… And How to Find Relief
Almost no one will argue that the hardest part of starting an eCommerce business is ensuring that it succeeds. Just making it to the point where you can quit your day job and focus full time on your own business is worth toasting.
But once you’ve given yourself a pat on the back for reaching a high enough profit margin, you will almost certainly have to deal with a number of new challenges. If not dealt with properly, those challenges can morph into a full-blown migraine headache. Luckily, there’s a cure for each one! Let’s dive in.
1. Ecommerce Fulfillment Becomes Too Much for You
When you start out as an entrepreneur with a small business, doing everything yourself is usually the only option. You’re in charge of everything from sourcing products to packaging them to shipping them, and giving up control of any part of that process can seem unfathomable.
But when you become successful enough, you’ll have to.
The first thing to go should be order fulfillment – after all, you aren’t a small business owner because you’re good at packaging orders! You have great ideas, you fill a spot in the market, you connect with your customers. Fulfilling orders is of the utmost importance – what customer has ever been thrilled about a late shipment – but you don’t need to do it yourself. This is when you need to turn to a third party fulfillment center (3PL) to do the grunt work for you.
While it can be scary giving up that kind of control (after all, your customers won’t blame your 3PL if they make mistakes, they’ll blame you), you can prevent issues by figuring out exactly what you need from your 3PL. Each one offers a unique specialty and variety of services – like a specialization in small packages and a huge international warehouse network, or specialization in low order minimums and strategically placed warehouses throughout the US. To fully flesh out your needs, try using a checklist of questions to make sure you know what to look for when you begin your search.
2. The Free Version of Whatever Tools You’re Using Doesn’t Cut It
“You get what you pay for” is an adage that tends to hold true across the board, but sometimes you can get something of passable quality when you pay for it with your labor (by learning how to do it yourself) instead of your money (by paying someone who’s already an expert). However, at a certain point, passable quality for $0 is just not good enough.
Among the many things that startups try to tackle themselves is a website – to be fair, there are great options out there, from WordPress to Squarespace. But in order to stand out and have the quality you need as a growing eCommerce business, you need a customized website. By paying someone to create a website for you, you can prioritize fast loading speeds, mobile optimization, and other integrations that your pre-fab probably doesn’t offer. This is vital because slow loading pages and inaccessibility on mobile devices are the two biggest conversion killers.
There’s another situation that might apply here: a third-party site hosts all your products, like Amazon or Ebay. These won’t have any of the problems listed above, and you get the benefit of a built-in audience, but you will be at the mercy of all their policies, including any fees and ad algorithms they decide to implement. If you’re feeling like you’ve outgrown your platform, it’s time to get your own website.
Besides upgrading your website from a free to paid version, you’ll also want to consider outgrowing the free yet limited marketing tools such as MailChimp or Ahrefs and paying for the premium, more robust versions.
3. More Overhyped Influencers
You’ve no doubt read the articles singing the praises of influencer marketing in the last few years – and it’s true, they can really help small businesses. Find the right influencer that has an “in” with your target audience and you can get some great exposure.
However, there are some risks involved, mainly in falling for an influencer without an actual engaged audience. If you’re going to make influencer marketing part of your strategy, you will need to learn how to spot the fakes. First, follower count is obviously important, but the real money is in engagement rate, and especially comments. You can quickly look up any user’s engagement rate using free tools like Phlanx – and keep in mind that the industry standard is 1-3%.
4. You’ll Be Pressured to Automate
As you grow, one of the biggest concerns will be your process – how to speed it up, cut out unnecessary steps, and keep hiccups from happening. Automation can solve a lot of those problems but usually, come with the tradeoff of spending money. In a lot of cases, it can be very worth it.
Marketing automation can make your life easier by simply creating a flow of drip emails to customers, or by crafting intelligent, creative ads that target your audience.
5. You’ll Also Finally Have to Hire Someone
Okay control freaks, this one is specifically for you. At a certain level of success and growth, you can no longer do every single task yourself. There are actually a huge amount of tasks you don’t need to do and your business will keep chugging along just fine – actually, it will probably do better because you’ll be able to turn your focus to what really matters.
However, there is also a cost. You will constantly face the question: is it worth the cost to get more time back? There’s no easy answer to that, but if you’re finding that you can’t focus on important areas of your business because you’re stuck counting inventory, filling out order forms, answering emails, or any other menial task, it’s probably time to upgrade if you can.
Ideally, you will hire someone who can complement your weaknesses. Maybe you’re not the best copywriter, and would rather someone else write your email newsletters or craft cleverly-worded social media posts. Maybe you prefer handling product design and would rather not have to worry about optimizing your blog to rank; if that’s the case, then you should probably hire an agency to do SEO for you.
One way or the other, you’re going to have to let go of control. Just a little bit at first, and as you gradually gain trust in the people you hire and your business scales, you can let go a little bit more.
6. Omnichannel Will Help You Scale, but Also Create Headaches
More platforms, more problems. As you no doubt know, keeping up with all of the best practices, algorithm changes, and updates of one platform is hard enough, As you grow, you’ll likely start trying out new platforms – but you’ll also encounter the headache that is omnichannel marketing and selling.
The important thing to remember is that you have to balance meeting the expectations of that platform, while also keeping your multiple platforms cohesive. In other words, your Amazon store should meet all the requirements of a good Amazon store, but also still feel like it comes from “you” to your customers. They shouldn’t be confused when switching between channels, and they should be able to access everything easily from anywhere they want it.
Instead of thinking just about your customers’ experience within each platform in a silo, think about a customer’s journey holistically.
7. Platform Policies Will Drive You Crazy
Every platform you interact with will have their own way of doing things, and their own set of rules for you to follow. The bigger you get, the more you will have to worry about those rules – and how they can be broken by others to capitalize on your success (or try to take it away from you).
Google, for example, clearly outlines in their Terms of Service that companies are not allowed to use the names of other companies in their own ads. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop anyone. As soon as you start to become a market leader, others in the market will start trying to siphon customers away from you by using your name to pull in potential customers that are searching for you.
Another, even more aggressive tactic can happen over on selling platforms like Amazon and eBay: fake reviews. There’s a seedy underbelly of Amazon that most customers don’t know about; similarly, eBay has an appeals process that can get a bit kafkaesque at times.
Whether it’s a rival seller hawking your products or reporting the kids toys you sell as sexually explicit goods, it can be a minefield. And the more you succeed, the bigger the target on your back will get.
There is no foolproof advice for avoiding these tactics other than to keep an eye out for them. You’ll want to set up a monitoring schedule for Google to check for instances of other companies using your name, keep a close eye on reviews, report anything that seems suspicious, and react quickly to any unexpected seller shutdowns that occur.
8. More Growth, More Marketing Strategies to A/B Test
Speaking of differences across platforms, your marketing strategy will need to change as you grow too. You’ll want to use Google’s best practices to keep your site updated and in line with what they recommend so that they move your content up in the rankings – one of the best ways you can do that is to start doing outreach and get featured on other blogs and sites. Getting your site linked to elsewhere (called backlinks) increases your domain authority, which increases your worthiness to Google.
The platform(s) you sell on are likely going to be an important part of your marketing strategy as well. Whether it’s sponsored listings, ads, or some combination of the two, you’ll need to invest in A/B testing which works best for you.
And don’t forget about social media marketing. Whichever platform you’re selling on you’ll need to decide if spending money on ads and sponsored posts is worth it, and if not, testing out some free ways to boost your content. Influencer marketing is all the rage (and for good reason), but you can also boost engagement by hosting a giveaway or featuring your customers’ content.
9. Keeping up With Supply Chain Headaches (thanks, COVID-19)
We all have seen how the pandemic has caused widespread havoc and disruption in our daily lives. One of the ways it’s impacted eCommerce businesses is by increasing pressure on supply chains in two different directions:
- Since retail businesses have shut down, it’s driven consumer traffic online, propelling demand increases on eCommerce businesses.
- Increased demand is a good problem to have, so long as the supplies you need to stay stocked up are there. The problem is that manufacturing in China was delayed and in some cases completely held up by COVID, and that has created a bullwhip effect throughout various levels of the supply chain.
The math is pretty simple. More customers wanting to buy your product, plus less availability of said product, is going to leave your store vulnerable to being out of stock of the very thing that people want to buy. Your only hope is to order more inventory earlier, find a new source of materials or suppliers who can reliably give you what you need, allow for people to pre-purchase/pre-order with the understanding that the item is not yet in stock, or some combination of the above.
10. Finally, Getting Negative Reviews
No matter how hard you try, no matter how beautifully designed your product is, no matter if you added a thoughtfully written thank you card (so what if you paid someone on Fiverr to write the same message 1,000 times?): Eventually, you were guaranteed to get a bad review from someone.
When the time comes, don’t take it personally! Neil Patel puts it bluntly: your business needs negative reviews because customers want to know what the worst-case scenario looks like when they buy from you. Additionally, negative reviews are an opportunity for you to hear–sometimes too bluntly–what about your product is broken or needs fixing. If you can correct those flaws by listening to someone’s 2 or 3 star review, you’re setting yourself up for success in the long run.
The path to creating a successful eCommerce business–or any business–is seldom straight. As you’ll find out firsthand, the more successful you become, new problems will crop up to replace the old ones. If you’re at that awkward phase of growth where it’s time to start thinking about hiring someone to work for you, or considering splashing out a lot of hard-earned cash on an upgraded website, this is a moment to celebrate. It’s also a moment to pause and think about what processes you can keep the same–and as you grow, it’s a moment for you to go in new directions as you pursue the dream of scaleable, successful growth.