Lessons Learned From An E-Commerce Adventure

It is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all; and even more important to learn from your mistakes.

That is what I keep telling myself after having invested the time and cash equivalent to a Harvard MBA in an e-commerce start-up that has stalled and is winding down. Not a happy prospect in light of all the media pre-occupation with e-commerce success stories and the young millionaires watching their IPOs rocket into cyberspace. But the headlines ignore the more frequent stories of new e-commerce businesses that do not hit the stock market jackpot. Many of them either settle into a low-key niche or exhaust their resources and fold.

This is the story of an Internet venture that did not make the headlines, but offers some useful insights for entrepreneurs evaluating their own initiatives. The lessons learned are applicable to your own new venture or to an investment in someone else’s.

In mid-1998 we launched a new company called nxtNet (www.nxtnet.com) with the slogan … “taking you to the next level on the Internet”.

My partner and I both had prior successful entrepreneurial experience in computer products and wanted to start a new venture together. We decided to develop a business that would catch the next wave of e-commerce services for mid-sized companies seeking to do business on the Internet. After long discussions, searches for a unique service offering, and many draft business plans, we developed a market strategy and then chose Intershop Communications as our software development platform. This product had the advantages of being suitable for single or multiple online storefronts, and offered a flexible, economic and comprehensive solution. We committed to the product, staffing, facilities and equipment to start training and development immediately. The two of us provided the time and cash required to get started.

By October 1998, we had an initial product with application as an online storefront for an associated computer business. At the same time, we realized that the application had wide appeal to other computer dealers and could be sold as a multi-user database service and e-commerce resource. We had developed a consolidated catalogue of 85,000 computer products from multiple distributor product databases that allowed rapid search and comparison for product information, pricing, and current sources. Users could access the catalogue from the Internet and find a product by manufacturer, category, and part number, key word or price range and immediately see the alternate sources and prices with links to more technical information, preferred dealer pricing and actual stock levels. Additional features allowed the catalogue to be customized so that any computer reseller could present the database as his own online storefront. This option offered all the search and product information features to his customers, but showed only retail pricing and enabled the online ordering process.

The product offering quickly received positive feedback and strong indications of support from all the participants – resellers, distributors, and manufacturers. It was a comprehensive, powerful, and effective tool for buying and selling at all levels within the Canadian computer distribution channel. Resellers recognized the value in an online resource to save time and effort. Distributors and manufacturers saw the opportunity to promote their products, and major publishers in the industry wanted to offer complementary online services to their subscribers and advertisers. How could we fail with all this enthusiasm and support?

While the potential for success clearly existed, everybody had the same questions and reservations – “Who is there now?” “How many are using it?” and “I don’t want to pay until it’s bigger”.

Reasonable objections we thought, so we added features and content for free. We promoted the product with free trials and low cost subscriptions for reseller access. Then we coaxed, persuaded, sold hard, and made deals. The “contra” became the standard for obtaining press coverage, free ads, mailing lists and promotion in exchange for free participation and future consideration. Activity on the Web site and catalogue grew to 3000 visitors per month with over 800 subscribers and the distributor list increased from three to twelve.

But revenue remained near zero as most reseller subscribers declined to pay for the service. Reasons were “it should be free – let the advertisers pay”, “I don’t use it enough”, “there are lower cost options”, or “we built our own solution”. The audience did not grow fast enough even after we offered it for free, to satisfy the advertisers and content providers. Without persistent and conspicuous sales and marketing efforts, all the participants quickly lost interest. Meanwhile the costs of database maintenance, ongoing development, site hosting, Internet access, sales, marketing, and administration were increasing.

Clearly the old entrepreneurial model of controlling costs and growing revenue was not going to apply. We had to realign our profile to show how zero revenue and high initial costs could still lead to significant investment returns like other well-known Internet ventures. So from early 1999 we started an aggressive search for financing, estimating our requirements at $500,000 to $1,500,000 over the next two years before achieving positive cash flow. More business plans, spreadsheets, and glossy presentations to demonstrate future valuations up to $20 million, even $40 million.

We knocked on many doors, from banks to government agencies, from angel investors to venture capital, from stock promoters to business consultants, and again received lots of encouragement, but no financing. So the founding partners were faced with a continuing cash drain, no relief in sight, and the limits of their own resources rapidly approaching. It was time to put the project on hold. Strategic partners or investors might still be developed to proceed with the project, but the ongoing expenditures were stopped in late 1999.

So what are the lessons learned? We already knew that nothing ventured, nothing gained. We now also knew that big successes in the new economy require big investments. Entrepreneurs may start small, but large investments will be required from new sources to achieve significant success. And no one will put significant money into a venture unless it is the only remaining requirement.

The concept, product, development, marketing and staffing all have to be in place before an investor will provide the final ingredient – his cash. Exceptions are likely only where the management team has already succeeded in the same arena, or the investor himself can deliver the missing elements, such as customers or management skills. No investor is going to take the chance that the entrepreneur with a good concept or product will also be able to deliver the required management and marketing skills to succeed, after he has the cash.

Next time we will know better. And there are side benefits from this expensive learning experience. I can now admit that with the knowledge gained through our association with Intershop Communications, I was confident enough to make an investment in their stock on the German Neue Markt at 65 Euros last year. It went over 400 Euros last month and is still rising with their rapid growth and the prospect of a NASDAQ listing this year. Almost enough to recover my investment in nxtNet.

So the most important lesson is that education in the new economy is essential, and not free, but it can lead to success outside the original plan. Learn, be aware, and be aggressively opportunistic.

Online Multi Level Marketing – How to Take Your MLM Business Online

It seems that everyone is using the internet these days to promote their products or business. Once you understand the basics of online marketing you will see just how powerful online multi level marketing can be. The internet can automate much of your recruiting efforts from initial contact, presenting your opportunity, answering questions, and following up. In this article I will show you how your existing network marketing skills can be applied on the internet.

In network marketing the first step you need to take to get someone to join your business is to contact them. Whether it is your warm market or your cold market you have to pick up the phone and make an appointment to talk to them. In the online world this initial contact is replaced with an advertising campaign – typically pay-per-click on one of the major ad networks. This allows you to target the specific people who are looking for what you have to offer. Once they click on your ad you can give them your presentation.

In online multi level marketing your presentation can consist of a video, audio, text, or a combination of these. Using these tools you present your offer to the visitor in a way that will entice them to leave their contact information. This is typically done with a short introduction that promises more information if they leave their contact details. Once they supply their information you can then give them more details about what you have to offer.

As you know, people typically have questions about what you are offering. One of the goals of your marketing information is to answer those questions before the person even thinks to ask them. This is called pre-selling. The better job you do pre-selling the more successful your online multi level marketing efforts will be. In addition to having questions most people will typically think things over before making a decision. This is why the experts always say the gold is in the follow-up.

One of the best features of online multi level marketing is that follow-up can be done in an automated fashion. If you've struggled before trying to make the recommended five to seven follow-up contacts you will appreciate just how easy it gets online. Using an auto-responder you can create a sequence of emails that are automatically sent at predetermined intervals. This will keep your opportunity fresh in your prospects mind while they think over your offer.

As you can see, using the internet to help with your MLM business can save you a lot of time while increasing your effectiveness. One of the advantages of implementing an online multi level marketing system is that there are known techniques and principles that can be followed and the system as a whole can be tweaked to improve its effectiveness. If you already have experience in network marketing then you can see how the process translates online allowing you to focus on working with your top earners.

Setting Up a Studio for You

With the new Nikon D7100 digital camera, you would expect to be able to turn your hand to almost anything. This versatile and flexible camera is designed to excel in all areas of photography. So, once it is out of the box, many new owners will be rushing to take portraits and still-life images in studio conditions. Obviously, if you can, you should always try to shoot in natural light – particularly if you are shooting portraits. If that is not feasible, the pop up flash can usually provide the necessary fill-in, or you could use you flash gun, carefully placed and fired remotely. In most circumstances these tools will help you to get a decent result. But a time will come when you decide you need more control and at that point you will want a studio set up.

If you are setting up your studio at home, the ideal scenario is to have a room specifically put aside for your photography. It should have plenty of space, a high ceiling and be at least 5 meters long. Paint the walls a color that does not reflect too much – black is ideal, but if you have to share the room, then gray would be OK. Cover the windows with blackout material to ensure that the light can not get in and also cover the doors to prevent further contamination. Ideally you only want to have the light that is under your control to be effecting your images. You will also need a good supply of electrical sockets.

Having closed out all external light sources, you can decide what lighting you want to have in your studio. Lighting falls into two categories – continuous or strobe. Continuous also has two options, either tungsten or fluorescent. Tungsten is very popular for portraititure because it gives good skin tones. It is naturally a ‘warm’ light, both in light and temperature (this can be a problem, if you make your subject sit under them for a long time). You would also want to use tungstens if you were shooting video.

Fluorescent lights have a more sterile white light with a blueish hue. They are often used for stock shots ad still-live photography, because it is felt that the colors are more accurate. Of course, it is up to the photographer to choose which he prefers. White balance, in the D7100′s settings will be able to rectify most light settings, but, as you are in charge of your lighting, it would be better to set the lights so that the subject appears as you want to see it. Relying on in-camera correctives is just another think to try to remember and sooner or later you will be cursing your memory and catching up in Photoshop.

The one great advantage of continuous lighting is that you can actually see how the subject will appear in the picture in real-time. This means that you get the lighting right and can then confidently address other variables like content and composition. With the strobe, you are sometimes not sure if the flash fired or not. In many ways continuous lighting is a lot easier, and I would recommend that you start with this. However, when you need to photograph something or someone and give the impression of movement, or freeze them in action, you will have to use strobe lighting.

Although strokes are more difficult to set up, they give the photographer bit more flexibility. The power of the flash can be increased or reduced to suit the photographer’s needs. This means that the photographer can design his lighting around his shutter speed requirement. Obviously, if the subject is moving and you do not want blur, you will need a fairly fast shutter speed. Once mastered, strobe lights are a great way to get the images you want. However, because they operate on a burst, they sometimes take a while to recharge.

If you start off with a couple of lights, the easiest way to set them up is with the soft box at the front and the spot at the back. The soft box emits a softer more even light that is easier to meter against. The soft box should be 6 feet away from the subject, near the camera. The other light should be at least 3 feet away from the back drop so that it gives an even background. I would advise getting some barn doors for the back light, so that the light does not spread where it is not wanted. Always set your trigger up to the front light and ensure that both lights fire at the same time. Most lighting systems have slaves built into them these days.

I usually begin a shoot on a standard 1/125 at f8 with an ISO set at 200. This gives me enough flexibility to change things around gradually if I need to. Most studio lenses operate comfortably at f8 and the shutter speed will catch most fluid movement. If you find the lighting a bit flat, move the soft box out wide to get some more definition and shadow, but always be aware that more shadow can be very unflattering, particularly if the subject has an angular face or large nose. I always start by getting the standard shots done – the full length, half-length and then move in tighter for head and shoulders or portrait. By the time you want to try something more interesting your model will have relaxed and you will have become more confident in the equipment and you abilities.

The Importance of Your eCommerce Site for Your Business

It is plain to see why a poorly designed website can be a major problem to online businesses, most especially during the holiday season, which covers 20% to 40% of the yearly sales.

In this regard, those who need data validation can refer to the stats that explain the importance of your brand's presence on the Internet:

  • Before people shop at a physical store, they often check websites of online stores.

  • Customers search online for the prices and availability of goods so they would know whether to shop online or at physical stores.

  • During an economic crisis, consumers exercise caution when shopping online to stretch their budget, resulting to an increase of website traffic.

  • Shoppers that tend to purchase downloadable gifts like eBooks, music and FB credits, among others, will likely buy more.

Optimize Your Online Site Immediately

Now that you are aware of your site's importance, what should you do before the holiday season approaches? It is never too late to try some of these strategies:

Prepare for unexpected traffic.Plan ahead of time to make sure that your site can manage all the orders. Anticipate peak loads, observe the responsiveness of your site and assessment application performance way before Cyber ​​Monday.

Increase the speed of your site. Use a CDN (content delivery network) for a speedy delivery of relevant content with videos and images to your consumers.

During the holidays, most shoppers use their mobile devices to search online before heading for the stores. Therefore, it would be wise to incorporate an in-store experience with info regarding your well-timed and relevant personalized website and mobile apps.

Find ways to let the customers easily find your products on the web. To improve exposure, submit a feed to the top online shopping comparison engine, Google Product Search. Try the Amazon Marketplace or add pay-per-click ads to Amazon Product Ads' product and category pages. This way, shoppers will be able to view your ads when they find products that are similar to yours.

Although social media is not the main channel for searching, it has targeted the main stream and has since gained importance, specifically to GenY shoppers. Transform visitors into sales channels by including social sharing in product pages. Display good customer service in public by resolving issues with customers on networking sites like Facebook or Twitter.

People who are low on budget usually search online before buying, so it is a good idea to follow the example of various sites in making it fun, simple and efficient to shop on the web. Provide product filters, rich product details, comparison tools, well-designed navigation and recommendations. Enhance the images of your best-selling products, emphasize your value propositions and make sure that shipping and return policies are clear.

Fix your leaky conversion funnel immediately by adding simple and cost-efficient website usability and feedback tools.

Whenever possible, ask for the visitor's email address and try to squeeze a lot of value out of each sign-up.

Try to employ remarketing campaigns so you can target consumers who take time to buy.