The road to e-commerce business success is hardly a straight and narrow one. Every step in a business lifecycle — from launch and growth to scale and maturity — is fraught with peaks, valleys, bumps, hazards and roadblocks. Your plan and reality are usually very different!
When reflecting on how companies progress on the journey, I’m often reminded of this quote by Robert Kiyosaki: “Sometimes you succeed…. and other times you learn.”
This thought — more importantly the sharing of the learnings — is the impetus for this article.
In my personal and professional life I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with thousands of e-commerce entrepreneurs around the world. They often turn to those around them for guidance and advice. There are many similarities and common challenges between merchants across different geographies, verticals and sizes.
Following are the top five roadblocks when transitioning from startup to growth:
- Insufficient Time
- Hiring the Right Staff
- Operational Issues
- Sales Execution
Rarely do these issues exist in a vacuum. Many e-commerce small and mid-sized businesses will face any number of these and other roadblocks at any given time and need to be prepared to do so.
One of the best ways for a business leader to learn is from others’ mistakes. I hope this helps!
Roadblock No. 1: Competition
First-mover advantage is real. If you’re the first to offer Product X in a market, everyone who wants Product X will want to buy from you. First-mover advantage allows companies to establish strong brand recognition and build loyalty among their biggest fans ahead of any other entrants.
Businesses that come second or third fight for scraps to get some market share. This is quite typical for most entrepreneurs and business operators.
However, late entry into the market isn’t so bad. It allows you to sidestep any landmines when it comes to research and development, educating the market, and possibly falling into fail-fast traps. Your marketing efforts can focus on differentiation, which can be less daunting. Your business models, expansion plans and pricing strategies are more in tune with the market and consumer reactions.
Keys to Remaining Competitive:
- Act fast: Don’t wait too long to introduce an essential offering or fun twist, or to deliver an enhanced version 2.0 based on consumer demand.
- Harness your strengths: Internal metrics such as customer service successes, website traffic, sales figures and more will show what aspects of the business customers are reacting positively to.
- Do more of what makes you great: Determine the best way to scale those popular aspects of the business. Be sure to continually measure, though, to make sure the effort being devoted to these changes is producing the expected ROI.
What is it your customers are reacting to most positively? How does this support your branding? How easy will it be to scale as you grow? Internal metrics and feedback from both internal stakeholders and external customers will offer insights on how to approach these issues.
Roadblock No. 2: Insufficient Time
Time. It’s the one resource we all possess but use differently. Time management is about more than just watching the clock. It means drastically changing your relationship to that clock.
Many business operators still rely on manual entry of data — from product sourcing to inventory management, purchase orders and sales orders — into spreadsheets and documents. These time-wasting processes can cost SMBs a lot of money.
These time-wasters also cost employee productivity and morale. When employees are stuck with manual data entry, that leaves them with less time to do creative work or think critically about seasonality planning or demand forecasting.
Making efficient use of the time available requires the following:
- Prioritizing tasks effectively
- Knowing which projects offer the greatest return on investment
- Accepting you can’t do everything, at least not all at once
- Balancing human and technological resources
Keys to Overcoming Insufficient Time
Have you thought about automating repetitive and time-consuming parts of your workflow?
What workflow automation does essentially, is elevate and enhance interactions with your supply chain processes, from your store to your warehouse.
You should approach “time” as an investment rather than an expenditure.
Roadblock No. 3: Hiring the Right Staff
Finding the right people to help your business grow is a struggle for many e-commerce entrepreneurs and business operators.
When and how to add staff is a tricky tightrope to walk. Just as with any other sort of investment, you need to make smart choices based on the following factors:
- Capabilities: Does this person know how to create systems to sell to customers online? Does this candidate have the personality to do customer service well? Can this person help identify the next best online marketplace to expand to?
- Scaling: Will hiring this person help grow sales?
- Timing: Will this person be expected to meet today’s needs or tomorrow’s anticipated challenges?
Without the right employees, your business is at risk of breakage, theft, inaccurate count or obsolete inventory, and mismanagement of resources.
Keys to Hiring the Right Staff
Your employees, especially those who join in the growth stage, can help make or break your business. Seek individuals who have past experience in e-commerce, whose professional values align with your mission, who are proactive, and who have excellent learning and analytical skills.
Your company’s success is tied to employee performance. This can be defined by desired results and the way in which those results are achieved.
Instead of managing your employees, why not enable and empower them?
To do so, you must be ready to provide the following:
- Continual training helps develop good employee habits, streamlined processes, mastery of skills, and to get ahead of any market changes and trends.
- Right, real-time information allows employees to make faster, more precise, and more effective decisions.
- Technology and tools ensure your staff can do their job well, and make their day-to-day tasks easier.
Don’t take on this daunting task by yourself. Consider hiring e-commerce technology experts to audit your supply chain processes and provide guidance on implementing all of the above. The right kind of technology partner will help you find a good balance between human contributions and technology advances.
Roadblock No. 4: Operational Issues
In the growth stage, e-commerce entrepreneurs and SMB operators typically stitch together many siloed processes and departments. Doing so leads to operational gaps (such as overstocking or understocking), data leaks (when systems aren’t properly integrated), and countless errors (disorganized order fulfillment).
All of these issues impact supply chain performance, customer satisfaction and your company’s bottom line.
Keys to Overcoming Operational Issues
The best investment you can make for an optimized supply chain is automation.
Businesses need to optimize workflows to maintain a competitive edge, and supply chain automation enables just that. Here’s how automation can be utilized across the supply chain:
- Payments and invoicing
- Order fulfillment and inventory updates
- Customer service, including tracking and follow-up emails
- Setting and tracking goals and revenue
- Applying bulk actions
Supply chain automation can provide tangible value to your business — from improved customer service (customers get updated on order status in real-time) to improved inventory management (you can make informed decisions about where to invest and improve your business) and increased transparency between you and your customers.
Roadblock No. 5: Sales Execution
In the early stages, businesses sell directly online via word of mouth. Then they expand to online marketplaces such as eBay, Etsy or Amazon.
This point of growth and expansion is when SMB entrepreneurs and operators freeze. They’re afraid to explore new opportunities, relying heavily on one or two specific sales channels.
When consumers are shopping online, heading to social media for product recommendations, and searching for comparable prices on online marketplaces, it’s critical to be where they are.
Keys to Effective Sales Execution
- Diversify, diversify, diversify your sales channels.
- Entice your customers from an online marketplace to your own branded online store.
- Research foot traffic and market size for brick-and-mortar stores.
- Consider wholesalers and distributors.
- Hire more sales people to showcase your wares at trade shows.
- Collaborate with online retail influencers to be featured on shoppable Instagram.
- Consider doing a pop-up store to raise brand awareness in a large city.
Scaling your business is a difficult proposition, one that can lead to frustration and headaches.
It’s also an opportunity to reframe the issues that have become roadblocks to growth by viewing them as opportunities instead of challenges.
Doing so can inspire everyone to bring a fresh approach to the business that can unlock potential for future growth and success you may not even have considered.
All the best growing your business!