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E-commerce has rapidly emerged as the dominant way we do business, both as consumers and entrepreneurs. And with e-commerce growth continuing to soar, smaller businesses are required to determine their best path to success in a highly competitive marketplace.  Fortunately, with growth comes innovation, and there are multiple options available for entrepreneurs to help them get started running their online business in a way that’s right for them. 

This article is going to focus on one very important aspect of your e-commerce journey as an entrepreneur.  How to manage the products you are selling to your customers.  After deciding what you will offer your customers on your way to world domination (which is often one of your toughest decisions in getting started), you need to figure out how to get access to said products, and ensure they can be shipped to your customers as expected.

The two common options you have at your disposal are the Inventory Model (also known as stocking), and the Dropshipping Model.  Let’s take a look at the key pros and cons of each model, to help you make the best decision for you and your e-commerce store.

Inventory Model

If you decide on the Inventory Model, it’s very name suggests that you will be responsible for managing inventory (which is correct).  You take sole responsibility to source your products, receive them, stock them, ship them, wash, rinse and repeat.  

Here are the Pros:

1. You’re in the Driver’s Seat

One of the biggest factors when deciding to use the Inventory Model and stock your own products, is how much control you need or want over your business operations and brand identity.  By leveraging the Inventory Model, you are in the driver’s seat. It’s your own team that handles everything from knowing when to replenish new inventory, to receiving said inventory into your own warehouse, picking, packing and shipping.  Because you control your team, you have ultimate control to ensure everything is done right (or wrong), and ensure that products are shipped to your customers on time.

If distinguishing your brand in the marketplace is also important to you, sourcing and stocking your own inventory (and possibly manufacturing your own product) will likely be the best (and potentially only) option for you.


2. Positive Customer Experience

Because you’re in control of your operations with the Inventory Model, you have direct control over your customers’ experience.  This is not just about managing a team of pleasant speaking customer support reps.  It’s about guaranteeing success of what is referred to as the “last mile”, the phase of your customers’ journey from the time they place the order until what they’ve ordered has been delivered.  After investing all you have into maximizing conversions and sales from your website, having control over logistics with the Inventory Model allows you to ensure products ordered are both in stock, and delivered to your customers on time.`


3. Greater Profit Margins

When you stock your own inventory, you are able to take advantage of bulk discounts by buying larger quantities from your suppliers.  As you hand select the items you are selling, or manufacture your own designs, you distinguish yourself competitively and are not competing as much on price, thus allowing you to potentially set your own price.  Higher price with bulk discounts leads to greater margins.


And now the Cons:

1. The Need for Space

When you opt to stock your own inventory, you will obviously need a place to store these items.  No, your front lawn will not suffice for many reasons, although in some cases where you have just a couple of SKUs (aka items) and they are small, entrepreneurs have been known to start by warehousing in their garage or basement.  That said, neither option is scalable as your e-commerce store grows, and you will eventually need to plan for warehouse costs, as well as certain equipment and people to work in the warehouse.


2. More Working Capital Needed

To get inventory, you have to pay for inventory, typically before you have sales against that inventory (and the space along with those people previously mentioned).  This requires, you guessed it, money.  As a new e-commerce business, you may not have said working capital at your disposal.  And from a business standpoint, even if you do have the cash, you will want to ask yourself where this investment can serve your business better.  Should you tie it up in inventory, or invest into growing more sales.

3. Distraction from Growth

To manage your inventory is a considerable amount of work.  You have to monitor inventory levels, ensure you do not run out of stock (which includes forecasting and planning), order new inventory in time to ship and keep customers happy, as well as outbound warehouse operations such as picking, packing and shipping.  While this is certainly achievable, you need to ask yourself when (and if) is the best time to embark upon this initiative.  Remember, there is only one of you and your time is precious.  Every minute not focused on the growth of your e-commerce store could be considered a minute wasted.

After reviewing the above, if you are concerned about making investments into the Inventory Model but you still have aspirations of being a successful e-commerce-preneur, there is another options referred to as Dropshipping.

Dropshipping Model

Dropshipping is a great option for newbie e-commerce-preneurs, and for many has proven to be a good long-term solution. Here’s how it works: Business owners list products for sale on their site that are sourced from a third party dropship partner (basically someone who sources and stocks inventory so you don’t have to worry about this).  Inventory is held by the third party in their warehouse, and then the third-party ships directly to customers on your behalf when orders are placed on your e-commerce store.  Keep in mind though that inventory held is not exclusive to you.  It is shared between you and any other e-commerce venture who is interested, on a first come first served basis. 

If you’re new to dropshipping and not sure where to begin, not to worry.  A quick online search will find plenty of guides to help you become familiar with how to begin, including this blog from Shopify titled How to Start a Dropshipping Business: A Complete Playbook for 2021

Seems simple enough, right?  And in many ways it is.  

So let’s take a look at the Pros:

1. Easy to Manage

Because someone else is bearing the burden of the entire warehousing process (e.g. facility, people, inventory, and related costs), you don’t have to worry about any of this.  You need to manage your partner(s) to make sure they are performing as expected, but by and large you are empowered to focus most of your time on the growth of your e-commerce store.  Invest into an affordable tool that gives you clear visibility and alerts to know that your dropship partner is shipping on time or if there are issues.

2. Minimal Risks Allow You to Test and Try New Items

Leave the heavy lifting (no pun intended) to the warehousing experts.  In theory, if you have done your job to properly vet out the right dropship partner for you and your e-commerce store, you will be “plugging into” a well-oiled logistics process.  Another benefit here is that you do not need to invest into inventory itself.  Unlike the Inventory Model, with Dropshipping you invest less, and often are not obligated to pay for inventory until it sells.  This opens up a great opportunity for new e-commerce store owners to be open minded to test and try selling different products and learning what interests your target customers best.

3.   Operate from Anywhere

Want to run your business from the beaches of St. Lucia?  Well with Dropshipping you can (as long as they have internet).  You are not tied down to a physical structure, as your drop shipping partner is bearing this burden.  Just take your laptop with you anywhere you need to be, and you can work without pause, from anywhere around the globe (and convince people the mojito is necessary to help with marketing creativity).

And the Cons are…

1. Lack of Quality Control

When dealing with dropshipping, because the ownership of operations lies with your dropship partner, you have little to no control.  If you’re not on top of things (and sometimes even if you are), you may experience issues such as disappointing your customers due to no inventory available of an item they purchased, a breakdown in your dropship partner’s logistics cycle that causes shipments to be late to customers, or mistakes leading to incorrect items being shipped.  It’s important to be prepared with great customer service, apologize for the issues, and rectify them promptly (that is if you want customers coming back for reorders).

2. A Lot of Competition

Because it’s easy to get started with dropshipping, and the e-commerce industry continues growing at a rapid rate, you face increased competition from fellow entrepreneurs.  With more of your peers selling from the same pool of available inventory, it’s more challenging to distinguish yourself from the pack when compared to selling your own brand.

3. Lower Profit Margin

In the world of dropshipping, products cost you more, period.  Your dropship partner bakes in additional costs per item to cover their operational overhead (e.g. warehouse, people, process).  Combining this with potentially lower selling prices in order to compete, Dropshipping typically leads to less profits in exchange for the convenience of having another party run this aspect of the business for you.

Thank you for the info, but now what?

Ok so now that we have laid down the key pros and cons of each model, and likely made the decision process more confusing, let’s break it down with a few tips to help you think this evaluation through and come up with the best option for you.

Do you have enough capital to invest and where should it be deployed?  As previously mentioned, to embark upon the Inventory Model requires a fair amount of capital.  If you have it, great!  But also make sure to ask yourself whether that capital is best invested into controlling your own inventory, or investing into growing your topline sales (e.g. marketing, optimization, etc).

Are you prepared to invest the time necessary into running the Inventory Model?  Think about it this way.  You only have so many hours per day (yes of course as entrepreneurs we know how to extend our days to 47 hours per day), and you need to decide where best to allocate your time for the best interest of your e-commerce business.  Adding responsibility of owning the warehousing process is a sizable commitment.  Is now the right time to take this on, or is it best to defer until your e-commerce store is stabilized or grown to a certain degree of success?

How important is control of your brand identity and business?  When relying on your dropship partner for warehousing and related services, you put your destiny in their hands.  Your customers’ ultimate happiness to properly receive what they order on time is out of your control.  You can better control your overall brand identity in a positive way when you own this process.  When delivering accurately to customers on time, as well as brand product distinction are a critical core value, you may want to opt for the Inventory Model.

Regardless of which model you choose, these are clearly exciting times for e-commerce opportunities.  There is no one-size fits all solution either.  You will review your plans, your available capital, your core values, and your goals, and considering the pros and cons outlined in this article, you are well on your way.

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With the current economic environment and continuing high unemployment, more people than ever are opening an online business.  To share some insight as to how Covid-19 has transformed the e-commerce market, here is a great Forbes article from Louis Columbus (view article)

Whether you’re a first time e-com-preneur, a brick and mortar store owner contemplating the move online to offset slowing store traffic, or a seasoned e-commerce veteran, this could be the perfect time to take advantage of expanding your online footprint.  It’s important though to make sure you take time to research what you will sell, how you will compete, put the right plans in place, and not rush out of pure excitement.  

The following tips on research and planning will help to start you down this new journey on the road to success:

1. What do you want to sell?

The first order of business is determining what you will sell.  What makes sense and what will people buy?  Countless articles of advice will tell you to find something that interests you, and there is certainly truth to this, and for good reason.  You have to believe in what you are selling and be excited to wake up everyday to grow your sales.  On the other hand, it’s important to select products that people want, and depending on your goals of entrepreneurship this may overshadow your own personal interests and desires.  There was a very successful business owner who once said that he loves sliding down a pole like you find in a firehouse, but instead of being a fireman (with all do respect to the very hard working, lifesaving heroes that risk their life every day), he would rather build a successful company and then buy a fireman pole for his mansion and slide down it any time he wants. 

Here are a few guidelines you can follow in determining what to sell online:

  1. It’s ok to include your personal interests, but don’t let this be the dominant factor.  If you’re looking to build a lifestyle for you and your family, while you certainly want to be interested and passionate about what you sell, focus on what the market is looking for and solve a problem.  Reserve the “fun stuff” for the results of the lifestyle you build
  2. Research, research, and research some more.  But don’t get so bogged down in research that you never get started (don’t get cooked in the squat).  Go through product reviews and see what customer feedback and gaps exist in the market, what improvements can be made and where the opportunities are for offering a rock solid alternative.  
  3. While there is nothing wrong with capitalizing on trends if you can time it right, try to avoid starting a business based on them.  If it makes sense though, then go for it.  Just proceed with caution on your investment, efforts and launch, as trends do come and go (by definition of a trend).  The last thing you want is to miss the best part of the trend cycle and get stuck with excess inventory while trying to grow a business (that’s working capital that could have gone into a more lucrative opportunity)
  4. Like all great businesses, think narrow and don’t start off too broad.  Find just that one great product or service, and deliver it better than anyone else. Then upon success, you can expand from there with related goods and services while you continue to establish your brand and your store.

For some help on what type of business might make sense to start, here are ideas from Shopify https://www.shopify.com/blog/online-business-ideas

2. Conduct market research

Before you make a huge investment into your new business venture and products you want to sell, you should do what you can to first test the market.  One of the most costly lessons is to be excited about a product, spend all your precious time and money on your new idea, promote your launch, and then after launch first find out that no one is interested in what you have to sell. 

There are several options you can take advantage of to validate your ideas before making any sizable investment.  Be creative and explore opportunities to gauge customer interest in advance.  Obtain customer feedback and ask the tough questions for answers you may not want to hear.  It’s ok though, because it is better to get the direct feedback now from those that would potentially buy your product than after you waste your oh so valuable capital.  The better aligned you are with satisfying a market need, the faster you will be on your way to achieving success!

A few ways you can obtain customer feedback and test your ideas include:

  1. Take pre-orders from customers.  This allows you to set up your store without having to invest in inventory.  Position your store to take pre-orders of what you might sell along with the appropriate lead times.  This is a great way to offer a group of product options to customers and see what’s of interest as well as which products may prove to be most popular based on actual demand.  If customers are willing to pre-order and wait for you to create or obtain the merchandise, you potentially have something great!
  2. Leverage Drop shipping.  Instead of investing into your own inventory, perhaps you might find it better to partner with a drop ship provider.  The advantage here is you may find a significantly lower upfront investment, the responsibility of shipping is on your drop ship partner, and you can test products easily.  Just be careful with the drop ship partner you select.  If there are quality issues or delays in shipping to your customers, this will have a negative impact on your brand, not theirs. For additional tips on drop shipping, here is a great article from Shopify (view article)
  3. Start a Crowdfunding Campaign. This will require a little investment of money and a fair amount of your time, however the tradeoff helps you validate customer interest before going full force into your product and store launch.  Particularly if it’s a product you will manufacture, you can share your plans with customers before you build it, perhaps with as little as a prototype.   Pitch your idea to a community of millions of individuals enthusiastic in helping to support the next great product.  Success will include not only validating your idea, but also an avenue for obtaining pre-orders and raising equity free working capital to help fund your plans to manufacture, launch and grow.  Equally as positive, if you do not obtain success in this community, it will allow you to rethink your plans before wasting time and money, thus saving you from potential failure.  For additional help on crowdsourcing click here

3. Write a business plan and understand your finances

The saying if you fail to plan then you plan to fail is never more true when it comes to starting a business.  While often it may appear that online business success happens by accident, rest assured this is not the case.  Understanding details about what you will sell, how you will sell it, who you are competing with, what your cash flow and profitability will look like, how you will market and what teams you need, are all part of this essential step for success.  If you’re like many entrepreneurs, you may never look at your plan once you launch your business venture, however taking the time to think through how to grow your business and the impact on your cash flow will help bring clarity when you execute (we recommend however you do your best to follow your plan and compare actuals to forecasts).  In addition, your plan gives you a model to refer back to, use as a barometer, and adjust as necessary to help you improve how you run your ecommerce store.

Cash is king and understanding the flow of cash helps protect it, and your business.  Over time you need to know how your investments will pay off in customer acquisition, revenue, cost of revenue, expenses and profit.  While it is great to have an optimistic plan that outlines the potential of your business, it is critical to have clarity of a financial operating plan that is conservative and honest.  One technique you can incorporate when bootstrapping, is to inflate expenses and take a conservative position on revenue.  By confirming a “worst case” scenario as to how your cash flow will perform, you will have visibility into what is necessary to survive and grow without running into a cash deficit.

In your plan, understand what teams you need and when.  While this may require a fair amount of intelligent “best guessing” if this is your first venture, it is still an important exercise.  Your team can generally have a significant impact on your financial plans, and will have a tremendous impact on how well you execute.  Fortunately certain disciplines can be outsourced, however be mindful if you go this route to only outsource disciplines that are not part of your core brand.  If you partner with firms for some work, it can be a great way to conserve costs and leverage specific domain expertise, but make sure to manage the relationship as well as the results as if the partnering firm was on your payroll.

4. Market like you mean it

For your online venture, marketing very well may be where the rubber hits the road to success (or failure).  This discipline should not be taken lightly and can often play a key role in your market differentiation as well as your ability to succeed.  How do you distinguish your business and get the word out in a vast sea of competing stores?  It can be done, but do you know what to do and how to execute?  Is this an area of focus you are best equipped to own, or based on your budget and cash flow might it make sense to partner with a firm that has experience growing online sales?  Which marketing initiatives will have the biggest impact on your success?  Do you need creative help or do you need assistance with execution of a marketing plan and staying on top of return on ad spend (ROAS)?  Are you best to sponsor ads or leverage social media?

Here are a few sources you can review to help with proven marketing techniques necessary to grow your online store

  1. 34 Ways to Promote Your Online Shop Like a Pro
  2. 7 Things You Should Do To Market Your Online Store in the Real World
  3. Ecommerce Marketing Essentials: 17 Actionable Tactics to Drive More Sales

5. Get ready to launch (and launch)!

As we wrap up, here are some final and crucial tips to adopt as you get ready to launch your business and start making money!

  1. Establish a well organized area for which to run your online business.  If you are going online as an extension to your physical store, make sure to carve out an area dedicated to your online business.  If you’re a first time entrepreneur kicking off this venture from your home, it’s equally important to establish a business zone where you can store your inventory, and efficiently pick, pack and ship.
  2. Get traction fast by leveraging your personal and social networks.  Ask your friends and acquaintances to support your new venture by spreading the word and idealing buying your product.  Don’t be shy.  Stand at the top of the highest mountain and let everyone know you’re open for business!  This can be a great way to start building that oh so important initial momentum.
  3. Consider offering discounts and promotions, as well as test marketing well targeted ads.  Well positioned promotions can be a successful approach to jumpstarting your sales.
  4. Monitor your marketing results and adjust.  Keep a dashboard in excel, track every single dollar you spend on marketing, and compare your marketing initiatives daily to determine which are working and which are not.  Pull the plug on the duds quickly and reinvest into marketing that is yielding the best results as well as try new ideas.
  5. Obtain software to help you run your business. This includes your online store platform, accounting application, email marketing, and automated integration tools to help streamline your operation.

We hope these tips and guidelines help give you more insight into getting your online business started on the right path to success.  Remember, you will need to work hard, but also do your best to incorporate the right decisions and work smart to establish a business that is scalable.  Have fun growing your store, and may it be the first of several profitable ventures you pursue!