Fundamental to any business – online or offline – is the question of what value you are bringing to your customers. While it's very easy to convince yourself why you should make money, no one makes a profit without customers. Other than short-term fraudsters, no one gets customers when there is no reason for them to part with their cash.
So you have to think about which customer needs you are meeting and how you will try to distinguish yourself from the competition. Is it by having a better range in a very specialist field or by providing a service or product that others don't offer? One company I know will deliver a bed the same day that it's ordered – this is its unique selling point.
Having decided on the proposition, when you develop your website you must both support and communicate this proposition, and provide everything possible that the customer needs to make a decision to buy. Put yourself in their shoes – what would you need to know?
Either way, it's good to specialise – particularly when you first start up. It's easier to become an expert, provide great service and compete with the big boys in a narrow niche.
In general, you need to pay as little for technology as possible, so that you leave money for marketing. A site needs to look good, but it's possible to spend too much money on design. I've been amazed by how many e-commerce sites are very successful despite having average design. Having a site that is fast, always available and easy to use is probably more important.
Unless you are planning to do something no one has done before, don't let anyone talk you into a bespoke development for your e-commerce store. There are many great e-commerce packages around and paying through the nose for something that will stroke the developer's ego – but otherwise be less flexible and much, much more expensive long term – doesn't make any sense.
E-commerce systems can sit on the desktop and web server or entirely on a web server. There are pros and cons to each approach, with independence, control and resilience to web-based attacks being the principal benefits of the desktop approach and easy access from anywhere being the principal advantage of a fully web-based system.
Once you have a site up and running, you need to let the world know. The surest way to do this is through search engine marketing, which enables you to tap into people when they are actually searching for the types of products you sell. To find out how to do this, you can get advice from the Marketing Donut.
With the rise of social networks, there's also a new frontier to explore. People are still feeling their way when it comes to marketing through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, so there is a great opportunity to get ahead of the crowd, but it will take time and dedication.
The biggest priorities are having something to sell that people want and making sure you can do that profitably. Then you need to focus on marketing and measuring results. If no one visits your e-commerce store, you won't make any sales. These are the areas to focus on.
NOTE: If you are generating an income from your website, you may be classed as self-employed or employed depending on the form your business takes. You may need to register with HM Revenue & Customs as self-employed, complete a self-assessment tax return and pay tax on your earnings.