How to Make a Successful Online Store: The Complete Guide

How to Make a Successful Online Store: The Complete Guide

How to Build & Launch a Successful Online Store

Once you’ve made the decision to make an online store, the process of launching it can be confusing and overwhelming.  There are a lot of decisions to make, and focusing your efforts in the wrong areas can lead to months of wasted effort.

Fortunately, you don’t have to blindly guess at the best approach.  Based on my successes and failures founding numerous eCommerce stores, these guidelines will help make your own eCommerce launch a successful one. If you want to learn how to make an online store, you’ve come to the right place.

Pick an Easy-to-Use Shopping Cart

The more time you spend wrestling with a complicated shopping cart, the less time you’ll have to focus on what really matters:  creating valuable content, interacting with your customers and marketing your business.  So make picking an easy-to-use platform a priority when launching.  You can always change/upgrade later if you need to (just make sure you don’t botch your website migration).

The easiest way to build an online store is to use a fully hosted, subscription-based cart.  These services take care of all the hosting, payment integration and technical details, allowing you to quickly get a site up and running.

There are numerous options to choose from but I strongly recommend Shopify (aff link).  It’s the cart that I migrated my own store to and have been thrilled with the features, performance and support.  Here’s a full list of popular hosted carts on the market:

You’ll pay a monthly fee for just about any hosted cart, but it will be a small price to pay for not having to worry about security patches, server configurations and regular updates.

If you’re technically inclined and want a bit more control over your store, you’ll want to pick a self-hosted cart.  My top picks for self-hosted cart for a new store owner are WooCommerce and OpenCart.

WooCommerce is a plug-in for WordPress which transforms the popular CRM into a shopping cart.  It’s fairly easy to install and has a number of themes available for it.

OpenCart is a stand-alone openhttps://www.ecommercefuel.com/shopping-cart/

source shopping cart that’s known for being lightweight and easy to customize.  If you’re a bit more comfortable on the technical side I’d recommend going with them.

I do NOT recommend Magento for new store owners despite it’s popularity.  It’s a very powerful cart but is overly complex and extremely difficult to host.  I used to be a Magento user and moved to Shopify due to the complexity and problems it caused – particularly for a small team without a dedicated programmer on staff.

Here’s a list of the most popular self-hosted carts on the market today:

I recommend staying away from ZenCart and osCommerce, as they are old platforms that people are moving away from. You can read more about the best eCommerce carts in our shopping cart comparison guide.

Launch as Quickly as Possible

It’s time to kill your perfectionist tendencies!  Making an online store and launching it quickly is one of the best things you can do for your fledgling business.

If you’re new to your niche, you likely have no idea who your customers are or what they need.  Oh, you may think you know, but you don’t.  So trying to invest in creating the perfect store to address your customers’ needs, wants and problems is almost certainly a waste of time.  Instead, build a basic store online as quickly as possible to start interacting with your customers to learn more about them.

Once you have a better idea about your niche, then you can improve your website based on your new knowledge.  And while you’ve been collecting all this information, you’ve almost certainly rung up a few sales, too.

Another reason to launch quickly is because it takes a lot of time and effort to market your store.  The sooner you have a storefront up and online — even a really basic one — the faster you can start telling the world about your business, building links and marketing.

In order to launch as quickly as possible, I recommend:

1)  Using stock descriptions and pictures – If you’re new to the niche, you likely know next to nothing about your products!  So use the manufacturer’s information to launch quickly and come back to write unique copy when you actually have something unique and authoritative to say.

2) Using a pre-built template – I don’t care what world-class graphics designers say; you do NOT need a fancy $5,000 custom-built template to do well with eCommerce.  One of my most popular eCommerce stores uses a built-in template, and I have never heard a single customer say, “Hey!  Is this a stock template?  I’m not sure about you guys ….”  Even if you use the most popular template in the world, 99.9% of your customers will have no idea.

Do It Yourself

When making your first online store, I strongly recommend doing as much as possible yourself in the beginning.  If you don’t understand how your business fundamentally works, you won’t be able to effectively train a team in the future.  And having to rely on paid contractors (programmers, web designers, etc.) every time you need to make a change is an expensive and helpless position to be in.

Doing things yourself also makes you prioritize what’s important to move forward and what can wait.  It’s really easy to throw money at a problem instead of really analyzing whether it’s: 1) really necessary and 2) a good investment.  When you do most things yourself early on, you’re less likely to waste  money on nonessential items.

I learned this lesson the hard way when I launched TrollingMotors.net.  In the past, I’d done just about everything myself, from building the site to marketing and SEO, when launching an eCommerce site.  When it came time to automate the business, I knew it inside and out and was able to competently train a team to manage it for me.

But when launching TrollingMotors.net, I figured I could simply pay someone else to do all the hard work for me!  So I outsourced the site design to an expensive developer and invested a significant sum on a long-term SEO contract for marketing and traffic.  Overall, I invested more than $15,000 getting the site up and running.  With other people doing all the work, I figured this was going to be an easy, painless process!

But then I started running into problems.  When I needed to make a simple change to the site, I had to contact my developers for help.  I wasn’t familiar with the new shopping cart they used, and had to rely on them to make basic changes.  And because I wasn’t spending as much time marketing and connecting with others in my niche, I didn’t understand my market nearly as well.

Finally, more than a year after I hired my SEO firm, the site’s traffic took a huge nosedive when rankings dropped precipitously in Google.  The reason?  The firm I’d entrusted with SEO and marketing had used some sketchy tactics, and we’d been penalized by Google.

I’m now much more involved with TrollingMotors.net’s site design and marketing, but it was an expensive lesson.  Don’t make the same mistake!  You don’t have to do everything forever, but make sure you’re intimately involved with the major aspects of your business early on.  It’s a much cheaper option in the long run.

Market Relentlessly

Most people grossly underestimate how much marketing is required to build a viable eCommerce business.  Especially in the early days, it takes a LOT of effort to get your business on the map and noticed.  For the first six months of any new eCommerce site, I’d recommend the following time priorities:

  • Month 1:  Make your online store and launch it
  • Month 2:  Improve your site
  • Months 3 – 6:  Market like your business depends on it … because it does!

That’s 67% of your time spent exclusively on marketing!  Not A/B testing, business streamlining or crafting a strategic vision. Not improving your site design or logo.  Fanatical marketing. The majority of eCommerce sites fail because they underestimate how crucial early stage marketing efforts are and don’t gain enough traction.  Don’t let that be you.

You may be thinking, “Chill out with all this marketing hype!  I’ll just run some advertisements.”  It’s true that advertising is a great way to kick-start your eCommerce business in the beginning, when no one knows about you.  And you can instantly drive traffic to your site to learn about your market by interacting with customers. But advertising, especially pay-per-click models like AdWords, is usually a poor long-term strategy for generating traffic.

The most effective advertising methods, like PPC Google ads, are expensive and will severely eat into (if not eliminate) your profits.  Pursuing SEO and other organic marketing efforts will provide a much higher return on your investment, more sustainable traffic and ultimately significantly higher profits.

Want to Learn More?

Like any business, there’s a LOT to know and learn when starting a successful online store!  If you’d like to learn more check out the free six day mini-course on how to build your own profitable store. There are also plenty of great eCommerce conferences with lots of useful information.

Photo by Jurvetson

Andrew Youderian

Post by Andrew Youderian

Andrew is the founder of eCommerceFuel and has been building eCommerce businesses ever since gleefully leaving the corporate world in 2008.  Join him and 1,000+ vetted 7- and 8-figure store owners inside the eCommerceFuel Community.