Friday 27 November, 2009 by Daniel Westlake
Last year I was asked to give a presentation for eFactor in Grimsby, giving tips for new businesses who are looking to market themselves or trade online. The presentation went down well so I thought I would share this information here on our blog. So here are my top tips for start up businesses looking to do well on the Internet:
I know it sounds obvious but if you are looking to market your business & products online then you need to spend a decent amount of time in the online space. Make sure that you are comfortable with the Internet & email. You don't need to have the latest computer hardware but a decent computer will make the learning process quicker. If you're not that sure about computers then get to know your local independent IT supplier as their support and advice will prove invaluable. Ask him about backing up your work, emails and address book so you have a fall back if the cat decides to knock a hot coffee over your hard drive. Don't worry about having to understand all the new technology, you don't have to be a computer whizz, but you do need to spend time online to understand your market and find your way.
If you're working from home, its helpful to have a separate work computer from the family computer to avoid any problems with things accidentally getting deleted and whilst I am on the subject, a dedicated work area or office really helps to focus your mind.
Search for businesses like your own online. Bookmark them and put together a spreadsheet detailing information about what you find out about their products and services. Read their websites in detail and make notes on how they describe themselves. Don't copy, but be inspired.
Make another spreadsheet of what searches you use to find companies as this will be handy later when coming up with your initial keyword research. If you're setting up an eCommerce website, check out who is selling the same products on eBay and the Amazon marketplace. Do your prices compete?. If not can you offer something they don't (like free or next day delivery) until your volumes increase enough to demand a better deal from your suppliers?
The thing is that the Internet is so big that you are bound to find someone who is selling the same thing as you but is bigger, has more products and is selling it cheaper than you could. Don't panic; do focus on what makes your business special...
Now that you understand who is out there, try to put a special spin on your products or services to target a niche, rather than the mass market. The Internet is so big that a national (or international) niche is a large enough market for a business to thrive on. Finding your niche can take a bit of thinking and to some extent trial and error but try thinking about who your customers are and the ideas should follow.
If you have a limited marketing budget (and these days, who hasn't?) then try and be as specific as possible about your products and who will buy them. Don't sell camping supplies, sell tents to students who pack the festivals every summer. Don't sell the latest fashions in shoes or dresses and compete against the high street. Find out what sizes they don't stock and sell them instead. You need to understand that as a start up business, everyone is larger than you and therefore can sell cheaper than you. On the other hand, if you are focused on what you do, you can create yourself a niche market and grow from there.
If you're not sure what will make your business special then test trade by setting up an eBay shop and see what sells.
Your business name and your website domain name don't have to be the same. Try and pick a domain name that reflects your products or services but also includes a keyword that people will use to search online. Using a keyword like this in your domain can make make your website easier to promote on the search engines but don't get obsessed. Try and use a combination of your business name and what you sell as this gives you a half decent chance of finding a domain name that is available.
I would avoid using acronyms in your website name and be careful about how words look together (experts exchange vs expert sexchange) when written down.
Once you have got a name then book the .co.uk, .com & .net variations on the domain name. If there are any variations (with s or hyphens) available then buy these as well, it might seem a waste of money now but in 10 years time you'll be pleased that you don't have a competitor using a similar domain name.
At this point it good to remind yourself that having a website isn't the objective. The objective is to have a website that does X or helps you to do Y. If you don't understand why you need a website then the whole project is going to be difficult at best. Sure you want to promote your business, but how is the website going to promote your business? Is the objective to establish your creditability or demonstrate your expertise? To communicate the features and benefits of your product or provide a simple way to buy online?
Once you understand your objectives, write them down and put this in the back of your diary so that at the end of the year you can check that everything is still on track. Things will have changed by then so you might cross out a few objectives and add some more but it's a good habit to get into.
Now before we get totally carried away, it's time to establish a budget and understand what you can afford. Obviously every business is different but you need to get a grip on the finances straight away. If you're not that confident on bookkeeping and cash flow then go and get some advice. There are plenty of organisations out there that supply support and training to start ups so don't be afraid to ask for help in working out your first budget.
When it comes to the website, don't blow all your money in one go on an all-singing website. Work out what your budget for the website is and then spend 60%-80% of this on the initial website build and the rest across the year tweaking, experimenting and responding to feedback.
You'll need a budget for promotion as well. If you're selling online then Adwords can be a good way to kick-start your sales but it's also a big black hole that can suck the profits from your business so it's best to get some good advice. We'll talk about promoting your start up business on another post but again, talk to your business advisor to get some good ideas on marketing your business.
Finally, if you're trading online, try and resist the temptation to buy a lot of products. Until you are confident on what will sell, don't tie up your cash in stock. Think about drop-shipping as a way to experiment with your product listing but remember that the only way you'll make real money is to take the risk and buy in bulk then sell in volume. However, when you're starting up it's just too much of a risk to gamble the success of the whole business on selling a container full of widgets. Work up to this gradually and you'll have the information and experience to make the right decisions on what stock to buy and what to avoid.
Now this sounds obvious but choosing a good web designer can be the most important decision you face in getting a decent website. Good designers can be expensive, especially if you are looking for a 'full service' solution. If you go to a larger agency then you'll get a great service but you can expect larger fees. Likewise, if someone does a bit of web design when they have time, they might be able to give you a good price but they are unlikely to give you a reliable service. As well as getting the fees right you need to have good relationship with your designer. If they aren't a good communicator or don't answer the phone then don't bother wasting your time with them.
Phone all the companies and freelancers you can find and have a list of questions to ask them on the phone. This is a good opportunity to get free advice so don't waste it. Any designer worth his fee will be able to make suggestions and provide some ideas for you, so write some notes and make a shortlist of designers you would like to meet with. Make a shortlist of 3-5 web designers and arrange some meetings. Type up some notes on the business and your objectives (but not budgets) and email them to the designers before the meeting so that you can get the most out of the meeting.
In the meeting, expect that they have read your notes and can give you some good advice. If you like the designer and you think you can work together then ask them to write a you tender document. This should include details of the solution they would recommend, provide examples of their experience and include a breakdown costing. Remember to ask about any additional costs such as VAT or if they require a deposit and don't make a decision until you have tenders from everyone. Go through the tenders in detail and make an informed choice of web designer.
Now that you have a web designer on the case, they can work on some designs whilst you work on the website content. A picture may say a thousand words but on the Internet words are all important. If you're not that confident with writing promotional text then start with a list of the major topics you want to cover and write a list of bullet points for each matter in that topic. Do this for all of your pages and then top up your coffee and expand the notes into prose for your website.
Remember that using the same language that people may use when searching is important so try and get these keywords in there. Also, people tend to scan read on the Internet so it's good to break things up into small paragraphs with clear titles so that your visitors can get a good idea of your content without having to read it all.
Finally, think about adding a call to action on the bottom of each page which can help direct visitors to another page or to get in contact with you for more information.
Give your carefully written content to your web designer and with a bit of work you shouldn't be far from launching your new website.
Now that your website is online, the proper work begins. Too many companies will put lots of effort into getting their website online and then forget it for the rest of the year. I know that your time is important but getting the most out of your new website will require a lot of tweaking, rewriting & experimenting to get it just right. Don't think of your website as being finished, just think of your website being the most important part of your business communications and as your business changes, your website should reflect this.
This blog post was based on a presentation that I gave to start up businesses at eFactor in Lincolnshire giving tips for new businesses who are looking to market themselves or trade online.
This, of course isn't an exhaustive list of advice but hopefully this should give start up businesses a good idea of the challenges of setting up a website as pre-warned is pre-armed!