I've been involved with my fair share of internet start-up failures, and it's no fun all round when the venture goes belly up.
Back in the early 2000's, it was common to take venture capitalist money and spend it like water without looking at the bottom line. Here are my top tips for making sure you don't end up in the internet grave along with Oneview.net where I had a measly 12 months before picking up my P45 once again.
1. Make Your IT Department Report To You
It’s all too easy to let departments run themselves, and let’s face it, IT is one of those areas where a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous.
Not knowing how your website is performing is terrible form. But having someone in charge (or no one) of the basic google analytics stats is going to get you into trouble.
Get some key performance indicators in place (KPI) and make sure you get the feedback regularly.
Even simple performance indicators like bounce rate can make the difference between understanding how your website visitors view your eCommerce website and how you see it.
Make sure you see the essential Analytics indicators weekly.
2. Set Goals And Targets
Goal setting is pretty basic stuff, but it’s surprising how many bosses go into Monday morning without a clue of what they want to achieve in the week ahead.
Sit down on a Sunday evening and plan what you want to achieve in the next week. Review weekly.
3. Devise A Social Media Plan
You don’t have to be a social media “guru” to make an impact in social media.
Understand where your audience is listening for information and be consistent in your efforts.
It’s much more preferable to pick one media channel, for example, Facebook, and update it three times a week than it is to take a scattergun approach and be haphazard with it.
4. Be Consistent In Your Content Management
Learning to update your website, Facebook, Twitter and any other social media you deem appropriate on a regular basis will give you a jump on the opposition. Be consistent with whichever method you choose. If you are going to start a social media campaign, be aware that bringing it to a premature end can be worse than not starting it at all. If you are in any doubt at all of your ability to maintain a consistent social media presence, then my advice is to skip it until you are ready.
5. Don’t Commit To Schedules Or Deadlines You Can’t Keep
IT Projects almost always overrun. Why? Because everyone underestimates the amount of manual labour involved in getting a project over the finish line.
Building an eCommerce website and the associated infrastructure is hugely labour intensive.
Always add in “buffer time” to your project so that you can cater for unforeseen difficulties.
6. Don’t Start Anything Without Testing The Idea First
Grand ideas – who doesn’t have them? Building a simple three-page website and testing with PPC can save you months of heartache – and a stack of cash! Committing to a big project without finding out if the keywords will convert first is Internet suicide.
7. Do Outsource Wherever Possible
Outsourcing can reap enormous benefits.
However, finding reliable people to do your work is not easy. If you are going to pay the going rate or +10% or more, you’ll not have a problem.
There is no difference in price between paying an amateur £10 per hour to do a job that takes him or her ten hours or paying a Pro £25 an hour and getting the job done in four hours.
Except of course for the saving in time – which is the most valuable commodity of all.
8. Code Of Conduct
Impose a code of conduct on staff members and rules regarding email transmissions, Facebook status updates and especially Twitter use which can be extremely damaging to your company in very short order.
It’s worth spending the time to get this sorted out up front rather than trying to implement damage limitation at a later date.
9. Backup, Backup, Backup
Yes, my favourite hobby horse is back!. Be responsible for your data and make sure your backups work. Prove to yourself that your disaster recovery routine allows you to recover from a catastrophe.
10. Know When To Pull The Plug
Knowing when to stop digging a hole is of course much easier said than done.
Sinking more and more cash into a project that isn't working is one of the biggest reasons people end up giving up altogether.
Make a budget, stick to it, and if all goes tits up, you can still come back and have another go with something else.
Often that something else is the plan that works because you have already made a lot of mistakes and learnt from them.
Giving up on a project because it is not working is painful but giving yourself the chance to recycle everything you have discovered in that process can be the key to success.
How many times have you looked at someone else’s business process and thought:
“If only they made a simple X or Y change then their product would probably be ten times more successful?”
Of course, you have. If you have a drop of entrepreneurial spirit within you, then it’s the natural thing to do. Often the best way to make a profit is to take someone else’s product or service and improve the customer service, leaving those stuck in their old ways or who refuse to adapt trailing in the dust.
In the past, this method of business process modelling was reasonably easy to do. Source the product, devise the manufacturing process and employ the staff. Then improve the customer service beyond recognition.
For those starting up a new eCommerce business or adding eCommerce to their product offering, however, it is not merely a case of improving customer service, you need to reinvent the whole issue of customer relationship management.
We are becoming a more mobile and fluid society. We expect more and better service from the companies whose products we buy. It is no longer enough to have a token Saturday morning opening. Business hours are now becoming truly 24 x 7.
The issue that faces all new start-ups and those that process a significant proportion of their orders online is in creating flexible employee hours that allow the product to be adequately supported and implementing systems that will record the customer contact trail.
In this situation, it is a case of inventing the wheel because every new start-up faces its new unique challenges and just copying what has gone before is not possible.
For this reason, new companies that start-up and those relying on a significant amount of intelligence information held by a critical nucleus of staff should insist that all communication goes through the correct channels and consider using ring-fenced systems to enforce it.
Email by its very nature is one of the worst possible communication mediums for tracking and tracing information.
Here are my top tips for implementing data control over your startup and being able to maintain a high level of customer service:
1. Use A Helpdesk System
Email is one of the worst communication media for customer relationship management (CRM).
A helpdesk system such as http://www.sirportly.com/ will allow many users to log into a central resource and support your customers online while building a searchable database of common queries.
A pool of operators can manage the helpdesk, and if you build out your FAQ’s and data sheets, it’s a very low-cost method of offering round the clock support.
2. Don’t Use Facebook As A Customer Service Portal.
Using social media for customer support is a classic error.
It's fine to answer customer queries if they show up on your Facebook page but your operator should direct people to the helpdesk so that questions get resolved correctly.
Facebook was never designed for CRM.
3. Test Out Your eCommerce System On A Sunday
Out of hours support is an area where you can make the most gain for the least expenditure.
It doesn’t have to be expensive to do this, and if you are really on a budget, then you can always do it yourself, which is not a bad thing in the process of business process discovery anyway.
Simply have your email address added to the notification system in the helpdesk, and you are ready to go.
4. Use Proper User Access Controls
Google analytics and other measuring tools have built-in user access control (UAC). USE IT! Don’t just give anyone who requests it root access.
Understand how the UAC permission system works – it’s the same whether you are talking network access to data or giving someone permission to view your analytics. Don’t give carte blanche access to anyone and everyone. That’s asking for trouble.
It’s the same for your CMS. Whether it’s Joomla, WordPress, Magento or Drupal, make sure the permissions are locked down so that users don’t have access to more than they need.
This isn’t just because you are a control freak – when users have access to control panels and settings that they shouldn’t be playing with things can go badly wrong.
5. Build Your Email List
The money is in the list.
Building an email list is not easy and requires some thought and planning but for those who already have an established customer base building an email list is a no-brainer.
Being able to contact your customer base by sending out an email is a potent CRM tool.