Unlike a brick-and-mortar business, the beauty of an online business is its instant reach to a huge target audience, not only locally but across borders. But you need to carve a niche first
Covid-19 has changed the world as we know it. We all have to get used to the new normal, both in our personal and professional lives. Businesses have to reinvent and re-engineer themselves to face the challenges thrown up by the Novel Coronavirus. This is especially true of entrepreneurs who are the fountainheads of innovation and creativity. Now more than ever, entrepreneurs need to think out-of-the box to survive these unprecedented times. And the first step towards this is to take advantage of the technological advancements mankind has made and go online. Gone are the days when there was a raging debate on the pros and cons of online business versus an offline one. The question now is how to convert an offline brick-and-mortar business into a click-and-mortar one.
Setting up an online business is by no means an easy task as cyberspace is a different sphere altogether. It requires careful planning, which is the same for any regular offline business. It needs vision, access to funds, hard work and plain old grit and determination. However, unlike a brick-and-mortar business, the beauty of an online business is its instant reach to a huge target audience, not only locally but across borders. But to set up a successful online business, you need to carve out a niche. For example, Amazon created a niche for itself by offering the largest collection of book titles (over one million), which was more than 10 times the range of books in the largest physical bookstores around the world. So, the first step is to develop a clear understanding of the niche you want to address as a business.
Next, try and identify your unique selling proposition (USP). Your business idea may not be totally unique but a support environment can make it exclusive. A great website, a good sales pitch, innovative marketing strategies, smooth supply chains and a responsive customer care can do wonders for a business and help a start-up carve a niche to take on well-established, deep-pocketed competitors. However, don’t become disheartened if you are unable to put a finger on your USPs, they will become obvious at the planning stage. Entrepreneurs have the habit of trying to do all things on their own. Don’t succumb to this habit. Delegation is as important as careful planning. Take the help of experts wherever required in planning, development and deployment of your online business. A successful business person can make a distinction on where and when to use external or expert resources and when to do things on their own. Developing a website, systems administration, database development among others can be such areas where external expertise is required. Employing a third party to manage and maintain your website is a good business decision, which will allow time for focussing on your other USPs. You can surely run a successful online business even if you have no inkling of technology. Outsourcing your technical requirements will cost you but having a good website is like having a great start for your online business.
Just like any business, careful planning and adequate funds can make an online business successful. There are two reasons why a meticulous business plan is necessary. One is to make your proposal attract funding and the second is to create an internal blueprint to plan, launch and execute your venture. Basically, you should develop a business plan for yourself. There are no rights and wrongs in developing a business plan and there are several online templates available to guide you. However, a well-written business plan should answer the following five questions: What are your business’ aims and goals? Why would your business satisfy or fulfil customer needs? Where will you be present? Who are your potential customers and your target audience? And how are you going to launch and continue the daily operations of your business? These five questions will cover all aspects of the venture.
Any business plan is not complete without market intelligence. Competition is a part of life and somewhere, someone would be having a similar product or service that you are planning to offer. So a competitor analysis is an absolute necessity, in terms of the products/services offered, USPs, website layout, quality of information to customers, delivery times, packaging, customer care, complaint handling and so on. Addressing any drawbacks your competitor has will make you popular and increase your consumer base.
Start-up funding and investments are an important requirement for any business. It would be prudent to combine some of the financing options available like your personal savings, loan from family and friends, bank loans, Government grants, angel investing and venture capital. Projecting your income and expense is not one of the easiest tasks. We project our income and expenses based on assumptions which tend to change. Be ready to adapt to changing income and expense figures. Once you have developed a careful plan, you are ready to execute it by establishing the online avatar.
To create a successful website, you should be clear about what you want. Make a list of all your requirements. How many pages do you need? How many products or services do you want to list? Do you want a website that changes frequently? What is the type of user interface needed? Discuss these aspects with your carefully-chosen website developer, who is your partner in one of the most important aspects of online business. You could consider previous experience, technical knowledge, client portfolio, references from clients, commitment and workload as some of the attributes of choosing a good web development partner. If you are planning to capture customer data or receive payments online, you should take responsibility and accountability to protect the information of your customers by pursuing necessary and vital checks and balances.
Once this is done, shop around to have the best payment gateway for your business. Managing content is one of the crucial aspects of online business. Writing quality content takes longer than it sounds and would make the first impression on your customers. The ordering process and experience for the customers has to be hassle-free, so make sure that the order pipeline is easy to navigate and customers do not leave your website without spending. What use is creating a wonderful website, planning and launching the products or services, if it is not monetised?
Apart from the primary source of revenue, secondary sources like advertising become important as you can take advantage of the traffic you receive on your website. Running a successful online venture requires strong backend operations and a robust supply chain mechanism. A reliable supplier network is one of the most important areas that any business should develop. Choosing a good supplier and managing good relations with them are the key to a successful online business.
The next step is to make customers aware of your online business. Search Engine Optimisation is one of the ways with which you can achieve this. The key is to make your website visible to any Search Engine by adding unique content that would be picked up by the bots. For example, Google uses a software called Googlebot to examine the internet for useful content on websites and accordingly ranks them based on that. Good quality content is very attractive to any Search Engine which can hope to satisfy the query of customers. Connecting with your customers through various ways like forums, social media platforms, emails, surveys or through telephone will help build your reputation. Also, be sure to deliver on the claims and promises you make on the website to gain their confidence. Try and go over and above customer expectation and aim for customer delight. Remember under-promise and over-deliver.
So the big question is whether this is the right time to launch your online venture? Marred with the uncertainties unleashed upon the world by the pandemic, setting up a business, particularly an online venture, can be very disheartening.
However, one should know that setting up a business in a depressed economy has its benefits. You can negotiate good terms with your vendors; hire knowledgeable staff of other companies who have been laid off, buy some companies at lower valuations and get your business off the ground. Identify the silver lining in the dark cloud, set up a strong online presence, back it up with a robust operational plan, deliver what you promised, listen to your customers and run a successful online business.
(The writer is Associate Professor, Amity)