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Posted at 07:30 AM ET, 01/07/2013

Advice: Behind-the-scenes secrets to success for small merchants in 2013

Launching a small business this year is sure to bring considerable challenges, and in every industry, there are likely hundreds or even thousands of merchants offering similar products. Standing out in a crowded market means choosing products wisely and using technology on the back-end to maximize your margins and operate efficiently.


Hodges offers there eight tips for new business owners looking for marketing, selling and shipping advice. (JIM URQUHART - REUTERS)
But where do you start? Try these eight behind-the-scenes steps to get your business headed in the right direction in 2013.

1. An initial step is to spend considerable time in choosing the types of products or services that you want to sell. Choosing something familiar is a wise decision, especially for those entrepreneurs who are starting their first venture. Research how competitive your product will be on both features and cost, whether it’s a niche market that can offer high margins or a crowded marketplace that has established brand leaders.

2. Don’t build a completely custom website. The online content and your appearance should of course be tailored to your brand, but the actual architecture and functions of your site should be based on proven solutions. Companies such as Volusion and Shopify offer e-commerce platforms that can help you launch a functional website in just an afternoon. E-commerce providers can also lend their expertise in search-engine optimization and social marketing, which might not be your strong suits but are absolutely critical for building a customer base.

3. Ensure you have a purpose-built mobile site. This is a necessity in today’s world, where purchasing and browsing are moving to the mobile phone and tablet. Many customers simply won’t take the time to view your site on their laptop if it doesn’t work on their smartphone.

4. Embrace online marketplaces such as eBay and Amazon. While it might seem like a noble idea to only sell your products through your own site, it simply isn’t viable when you are first starting out. You can’t beat the value of both companies’ base of millions of customers.

5. Once a critical mass of customers is reached through any variety of marketplaces, you can then shift some efforts to driving business back to your website. You will likely develop a love/hate relationship with online marketplaces where the competition can be fierce and the margins low. Repeat customers provide higher margins if you can encourage them to make purchases through your company’s site. You can accomplish this by directly contacting those customers.

6. Drive your repeat or prospective customers to your site through email promotions using a cloud-based email marketing service. Companies such as Constant Contact or MailChimp offer very cost-effective email services that will hold your lists and help you navigate anti-spam and unsubscribe compliance rules.

7. Proactively plan for growth. You should put systems in place that are scalable, such as inventory management from a company such as Stich Labs. It’s pricing starts at free and enables you to manage orders across multiple channels (marketplaces and your own site) with just a few clicks. While inventory management might seem like overkill when you are shipping 20 products a month, if you see that jump to 400 per month, you’ll be glad to have that system in place.

8. Don’t neglect the time and expenses involved in shipping products. Standing in line at the post office is a classic example of using time inefficiently. Utilizing a web-based shipping provider can help you to consolidate your various marketplace channels and shipping methods with batch shipping and other automations that increase efficiency. The inclusion of a returns management feature can also help streamline an otherwise cumbersome returns process.

Entrepreneurs bold enough to start a business in 2013 should look to these back-end tips to provide a roadmap for finding the right products and then choosing the right partners to accelerate success. Smart outsourcing is critical, and if used properly, it allows business owners to focus their efforts on customer satisfaction and brand building.

Jason Hodges is the founder of ShipStation, an Austin, Texas-based start-up that provides web-based shipping solutions.

By Jason Hodges  |  07:30 AM ET, 01/07/2013

 
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