Just do it


So, you’ve got some great stuff to sell. You want to do it online - a cheap store-front, no geographical restrictions, open 24 hours. We all know the benefits.

But which platform should I choose? Get my own site built or use a service like Shopify?

First things first; there’s no point having a shop, online or otherwise, if no-one visits. You can have the greatest products in the world but it’s for nothing if no-one knows about them.

So, item number one in your plan has to be marketing. How are going to get the word out? And when they land at your site, why would they want to stay? Your competitors are just a click away, so getting people here is just the start of the process.

Don’t despair, there are a whole series of different strategies and tactics you can apply to make your site a great destination that people spend a lot of time on. But, as like so many things, the technical side is nothing compared to the rest of it. So give it some serious thought.

Then we get to platforms. There are loads of ecommerce platforms, many of them open-source (and hence free to install). But that doesn’t mean you can set up a shop with no outlay.

At the very least, you’re going to need a domain name and an SSL certificate (which allow communications to be encrypted). You’re going to need a design for your site. And you’re going to need a method to receive payments.

It has to be said, a hosted platform, such as Shopify, is really easy to get going. They have a load of pre-built templates to make you look good and they are PCI-compliant, meaning you don’t have to worry about taking payments online. You also get a whole series of other tools - you can take credit card payments in person, add “buy” buttons onto other sites, sell via Facebook and even help to manage your physical retail locations. Plus, as it’s a hosted service, all backups and server maintenance is taken care of for you.

Using an open-source platform, such as Magento, Wordpress/Woocommerce or OpenCart, is a load more work. For a start, you need somewhere to host the site, get the server configured, make sure you’ve got backups (never forget the backups), then install the software, install a theme (you can buy one pretty cheaply but you will need one) and set up your payment gateway. But be warned, there are some payment gateways you cannot use - because if any credit card information touches your server, even momentarily, you will have to comply with PCI-DSS, a standard designed to 1) ensure the financial data stays safe and 2) ensure you, rather than Visa or Mastercard, are liable if it is not. PCI-DSS does not apply to every payment gateway (“off-site” gateways that transfer the customer elsewhere to actually enter their card details don’t count) but it will have an impact on the customer experience. And finally you have to manage the day-to-day running of the site - ensuring all security patches are up to date, dealing with downtime (because everything fails at some point) and testing that those backups are easily restorable (never forget the backups).

So you have a choice - getting started quickly and easily but paying a monthly fee for a service that is somewhat beyond your control. Or do more up-front and take more responsibility for the ongoing maintenance, but keep everything in your own hands.

It’s a question I cannot answer for you - but in most cases, I would say going with the hosted service is the best way to get started. Not least because they can deal with payments for you. And as you grow and expand, there’s nothing to stop you moving to your own platform in future.

Rahoul Baruah

Rahoul Baruah

Rubyist since 1.8.6. Freelancer since 2007, dedicated to building incredible, low-cost, bespoke software for tiny businesses. Also CTO at Collabor8Online.
Leeds, England