Running an Online Business – Getting Things Done On Time


Picture of Bee on a Flower

If you are like me, most of your career has been spent working in the traditional business model: nine to five, Monday to Friday.  While that model has been the norm in many sectors for a hundred years or more, it has never been universal.  Think about farmers who need to work every day taking care of their animals, or the emergency workers who need to be able to respond whenever there is a need, or the retail workers who are on the job when yo are not making your shopping at convenient times possible. (Yes, I know there are lots of others.)

I have good news and bad news, running an online business frees you from the nine to five schedule!  The benefits are clear.  If it’s a particularly nice day and you want to go for a run, smell the flowers or whatever else, you can.  You won’t have customers standing outside your door at “opening” time, since your online store is always open.  The down side is that because your customers can always get to your store, it is always open.  This means that you need to be in a position to respond to emails on an almost 24/7 schedule.  You also have a much greater need to track and manage your inventory.  If you have outsourced fulfillment, tracking inventory is a bit simpler because you just need to be able to forecast how much you need and when.  If you do your own fulfillment and have options like expedited shipping, you must be able to meet that commitment or suffer the online consequences.

In the aggregate, the pros outweigh the cons.  Again assuming that you don’t have to physically make or ship the product, you can do most of your work anywhere you have an internet connection.  So with a little discipline, working vacations are a snap.  What tends to work best for most people is having a realistic albeit flexible schedule following an ABC approach.  Using this guideline, “A” tasks are those that must be done and done by a specific date/time (e.g. replenishing inventory, shipping merchandise or paying bills).  Yes paying bills.

The “B” activities are those that need to get done, but which have some flexibility.  Items in this category might include updating your website, finalizing changes to your product mix or upgrading non essential equipment.  All of these tasks need to be done.  The difference is pretty simple.  If it is just past Memorial Day (which is in late May for those outside the U.S.), there is no big penalty in getting your 4th of July special offers onto your website today, tomorrow or in five days.  You need to do it in enough time that you can tell your customers about it and get them to shop.  The same goes for you inventory.  While your suppliers may have deadlines for getting your order in, you know about that well in advance.

And finally, you get the “C” activities.  These are the “nice to do” activities.  The list here is huge, your particular business will determine what tasks fall into this category.  Because you have an online business, the need to paint or redecorate your office is a big example of a “C” activity.  While ultimately, you may think it is necessary to complete these tasks, when you get them done will not help your business to succeed.

Tasks can move up the scale, typically from “B” to “A”, based on deadlines.  They seldom move up from “C”.

If you want to take advantage of the flexibility your online business provides, you need to assure that you get your “A”s and “B”s under control.  I’ll talk more about long term planning in a future installment.  Planning out for more than a moth at this level is useless.  Start out with a calendar.  You decide if you want paper or digital, etc.  Block out your “A” tasks and when they need to be done (remember to add in snail mail times if needed).  If you have similar activities that fall due within a few days of each other, schedule them for the same time.  While you might earn an extra three or four cents interest delaying a payment a couple of days, the time it takes to go from one type of activity to another will kill that savings.  Once you have the “A”s scheduled, add in the “B”s and as there is time available, the “C”s.  Remember to leave time for the unexpected.  Now you’ve done the easy part.

This schedule is not an academic exercise that you hand in and you’re done.  The schedule is your work plan.  Keep it where you can easily reference it.  When you start your first work day, go over the activities you have scheduled for that day and be sure that you can get your “A”s done and your “B”s started.  Remember, if you have two weeks to get an order in it’s a “B”, with two days it becomes an “A”.  Starting with your second work day, your first task is to add any missed completions from the previous day. (Remember, just because it didn’t get done doesn’t mean it goes away!)  Helpful hint, try to get the most important items done first.  You never know what the day may bring, so if you need to get that tax remittance in today, do it first!

After a week or so, go over the past week’s schedule results (this is an “A” task).  See what went well and what kept getting carried forward.  Some things end up taking longer than we expect.  Some times we don’t budget enough time for unexpected things.  Based on this knowledge, revise your schedule,  A couple of things to keep in mind: your schedule is dynamic and you must be able to manage it to meet the key requirements of your business; on days when you have unused time, you can start on tasks you have scheduled for the next day!

With a little practice and diligence, you’ll become the master of your schedule which translates into more efficient use of your time ultimately freeing up more time for the things you want to do.

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Getting Started In This Business – Getting Things Going, Keeping Things Going


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If you have been following this series of posts, you should be set to do business online.  Now comes the hardest part, doing business online!

One of the really hard parts about getting your business going is getting customers “in the door”.  With a traditional brick and mortar business your physical location will start attracting customers even before you open.  People will walk by, see the construction and your name so they know what is coming.  Opening online just doesn’t work that way.  You need to do a lot more work via your family, friends, social networks, professional organizations, etc.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a good networker.  Even so, I’ve made it a point to send email to family and friends letting them know about my new business (including a link to my site!).  I’ve also posted notices on my Facebook page and started a page for my business.  I’ve also promoted businesses that I work with.  In some cases they have reciprocated.  I’m not on Twitter.  Call me old fashioned, but I don’t get that whole idea.  If you use Twitter, or any other networking/communications tool, be sure to broadcast the news about your business through all of them.  If your business plan includes an advertising budget, be sure you get your ads going the day you launch.

When you talk to people you know, or meet at social events, the question will likely come up “what’s new” or “what do you do”.  Don’t be afraid to tell them.  One of the tips you get when conducting a job search is to develop an elevator speech.  An elevator speech is a short introduction to something, you, your business, etc, that can be delivered while riding the elevator in a commercial building.  Such speeches are usually no more than thirty seconds long.  Develop your elevator speech for your new business.  Practice it until you have it perfected.  Once delivered, if the other person is interested, they will lead it into more of a conversation.

Along the same lines, have business cards ready.  Even in this digital world, they come in handy.  If you are at a party and in the first half hour someone tells you about a website how likely are you to remember enough to find it the next day?  (Yes, I know you could go to the site on your phone while talking to the person, but most people won’t!).  Because I started a photo business I considered it to be important that my business card really show off that fact.  I used one of my images as the background on the card and then added the necessary text.  Remember, you don’t necessarily need to put your name on the card!  My business is John Feist Photography, so I would hope the recipient can figure out my name!  You do need to include your url (your website address e.g. JohnFeistPhotography.com)  You also need to provide an email address.  Do you include a physical address and phone number?  That’s up to you.  I think phone numbers are good.  They give your prospect another way of contacting you.  Strange as it may seem, we all have different communication preferences.  Do you really want to miss a potential sale because a customer couldn’t text you or get you on the phone?  Physical address is a different question.  Most eBusinesses don’t really need one unless you are doing fulfillment from your address.  If you are doing fulfillment you need to give people a way to return things, hence your address.  Also for now, many people expect to find an address on a business card.

Next you need to think about updates.  There’s a commercial running on TV lately that starts out saying in technology if you are not moving forward, you are moving backward.  Think about successful websites.  The basic layout may remain the same, a good thing as customers know how to find things easily.  The content and merchandise will change very regularly.  Develop a plan for how and when you will change your product mix or add/remove items.  If you are opening a clothing site aimed at North America, are you going to be selling many down parkas in July?  Don’t be in constant change either.  If I buy a new offering from a website and tell a friend about it a week later, we’d expect it to be there!  This also ties back to an earlier post about inventory management.  You should only display merchandise you have, or be very clear when you will be able to ship.

Part of updating your site is keeping your customers coming back.  Most hosted sites will give your customer the option of receiving email updates from you.  There are numerous ways you can get the email address of your customers and prospects.  Sending email updates is a tried and true mechanism for keeping visible to your customers.  Remember, getting a general purpose update once or twice a week from a website is fine, getting several a day is spam.

Another mechanism for getting customers back is via loyalty rewards.  Not all hosted sites will provide you with the capability to run a major loyalty program like the airlines and credit card companies do.  I don’t know too many small businesses that want that.  You should be able to offer coupons/discounts pretty easily.  A very good way to get repeat traffic is to send your customer a coupon for maybe ten per cent off their next purchase as part of your follow up on the initial purchase.  If you do that be sure that the offer has an expiry, otherwise someone may decide to use it in five years!

Another tried and true mechanism is having a sale.  Sales are held for a variety of reasons.  The two you should initially focus on are getting people to your site and moving inventory that you’d like to discontinue.  Functionally, running a sale on line is no different than doing it in a physical store.  Decide on the items, decide on the markdown and let people know about them.

Finally, find ways to be visible in the real world.  If you are located in a smaller community and offer a somewhat unique service or product, let your local media know.  You never know when the local newspaper, radio or TV station will need a filler piece.  Another good avenue can be teaching.  Most communities offer free adult education courses.  If you are opening a site that sells tools, offer some classes on using tools.  You can get some easy plugs in for your site, perhaps giving your students a discount.  Be creative and know your market.  A friend of mine recently launched a line of yoga clothing.  Her sales are via her website KiraGrace.com.  Kira knows the business.  As part of her launch, she got glowing reviews from fitness and yoga publications.  She also goes to yoga studios and conferences with trunk shows so that more people see her line.  All of her appearances are publicized via social media.  Take a look at the site and you’ll understand why I don’t use the product (hint it’s womens yoga clothing).  I do tell my friends who may not know about her when she’ll be in their area and not just my yoga friends.

This will be the last entry in this series for a while.  As I get more into this business, I’ll share my experiences and learnings.  Please check back as I will continue to blog on some other topics going forward.

Getting Started in This Business – SEO or Getting the Word Out


Tarrytown LighthouseI am encouraged each day when I see the number of people who have taken the time to visit and read my blog.  I will do my best to continue providing useful information to my readers.  I also want to thank PhotoBookPress.com for their very flattering blog post about the book I did with them.

So far I have talked getting yourself online, getting paid, getting “stuff” your customers  and keeping your customers happy.  In this installment I will talk a little about getting yourself noticed when people are looking for your products or services.

Most internet users find what they are looking for through one of two mechanisms, references from “friends” or search engines.  I will focus on search engines.  There are a lot of search engines out there, among the better known ones are Bing, Ask.com, Yahoo and that little newcomer, Google.  Regardless of which search engine you prefer, they all work basically the same way.

The value of a search engine comes from its ability to convert your search request into a list of websites that might match it.  In order to do that, they have “crawlers” that are constantly out there finding content.  Crawlers are software tools that go from website to website taking in the content of each page and adding key characteristics to the search engine’s database.  That provides the raw material from which the search engine produces your search results.  Where search engines differ is in the algorithms they use to store the data about the website, the mechanisms they use for search and retrieval of those data and how they understand your search request.

The details of how a search engine works are very proprietary to its owner.  In most cases, there is not one single person who has all the detailed knowledge.  Because of that, anyone who claims to know everything about how a given search engine works is either: lying, delusional or looking for a very expensive lawsuit to be filed.  Most of the search engines also make periodic minor changes to their algorithms to improve performance and/or discourage people from trying to cheat their way to a higher position in the search results.

What is publicly known is the data elements available to a search engine.  Based on experience and some good guesses, it is possible to determine which of these is more important.  Search Engine Optimization (or SEO) is a serious business.  There are many companies out there that will try and sell you their services to improve your search engine placements.  I am not a big fan of these services.  Several years ago I was working at a small business that had a website.  I got called one day by one of these services offering me a month free and the ability to cancel at any time.  I figured for fun why not.  As soon as I got off the phone I did some searches for our business on various engines and captured the results.  Shortly before the month was over, I repeated the process and got pretty much the same results.  A lot of factors can influence positioning in a search result, so minor fluctuations are to be expected.  Since I saw no appreciable change, I cancelled the service.

Assuming that you are using a hosted solution for your online store, your hosting company probably provides you with information about SEO.  Having clear concise text on your pages is one important step, but only the beginning.  The remainder of the data the crawler will look for is in your site/page meta data.  As you may recall from an earlier post, meta data are descriptors about your site that while not always visible in the browser are visible to the crawler (and if you know how to look in your browser you can find them).  Don’t assume because there is a title on your page, or a description, that it is the same as populating the meta tag.  As an example, when you see a search result for pages, it will usually have some text from the page.  If you look at my Galleries page you will see that there is no descriptive text on that page.  If you do a Google search for John Feist Photography galleries, you will find several listings.  The one referring to my galleries page has a description.  This came from the page descriptor meta tag.  My hosting company, PhotoShelter.com, provides several tools that make optimization easier.  First on the design page for each of the pages on my site, they indicate which data fields correspond to meta tags used by search engines.  The other major tool is a SEO rater.  This tool asks a few questions and then looks at the site to produce a number from 0 to 100 as an indication of how well the site is search optimized.  When the results are presented, the various categories used are displayed along with indications where improvements could be made.

Aside from providing text where there is none, careful use of meta tags allows you to get more keywords about your site or page into the search engine.  Don’t just repeat the text from your page in the meta text.  Many of the search engines have algorithms to find and devalue those.  The same applies to the old “trick” of putting lots of invisible words on the page to fool the search engines.

There has been a lot written about SEO.  One guide that I found to be quite useful came from Google.  This is a .pdf that is freely available and provides a lot of good information about how to optimize your site for their engine.

If your site has more than a few pages, you can submit a site map to the search engines.  Each search engine has its own tools for creating these maps.  In most cases, you might need to ask a techie friend for some help in putting them together as most assume you have certain technical skills.  There is another reason for submitting a site map.  Most search engines will have their crawler revisit your site when they get a new or revised site map to be sure that their data are up to date.

Finally, having done all the work, you probably want to know if your site is being visited along with a host of other data about visitors to your site.  Your hosting company many provide some of those data.  Google provides a free set of webmaster tools to help you with this.  The key is setting up for Google Analytics (part of the webmaster tools).  Again, this may take a little time and could require some techie help, but not much.  The basic process is to register your site and prove that it is yours.  From there, you get a bit of code to embed as a meta tag.  Most hosting services have existing options to facilitate this.  Once that is in place, every time someone goes to your site, the data are added to the Google analytics database where you can view and analyze them.  As with site maps, there are other hosting resources (free) for tracking site traffic.  Unlike site maps where it makes sense to submit them to a number of engines, you only need one tracking service.

As I said at the start, SEO is a big complicated topic.  You can find tons of material online.  I hope that the above gives you a basic understanding and helps you to increase your visibility and sales.