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.

What is Internet Marketing? Define Internet Marketing

What is Internet Marketing? In broad terms Internet Marketing refers to promotion of commerce or business through the Internet medium. It is the way in which products or services are promoted and sold over the Internet. Internet marketing, also called web marketing, online-marketing and even “i” or “e” -Marketing uses the Internet to deliver all types of media to a global and even local market. The relatively low cost to disseminate information to a global audience makes it very unique compared to marketing of the past.

The interactive nature of the Internet has forced the evolution of its marketing strategies to include specialist skills to deal with the instant response and eliciting responses now present with this unique medium. A device must be included in your Internet marketing system to accommodate this instant response.

The term is also inclusive of the post-sale relationship between a business and its customers because it encompasses digital customer data management and electronic customer relations. It is widely used in the business world today and referred to as ECRM – Electronic Customer Relationship Management. This makes the scope larger as it refers to the on-going relationship supported by the Internet, e-mail, and wireless media.

Internet marketing ties together the technical and creative aspects of the Internet including design, branding, promotion and advertising, as well as sales. Here are three main objectives to help define Internet Marketing:

(1) Deliver a company’s message or presence in a marketplace. Branding its culture, mission and value as well as educating or detailing its products or service via the computer screen.

(2) Collect data research not limited by demographics, individual preferences or past requirements of both existing customers and (different groups, classes, stereotypes, etc.) as potential new customers.

(3) The actual selling, collection of fees, tracking of distribution and follow up of goods, services, or advertising space over the Internet.

The way in which one reaches out via the Internet to its prospective client is through different strategies. The more popular Marketing Strategies utilized by Internet Marketers are Social, Content and Paid marketing approaches. Each has their own attributes as well as limitations or short-comings.

There are several Business Model terms associated with Internet Marketing.

E-COMMERCE (electronic-commerce) refers to business over the Internet. Web sites such as Amazon.com and eBay are all e-commerce sites. The two major forms of e-commerce are Business-to-Consumer (B2C) and Business-to-Business (B2B). So, while the neighborhood baker doesn’t sell his cupcakes on the Internet, he utilizes the benefits of the Internet to search and find the supplier with the best price for flour.

LEAD-BASED WEBSITES are organizations or groups of websites that create value by capturing prospective clients or sales leads from the Internet to be utilized by or sold to a third party.

AFFILIATE MARKETING is a process in which a product or service is promoted by many people or entities that receive a percentage of the profits when the product is purchased. The Affiliate did not develop or produce it themselves. The owner or producer of the product has authority over whom and how their product is sold and customarily provides the “affiliate” with marketing materials; i.e. Website links, capture pages, and banner ads that have encoded tracking – the device used to ensure the affiliate gets credit for the sale.

LOCAL INTERNET MARKETING is the process used by a company with a “local customer base” that traditionally sells by warm market referrals, signage, location visibility, and utilizing the Internet to find and cultivate relationships with potential customers to later interact with offline.

BLACK HAT MARKETING is a form of Internet marketing or search engine optimization (SEO) commonly referring to the practice of using unethical techniques or employing deceptive, abusive, or less than truthful methods to make your search rankings go up to drive more traffic to your website.

The birth and growth of Internet marketing has also made a mark on the “personal worlds” of many individuals. With Internet Marketing offering individuals infinite ways to promote and market themselves, products, services and opportunities, the world of home-based-business has exploded.

Initially for the person that desires to capitalize on this medium for their own person commerce, Internet Marketing can be confusing or even overwhelming for most. Each method seems to have its own language to decipher and obstacle to overcome. A system or platform to manage all of these strategies can be very useful if it includes support training. It’s best to only choose 1 or 2 initial strategies to focus on at one time. The best strategy for one person may not be the best strategy for you. Most important is that you discover the strategy that you like most and are comfortable performing. If you enjoy the process you will be certain to be better at it. And the better you are at it, the more likely you’ll become consistent with its implementation. You will find that the strategy you choose is much less important than your ability to do it consistently in order to achieve results.

I agree it can seem overwhelming at times, but actually the process can be quite simple if you focus on just one strategy at a time. There are unlimited training courses, Internet tools, websites and programs to help you be more effective and efficient in each category or strategy you choose. Having someone to help guide you through the process, pointing out which tools and programs offer the most help, not only will save your sanity, but also can save you hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in the process.

Shopping For Camping Chairs

If you have purchased camp chairs before, you know that you can find them almost anywhere: discount stores, sporting goods retailers, websites, even supermarkets and drug stores. As a result, you have probably never given much thought to where you should buy your next one.

On the other hand, would not you like to find the chair you really want and feel like you got the best price without running all over town or spending a bunch of time surfing the web? Assuming you know what you want, which of these many choices will give you the best deal? Let's take a look at each of these options.

Let's start with the least reasonably sources. Without you spot something in their weekly ads or happen to see the perfect chair when you are there shopping for other things, places like pharmacies, supermarkets and office supply stores (Yep … I've seen camping chairs there!) Are not going To have what you are looking for. You may get lucky, but these retailers should not be your first choice.

Shopping for camp chairs online looks like the easiest route. You can sit in the comfort of your home and browse through different websites while keeping your other eye on the ballgame. What could be simpler?

Unfortunately, it is pretty rare to find the best camping chair prices online. Generally speaking, you will find better deals in brick-and-mortar stores. Even the discount chain websites usually do not feature their least-expensive chairs … you have to get in the car and go look for those in person. On top of all that, you will probably have to pay for shipping, and then wait to have the chair delivered.

So, shopping for a camping chair online may not be the best plan, but it can save you time in researching the different types of chairs available.

The big discount chains often seem like the obvious place to look for a camp chair. They emphasize low prices, and they will indeed beat out the other retailers much of the time.

On the other hand, there selection is not always that good. You may not find more than four or five choices, none of which may suit your needs. Remember, these stores sell everything from groceries to dresses to HD TVs, so they will only allot so much space, sometimes one aisle, to camping equipment, and only a small portion of that to chairs. Still, if you just want a cheap, basic camping chair, these are not bad places to look out.

Your best bet for finding a camp chair, however, is probably one of the sporting goods or outdoor gear chains. These retailers will give a lot more space to camping chairs … sometimes more than one aisle. This means a lot of choices, so you can find exactly what you want.

Not only that, but because these retailers know how easy it is for you to just pick up a cheap chair at a discount store, they are almost always running sales that will save you a few bucks. Finally, if you have questions about a chair, the staff at one of these stores will probably be able to answer it. That beats the heck out of a blank look and a shrug.

After reviewing these options, you should be able to find the camping chair you want with less hassle and at the price you want. Take a look at your local discount store if you already have to go there for something else. Otherwise, you will save the most time and effort by heading over to the sporting goods place. Happy shopping!

Outdoor Advertising

Outdoor advertising is used to promote or advertise products and services using billboards, storefront signs, banners, wraps, decals, and other forms of signage. Vehicle wraps is a good example of how outdoor advertising works. It is a very effective and inexpensive tool for small companies who are looking to advertise their business in a specific area and within a limited budget. Without signs, it would be hard for customers to find a business or get information regarding products and services.

Outdoor signs are probably the first thing customers see and established an impression about the nature of a business. To leave a good impression on your visitors, you have to display your products, services, pricing etc. in a very attractive and creative way. Information should be displayed in a very simple and conspicuous way so that customers can quickly understand what your business is all about.

It is absolutely imperative for a business, whether small or large, to install signs as a source to build brand identity and authority. To make things simple, you can just visit your city and see what kind of sign boards grab your attention. It will give you a fair chance to develop an understanding of what type of signage would work for your business.

If you are running a business which involves a fleet of vehicles facilitating delivery of products and services, your company’s name, products, services, logo, contact information etc. should be clearly visible on your vehicles. A billboard might cost a handful of money. However, vehicles can be used as cheap mobile billboards.

Billboards are usually used to address a large audience. It is probably hard for small businesses to afford billboards as a source of outdoor advertising. However, a billboard, if designed properly, can be very useful in promoting campaigns, offers, or anything desired.

Banners is another tool to boost up outdoor advertising campaigns. It can be used as both indoor and outdoor signs. You can decide the size and content of banners depending on your requirements. A complete range of outdoor signs can be obtained from signage companies. It is not feasible to make a banner or billboard at home for it requires printing equipment and skills. Therefore, it is advisable to visit a reputable signage company to get perfectly designed outdoor advertising signs.

Despite the unprecedented advancement in technology, these simple outdoor advertising tools to promote products and services remain relevant and effective. So do not miss out the opportunity to promote your business with limited sources.