Many people often ask me about eCommerce and how to setup their own online store, and the first thing I tell them that unlike a personal site, an eCommerce site requires planning and adequate funding. While there is no definitive book that I can point you to and say read this…, there is a variety of online resources that can prove helpful. I believe that the nature of business is that if you truly desire to be successful, then you have to put in the effort. Small business is all about outsmarting your competition and for this reason I think there are not a lot of comprehensive guides on how to put together an online business. Then there is the fact that eCommerce can encompass so many things depending on what your business is.

In my view, there are three components to an online site, the technical, the financial, and the legal details. We will focus mostly on the technical.

The Online Store

Before starting your business, you should already have a solid business plan and have done some planning into what you want your business site to look like. You should have set aside proper funding for launching your online venture. A minimal site, may require around $500, but if your online business is going to be your only source of income, you will definitely need to invest a substantial amount.

  • Webhosting: The first thing to consider is how much the webhosting or web server is going to cost. While a part-time home business might make due with a reliable shared-webhosting account, most businesses will want to setup their own web server. Whichever you choose, webhosting or your own server, make sure that it can be reliable and maintained. The last thing you want is for your 24-hour online business to be down for any significant amount of time.
  • Shopping Cart: The face of your store and backend is provided by software, usually referred to as a shopping cart. A good shopping cart will provide you with your exact business needs. This can include everything from adding new items to your site, to offering discounts, tracking payments, and helping you ship items. The shopping cart will need to be maintained and because it is the heart of your online business, it is the most important choice you make when starting out. There are many shopping cart scripts. You will want to evaluate multiple carts and pick the one that can grow with your business and which is compatible with your webhosting. Some popular carts are: OSCommerce, ZenCart, X-Cart, CS-Cart, 3DCart, ShopSite, and ASPDotNetStorefront.
  • SSL Certificate: In order to process transactions securely your business will need a Secure Socket Layer certificate installed on the web server. This is what encryts communications between the web browser and web server. SSL certs are traditionally expensive and can cost around $100 or more per year, but they are a necessity if you want customers to feel safe while conducting business on your site.
  • Payment Gateway: Your shopping cart will integrate with multiple payment gateways and allow you to take credit card information. However, you will need to sign-up with these gateways or acquire a merchant account from your bank or third party processor. Although this is more of a business decision than a technical one, because the fees vary widely you will need to shop around for the best rates. Most eCommerce sites can take a variety of payment options and so you will want to offer your customers at least a couple of choices of payment. The most popular are credit card processing and PayPal.

Accounting & Marketing

No business can survive very long without solid business decisions. These decisions need to based an accurate information. Keeping track of how much your business is spending and how much it is taking in is important. For this task, most business rely on their accounting package. This usually means Quickbooks Pro or some equally professional accounting software. Something to keep in mind is how well your shopping cart software can integrate with your accounting software.

For new online businesses, marketing is going to be very important. Your domain name for your site should reflect what you sell and should be easy for your clients to remember. The next step is to bring potential clients to your site. This can mean having a search engine friendly site, an AdWords campaign, or traditional print advertising. Don’t forget word-of-mouth advertising either! The simple business card is still one of the best forms of marketing around.

Privacy And Trust

Today privacy is still the most debated argument of an online world. Successful businesses are trustworthy businesses. Your eCommerce site should put consumers at ease by having clear and published policies. The common privacy policy and terms of use pages need to be quickly accessible and easy to comprehend. Since eCommerce deals with goods and services, consumers also need to know about return policies, shipping methods, and other customer service assistance provided. Make sure that your customers have all this readily available to them. For some policies you should consult a lawyer, who can verify that you are following all the necessary rules of whatever type of commerce you are doing. Legal consultation beforehand is always cheaper then later.

Additional Resources

The internet offers plenty of information, but most of it is pretty generic and not localized to your state or county. It is best to always consult with professionals in your local area who can advise you on the business issues that you need help with, and use the Internet for general assistance. WebmasterWorld is an excellent source of general information like in this eCommerce 101 post.