The formula to Internet success, from’Lessons Learned’ merchants

Since March 2012, I have been writing the monthly”Lessons Learned” column, which has profiled online merchants selling goods which range from remedies for intestinal problems (“Trusting your Gut to Online Success”) to cheap backyard sheds (“Fall of Communism leads to Affordable Sheds’ Success”).

Could there be a formula for online success?

From assessing the stories, it might appear the key formula into a multimillion dollar online businesses might include an entrepreneurial comparative, previous online experience, time on the current market, a luxury shopping cart, three or more workers, in-house search engine optimisation, and developing a robust site design from the beginning.

Family History

You do not want relatives with an entrepreneurial background to be successful, but it might help.

Nine merchants had grandfathers, fathers, or a friend’s father who were entrepreneurs, while a further three were serial entrepreneurs. Serial entrepreneurialism isn’t a guarantee of gross earnings however. One recorded $15,000 annually for glass purses (“Selling Specialty Handbags Expensive”), while another earned $65 million annually for window blinds (“Entrepreneurs Select Blinds”).

Past Online Experience

Nine of the 21 ecommerce merchants had online experience before launching their websites. However, this experience means nothing without a strong business model, demand for goods, time on the current market, and the creators’ skills and budgets.

One of these nine seasoned online merchants, Select Blinds, was the greatest revenue-grossing retailer. Its creators had run a mortgage direct site launched in 1999. At the opposite end of the scale was Cakes And Kids with $150,000 in revenue (“Finding the Recipe for a Successful Cake Decorating Website”), the creator worked for 20 years in online marketing.

The remaining 11 merchants had worked in the business, had an interest in the product group, or saw an opportunity in the marketplace before launching their sites.

Launch Year

Generally speaking, it takes some time to become a success. Both highest grossing retailers launched their sites in 2002 (Pimsleur Approach, “Licensing a Language Platform Is Ecommerce Success,” $35 million) and 2003 (Select Blinds, $65 million).

However, longevity doesn’t always equate to high gross earnings. Stork Gifts (“Personalized Gift Website a Family Affair”) launched in 2003 and its latest annual gross earnings was $900,000, while BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com (“Earning Online Bed Shopping a Dream”) started in 2010 and recorded gross earnings of $8 million.

Shopping Carts

Merchants used a wide assortment of shopping carts, however the top grossing retailers — Pimsleur Approach and Select Blinds — built their carts from scratch. This was partly to offer the process and experience the creators desired, but also because the assortment of carts available today didn’t exist in 2003 and earlier.

Normally, merchants upgrade to more server-intensive shopping carts as they grow bigger.

Eight merchants used Magento or Volusion. Four Magento merchants recorded gross earnings ranging from $1.03 million (VacuumSpot Founder Comes Clean, Inspires”) to $8 million (BedroomFurnitureDiscounts.com) whereas the four Volusion merchants earned from $300,000 (Stork Gifts) to $3 million (“Discount Cleaning Products Really Cleans Up”). Two used Bigcommerce as a further two used osCommerce.

Employees

Generally, gross earnings grew as employee numbers enlarge.

Of the nine merchants who recorded gross earnings of $1 million or less, five merchants (earning $15,000 to $720,000) had no workers, whilst Pro ID, “Specialist ID Identifies a Niche,” ($920,000) hired eight workers from relatives and friends.

The 10 merchants who recorded gross earnings between $1.03 million and $8 million employed between two and 20 workers.

But merchants do not always hire workers in proportion to their earnings, with Select Blinds ($65 million) hiring 60 employees while Pimsleur Approach ($35 million) numbered 166 workers.

Search Engine Optimization

Advertisers are likely to outsource search engine optimization in the beginning and then bring it in-house.

Eleven merchants undertook their own SEO and another 10 outsourced it. Of those who snore SEO in-house, most had used external suppliers until they became dissatisfied with the lackluster results, Google’s penalties, or cost.

Biggest Mistakes

Ten merchants mentioned they wasted money on an insufficient or ineffective website design, print advertising, online advertising, pay-per click advertising, comparison shopping sites, or SEO.

Three merchants said they made a mistake waiting too long to hire employees or they hired the wrong individuals.

Two merchants said they made mistakes saving money on transport and cheap hosting, another two mentioned outsourcing customer service, while two purchased too much inventory that didn’t sell.

Biggest Successes

While repeat clients and profitability were often mentioned as the biggest victories, nine merchants also felt satisfied mastering their sites’ conversion, pay-per-click advertisements, and social websites.

Eight merchants mentioned their greatest highlights as being showcased on television, print, a government site, getting licensing rights, or winning a place on a coveted business listing.