Here is a complete step-by-step guide of how to build an online store and start a profitable business with little to no money.
Learning how to build an online store from scratch is not as easy it once was. There are so many uncertainties when starting an online business. Ultimately, everyone that builds an online store has one goal in mind and that is to make money.
But when it actually comes time to get the ball rolling, most of us have no clue where to start. In reality, we usually get stuck on one of the following questions:
- Should I use PayPal or use something else to accept payments?
- How should I price my products? What about my competition?
- What color scheme and logo should I use for my store?
- Should I get a domain name?
- Where do I get customers? Can I advertise?
- Do I need to hire a developer / designer?
- Where do I get the information for my product pages?
The above are just a few of the common questions that everyone runs into before building an online store.
Why build an online store?
The most common reason of building an online store is because you want to make money. Whether you want to quit your day job and be your own boss or you need a second income flow, opening an online store is a great alternative with many benefits (short and long term).
When built properly, running / managing an online store can be done right from your home or office. By selling online, you are exposing your products to millions of online shoppers (both domestic and international buyers).
An online store / business can create an unlimited income potential and is great for almost any one (small business, non-profit organizations, large retail companies, etc.).
Follow this ultimate, step-by-step guide that can help you build your own online store.
Step 1: Decide what you want to sell
Out of all the steps of building an online store, finding the right products to sell has to be the most difficult. Whether you want to sell your own products that you are going to make or sell products that are already made by someone else, the process can get complicated.
Every product targets a specific niche. For instance, a smart TV fits well for a store that carries electronics, t-shirts fit well for a store that carries clothing items, and so on. The important thing to take out of this step is that no matter what you sell (unless you make your own custom products), there is someone selling the same exact thing. Some products sell better online (e.g. video games) while others sell better in a physical retail location (e.g. bulky furniture).
Regardless of the product route you take, this are the seven questions that you need to answer before you start the process of building an online store:
- What type of product/s do you want to sell: physical, digital, subscription products?
- Are you going to sell a single product variation or multiple: one size or multiple sizes, one color or multiple colors?
- Do you plan on making / selling your own products, buying wholesale products, or drop shipping the products?
- If selling physical products, do you have enough space to store your inventory?
- How will you pack and ship your items to your customers (e.g. USPS, UPS, FedEx, etc.)?
- What is the current competition for the products that you are interested in selling?
- Can you make a profit?
Step 2: Find a profitable niche that you want to cater to
Before learning the tricks of an ecommerce business, I spent many sleepless nights researching different product niches that I can target or sell to. A lot of the successful shop owners (including myself) are passionate about what they do and are able to familiarize themselves with the products that they are selling.
I am not telling you to go and sell video games just because you love playing video games. I am telling you to be realistic about what you want to sell, but also educate yourself on the products that you are selling.
Your customers will ask both pre-sale and post-sale product questions. Not knowing anything about your products will result in lost sales and angry customers. For more complex questions, you can direct your customers to the manufacturer.
For instance, I will pretend that you are going to sell wedding card invitations. In theory, wedding invitations will target a specific niche which is couples that are getting married and need to send wedding card invitations to their guests.
In the example above, you are going to need to differentiate your product from similar products in the market. Here is how I would make my wedding card invitations unique:
- Give my customers complete control over the customization of the wedding card invitation to match their wedding color scheme (e.g. design, color, and layout).
- Give my customers the option to upload their own custom images to their invitations (my personal wedding card invitation had a personal image of my wife and me).
- Offer my customers a quick order turnaround with multiple shipping options.
- Use only quality printing material / paper.
- Give my customers the option to send invites directly to their guests (I do not know a company that does this yet).
- Offer my customers professional examples of wedding card invitations (this helps those customers that are not sure what they want).
The above list is just a short example of how you can make your products unique. You have to be creative, especially if you are selling anything similar to wedding card invitations.
If you are not making your own products or need helping finding products to sell, I highly recommend using one of the following services:
Worldwide Brands – their wholesale directory offers 14 million products from over 8,000 different wholesalers, drop shippers, and liquidators. All of the suppliers undergo a strict screening process to make sure each company is legit.
SaleHoo – their wholesale directory offers you access to 1.6 million products from thousands of suppliers all across the world. A lot of eBay and Amazon sellers use SaleHoo to find / source products to sell.
Step 3: Create a concise business plan
If you are going to start a business, you need to plan everything out. You need to create a simple, but concise business plan that outlines your short and long term goals. Many business owners skip this step and regret it down the road.
Not all business models are the same.
There are things that are included in every successful business plan. You should try to include a projection of where you want your business to be in a few years and the steps that you will take to get your business there. A number of websites out there will help you create a business plan for free.
If you are starting a business to make a few sales per week and do not really care about long term goals, you can skip this step.
Step 4: Choose an ecommerce platform to build your store
In this step, you need to choose whether you want to use a hosted ecommerce platform (hosting is included) or a self-hosted store builder (requires your own hosting).
Choosing the right ecommerce platform is just as important as finding the right products to sell. Without a powerful ecommerce platform / online store builder, there is no online store. You need something professional and something that you can afford without losing money.
Whether you are a beginner just starting out or a tech-savvy ecommerce expert, I strongly recommend using a hosted ecommerce platform to build your store.
The main benefits of using a hosted ecommerce platform include:
- Easier to build an online store without having any ecommerce knowledge.
- Web hosting is included and optimized for ecommerce.
- PCI compliance and highly secure.
- You do not have to worry about any of the technical things (hosting, updates, etc.).
Hosted ecommerce platforms that I recommend:
BigCommerce – robust, complete all-in-one ecommerce platform with unlimited products and no transaction fees. Their plans start at $29 a month.
Shopify – the easiest platform to build and launch an online store. The platform offers unlimited products and strong integration options. Plans start at $9 a month.
Volusion – when it comes to ecommerce builders, Volusion is an experienced name. The platform offers hundreds of ecommerce features and does not charge transaction fees. Plans start at $15 a month.
Alternatively, you can use a self-hosted ecommerce platform such as WooCommerce and Open Cart. The biggest advantage of using a self-hosted solution is more control over your store design. However, you will need to install an app / module for features that are already included with a hosted ecommerce platform.
Step 5: Get a custom domain name for your business
Once you build an online store and begin completing administrative tasks, the next step is to purchase a custom domain name for your business. I prefer a standard .com extension domain because it is the most common and usually gives you the best results.
It is a good idea to try and use a keyword in your domain name as well. For instance, if you use my example of selling wedding card invitations, you can try to get something like CustomWeddingInvitations.com or something similar.
Custom domain names offer added benefits including the ability to entice your brand, build trust, and improve your reputation.
Most domain registrars that I use offer custom domain names for under $10 a year. Personally, I use NameCheap and GoDaddy to purchase my domain names. I go with the one that has a better deal at the time.
Step 6: Register your business
When you get everything set up, the next step is to register your business in accordance with the laws in your state / country. While you do not need to complete this step right away, you will eventually run into problems down the road, especially as your business grows.
If you do not have proper business documentation, a lot of suppliers will usually decline your application. Having proper business licensing documents will build better relationships with your suppliers.
To make things easier for your business down the road, I strongly recommend getting all of the tax paperwork out of the way. I use MyCorporation every time I start a new business. They are affordable and take care of all of the paperwork for me. You can also try and do most of these things on your own.
Step 7: Market your store
With all of the competition out there, you need a successful marketing strategy that is going to bring you traffic to your online store. While word of mouth is still a strong form of marketing that is free, it is not enough for a new online store.
Google offers strong tools for website owners and online marketers for free. For instance, Google AdWords offers a free keyword research tool that gives you the option to view the competition for each keyword. In addition, you can use the same service to set up advertising campaigns to attract customers and send targeted traffic to your online store.
Furthermore, Google Analytics is a second free Google product that offers a complete reporting platform for your website / store. This free product is able to track different store statistics that a traditional ecommerce platform is not able to do.
You can also submit your products to different comparison shopping engines such as Google Shopping, Shopping.com, etc. If you have a eBay / Amazon marketplace account, you will be able to connect your online store to each marketplace as well.
Step 8: Launch your online store
If you made it to this step, it is finally time to launch your online store and showcase what you have been working on. Keep promoting your store, especially in the very beginning so that you can establish a customer base.
Step 9: Customer service
Whether it is a pre-sale or post-sale question, it is extremely important to provide service to your customers. If you do not have enough time for customer service, I suggest hiring an employee that will take care of the customer service. Regardless of what you are selling, your initial goal is to make a sale and keep the same customer coming back for more.
Fulfilling your orders on time will improve your overall service. As always, follow up with your customers from time to time, but do not be annoying.
Conclusion – How to build an online store
Learning how to build an online store to sell products online is not a straight forward task. The process can be much more complicated and stressful if you let all of the micro details paralyze you from getting started.
Sometimes, it is better to just start building an online store and tackle the any tasks / questions as they arise. If you are anything like me, you need to sit down and organize everything before you start. Either way, if you use the right tools, everything should work out.
Here are some other things that you may want to consider doing once your store is up and running:
- Maintain a strong marketing strategy.
- Hire a developer to keep your store looking fresh or do it yourself.
- Sell your products on eBay and Amazon.
- Create a company blog and post fresh content.
- Go social and focus mainly on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
As mentioned above in this guide, here is a quick overview of the tools and services that I use every time I build an online store:
- Use Worldwide Brands and / or SaleHoo to finding profitable products to sell.
- Use Stamps.com for printing shipping labels.
- Use NameCheap or GoDaddy when purchasing custom domain names.
- Use MyCorporation to register your business and complete all of the required paperwork.
- Use Bigcommerce, Shopify, or Volusion to build and host your online store.
Do you have any recommendations / ideas when building an online store? Share your thoughts by posting a comment below.