With the rise of the internet, more and more people are deciding to become entrepreneurs. There are few things more fulfilling than having an idea, nurturing it and seeing it spout into a real business. The barrier of entry for ordinary people to start their own businesses has been ripped away for most industries thanks to the internet. What used to take tons of capital, a physical store and huge risk, today can be achieved with a website, some creativity and a lot of determination. Distribution and marketing, two of the most expensive and important areas of business has been democratized. If you sell physical goods there is no longer the need to open a traditional brick-and-mortar store. There are thousands of profitable companies operating strictly online via their own websites or virtual stores like Etsy, Big Cartel or E-bay that allow you to sell your goods online. Want to sale at festivals or pop-up stores, using services like Square allows you to accept credit card payments from your smartphone. If you're a musician or writer you no longer have to wait for a record label or publisher to come knocking, you can sell your work on iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp and a host of other digital stores. There's never been a better time in history to be self-employed.
But just because you have a great idea doesn't mean customers will come knocking down your virtual door. You still need to have sound business fundamentals and at least a basic understanding of how not only your industry but how the internet works as well.
Your Website and/or Storefront
The cliche goes, the first impression is a lasting impression, and it couldn't be more true than on the internet. If a potential customer visits your website and is immediately suspicious of your legitimacy, there is good chance that person will not feel comfortable giving you their hard earned money or information. Making sure your website is modern, presents your product or service in the best possible light, easy to navigate are paramount to a successful company. Many people choose to start their business part-time by using services like Etsy or Big Cartel that offer pre-existing store fronts and community. While going this route has it's short-term benefits, I usually tell people to create their own website and identity if they have the time and resources. Creating a store on one of these ready made websites is usually very simple and cost effective but it's hard to differentiate your store from the thousands of others on the site. If you're serious about creating a company or brand I'd strongly suggest taking the time and spending the money to create your own website and store.
If you can afford it, invest in a professionally designed website that is also mobile friendly. The latest trend in web design is called "responsive design". Responsive design allows your website to scale appropriately no matter what screen size your website is viewed on. Because we use multiple screen sizes and devices to access the web now, this technique is extremely valuable in maintaining your brand across any smartphone, tablet or computer. Avoid using audio, video and Flash animations that play automatically on your home page. These tend to annoy most users, slow your website down and can cause nightmares when viewing the website from a mobile device. Good web design can be costly but CMS (Content Management Systems) companies like Squarespace and WordPress offer beautiful and highly customizable templates that are easy to learn or cheaper to get developed. Do your research and shop around before settling with a web designer.
Your website is just part of your presentation, depending on your business there are many other factors that should be taken into consideration.
In the age of social media, branding also plays an important role in how you present and conduct yourself on services like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest etc. You can literally find thousands of books, blogs and "social media experts" that each have their own "science" of how to be successful in social media. There is no one size fits all strategy when it comes to connecting with your customers/fans/audience. Building a community is one of the most important things you can do to assure growth and word of mouth marketing. If you can get your customers/readers/fans to identify and have an emotional connection to your business or product they will scream from the rafters about you as long as they feel respected and you're providing a product or service they enjoy. A small, vocal, active community is more valuable than a large passive community in social media. There are general tips that you can follow to build your community and not damage your reputation online.
1. Tweet/Post information that is valuable to your target audience. If you sale car parts, talk about cars or share information pertaining to cars. No one cares that your cat is sick. Unless your an artist/musician most people can care less about your personal life. If you want to discuss personal issues, use a personal account.
2. Use Pull, not Push marketing strategies. Spamming people's email boxes and Twitter accounts will not make you customers/fans. It actually does the opposite. Use common sense and treat others how you would want to be treated. Read the article I wrote on Push vs. Pull marketing for more in-depth information.
3. Avoid publicly discussing problems or disagreements. Have them email you.
4. Quickly address customers/users concerns or complaints if valid. If someone has a legitimate issue it's easier to nip it in the bud than to let it fester and lose them and potentially others as customers.
5. As a caveat to #4, you can't address everyone. The internet is...the internet and there will always be complainers who just like complaining or want attention. You will have to make judgement calls on what issues are legitimate and which you should ignore.
6. Interact and converse with people/brands/media that are in your field. It not only could create a business opportunity down the road but can expose you to their following as well.
Create An Email List/Newsletter
One of the most effective ways of communicating with your community/customers/fans is via email. Getting the email addresses of people that are actually interested in what you are selling in priceless. Always, always, always provide a way to collect customers email addresses. Offering discounts, giveaways are special sales or information in exchange for an email address is the best way to build a database of people you know are interested in hearing from you. However it is very important not to abuse this relationship. Constantly sending out emails is a guaranteed way to drive people to unsubscribe from your list or make them ignore your emails entirely. There are tools like Mailchimp that allow you to make and send custom newsletters to email groups easily or depending on the size of your list, free. Treat your customers email address as gold and only send emails when you have something to say (new products, sales, discounts, events, etc.)
Packaging Physical Goods
In the Steve Jobs biography written by Walter Isaacson, Jobs talked about how important packaging was for Apple. Isaacson explained how they took an almost obsessive focus on how their products were presented to customers. Jobs believed that what the packaging looked like and the experience customers had opening their product for the first time was as crucial as the product itself. Showing that attention to detail at even the most smallest level communicates that the company really cares about the product and in turn the customer. Even if you don't sell physical goods, this lesson is still applicable when it comes to overall presentation. Pay close attention not only to the big things but the small things as well and your customers will notice, even if it's subconsciously.
Put The Customer First
Putting the customer first is a generic slogan that everyone says but rarely follow through on. However companies like Zappos , Amazon and Apple have made a name for themselves by having unordinary customer friendly policies. Zappos, the shoe retailer made it's name in the early days of e-commerce by having a 365 day return policy and free shipping both ways. The company, which struggled to stay open early on, kept customer service their focus instead of marketing. Word-of-mouth and smart business decisions eventually led Zappos to being bought by Amazon for $1.2 Billion.
Speaking of Amazon, CEO Jeff Bezos puts a premium on customer satisfaction. Bezos philosophy is to align his interest with what is best for the customer and in the long term it will work out best for everyone. "We're not competitor obsessed, we're customer obsessed. We start with the customer and we work backwards".
Making shopping as easy and painless as possible may require a little more work on your part in the beginning but will go a long way in customer retention and the willingness of them to tell friends about their experience. Avoid thinking in the short-term, something may cost more now but could have long-term rippling effects. Things like free-shipping and returns could seem contradictory to your goals but could be the differentiator between you and your competition. Every companies profit margins and business strategies are different but if it's feasible to provide a better experience for your customer, do it.
Know Your Weaknesses
There is strength in knowing your weaknesses. If you know business isn't your strong suit you may want to take a few business classes at a local community college or online. Today there is no excuse for not enhancing your education whenever possible. Websites like Coursera.org and Edx.org provide free online courses in business, economics, finance and tons of other areas that can provide you with the skills and knowledge you need to take your company to the next level. If you're just more of a creative than a business type, perhaps you could even think of bringing someone in that can handle the business while you handle the creative parts. Of course be very selective and make sure all roles are clear in the beginning. As the saying goes, if you are the smartest person in the group, you need a new group.
Blogging/Podcasting as Free Content
If your business is on the Internet your primary goal is to get people aware of your existence. One way of doing that is by creating (free) content that's related to your business that will bring in new customers. For example, a musician may release free covers of their favorite songs before an album release to build up anticipation. If you sale bake goods perhaps you could create a video diary showing you creating your desserts or blog about your experiences. There are a multitude of ways you can create relatively cheap content that can create or expand your community and attract others that may show an interest in your content and in turn your business. This is not a new paradigm in business but the Internet generation has found ways to add new spins on the free content as marketing strategy. There are literally millions of websites, companies and individuals vying for people's attention on the internet, providing free content allows them access into your world for free and if they like what they see, they may keep looking.