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Five questions before you start e-commerce projects

E-commerce projects aren’t easy.

If you head over to some sites, you can find people offering an e-commerce website for as little as $400. One time. That’s it.

That reminds me of the car that a guy at our church once offered my brother, for “next to nothing.” The guy was well-intentioned. And his version of next to nothing was really cheap.

But my brother sang songs about the guy and the car every time he later had to pay money to fix stuff. I’m pretty sure that the cost of owning that car was about 200% of the initial price. Oh, and that doesn’t include buying another car, when it broke down (even after all that investment).

Can you get an e-commerce website for a really low low price? Yes, you can. But be warned. The initial cost may be a tiny portion of what you’ll pay later, if it was done poorly.

So what I thought I would do is give you a tiny bit of insight into the set of questions I ask (and why) before starting any e-commerce website.

Here are my first five questions.

Will you be hosting this yourself or on a host?

I ask this question up front because everything else changes based on this single question. If they’re hosting it themselves, I have to get into what kind of experience they have, and what platform they’ll be using.

This also gives me a chance to highlight issues like PCI compliance and what it means to make sure every part of the value-chain is secure and compliant.

If they’re not hosting it themselves, it gives me a chance to ask about their target platform. Different platforms are more or less open to integration.

Some platforms are all-in-one, but restrict the payment gateways (which impact certain payment flows). Others are completely open, but will require coding for every integration wanted.

Lastly, it’s an easy way to get into all of these conversations without posing a threatening question. If I asked people what platform they were going to use, they might get defensive. If I asked about their ability to maintain their infrastructure, they might get defensive. But by simply asking an either/or question, there’s no wrong answer and it’s a natural lead-in to all the other information I want.

What kind of budget do you have allocated for development? For maintenance?

Hey, this wouldn’t be a post on my site if I didn’t hit the financials pretty early, would it? I never shy away from asking about the investment someone’s willing to make. After all, you wouldn’t want to open a retail shop without talking about the lease, right?

I ask about budget in this way – for development and maintenance – precisely because I want to anchor any discussion with the reality that this isn’t a one-time expense. Again, you wouldn’t think of opening any other kind of business with a one-time fee. So let’s just get our minds wrapped around continual investment early.

Some people will not want to talk about money so early. I get that. But don’t let that stop you from pressing in. Here’s why.

E-commerce sites are public and mission-critical. That means two things that I can guarantee you. First, a lot of people will want their say. Second, it will have to stay online all the time (which isn’t easy or cheap).

Now, there’s another reason this question is up front. Everyone has visited Amazon or some other online marketplace. They love all the features. They want them all.

And here’s the third thing I can guarantee you. They can’t afford it. They’re not doing the business that Amazon, eBay, or Apple are doing. They don’t have their budget.

So by making this clear, we can talk about how a budget impacts all our choices.

What about your current situation do you not like? What does success look like?

Right after the first two questions, I like to introduce my “gripe” question. This helps people share all the things I might never think to ask.

Here’s what I know – people are always unhappy with something. It could be conversion rates; it could be manual efforts; it could be something else. I want to know about it because it helps me align a new solution better. But it also highlights things I would never have expected.

Asking about success also helps us make clear and specific targets we’re trying to reach. General statements like “a good looking e-commerce site” won’t help me. I need to know a specific target – like hitting $2MM in revenue by year’s end. That’s specific.

What kinds of products are you selling and how will they be delivered?

There is nothing wrong with selling a lot of products. I don’t mean 100 or 1000. I mean 30,000. You can pull that off. But let’s be clear – data entry on 100 and on 30,000 isn’t the same thing. So I gotta know.

Additionally, are these eBooks, music or videos that are all digital? Or are these products that need to be shipped? If we’re introducing integration with a shipping vendor, things just got more complicated.

I don’t mind complexity. But it’s important that people understand the costs associated with complexity. And sometimes even more important than that is knowing the timing consequences – because some integrations can take a while.

What kind of check-out/payment experience are you thinking about? Do you already have a specific gateway you have to work with?

Ok, at this point you’ve likely noted that some of my questions are two question combos. Yes, I cheated a bit. But the point is that they’re the same question, just asked in different ways.

If a person tells me they want a seamless experience where the user barely has to do anything to close a sale, but then tells me they’re using PayPal that takes users off-site, I know where I need to take the conversation.

If a person doesn’t have a gateway, then I can pick one that aligns with their experiential goals. If they have one, then it may provide some constraints I have to live within. But that means we also have to talk those constraints and their impact on everything.

Is this the complete list of questions?

As you can imagine, this small set of questions can easily keep me talking for an hour. But hey, most things can.

While this isn’t the full list of questions that might come up, it’s the core set. And I hope by sharing with you my thinking, you can apply the ones that make sense to your work. But you can also tweak ones that don’t make sense for you and your work.

I know you’re waiting for me to tell you which WordPress shopping cart is the best, right? But you know my answer already. Let’s all say it together: “it depends.”

Good luck and let me know some of your favorites that I’ve missed.

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