Keep On Learning, or How To Improve the Craft


I’ve spent most of my professional life in the (computer) tech world.  That is an environment  where change is constant and the need to enhance existing skills and acquire new ones is never ending.  I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying what new skills to gain and resources for enhancing those I have, so I figured doing something similar with my photo skills would be similar…WRONG!

While many of the computer technical skills are also a craft, all you need is the right code (and don’t get me started on what constitutes “right”) to do what is needed.  At one level, this may apply to photography where the “how” of camera mechanics doesn’t change although the terms used by different manufacturers may.  To a certain extent the same applies to the software for getting the most out of your images.  Where it differs is that photography is also about the art of the image.

If I am going to put together a website, I (or someone who has actual graphic art talent) can do a layout from which the web page can be built.  From there, it’s just a matter of fine tuning of colors, spacing, etc.  With a photograph it just doesn’t work that way.  Take a dozen photographers, show them the same subject and ask them to photograph it, you will get twelve very different images.  Angles, lighting, composition, colors, post processing, etc. will allow each photographer to show how s/he sees that subject.  Having said that, there are still a lot of things about what makes a good photograph that apply to all images.  That is where things get different for me.

Having started the photo website, I looked into a number of photo clubs.  I settled on two, one because it meets very close to my home and the other because it is just about nature photography, something I really like.  Both clubs are very open and welcoming.  What is really helpful to me is that in both clubs, the people are open and friendly, willing to share what they know about something that we are all passionate about.

I know that there is only one way to improve a skill, practice and lots of it.  Unlike software development, working with images requires constructive criticism and feedback from both typical viewers and knowledgeable critics.  With a little coaxing and disclaiming getting offended by honest input, family and friends can be a great source for the former.  Finding the later is not so easy.  Yes I could enroll in a formal program to improve those skills and get feedback from the instructor, but I don’t have the time or inclination for that.

Through the Hillsborough Digital Photo Club, I was fortunate enough to meet Jim Roselli of Artistic Efex.  Jim’s knowledge of photography, from setting up a shot to actually getting the shot as well as post processing and printing seems to be limitless.  What’s more, he has been incredibly generous in sharing his knowledge with me.  So far I have only gotten a small taste, but it has made a significant difference in how I am seeing and capturing images.  I’m still learning the post processing tools, so I haven’t been able to take advantage of all his pearls of wisdom in that arena.  Jim and his partner Jim LaSalla produce incredible images across various media.  Take a look here to see what I mean. (P.S. the website doesn’t really do justice to many of the images!)

One nice thing about digital photography is that it is much easier to manage images, both in the camera as well as post processing than was the case with film.  Having said that, with the myriad of options available, digital photography has become its own discipline.  I still have a lot to learn and I’m hopeful that as I gain more knowledge and experience my images will reflect that.

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


Red otus Image

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.

Getting Started In This Business – Customer Service


Ducks In A RowThis is the fourth in a series of posts about my experiences in starting an online business.

I want to start this post with a thank you to everyone who has sent me positive feedback and comments.  It’s nice to know that someone has read a post(s) and found it useful.

That’s a good lead in to talking about customer service.  At a fundamental level, what defines good customer service hasn’t changed since well into the last century.  Your customers expects you to make their shopping experience pleasant and easy.  They also expect that the product you advertise on your site is what they will get.  Your customers also expect to get a quality product that will perform as advertised.  And finally, your customer expects that if s/he has questions or an issue with their purchase, you will be there to answer them and resolve the issue.

What has changed in the digital age is how we deliver customer service.  I’m going to assume that like me you are starting a small business with few employees other than yourself.  In that scenario, you have dozens of things to do each day, probably more than there are hours in which to do them.  Don’t fall into the trap of neglecting your customers in order to do other things.  Remember, just as you can become an overnight success on the web, a negative review of your site can turn that success into an overnight failure.

Because of those time limitations, I’ve structured my customer service to work via email.  The beauty of this model is that I can access my email any time,  any where.  Most customers do not necessarily expect to be able to call you on the phone.  Have you ever tried to call Amazon?  Not easy!  Customers are used to email and other electronic media.  That means that you need to keep tabs on your business in box.  Many businesses have set up an auto reply to their in boxes so that as soon as a message comes in, the “Thank you for contacting us we will get back to you shortly” mail goes out.  Setting this up is not hard, but it does take time.  If you want to assign a problem number or something like it, that takes more time and effort.  In most cases, getting back to your customer within two hours works fine.

Be wary of trying to use social networking and interactive tools to provide customer service.  Facebook, Twitter, etc. are not the place to do customer service.  They are there to be part of your marketing strategy as a mechanism for telling your fans, followers, et al what is new and exciting on your site.  That doesn’t mean you should ignore these networks.  If someone is unhappy and posts it on a social network, you need to respond to the problem, but not via the social network. Take it “off line”.  Beware of trying to implement online or real time chat.  Chat can be a very nice tool, but that too takes time and effort to implement and maintain.  More importantly, you need to have someone available to do the “chatting”  24 x 7 since you never know when someone will want to contact you.

Now let’s add a level of practicality.  While not listing a phone number sounds good, in practice it may not work.  Here are a couple of examples:

  • I do most of my interacting with PhotoShelter.com via email.  However, there are times when getting an answer to a simple question could take ten minutes on the phone or three days on email.  PhotoShelter.com hosts my site as well as those for about 70,000 other photographers.  They have a phone number listed.  Sometimes when I call I get voice mail, as in “all our operators are busy assisting other customers”.  When that happens I leave a message and normally get a call back within an acceptable time frame.  That works fine for me.  Could PhotoShelter.com augment their support staff so that I never get voice mail? Sure, but then I suspect I’d have to pay more for the service!
  • Last year I wanted to do a high quality coffee table book for my wife for Christmas.  I chose PhotoBookPress.com to do the book based on a recommendation in a photo magazine.  They are set up to do everything in the ordering process online.  As I was setting up the book I wanted, I wasn’t happy that what the software was showing me was the layout I had chosen.  Photo Book Press custom prints and hand binds each book, so there are lead times to consider.  I called them about my concern.  I get a fast response from one of their technical people.  He apologized and explained that they had done a software upgrade that hadn’t worked as expected.  He then walked me through a work around that allowed me to get everything in to them in time for Christmas.  As the production process takes several weeks, I got email updates so that I knew where my book was in the process.  The book arrived in time for Christmas and was a big success.

On the flip side, when I switched cell phone providers and went from a Blackberry to an Android phone, there were several features I was used to that were not on my new phone.  Searching the App Store (not necessarily a pleasant experience) I found an app that looked to be exactly what I wanted, Enhanced SMS and CallerID (eCid).  I bought the app, downloaded it and it didn’t work through my blue tooth headset.  After trying the remedies suggested on the vendor’s site, I sent an email.  Over the course of about two hours and several emails we concluded that the app would not work with my particular headset.  The vendor immediately offered me a refund.  I opted to keep the app and upgraded my headset to one that the vendor told me works well (and came from a company who’s headsets I like).  The new headset and app have been working well together for nearly a year.

The above three examples should give you a flavor of what it takes to provide really great customer service.  To wrap up, what you need to remember about customer service is:

  • Deliver what you promise.
  • Be sure you have told your customer how to contact you.
  • Be attentive to all your customer service channels.
  • Be honest with your customer.  If it will take two weeks to get them a replacement tell them that!
  • Be responsive to your customer.  Even if you don’t have any news, if it’s been a while since you updated them on an issue, send them a note repeating your last status saying that you are working on their issue and try to give a realistic completion date/time.
  • Remember what seems like a strange, unusual, weird or stupid question or problem to you is anything but to them.  If you know anyone who was doing IT type support work in the early days of windows, ask them how many times people called saying that the foot pedal didn’t work or the cup holder was broken.
  • And finally, while the old saying “the customer is always right” may not be true for you, DON’T TELL THEM THAT!

Getting Started In This Business – Fulfillment or Getting People Their Stuff


In the previous two posts I looked at creating your website or store and the back office you need in order to actually sell something.  Assuming that you have done them, the next question you need to answer is how will your customers get what they have purchased?

You have three possible choices for fulfillment: electronic, outsourced or self fulfillment.  Not all will apply in all cases.  Regardless of your fulfillment method(s) you must be sure that they can handle almost any volume.  We go into a business with the expectation that it will be successful.  In internet terms, that can happen literally overnight or faster.  Assume you get a customer who buys from you and is really happy with your product, the online experience, timely delivery, etc.  and that customer is very socially networked.  A very good review of your new business can end up in front of millions of eyeballs in hours!  While that isn’t likely to happen, what will you do if your original sales estimates are off by a factor of 10 or 100?

The best option is to have orders filled automatically and electronically.  If you have purchased music from iTunes or software from Microsoft you have used this model.  There is a major entry criteria to using this model…you must be selling something digital!  If you are selling something digital you have two choices as to how you will deliver: use your own infrastructure or use someone else’s.  There are a number of reasons to “outsource” this component.  As with hosting a website, the vendors who provide this service have the experience and business motivation to do it well.  If you are a small business, do you have the time to go through all the security concerns to assure that your “warehouse” is secure.  Do you have the time to do the maintenance that this infrastructure requires?  Do you understand how the automatic fulfillment process works to a level where you can implement and manage it?

The bottom line is that if you are outsourcing your hosting, your hosting company can likely provide fulfillment services or direct you to a partner of theirs who can.  Not only will such partners have what you need to deliver you products safely and efficiently, they will also have the ability to scale up or down to meet your needs very quickly and provide you with good data about your completed orders.  Will there be a cost? Yes.  Figure that into your pricing and get back to what actually makes money for you.

So much for digital fulfillment.  What if you need to actually deliver a physical product to your customer?  Here again you get the two options: do it yourself or let someone else do it.  This time the answer is not as cut and dry.  For my photo site, I have some sales that are fulfilled automatically through PhotoShelter.com.  These are the downloads of an actual image.  I also offer my images imprinted on a number of different surfaces and media.  PhotoShelter.com has arrangements with a number of photo labs who are ready and able to do the fulfillment that I need.  All I need to do is decide which of the lab’s I want to offer.  From there PhotoShelter.com lets me set the retail price for each offering.  When a customer orders a physical product the order is automatically sent to the lab for fulfillment.  The lab will complete the order and send it to my customer.  All labeling, return addresses, etc. will show John Feist Photography and not the lab.  For me that set up is ideal.

Not all fulfillment works that easily.  If your business manufactures or resells a product, you will need to decide if you want to work with a fulfillment house.  If you do, you will need to get your product to the fulfillment house, determine that your hosting company can route your orders to the fulfillment house and make sure that your fulfillment house has sufficient inventory.

The alternative to working with a fulfillment house is doing your own fulfillment.  A number of photographers who host on PhotoShelter.com self fulfill some or all of their offerings.  In some cases this is because they offer signed prints.  In other cases they want to have absolute control over the quality of what goes to the customer.  There is nothing wrong with doing that.  Doing your own fulfillment does place additional burdens on you:

  • First, what shipping options you will offer.  Can you turn orders around to do next day or two day shipping?
  • You need to establish a relationship with a shipping company (usually UPS or FedEx) and understand their pricing so that you can add that to the total cost to your customer.  Typically online vendors do NOT include shipping in the product price.  Recognize that you will probably not be able to get the same cost structure for shipping as the “big guys” get.  Big customers get big discounts.
  • Put a cost on what it takes to actually receive the order and convert that into a package ready to be shipped.  That is the handling component of Shipping and Handling.  You may consider that to be part of your markup when doing it all yourself.  Bad idea!  What is your time worth?  What if you have to pay someone else to do that work?  The only way you will know what it takes to do the handling is to dry run it until you are satisfied that the process works reliably and reasonably efficiently.  Be realistic!  Use a stopwatch to determine the time it takes to do the individual tasks, understand how you transition from task to task (e.g. print out orders, pick inventory, pack, etc.)  You’ll be amazed at the time and effort involved in those “connectors”.  Be realistic about doing these tasks for numerous orders and not just one.  Once you understand the time, effort and materials involved talk to your accountant about figuring out those costs.
  • Where will you keep your inventory, do your processing and how will you get your packages to the shipping company?  Remember, your inventory must now include all the supplies you need for shipping.

New age stuff aside, self fulfillment can be the right option for you.  Just make sure that you understand all that is involved before taking it on.

Another consideration when you are planning fulfillment, regardless of who is doing it, is real time inventory management.  Consider this scenario.  You go online to order something.  You place the order and pay the premium for next day shipping.  Six hours later you get an email from the vendor stating that they are very sorry, but your item is out of stock and they will let you know when they have more.  Odds are you will not be writing anything nice about the vendor or buying from them again.  You need to be sure that when the customer is looking at your offerings, you tell them if something is not available and if possible when you expect to have it in stock.

One final reminder that is not exactly part of fulfillment.  Don’t forget about sales tax!  I am not going to try and explain how it works, when it needs to be collected, etc.  Sales tax laws and requirements differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  Check with your accountant as to when you have to collect sales tax and at what rate.  Remember, when it comes to sales tax you are collecting it for one or more governmental agencies.  In the current economic climate, most state and local governments need every penny they can get, so don’t get yourself in trouble when it can be so easily avoided.

I do hope that you are finding these posts useful.  I appreciate feedback, questions, comments and constructive criticism.

Getting Started in this Business – Getting Paid


In my last post I talked about websites and what it takes to get them started.  Having a website is important, but if you are opening an online business, the website is just the start.

Your website must do a lot of jobs.  First it tells the online world that you are there and what your business is.  Don’t underestimate the information aspect of your site.  People want to get some idea of who they are dealing with before they will trust you enough to buy something from you.  In addition to splashing your name and product(s) all over your site, you need to let them know who you are and how they can contact you.  Be sure to check your business email very regularly.  Customers who send email expect quick replies. In today’s world, believe it or not, email is probably a more important customer service tool than the phone.

Let’s assume that a potential customer has come to your site/store and decided to buy.  Assuming you have a site set up with products, prices and some type of shopping cart, your customer can browse through your store and put their choices into their shopping cart.  Ultimately, there will come a time when they need to check out and pay for their purchases.  That’s where things can get a bit more complicated.

You typically have two mechanisms for accepting payment.  I’m going to be cavalier and assume that you will only be accepting online payments.  The simplest mechanism for accepting payments is PayPal.  You can set up an account with PayPal for free and most hosted sites will give you a mechanism that will let you link to PayPal payments.  The down side to this arrangement include:

  • You have no control over the look and feel of the PayPal payments site
  • Your customer actually goes away from your site into PayPal’s site to make their payment
  • PayPal will also post ads etc. to your customer

The other payment mechanism is for you to accept payment directly.  Again, it sounds simple.  In actuality, the mechanisms really are.  The “gotcha” has to do with how the process works.  Accepting payment by credit card directly involves three components:  a front end (in this case your website), an interface or gateway and finally a merchant bank that will actually handle the credit card transactions.  Most hosting services have existing arrangements with gateways and merchant banks.  The benefit to that is that all connections have been built and tested.

Getting set up with the gateway and merchant bank take time.  You have to go through an application process that includes credit checks and identity verification.  The other gotcha is that the banking industry has set up security standards for websites that accept credit card payments (PCI).  The standards are all documented, long and detailed.  One of the requirements for PCI compliance is for your merchant bank to go to your website and validate that you are in compliance.  Again, why go through all the trouble of building your own,which can take a lot of time, when your service provider should already be compliant.  Once you are approved, you need to do some simple setup so that the gateway knows your account information.

Either way, you need to get an approval for any transaction with a credit card.  The merchant bank or PayPal will handle that.  If you are using a service provider website, it should handle both accepted and rejected transactions.  At the end of the business day (as defined by the service provider),  all of the transactions are gathered (batched) and processed.  Once they are processed, you get paid, normally within a day or two.

The bottom line is that you need to have a payment received and approved.  Once you have that, you can give your customer their goods or services.  It’s no different than swiping a card at a brick and mortar retail establishment.

I opted for the gateway and merchant bank.  My hosting company had a relationship with several gateway providers who in turn hooked me up with the merchant bank.  The process was not difficult, it just took time.

How do you actually get your money?  The merchant bank will deposit your funds directly into your bank account via ACH.  (If you don’t know what ACH is, just accept that it is a direct deposit mechanism between banks).  Since I wasn’t interested in the PayPal option I didn’t research it in detail.  They pay to your PayPal account and then you get to transfer the funds to your bank or spend directly through PayPal.

In all cases, nothing comes for free.  PayPal, the gateway and merchant bank will all take something from your transactions for payment.  Most will also have monthly minimums, batch fees etc.  Payment is either taken before funds are delivered or directly from your bank or PayPal account if the fee is not transaction based.

Do your homework!  Get the full picture on what all the costs will be.  Do your best to come up with realistic estimates of what your business volume will be, both in terms of number of transactions and amount of money.  Once you have them, set up best, worst and most likely scenarios and see what you can expect, both gross and net.  Remember, you will need to track both as the charges you pay to the providers are normally deductible business expenses.  Check with your tax adviser to be sure.

And speaking of tax advisers… Most states charge sales tax.  The rules around if you need to charge sales tax on what and to whom can get complicated.  Talk to your tax adviser to understand if you have to pay sales tax, if so on what and what the tax amount is.  The distributed nature of this business can also confuse some of these questions especially when your fulfillment or distribution is in a different tax jurisdiction than you are.

I’ll talk more about these aspects in the next post, when I look at fulfillment.

Getting Started In This Business – An Online Identity


I’ve learned a lot  starting up this online business and thought I’d use a few posts to share what I have learned.  I am by no means an expert on starting a web based business, but I am happy to share what I know.

Starting an online business is no different than starting any other business.  You need to have a business plan that lays out what your business will be, who your customers and suppliers are, how your customers will get their purchases, what your costs are and how you actually intend to make money.  Don’t underestimate doing this!  There are libraries full of documentation about why businesses fail.  Two of the biggest reasons are that the owner didn’t understand the business well enough and the business was under capitalized.  There are plenty of resources out there to help you create your business plan.  These range from books (either printed on paper or eReader) to workshops, classes and mentoring organizations like SCORE.  Take your time creating your plan.  Get inputs from people you trust who have knowledge, information or experience that you don’t.  Remember the most important thing to know is what you don’t know!  What follows should help with the online part of your business plan.

In order to have a web business you need an address.  You are probably familiar with many such addresses like Amazon.com, Google.com, etc. (mine is JohnFeistPhotography.com).   Addresses are made up of two parts, your name and then your domain.  Domains can be .com, .net, .biz, etc. Each name/domain pair (from here on I’ll call these pairs domains) can be owned separately.  Large companies tend to own all the possible domains as well as permutations on the primary name to avoid consumer confusion and possible fraud or identity theft.  Each domain has a cost associated with it, so you decide how many variations you want to pay for.  You only need one.  Try to get the name that matches your business name.  You don’t have to, but it helps!  I could have used JoesBarberShop.com if it was available to host JohnFeistPhotography, but that would just cost me visits when people couldn’t find me.

Internet names are managed and controlled globally by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (aka ICANN).  There are many services out there to help you get your domain.  These services are acting as vendors interfacing with ICANN for you.  Don’t bother trying to work directly with ICANN, it’s not worth the trouble.  I have worked with GoDaddy.com to get domains for several years and found them to be very good.  Remember, you pay annually for your domains.  Most services will give you multi-year options.  You can Google Domain Registration to get a long list of services.  Remember, if necessary, it is pretty easy to transfer a domain from one hosting/registration company to another.

Unless you are opening a web hosting/programming business, take advantage of existing services.  I’ve been involved in programming and IT since before there was an internet.  Could I have done all the work to build my site myself? Yes.  Did I? No.  There is a subtle trap to building your own…you have to do it and then maintain it.  It’s the maintaining that turns into a black hole.   Those tasks can eat up a lot of time better spent developing your actual business.  How many brick and mortar startups do you know where the owner built the building or fitted out the store rather than hire someone to do it?  There are a number of other reasons for not building your site from scratch, but I’ll deal with them in a later posting.

A few hints about services to acquire your domain and then host your site:

  • Before committing to a service take a look at what types of sites they offer.  Remember there is a big difference between a sales site and an information only (brochure ware) site.  The service should have templates and options easily available.  If you can’t find something you like, look elsewhere.
  • Again, unless you are looking to build your site from scratch, be open to the templates that are offered.  Good hosting companies have experience with a variety of sites and will likely offer templates (layouts, color schemes, etc.) that are known to work well for a particular type of business.  In my case, it was very important to show the pictures looking their best.  If I were opening a sporting goods site, I’d probably have some very different priorities.  This ties back to know what you don’t know and listen to those with the experience and knowledge.  Before I went with PhotoShelter, I built some prototype layouts and got input from family and friends.  Then I saw what PhotoShelter offered and dropped them in favor of the PhotoShelter offerings.  I could have used my own, but why spend the time when they had really good offering on the shelf.
  • Look at the total cost for hosting.  There are often hidden costs and benefits.  I didn’t go with the cheapest hosting site possible when I set up my store.  The hosting service I chose (PhotoShelter.com) is a service dedicated to photographers and has a good reputation.  I actually went to look at how others have set up their sites and found most of the good ones hosted on PhotoShelter.  Other items to look for are how much space do you get, how much volume is included in the price, what services are included.  More on the last one in anohter posting.
  • VERY IMPORTANT  find out what support options are available.  Most of the big hosters (Google, Yahoo, etc.) talk about their community, online support, etc.  I prefer working with an outfit where I can call and talk to someone if I have a question or problem.  Believe me it makes a difference.  Both GoDaddy and PhotoShelter have very good support people available when I call.

One final word on custom built sites.  True custom built sites are very expensive and can take a long time to build.  The people who do this work tend to be highly skilled and very expensive.  Designers and implementation are two different skill sets so you may have to pay for both.  Many of these professionals also charge you whenever you want to make a change either during the initial build or after the site is up.  Beware of the trap of having family or friends who will do it “for the experience” or because their mother told them to.  I know many cases where the low cost turned into a web site that either never got finished, or lacked significant functionality, or looked like it was built by someone’s “teen age nephew”.  If you really want a custom built web site, wait until your business can afford to pay for it, after the business is up and running.

You will also need an eMail address.  Most hosting companies will give you an email box with your domain.  If it is just you in the business, that’s all you need.  Sure you can go with a free account from Google, Yahoo, etc., but remember you are also trying to project an image.  How would you react to a business with an email address like XYZSupply@gmail.com?  A sneaky hint… you get an option when setting up an email account to make it the default destination for a domain.  That means that email sent to your domain but not to an existing mailbox will go there.  When I set up JohnFeistPhotography’s email, I created info@JohnFeistPhotography.com as a real mailbox.  I also set as the default.  that way, any mail sent to john@JohnFeistPhotography.com or Sales@JohnFeistPhotography.com, etc. will come to my one mailbox!

If you are sure about your name and are able to get it (e.g. MyBusinessName.com) go ahead and get it.  It should cost under $20.  Most services will offer you options about privacy, certification and retention.  Read what they are offering and decide if it is right for you.  You can always change things later.  Remember this will be your business, not the site for your daughter’s Girl Scout cookies.  In most cases these costs are considered to be deductible business expenses.  Don’t take my word for that, check with your tax professional.

Don’t start committing to hosting and related services until you have everything ready to go.  Once you commit, there are typically monthly costs.  Some hosts offer a free trial period.  Use the free time to build and fine tune the site, once you are ready.  Building the actual site via exiting templates on a hosted service is much faster than starting from scratch.  The time consuming activities are typically:

  • Loading products.  I have about 800 images on my site.  I had to select and load them, but more on such fun activities in a subsequent post.
  • Fine tuning wording and layout of what goes where in your site
  • Deciding on logos, images and other decoration for your site

It took me an afternoon to do the basic set up on JohnFeistPhotography.com.  Uploading the images took several hours.  I had selected the initial images before starting.  It took me another week or so to get everything right about the images, their descriptions, prices, etc.  Adding this blog to the site took about five minutes on PhotoShelter, plus the time to do some setup on WordPress which hosts the blog.

That’s enough for one topic.  I’d love to hear back if you have questions, comments or suggestions.  I’ll post the next increment in a week or so.