10 Things to Know Before Going On-Line

When you thought about starting a business in the first place, you probably did a lot of research. You knew that you’d have to rent space, possibly even have to fix up raw space, apply for the necessary permits, have regular inspections if you were selling food, etc. It was going to be expensive to get started, and you wanted to make sure you weren’t throwing your money away.

If you needed a loan – or if you had any sense – you did a business plan before you started paying people, so you knew how long it would take to recover you initial investment, and how long it would be before you would actually be making money.

Why is it that the same intelligent business owners who take such care before starting their businesses in the physical world enter the online world in such a willy-nilly manner? One problem is that people who have something to sell rarely sell it by talking business owners out of going online. Consequently, brick-and-mortar (BAM) business owners are bombarded by offers to take their businesses online and never hear a word about why not to take your business online, or about what kinds of things you need to know before you spend money on an online presence.

With that in mind, here is my list of ten things you need to know before you take your business online. You’ll notice that some of the things you need to know, I can’t tell you. No one else can. That’s part of the problem:

1. Why Do You (Think You) Need to Be Online?

What do you expect to accomplish: sell things, increase visibility, make contacts?

2. Understanding why people shop online (and who will never make a profitable target market)

How does your knowledge of who is researching and buying online map to your current business strategy? Are you targeting the people who are online? Are you targeting people who do research or spend money online?

3. Understand what your Web address is and why you need one

No one will ever just drive by your Web address. Your Web address will need to be incorporated into all your existing marketing efforts if anyone is ever to find you. If you use a "free Web site," forget about visibility. You’ll never end up in a search engine and anyone who comes to your site will see ads for competitors products. Consider purchasing your domain name from a discount registrar like GoDaddy.com

4. The shopping cart and check out

If you’re planning to sell online, how will you take orders? How will you display product information? Consider using Yahoo! stores. You'll see much more traffic this way than any other way. Even Gap.com has a Yahoo! store. What does that tell you?

5. Being where customers are

Will you develop an affiliate program so that other sites can display your wares on their sites? Will you participate in any aggregation sites like MySimon.com?

6. Keeping the site up to date

Putting the site up is literally less than 10% of the work. How much time, money, and energy are you planning to devote to keeping the site up to date?

7. Search engine optimization (SEO): Your new hobby

Without search engine listings, you can’t expect to see much traffic. Have you budgeted to be listed in Yahoo? MSN? Anywhere else? Even the free search engines require pretty regular attention or you won’t see any traffic from them. You'll need a tool like WebPosition Gold to monitor your search engine rankings. Actually, there is no other tool like it. You'll need it.

8. Accepting payments and Avoiding Fraud

If you’re planning to sell something online, can you use your current merchant account? Do you plan to accept any other type of payment? Checks for example? How will you avoid being taken to the cleaners by scam-artists in possession of unauthorized credit card numbers?

9. Shipping goods and handling returns

How will you ship? How will you handle returns? Do you have the facilities to handle the potential increase in sales?

10. Legal stuff

Where will you get (or will your Web guy) get the graphics for your site? If you market to youth, under 13, you need to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA). You’ll also need some sort of privacy policy so visitors know what you do with their personal information.

Alexis Gutzman is author of The E-Commerce Arsenal
Copyright 2007. All Rights Reserved.

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