eCommerce Blueprint 2.0

I started writing this in January of 2013 in response to the original E-Commerce Blueprint from December of 2012, but now, 2 years later, I have more perspective after having helped several e-commerce companies get started.

In 2013 I wrote a basic outline of things I felt were important ways to market an e-commerce business: pounding the flesh (pounding the streets and pressing flesh) as well as magazine adverts, Google Adwords, and trade shows.

Here was my eCommerce Blueprint 2.0 from 2013:

  • Rough Plateau map
  • Buy the domain
  • Build Twitter and Facebook
  • Finalize design request / brand identity document
  • Hire a designer
  • Research product manufacturers
  • Buy a few products
  • Hire a video company
  • Do a Kickstarter campaign
  • Order original inventory

I recommended Shopify but thought it was worthwhile to mention Squarespace. Lately, both are still fine platforms, but let’s dive into why the list from above is nearly worthless. First of all, what does “Rough Plateau map” even mean?

Instead of going through them one-by-one, I’m just going to say that this list assumes you have a) a clear idea of the problem you’re solving, b) a known business model (i.e. I do X and I get paid), c) someone to actually do the work.

Setting up a business in 2015 is incredibly easy. Creating a company that makes money is still hard.

What Problem Are You Solving?

There has to be a raison d’être (reason for being). How are you moving someone away from pain or towards pleasure? Do your customers love your product or service? It’s very easy to build a brand, but it’s very hard to build one people care about.

How Will Your Business Make Money?

How will you do “X” to get “$” in a repeatable fashion? Discovering the process for acquiring a customer for less than their average customer value (ACV) is called a “business model” and means you actually have a business.

Who Will Do the Work?

Even if you have a solution to a legitimate problem people have, customers love you, and you’ve found a way to acquire them for less than ACV, you still need to have someone to actually do the work.

While at first it may sound obvious, ‘actually doing the work’ is quite complicated. It’s not a hard problem like ‘discovering a business model’, it’s a wet problem because we’re dealing with humans.

Building a company in 2015 still requires human capital. Somebody has to do the work. Even if you hire someone to do the work for you, they have to actually do the work. No one wants to do the work.

Who Has the Time to Work?

It starts with an idea (1,2). You have the best intentions. You’re pumped. You’re excited. You start working on the problem. You get some traction. People are interested. People are buying. It’s time to hire.

At an e-commerce business, typically the first person you hire is a person to help ship orders. Next, you hire someone to help with customer service issues. Third, you hire a salesperson to get more accounts.

As you add more staff, you need more income so you decide to hire a marketing person, who then needs to hire a graphic designer to help create content for the website. Soon, you’re spending all of your time in meetings.

Meanwhile, the first person you hired to ship orders has worked there long enough and seen enough new people hired that they feel entitled to either become a manager, move on to another organization, or hire someone under them to do what they do.

“I need to get things off my plate so I can ‘X’,” you might here someone say. Or “I just need someone to help me do ‘Y’ so I can do my job.” These are all signs of humans trying to get out of the thing they were hired to do: work.

But it’s not just employees. You’ll do it too. You’ll say to yourself, “I can’t ship boxes or write a blog post because I’m the CEO. I need to be out there pounding flesh and signing deals. I need to be leading my people to greatness.”

All of these things can be true and still be wrong.

There is a time to hire new people and there is a time to lead instead of produce, but make sure it’s not out of a place of selfishness or entitlement. It’s human nature to want to be doing less work and get paid more.

How to Manage Your e-Commerce Staff

Let’s say you have already figured out what people want, how to get customers, and you’re profitable. You’ve created a lifestyle business, but you want to scale it into a bigger company. You need to take things to the next “Plateau”.

You decide to hire more sales staff and you ask the person shipping to help post to social media. On a whim, you decide to have a sale. Someone suggests a new product idea and you okay the development. Things are starting to hum.

But then salespeople start fighting about one person stealing their leads or who gets credit for what. They don’t like the CRM they are using and not everyone is leaving contact activity notes leading to some embarrassing interactions.

The warehouse specialists says he needs an inventory system to keep track of all these new products, but since he’s the one who has to ship out the orders, he’s subconsciously sabotaging marketing efforts with his blog posts.

You decide to hire an outside IT consultant to come in and help implement and train your staff on how to use the new systems, but despite all the upgrades, sales begin to flatline, all while productivity and culture declines.

People > Processes > Technology > Marketing > Sales

Your people are your most important asset. It matters greatly who you hire. People affect culture, marketing, attitudes, and product decisions. Early hires have more impact, but every person impacts the company in some way.

Processes built on the right people can be used with better effect, but bad processes don’t help the company. Be sure that the processes you have in place are known, are useful, and are being used. Ask them to do it and ask if they did it.

Technology is a multiplier of people and processes. If you have good people in place with good processes, then invest in technology to support them, they will be happy, productive, and may actually enjoy doing the work.

Once you’ve got all of those things in place, you can focus on marketing because you know with confidence that you’re not throwing good money against people who will turn customers away either consciously or unconsciously.

A good marketing campaign supports a sales team – and if you’re going to take your e-commerce company from a lifestyle business to a large company, you need a great sales team. Sales will help you grow more than marketing.

A good manager asks people to do something and asks them if they did it.

What is My eCommerce Blueprint for 2015?

If I were starting an e-commerce business in 2015, here’s what I would do, in order, if I were one person with no capital:

  1. Research trends in Google Trends, eBay, Yahoo Answers, Quora, and Google Autocompletes
  2. Pick a trend and research a vertical/niche that has the problem and cash to buy the solution
  3. Pick a vertical/niche and then start calling people in that niche to see if they have the problem and would pay for the solution
  4. Research a solution for the problem and how much it would cost to buy or manufacture
  5. Call people in your vertical/niche and ask them to buy the solution you found for more than it costs
  6. If they agree to buy it, give them a way for them to buy it (i.e. a PayPal button or Square on your phone)
  7. If they buy it, then use the money to buy or build the thing and then deliver the product to the customer
  8. Get feedback from the customer on the product, ask for testimonials, get pictures of people using the product
  9. Use the materials to create a website to sell the product on either Shopify or Squarespace
  10. Setup social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Youtube, and Google+)
  11. Setup email list on Mailchimp and add the signup form to the website
  12. Write blog posts that answer people’s questions and post out on social media
  13. Reach out to relevant bloggers and offer to write blog posts for their sites
  14. Social bookmark from sites like Reddit, Delicious, and Digg
  15. Call prospects in the vertical/niche and ask them to buy