‘Must-Have’ Skills for eCommerce Founders

The world has debated endlessly about which skills, attributes or traits are most necessary for “successful” entrepreneurs.  This post will not answer that question.  It will, however, list the must-have skills needed if you plan on growing your own successful e-commerce business, especially if you’re a solo founder.

 

1. Marketing

 Above everything else, the ability to successfully market your e-commerce site is the #1 most crucial success factor.  It’s more important than your niche.  More important than your site design.  WAY more important than your name or logo.  It’s even more important than conversion optimization.

Why?  Without traffic and customers, you have no sales.  A beautifully designed, perfectly optimized site with a professionally designed logo still makes zero dollars if no one knows about it.   That’s why, early on, it’s so important to focus on marketing over nearly any other aspect of your business.  Are design, conversion and honing your sales message important?  ABSOLUTELY.  But focus on them at the expense of marketing early on and you’ll suffer.  Don’t be one of the thousands — if not millions — of people who have launched sites only to have them die a slow, obscure death because they didn’t prioritize marketing.  You know the guy who said “Build it and they will come”?  It turns out he’s broke.

 

How to Master It

Luckily, there’s a TON of great information on this topic online.  A few general tips:
  • Focus on people and networking.  Great marketing opportunities usually stem from great relationships.
  • Always think about what you can offer OTHER people, sites and businesses. Mutually beneficial arrangements are much easier to secure.
  • Become an SEO expert.  In e-commerce, getting love from the all-mighty Google is crucial.
  • Always be thinking about how you can leverage your existing customer base.  If you have a happy base (and you’d better), they’ll be happy to spread the word.
Resources for becoming a great marketer/SEO expert:
  • SEOmoz - Arguably the internet’s best resources and community on SEO.  Their blog is great — subscribe today.  They also have a FANTASTIC beginner’s SEO guide.  If you’re new to SEO, this is a must.
  • SEOBook - While not quite as good as SEOmoz in my opinion, still a good resource for SEO and marketing advice.
  • Mixergy.com – Interviews with successful entrepreneurs on multiple topics, including lots of marketing tips and strategies.
  • eCommerce Marketing Training - The comprehensive eCommerceFuel video course has an entire module dedicated to e-commerce SEO and marketing.
  • eCommerce Fuel Marketing & SEO Posts – A list of all eCommerceFuel posts on marketing and SEO.

2. Teaching Yourself New Skills

E-commerce aside, being able to teach yourself new things is one of the most valuable skills you can have, period!  As a solo business founder, it’s absolutely crucial for success.  Starting out, you’ll almost certainly be a one-person show responsible for marketing, operations, accounting, IT, graphic design, copywriting and more.  Sure, you can outsource a few things here and there, but early on you’ll need to do much of it yourself.  If you can’t learn the necessary skills to fill the gaps in your tool belt, you’re going to have problems.

 

How to Master It

With the wealth of readily available information, tutorials and online classes, you can teach yourself just about anything.  Great self-learners are experts at:

  • Researching new topics in-depth
  • Asking detailed questions
  • Applying/practicing without worrying about making mistakes
  • Not getting easily frustrated — learning new skills takes time

If you traditionally haven’t been one to teach yourself new things, it’s time for a paradigm shift.   The most interesting and successful people in the world are EXPERT self-learners.  You need to be, too.

3. Working Knowledge of Web Fundamentals

HTML - The foundation of the internet and a crucial concept to know for any online entrepreneur.

One of the great things about e-commerce is that it’s not necessary to be a world-class programmer to build a successful business.  Services like Shopify make getting an online store up-and-running nearly as simple as setting up a Gmail account.  That said, everyone I know who has been really successful online, particularly in e-commerce, has a working knowledge of fundamental web technologies.

Early on, you might by able to get by with limited technical knowledge.  But as your business grows, it becomes an increasingly larger achilles heel, especially if you’re a solo founder.  If you don’t understand how basic web technologies work, it leaves you completely at the mercy of others.  Need to make a basic change to your website?  Sorry!  That’ll be $100 and two days’ lag time to hire an outsourcer.  Interested in installing Google Analytics or doing some basic A/B testing? Unfortunately, you’ll need someone else to help out again.

You don’t need to be able to program the next Facebook.  But understanding the basic building blocks that make up your e-commerce business’ foundation is critical, for both your productivity and your autonomy.

 

How to Master It

Below are a few critical technologies/concepts you’ll want to have a basic working understanding of:
  • HTML – A format for marking up/tagging web content.  At their root, ALL web pages are built using HTML.
  • CSS – This styles your web content.  Referencing the tags in the HTML code, it defines how the content looks: font size, colors, layout, etc.
  • Hosting fundamentals – How to register and host a new domain, and how to use FTP to transfer files to a server.

Creating detailed HTML and CSS guides is beyond the scope of this blog, but there are many great tutorials and resources for learning all these concepts online, including those from Codeacademy and W3 School.

Although I’ll leave the nitty-gritty tutorials and guides to others, I WILL be creating some video overviews that discuss how these technologies work and interact at a high level to create a webpage.  As a beginner, the largest challenge is often understanding the basic concepts of a technology, and how they work together with other parts of the weban area usually glossed over by most tutorials.

If you can get a firm understanding of the underlying purpose of a technology, learning the detailed implementation becomes MUCH easier and more intuitive.  Watch for these videos soon, or subscribe to eCommerce Fuel to be notified when they’re posted.

4. Problem Solving

Running a successful business is fundamentally about being a creative problem solver.  Most importantly, you need to understand what problems your customers have and offer great solutions.  This is crucial in e-commerce.  At TrollingMotors.net, one of the eCommerce sites I own, you could say we “sell” trolling motors, which is technically true.  But I’ve never heard a customer say “I have NO IDEA where to buy a new motor.  If only I knew, I’d purchase immediately.”  My customers don’t need motors, they need solutions.  An actual problem is:

“I have a 16′ bass boat and need a new motor.  I’ll be upset if it’s not strong enough for my boat, but I don’t want to pay too much.”

When we understand the REAL problem(s) facing our customers, we can solve it with expert information and advice.  This will lead to exponentially higher customer satisfaction and business success.

In a more tangible sense, you need to be a creative problem solver to SURVIVE.  Starting a new business is like accidentally starting a dozen grass fires and then trying to put them all out.  Websites go down.  Suppliers make mistakes.  Customer orders get botched.  You run out of product when you need it most.  Being able to come up with working solutions is crucial to ensure you continue to move forward.

 

How to Master It

In terms of effectively solving customer problems, you’ll want to focus on:

  • Surveying your customers and asking for feedback
  • Really listening to what problems and stresses they have
  • Marketing your product(s) in a manner that solves customers’ specific problems
In terms of general day-to-day operational problem solving, mastering this is a bit more abstract.  Becoming a great self-teacher (as discussed above) goes a LONG ways toward being able to solve problems.  You’ll also need to be creative, understand how to utilize other people and learn to be flexible — all of which will help you resolve unexpected issues that arise.

The Most Crucial 4

There’s obviously a lot that goes into a successful e-commerce business, but these four are crucial:  marketing, the ability to learn new skills, problem solving and web fundamentals.  Master these four, and your chances of building a successful, profitable business online will skyrocket.
Did I miss any must-have skills for the e-commerce founder?   Let me know in the comments section below.

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Comments

  1. Hi, Neat post. There’s a problem along with your website in internet explorer, may check this¡K IE still is the market chief and a big component to people will miss your great writing because of this problem.

  2. Great article, as a fellow SEO I can certainly relate.

  3. PeterC says:

    How do you think about building your own website VS using Shopify? I think that would be a great post… Obviously it depends on your familiarity with web-development / hosting. But there must be some strait forward pros and cons. For instance, how do you think about the trade offs in terms of number of products, scalability and cost per sale? I’m sure there are other factors I’m not considering here so feel free to elaborate if you care to enlighten us.

    • Andrew says:

      Peter – Not sure if I understand your question, but if you mean:

      “How about building your own shopping cart VS. using an existing cart like Shopify”

      …I would say it’s probably one of the worst mistakes you can make with an early eCommerce business. Your top two problems in an early online store are:

      1. You don’t have any customers
      2. You likely don’t know exactly what they want / need

      So your most pressing goals / needs are to market like crazy, and start interacting with your customers as quickly as possible. With so many great cart solutions on the market right now, trying to create your own shouldn’t even be a consideration starting out.

      Hope this answers your question!

      • PeterC says:

        I think what I meant to ask was, how do you look at Shopify versus paying someone to build out a site that you design. If I’m going to pay 650 dollars a year plus an additional 1% on all my transaction costs for Shopify why not just get it over with and design something then pay someone $2,500 to code it all up. I’m going to have to do all the photo’s and copy work myself anyway so if i’m serious about starting something where is Shopify’s value proposition? This is assuming I am at least semi-competent with CSS and HTML.

        • Andrew says:

          The value proposition for any hosted SAAS cart is that you can get a site up quickly and easily (almost immediately) without having to bother with the payment integration, custom design or hosting. And you can get some decent templates without having to invest a lot of money up-front. In terms of the 1% transaction fee, it doesn’t make sense once you grow (and you should change plans accordingly), but it’s a small price to pay in the first few months to get things up-and-running quickly.

  4. Maggie says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Great blog (and e-book – just finished reading it). You’re so generous with your information, and I love your writing style.

    I’ve decided to give e-commerce a try. I own an LLC but never really saw myself as a business owner. As a freelance copywriter, I only make lots of money if I work lots of hours. If I turn away a client because I want to go on (gasp!) a vacation, I worry about the money I’m losing and the very real possibility that my client will find someone else and send all future business to them.

    I love what you said (and I agree) about how a successful online store essentially “sells” information on the web, because that’s already what I do for my clients!

    My question is this: Would you recommend fully committing to an online store from the get-go? Meaning stop accepting new clients/work as opposed to, say, hiring a VA to help me out because I can’t attend to it full time (I will work on it of course, but more like 20 hours a week as opposed to 50-60). I’m fine with doing this full time (I have money saved up to last me 8 months without working), but I don’t want to give up my current income stream if it’s not going to be crucial to my success in e-commerce.

    Thanks and looking forward to hearing from you!

    Maggie

    • Andrew says:

      Maggie,

      Glad you enjoyed the eBook and congratulations on your new business – that’s fantastic! To answer your question:

      I believe committing to an eCommerce business full-time will dramatically increase your chances of success. It allows you to focus all your efforts, and gives you more momentum early on which is motivational. If you do decide to hire a VA, I would recommend doing everything you want the VA to do yourself first, so you fully understand it. Then, once you can create some processes and understand things, you can hire a VA to help you with a lot of the time consuming work.

      With the marketing process you’ll be doing a lot of writing, so you’d likely see a lot of value in training a VA to help you find link building / content writing opportunities, and once they’re lined up writing them yourself.

      Best of luck, and thanks for reading!

  5. Anthony says:

    Hi Andrew,

    You mention that SEO is a vital key to learn and I will be utilizing your 15 minute SEO guide http://www.ecommercefuel.com/ecommerce-seo-guide/#more-461 and the SEO moz beginner guide as recommended.

    I have already done a lot of basic research into SEO and want to properly lay the foundations out. Just one thing on this point though, people like Jim Cockrum tend to be completely against SEO as seen through http://www.jimcockrum.com/blog/category/categories/grow-your-business/seo-search-engine-optimization/

    He is also a respected and trusted guy so would it be possible for you to have a brief read through his points and let me know your opinion on this? He seems to be extremely opposed to SEO and it would be great to hear your point of view on this important topic!

    Thanks,

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks for your comment, Anthony.

      I checked out the link, and didn’t think the article made a very good case for WHY SEO is bad / evil / not important. Now, if you’re depending on SEO for 100% of your success then, yes, I believe that’s a short-sighted approach. But by following some basic SEO practices (targeting the right keywords, structuring your site correctly, linking internally well) along with providing quality content, you’ll dramatically increase the chances Google will help others find you. So in that aspect, SEO is very important.

      • Anthony says:

        Thanks for the feedback Andrew. I will be spending quite a few hours tonight laying out the basic SEO foundations for my site.

        Cheers again,
        Anthony

  6. Darren says:

    Hi Andrew.
    Marketing is probably my weakest of the 3. In reference to your first tip, “Focus on people and networking. Great marketing opportunities usually stem from great relationships.”

    This totally makes sense when you’re meeting people face to face when in the same city. What are your thoughts for doing this better when working remotely in somewhere like Chiang Mai?

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