Lessons Learned From An E-Commerce Adventure

It is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all; and even more important to learn from your mistakes.

That is what I keep telling myself after having invested the time and cash equivalent to a Harvard MBA in an e-commerce start-up that has stalled and is winding down. Not a happy prospect in light of all the media pre-occupation with e-commerce success stories and the young millionaires watching their IPOs rocket into cyberspace. But the headlines ignore the more frequent stories of new e-commerce businesses that do not hit the stock market jackpot. Many of them either settle into a low-key niche or exhaust their resources and fold.

This is the story of an Internet venture that did not make the headlines, but offers some useful insights for entrepreneurs evaluating their own initiatives. The lessons learned are applicable to your own new venture or to an investment in someone else’s.

In mid-1998 we launched a new company called nxtNet (www.nxtnet.com) with the slogan … “taking you to the next level on the Internet”.

My partner and I both had prior successful entrepreneurial experience in computer products and wanted to start a new venture together. We decided to develop a business that would catch the next wave of e-commerce services for mid-sized companies seeking to do business on the Internet. After long discussions, searches for a unique service offering, and many draft business plans, we developed a market strategy and then chose Intershop Communications as our software development platform. This product had the advantages of being suitable for single or multiple online storefronts, and offered a flexible, economic and comprehensive solution. We committed to the product, staffing, facilities and equipment to start training and development immediately. The two of us provided the time and cash required to get started.

By October 1998, we had an initial product with application as an online storefront for an associated computer business. At the same time, we realized that the application had wide appeal to other computer dealers and could be sold as a multi-user database service and e-commerce resource. We had developed a consolidated catalogue of 85,000 computer products from multiple distributor product databases that allowed rapid search and comparison for product information, pricing, and current sources. Users could access the catalogue from the Internet and find a product by manufacturer, category, and part number, key word or price range and immediately see the alternate sources and prices with links to more technical information, preferred dealer pricing and actual stock levels. Additional features allowed the catalogue to be customized so that any computer reseller could present the database as his own online storefront. This option offered all the search and product information features to his customers, but showed only retail pricing and enabled the online ordering process.

The product offering quickly received positive feedback and strong indications of support from all the participants – resellers, distributors, and manufacturers. It was a comprehensive, powerful, and effective tool for buying and selling at all levels within the Canadian computer distribution channel. Resellers recognized the value in an online resource to save time and effort. Distributors and manufacturers saw the opportunity to promote their products, and major publishers in the industry wanted to offer complementary online services to their subscribers and advertisers. How could we fail with all this enthusiasm and support?

While the potential for success clearly existed, everybody had the same questions and reservations – “Who is there now?” “How many are using it?” and “I don’t want to pay until it’s bigger”.

Reasonable objections we thought, so we added features and content for free. We promoted the product with free trials and low cost subscriptions for reseller access. Then we coaxed, persuaded, sold hard, and made deals. The “contra” became the standard for obtaining press coverage, free ads, mailing lists and promotion in exchange for free participation and future consideration. Activity on the Web site and catalogue grew to 3000 visitors per month with over 800 subscribers and the distributor list increased from three to twelve.

But revenue remained near zero as most reseller subscribers declined to pay for the service. Reasons were “it should be free – let the advertisers pay”, “I don’t use it enough”, “there are lower cost options”, or “we built our own solution”. The audience did not grow fast enough even after we offered it for free, to satisfy the advertisers and content providers. Without persistent and conspicuous sales and marketing efforts, all the participants quickly lost interest. Meanwhile the costs of database maintenance, ongoing development, site hosting, Internet access, sales, marketing, and administration were increasing.

Clearly the old entrepreneurial model of controlling costs and growing revenue was not going to apply. We had to realign our profile to show how zero revenue and high initial costs could still lead to significant investment returns like other well-known Internet ventures. So from early 1999 we started an aggressive search for financing, estimating our requirements at $500,000 to $1,500,000 over the next two years before achieving positive cash flow. More business plans, spreadsheets, and glossy presentations to demonstrate future valuations up to $20 million, even $40 million.

We knocked on many doors, from banks to government agencies, from angel investors to venture capital, from stock promoters to business consultants, and again received lots of encouragement, but no financing. So the founding partners were faced with a continuing cash drain, no relief in sight, and the limits of their own resources rapidly approaching. It was time to put the project on hold. Strategic partners or investors might still be developed to proceed with the project, but the ongoing expenditures were stopped in late 1999.

So what are the lessons learned? We already knew that nothing ventured, nothing gained. We now also knew that big successes in the new economy require big investments. Entrepreneurs may start small, but large investments will be required from new sources to achieve significant success. And no one will put significant money into a venture unless it is the only remaining requirement.

The concept, product, development, marketing and staffing all have to be in place before an investor will provide the final ingredient – his cash. Exceptions are likely only where the management team has already succeeded in the same arena, or the investor himself can deliver the missing elements, such as customers or management skills. No investor is going to take the chance that the entrepreneur with a good concept or product will also be able to deliver the required management and marketing skills to succeed, after he has the cash.

Next time we will know better. And there are side benefits from this expensive learning experience. I can now admit that with the knowledge gained through our association with Intershop Communications, I was confident enough to make an investment in their stock on the German Neue Markt at 65 Euros last year. It went over 400 Euros last month and is still rising with their rapid growth and the prospect of a NASDAQ listing this year. Almost enough to recover my investment in nxtNet.

So the most important lesson is that education in the new economy is essential, and not free, but it can lead to success outside the original plan. Learn, be aware, and be aggressively opportunistic.

Your "Must Know" Ecommerce Metrics

Web Analytics can be an amazing technology, but also a highly under-utilized one. Complex deployments and integrations frequently leave business users befuddled. Without dedicated staff to analyze, analytics packages more often than not collect dust.

This brief is focused on outlining the 7 most important web metrics to monitor within your eCommerce business and what to look for as it relates to your website’s performance.

Bounce rate

First on our list is the most important metric you will encounter: bounce rate. Think of bounce rate as a first impression. The definition of bounce rate is the percentage of users that leave your website after only viewing the initial page that was presented.

Bounce rate is so vital because it provides details into how you initially message your value proposition to the customer or prospect. It provides a cue to also help you identify performance issues with your site that may be causing the inflation the metric.

Bounce rates vary by industry, but eCommerce businesses should focus on getting the metric below 30%. Especially important within paid search campaigns, bounce rate will provide valuable cues into which product assortments and promotions at the category and sub-category levels of your taxonomy are doing well. This knowledge can be leveraged across the business in other categories and implemented via multi-variate testing deployments.

Email Capture Ratio

The next metric you want to track is your email capture ratio. As an online business, you probably sell some type of tangible product or service in which you monitor orders or completed information forms. Most businesses monitor their standard conversion rate, but few businesses frequently monitor their email capture rate and take a proactive approach to increasing.

With eCommerce conversion rates yet to eclipse an average of 3%, 97% of users who come to your store are leaving without buying something. Just because they are leaving however does not mean they are not interested in communicating on some level with your business. By gaining an initial step of trust through the capture of an email address, you are not only increasing the size of your house list for future marketing but you are also building a relationship with your customer and can win their business by providing them solutions to their lives.

Strive for a 7-10% email capture rate and place the sign up tool prominent in the header. Too many businesses bury their sign up tool and do not leverage rich applications that can use browser technologies such as ajax to expand a capture field over standard text in an overlay fashion.

Number of non-branded organic keywords

Make sure you look at number of monthly non-branded organic search keywords. When monitoring SEO performance, you need to first strip out the branded terms that correlate with your business. Thats traffic that you would have received without effective SEO. Then look to the number of remaining keywords that were utilized to make up the balance of the remaining natural search visits.

Why is this important? Because SEO is driven from the long tail. Sure, core SEO terms are nice but you need to capture the 4 and 5 word queries that make up the majority of Google queries each day. Long tail placements are achieved through proper site architecture and quality targeted content. Simply put, the more terms that people are using to find you, the better your site is doing in content development. Aim for a 5% to 10% increase each month within non-branded search keywords as you structure your SEO campaigns.

Shopping Cart to Checkout “Step 1″ Progression Rate

Our next metric directly correlates to the transactional process. Make sure you monitor your direct progression percentage from the shopping cart to checkout step 1. See how many of your users are bailing for price shopping and/or they see a promo code box on your site and they are going hunting for one. This type of behavior dramatically impacts your conversion rate and overall profits and steps should be taken to measure and reduce.

Consider adding the promo box at the end of the transaction for non-affiliate sessions in order to reduce leakage. Use a cookie from an affiliate or potentially a URL to trigger two versions of the cart page. By incorporating checkout abandonment tools that re-market via email, and aggressive banners both internally and externally to try and re-capture the lost transaction, eCommerce businesses can pull prospects back in the sales funnel.

Browser and Resolution Percentages

Dont forget about looking at Browser/Resolution percentages (types and sizes) when scaling your eCommerce business. Lace face it, when you sell online you are in the “looks professional…is professional” world and goo design can make even the smallest retailer seem large. If your build your site and it breaks in Safari (Mac’s browser), or the navigation breaks on Firefox 3.5 on a PC, you essentially shoot yourself in the foot.

Look at the varied browsers and resolutions that are being used to view your website. Conduct full cross-browser testing, on varied platforms, to fully notice any potential usability problems that arrive.

Average number of cross/up sells added per visit

If you are an eCommerce business, you already know that intelligent merchandising is a crucial key to success. A primary metric to help you understand performance within online merchandising is that of average cross/up sells added per visit.

This datapoint associates to your cross sell tools that integrate at the product and the cart level and measures the average number of cross-sells added to the cart per visit. The number will provide details into the effectiveness of your product recommendations and if the recommended products are actively engaging and persuading customers.

It is tough to provide a benchmark statistic for this metric since products can vary so greatly in terms of pricepoint. But look at your historical performance and consider automating this component through algorithmic third party solutions.

How Can Email Marketing Help My Business?

You simply can not have a good online marketing plan if you do not involve yourself with email marketing. Email marketing, when done correctly, will enable your business to attract new customers, keep existing ones, upsell, cross-sell and cut costs. Let's take a look at some of the specific ways that email marketing can help your business.

It Allows You To Automate Your Business

If you're running a small business, you're probably busy doing lots of different tasks. An email marketing autoresponder acts like your silent salesperson who works for you 24/7. If you have offered something for free in exchange for somebody's email address, your autoresponder can send it immediately. Or, it can instantaneously send a welcome message as soon as someone joins your email list. It would be impossible to do this manually.

An autoresponder allows you to automate your email messages to your customers, leads and prospects. This means that messages that are educational, standard (like thank you messages) and more are created once and sent to each person when appropriate.

You Can Provide Value To Your Subscribers

When you use email to contact people who have signed up to receive your messages, you can reach out to them 24/7. This means that you can provide serious value to your customers' lives by sending them information that solves their problems or makes their lives easier. The more value you provide, the more likely they are to want to buy from you.

You Can Get To Know Your Audience Better

The best thing you can do for your business is to understand your audience backwards and forwards. The more you know who you're crafting emails for, the better you can word everything to get the response you want. Your email marketing autoresponder software will provide you with information on who opens your messages and who clicks the links.

Your Email List Is Your Greatest Asset

As you build your list of email addresses, it becomes your greatest asset. These subscribers are the people who have bought from you or have expressed an interest in your business. You need to develop a relationship with the people on your list and regularly provide them with value. This way they will see you as an authority in your niche. From the emails you send out to them, they will start to know, like and trust you and then be more inclined to buy from you.

Satellite Internet Bandwidth Providers

Satellite internet connections are great in those regions were there is no access to DSL or cable internet bandwidth. This type of service connection works by the data being sent via satellite. A satellite equipment dish is arranged pointing toward the south. This dish transmits signals to satellites which are in a position about the earth usually stationary and internet access from the Internet provider is provided through this type of connection. Satellite internet bandwidth is available worldwide including ships at sea or mobile vehicles.

Advantages and Disadvantages

This type of bandwidth service makes access to the internet in those areas where other forms of bandwidth are not available. It also eliminates the need to use dial-up – in fact this bandwidth is faster than dial-up. An advantage with this type of bandwidth is that downloading and uploading is much faster. Installation is also fairly rapid.

Since the signal from the computer must travel so many miles in order to reach a satellite and return to the computer this causes a delay or latency between the request for data and receiving that data. The average lag time for satellite internet is often found to be between 500 to 900 milliseconds. This is not acceptable for any applications where real-time access is necessary for instance internet gaming, video conferencing, video chats as well as any VolP telephone calls. Another disadvantage is the weather does affect this satellite feed. Rain does not actually block the signal but it can cause a form of interference that is known as "rain fade" and this can slow the download as well as upload speeds causing a very irregular internet connection.

Initially as Well as Monthly Cost

Satellite internet access is more expensive that other types of broadband access in fact it is 2 to 3 times more expensive than DSL internet access. Not only is the monthly fee more expensive but the initial cost of setup is very expensive since it involves satellite dish and satellite modem. Initial setup may range from between $ 600 to $ 2000.

Major Providers

HughsNet is the number one satellite internet provider with a basic monthly fee of $ 49.99. HughsNet offers uploading and downloading speeds that are fairly fast and have great technical support. But the internet speeds fall off sharply during the evening peak hours and also there is a daily limit on uploading and downloading or bandwidth usage.

The number 2 satellite internet provider is WildBlue with a monthly basic package of $ 69.95. They offer much higher download and upload limits but in exchange for this, the download speed suffers. But if you have a concern with downloading and heavy internet use, this provider would probably be the best for you.

Provider number 3 is the internet provider MyBlueDish which monthly fee is also $ 69.95. They currently work with provider WildBlue in order to provide faster internet and allow for a lot of download bandwidth monthly. But, they are much slower than the other providers. MyBlueDish also has 24/7 tech support that is excellent.

Basically, satellite internet bandwidth usage is great for those living in remote area or who are based on ship or who are constantly mobile or any situation where there is no other option for broadband. Internet access by satellite is extremely better than the next viable option, which is, dial-up and is the only other method of accessing the internet in remote areas.