ask the expert | how to start up an online store

online store.jpg

I am currently in the process of starting up an online store, and have been getting quotes for websites.  I am wondering if you have any information or advice on what to look for when comparing quotes? Quotes have ranged from $1,000 - $10,000, not to mention the free offers that are out there.

I am unsure whether to go for a hosted e-commerce site, or a custom site which will be a bit more flexible and allow me to expand.  The difference between the two seems to be a few thousand.  The thing is, I am worried about outlaying so much on a website when I am unsure whether the business will be a success... however I don't want to get a really basic website that may keep me from what I could achieve using a customised site.

Some developers say that their sites are custom made, however they are often made with their own shopping carts and therefore I wouldn't have access to the code to my site to move it elsewhere.  This worries me in case I am not happy with the hosting they provide, or if they no longer run their business I am wondering what would then happen to my site.

I would appreciate any advice you might be able to offer, as I'm finding it very difficult to move forward at the moment.

Thanks very much,


Rachael Acklin - The Caffeinated Elf

I love questions like these, because they are actually a collection of questions all in one. I’ll answer each piece in turn.

The “What kind of website do I need?” question

In your case, you’re going to be selling physical items using your website as the platform, which means you do need some kind of ecommerce functionality. This could be something as simple as Paypal buttons for each item, or as complicated as a custom-programmed online storefront like Threadless or Zappos.

What I always recommend to retailers is that they use the simplest possible solution, with the caveat that it needs to be extensible in the future. For you, this means that you need something that you, your programmer, or another programmer can make changes to as your business grows and your needs change.

For a good quality, extensible solution that can start out very simply, I recommend either Paypal buy-now buttons (you can have these custom designed to match your website); or eShop, a free ecommerce Wordpress plugin.

For a bigger ecommerce solution that is extensible and can handle thousands of products, I recommend Magento. Its open source version is supported as well as free, and there are many great Magento programmers you can hire to customize the design as well as the back-end administration pieces where you add and monitor your products and orders.

My advice here is to find a Wordpress design and development studio or freelancer who’s comfortable using the shopping cart you prefer, and whose design aesthetic appeals to you; or find a Magento design and development studio or freelancer that has a portfolio of work you like.

The “How much should a website cost?” question

Website costs are a metric based on several things, including:

  • the time it takes to develop each piece of the website, including research, idea generation, design, coding / programming, and deployment;
  • the hourly cost of each designer or programmer who is part of the website creation process (usually averaged out to a per-project fee, although this varies widely);
  • the overhead costs of the freelancer, studio, or business that oversees the website creation process.

Any of these factors can be different depending on who you talk to. For example, some developers prefer to always write their own code - this can be more efficient in terms of time, but it can prevent you from using a different developer in the future. Cheap now can often mean more expensive later. Another way to look at it is that using a single freelancer for your entire project can bring the overall costs down, but it can take a lot more time if there is a portion of the project that needs to be outsourced because the freelancer doesn’t specialize in that type of thing.

My advice here is to create your project budget based on your own available capital, and then take that budget price point to each of the studios or freelancers that you would like to work with.

The “Do I actually need a website?” question

This one isn’t necessarily what you asked at all, but I’d like to address it anyway because very often, when you start a new business, you feel obligated to have a website. And not only do you feel obligated to have a website, you feel obligated to have an AWESOME website, so that you get lots of customers right away and so that your business can take off immediately. However, most of the time, you won’t have the budget to get that kind of website design right away, and even if you do, you may be spending money on something that you could actually do later, once your business is sustaining itself.

My advice here is to keep it as simple as possible. Instead of a whole website designed from the ground up, maybe you need some web graphics to use in a Wordpress website that you can set up yourself, like a header or banner, and maybe some color palette advice. 

Online Business Junction

My suggestion to anyone starting out new with an online business is to start out in an affordable way. Unless one has an unlimited budget, which of course most people do not, it's better to start out small and affordable. Investing too much in a new website, no matter what route you take to have one created, can really be a waste of your money, especially if your business does not succeed.

A fancy or fully customized website doesn't guarantee a website's success. Quality products, top-notch customer service and branding will go much farther to help a new business succeed. And you can't get that money back should your online business fail. So it's worth it to save your money wherever you can in the beginning.

If you want a website that you can move at a later date, if necessary, then many sites that are built on existing shopping carts with site builders may limit that possibility. There are exceptions though, so you should do your research and ask questions up front about the potential to move your site down the road. This will vary by web host.

Most free sites should be avoided all together, in my opinion. You get what you pay for most of the time, so you just can't expect too much with something that is free. However, one viable semi-free option is a self-hosted blog, like Word Press. You can purchase shopping carts that can be installed on WP; you can also use Google Checkout, which costs nothing at all and is very easy to add to WP. And there are other one-click shopping cart installs that are free that can be added to WP, depending on your web host.

So in the case of a self-hosted WP blog, you can create an online store that may only cost you the annual fee for web hosting (I pay around $150 a year at DreamHost), and the shopping cart in many cases can be free. And you might be surprised how many websites are built on WP blogs.

The solution that works for one person may not be right for another. So I really just recommend making a list of all the things you want in a website, and use that criteria to ask questions of potential web hosts when you are shopping around. Then choose the one that will help you meet all your needs, and still be reasonable for your budget and your business.

Ruby Ruby Designs

here are some questions that you should ask your website developer:

(courtesy of green label web design)

What programming languages do you code in?

They should offer HTML, CSS, Javascript, Flash, PHP or SQL

Will my website be SEO friendly?

If yes, ask them for more information on how they will achieve that.

Will my website customised to my design and are there any limitations?

Aside from mentioning file size, there should be no limitations.

Do you code the websites yourself?

Many people outsources to third world countries which is unethical and can result in an inferior result, which you will often have to pay a more experienced web developer to fix.

Will I own finished website files?

Some developers offer ‘hosted’ solutions – so this usually includes a setup fee and a yearly subscription. This is similar to ‘hosting’ but you do not actually own the intellectual property, you are hiring a space and customising it. This also means you can’t change developer if you want someone else to host your site.

At the end of the day you get what you pay for with Website Development. So if a deal seems ‘too good to be true’ chances are it is and you’ll end up having to pay for your website to be fixed.

more links: - choosing the right web developer – a sponsored post about using shopify to start your online store - how to start an online store on a budget

do you have a question about building your biz? send me an email and my partners and i will do our best to answer =)