Building a successful online business: top 5 tips for new e-retailers

You may say that, when I first started my online retail business, I had my work cut out for me. I do not have a retail background, I am not a technologist and I had no experience in importing goods. But I have a passionate belief in the digital economy, and I believe that the future of the world is in the online and digital space.

My fundamental driver was, and still is, that being online is really important.

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I knew I wanted a business in clothing, I wanted it to be niche and I wanted the products to be produced in a way that supported humanitarian, ethical and cruelty-free lifestyles.

Since I began my business three years ago, the learning curve has been massive. Despite my first foray into manufacturing my own goods having more than its fair share of challenges, I now own an online retail business that has traction in the UK and US.

What I have found over the last three years is, among my fellow e-retailers, there is a willingness to offer support. A quick Google search reveals loads of ‘how to’ guides on virtually everything and friendly words abound in forum chat rooms.

Below are my top five tips for burgeoning e-retailers, a way of extending my virtual helping hand to those launching their own online dream.

1. Sell something you are passionate about

Sounds logical, doesn’t it? For me, I love a really good jacket. Feedback at the time, which also aligned with my key business principle to be “niche”, was to look for an alternative to a leather jacket. I am a vegetarian, and so the idea of selling a product that was underpinned by humanitarian ideals and was cruelty free was very attractive.

Once you find something, road test and road test again with friends – really anybody – that is willing to be blunt and speak their mind. When you do decide on “the one”, the next step if you are importing the good, is make sure you have contractual arrangements with suppliers in place to ensure the quality of your order will be the same as the sample. Get their commitment in writing.

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2. Know your limitations

I think if you don’t necessarily have a background that you can draw upon, you should get some advice. Not being a technology expert, I outsourced the development of my website. Networking is key to finding people you can trust. I use contacts that I am comfortable with as much as possible.

I belong to a number of different groups, like Women in Business and Woman in Global Business. I go to a lot of presentations and things like that, which also improves my networks.

Once you find something, road test and road test again with friends – really anybody – that is willing to be blunt and speak their mind

3. Educate yourself

I have a background as a lawyer, so I am pretty good at dissecting facts and looking for outcomes. However, I felt completely naked! I had to keep making ‘to do’ lists of what I didn’t know. As I mentioned, there is a wealth of information on the Internet; it is pretty easy to find a “how to” article on just about everything. Don’t go overboard though and sign up for every newsletter you find during your hunt – your inbox will start to groan! Often you don’t need to pay dollars for the knowledge, there is just so much free information out there on the web.

My overall objective from the outset was that I did not necessary want to remain hands on – forever. Even though I am not as familiar with things such as digital marketing concepts and apps, I need to learn the substantive part of it, so when I do engage people to do it, I know what I’m asking them to do. For example, as my products appeal to a large demographic – including those younger than me – I have contracted out the marketing and social media side of things. The messaging needs to be contemporary and I am happy to let people that know what they are doing handle this side of things.

4. Think big

When you start your business, you need to have vision. Not just how it is going to grow locally, but internationally as well. Legal issues around setting up a business should not be ignored. Apply for a business name, register the company, get corporate tax file number (ABN), find a good accountant and buy an accounting package.

But the big one that most people don’t think about is look after your intellectual property. Apply for a trademark over your logo.

Contracts are important. Don’t move a muscle until you have a contract with your supplier. I didn’t have a tight contract with my first supplier and as a consequence found the styling of my wallet was being replicated – and sold – with the supplier’s own fabric around it.

In my experience, it is also a mistake to underestimate the benefits of a physical outlet for your product – a bricks and mortar vehicle. Nothing beats the ability to touch and feel your product.

My overall objective from the outset was that I did not necessary want to remain hands on – forever

5. Respect social media

You hardly need a Trade Practices Act to keep retailers and manufacturers honest when you have social media. Be honest in how you describe your product, the quality and the images that portray it. If you get these two wrong, your business can be destroyed overnight by social media postings. Make sure everything you put out there is open to scrutiny and you are fully accountable because customers are going to call you on everything – so you have to be prepared!


Anne-Hurley-Leaders-in-HeelsAnne Hurley

Anne Hurley is the Founder and CEO of James&Co, an online boutique selling designer faux leather jackets and accessories. Anne established James&Co in 2012 with a strong humanitarian philosophy, supporting cruelty-free fashion and directing a percentage of profits to mental health initiatives for young people. James & Co’s products are made without leather, fur, wool or silk and are accredited by Peta to carry the ‘Peta-approved Vegan’ logo. Under Anne’s leadership, the business has expanded into international markets, and is now selling with great success into Australia, the US and the UK.