Tag Archives: featured

Get the Right Company Name

Get the Right Company NameChoosing the right company name, in the form of a web address (or root domain, as it’s often called) is essential for your online business. Your choice of web address should determine the legal company name that you register with your government, and not the other way around.

Just as important as choosing the right name is to research and register the name with care to avoid scam artists, as we’ll discuss in this story.

Guidelines for a Good Web Address

To help your online business grow, your web address should be:

  • Easy for visitors to remember, and preferably not longer than 15 characters for better search engine recognition.
  • Meaningful so that it includes one or more keywords that people can associate with your business. For example, “JoesOnline.com” would tell very little about your online fish food store, while “FishFoodSupply.com” does a much better job.
  • Free of confusion – without hyphens, abbreviations, potential homonyms (like “capital” or “capitol”) or anything else that could prevent someone from typing the correct address after hearing the name spoken only once.
  • Not similar to established business names that you know or discover, and not already taken as a “.com” Top Level Domain (TLD) name.

Brainstorm Your Ideas

Finding the right name can be a fun process if you work at your own pace, without feeling pressure. You can start by searching online for words that describe your business and then adding words of your own to create combinations that are memorable and easy to pronounce.

You’ll find that some markets – for example bicycle shops – seem to have enormous competition for domain names, while in other markets it can be easy to find a great name. After you write down a list of potential word combinations that sound good, are easy to remember, and follow the guidelines above, use only an encrypted domain name search to test if each combination is already taken as a registered domain. To avoid having your name taken by someone else:

  • Never type the name into a browser address bar to test if it’s already taken, since those results can sometimes be visible to others.
  • Never check the availability of a domain name with a web host provider unless you will pay to register the name at that exact time, since some providers reputedly sell those search results to outsiders.
  • Never check the name in your state’s online databases to see whether a similar company name has been registered until you already own the domain name. I learned firsthand that individuals can monitor those search results and will try to hold your name for ransom.
Address Bar
Never Test a Domain Name Idea by Typing It in Your Browser Address Bar

My advice is to settle on the best combination of words that’s not already registered as a “.com” name, check for potential conflicts by searching the phrase in quotes (” “) on Google, look for any conflicting trademarks on the USPTO trademark website, and if you’re satisfied that you have a great original name, register the .com domain online right away.

Next: Register Online First, then Everywhere Else

Choose How to Get Paid

Choose How to Get Paid

After you’ve decided on a shopping cart, you’ll need to choose a payment gateway (sometimes called a payment provider) that securely authorizes and charges customers’ payment cards, temporarily holds the funds in a merchant account that’s part of the service, and sends you the payments less transaction fees.

Examples of payment gateways include PayPal, Authorize.net, Chase Paymentech, and Sage Pay.

Choosing a Payment Gateway

Your choice of payment gateway is critical to your business because:

  • Different services charge very different transaction fees (bases on percentages of funds collected and sometimes the payment cards used), plus possibly recurring fees that could be charged each month, regardless of how much you sell. These differences can amount to a great deal of money once your business starts to grow.
  • It’s important to choose a payment gateway service that resolves your issues promptly, consistently, and fairly. We call our payment provider about customer issues and technical support at most around once per month, but since many of those calls are urgent as far as customers are concerned, we depend on prompt and reliable phone support.
  • Your payment gateway must communicate securely with your shopping cart to protect both customer data and your money. Just as importantly, the service should have processes to resolve (hopefully rare) cases of customer fraud as painlessly as possible, along with controls to prevent criminals from accessing your account online. We’ll discuss the controls used by our payment provider in the next article.

Choose Your Payment Gateway with Care

As with the other key parts of your online store, you should compare and choose your payment gateway carefully since the choice will have a big impact on your business and could be difficult to change as you grow.

Beware of the add-on fees charged by some services that advertise low transaction costs. These fees can include surcharges on some types of payment cards, monthly reporting surcharges, and even termination fees.

As always, treat online review sites with suspicion, as many of the comparisons I’ve read on these sites don’t seem to give an accurate picture.

I’ve personally tested only the PayPal Standard* service that our store used for the first few years, the PayPal Payments Pro gateway that we use now, and the (now defunct) Google Checkout service. Therefore I can’t give first-hand advice about other services.

Our experiences with PayPal have been very positive, but we’ve learned some secrets in dealing with PayPal that were important for our business.

Next: PayPal Secrets


* This is not a paid endorsement.

Focus on Customer Service

Focus on Customer ServiceFor your business to succeed, you’ll need to build your online reputation like it’s your most valued asset. Achieving positive word of mouth requires you to respect customers’ money and time, and allows for very few mistakes.

Dealing with a constant flow of questions, feedback and criticism isn’t for everyone. Among other things, giving good customer service should require you to:

  • Respond to each customer message right away, with courtesy and enough detail to solve the issue – regardless of whether the request seems courteous or well thought out. It can sometimes take reading or listening to a message several times to determine how best to answer.
  • Fulfill orders promptly, and provide plenty of communication about order status. The right shopping cart can help automate this process, sending personalized emails as orders are received and then shipped.
  • Always be on the lookout for valid feedback that could indicate you’re not providing the right information on your website or enough communication after the sale; start with the assumption that customers are the experts on how your business looks to the rest of the world.
  • As soon as you can, publish a toll-free telephone number for customer service. You can start by getting a low-cost service that forwards the number to your cell phone, and then eventually forward those calls to trained staff that you contract, say, at an outsourcing service.
  • Provide a sensible money-back warranty and fast, hassle-free refunds.

You’ll find that some emails requiring individual answers – for example, requests for exchanges or returns – are repeated many times. For these questions, save examples of your best replies to paste into new messages.

Above all, start with the understanding that your real job is to make customers happy. Never allow a service issue to stay unresolved long enough to result in bad word of mouth or a customer calling the payment card issuer.

Our next article about problem customers talks about a few special cases.

Next: Problem Customers

Moonlighting Tips

Moonlighting TipsIt can be a challenge to start an online business while you keep your day job. At times the process could feel like a juggling act; you’ll need a lot of energy and determination.

The general rules for starting a company while you keep your day job might seem like common sense, but some of these items can be easy to overlook and dangerous to ignore.

  1. Get a decent smart phone with an inexpensive plan. Keep this phone completely separate from all day job activities and don’t share the number with anyone at your day job. Set the phone to vibrate, not ring, when you receive calls and emails during the day. Prepaid Android* smart phones with generous data plans are currently available for around $50 per month, plus the cost of the phone.
  2. Set up a primary customer service email address through your web host, carefully choosing one primary address for customer service inquiries (like ‘service@example.com’). Configure your web host control panel to forward those emails to your smart phone.
  3. Rent a mail box service close to your home that offers addresses that don’t look like drop box numbers. Ideally the store can give you an address like “100 Main Street #1103” and not “100 Main Street, Box #103.” This helps you avoid looking like a tiny company online, and it prevents the rare problem customer from showing up at your home. Expect to pay around $100 per year in most areas to rent your drop box.
  4. Never publish your home address on your website for your own safety. The moment you do, web directories will capture that address and publish it online forever.
  5. Get an inexpensive toll-free number to publish on your website, and forward those calls to your smart phone – at least to start. You might not be able to answer calls and emails right away, so respond to the most urgent  messages during daily breaks from your day job. Answer every inquiry as soon as you can, and in every case within 24 hours. You can get a toll-free number starting at around $10 per month.
  6. Tell no one at work about your second career if you’re a salaried employee, and also avoid telling anyone who is even a casual acquaintance of your co-workers. Humans are naturally jealous, and you could quickly find yourself fired if you tell the wrong person.
  7. Keep online social networks separate, using care to never discuss your moonlight career on any of your personal social networking pages.

With some hard work and luck, your business will grow to the point where you can no longer handle all of the work and still keep your day job. Surprisingly this doesn’t mean that you have to quit your day job… if you find the right outsourcer.

Next we’ll talk about tactics to grow your business at a reasonable cost.

Next: Keep Starting Costs Low

* This is not a paid endorsement.

Keep Starting Costs Low

Keep Starting Costs LowA key to survival while you test your product idea and grow your business is to minimize your starting costs. This gives you the chance to try different business ideas, if necessary, without too big a drain on your family finances.

As long as you possibly can, work entirely from your home using your family computer and inexpensive software. Stay away from any non-essential services that charge a monthly fee, and especially avoid those that charge a percentage of your sales.

NoteWhen you open your first web store you should expect to pay less than $10 per month to your web host, less than 3% in transaction fees to your payment processor, and that’s all.

Consider taking on additional expenses only after you’ve proven that you can sell profitably and satisfy your first few customers. Once you’re confident that you can grow your business, your next investments might include more online advertising, along with basic items to help you work efficiently.

Equipment for Selling Physical Goods

If you ship physical goods, you’ll need basic equipment to fulfill orders.

  • Inexpensive tables and shelves to store and prepare products
  • A reliable laser printer to make shipping labels and packing slips
  • Dispensers for packaging tape and wrapping paper
  • An accurate postage scale

Business Software

Software can be a big part of your startup costs. I recommend searching online and in warehouse stores for the best deals – and even buying discounted versions that are slightly out of date – but always find a way to license your software legally. Software that you might need early-on includes:

  • Spreadsheet and word processor programs
  • Image editing software to help make images on your website look more consistent
  • Once you start to generate sales, accounting software like QuickBooks

If you search online for open source image editing software you’ll find free alternatives to Photoshop, the program that many professionals use despite its great cost and complexity.

You’ll also need up-to-date antivirus and a way to frequently back up your computer files, as discussed in our story about keeping your money safe.

Part of growing your business is striking the balance between making investments to help you work more efficiently, while conserving your personal funds until you know that you can succeed. We’ll talk next about a few key services you can buy that will make you look bigger than you are.

Next: Look Bigger than You Are