March 17, 2015

10 Things I Wish I knew before I Started an Online Store

Lately, I've cut back on the frequency of my blog posts for Retail Bliss. I've also stopped taking on new clients for a while.


Well, Encircled is booming. Things are busy.

Almost every waking hour is spent on my fashion line which is a good thing because business is great, but a bad thing as I don't get to blog as much.

I have had some time lately in flight to Los Angeles and Miami to ponder my startup path with Encircled.

Where did I excel? Where can I improve? What do I wish I could tell other startups?

I decided to write it all down in a top 10 list and share it with you, my reader, to help you get new perspective on your own business.

10 Things I Wish I knew before I started an Online Store


1. Good photography (and artistic vision) sells.

An easy one.

I hired a student photographer, and a friend of a friend as a model on my first photoshoot. For the price, and my ability managing photoshoots the shots turned out well.

However, I had almost no vision as to what my overall design and vibe of the site would be, so the styling of the shoot, even the background of the photos later on was hard to replicate and not reflective of my brand as I saw it.

Key Takeaway // Take the time upfront to be specific about your overall brand vision. Partner with a professional. Invest here first. Brilliant photography tells a story and makes selling your product that much easier.


2. Brand consistency is king.

I've changed typography several time since I launched, and adjusted my logo to fit what's 'easiest' up until lately.

My logo is a circle with a word inside it, which makes it difficult to scale to a small size on horizontally oriented labels as an example.

I also never really chose an official pantone colour for my brand, so my hangtags, brochures, cards all have a different look/tone.

Frustrating but you do the best that you can when you're a startup, and doing your own graphic design.

Key Takeaway // Hire a visual branding specialist upfront and get this all defined from the get go. Be consistent. Do not waver. It's costly to correct these differences later on.


3. Choose an easy-to-use eCommerce platform.

When I started Encircled, I was introduced to a platform called Shopify by my original developer in 2012.

She sung it's praises -- frankly, I had no idea on differences between content management systems -- I just wanted it to look pretty.

Fast forward a few months when my developer bails because she is too busy, and I hire someone else. He convinces me to go to Magento, saying that it offers all that Shopify has and more.

While this was true in a sense, Magento was also the most un-user friendly platform I've ever used. Me, who has basic html skills was unable to change a main banner. Every banner change required a call to the developer and a $25 fee.

My developer who hosted the site on his hosting service (another no-no), blackmailed me for money on New Year's Eve because he couldn't pay his hosting fees. He threatened to take my site down unless I paid him 6 months of hosting upfront.


Key Takeaway // Pick a platform that doesn't need massive custom programming to get up and running. Buy a beautiful, and well-laid out template. Ask for referrals from people you trust (and who's websites you like) for reputable developers. 


4. Start creating systems early on.

I talked about this extensively in my blog post, How to Create a Process for your Retail Store. If you are planning on scaling your online store to the multi-million dollar level, you will need to create processes and systems.

It's much easier to do this early on. Even if it's JUST YOU doing everything, it will make a difference when you start hiring other people into your business.

I started with some systems in place but wish I had done more to invest in bookkeeping, customer service tracking and inventory forecasting early on. It would've saved me time, and probably increased my revenue.

Key Takeaway // Write out all of the processes needed to run your business. How do you ship an order? How do you record expenses? Setup all of these systems in place and document how you do it somewhere.


5. Your number one cheerleader is you.

When you work in the corporate world, if you're savvy you can align yourself with the right mentors, and leaders who will sing your praises throughout the ranks of the company.

When you're an entrepreneur, there's no one to sing your praises.

In fact, most people will question your decision to become an entrepreneur.

They will question your product, your pricing, your business model, your sales, your margins, and your point of view. They will suggest you need to do X, Y and Z in your business.

At times, you will want to quit. You will be tired of it all, but you must keep going. 

Key Takeaway // You need to be strong. You need to be your biggest cheerleader, and promote yourself and your business to the highest degree. No one else will (unless you have an overbearing press rep or an insane amount of press!).


6. Your pricing strategy communicates your brand.

How you price your products is directly correlated with how your brand is perceived by consumers. 

When I started Encircled, I was worried that my products were too expensive. Now, I'm worried the opposite is true. 

Be clear on your value. Know your value, and believe in your products.

This also applies to how often you promote, how many giveaways you do, and other key promotional strategies. 

Do not make these decisions in haste. It's integral to spend the time correctly pricing your products.

Key takeaway // Take time to map our your pricing strategy and cross-check it with your overall company goals. Do you want to sell wholesale? Make sure you have the right structure in place for your margins to support this channel.


7.  Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

I've always been fiercely independent, and reluctant to ask others for assistance. I like doing things on my own.

However, when you have a startup the facts are real. Funds are limited, and time is in short supply. 

You NEED to ask for help because you cannot afford to hire people to do some of these tasks.

Whether it's asking friends to model, or help ship packages -- I ask. I have to, and I know if someone asked me to help them with their business, I would do it.

Asking for help is a sign of strength. It means you are focusing on your business, and moving forward.

Key Takeaway // Look where you can leverage your network, and friends and family to help you in the interim. Of course, I'm not advocating free-labour but exchanges in kind can often work. Trading product for time, or a dinner is often a nice thank you for your helpers.


8. Invest in tech tools.

I worked for the first 16 months in my startup using a 2008 MacBook Aluminum that's battery lasted 30 minutes (despite being replaced 3 times), and had a trackpad that didn't work. Photoshop took 10 minutes to load, and would crash if files were over 5MB.

Think of the hours of time I could've saved by investing in a new computer.

I did finally invest in a new laptop, however it took me forever to do. I was being too cheap. And that cheapness hurt my efficiency.

Key Takeaway // Figure out what you need to run your business most efficiently and effectively, and budget for the investments in technology. Generally, these types of investments are tax write-offs as well.


9. The work never ends.

One of the joys touted by entrepreneurs is a flexible schedule.

Well. That's only partially true.

Before I was a full-time entrepreneur, I dreamed of brunches with friends, daily yoga, and making my own green juice. 

More often than not, I'm working 16+ hour days, and confused as to whether it's a weekday or the weekend.

As product-based entrepreneurs, many of us wear more hats than just marketing. We are the shippers, receivers, inventory counters, marketers, press reps, content management, website developer, customer service and in some cases, the manufacturer. 

I've got more work than I know what to do with, and that's WITH hiring someone recently part-time to help me.

Key Takeaway // So here's the truth. The work will never end. It will be your toughest job as an entrepreneur to prioritize what you will do each day, and define your own boundaries. Clearly set your priorities, and make sure they align with your goals as a business.


10. Nothing will ever be perfect.

I am a complete type A personality, and recovering perfectionist. So, take this advice with a grain of salt, as I'm still practicing this one daily.

Nothing you do as an entrepreneur, or in life in general will ever be perfect. There is no such thing. There is good. There is bad. There is poor. There is better. But there is no perfect.

This was a tough lesson being in fashion design. My first design took 8-9 months to get up to my standards. Seriously. My next design, about 6 months. The one thereafter, 5 months. A long lead time but improving.

Why did each design take so long?

Because I was over-investing in making it 'just so'. Instead, I should've put it into the market, let customers experience the product and get feedback, and improve it based on the feedback, and re-release. This is what tech startups do oh so well. 

I have changed this in the past year -- become more agile with my designs and processes, but it's not how I started.

What's the number one thing you wish you knew before you started your online business?

Leave it in the comments below!

Wishing you much abundance + retail bliss,

Principal Retail Consultant/Founder

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Wishing you much abundance + retail bliss,