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.

Embracing Uncertainty

If you ask investors, they will tell you one thing that they dislike. It is inexainty. Investors always fear uncertainty. In fact, they hate uncertainty. If you ask further, everyone will give different answers but the main reason why they hate uncertainty is that they do not like losing money.

That is right. Losing money is what we as investors want to avoid. However, avoiding uncertainty is not the answer. You see, life is always full of uncertainty. Therefore, taking risks is necessary in investing no matter what your background is. Tell me what kind of assets with no uncertainty at all. One common answer is placing your money in Certificate of Deposit. (CD). The proponent of this investment claims that your money will always accrue interest no matter what happens to the economy, oil price and other things affecting stock investment. But is that so?

Let me answer your question with another question. Why do different banks give you different interest rate for your CD? Sure, it is affected partly by their money supply and demand. If a bank can take in more money than it can loan, it will generally give lower interest rate. However, do you notice that larger established banks generally give lower interest rate than say, an internet CD from e-trade? The answer is uncertainty. Big banks are less likely to fall and therefore, investors are willing to accept lower return investing in their CD. On the other hand, internet banks are more uncertain to survive ten years from now. Thus, the higher interest rate. You see, when you embrace uncertainty, you will earn a higher return on your investment. How about risk? The risk here is that when you invest in small unestablished banks, it may go bankrupt and bring your money down with it. Sure, in theory, your money is protected up to $ 100,000 from FDIC. If you loan your money to a friend, he or she will always say that they will pay your money back, no matter what. But banks are not your friend. In fact, you friends who borrow money from you, can default on their payments.

That is the risk of investing in CD. While, the risk seems remote, it always exists. On the opposite side, investors who fear accidently will probably stuff their money in the mattress, approaching little or no money. This is an extreme example but as you see, getting rid of uncertainty does not look that good here.

Embrace accidently does not mean investing your money blindly. To get a higher return, you need to embrace uncertainty and be educated to minimize your risk. In our CD investment case, what should investors do? Well, for example, you can research the trustworthiness of your bank to sites such as bankrate.com. Once you are comfortable about the status of your bank, you can then invest in CD which offers higher interest rate. A little bit of your time will earn you quite a bit. This is what I called embracing uncertainty. You accept that uncertainty is part of investing but you need to be aware of the risks that you take in any kind of investment. From there, you can weigh your risk and reward and decide which the additional risk is worth investing or not.

Similar case can be applied to stock investing. It is full of uncertainty and there is no way around it. However, by being educated in the stock market, you can minimize your risk and can earn additional return in the process.

Turnaround investing validates this concept. You can choose to invest in a well-run companies with seemingly no trouble in the horizon. Or … you can choose to invest in companies with short-term trouble and wait for them to turnaround. In these two cases, investing in turnaround companies will give you greater return. This is due to the uncertainty of investing in companies with short-term trouble. As always, you have a decision to make. Life is full of choice. Would you rather invest in CD and avoid uncertainty even? Or embracing uncertainty and reap a higher return on your investment?

Complete Guide to Facebook Marketing

Unless you've been living on another planet, you would be aware of the popularity and influence of Facebook today.

Just a few short years ago, you had to encourage all your family and friends to join this social networking website (just after others convinced you to join). Nowadays, it's rare to find someone who has not gotten a Facebook account.

At last count, there were over 350 million users on Facebook and this number is continuing to grow. It overtook MySpace as the number 1 social networking website on the planet last year and is just behind Google when it comes to online traffic. You are then able to understand how important Facebook marketing has become for all websites.

It's Not A Pitch Zone

The most important thing to remember about social media is that it is not a place to blatantly and endlessly pitch your product or service. If you do this, then you will not get any favors from social media users and will get poorly ignored and even bad reviews.

What social media is used for is building relationships with potential clients. There are several ways you can go about doing this:

– you can post helpful information (links) where you help them solve a problem
– you can personally chat with them and assist them you can create content addressing the needs of users and posting it

The bottom line is that you want to be seen as genuine and helpful. This way, word can get out that you're the real deal and before you know it, people will become interested in what you have to offer in terms of products and services.

Of course, the things you share on social networking sites such as Facebook should not be the nitty gritty stuff that you have to offer. You should share helpful information in the form of teasers that will interest people enough to ask and wonder if there's more. Offering free stuff is great for getting attention too.

How To Market On Facebook

The great thing about Facebook is that from the outset, it has encouraged all users to use the website as a means of sharing information and marketing whatever they please. As a result, it has developed many ways for users to do this. You do not have to use every single one of them but a combination of them can only enhance your Facebook marketing.

Pages

This is probably the marketing tool out there on Facebook. On its website Facebook describes Pages as "a public profile that enables you to share your business and products with Facebook users." It is specifically designed for promoting a business and everything it has to offer. People can then become a fan of your page and when they do this, they let their friends know that they've become a fan of your page via their News Feed. The potential for your Page to gain a lot of popularity in a small period of time is great.

Of course, it all depends on the content you put out there for people to use. You need to give them a reason to become a fan of your Page and a reason for them to keep being one.

Events

This allows to create events to be held at a certain date and time. Depending on what type of business you are, you can create one to be held locally or internationally. It can be any one of the following:

– seminar – it should be introductory and free but you could promote a paid one too
– webinar – an online seminar and where anyone worldwide can join
– product / service launch – you may be about to launch a product or service and this is a way to gain attention

The best part about creating an event on Facebook is that it can go viral and before you know it people will be attending your event in droves.

Advertising

Finally, about a year ago, Facebook introduced an advertising service where people can put ads promoting their website or their Facebook Page and they pay per click (PPC) or impression (CPM). It works in a similar way to Google AdWords.

The best thing is that you can target your ads based on both geographical locations and social actions. For example, if you were a wedding photographer and wanted to promote your services, your ads can be set up to appear only to females between the ages of 24 and 30 and who relationship statuses indicate they are engaged.

It must be noted, however, that Facebook Advertising is still in beta mode which only means that it will only improve in the near future.

Embrace Facebook

If you wanted to market your website online, you would be absolutely nuts not to use Facebook marketing as one of your key strategies. Just be careful not to get talked up in it too much because it can become a very time consuming activity.