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.

Real Estate SEO for Beginners

The world of real estate is going through dramatic change and I don’t mean the current market upheavals caused by the change from a Seller’s market to a Buyer’s market.

Independent of price level there will always be buying and selling of homes going on. But the way people search for and find homes is in the middle of a dramatic change. The Internet is the great equalizer but also the great differentiator.

People searching online are not aware of your achievements, everybody is equal at first. If your website does not offer the design and services people appreciate they will not stay long enough to find out. This is where you can differentiate yourself.

But design and functionality are a secondary issue to the problem of how to get found in the first place. Use the analogy of websites being online business cards. New business cards are deposited not at the top of the pile but at the very bottom. Customers are picking up business cards from the top of the pile. SEO or search engine optimization deals with efforts to move ones business cards further up the pile so that customers can find one’s site through popular search engines.

So you have a new website. So you basically just had your business cards printed but nobody knows how to find them. Or even more dramatic you don’t even know if somebody is picking up your business cards and you don’t know if your business cards are in the big pile yet.

I would define SEO as the efforts to purposefully move ones website to be placed higher on the results page in response to a search query at a range of search engines.

But there are thousands of search engines out there. True. But all but 3 are irrelevant to your optimization efforts. Google, Yahoo and MSN control about 98% of all searches performed on the Internet. Focus on the three big search engines and the rest will take care of itself.

What is there to optimize? The aim is to be found by people searching for things that you offer on your website. When people search they do this textually by querying a search term or phrase. For you to optimize your site you first have to understand for which keywords or key phrases you want to be found. As I am practicing real estate in Aspen, Colorado and appropriate search term could be “Aspen Real Estate”.

Make sure you repeat your keywords and phrases on your homepage. Make the most important key phrase a headline and type it in a bold font.

It is important to understand that search engines are automated computer systems programmed by humans to evaluate the webs content without human interference. This means that search results are based on what is called a computer algorithm. This is basically a set of instructions for the computer on how to evaluate certain criteria and translate the results into a sequence of importance. Most important website first, least important website last.

The art and science of Search Engine Optimization is to try to understand what the search engines are looking for in a good site and then giving the search engine just that. The Google search engine algorithm probably looks at hundreds of different criteria. It is so complex that not even the engineers inside Google know the whole picture. Well you might say, how should none Google employees then know what to do?

Basically the most important fundamentals of what makes a good websites are known. Google for example uses a patented mathematical concept they called “Page Rank” at the root of their systems. Links are seen as votes. The more links are pointing to one website the more important that website must be. The more important the website is that votes for another website the more weight that vote caries.

So, try to get people to link to your website. It is important to know that links from website that have the same topic as your website seem to be more important than links from website that do not fit the subject. Links from other real estate related website are more important to my website then links from websites promoting toys.

Search engines like content rich websites. The more pages with useful content the better. Blogs are a great way to accumulate great on-topic content over a period of time. This is all the more important as search engines like website that have fresh content on a regular basis.

DMOZ.org is a human compiled directory of websites. Read their instructions carefully and submit your website to a relevant category. Yahoo and Google use this directory and it helps to be listed.

Generate a site map and place the xml file on your web server. A site map is basically a long list containing all your web pages in a format that is readable by computer programs employed by search engines to browse the web. These programs are called “bots” or “spiders”. This will help the search engines to find all the pages on your website. Remember, the more web pages the search engine knows about the better for you.

Search engines cannot read certain content. Graphical content is one such thing. If your site consists of mainly pictures the search engine will not understand what your site is about and therefore will not offer it as a result of a search. Make sure your site is text rich.

Real Estate website can have pages for the different subdivisions in the area serviced. Write a blog on the property of the week. Incorporate a section of “Frequently Asked Questions”. Write about yourself and give people a bio on you. Explain the buying and selling process. Offer sales statistics. The list goes on.

Get a program Like “Advanced Web Ranking” to search the search engines for search results containing your keywords. Optimization is fun when you start to see results. But manually looking for your website in search results is labor intensive and a good job for an automated program.

Read web forums and a couple of books on SEO once you are past the basics. The field is constantly evolving and there us tons more to learn.

What Is Digital Marketing?

In the last decade, the reliance on the Internet has certainly changed the way in which business is connected. It is clear to most business owners that without an online presence, your business is really missing out on a major of marketing, advertising, and success. Nowadays, anyone who is anyone keeps their own blog, social media platform, and of course a website. If you are a business owner and you do not have a website, you are neglecting to market yourself in the most effective way. That is why it is critical for every business to not only build a site for themselves, but also reinforce its presence through digital marketing.

What is digital marketing? And, how / why is this kind of advertising so important to a business? Let's consider these important elements of online strategizing:

What is digital marketing?

In its very essence, this kind of advertising conjoins the promotion and advertising in an online platform. The basic principles, values, ad tactics of traditional marketing are still at the core of this innovative phase, there is a seemingly more insightful guise into the consumer behavior and target demographic. This digital promotion possesses all kinds of internet marketing, however it focuses on digital media. SEO is only one kind of digital marketing tactic.

The way in which digital promotion is enforced is another interesting property. Various sources can be utilized to promote products and services of a business, including websites, mobile devices, instant messages, and SMS among many others. In addition, the digital nature of this kind of marketing is considered as one of the most cost effective means of advertising.

Two kinds:

Push digital marketing: Just as the name suggests, push marketing is directed to push the advertising information directly towards the target clientele. Often times, marketers will initiate the push marketing through email, RSS, or SMS, really targeting the receiver or clientele with a personalized message. This means is also powerful in that it is easy to track, monitor, and measure the relative efficiency of the marketing.

Pull digital marketing: The pull method of marketing is aimed at garnering customers to come to you. The marketing for this means will be communicated to compel the individual to make a call to action or come visit your business. The most obvious or pervasive example is a web page, website, or any other Internet based medium. While this means of digital advertising is not as easy to personalize or track, it is still effective and powerful nonetheless.

The New Marketing Research Tool – Twitter

Conducting marketing research is very important for any business. The key to success of any online business is the profitability of the niche market you select. First and foremost though should be the determination of market demand. Without the demand the probability of generating any profit is zip. With that said our consideration will turn to a reliably new way to conduct market research that will enable you to unforgettable those niche markets with plenty demand and profit potential.

Twitter, the fast growing micro blogging social network site offers you the opportunity to tap into a real time search engine containing valuable search information.

If you're looking for online business ideas around which to build an income Twitter could be your answer.

Let's look at a simple 3 step process you can use to help you generate potential niche marketing opportunities by using Twitter.

Determine Popular Topics First

Firstly you want to see what everyone is talking about by looking at 'trending topics' which is located on the right hand side of the page. Being Twitter is a highly populated social network site you can assume trends found here reflect most of what you may find across the internet.

Under trending topics you'll find separate 'discussions' being held on various topics. The topics or keywords of these individual discussions are precluded by a hash mark (#). Choose a topic of interest to you and join the conversation.

Focusing on conversations that interest you is very important!

Two other methods you can use to locate popular topics on Twitter are visiting hashtags dot org and stufftotweet dot com.

Find the Conversations

Track down these conversations on Twitter by entering the appropriate keywords into the search box.
Plug into conversations as this will be your market research.

Start to follow some of the participants since once once you follow someone they'll follow you back. This allows you to stay up with and view these conversations as they occur from day to day.

Plug Into & Follow the Conversations

Now that you've located these conversations you of course will contribute where you can but you definitely want to listen and take notes. You are looking for trends, common problems, angles, or other ideas to explore. If possible unforgettable a common problem and develop a solution for it. This could be the basis of your niche.

Throughout the course of these discussions various ideas, opinions, or preferences will be offered so take note of this. Focus in on the more prevalent and consistent 'sub-topics' to help you' narrow 'your search'.

By following these conversations over an extended period of time you'll be validating the thinking popularity or interest of the topic you're 'researching'.

This process will be connected over a period of time and the information you collect can then be used to further explore with other market research tools. You'll want to do this to insure your hunch / finds possess the market potential you are looking for.

Marketing research can be very time consuming and boring but it is a necessary evil for any online business. The key to your success will the profit potential of the niche market you select as the core of your business. Determining the market demand is your first step when considering the potential of any number of niche markets. The accuracy of your market research is crucial and if done correctly will lead to profitable online business ideas for you. Knowing how to efficiently use the real time search engine that Twitter should enable you to speed up the research process. Just following the current trends and the conversations surrounding them should supply you with very insightful data. It is then up to you to put this information to work as you apply it to your niche marketing efforts. The end results should be rewarding.