If you’re considering opening an ecommerce store, then the question of startup capital has probably crossed your mind at least a time or two...or a hundred. For our part, merchants ask us all the time how much it will cost to build their website. And unfortunately, there’s not a nice, tidy answer. Depending on your skills and the amount of time you’re willing to dedicate to DIY-ing your website, the price tag could be as cheap as the domain and hosting fees, or it could be as expensive as hundreds of thousands of dollars in large-scale, custom programming.
That’s not very helpful, is it? Okay. To get a more focused answer, let’s assume some things about who you are. First, we’re going to assume you want to build an ecommerce site and not a blog or portfolio site, both of which belong in slightly different ballparks. Next, we’ll assume that you have a working knowledge of the ecommerce landscape and could make your way around an easy editor, but you don’t have any specialized web development, design or marketing skills. And finally, we’re assuming that you are in the earliest stages of your business venture, which means you’re probably a one-person show at this point.
This guide is for smaller businesses who are looking to grow.
In other words, we’re going to tailor this guide for smaller businesses who are looking to grow, which means we won’t be focusing on the sort of top-range pricing that you’d encounter as your needs for enterprise software and employee or resource management expand. We’ll start with bare-bones website and business expenses, and then we will offer a list of variables when it comes to marketing, design, and management. It’s up to you to consider the variables you’ll need and set your final budget!
Just The Essentials
So, you don’t need anything fancy — just a functioning website and ecommerce software - and you’re willing to DIY your way through whatever you can. The cost of that is going to be a sum of four things:
- Hosting fee
- Platform or CMS you choose
- SSL certification
Let’s take a look at these more in depth.
Your Domain Name
This one should be pretty self-explanatory. You can build the website, but without an address, nobody will be able to find you. So, domain name providers will get you set up with the URL of your choice, as long as it’s available. Expect an average .com domain name to run you $10-20 per year, or you can buy a number of years up front.
Some Top Level Domains are as cheap as 50 cents a year.
Some Top Level Domains, or TLDs (the highest level at which the domain will be organized, aka “what comes after the dot”), are as cheap as 50 cents a year. So, if you’re open to nixing the .com at the end of your address and opting for .online, .boutique, or one of hundreds of other options instead, you can get the cost of your domain name down to nearly nothing.
Many people run successful websites with unconventional TLDs, and this is always an option if your domain name of choice is taken (that said, do run a trademark search). However, when it comes to questions like this we tend to recommend avoiding confusion and sticking with what people are used to: the good ol’ .com.
Cost: $10-20 annually
Just because you have an address doesn’t mean you have a place to live. Before you can build your website, you’ll need to purchase the “land” to build it on from a hosting company. A host is different from a platform or website builder because the host is just the land: the server space where you’ll be able to host all of your files. The platform, on the other hand, actually provides all the tools you’ll need to create your home — and just to make it extra easy and efficient, it gives you a head start by building all of the things it knows you’ll need for you.
A host is different from a platform or website builder because the host is just the land: the server space where you’ll be able to host all of your files.
Where it gets a little confusing is that some platforms will do the hosting for you, too, whereas others only provide the building materials. So the cost of hosting is variable based on which platform you choose, but if you’re purchasing separate hosting, it can be as little as $3.95 a month or as much as thousands of dollars a month for a high-traffic site. We will use Volusion as our metric for this one just to make it easy.
Cost: $3.95-$10,000+ monthly
Volusion Price: FREE
An Ecommerce Platform
Next, you’re going to need your tools, materials and blueprints so you can build. Unfortunately, free CMS platforms that would be great for a blog or portfolio site aren’t going to cut it when it comes to ecommerce, which requires a robust set of tools and secure payment processing options. So you’ll be looking at a monthly cost that ranges from $25 per month to $250 per month for small- to medium-sized businesses (enterprise options start at $1500 a month and can be as much as $10,000 a month). At Volusion, our most affordable plan is $35 per month.
Cost: $25-$10,000 monthly
Volusion Price: $25-$299 monthly
Before any data can transfer through your website, you will need to make sure it’s encrypted and secure. SSL certification provides this encryption, and it’s a powerful signal to Google and to your customers. Purchasing an SSL certificate can range from $10 a month up to $1,000 a month, but it’s free with Volusion.
Cost: Free, $10 a month up to $1,000 a month
Volusion Price: FREE
Total for just the essentials: As little as $25 per month, plus $10 annually
The Essentials, Plus Startup Expenses
If $25 a month plus $10 annually sounds doable, then congratulations! You’re well on your way to running a basic ecommerce site. However, assuming you actually want to sell things, you’ll probably want to treat this as a business right from the start to eliminate liability and tax headaches down the road. Like before, we’re going to lay out just the bare-bones expenses for this one.
You’ll probably want to treat this as a business right from the start to eliminate liability and tax headaches down the road.
If you’re starting an LLC, or Limited Liability Corporation, you’ll pay a filing fee to the state in which you’re registering. The winner of the least expensive filing fee award goes to Kentucky, at $40. At the upper end of the range, the filing fee in Massachusetts is $520. On average, the fee is $127.
When you’re incorporating, an LLC (sole proprietorship) isn’t the only option. Depending on your goals, you may instead choose to file as an S Corporation, a C Corporation, an LLP (Limited Liability Partnership), or a 501c3 (nonprofit). Your filing fees may vary accordingly. That said, if you’re a small business owner, an LLC is the most common option.
When you file an LLC, some states require you to publish a notification of your company’s formation in a local paper. The cost of publication varies from state to state and city to city, but the most expensive is New York City, where the cost of publishing a notification is $1250.
Although it’s not necessary, it can be helpful to use one of the many filing assistance companies who can aggregate everything you need, send in your paperwork, and streamline the entire filing process down to a smooth, painless 15 minutes. The cost of filing assistance is usually around $50.
Total: $40 (if you live in Kentucky) to $1500 (if you live in New York and also pay for filing assistance)
Other Startup Expenses
We’re veering slightly away from the “how much does it cost to build an ecommerce site” question now, but let’s be thorough. Assuming you don’t just want to build a site but also start a business, you may encounter some other start-up expenses. These will vary far too wildly to put a number on them, but they may include: the cost of manufacturing/purchasing/storing your products; office or business supplies; packaging; insurance or licenses; and research expenses. Some business models, like dropshipping, can reduce your startup costs down to nearly nothing.
So far, so good! You can afford the website essentials and the startup fees. Now we’re going to look at all of the other variables that it may take to build and manage a successful ecommerce website. The cost of these, too, will vary; but we’ll try to give you a ballpark number whenever possible.
Although it’s a great idea to learn as much as you can about ecommerce site management and marketing, try not to simply assume “I can DIY that” for every single item on this list.
As you look through this list, pick the ones you need and add them to your total. Although it’s a great idea to learn as much as you can about ecommerce site management and marketing, try not to simply assume “I can DIY that” for every single item on this list. People spend years training for and gaining experience in some of the more technical elements on this list, and you may be the best DIYer in the world but it’s really hard to create a substitute for long-term experience. Additionally, DIYing all of this would take hours upon hours of your time, so it can be helpful to set an hourly rate for yourself and factor it in as you consider your costs.
Building a beautifully-designed website is as easy as selecting the right template with many platforms, including Volusion. But let’s say you want something a little more customized. This is where you start to have many different options. At the lowest end of the pricing list, we have premium templates. Most platforms offer free standard templates, or a slightly more complex or customizable template for a one-time fee. Depending on your customization needs, you may be able to achieve what you’re looking for with a premium template, with costs ranging from $50-200.
It can be helpful to hire a website designer who can work with you to create the exact look you’re going for.
As soon as you want to make site-wide changes that aren’t built into the template, like using a color palette or font family that isn’t an automatic option for the template, you’ll be looking at altering the CSS. A non-coder could probably fumble their way through changing colors, fonts and sizes without much trouble, but things get pretty complicated from there. That’s when it’s helpful to hire a website designer who can work with you to create the exact look you’re going for. Pricing for professional web design varies, but just remember the rule of thumb: the more you want done, the more it’s going to cost. Typical web design prices range from $2,000-6,000.
You may also decide you need a logo or other custom graphic design work. There’s often a lot of overlap between graphic designers and web designers, so depending on the package you purchase, you might be able to include this or add it onto your package. Logo design usually ranges in price from $100-1,000.
Do you need your website to perform a certain function that it can’t do out of the box, like providing a custom faceted search feature? Remember, your designers are not your programmers. To return to the house metaphor, your designers can paint the walls and furnish a chic, beautiful living room for you, but they won’t be able to change how your home electricity or plumbing system works. Designers change how your website looks; programmers change how it behaves.
If you need your website to behave in a custom way, you’ll need to pay for a custom developer.
So, if you need your website to behave in a custom way, you’ll need to pay for a custom developer. Web developers are less likely than designers to charge by the “package,” since it’s extremely difficult to generalize the hours for any project across the board. Instead, they’ll either charge by the hour or quote you a price based on what you’re hoping to achieve and how involved the project is. Most freelance web developers charge between $50 and $250 an hour, and for large projects on a tight deadline, a web development company will put a whole team to work for you. Web development companies range from $100-300 an hour.
If you’re a professional photographer or a skillful amateur, you have this one in the bag. For everyone else, your costs will either be related to DIY photography or to hiring a professional.
We highly recommend brushing up on photography best practices and getting familiar with how lighting works before getting started.
Let’s tackle the DIY route first. First of all, we highly recommend brushing up on photography best practices and getting familiar with how lighting works before getting started. This DIY photography guide is a great resource if you’re hoping to get your feet wet. The cost of DIY photography can range from practically nothing, if you’re using a smartphone and have rigged up your own lightbox, to thousands of dollars for a high-quality camera, lighting, equipment, and an editing program.
You may choose to hire a professional photographer instead. Photography rates range from $50 an hour (for a student) to $500 an hour (for a top professional). Ideally, you’ll go with a photographer who has experience in product photography specifically, since it’s a different field of expertise from, say, wedding photography. However, someone who is great at photographing people would be more helpful if you’re planning on having people model your products or take “action shots” with them.
Product imagery might be half the battle when it comes to selling your products, but when it’s time to close the sale, copy provides the heaviest assist. There are so many reasons why you need great copy not just on your products but across your website, from the practical — boosting the site’s SEO or helping the customer find the right product specifications — to the intangible, like providing a voice and a brand identity that inspires your customer.
There are so many reasons why you need great copy not just on your products but across your website.
If you have tons of products, then in the interest of time, you’ll probably want to outsource your copy. Some copywriters charge by the word and others by the hour, but regardless, the rates break down to $50-80 an hour for a junior copywriter to $200 per hour for a top-level copywriter. You can also go a lot cheaper here with content services that hire out freelancers at very low prices, but the results are a mixed bag. They’re a safe bet if you know that your target audience won’t be swayed by the content and you just need to get a product description on the page, but if you’re hoping for marketing savvy, engaging copy or want to communicate specialized knowledge, you’ll have to pay more for it.
Now we’re moving away from building your website to marketing your website. Let’s go back to our house metaphor. You have your address, you have your land, your home is built and gorgeously decorated...time for all of your admirers to come flooding to your door, right? Not really, because you built your house down a road where nobody ever travels, located in a town where there are millions of identical roads that are all lined with houses just like yours. How are you going to increase the odds that people will end up on your street and at your house? Building a website without marketing is like building a house in a large, confusing town and expecting people to find you without a map.
Building a website without marketing is like building a house in a large, confusing town and expecting people to find you without a map.
SEO provides that map, in a sense, but it also goes beyond that by turning your entire neighborhood into a must-see destination, increasing the odds that the right foot traffic shows up at your door. SEO specialists accomplish this by blending their technical knowledge of what search engines want with their marketing-rooted understanding of what people want. Conveniently, these are often one in the same; good marketing usually means good SEO. That said, a large component of SEO involves knowing how to crawl a site, fix errors, speed things up, perform keyword research, use search-friendly code, spot when a canonical tag is wrong or missing, and adapt to algorithm updates, and that’s where the DIYer won’t be able to rely on intuition.
The cost of SEO services range from $100-350 per hour, although SEO is usually sold in packages that include an established number of tasks for each month. Freelancers are usually more affordable than agencies, but agencies provide a larger team and more rigorous project management. The amount of hours you’ll need depends on whether you’ll want your SEO specialist to take a consulting role - dictating the strategy and providing the recommendations - or a more hands-on role that could include everything from writing content to pursuing PR opportunities.
PPC and Other Ads
If you want to jumpstart your traffic in a more immediate and controlled way than with SEO, PPC is the other side of the coin. With PPC, rather than getting certain keywords to rank organically, you can “bid” for them, vying for valuable ad space in the sponsored listings at the top of the search results. PPC strategy involves understanding what kind of copy converts, what your keywords should be, what a strategic ad bid looks and how you can improve the landing pages you link to so that they’re more Google-friendly. Pricing-wise, PPC strategists are on par with SEO specialists, and you also have to factor in paying for the ads themselves.
PPC strategy involves understanding what kind of copy converts, what your keywords should be, what a strategic ad bid looks and how you can improve the landing pages you link to so that they’re more Google-friendly.
Of course, PPC isn’t the only ad game in town. Depending on your audience, you may decide to expand to other opportunities like banner ads, sponsored blog or social media posts, display ads, remarketing (showing someone periodic follow-up ads after they visit your website or show interest in the ad), Facebook ads, and more. These all have different prices associated with them, so look into them individually if you decide that advertising is right for you. Before pulling the trigger, research your target audience so that you can focus your budget on the places that your audience visits the most.
Social Media Marketing
On the subject of Facebook ads, the oft-misunderstood social media marketing is the last major piece of the marketing puzzle. Like PPC, social media packages are within the same price range as SEO packages, although they can often be much smaller and more affordable because social media is so easy to break up into small bites. Social media specialists understand the different audiences on each social platform — Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and Pinterest — and they design strategies to fit the voice and tone of each one, while keeping your brand voice paramount.
Social media specialists understand the different audiences on each social platform and they design strategies to fit the voice and tone of each one.
Because they can create such a high volume of “data points” in a short period of time, social media strategists are constant testers. They are always monitoring the metrics and reach of each post to glean strategies and adjust accordingly. They also understand how the ads on each social platform work; in fact, because social ad campaigns involve such specialized skills, you’re more likely to find a social media specialist who can run your social ads than a PPC specialist who can run them.
You Might Also Need...
But that’s not all! Depending on your needs and skills, you may need to outsource other work, too. This includes:
- Legal paperwork
- Inventory management (either a person, a team, or a good software program)
- Content Strategy
- Email/Newsletter Management
- Conversion Rate Optimization and/or User Testing
- Video production/YouTube strategy
And of course, for the DIYer there are a number of programs that cost money but will make your life a whole lot easier. This includes:
- Quickbooks or other accounting software
- Adobe Creative Suite or other design software
- Hootsuite or another social scheduling tool
- Shipping integration software
- Newsletter software
So the short answer is, it can be extremely affordable to build an ecommerce site! The longer answer, of course, is that you have to factor in the hours per day you’re willing to spend working on your site, and make sure that’s a reasonable expectation given your other commitments and your target launch date. To run a high-performing ecommerce site, it helps to have help. So take another look at your budget, assess your skills, and start making your dream a reality!
Build your Website with Volusion
Let Volusion's ecommerce experts show you how to launch a successful online business with this how-to guide on using an online store builder.