Exploring E-Commerce Options

I had a prospect come to me last week who wants to create an online store.  They want to start with 10 manufacturers, 10 product categories, around 1,000 products and the ability to send drop-ship orders from the manufacturers.  They wanted an easy to learn interface, the ability to interface with QuickBooks, and for orders to automatically send them an email for fulfillment.  From that point they want to be able to expand as the business grows.

I had not yet built an e-commerce site with the new company and my last experience, with Magento, had been really labor intensive.  I like what can be accomplished with Magento, I just don’t like the effort that it takes to get there.  With that in mind, I set out to re-acquaint myself with the e-commerce options that are out there.  After going through the myriad options available, I thoroughly investigated 3 hosted apps and 2 licensed software carts.  Here’s what I found.

Hosted Applications vs. Licensed Software

Most of us aren’t going to be building a shopping cart application from scratch, so the first decision you’ll make when building an e-commerce website is if you’re going to use licensed  shopping cart software or a hosted e-commerce platform.  The main differences are where the application is hosted and whether you’re on a monthly subscription or you pay (or not) up front.  With a hosted application you purchase a monthly subscription to someone else’s software and website, log in to your account and customize it with themes, plugins, or custom code to  fit your needs.  With licensed software, you download and/or purchase the software (there are many free/open source shopping carts out there), obtain your own hosting, install the software and then customize it the same way you would with licensed software.

Hosted E-Commerce Applications

The main benefit of using a hosted app is the speed.  You can literally have an e-commerce site up in hours if you’re willing to use one of their templates, you have your payment gateway(s) setup and your inventory is ready to go.  You can customize the look of your site to a great degree, but you still have to play by their rules.  Depending on the package you purchase, you are limited in regards to: the number of products in your store, on-site storage, monthly bandwidth and number of administrators.  Also, according to the package, you may have to pay setup fees, pay per transaction fees and pay for an SSL Certificate (necessary for secure transactions).

Hosted e-commerce shopping carts are really great for small businesses who are just starting out with limited time and capital.  They’re also the perfect way for an existing business to dip their toe into online retailing to see if it’s worth their time.  Based on my top-level research, I found the following:

ShopifyLink to Shopify

Used by well-known companies and groups such as Angry Birds, Amnesty International and the Foo Fighters, Shopify was founded in 2004 as an online store for snowboarding equipment.  Since then, they’ve grown to host over 10,000 online retailers.  They have a robust community, support, and dozens of themes and apps available to customize your site.  Shopify was designed with a crisp clean easy to use interface.  The consensus is that it is great for a new business that’s getting started, but experienced online retailers may want something more extensive.

They have 4 plans to choose from and offer a 30-day free trial.

Plan Shopify Basic Shopify Professional Shopify Business Shopify Unlimited
Monthly Fee $29 $59 $99 $179
Setup Fee $0 $0 $0 $0
# of Products 100 2,500 10,000 Unlimited
Transaction Fees  2% 1% 1% none
Admin Accounts  Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
Storage 100 MB 500 MB 1,000 MB Unlimited
Bandwith  Unlimited Unlimited  Unlimited  Unlimited
SSL Certificate  Included Included Included Included

Magento Go

The new kid on the block, Magento Go is the hosted version of the popular licensed software Magento, which I’ll cover in a little bit.  Magento Go went live in February 2011 with an aggressive pricing structure, a 30-day free trial and a “$1 million Stimulus” program which amounts to a $15/month discount for all users until the total amount reaches $1 million.

As a new product, however, there are still kinks to work out.  They only have a few dozen themes and plug-ins (collectively called add-ons) available.  They do not currently allow access to the html source codes, so you have to work around this by editing and uploading css files.  Currently, you can’t ftp directly into your store to upload or download files.  Uploading products by csv files is reportedly buggy.  Lastly, and a deal breaker for my prospect, they do not yet have an option for enabling drop shipping.

As it currently stands, I would only recommend Magento Go to new businesses who want to dabble in e-commerce.  However,Magento was recently purchased by eBay.  With that kind of backing, I expect Magento Go to get through these hiccups.  It’ll be interesting to see where they are in a year.

They also offer 4 different plans:

Plan Get Going Going Places Go Beyond Go Anywhere
Monthly Fee $15 $25 $65 $125
Setup Fee $0 $0 $0 $0
# of Products 100 500 1,000 10,000
Transaction Fees none none none none
Admin Accounts  3 10 20 30
Storage 200 MB 500 MB 800 MB 5 GB
Bandwith  4 GB 8 GB 16 GB 32 GB
SSL Certificate  Shared Custom Custom Custom

BigCommerce

Big Commerce is one of the big players in hosted e-commerce.  Like me, you’ve probably been seeing their ads all over the place, which makes sense since the interface was put together by marketing people.  This carries through to the product management and reporting aspects, which get high marks online against Shopify’s superior aesthetics and simple (some say too simple) interface.  Although comparable to Shopify, Big Commerce is considered to be more “heavy-duty” than Shopify.

They currently have the #1 ranking on toptenreviews.com, attractive templates to get your shop up quickly and do not charge a transaction fee.  Big Commerce is a good solution for everyone from newcomers to experienced retailers that need more features for their online launch.

Big Commerce offers 5 different options to get started with.

Plan Bronze Silver Gold Platinum Diamond
Monthly Fee $24.95 $39.95 $79.95 $149.95 $299.95
Setup Fee $0 $0 $0 $0  $0
# of Products 100 500 1,000 Unlimited Unlimited
Transaction Fees none none none none  none
Admin Accounts  3 10 20 50 100
Storage 200 MB 300 MB 500 MB 1 GB 3 GB
Bandwith  2 GB 3 GB 5 GB 15 GB 45 GB
SSL Certificate $79 – $449 per year

Licensed Shopping Cart Software

Unlike Hosted Apps, Licensed Shopping Cart Software have no monthly or setup fees (beyond the cost of acquiring the license) and no limit on products, admins or transactions.  You install the software on your own hosting, so you manage your own storage and bandwidth.  You are also responsible for obtaining and installing your own SSL Certificate (annual cost of under $100 to thousands of dollars depending on your options).  Along with the license, you usually get access to the source code and the ability to control the look and feel of most aspects of your online store, that you don’t get with hosted applications.  However, it will take considerably longer to get your online store running as you customize your store.

In exchange for a considerable upfront expenditure of time and capital licensed software will give you exactly what you want.  This is the solution for businesses that are serious about online retailing and have a few thousand dollars to spend.  It’s not unusual to see quotes of $100K plus for Magento deployments.

I have experience with developing for Magento and it’s never been easy to work with, even over time.  Honestly, I began my survey of e-commerce solutions looking for a way not to do another Magento install.  However, all the research I did always led back to them and one newcomer that I found.  With that being said, let’s begin with Magento.

Magento

Magento is the industry leader for a reason.  Their users include names such as Ford Motors, Samsung, Dockers and The North Face.  They offer an open source version of their product, Magento Community, with no formal support.  However, there is a huge community of users along with thousands of themes, plugins, and sources for source code to do pretty much anything you want.  They also offer two versions with extra options turned on and paid support.  Magento Professional starts at $2,995 per year and is a solution for small and medium business.  Magento Enterprise, as the name says, is made for enterprise-level businesses and can support the largest possible online stores.  The price tag for the enterprise solution starts at $12,990 per year.

Magento is actually a relative newcomer, released in March 2008.  Since then a cottage industry of Magento theme and plugin developers has sprung up with some web developers devoting their entire business to supporting Magento.  Developers love its power and  flexibility, but it exchanges that for ease of use.  That may be a personal thing, many people love it and claim it’s easy to use.  I suspect that my dislike comes from the fact that I’m not a programmer at heart.

In my opinion, Magento is great as a “final solution” for e-commerce.  It’s where you want to end up if you ever become Ford Motors or Samsung.  But what about the rest of us?

LemonStand

In my research, I kept on coming across a software solution called LemonStand.  Launched in July of 2010, LemonStand is known for ease of use and excellent customer support, the founder of the company commonly answers questions in the forum!  The license for the software is $299.98 (Canadian Dollars) and it never expires.  As a relative newcomer, there are only a handful of themes and plug-ins available.

The buzz on LemonStand is that it’s a great middle point between a hosted app and the complexities of a complex “do-everything” shopping cart.  LemonStand combines ease of use, flexibility and the ability to design your store to look exactly like you want it to.

I actually installed a test version of LemonStand and I had a vanilla test store up in a few hours.  I dug around and I agree that it’s a much easier interface to deal with than Magento.  I would highly recommend it to a small or medium business that doesn’t want to give control of their site to a third-party and doesn’t mind spending the time and money on development.

Conclusion

There are many options available for e-commerce and the answer depends on your business.  Are you just starting out or are you an established business?  Do you want to try out online retailing or is it going to be your main source of revenue?  How quickly do you need the site up and how much can you spend on it?  How much control do you want to have over your site?

If you need help determining the answers to any of those questions, I’d love to help you out.

Announcement: We’re Google Certified Partners!

I’m proud to announce that The Internet Adventure, is now enrolled in “Google Engage for Agencies.”  We had to go through Google’s verification process and complete their certification process to establish our qualifications to enter the program.

For me, it means that I get to brag a little bit and add “Google Certified Partner” to my emails and to my website.  It’s a bit of validation for me of the experience that I’ve accumulated over the past years.  For you, it means that you get first crack at whatever goodies Google sends my way.  The first thing they’ve provided me with is a coupon code for $100 in free Google AdWords.  This is for new AdWords accounts only, so if you’ve already been using Google AdWords the code won’t work for you.  I have a limited number of these available, so please get in touch with me as soon as you can if you want one.

As always, I’m here to serve you.  If you have any questions or concerns or if you just want to say “Hi” please feel free to call me.

Chris Lontok

Head Navigator
Google Certified Partner

New Site Live: Evolution Martial Arts

Evolution Martial Arts Website Screenshot

Evolution Martial Arts Website

I just completed a website project with my customer: Evolution Martial Arts.  They’re a martial arts school here in Tampa, Florida specializing in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), Kids Classes, and Kardio Kickboxing.

It’s an intensive re-design of their original site.  I moved it into WordPress to take advantage of the innate SEO benefits as well as giving the customer the ability to work on the site himself with his own login.  I re-used some of the original design elements, but did a ton of custom graphic design work to distress the images, use them as backgrounds, create buttons, and crop them for the various display banners and videos.

The customer and I spent a lot of time going back and forth, but we’re both really proud of the result.  I think it’s my best site to date.

If you need any help with a website of your own, or have any questions on how I built it, please feel free to contact me.

It’s an Adventure For a Reason!

It’s 11:38 pm on a Monday night and the rest of the house: the kids and the wife, have drifted off to sleep one-by-one.  Meanwhile, I’m online tweaking 3 or 4 different websites and trolling for plugins to improve my websites.  I had just installed an exciting one called Jetpack that bundles together 8 great tools in one package, including a Twitter Feed widget, site stats, shortcode embeds, shortlinks, Gravatar Hovercards, and a few others.  I was excited to find more, so I did the obvious: a Google search for “best WordPress plugins.”

The top result for my search was a very well-written article with the supremely catchy title: “The 15 Best WordPress Plugins to Use in 2011.”  That title alone is worth the price of admission: keyword rich, relevant and in-the-moment. Of course I clicked it and, as advertised, I discovered some gems that I immediately downloaded and installed: W3 Total Cache, HeadSpace2 SEO, SEO Smart Links and others.  The site that I had found was: Nicholas Cardot’s Site Sketch 101, a well designed, attractive blog about website design and blogging.  I browsed through the site and was attracted to one article in particular: “How to be a Credible Online Authority.”

I’ve been building websites in one way or another since the late 1990’s and I’ve been a professional internet marketer since 2008.  Despite those two facts I’m still shocked by what I don’t know about the internet.  I focus so hard on Local Search, Web Development and Social Media, I sometimes feel guilty that I don’t know everything about Affiliate Marketing or Pay-Per-Click or non-Local SEO.  The article, and this quote in particular, really reassured me:

“What’s wrong with taking on an attitude that expresses that you’re learning while you’re teaching?”

That’s the attitude with which I started my business and the attitude I have every day.  I’m learning more and more every day, and I want to share what I’ve learned as my knowledge grows.  I’ll never claim to be an all-knowing guru.  I’ll always be a student looking for the best answer.

I gave myself the title “Head Navigator” when I started the company to poke fun at myself.  It’s really hard to navigate when the online landscape is always changing.  I’ll never know “everything”, all I can do is take Nick’s advice:

“The right answer is to study, practice, improve and grow. Do this and your authority will grow with you.”

My Favorite WordPress Themes

I’ve been developing websites for customers for 3 years now and actually building them myself for the past 6 months. After years of trying out different web development platforms; everything from raw html, to FrontPage, to DreamWeaver, and various PHP and online development programs, I’ve decided on WordPress as my platform of choice. With it’s wide range of templates and plugins and the active community of WordPress developers who’ve created code and tutorials, WordPress can do almost everything that I need to do in a website.

With that in mind, here are the tools that I use everyday when building websites.

The Builder Theme from iThemes

iThemes Builder WordPress theme I literally use Builder for 90% of the websites that I create.  Builder offers:

  • Completely customizable layouts
  • The Style Manager, which allows you to edit CSS on the fly
  • 38 child themes on which to base the look of your site.
  • Built-in SEO options

Some of my favorites child themes are:

Among the non-Builder theme, I really like Magazine Basic from Themes by Bavotasan.  I use a no-frills basic install for an article website that I put together.  I was looking for something simple that would allow me to display my most recent posts in an article/magazine format.  It actually has a fairly powerful back-end editor that allows you to control things like page width, headers, footers, sidebars and SEO options.  This version doesn’t have the versatility of Builder, but you don’t always need that much complexity.  If you’re looking for more options, they offer upgraded versions: Magazine Flow and Magazine Premium.

I’m now on Google+

I just got an invite to Google+ from a friend of mine this morning. I’m playing around with it, adding people to Circles, checking out Sparks, and setting everything up. If you want an invite from me, just ask and I’ll add you for as long as I have them.

Google’s New User Interface – Maps, Places, & Home Page

Working in Google yesterday, I noticed that their interface had changed.  A quick search online brought me to Google’s official announcement that they’re “refocusing” the map.  I like the new, refined look with a lot more whitespace and the functionality.  The most noticeable change for me is that my name, and various Google products, are in a new black bar.  For those with Google+ beta accounts, their Google+ account information is highlighted.  Mike Blumenthal believes that the new look is there to get users ready for the rollout of Google +.

Here are some screenshots that I took to show how the new interface looks when I’m logged in:

Google Home Page

The new user interface when logged into Google's home page.

Google Maps Page

Google's New Interface - Maps Page

Google Places Page

Google's New Interface - Places Page

I just applied for my own Google+ beta account and I’m eager to try out Google’s next attempt at incorporating social media into it’s products.

 

Examples Site for iThemes Themes

When building websites, we spend a lot of time with customers going through the available themes. We use iThemes Builder for the majority of the websites that we build, so I put together an example site to show all of the Builder child themes: http://the-internet-adventure.com/examples/.

Check it out, I set it up with 2 different methods to preview the 30+ child themes that we have available.  I’ve also set up pages that shows all the available typography as well as 4 different layouts and a page showing a variety of widget layouts.

I have another post coming soon about my favorite themes, plugins and tools for WordPress.  Keep an eye out for it.

2011 Local Search Rankings Released

David Mihm has released his annual Local Search Ranking Factors list.  This is the best resource for local search marketers like myself online.  Of particular interest in this edition is:

  1. The breakdown between “Pure” Local results (Places only, the traditional “7-pack”) and “Blended” Local results (where Places listings are blended with other search engine results).
  2. The ranking factors for “pure” and “blended” are similar but not identical.
  3. The statement that there is no substantial difference between optimizing for Google and optimizing for Yahoo and Bing.  With Google dominating search (a 65.4% share of all search as of February 2011), the local search experts saw no discernible benefit in trying to  optimize specifically for Yahoo or Bing.
  4. The importance of maintaining NAP integrity throughout your listings and citations.  9 of the 19 negative ranking factors involved a mismatch between the Place Page and website or the placement of information for multiple locations on one page.  What I take away from this is that there is a one-to-one correlation between your Place Page and the website that your Place Page links to.
  5. The importance of associating your website with your Place Page.

What stands out to you in the report?

How to Start a Company from the Ground Up in the Information Age

or… Our First Month (and a half) in The Internet Adventure

Hello everyone, I hope it’s been as exciting for you in April and May as it has been for us.  As you may or may not know, I went into business for myself at the beginning of April.  I’ve been setting up websites (for myself and for customers), my email lists, billing, a customer relationship manager (CRM) & project management solution, social media, as well as working on the bread and butter projects for my customers.  It’s been exciting and scary, a mountain of work, but also very satisfying.  After setting up businesses for other people over the years, it’s extremely gratifying to actually be doing it for myself this time.

Having been through the process several times now, I’ve been able to learn from past successes and mistakes.  This time, for my own company, I’ve already tested countless programs and applications and websites.  Here’s a sample of what I use every day to build my own business.

Wordpress LogoWebsite Development: WordPress, WordPress, and WordPress

Originally a platform for blogging, WordPress has become a fully featured platform for developing websites.  Over the years it has accumulated thousands of themes and plug-ins, both free and paid, which allow you to build almost any kind of website you want.  There’s a huge community of users and developers who can answer any question that you have.

I’m in it every day, working on sites for customers or slowly developing my own sites.  One of the most useful aspects is that I can assign customers, such as Ivy Learning Solutions, their own logins so that they can also work on their website if they want to.

MailChimp LogoEmail Lists: MailChimp

For the “do-it-yourselfer” you can’t beat MailChimp to run your email campaigns, like the one I’m using to send this one out.  MailChimp keeps track of separate mailing lists, allows you to set up custom campaigns, and provides thorough reporting.  You can also link your account to Facebook, Twitter, and many other websites and applications.

WORKetc LogoCRM & Project Management: WORKetc

At the last business I worked at, we tried several different options for managing customers and projects, everything from emailed Excel spreadsheets, to Google Docs, to Google Wave, to Zoho.  As you might expect, our results went from utter dissatisfaction to mild annoyance.  Then our Project Manager, the lovely and talented Morgan, brought us something called WORKetc.

I’ve had the experience of feeling like the clouds opening up and a choir of angels descending from the sky a few times in my life: the births of my children, getting married (both times), the first time I walked into the Zendah Grotto, an a capella fast tinikling my dance company had to do when our music failed.  I really felt that way when I was first shown WORKetc.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that it completely changed the way I work.

With WORKetc, I can track a customer all the way through their lifespan with my company, all the way from a suspect to a lead to a customer.  I can create projects from templates and assign them to co-workers and contractors with personalized to-dos and timelines.  I can invoice and bill and track expenses.  I can send individual emails and I can email a list.  WORKetc is a CRM and Project Manager and Billing system all in one and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Best of all, it’s in the cloud, so I can get to it from anywhere at any time, even on my phone if I have to.

Is it perfect? No, but they add features and update it all the time, so it’s getting there.  Getting everything set up exactly how you want it requires a pretty big up front time investment, but it pays off in the time you save afterwards.  Also, it’s a per-user system (starting at $39/user) so it can get expensive quick, but it’s absolutely worth it.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

FreshBooks LogoBilling: FreshBooks

As much as I love WORKetc, it’s a jack-of-all-trades and I found a tool that does billing better than anything else I’ve worked with.  In FreshBooks I enter my customers and I can bill them as necessary or auto-bill everyone who’s on a monthly service with me.  I don’t have to remember to bill people, the bill goes out and the money comes in.  FreshBooks also keeps track of invoices that have been sent out and what has or hasn’t been paid.  It assigns all my customers their own login so that they can pay online, through PayPal or Authorize.net, and I can see if they’ve received their bill or not.  It literally makes billing easy for me.

The main benefit I get from these tools and applications is this:  Time.  I spend much less of my time and energy on “business stuff” and I get to spend it on my customers and my business and, frankly, I get to spend more time with my family.  That is worth every penny that they cost me.

For more information on these tools or for more information on Local Search Marketing and Web Development, please contact Chris Lontok at chris@the-internet-adventure or call him at: 813-500-9202.