To me, a business and a product are one and the same. Whether you’re starting an ecommerce company from the ground up or launching a new product within an existing company, here's how to develop the entreprenurial mindset you'll need to succeed.
1. Develop a strong passion to learn everything ecommerce
Accept that there's always something to learn. Even if you think you’ve seen it all before, know every single answer and have become a m within your industry, you’ll need to resist the temptation and learn everything with a greenhorn (newbie) mentality in order to truly succeed. Ecommerce is always changing - designs go out of style, products change, search engines and advertising platforms are updated. Keeping a flexible, open mind will help you conform to your environment rather than struggle against it. If you're a small ecommerce company, your path to success lies in finding overlooked opportunities, wherever they may be. The more you know about ecommerce, the more opportunities you'll be able to find.
Be like water. -Bruce Lee
Keep your ecommerce knowledge up to date
You started a successful online commerce company 15 years ago and know all the steps necessary to start another one in 2019, right? Short answer: markets change, consumers change, technologies change and even the team you had 15 years ago has changed. Sure, there are similar core principles — but if you’re not willing to learn everything again, I’d think twice about starting up.
Don't be afraid to try things - or try them again
In today's world, you need to have a presence everywhere in order to legitimize your business. Don't hesitate to try advertising on a new platform or tackle that big content idea. Ecommerce rewards innovation and experimentation, so make sure to keep trying new things and keep moving forward. Sometimes, this will require you to take calculated risks and follow your intuition.
If you want to be one of the first into a new territory, you cannot wait for large amounts of evidence. - Joel Barker
Sometimes you try things and they don't work. Don't let this deter you from trying it again if you think something's changed - what was impossible in 2015 might be easy to do in 2019. Before discounting an idea based on previous failure, make sure you thoroughly understand what caused your project to fail. Diagnosing the problem is always the first step to fixing it.
Analytics will teach you more than anything else
To be great at ecommerce, you need to know what's working and what isn't. One of the most valuable things you can learn is how to set up and interpret your own analytics. Don't worry - although "analytics" makes it sound complicated, it's actually very simple. Plus, if you don't learn how to do this yourself you'll probably have to pay someone else to do it, so dive into your site's analytics and hunt down your own answers.
2. Accept that your idea probably isn't unique - and that's OK
I actually learned this later than most, during fundraising pitches — probably the 20th pitch for a seed round, actually. For every idea you come up with that’s totally unique and never been done before, there are four or five other teams focusing on solving the exact same problems right now, and probably coming up with the same (or similar) solutions as you are. Brad Feld — the Managing Director at the Colorado-based venture capital firm Foundry Group — claims this happens more often than not.
I didn’t believe this for another 3–4 months, until I actually found two other competitors doing EXACTLY the same thing. Not just a similar idea, but to the point that we felt any investor would think: “Oh, so you two are the same company, right?” Entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel wrote a book about all this — and the fact that true innovation is slowing down as a result — but that’s another post altogether.
Originality is way overrated. To make, you need to take. All great artists do. - Darby Bannard
So why start something if there will be duplicates and copycats? The short answer: because there’s almost always room for competition, and execution is everything. Even if you do have a truly unique idea, you'll soon be facing competitors that copy YOUR idea, so enter any ecommerce project with a competitive mindset. Keep a close eye on your competitors, find their weaknesses and shortcomings, and turn those into your own strengths.
Stay focused on the goal
Focus on solving real problems every step of the way, obsess over every detail of your product, use data-driven decision-making and search for truth by pulling and analyzing data every single day. Immersing yourself in your target market and truly understanding their wants and needs will keep you out-pacing the competition.
3. Put customers above all else
We are often tempted to make quick decisions that prioritize our own thoughts, desires, and beliefs over those of the customer - being 'out of touch'. A great example of a company being out of touch with their customers is a well-known 'coffee pod' brewer that restricted customers' ability to use third-party coffee pods. Customers were outraged, and sales dropped 12% in a single quarter.
Intercom posted an article that resonates with me around this topic. In fact, most of the articles they post resonate well with me because they are a customer-first company. Their entire product and business model is built around customers!
Don't try to tell customers what they want
I can’t tell you how many meetings occur every day across many different companies in which key product decisions are made without ANY customer involvement. Let’s take a look at this online software example: your customers complain that a major pain point is their ability to take payments on their website. What is the first step you should take? Would it be to build a full payment solution and become a PCI-certified merchant services provider that can issue merchant account numbers? Heck no. The right answer is you try to solve the problem with the simplest full solution and engage customers during each phase: prototyping, wire-framing, design, coding and, after it’s gone-to-market, figure out if the problem was addressed.
Listen and learn
There are lots of tools out there to listen and understand your customers. Use them. But nothing beats direct customer outreach. Invite them to your office, invite them to coffee, conduct user focus groups, do blind product tests and make sure to listen to all of that feedback. Make sure you interpret all of it honestly and openly, but also make sure it doesn’t dramatically shift your vision.
For some more background and early experiences with a startup, please check out my piece, What It Takes To Startup. The post you’ve just read is an evolution of the concepts discussed there, with a hope of providing more action items to help fellow entrepreneurs, particularly those on the fence about taking the leap.
Good luck to everyone who is going to start something soon, you are the courageous and fearless heroes of entrepreneurship that make the world better one step at a time.