This post is designed for those small businesses that aren't yet selling online and are getting ready to start.

I won't pretend this piece is for those with lots of experience online. It's more a starting point to steady the nerves for those that are bamboozled by how complex supplier selection can seem.

Although many ecommerce ventures are small scale, and indeed many choose to stick with online marketplaces instead of going it alone, this doesn't mean the effort involved is small.

Even once a successful ecommerce website build is complete, your small business will rapidly find it has the need for extra resource to keep the beast purring.

First off, let me recommend a few Econsultancy reports. Selling online: a how-to guide for small businesses is a good read to begin, and is where I found some of the guidance below.

For advice on selecting an ecommerce platform, see the Econsultancy Ecommerce Buyer's Guide, and the other Buyer's Guides for advice on suppliers of many business-as-usual functions.

So, where to start?

Writing a detailed RFP

The request for proposal (RFP) states the requirements of the project. Proposals will adhere tightly to this document so you need to make sure it is accurate and well-thought out.

Assessing development options

Select one company to do all the work (an agency) - recommended for companies with limited technical knowledge of e-commerce websites. A good agency has cross-disciplinary expertise, so will can handhold a company through the process.

Use freelancers to supplement in-house skills - for companies with more technical expertise. A much cheaper option than employing an agency but requires more management time and a strong vision and plan for the project.

Including some offshore development – companies such as Elance will find very cheap and accomplished developers in countries such as India. This carries more risk (can you justify this risk) and again will require extra management time. 

Selecting a supplier

Select between four and six potential suppliers. A competitive pitch list should lead to a better and more focused response from contractors.

Narrow the list ahead of presentations from suppliers.

What to ask yourself? 

  • How effectively did they respond to the RFP? A supplier that questions objectives may be one that is able to add value.
  • Does the supplier really want and value the business? This is a good indicator of the resource that will ultimately be allocated to your project.
  • Are they ecommerce specialists?
  • Do they meet the technological requirements? What is their experience with the preferred choice of platform? Do they have enough developers with these skills?
  • Do you have references from a number of the supplier's existing customers? Look to speak to clients of varying size.
  • Are they likeable? A cultural fit is important. A team you get on with may be easier to work with when you're deep in the stressful end of the project.
  • Suppliers will over-promise. Regular meetings are a must, and should be agreed to from the start - can the supplier commit to these?
  • Does the proposal represent value for money? Remember, value is derived from a supplier's experience and capability. 

Chart taken from Technology for Ecommerce, showing the challenges for merchants (albeit mostly bigger clients).

challenges in ecommerce

The requirement for ongoing skills

Once the project is complete you are now an online retailer and beholden to all that running an online shop entails. Don't underestimate how resource intensive success can be. This is just a short list with some links to give some perspective on te work there is left to do.


There's plenty of good copy out there that you can follow to the letter (no pun intended). But, likely, to describe your products effectively, you'll need a good writer in-house and a style guide.

Search engine optimisation 

Something that requires a lot of patience (depending on the comeptition in the market) and a fair amount of content curation or creation.

Paid search 

Paid search offers the newbie a steep learning curve. It's essential for ecommerce, in filling in those gaps in your organic search profile but also in maintaining visibility in lucrative periods such as holidays. To avoid wasting budget, PPC may be something you should employ someone with experience to take care of, or possibly outsource to a reliable agency.

Social media

Earned media is a great boon to the small business. Asserting your brand, gaining fans, providing customer service, a few of the benefits of social media. As social networks have optimised their advertising models, gaining social reach has become a little more strategic. You should consider promoting posts or advertising your products and site where appropriate.

Email marketing

The bedrock of ecommerce. Email service providers for smaller businesses (such as MailChimp), you may already have up and running. Linking this with your ecommerce site is something the project build will likely have taken care of, but seeking advice on ecommerce email marketing will be imperative. Making the most of your data is key when starting out small.

Web analytics

Improvements are online possible based on observation and measurement. Someone in the organisation should have a working knowledge of web analytics and report regularly to management. This is important for judging the performance of your site, but also agencies you are working with.

Photography and photo editing

Another time-intensive duty, especially if you have to do the photography yourself. Even if you don't, there's resizing, cropping and optimising to deal with. 

Customer service

Answering questions, amending orders, dealing with delivery problems, returns and refunds. 

Fulfilment and inventory management

If a site sells physical products then this requires post and packing, re-ordering or production, storing and managing inventory.

Ben Davis

Published 3 June, 2014 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (3)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

This advice seems aimed at medium-sized businesses with a $100k budget. That's fine, but what about small business startups with say $5k?

(1) You need a mentor. Find a local business contact who has done this before and get their advice. Give them shares in your business if they ask (they won't) because it's that important.

(2) There is little point in producing a poor website that you wouldn't visit yourself and you are not going to be able to afford "a good writer in-house" (unless that's you), so you must keep it extremely small. Look at the sites of competitors, find the smallest good-looking one with 2-3 pages plus product pages, and copy its structure.

(3) Forget about writing a formal RFP - nobody wants your business enough to read it. Use whichever cheap eCommerce system your mentor recommends and a random cheap agency from overseas.

(4) Forget all of the suggested online marketing channels except your Website, paid search using a $100 free coupon from Google in case it works, email marketing via a free provider such as MailChimp (you can always switch later if your business grows), and social only if you already enjoy using it yourself.

(5) If yours is a local business, spend a couple of days creating good entries for local resources such as your Google page and the various free business directories (NEVER the paid ones). Then persuade your happiest customers to submit reviews. Most businesses don't bother with this, so you will gain a slight advantage.

about 4 years ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff


Love it. Thanks for contributing.

about 4 years ago


Hero Grigoraki, ecommerce & digital marketing specialist at independent

I think the most usual problems startups have when it comes to ecommerce is that they either are deluded and aspire to something humongous and completely out of comparison for them (eg, fashion sites all want to be the new ASOS as it is now, forgetting or not knowing how ASOS was when it started), or they think too small and solely focus on the here & now without any mid-term future ringfencing. This leads to a project that either never launches, because they seek perfection and the unattainable or it's so "agile" that is unscalable in just a few months or doesn't support/provide functionality that is necessary for growth.

Choosing a multi-million pound ecommerce platform is obviously out of the question, but settling for the freebies or the cheapest one with price the sole factor is a very common mistake - check what capabilities you want to have in the next 1-3 years, as per your business plan, and proceed accordingly. Changing your ecommerce platform or CMS or d/b or analytics is actually not such an easy thing to pull off once you're up and running and have started plugging in traffic channels, so plan ahead.

about 4 years ago

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