A screenshot of allfouroutdoors.co.uk - a shopify ecommerce store for outdoor equipment

Oh, you’re starting a business are you?  E-commerce?  Like an online shop? Doesn’t everyone just go to Amazon? Good luck…

That was my friend’s response when I told him I was starting my own e-commerce business. Not exactly building my confidence. They say taking the first step is the hardest part… And they’re right, it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s all plain sailing from there.

Since having this conversation I’ve…

  • sourced my products
  • been delivered the wrong products
  • had a fight with my supplier
  • had a fight with customs because of my supplier
  • looked for a new supplier
  • built my website
  • been a basket case trying to work out how to make my website look better, attract more customers, sell more products, sell any products, somebody please buy something!

Deep breath…

Building an e-commerce site takes perseverance

If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that building an e-commerce dream takes time, it takes patience, and it takes perseverance.

You know those unicorn business ventures that turn over a million pounds a month? They do exist but they are few and far between. The rest of us, we’ve just got to tough it out, invest in our success, learn from our mistakes, and most importantly, have a plan. If this was easy, simple and straightforward, we’d all be rich!

Anyway, here’s what I’ve learned over the last few months building a new e-commerce business. I can’t say I’ve got it all sorted yet, or promise you an easy 5-step path to becoming an e-commerce billionaire. But I can tell you what I’ve learned so far on my e-commerce journey.

Getting valuable traffic to your e-commerce site takes more than a PPC campaign

One of the first issues to present itself when launching an e-commerce site is simple: Traffic.

You know you want it, you know you need it, and you know you can pay for it, but you don’t know how to make it convert to cash. And at the end of the day, that’s the aim of the game.

My advice to e-commerce startups is simple: Think outside the box.

Rather than just chucking loads of money at a PPC campaign to get people to our website, we decided to take an alternative approach to actually send valuable customers our way. Customers that already wanted to buy our products.

We started building our customer-base the old-fashioned way

The tent set up on dartmoor for weekend visitors to seeDon’t get me wrong, PPC has been a useful (if not, vital) tool, but we figured that the easiest way to build relationships with customers was directly, through (gasp) actual face-to-face interaction.

We sell hiking and camping equipment, so we set-up a series of events that would draw like-minded people together where they could see our products for themselves. By promoting hikes and camping trips across Facebook and Instagram we met potential customers, built a face-to-face rapport and showed off the quality of our products. And to some extent it worked.

Traffic trickled in, people began to ‘Like’ us on Facebook, Instagrammers thought our photos were pretty cool… But it was still slow. We needed to review our approach – we needed to speed things up.

So, how do you get your online traffic to grow faster than tectonic shift?

We soon realised that we needed to be more proactive in encouraging our existing contacts to visit our website. Running a great event and showing-off our products was all well and good, but we needed to remind people where to find those products.

So we got hold of some email addresses from the people who came to our hiking and camping events, sent them a promo code and signed them up to our email newsletter.

And growth began to pick up a little more. It wasn’t exactly F1 pace, but we were starting to overtake snails on the footpath. The website was starting to gain momentum, Google were upping us in their SERPs and traffic was growing.

Now what we really wanted to do was to start making some money.

How could we convert web traffic into sales?

Building that initial client base was a huge boost to the business, but it has its limitations. There are a limited number of people that are going to come for a hike with us on Dartmoor of a weekend. I might be stating the obvious here but the benefit of an e-commerce business is that you can reach anyone, anytime and at any location in the world.

Web traffic was picking-up, more and more people were visiting the site through organic and paid traffic. But no one was buying anything. The question was, how could we get these people to part with their cash? They don’t know us. They don’t know how good the products are. How could we build their trust and persuade them to buy our products?

And then, one day when I was browsing Amazon, reading a few reviews to try and choose between different products, it struck me: on our website there were only two products that had ANY reviews.

We needed product reviews to build customers’ trust.

We’d set up Shopify Reviews and expected them to flow forth like the River Nile. When you’re not turning over a particularly large amount of stock that’s just not going to happen.

Having said that, when you’ve got a captive audience of likeminded hikers and campers who know you, have seen your product and love playing fetch with your dog (Wendy), they tend to write reviews for the products they’ve bought or tested rather quickly. So we asked the contacts we’d made through our events to start reviewing some products for us.

All of a sudden, the engine is on, cash is coming in and orders are going out. Our conversion rate has jumped up. We’ve started making money and now we’re in a position to buy more products and pay for more traffic.

Now it’s all about the fine-tuning

The dog and I living it large at hay torWe’ve installed a couple of different analytic tools to try and learn about our customers so that we can further improve our conversion rate.

Nothing too crazy: At the moment we’re using Hotjar for heat mapping, scroll mapping and customer surveying. We’re also using Google Analytics to map out who’s coming into our sales pipeline, where they’re coming from, and when they’re falling out. It’s all valuable information when it comes to working out where and why customers are leaving our site, and how we can prevent that.

The next step in our journey is to install Yotpo. It’s an app that reminds customers who have purchased to come back and review our products. We’re confident about the quality of our stock and, provided our customers are too, we’re expecting this to help power another surge in traffic (Google likes reviews) and a further improvement in conversion rate.

In addition we’ll start pursuing more paid traffic when we bring out a new range of products in time for Spring. And, having been in discussion with our local hiking/camping crew, we’re hoping to plan a couple of international treks for next year – the Camino trail through France and Spain, Alta Via through Italy, and the Laugavegurinn or Hot Spring Route through Iceland have all been suggested. We’ll keep you posted!

Keep thinking outside the box

When it comes to your own e-commerce business, keep your chins up, ask the right people for advice and keep thinking outside the box.

Link building, content plans, social media, Google Search Console, and all the other bits and pieces of the digital world are still vital components of a successful e-commerce site. But I’ve learned that they only way to compete with the top dogs like Amazon is to be different. If we want to be bigger, better and faster, we need to think outside the box.

I hope some of my experiences have been helpful to you. I’d love to hear about your own e-commerce experience. What challenges have you faced and and how have you got past them? What’s the most useful thing you’ve learned when it comes to e-commerce startups?

Cheers and good luck!


By the way, if you want a tent, sleeping bag or hiking pack – visit us at All Four Outdoors

Written by Sean Clanchy
Sean is an Australian entrepreneur, e-commerce consultant and occasional author. He enjoys the great outdoors and loves nothing more than fishing, hiking and camping with good friends and his dog, Wendy.