on the search engine. This is the time to get on your blog and do a bunch of product reviews, linking them to your new shop listings. Also try to create backlinks by making legitimately interesting posts or comments around the internet.
You will have been using your domain in your .sig file all this time and with your email. Now your links are going to pay off: any time you posted in a forum or made a comment on a blog, all those backlinks will help drive traffic to your shop. So you won’t be starting from scratch, even if your store is new. Your domain will be several months old at this time and that looks pretty good to the search engines.
Every time you made a new blog post the site looked active. Now the spiders have a new directory to crawl — your shop. Since they will have already been to your site and know to keep coming back to check out your newest post, you will have them trained to crawl your site regularly. When they find the new store it will take less time for your items to get listed with Google.
So even if you take intermediate steps to get from point A to point B, you can do it in a way that doesn’t hurt your SEO too much. At the same time, you will have learned a lot about the care and feeding of an online store. You’ll have given yourself time to learn, time to grow, and time to not look like a raw n00b who doesn’t have a clue what you’re doing. These things can help make the transition from hosted to self-hosted a little easier, because that last step is a MoFo.
I tried the self-hosted thing years ago, and I know I wasn’t ready for it then. Had I managed to get the shop configured properly I would have sat there probably for months without making a sale because I wouldn’t have known about SEO, keywords, marketing, or any of that, and just given up in desperation because I didn’t know then what I know now. I’m quite certain that I have a lot more to learn now too, but the process of making, photographing, listing, selling, packing, and shipping (and keeping the books) was its own learning curve. I’m very glad I found Etsy, and then ArtFire, because going from eBay to OS Commerce just didn’t work for me.
That’s why I wrote this post — so anyone reading it can feel OK with going through a similar process. It is OK to take steps. Be OK with that. Don’t judge yourself by not being able to jump into ZenCart, and more importantly, don’t give up. There is a good solution for you out there, just like there is one for me. I’ll let you know what I pick.
By the way, anyone can read the forums on ArtFire. There is a wealth of SEO and online marketing knowledge there. Some of it is ArtFire specific, but much of it applies no matter where you are. I strongly advise lurking in those forums and soaking up the knowledge. My favorite thing about the ArtFire forums is that they speak “crafter-ese”, which is to say, they put it in easy to understand, yet not puerile, terms. It’s not “SEO for dummies” — it’s smarter than that, yet still very accessible.
This is why I pay those guys $10 a month for my ArtFire account. The staff, the owners, are on the forums all the time, and they are always courteous, always respectful of their customers. It is so rare to see that. They help you help yourself and are never smug or smarmy about it. For me, it’s almost a love offering because I want to support a business that has that kind of model. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper than going back to school for this kind of education, plus I can do it in my bunny slippers.