So You Want To Start An Online Business

Notice you guys are coming out of your cocoons and have stopped being so shy. Thank you for your comments. Distressing most are coming from guy!! Dudettes, where art thou? 
This is Part One of a two part blog from the awesome Faisal Khan, more popularly known as “Babushka” (go figure). The guy has drama and you know how much I dig that. Here is how you start an online business in a proverbial nutshell.  

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So you want to start an online business?”  This question gets asked of me a lot. From budding entrepreneurs, to the unemployed, from students to housewives, from the elderly to the very young. Those who want to have their own thing on the side or to have their own business. What to do? How do I start? Where do I seek help? What are the steps? Where do I go? What do I need to learn? How much money would I need?

You’ve been thinking about all these questions for month or years, but have never really gotten to finding answers.

As a starting point, I want to make you aware of a very moving Quote. If you don’t understand this quote, you might as well skip this article and go back to whatever you were doing.

startup business online

The right time is now. Not tomorrow, not next week. Its now! What you put off today, will only prolong the situation, not improve upon it.

Over the course of my career, I have come across literally 1000s of people who seek advice on how to start their own business. They have ideas, dreams, ambition yet they lack the inertia to take the first step.

Starting an online business is not difficult at all. Its just a series of steps that need to be executed successfully that will have you owning an online business in no time. I would like to clarify one thing here. This article does not cover affiliate marketing, something which I absolutely am odds with. To read up on why I think there is no money in affiliate marketing, clickhere.

BUSINESS PLAN (Yes, Argh!)

Have a BusinessPlan? No? Then you need one. To start with an online business, you first need to decide what type of business you want to enter into. When choosing what type of business, you must take into consideration your knowledge and know-how of that particular business. It is equally important that you are cognizant of the geographic area you would be operating out of and the geographic regions that you would be selling to.

Let us say, your forte lies in clothing and fashion niches. Now it might or might not be foolhardy for you to venture into the online world of software sales. You might just get lucky at it, but the probability of you failing in that specific niche, is quite high. Why? It has quite a lot of do with domain knowledge.

Important Note: Stick to something you know or are passionate about.

To get started online, one of the primary things you need to do is to have a Business Plan. Now, now, don’t roll your eyes. A business plan gives you not only the holistic view of what you are trying to do, but also puts things into perspective for you.

Here is a great BusinessPlanTemplate you can work with.

A well-researched and thought out business plan, will make you more acutely aware of the competition, the opportunity that exists, the pluses and minuses of the industry, and more importantly, what is your unique selling point. What makes you so inherently different that buyers will flock to your website for the products/services you sell?

All this added clarity is only due to a business plan and all without investing a time in the business. As much knowledgeable you may be in the field, a business plan also serves a dual purposes – it also acts as a sales pitch book. You, yourself, would be your best critic and have answers to all the questions a ‘devil’s advocate’ may ask.

If your financials are correct, you will know very clearly, about what your expenses will be, and what it will cost you to run this business.

You wouldn’t buy land without having it properly appraised and thought over it a 1000 times before constructing your house. You look at 100s of factors, the neighborhood, the location, the locale, the commute factors, the town itself, taxes, schools, job opportunities, etc.

Your online pursuit, should be no less.

Once you have determined your vertical and niche (for your product &/or service), the next step to naturally ask yourself is where will you source your goods/services from? and for how much?

Some questions to consider are:

  1. Is your supply line competitive and reliable enough?
  2. What is the competition like?
  3. How many competitors show up on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, page of Google? (for your country? worldwide?)
  4. Will you be able to compete against these search results and make your way into these search engine results pages?
  5. How many of your competitors are buying ads? What is the average price they are paying per click? Will you be able to compete with them?
  6. Average selling price?
  7. What is your unique selling point? (free shipment, extras? discounts?, etc.)
  8. Whatever you are selling, is it cyclical in nature?
  9. Does your market scale horizontally or vertically?
  10. You need to invest in inventory? If so, how much does that cost?
  11. You may also need to look into Affiliate Marketing and Drop Shippers. These two options also represent a great way to start without having to worry about any sales process. You simply divert the user to the sale mechanism of the company whom you are representing for affiliate marketing or drop shipment and al is usually taken care by them. Referral sales are how 1000s of businesses today are doing business on the web. [but I digress]. Affiliate Marketing in my opinion will bring you traffic, but hardly any sales. With Millions of affiliate program out there, I would recommend you stay focused on your business plan and marketing it in the traditional way.

All these answers will come out from a well-researched business plan. Hence, I keep stressing the importance of it.

A business plan gives clarity from all perspectives and serves as a cheat sheet and your focus document, should you go astray.

RISK: MONEY & TIME

Important Note: Whatever money you spend on your online endeavor – you should be able to risk it all. After all that you may do, you may find out that the business never really took off and you want to throw in the towel. Be prepared to lose that money. What will be done with the inventory (if any), are things you need to think of. As in life, I say, there is a 50-50 chance. Either it will work or it won’t. If it doesn’t – and you are ready to call it quits, then understand the gamble to take with your money. Be prepared to lose it all, if worse were to happen.

DOMAIN NAME

To be online, you need a domain name. You can opt for a generic domain name, or a unique domain name. if you are selling Bicycle Seats, your domain can be http://www.BicycleSeats.com (if you are lucky enough to grab something like this). If you are a multi-product line store, you might opt for something like http://www.PetersOnlineStore.com or something of that nature (nomenclature notwithstanding).

Do keep in mind, today’s online stores heavily rely on online optimization and marketing. Choose your words for your domain name carefully. SEO is something you will have to consider later on. (SEO = SearchEngineOptimization).

HOSTING

Once you have your domain name, you would need hosting. There are plenty (actually 10,000s) of web hosting partners you can go to, and get your web hosting. The most preferred ones are like HostGatorBlueHostGoDaddyVerisign1and1LiquidWebiWeb, etc.

WEBSITE DEVELOPMENT

Once your hosting aspect has been taken care of, you would most likely need to have a website developed. I am going to assume that this is something you are familiar with and can work around to have this website (your online identity) sourced from somewhere and taken care of.

SHOPPING CART, CONTENT AND CMS

Important Note: If you are going to use a hosted shopping cart, most of the time you would not even need a website developed. If your prime goal is to sell online via the shopping cart, just go ahead with that. The shopping carts mentioned below are good enough to be strapped onto your domain and you get started right away. This only implies if you are okay with a online hosted shopping solution and do not want a website developed.

Three things to consider when doing your website:

  1. The content and copywriting is unique and up to par. Content is King. Don’t every forget that. Your website copy should be error free, grammatically correct and on the dot, meaning, the headlines, the opening sentences, the descriptions, etc. all need to have a proper sales copy feel to it.
  2. You have the ability to change the content of the website without a need for a web developer, etc. (a Content Management System) is a must. A good and perhaps the most prevalent CMS out there on the Internet is WordPress, check it out and see on how to get started, or alternatively, read this article on HowtoGetyourBusinessOnlineusingWordPress.
  3. You will most likely need some form of a shopping cart system for your website. Though there are 1000s of free and paid for shopping cart systems out there, my advice to you would be to free your time, outsource it. Opt for a SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) hosted shopping cart app. Of the few (best) shopping cart systems I would recommend are:
    1. Shopify
    2. Magento
    3. BigCommerce
    4. Volusion
    5. Etc.

A good shopping cart system will have plenty of options for your store layout, discounts, coupons, loyalty program, shipping integration, payment handling integration (especially look out for PayPal integration, a lot many users prefer to pay via PayPal), etc.

Unless you are a techie, and really have extra time on your hands, just opt for an online-shop builder solution (also known as hosted shopping carts). There are no steep learning curves, safe and secure (read: hassle-free) hosting and above all, you get technical support. Remember, time-saved is money earned.

Once you have taken care of your shopping cart, website, domain and hosting. You are essentially online. However, you still need to process payments.

PAYMENT INTEGRATION

I must point out here, that today’s shopping carts are very advance. The hosted shopping cart solutions like Shopify etc. do not require that you have a separate website all together. In fact the GUI / Design of the shopping cart is such so as to give a fully functioning website look, feel and experience, whilst still having the entire domain of the shopping cart (product categories, checkout, etc.)

The ability to accept online payments is a straightforward process. You need to have what is called a Merchant Account (usually provided by a bank, based on your credit history, etc.) and then you need to have this Merchant Account – integrated with your shopping cart system. The merchant account is not mandatory. You can tap into various 3PP (Third Party Payment Processors) to do the same for you, however, do note, your acquiring fees would be slightly higher.

Here, luckily you have many options. 1000s of merchant service providers would be able to assist you. From Cardservice International, Authorize.net, 2checkout.com (if you are international or even US concentric), BraintreePaymentSolutions (highly recommended), Bank of America, etc.

I would really look at Braintree and see if you can get started with them. Very helpful staff, and very good rates. You need to be aware of:

  • The acquiring fees (usually a percentage). The lower the fees, the better it is.
  • Monthly fees
  • Per approved transaction charge
  • Rolling reserve (some merchant opt for this)
  • Charge back Fees
  • Fraud Control
  • Integration with various shopping cart system?
  • 24/7 Customer and Technical support

SHIPPING

If you are selling physical goods, it would be a good idea to sign up with say USPS, Fedex, UPS, etc.

Now that your store aspect is almost complete, you would need to take care of a couple of things:

  1. Telephone Number and Address for your business (I am going to assume you will be a proper business that is registered)
  2. Be aware of what your tax rate is if you are shipping within the state
  3. Your terms of sale, terms of service, acceptable usage policy, privacy policy, service level agreement, disclaimer and legal terms all need to be worked out by an attorney. Money spent on this is well worth it.
  4. Your refund policy and exchange policy needs to be clearly spelled out.
  5. Do make sure your shopping cart can handle refunds, etc.

BOOKKEEPING

For your accounting and bookkeeping, you can again resort to an online solution. Xero.com or Quickbooks.com are two good options.

HELP DESK

You would also need some form of a Customer Support Help Desk, where your users can open support tickets or ask questions, etc. Here again you have many SaaS options like Zendesk.com, 37signals.com, etc. Google for “help desk” or “hosted crm” and you should see plenty of results.

With the above your online store is essentially complete.

WEBSITE TRAFFIC: VISITORS

What you now need to work with, is getting visitors. You have just perhaps spent quite a few weeks in the making your online virtual shop probably the best it is. However, sadly all this goes to waste if you don’t have any visitors to your website (shop). The more (targeted) visitors you have the higher the probability of a sale. Here is a great (simple) articletohelpyouunderstandwhatInternetTrafficandVisitorsareallabout.

Most online websites that sell fail to see any sales is because they underestimated the importance of post-website construction phase, known as traffic building. Without traffic, there is no sales. Whether you bring in targeted traffic slowly (organically) or via paid clicks, all depends on you, however – this is an area you cannot afford to ignore.

You need to now work with a professional (individual or company) who will work with you, on your limited budget to start online campaign for you. The online campaign is not just for marketing purposes, but it is also geared towards your search engine optimization (SEO). You would be looking at things like acquiring back links, having articles written and placed on various ezine sites, listing your website with the necessary online directories, making sure your site is index properly by Google and other search engines. Make sure you on-page SEO is done correctly. Your META tags and descriptions are well written, etc.

You can also get started with a small online PPC (Pay-Per-Click) campaign on Google, to buy ads and bring (targeted) traffic to your website. PPC is one of the fastest ways to bring visitors to your online store.

Everyday by some estimates 40,000-50,000 blogs/websites, etc. go online. That’s every day. What is going to make your website stand out is only how effectively people are able to search for the things they want to buy (which presumably you are selling) and how effectively you utilize and conquer (for lack of a better word) the Search Engine Results Page (or SERPs). Don’t ignore the social media either. Today, more and more users can be found spending countless hours on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ (relatively new), LinkedIn, etc. Learn to adapt your marketing and communication by using social media.

In the end, it boils down to two things:

  • The end price the user will pay to have the product/service delivered to them.
  • The user experience.

It is not easy competing with the likes of the web giants, like Amazon or Ebay, or other web stores (albeit Ebay would classify itself as an Auction). You need to give users a reason to come to your website and shop from your store.

One example of a store done very well in my opinion is www.etsy.com - you will see what a great feeling it juxtaposes on to the visitor.

Hopefully, this would give you a very good starting point on how to get started with your online store. As I cited, I could have overlooked a few key points, please do not hold that against me. If you need any additional information, feel free to post here as a comment and I shall reply. Good luck on your venture.

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doing business on the InternetFaisal Khan describes himself as, “An engineer by education, a payments specialist by trade … A geek / technologist at heart.” 

He is the Founder & CEO of Inter-Bank Financial Services, a Cross-Border Payments & Payment Systems company. He is the Scobleizer of Pakistan being very active across several social media channels including my fav Q & A website, Quora. You can connect with him on the following platforms; Quora, LinkedIn, Blog, Twitter, Tumblr.

This answer was originally written for Quora. The original post can be seen here: http://www.quora.com/How-do-I-start-an-online-business/answer/Faisal-Khan-1 

“I Dare” Summary

Last week was hectic. Last week was tiring. Last week was awesome.

Women’s Digital League was selected as a semifinalist for CRDF Global’s GIST I Dare Business Plan competition. The competition was open to startup businesses from in various stages of development. From a total of 550 applications received from 43 countries only 20 were selected for the semifinals. Pakistan had the second highest number of applicants after Turkey, and out of these 5 selected businesses 3 were women-owned. Talk about breaking perceptions, right?

You can view a list of semifinalists here.

I know this post is quickly becoming extremely boring and seems like it’s written by someone else as it lacks my wonderful personality but trust me – I am exhausted. A happy exhausted – but exhausted nonetheless. Till the very last moment I had no idea whether I was gonna go or not. Lots of reasons one of them being a brand new job. You say WHAT – A JOB – WHAT ABOUT WDL – NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO ….

Relax! It’s not what it sounds like but am not ready to talk about it coz I am scared of jinxing everything. Yes, lately I have become slightly paranoid – just another one of the eccentricities that make up moi. But then … what’s the fun in being “normal”, right? ;) Ummmmm … I also think lately I have developed ADD.

*Blankly stares into space*

Oh yeah – so the first day was brutal. I had been up since 8 AM the previous day, my flight was leaving at 2 AM so stayed up the whole time, didn’t get a wink on the 3 hours journey coz this weird/scary/stalker guy sat next to me and I was afraid he was going to slit my throat as I slept. Got there at 6 AM, took ages getting my original visa and an eye-scan (a story for another time perhaps), reached the hotel, checked in and left immediately for the workshop which lasted till 10 PM. So, I was up for about 38 hours and it was BRUTAL I tell ya. Had to give a simulated elevator pitch to at least 20 of the 50 or so biggies that had come to attend. Managed only 8. It was heartbreaking when people who barely knew me or understood what I was doing judged my baby. Some didn’t have a clue what virtual assistance was and telling all in 55 seconds was just not doing it. When the dude from Mowgli made the time-out sign at me I wanted to sit down and cry – literally. But I am going to be an adult about it and not whine – it was definitely a good experience.

The evening ended on a good note – Pak Energy Solutions from Pakistan won second place for their elevator pitch! Was a very proud moment seeing Ali Raza Randhawa (will tell you more about him in a bit) walk up the stage and receive his award (BTW Ali, you still owe me that book???). I had no idea how patriotic I was until that moment ….. strange the things you discover about yourself when you think there are no more surprises.

Second day and I decided to take it slow and get some rest otherwise I knew my system was going to give up. Had the most scrumptious breakfast ever. They had soups and coldcuts and rice and casseroles for breakfast besides made-to-order omelettes by a chef, pancakes, waffles, a gazillion different types of breads and spreads. I was in breakfast heaven I swear.

The workshops were OK. My fav by far was Professor Ken Morse. Am absolutely infatuated with the man. Usually I don’t care for the motivational speakers types but he was something else all together. Had me hooked. He was kind and tough, encouraging but at the same time blunt, and above all I just knew he was a kindred spirit. So humble and so pleasant and so charming. Sighhh …. <3

As always I loved the networking. Meeting new people, getting to know their business ideas, their worries, their successes, their beautiful Arab and Indonesian and Turkish accents, forming stories around them in my head, adding layers to their personalities … do I sound creepy? See if I care … :P

And I did the most daring thing I have done in a long time … Chady Zein was one of the presenters on the second day and he was showing us how to give a good presentation. Right before wrap-up he asked for volunteers to do a presentation and my hand shot up! Peeps who know me know that I am a very nervous speaker. I absolute abhor having to speak formally to an audience. But something Professor Morse said the day before stayed with me … he said don’t be scared to reach out to people and give them your pitch if you need to because none of them will kill you. And I thought WTH. Gave my infamous Maya Khan presentation without any slides to back me up or sympathetic faces in the crowd. Here is to a new me! *grin

Was expected to pitch to a second round of peeps at the end of the day. I had absolutely no energy. One thing I have learned is when you are in such competitions and the biz ppl are listening to a million ideas pitched at them just keep your distance … unless of course you have an extremely thick hide … which I don’t. If you are passionate about what you do close your ears to all the negativity around you, take honest criticism from those who understand what you do, learn to tweak your idea, and carry on. Negative remarks from people who have only just met you and know only 55 seconds of what you have been doing for over 3 years can be really hard at the startup stage. You may disagree but this is my personal opinion.

Got a lot more to tell you about the people I met. Needless to say Arab women are gorgeous. Will upload videos and pics in a bit. MUST tell you more about Mr. Randhawa – what an inspirational guy.

OK BYeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Why Business Plans are Important

OK so am back from a 3-week dream trip to the US. First things first, here is a dedication to all my detractors:

That felt good … to all of you who thought I was crazy for running after impossible dreams and who laughed and scoffed and looked down because you went to medical school while I attended a 3rd grade college and studied english literature … look at me now. Ahhhh … what bliss. Thank you for all your negativity and for your b****iness. Made my resolve to do something “different” and “meaningful” even more stronger. So, hope this is all giving YOU HELL.

With that out of my system, I can go back to being the nice, sweet person you all know. I notice traffic on the blog. Amazing! So, all you anonymous, silent readers, if you are here for anything useful, sorry to disappoint you. This is just a place for me to rant and ramble and brag about my fabulousness. No, seriously!

Anyhoo … so after spending 3 weeks in the US making wonderful friends and meeting amazing people and spending US$11k of the American tax-payers’ money, what was it that I learned? A LOT, I tell you. My head is abuzz with ideas. I haven’t even had time to feel jet-lagged. Been working since the day I landed in Paki-land. But, after thinking and feeling like my brain was going to explode, trying to decide what I wanted to work on first … I realized … Thunderbird was right … I need a business plan. I can’t go around making great plans for out-of-this-world websites, and hiring a gazillion women to work from home at fixed salaries without capital, and to raise capital, I either have to steal my mother-in-law’s jewelry, or I have to write a business plan, and hope I find an investor just as crazy as I am. *If you are an investor, please read ‘crazy’ as FABULOUS.*

So, been working on it since yesterday using a template given to us by Prof. Steven Stralser at Thunderbird. I have also realized, while writing your business plan you will probably need a lawyer. For example, Women’s Digital League is not registered. To register I have to decide if I want to make it a Private Ltd. Company or a Public Company. I have had the best of the best explain to me the difference between the 2, but it’s beyond my comprehension so will have to leave it to a lawyer. Also, you might have to answer questions like:

  • What kinds of permits or license will you need to open for business?
  • What government requirements will you need to meet?

Now obviously, I don’t know the answers to either of the above. But an investor would want me to know about these and to take care of them before I get us both put behind bars. :D

Also, having a business plan ensures you set your priorities right. What is it that you are going to do once you get the US$100 million (that’s how much Quora got … sighhh …. I DETEST rich people). Will you spend it on sales, marketing, HR, improving your services/product? Chances are you want to spend on all but then what is most important. It will help clear your head and put all your ideas into some kind of an order … I know things look a little less chaotic now that I have started working on a  BP. It’s kinda like spring cleaning. Your clear out the cobwebs, throw out the items you know you will NEVER use and that are so precious to you but are cluttering up the space (my Spice Girls shoes from 1996 – *sob), and clean out the bits and pieces that are the most useful and lay them in neat stacks.

So a Business Plan is essentially your vision put into words, and a strategic plan to help you achieve your goal. It helps put the mechanism into operation. An idea is just an idea and holds no value until you put it into motion. Plus, we live in a material world dahlins … like it or not, but $$$ is important. And no investor in his right mind (unless it’s your billionaire dad and you are the prodigal son *notice how I am diverting from my love of all things feminine and for the negatives am only using the masculines!) will give you any money. For that, you have to show her  (see the subtle change? Female equality? Sorry, we are superior. Men will just have to learn to live with it.) you have a sound financial understanding of your business, the capital you need, why you need it, how you will spend it, and how you will make that 1 million into 10 millions.

Because a good business plan is always a team effort (which sadly mine isn’t but will still work beautifully because my awesomeness = a team of 10 great ppl put together), therefore, you tend to not get carried away by your ideas and remain firmly rooted in reality. You get to debate each and every point and make sure you have a realistic strategy in place to help you through tough phases and not get bankrupt in your first year. Yes, it still happens despite the best of teams working together, but you narrow down your chances by leaps and bounds.

So, I know it sucks to sit down and write down everything because you would rather go out and do things then just talk about them. But if you need that seed capital that’s so important for startups, even virtual ones, dudettes you gotta nail your business plan.

Me goes works on mine …

Lemme know if you have any Qs …

Byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee