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The benefits of a thriving consumer forum

An ecommerce website can have content other than products for sale. Consider a forum, for example.

What makes a good forum? In my experience, it is where participants can ask questions and receive relevant answers within a few hours, no longer. A good forum is busy with lots of helpful content. A high-traffic forum can generate a secondary income from advertising or membership fees.

Advertising revenue needs plenty of visitors. Membership paywalls will restrict visitors. Thus the problem is twofold. How do you make a forum busy enough to keep people returning or worth paying a membership?

Relevant to your products

Firstly the forum should be relevant to your ecommerce site, focused on topics that interest visitors. It should answer questions and provide advice. Ideally the questions, answers, and advice all come from visitors. But initially you’ll likely have to seed the forum with content and in-house members.

A casual visitor will read interesting content. He may even ask questions if it appears the answers would be helpful. Again, the initial answers may have to come from staff, but over time visitors will ideally provide both the questions and the replies.

Achieving forum success is not easy. It will likely need considerable investment in time. But the rewards of frequent, interested visitors who value what you sell cannot be understated. You could ask their opinions, solicit pre-orders, and otherwise promote your products. Members could post about their products, forthcoming releases, business challenges, and more. Thus an active forum can generate relevant content.

Once the community has many participants, you could consider paid memberships. You will likely need to offer something to make it worthwhile. This could be a private forum with exclusive offers and discounts or a marketplace for members to sell products (especially relevant for collectibles). I know of one forum where paid members can link to their website and ask peers to review. It is not for the faint-hearted, however, as the reviews can be brutal but (usually) helpful!

No spam

Spam is the one thing to avoid on any forum. That can be difficult, as once it becomes popular a forum will attract spam posts, such as thinly-disguised adverts and offers for prescriptions, passports, or bitcoin deals. A good forum is moderated so such posts are gone within a few hours at most.

Loyal customers can serve as effective moderators. In time they “own” the forum and visit it more often if they think they are valued. Pitched correctly, the moderators can receive free memberships and nothing else. Moreover, volunteer moderators will not only remove spam but could also post knowledgeable replies.

Done properly, a forum can eventually be self-sustaining — requiring little staff time. It only works, however, if the forum directly relates to what you sell and interests visitors.

Launching a successful forum takes much promotion and nurturing. It will never gain traction otherwise. That’s why an active forum is rare. But, done correctly, a forum can generate customers to an ecommerce site as well as advertising and membership revenue.

The best way to select a software vendor

I am a believer in using software packages rather than custom applications. Functions such as accounting, customer management, and ecommerce are all standard. Most packages for those tasks will cover 90 percent of what’s needed. If the package does not cover a business practice, I typically recommend changing the practice, not the package.

As a company grows, so does its reliance on software. The right software drives efficiency and profits. It can lower employment costs.

Obstacle?

Nonetheless, software cannot become an obstacle. It cannot prevent a business from growing or evolving. When it does restrict growth, change your software.

Recently I read about a business that sold items to students. It had identified a new product range with strong appeal to a segment of international students, but not local ones. The company’s marketing plan and its advisors recommended separate websites for each student demographic — with pages, pictures, and language to fit that segment. Forecasts suggested that a generic website would be ineffective. However, the owner refused because the software could not accommodate separate sites. The software determined the business plan.

That is crazy.

If you don’t have the right tool for the job, get another tool.

If you don’t have the right tool for the job, get another tool.

Certainly changing software can be difficult. But it’s necessary when requirements evolve. Any business that does not adapt to the market is doomed to fail.

Change, however, requires planning. Do not rush a change, especially for critical functions. Most retail ecommerce businesses have a quiet period in February and March. That is likely the best time to replace software. Slow sales provide an opportunity to run both versions in parallel to prove the new one works and that it’s right for your company’s future.

Your business must remain profitable. Your software is just a tool. It should never determine what you do and how you do it to the detriment of your success.

The Solution

Now that you’ve decided to change software, how do you select the replacement?

The traditional method is to search on Google for suitable alternatives, shortlist likely candidates, read reviews, and determine the cost. All very sensible.

There is another way, however.

Likely your current package has other users with the same problem as yours. Many packages have a support network or community forum. Search this forum or ask a question. You may find a similar business that had the same issue and fixed it. If so, call the staff of that business. There’s nothing to lose. At worse, they decline to help.

At best, they disclose their new software, how it differs, the migration process, and whether it was worth doing. All insights would be invaluable, saving much time and money.

All too often ecommerce merchants think they’re alone, with unique and unsolvable problems. The truth is the opposite. There are millions of ecommerce businesses worldwide. Many are similar to yours. Most are not competitors. They are a huge untapped resource.

All too often ecommerce merchants think they’re alone… The truth is the opposite.

Similar businesses have much in common with yours. For example, they likely have lost deliveries, customer complaints, changing tax laws, and so on. A community of non-competing ecommerce businesses can be the best way of locating suitable software and what works and does not work in the real world.

Such forums exist. I’m a moderator of a general business forum in the U.K. It’s an invaluable resource where like-minded business owners advise each other and warn of pending changes to U.K. laws. Practical Ecommerce’s new CommerceCo community is an option. Regardless, search for one that’s suitable for you. Make sure that it is relatively popular so that posts get replies within a reasonable time.

At best, you will have found new friends and advisors, people who know what you are going through and can share their experiences for no cost.

It’s unlikely that you are the first to incur a particular ecommerce problem. Others have had it too and are willing to help.

Local consumers are your next online customers

In normal years, January and February is the time to review the just-completed holiday sales and look for ways to improve. But not much is normal about the last three months. Instead, look ahead.

Covid-19 has changed the world. It will never entirely go back to the way it was. More people will work from home, order online, stay local, and travel less. These are opportunities for ecommerce companies.

The internet enables global reach — a huge potential customer base. But that huge potential has enticed many competitors. A growing number of online merchants compete for the same customers. Often the only difference is price, which creates the dual problem of rising marketing costs and lower profits.

Moreover, serving distant customers creates shipping headaches, as merchants surely know.

What if you had more local customers?

Local Benefits

Consider search engine optimization. It’s much easier to obtain high organic rankings in local search. There is far less competition; with a little effort, you could see good results.

Delivering goods to local customers is much cheaper and easier. The risk of lost or damaged items is low. Local post and even your own delivery service are viable. Both would be relatively cheaper than national and international carriers.

As for customer service, you literally speak the same language as local consumers. You have the same accents, slang expressions, habits, and so on. Plus, the problems of local customers are often easier to solve. A broken item or a missing part is easily fixed: drop it off at the customer’s residence or ask him to pick it up.

Trust is among the biggest concerns of online shoppers. Can they trust the site to deliver the goods? Having a local address means that you stand by your customers. In the worst case, they only have to drive a reasonable distance to visit you and sort out their problem.

The pandemic has forced online buying on many consumers who had previously shopped in physical stores. Likely, few of your local brick-and-mortar competitors offer a meaningful online option. Thus experienced ecommerce merchants have a competitive advantage.

Focusing on local consumers introduces new forms of marketing. Posters, billboards, leaflets, even local radio and television — all are likely cheaper than internet advertising and possibly as effective. They also inject money into your community.

Consider, too, sponsoring a local team or group. It could increase your company’s goodwill and generate orders that are not based on price alone.

An Asset

In short, your company’s locale can be an asset. Your neighbors can be your best customers, and you, likewise, can be a good neighbor. It’s a win-win.

Serious changes are coming to the E.U. VAT

As I write this in mid-December, there is no Brexit trade agreement between the U.K. and the E.U. Businesses in the U.K. have no idea what will happen on January 1, when the U.K. formally exits from the E.U. [Editor’s note: An hour after we published this article, E.U. and U.K. officials announced a Brexit agreement.]

Certainly importers and exporters will experience headaches. Manufacturers could have hiccups in obtaining raw materials, which could lead to price volatility.

However, it’s less of a problem than it appears for ecommerce retailers.  The cost of the goods may change. But so long as they adjust their selling prices to match the cost, most U.K. retailers will carry on.

Value-added tax

The real problem for U.K. merchants will be adjusting to changes in the E.U.’s value-added tax. The changes — which apply to non-E.U. businesses that sell to E.U.-based consumers — were originally to commence on January 1, 2021. The E.U. has postponed them to July 1. Presumably U.K. businesses will be outside of the E.U. then and will apply the same rules as companies in the U.S. and elsewhere.

In simple terms, the changes apply to businesses that sell more than €10,000 of goods annually to E.U. consumers. This is roughly $10,000 at current exchange rates. The exemption to goods under $22 is going away. All goods must have a VAT charge come July 1.

For orders under €150, this charge can be levied by customs or the postal couriers and not collected by the retailer at the point of sale. This would mean a surcharge applies to the retailer as the sender of the goods or the customer as recipient. Neither is appealing.

The amount of VAT depends on the rate of the destination country. There are 27 countries in the E.U. and 27 VAT rates. Moreover, VAT-eligible goods vary among countries.

However, a non-E.U. retailer has to register for VAT in just one E.U. country — not all 27 — provided that the retailer must register in all countries where it has a physical presence, such as an office or warehouse. Otherwise, pick a country. Ireland is a good candidate for U.S. companies as there are no language barriers.

Regardless, once registered, merchants must file a quarterly return detailing the sales and VAT due for each country. The payment must accompany the return. To help, the E.U. will implement a universal declarative system to file and expedite returns for all countries in which a company is not registered. A separate return is required for registered countries.

Winners and losers

Pricing and classifying goods on an ecommerce site will be a nightmare. Plugins, such as for WooCommerce, will help. The main problem will be making sure that products are in the right category, so the correct VAT rate is assigned. Staying current on VAT rates will be challenging, too.

The added administrative burden will likely result in many foreign retailers avoiding E.U. consumers directly, opting for online marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay. Those marketplaces are the “deemed supplier” of the goods and would thus assume the VAT responsibilities. Presumably this will help cement the marketplaces’ domination. Indeed marketplaces are encouraging the VAT changes as it drives more business their way.

The U.K. is introducing an almost identical set of rules as the E.U. Marketplaces will be the “deemed suppliers” and thus responsible for VAT. Independent, non-U.K. retailers will have to register and charge VAT if they want to continue selling into the country. The main difference is that the U.K. rules start on January 1.

It is easy to see why the E.U. and the U.K. are doing this. It helps local merchants over foreign competitors. It does not necessarily help E.U. and U.K. consumers, however, who could end up paying more for goods and services.

The losers are small retailers who have traditionally sold to E.U. and U.K. consumers. Those retailers have thrived by providing better service at competitive prices.  Now administration and taxes are destroying it all.  It’s a pity.

Should you buy a failing ecommerce brand?

Have you been itching to get into ecommerce? Perhaps you’ve watched a slew of training videos. You’re ready to take the plunge.

There are a few ways to get into the ecommerce game. The first option is to get a job in the ecommerce industry, perhaps as an apprentice for a successful entrepreneur.

Another way is to start a business. You could do it as a side-hustle or as a full-time, all-in endeavor.

A third option is to buy an ecommerce business. Many ecommerce companies sell for around three times the annual profit.  A business with $200,000 in annual profit could sell for roughly $600,000, although there are many exceptions.

But what if you have an opportunity to buy a failing ecommerce brand, one with little or no annual profits?

… what if you have an opportunity to buy a failing ecommerce brand?

An opportunity?

A friend came to me recently with an opportunity to buy what he believed was a strong ecommerce brand. But there was one catch: The company had failed. It was not open for business.

He asked me what I thought.

He was clearly excited. He saw a brand with years of Google organic rankings for prime keywords. It had an email list of thousands of customers and prospects and tens of thousands of Facebook and Instagram followers. Supplier relationships were in place.

It seems like a no brainer.

Have you ever tried to catch a falling knife? That’s a saying from Wall Street. It refers to scenarios that are too good to be true. No matter how attractive the price, some deals are just stinkers.

My friend does not have ecommerce operating experience. Certainly he’s a smart fellow. And he has taken tons of training courses in web marketing and copywriting. But he’s never run an ecommerce business. And no matter how good the metrics seemed, the business he was considering had failed.

Perhaps my friend could make it work. After all, failing brands — such as Brooks Brothers, J.C. Penney — are being purchased this year with hopes of a revival. But the folks snapping up those brands are seasoned operators. Presumably they have a grand plan and know how to execute it.

Falling knives

But if you’re an ecommerce newbie like my friend, I strongly suggest not trying to catch that falling knife, for several reasons.

First, the entrepreneurs behind these brands rarely admit that they failed and, as such, that their brand is not valuable.

For example, a few years ago a strength and conditioning brand failed. I made an offer to buy the remaining assets. The owner had founded the company. My offer was in the range of $100,000. He countered that anything less than $2.5 million was an insult.

I rescinded my offer and wished him the best. He never sold the assets for any price, let alone the $100,00 that I had offered. In hindsight, my offer was too high. I’m glad he rejected it.

Second, the failing company may have an extensive list of customers and social media followers, but do those folks remember the brand? What do they think of it?

Many failing businesses engage in anti-customer behaviors. I’ve seen failing brands sell their lists to spammers, use substandard inventory, disavow warranty coverage, and engage in poor customer service — all to rescue the company.

Third, the brand might have burned suppliers. And suppliers talk to each other. If a supplier gets stiffed, its representatives usually tell others. Thus my friend may think he could resume production quickly. But the reality is he may have to find new suppliers who demand onerous terms.

Think twice

In short, think twice before buying a failing ecommerce brand.

Instead, buy a successful brand. Consider hiring a reputable broker. Conduct due diligence. Many successful entrepreneurs routinely sell strong brands, for valid reasons.

My response to negative Amazon reviews

In last month’s post, I described instances of giving preference to an Amazon customer rather than one from my own site. I hated that. It is one of the reasons I scaled down my Amazon listings.

For me, customer service is paramount. It is one thing an independent retailer can do better than the large box-shifters. But good service is possible only if the business survives, which is typically why merchants migrate to Amazon in one form or the other.

Nonetheless, Amazon has created a platform and promoted it so that consumers think they are Amazon’s customers — marketplace sellers are little more than fulfillment providers. So when they want a repeat purchase, consumers look to Amazon and not the independent sellers. Thus providing good service to Amazon buyers generates loyalty to Amazon, not those sellers. Never forget that. Accept this rule or leave the marketplace.

The 1-percent rule

It’s possible to survive on Amazon with one negative review or negative A-Z claim. But too many will seriously reduce your order volume. In my experience, marketplace sellers should keep the rate of dissatisfied customers to under 1 percent overall. One way of doing this is by having hundreds of orders.

I recently read about some Amazon sellers creating orders and sending free seeds to unsuspecting customers. This generated hundreds of trouble-free orders, which buffeted the retailers’ statistics and prevented problem orders from exceeding 1 percent.

I adopted a similar approach that was just as effective. I used to sell paintbrushes on Amazon that cost less than $1 each for under $2.  The sales generate little profit, but no loss, either. I sold about 100 sets a day, which created a cushion against unreasonable customers.

Thus over the years of trading on Amazon, I played the system within the rules to ensure Amazon’s customers received no better service than my own. Unfortunately, there are only so many cheap fast-selling items, such as paintbrushes. Other sellers eventually copied the idea. Then Amazon itself started selling cheap paintbrushes, undercutting us all. That’s when I began scaling back my Amazon business. I did not want to spend the time locating a similar (cheap) product. But certainly there plenty of opportunities.

Going forward

The Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating the trend toward ecommerce. Amazon is well suited to take advantage. It’s easy to start selling on Amazon, and it’s easy to understand why consumers are attracted to the company. Many ecommerce businesses will likely need to sell on Amazon and other marketplaces to grow in the next few years.

My advice? Play by Amazon’s rules, provide excellent customer service, and don’t forget your own ecommerce site.

After 20 years of ecommerce, change is the only certainty

Platforms such as Ebay, Amazon, and Etsy have steadily grew in popularity. This screenshot of Amazon's home page is from August 1999. The site sold mostly books then. Source: Wayback Machine.

Platforms such as Ebay, Amazon, and Etsy have steadily grown in popularity. This screenshot of Amazon’s home page is from August 1999. The site sold mostly books then. Source: Wayback Machine.

Designing, building, and launching a website is just the beginning of an ecommerce business. Attracting and converting visitors is the next, all-important step. A website alone does not guarantee anything.

This is where marketing comes in. Consumers need to find your site and, once there, have a reason to buy from you. Traffic from search engines — via organic listings and ads — can help with the former. Other marketing tools include email and ads on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and many other websites.

But the most critical factor in long-term success is the ability to change and adapt. Plan for change from the start. Don’t build an ecommerce site that is difficult (expensive) to alter or redo. It limits your potential.

The Basics

At the basic level, a site needs fresh content — product descriptions, photos, videos, prices — to help visitors make an initial purchase decision and return for more. For some markets, this is easy. Take shaving. Consumers will always need razors. But even razors have innovations and new ideas, such as three blades or five blades or auto-restocks via subscriptions.

Most products have new or upgraded releases and alternative uses. If your site is quick to receive these updates, compose compelling descriptions of why they are better or different or exciting. You have then given shoppers reasons to keep coming back. Some sites do this with blog posts and news articles.

In my business of selling science fiction memorabilia, an individual staff member knew all about new products and could write clever and funny descriptions about them. This made my site stand out and gain more customers. It helps if your ecommerce site can integrate with a publishing platform such as WordPress. (Or perhaps WordPress is also your ecommerce platform via a plugin, such as WooCommerce.)

Evolution

Over time the accepted look and feel of ecommerce sites evolve. What was once a good-looking site can become dated and stale. Visitors need to feel confident that you are a reliable business — their money is safe, and you will deliver what you say. New customers tend to evaluate a site based on its appearance. It’s difficult, however, for an insider to look at a site with fresh eyes, as new a visitor would see it. But it’s essential.

Perhaps your site requires a new template. Maybe the menu structure or navigation needs a revamp. You may need to move to a new platform to keep the site looking modern. These changes are relatively straightforward if you have planned, ensured that the content is portable, and maintained control.

What was once a good looking site can become dated and stale.

Strategic

When I launched in 2000, most online transactions were done from individual websites. All I had to do was make sure that mine was better than my competitors and appeared higher on the search results. In time, however, third-party platforms such as Ebay, Amazon, and Etsy began to dominate.

Thus the final type of change is strategic. Decide whether to list your products on these platforms. The decision is not easy. Do you list all of your products on those channels or just the bestsellers or clearance items? Do you set the same prices across channels or make the items on your own site cheaper? Can you vary prices in this manner without violating the third-party platform’s rules? In the E.U., for example, it is illegal for Amazon to forbid sellers from setting lower prices elsewhere.

Further, listing on third-party platforms creates competition for your own site. But can you afford not to use these platforms?

Consider the risks, too, such as being at the whim of the platform. Initially, Amazon was a small percentage of my sales, but it grew to exceed 75 percent. Staying on Amazon’s good side became vital — even to the point of putting Amazon’s shoppers ahead of those from my own site.

Inevitable Change

The point is that change is inevitable. Any company that does not evolve will surely die. Remember that the purpose of your business is to earn profits. Your website is a tool to make money. Change it or, indeed, move away from it as needed.

9 exercise tips for desk-bound workers

I’ve built an entire company around the idea that stronger people live longer, happier, healthier lives. The science supports this, and it’s commonsense as well.

It’s easier than most people think to get stronger, fitter, and healthier. That’s especially true for desk workers, such as digital marketers and ecommerce merchants.

Here are nine tips for desk-bound personnel to get stronger and healthier.

9 exercise tips

Morning routine. A morning routine can prepare you for a productive day — and a healthy life.

Biking

My morning routine includes biking four miles roundtrip to Starbucks. The trip wakes me up and focuses my thoughts. Plus, biking is a fun, low impact sport.

But it doesn’t have to be biking. Occasionally I’ll walk in the morning as an alternative. Walking is terrific exercise — 10,000 daily steps is a common benchmark.

Regardless, a bike ride, a walk, a run: all are productive ways to start your day.

Small exercise sets. This technique is popularized by Pavel Tsatsouline, a Russian trainer. He calls it “greasing the groove.”

Pull-ups

Do a specific exercise routine in small sets throughout the day to improve and increase your stamina.

A common “greasing the groove” exercise is pull-ups. Install a door-mounted pull-up bar. Every time you pass it, do a few pull-ups. If you’re unable to complete a pull-up, try a “negative” — jump and grab the bar with your chin above it and slowly lower yourself down. Before long, you’ll be doing pull-ups!

Push-upsAnother “greasing the groove” exercise is pushups. Do pushups every hour throughout the workday. The number should be manageable and well below your maximum. Soon you’ll be doing many more.

Work on a skill. A friend has a freakish ability to walk on his hands. Years ago, he decided this was a goal — to walk on his hands. He practiced every day until he could do it very well.

I’m working on the skill of riding a unicycle. I bike dozens of miles a week, but unicycles are difficult for me.

Setting a goal for a new physical skill has many benefits, such as providing certainty in an uncertain time.

Leave your desk hourly. Set a timer to leave your desk and move around for at least a few minutes every hour.

Uninterrupted work drives productivity. But the health benefits of moving around for at least a few minutes every hour are equally compelling. I typically set a timer. Some days I walk a bit. Other days I use a rowing machine in my garage for two minutes. That’s a manageable rowing distance that doesn’t get me too sweaty or out of breath. Afterward, I’m clear-headed and ready to work.

Walk-and-talk. Hold company meetings during a walk or even a ride.

WalkingI’m on many Zoom meetings. But not every meeting requires me to be in front of a computer. For those, I have a 2-mile loop around my neighborhood where I can walk and talk. I plug in my headphones, grab a pocket-sized notepad, and take off. Sometimes, for an added challenge, I’ll wear a weighted vest.

I’ve even conducted meetings while biking. But it’s not the best for safety and common courtesy.

Consider a garage gym. Build a garage gym (or a home gym) or just grab a kettlebell.

Garage gym iconsThis is what Fringe Sport is all about. We are believers in garage gyms. We all tend to use fitness tools more often when they are convenient. Building a complete garage gym is easier and less expensive than you might imagine. But for this article, remember that having the workout gear nearby makes it easier to use.

Get a buddy. Accountability is a motivator to meet your health goals. Consider teaming up with a family member or friend to track each other’s progress and stay on track. Put out a buddy call on your Facebook or Instagram feed.

Get a coach. A coach is like a buddy for hire. Years ago, during the first few years of my strength journey, I coached myself. Once I retained a professional trainer, I made much faster gains and improved my form. Today there are more tools than ever for coaches and clients to interact.

Do something! As we say at Fringe Sport, “We’re all fighting the couch.” Something, anything in the strength and fitness sphere, is better than nothing.

The 3 rules of ecommerce design

My ecommerce website went through many visual changes in the 20 years that I operated it, from 2000 to 2020. Sometimes I retained a designer, and sometimes I did it myself using the ecommerce software I was using at the time. One of the worst designs was by a professional in 2002 who persuaded me that my demographic of science-fiction geeks would love it.

I don’t know what I was thinking. The spaceship icons were on a starfield background (now missing from the Wayback Machine screenshot, below) and blinked when the cursor passed over them. Sales plummeted. We quickly moved on.

This post is the third in a series on starting and growing an ecommerce business, following “Launching an ecommerce business: the first steps” and “Lessons from 20 years of ecommerce.”

Kulture Shock’s ecommerce site in 2002 as archived by Wayback Machine. The starfield background is missing.

The 2002 redesign and other similar processes were fruitful, however, as they taught me three rules about ecommerce design.

3 Design Rules

1. Focus on profits. First, effective web design for ecommerce is not what looks good. It’s what sells. Ecommerce sites can look amazing with all sorts of fancy graphics. None of it matters. What matters is the bottom line.

Consider Amazon. The site has been tested and re-tested. It looks boring and safe. It is not an artistic masterpiece. But it is a ruthlessly efficient selling machine and makes a lot of money.

So never forget that your site is there to sell products. It has to look professional enough to convince visitors to spend money. It has to be simple enough to find things to buy. It has to be easy to use. It’s critical to monitor your sales conversions to ensure that it keeps doing this. On occasion, you may need to change the appearance to keep up with current trends. Let the numbers tell you when to do it.

2. Content is key. The second lesson is the value of good content. An ecommerce platform is a content management system. The products, their descriptions, and pictures are the content, which is the true value of your site. You can change platforms, templates, menus, and categories. But what cannot be easily changed is the content. Good product detail pages can take several hours to create. A site with 1,000 products can be the result of thousands of hours of work.

Always make sure that you can port this content when you move to a new platform. This typically involves exporting the data in a comma-delimited file or similar and then importing it into your new system. Take the time to get this right so you don’t lose this investment.

Another consideration is whether to move customer data — names, addresses, and contact details. This may seem to be vital marketing data, but in my experience it’s not necessarily worth porting. It depends on your business model.

For years I ran an email mailing list in-house. As time grew, it became harder to manage. The essential tasks of updating and maintaining it took much effort. Eventually I moved to an external email service. This meant that key marketing content was stored on a different system and not on the ecommerce platform. Thus the need to port the customer data when switching carts diminished considerably.

3. Control and ownership. The final lesson — control and ownership — is, in many ways, the most important. I always registered my domain names. This ensured that I was the named owner and named admin and named contact. No one could take the domain away or prevent me from using it. I never used the web designer’s registrar.

Thus if I had a dispute with designers or other experts, all I had to do was remove their access. I never had to worry about being held ransom by a third party. Even when I used employees to develop my site and expand its content, I always held the master key.

The Purpose

An ecommerce site should be ever-evolving and relevant. Its content needs periodic refreshing. Old and dead stock should be removed. New stock should be highlighted, giving customers a reason to return — plan for this from the very beginning. But don’t forget that the purpose of the site is to make money, not to win design awards.

Amid Covid-19, it’s time to build

“It’s Time to Build” is a popular blog post by Marc Andreessen, the Internet pioneer and investor. He wrote it in April 2020 at the onset of the worldwide pandemic.

Andreesen believes the pandemic is a failure of all of us to build governmental and commercial solutions to current and future societal needs.

The post is controversial to some. But not to me. Covid-19 is here, and it’s not going away anytime soon. Ecommerce businesses are lucky. Amid the global pandemic, our industry is thriving and pushing forward.

Fringe Sport, my company, exists to improve lives through strength. We do this by helping folks build amazing garage and community gyms. It seems a lot of people want to build a gym in their garage these days, and we are here to assist.

I’ve taken “It’s Time to Build” to heart. Perhaps all of us in ecommerce can focus on it.

What does it mean to build?

With the coronavirus, there is a strong desire to maintain, to wait it out. We must reject that. We must create. We must make things better. We must help people.

Help your customers

The first people to help are customers. Starting in the early days of the pandemic, Fringe Sport experienced a burst in sales. People (customers) were looking for certainty in a time of uncertainty. But for us, this burst of sales strained (or broke) our operations. We had to prioritize what to fix.

First, we focused on being able to ship orders quickly. This was not easy! It meant a lot of work on our processes, procedures, and systems. It also meant hiring more employees. We hired seemingly anyone we could get our hands on. Referrals from employees and friends led to awesome new team members.

Next, we scaled our supply chain. Early on we recognized that the sales burst could continue. We worked with our suppliers to increase deliveries so we could get products to our customers. We were successful, but the process is not complete.

Another bottleneck was customer support. What we thought were infrequent customer service issues became an avalanche. We built out the team, processes, and systems to provide quality support. Our customers are desperate for products to improve their strength, fitness, and mental health during a pandemic. They wanted certainty in a world without it.

Help your employees

I’ve always strived to make Fringe Sport a fantastic place for the right employees. We have a robust benefits package, which we’ve expanded with Covid. We provide masks for every employee. We explain the Covid risks. We encourage them to comply with masks and social distancing, even when they aren’t at work. We also remind them that if Covid affects them or their families, we’ll stand behind them with time off and other resources. We’re looking at adding even more benefits to make Fringe Sport an even better place.

Help your business

Build your business! We’ve long struggled with systems and processes at Fringe Sport. And then Covid hit. It was transforming. We had much less time, yet we were able to move quickly to fix the broken areas. There’s a saying, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” When we got busy, we got things done!

Help your family

Don’t neglect your family. The pandemic has created uncertainty for everyone — including our families. I mostly work from home now. I’ve assisted my wife and kids to stay safe and feel safe. I’m trying to provide leadership that my family needs.

Help the world

And finally, I’m striving to help the world and my community. There’s now massive global confusion and a lack of leadership. I’m trying to radiate calm and certainty while avoiding political bickering.

In short, I’m here to help. And I’m here to build.