How to Avoid Common Ecommerce Bootstrapping Pitfalls
When you’re bootstrapping a store, you have to be ready for anything. Here’s how to avoid the most common pitfalls.
I covered a lot of aspects of bootstrapping in ecommerce recently. From general overview to potential problems you are almost guaranteed to encounter.
But that’s not all.
Bootstrapping may seem like an ideal way to start a business. You build on what you have, avoid debt, keep the control over your business and skip having to first pitching banks or investors. It also means that your business will grow slow and you might end up losing your life’s savings if things go wrong.
Other than that, it’s all easy.
Well, unfortunately not. Business is unpredictable but when you launch a company on a shoe string budget, you have to make sure that you have your bases covered:
1. You Really Really Really Have to Test Your Idea First
You might think that your idea is a winner but so does everyone else. And yet so many businesses fail just because what they set off to achieve offers no chance for success.
Don’t be misled by thinking that if something can be sold online, people will naturally buy it. Instead, try to find out the following:
- Is there a market for your product? Are there any people interested in what you are selling?
- If yes, how big it is? Of course it might be hard to get an exact figure but even an estimated size should be enough. In his great guide to ecommerce, Andrew Youderian offers some invaluable advice on assessing your market.
- Where is this market? Next you should find out how close you are to your customers and how problematic it might be to ship to them. I have learnt of the importance of it the hard way. I had a great idea with my subscription business, with a huge market. But my market was on the other side of the world. It cost too much to ship products there, I had to cut into my margins to be competitive. And then, a local company took up direct distribution of the product, making my long distance shipping operation obsolete.
- Is there enough space for another provider? Some markets might already be over saturated with other sellers. There is not enough money to sustain everyone in business. As a result, the cost of reaching the customer increases while potential rewards go down.
- Is there a room for innovation or differentiation? Similarly, not every market offers a room for innovation (at least not on a bootstrapped budget). It may also be difficult to differentiate yourself in many markets. But without the two you might have difficulties in building and growing your store.
- Do you need to invest much to service the market? Do you have to buy stock or can you start off by drop shipping? If not, are there any other opportunities to bootstrap your stock? In this interview Dave Huckabay from Grabapple shares an interesting way to test the market – by ordering products from amazon and shipping them to customers as a gift. If you are unsure about the market and don’t want to invest in stock, simply take orders but ship products from amazon as gifts. Yes, you might not make much money this way but you will be able to test the market without investing much.
2. Beta Test Your Store
It can be tempting to launch your store to the world straight away. But it is a better idea to first beta test it on a selected number of users:
- Prospects. In his book Running Lean Ash Maurya suggests having interviews with potential clients to first validate your business idea (which I also strongly recommend) but then to validate your solution (in this case, your website) with them too.
Show your store to people who might become your potential customers. It could be friends and family but if you manage to convince few strangers to take a look, you might get a more objective insight. Let them play with it and then ask them:
- how easy it is to order from the store,
- are product descriptions clear and not misleading
- are products easy to find.
- does the store look professional and trustworthy
- is all information clear and easy to understand
- First purchasers. Interviews are one way to gain initial insight. But nothing beats finding information through selling. By engaging with a real audience you learn their expectations. If you’re unsure about your idea, test the waters before committing to investing in stock. Use methods I mentioned earlier, drop shipping or shipping from amazon as a gift to see how people respond to your products and ordering system.
3. Be Prepared for the Unexpected
Just like in real life, you can’t predict anything in business too. Stuff will happen and you need to be prepared for that. Your server will go down, your payment system will crash, orders will go missing or delayed and so on. All these are serious but they get even more serious when you don’t have a financial backing to deal with them. Make a contingency plan for the most common technical problems you can encounter – back up your site regularly (it will help when server goes down), develop a system to ensure shipping efficiency, offer alternative forms of payment etc. Many of these things will cost nothing or very little but may help you overcome some serious obstacles on your way.
4. Learn to Track Your Spending
When you have very little, you need to learn to justify every dollar you spend. There is no room for impulse purchases in bootstrapping. Sure, Big Commerce or Shopify are great with their fancy interfaces and sophisticated feature sets, but do you really need any of that right now? Perhaps a free Woocommerce store will do? Instead of spending monthly, you could try to learn WordPress yourself and build the basic, beta version of your store on that. After all, when you do the maths, that small monthly subscription to Big Commerce over time adds up to more than what those few mistakes with WordPress would.
In bootstrapping, you have to be ready for anything. The unexpected will happen, you will have to pivot and change your plans. But all this is nothing when you tested your idea and are sure there is market to succeed for it.
Creative commons image: StockMonkeys.com / Flickr