Start-up ideas – How to set up an online business

Stuart Maclaren, MD of the YPP Group, shares some excellent tips on how to launch and run an online business – from creating the right initial impression to providing excellent customer service.

You’ve got a great business idea. And you’ve got a plan. And that plan involves selling online: no high street rates, no heating/air-con bills, no retail staff costs. This time next year Rodney, we’ll be millionaires!

Sounds good. And why shouldn’t it? Of all UK purchases, online sales account for 17%. And that number is rising. If the future used to be orange, now it’s digital.

Sure, ecommerce is a huge market, but you’re not the only one who’s spotted that, and setting up a successful online business is rarely plain sailing. In fact, it’s much easier to go off course, or even flounder, than it is to arrive where you set out for. I know, because I’ve navigated those choppy online waters.

Your Print Partner (YPP) began as a £40k investment, and I grew it to become one of Britain’s largest fabric print providers; sales over £3m a year. And your business could be equally successful. Here are a few top tips:

Create a user-friendly website

Sounds obvious. Yet many ecommerce sites are difficult and frustrating to use. Too often the focus is on design and branding, with stylish functionality being more of a priority than giving the customer a simple, useful experience.

Think like a customer. Work out what your customer is likely to want and build your online store accordingly. For example, if your business provides personalised printing, your customer will almost certainly want to personalise each item in their basket differently. Don’t make the focus of your website build making your life easier; build a website that does what a customer wants it to do. If you don’t, you’ll see a lot of abandoned baskets.

And don’t forget to take into account the variety of devices people use. Your online store has to work flawlessly on a PC, tablet, smart TV, and a phone: an increasing volume of online purchasing is now completed on a mobile device. Avoid resource-intensive plugins and clunky user-interfaces. You don’t want your customers’ shopping experience to be slow or use up too much of their data allowance.

Know your target market

Unless you’re extremely lucky, your advertising and marketing budget is going to have a cap. You need to make the most of these resources, and that means identifying well-defined target markets. For example, you may want to use targeted advertising on Facebook across all your target segments, allowing you to understand which group has the most interest in actually buying. Then you transfer the majority of your ad spend to the best performing ads to maximise your return on investment (ROI).

Create clear ads

You need clear ad copy and imagery. Be careful not to waste your budget and/or time; vague text and stock photography are not your friends.

You want your copy and imagery to immediately inform your customers about your product: what is it, what does it do, how much is it? And another key factor for customers is availability. Link your ads to live stock info. An ad for an out of stock item is useless.

Think about your images

Good imagery is vital. Many websites use images of products on a white background, and while there are pluses to this approach (it is very clear what the product is), it is a little dull. It doesn’t help sell a product.

Imagine it’s the Christmas shopping season. Imagine a gift against a white background. Now imagine that gift being played with by kids next to Christmas tree. This kind of lifestyle shot activates your customers’ imaginations, allowing you to appeal to their emotional reasoning as well as their rational sides.

Drive traffic with competitions

A great way of driving traffic to your new website is to run regular competitions; this can be particularly effective on social media. You could email customers asking them to share an image of their purchase on Facebook and tag your page. Friends quickly become aware of you and begin using your services and entering your competitions, growing awareness exponentially for a relatively low cost.

Knowing your target audience and which segment you want to entice to your website is particularly useful when selecting a prize. The prize should be relevant to people who have already purchased your products/services, but also attract people who haven’t used your website before. Alternatively, you could offer a voucher as the prize, attracting all your target segments at once.

Develop solid partnerships

You can grow your online business steadily through direct-to-customer sales, but if you want to achieve rapid growth, it’s worth developing a solid partnership with business partners and resellers.

Resellers tend to have established brands and customer bases. Becoming their go-to supplier, tapping into their existing market, growing your sales volume.

It’s important to remember that a reseller’s value is created through their brand, so they are very protective of it. As such, you need to help maintain or enhance their reputation by delivering outstanding service. Products and delivery need to be reliable and high-quality, while your team need to be flexible when responding to requests. If you can solve a partner’s challenges, they will love you for it!

Local customer service

Many online businesses outsource their customer support to places where costs are lower (for example, the Philippines) and they rely solely on web chats and email to manage support tickets.

This is indeed a cheaper option, but it may frustrate your customers if they can’t reach someone with the power to actually do something. If your sector involves very short lead-times, customers waiting on a reply to an email may feel anxiety about delivery times.

Local customer service may cost more, but customers will feel reassured that any issues will be resolved quickly and easily, and that they will receive their purchase in the expected time-frame.

It’s very important that you don’t assume everyone wants web-based help. Your phone number should be prominent on your website, and you should ensure your phones are staffed to guarantee quick, easy resolutions to customer issues. You’ll also get valuable feedback that you can use to improve your service.

This article was kindly written for LCH by Stuart Maclaren, MD of The YPP Group, a leading name in the UK wide-format print sector. Your Print Partner (YPP) is a specialist digital print company producing flags, banners, exhibition displays and other promotional products.  

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