Welcome to Phase 2 (which is comprised of Chapters 4-6). This is where the fun really begins! Choosing a niche and sourcing products are kind of dry and boring tasks, but building your store is truly a blast! Even though I've been involved in the creation of dozens and dozens of websites, this part never gets old to me! There's just something exciting about seeing your site come together piece by piece and watching it become an amazing online store for your visitors to use. It's where all the leg-work you've done to get to this point starts to materialize into something tangible (well, as "tangible" as we get in cyberspace, anyway). 😉
Because I've built so many stores now, I know this process inside and out and can walk you through it in a logical order that will work for any type of website. Here in Chapter 4, I'll be guiding you through 5 quick pre-build tasks that together make up what I called the Pre-Build Checklist. If you jump the gun and try to start building your site before these pre-build tasks are completed, the process won't be nearly as enjoyable or move forward as quickly as you want it to. You will continuously be forced to pause and wait for pieces along the way, and that's just not an ideal approach. Here are the 5 tasks that make up the Pre-Build Checklist:
- Get all the product details you'll need
- Register a domain name (which you may have done already)
- Select a shopping cart platform
- "Link" your domain name to your shopping cart platform
- Get set up for payment processing
Note: All 5 pre-build tasks are necessary for those building an eCommerce store (be it dropshipping based, stock-and-ship based, service based or digital-product based). For those building an affiliate product store, only pre-build tasks 1-4 are necessary (task #5 is not relevant).
We need some core info about the products we've sourced "in hand" and ready to go. There's a good chance you already got everything you'll need back in Chapter 3, but let's quickly double-check. Here's a list of all the product information you'll need...
- Basic understanding of your product line – You don't need to be - and aren't expected to be - an "expert" on your chosen niche at this point. However, it's good to have a very basic understanding of your product line. As you're building your store, it will be helpful to know what type of customers will be shopping for your products and what "problem" they're trying to solve by purchasing those products. You'll also want to know some basic stuff about your products like the different styles, materials, features, etc. This knowledge will be extremely helpful when creating your category structure and writing basic sales copy on your home page and various other pages of your website. If you don't feel you have a sufficient base knowledge of your product line yet, just spend 10-15 minutes cruising around on your supplier's website (and/or a close competitor's website), paying special attention to the category structure.
- List of products with details/specifications – At bare minimum, you'll need the name, price and basic information for each product. Preferably, you will also have full-blown detailed product specifications (specs) or, in other words, a full-blown product description and "feature list" for each product. (But it's okay if you don't have all of that yet. Ideally, all of this will be in a spreadsheet that can easily turned into a feed file you can upload into your store's software (more on this later). Your supplier should have provided this information to you in some way, shape or form (if they didn't, just ask your rep). Sometimes, they'll just tell you to take it from their website. Sometimes, they'll give you access to a secure "dealer portal" you log in to. And sometimes, they'll send you some kind of "dealer packet" that contains the product info, usually via email but possibly on a CD/DVD via "snail mail" (old school)! 🙂
- Image files or URLs of product images – In addition to the product information, you also need to get your hands on at least 1 (more is better) product image for each of the products you'll be offering. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean you need the .jpg images on your computer (although that's one way to do it). But it's actually easier if you just have (within your product spreadsheet - or "feed file" - you'll be creating) a column that contains the URL location (i.e. http://suppliers-site.com/images/product1.jpg) where the images can be retrieved. Ask your supplier how you can get your hands on the highest-quality, highest-resolution product images available. Again, how you get the images will vary by supplier... copy/paste from their website, log in to dealer portal, log in to an FTP site or retrieve them from a CD/DVD they send you.
Okay, it's time to get a domain name for your store. Depending on how far you went in Chapter 3 with preparing to contact potential suppliers, you may have already gotten a domain. If so, you just need to decide whether you’re good with it being your permanent domain name for your store or whether you want to spend another few bucks to get a "better" domain. That’s obviously your call, but maybe some of the advice below will help you make that decision.
How important is your domain name? Well, let’s say this… it’s important, but it’s not important enough to get stuck on this step and stew about it for days or weeks. You’re not trying to create the next Amazon or YouTube here. You’re building a little niche eCommerce store that people are going to find through Google or by clicking links on the web. You’re not trying to become a "household name." So, of course, you want to pick a good, catchy domain name, but there’s really no reason to spend more than 15-20 minutes on this step.
Keep in mind that by selecting a domain name you are also choosing the name of your store, so put a bit of thought into this. That said, people regularly stress over this a bit too much so don't over-think it. My 3 basic rules for choosing a domain name are:
- the shorter, the better (I like to stick to 3 words or less, if possible, but I'll occasionally go up to 4 words)
- go with a .com whenever possible (assuming you're targeting the USA/Canada)
- the name should relate to your product line
Your domain name can contain some or all of your main keyword phrase, but it doesn't necessarily need to. We oftentimes combine a 2-word keyword phrase (which may just be the 2 most important words within a longer 3-5 word phrase) with a short "filler word" at the end. For example, when we registered a domain name for our bird cages website, we named it BirdCagesNow.com (so the name of the store is 'Bird Cages Now'). See the expandable box below for a good-sized list of short, catchy filler words you may want to consider.
Another option is to use a meaningless, made-up word before or after the single root word. For example, when we launched our wedding rings web store we came up with ZiloRings.com (so our store's name is 'Zilo Rings'). The word 'Zilo' is a totally made-up word and has nothing to do with the product line... we just liked the way it sounded (and it's short) so we went with it! Again, this is important enough to put a bit of thought into, but certainly do not let this slow down your progress!
What Domain Registrar Should You Use?
There are a lot of different domain registrars out there, and frankly, they're all pretty much the same. But over the years, we've come to prefer NameCheap.com for two reasons: 1) private registration is included free (it's usually extra with other registrars); and 2) NameCheap is hands-down the best place to get an SSL Certificate (which we'll be talking about in pre-build task #5 below), and it's convenient to have your domain name and SSL with the same registrar. So I recommend registering your domain name at NameCheap.com.
The last thing you want to do is spend the next 2-3 months trying to create an HTML-based website from scratch. Believe me... I've done it, and it sucks! 🙂 Not only is it insanely time-intensive, it will most likely be loaded with security holes and be an absolute maintenance nightmare for years to come! For dozens and dozens of reasons I won't go into, it's always best to choose a pre-built shopping cart platform that can run your store and take all of the "pain" out of website ownership!
Your shopping cart platform is an all-in-one package that includes a) an "admin panel" for YOU to configure your template and settings, add categories and products, process orders and otherwise manage your store; and b) the public website for VISITORS to search/browse for products, add products to their virtual "shopping cart" (hence the name) and "check out" (i.e. make payment). Using a shopping cart platform, building an online store is no more challenging (and requires no more technical know-how) than using a program like MS Word or Excel. Point, click, type, save... That’s really all there is to it!
There are 2 main varieties of shopping cart platforms:
- Hosted shopping cart platforms include web hosting, meaning that the company that provides the shopping cart software ALSO "hosts" your website on their servers. So you're getting the software and the hosting service together as one package.
- Self-hosted shopping cart platforms do NOT include web hosting. In this case, it’s just the software. If you get a self-hosted shopping cart, you will need to first sign up for a web hosting account (we strongly recommend BigScoots) and then install the shopping cart software onto it (and also maintain the software to keep it updated).
In general, you should avoid self-hosted carts unless you are an advanced webmaster with a fair amount of experience dealing with web hosting, security issues, PCI compliance, installing software and keeping it up to date. Hosted carts are better for the vast majority of website owners, regardless of experience level. With a hosted shopping cart platform, you don't need separate web hosting because the cart provider includes it. They also handle the installation of your cart and all maintenance associated with the software and the web hosting. We have extensive experience with web hosting and managing software, but because of the ease of ownership with hosted carts (and how affordable they are), we opt to use them for all our stores.
Recommendations for a Hosted Shopping Cart Platform
If you're going the hosted route (which we highly recommend, especially if you're doing any type of eCommerce store), we recommend using either 3DCart or BigCommerce. We've used virtually every major hosted cart on the market today, and these two are hands-down the best. They have all the features you need and are very affordable (especially 3DCart). Again, if you go the hosted cart route, you do NOT need web hosting of your own because the cart provider includes it with the cart subscription. Both of these carts have free trials (30 days for 3DCart and 15 days for BigCommerce), so try one or both of them out and see what you think of each! (Note: You can read additional information about 3DCart and BigCommerce here.)
Recommendations for a Hosted Shopping Cart Platform
If you do decide to go the self-hosted route (because you're doing an affiliate product store and/or because you have some webmaster/WordPress experience), we recommend getting web hosting with BigScoots and then installing WordPress (with the WooCommerce plugin) for your shopping cart. You can get web hosting for under $10/month, and WordPress & WooCommerce are both free (although you will probably want to add a couple $10-20 one-time fee plugins to get all the "bells and whistles" for your store). I would also strongly recommend investing $40-100 for a professional store template, as the basic WordPress templates are pretty "bare bones" and dated looking. We've found ThemeForest to be the best place to find affordable yet extremely professional WordPress templates.
So you've now got 1) a domain name (which you probably got from NameCheap) and 2) a web hosting account (included with your 3DCart or BigCommerce hosted shopping cart platform, or possibly a stand-alone hosting account with BigScoots). The next step is to "link" your domain name and your hosting account (which is included as part of your hosted shopping cart platform) together so your store comes up when someone tries to go to your domain name.
To do this, you'll need to update your domain name's DNS settings. This sounds a little complex, but it's actually very simple and straightforward. Your DNS settings basically tell the domain registrar (i.e. NameCheap) where your website is hosted (or located). In the "real world," it's like you're telling the post office (aka domain registar) that you (aka domain name) live at such-and-such address (aka shopping cart platform). Here's how to do it...
Step 1. Get the nameserver names from your shopping cart or web hosting provider. If you're on 3DCart, BigCommerce or BigScoots, I'll save you the trouble...
- 3DCart's nameservers are DNS1.3DCART.COM, DNS2.3DCART.COM and DNS3.3DCART.COM (you really only need the first two, but it doesn't hurt to have three).
- BigCommerce's nameservers are NS1.BIGCOMMERCE.COM and NS2.BIGCOMMERCE.COM.
- BigScoots' nameservers are NS1.BIGSCOOTS.COM and NS2.BIGSCOOTS.COM.
If you're using some other shopping cart or web hosting account, you were probably provided the nameserver names in one of the initial "welcome emails" you received. If not, you'll need to search your cart/host's support center or knowledge base to find it.
Step 2. Enter the nameservers at your domain registrar. Once you have the nameserver names in hand, just log in to your registrar account (i.e. NameCheap) and enter the nameservers for the domain name you are using for your store. Here are step-by-step instructions for entering your nameservers at NameCheap.
Step 3. Wait 1-72 hours. Once you've updated your nameservers (which you did in step 2 above), it will take between 1-72 hours (usually 1-10 hours, though) for your domain name to start pointing to your shopping cart/hosting provider. Click here for some additional information on why it takes so long for the changes to take effect and how you can check to see when it has.
Note: This task is NOT required for those building an affiliate product store (since you will not be accepting payments from customers).
In order for customers to pay you, you need to be set up with some sort of payment processing account. Initially, the easiest approach here is to get a free PayPal business account so you can at least receive PayPal payments from customers. It's super-easy to integrate with virtually any shopping cart, and most online shoppers have a PayPal account.
Eventually, you will definitely want to also take credit cards on your website without the customer having to leave and return (like they do with PayPal). “Why?” you're probably wondering. Well, the answer is visitor trust. This is the first of many times you will hear me say that trust is the #1 factor for converting a visitor into a paying customer (even more so than price of products). If you want to look professional and gain the trust of your visitors, you need to accept credit cards right on your website. Even though PayPal is a household name now and many shoppers use it, accepting nothing but PayPal looks very "amateurish" and doesn't really go too far in proving you are a professional company shoppers should trust.
In order to take credit cards on-site, you'll need what's called a merchant account. They generally cost about $30 a month, and then there are other small miscellaneous processing fees. (Keep in mind that PayPal charges up around 3% in processing fees per transaction, so the miscellaneous processing fees with a merchant account should not be considered "extra" fees. In fact, the transactional fees with a merchant account will most likely be less than the transactional fees PayPal charges.) Our #1 recommendation for a merchant account is a company called Durango Merchant Services. We discovered them a few years back and now refuse to use anyone else. Not only are their rates amazing and their customer service second to none, but they are the only merchant account provider we've found that allows us to use a single merchant account for all of our stores... so gone are the days that we need a $30/month merchant account for each web store we're running! You can read more about why we love Durango so much and apply for an account here.
If you're on a tight budget, you can hold off on getting on-site credit card processing until you are getting a few visitors a day, but it's something you should definitely get sooner rather than later (and right now if you can). It greatly increases your conversion rate to take credit cards on-site, so that $30/month fee is covered by a single additional order per month!
Note for those living outside the USA or Canada: If you're outside the United States or Canada, you unfortunately won't be able to get a Durango account. Click here to see our recommendations for non-US/Canada residents.
Note about SSL certificates: You may have read/heard that you're required to have an SSL Certificate (which encrypts all of the customer's sensitive data) if you offer on-site credit card processing. This is true. However, this doesn't mean you need to go out and purchase a third-party SSL certificate. Why not? Because both 3DCart and BigCommerce provide a free "shared" SSL certificate that your store can use for securely processing payments. Once your store is getting tons of visitors and making lots of sales, you may want to consider getting a "private" SSL certificate (see our recommendation here) just so the URL of the payment page looks "cleaner" and shows your domain name (instead of the shopping cart's domain). But to start out, I'd just use the "shared" SSL included for free with your 3DCart or BigCommerce store. (If you are self-hosting your store (rather than using a hosted shopping cart) and plan to accept payments on-site through a merchant account, you do need to purchase a third-party SSL certificate.)
Okay, that does it for the pre-build tasks you should have done before you start building our store. Once you've completed all 5 pre-build tasks, you're ready to move on to Chapter 5!