Ecommerce for Solopreneurs
By Rob Gordin.
Suppose you want to start selling online, but you are a one man (or one woman) show. What solution fits your needs the best? How much work will it be to get up and going? How much will it cost? Is it flexible and easy to maintain? Does it provide a growth path for the future?
These aren’t easy questions to answer, and there are a mind numbing number of options, but this article will give you a few things to consider in making a rational decision on the best eCommerce system for you. This is not intended to give you every possible option in selecting a platform for your business - that would be all but impossible. Rather, we would like to provide a “framework” for ways you can think about it so you can make rational decisions on the eCommerce approach that is best for you.
There are two things that Solopreneurs generally don’t have in great abundance – the first is time, and the second is of course, money, so those will generally be the primary consideration, but there are many others. Let’s take a look at the possible options, and note that there is a great deal of overlap with each of these approaches.
1. Use an open source platform. Many solopreneurs are into DYI (do it yourself) approaches, so these are always popular. Basically this just means you select one of the many solutions that have been developed by the open source community, then configure and modify it to fit your needs and then host it on your own server and domain. A few of the more common examples in this genre:
The Upside: For all intents and purposes, you will “own” this system and can do what you want. There will be no monthly service fees beyond what you pay for hosting, and no transaction fees beyond what you pay to your credit card payment provider. There will also be a great deal of flexibility in development – with some effort, you should be able to get the exact “look and feel” that you want.
The Downside: This is not for the faint of heart. Even if you are technically skilled, this is often a “trip into the weeds”. You very will may find yourself working far more on your technology, then you are on selling and marketing your products and services. The maintenance and upkeep of these systems can be daunting, and technical support can be spotty at best. In the case where the open source software company also has a paid version, there will usually be less functionality and the free version is mostly meant to eventually get you to upgrade to the paid version.
2. Use a Content Management System. This is somewhat similar to using open source software, except in this case software that is designed for managing content on websites is used, and a plugin of some kind is used to provide the eCommerce functions. Depending on the technology selected, this can be either easier or more difficult than using open source software designed specifically for this purpose. A few of the common examples in this genre:
Joomla with VirtueMart Plugin
Drupal with Ubercart Plugin
WordPress with WP e-Commerce (and others)
The Upside: Most solopreneurs who use this approach are already using it to manage their website so it has the advantage of being well integrated with what is already in place. It can often be a superior way to showcase products, as not everything is oriented to :”selling” so product displays can be mixed with other content.
The Downside: This is usually not quite as flexible as using an open source system specifically designed for eCommerce. Technical support is usually through online forums and can be frustrating and time consuming.
3. Use Commercial Software. This is also similar to the “free open source” approach, but in this case solopreneurs elect to pay for their software solution – either through a one time or ongoing licensing fee. Note that “open source” and “free” are not exactly the same thing., Software can be open source – meaning you have full access to the source code and can modify it if you wish, but it still requires a licence fee. Also, some commercial ecommerce software does have free versions with less functionality. A few of the common examples in this genre:
Magnito (also has free version)
CS-Cart Shopping Cart Software
X-Cart Shopping Cart Software
The Upside: Purchased ecommerce store software is generally has a higher initial cost but there is only a single payment and then you own the software or have a permanent licence. Support is generally superior and you have an accountable party and “someone to talk to” if something goes wrong. Purchased software is also usually more flexible and can be modified to suit your needs.
The Downside: Primarily the up front fee, and also the danger of being “locked in” with a single vendor. It is not unheard of for these companies to go out of business which will leave you with no growth path.
4. Use a Hosted Platform. This is an approach where you do not host the ecommerces software at all, but rather use a host to provide this service. Typically you will “embed” the shopping cart into one or more of your website pages, but is is also possible to use many of these as standalone platforms – even while retaining your domain name. Be aware that there is a wide range of functionality with these platforms. Some hosted platforms provide no more than an “add-on” cart which is deployed on an existing website by copying a few lines of HTML, while others provide a complete stand-alone website builder can be added onto an existing site or used independently as your entire website. A few of the many examples in this genre:
Paypal Shopping Cart
The Upside: This is a great solution for beginners because the hosting is included and there is usually no technical setup required. There are some great deals out there especially if you don’t have a ton of different items to sell. In general, the will support multiple payment providers so that is one less thing to worry about.
The Downside: There is usually a monthly fee and often transaction charges. Many of the deals out there are “loss leaders” and If your store is successful there could be some hefty fees and service charges as you grow. When the platform is provided without charge, some companies put advertisements on your store which can be a turnoff to your customers. It can also be extremely difficult to migrate to another platform once you have selected one of these services.
5. Get in Bed with a Giant. This is an approach where you use the solutions provided by one of the major players in the ecommerce industry. At the moment, there are really only two “giants” to consider – Amazon and eBay, but we can expect all the major social networks – Facebook, Google+. Twitter and Pinterest to have offerings in this area. The two major examples in this genre:
The Upside: These sites know how to sell, and there may be some advantages to their dominant market position. If you are selling on Amazon or eBay anyway, this is something you probably want to consider. There are generally multiple payment options and since these sites are highly “trusted” you may get more sales by associating with them.
The Downside: Since these services are associated with these giant companies, your branding may become overwhelmed by the larger company. The solutions are often more “canned” and less flexible than other approaches.
6. Get Social. This is an approach where you sell primarily socially – either through an existing social network or through sites that have been specifically set up for this purpose. This is an emerging genre and we can expect to see more players in this area, including all the major social media companies. A few examples in this genre:
Etsy (mostly for art and handcrafted items).
Envato (for digital goods)
Vendio Ecommerce (for Facebook stores)
The Upside: This sites often specialize in niche areas, and come with a built in community of prospective buyers – a big plus for the solopreneur.
The Downside: As with hosted services, the growth path is uncertain and you may find yourself needing to do a migration at some point – which can be even more difficult since you may have active buyers and prospects in the community. Also, since the genre is new, no one really know what will happen. New players will almost certainly emerge, and there may be a shakeup with some of the existing companies.
7, Go Mobile. More and more people are buying off their mobile devices – smart phones and tablet computers. While this genre overlaps somewhat with the others, it is worth considering in its own right. A few examples in this genre:
The Upside: This, along with social commerce, is likely to be “the wave of the future”. Most ecommerce providers will be designing support into their platforms if they haven’t already
The Downside: Many new and smaller players that may not provide support for more traditional methods. Some “trendy features” may not stand the test of time, and not all products are ideal for being sold on mobile devices.
At best, a report like this can just scratch the surface on an industry as broad and multidimensional as ecommerce. For all intents and purposes, you can expect just about every Internet technology company to try to get a “piece of the action” this, for the simple reason that it is “where the money is”. Most players in this industry will be integrating different approaches so it shouldn’t be to difficult to find the provider that is best for you.
For most solopreneurs, however, the best solution will likely be to use one of the hosted platforms. These will allow you to get up and selling almost immediately, which you can’t do with either open source, content management or commercial software.
Regardless of ths solution you select, do your homework. Select the approach you think works best for you and write up some specifications for your needs before you even look at the prices and feature sets of the different systems. Avoid any services require you to pay a percentage of your sales and “free trials” are all but useless. Even with hosted platforms, there will be some effort in setting this up so you want to select the system that best matches your needs.
One more thing – don’t delay. If you have products to sell, you can be making money sooner than you think.
About the Author. Introduction. Rob is the founder and owner of one of the largest business communities on Google Plus. You can find his information on his G+ profile. Because he interfaces with over 25,000 small business owners he has a unique knowlege of that market. He also is the founder of http://world-startups.com/