A fresh look at ecommerce and marketplaces

This is a list of 10 things that should be included in the next wave of ecommerce, according to Ethan Song, CEO and co-founder of Frank & Oak.

I attended his session/meetup at SXSW Interactive on A New Dialogue: Your Input Is Changing E-Commerce. Even for marketplace products I work with, these all apply.

Bring customers into building the brand

Stand for something – You can’t be everything to everyone

Make everything personal – Understand every customer. Be a uniquely value driven retailer.

Be inclusive and transparent

Build and inspire communities – It’s not about the product. It’s about the story and the experience.

Understand the technology – Personalized experiences

Turn the product and the experience into one – Become a media company. Product + The Experience + Content

Build new bridges with customers – Mobile is not just a channel

Refresh your organizations – Learn from Google

Read more explanation on each of these at the Bigcommerce E-Commerce Blog.

It was pitch day for six startup ecommerce businesses

Will Lentzen, a social media account manager for Fusionfarm, pitches an e-commerce business idea. (Photo by Kelly Homewood)

Will Lentzen, a social media account manager for Fusionfarm, pitches an e-commerce business idea. (Photo by Kelly Homewood)

Today more than 40 people on six teams that I work with at Fusionfarm, a digital marketing and creative services agency, pitched their startup ecommerce business ideas to a local panel of people involved in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids startup community.

I’ve written about my involved in the project here and here.

You can read more about today’s pitches and view each of them on the Fusionfarm.com blog.

Roughly 12 weeks ago 40 members of the Fusionfarm staff launched a project called Ecommerce Camp. Six teams were each given $5,000 to launch, market and run a startup ecommerce business. The goal is to increase the ecommerce acumen within the agency and to increase collaboration between product, sales, technology and creative people.

The startup funds are spent however each team determines. The only caveat is that everyone involved meet weekly to share insights, lessons learned and obstacles overcome.

Today, each team pitched its idea and business model to a panel of six people actively involved in the local startup community. Each pitch was limited to five minutes, five slides, one handout and five minutes for questions from the panel.

Lessons learned after two weeks of E-commerce Camp

The second week of E-commerce Camp has concluded and I am happy to say all six teams are heading in positive directions. That, of course, doesn’t mean it’s been easy.

A quick recap: The local media company and the marketing agency associated with it – where I work as a digital product manager – has awarded six teams $5,000 each to start an e-commerce business. I and others act as advisors to provide research, background and knowledge to the teams.

We broke the process of creating an e-commerce business into 10 steps, which is outlined in more detail here. The goal is to increase the e-commerce and marketplace knowledge of the organization and to increase collaboration between people in product, sales and technology and creative departments.

The e-commerce ideas

After two weeks, each team was put on a path to select a niche market, research and choose products to sell, create a brand name and purchase a URL.

Four teams have chosen to explore partnerships with Iowa businesses to sell goods online. The products include popcorn, salsa, coffee and wine. Each team is now wrangling with the details of the business to business relationship.

Two teams have selected business opportunities that require a relationship with at least one drop ship supplier. The current business paths are around do-it-yourself wall art and drinking game supplies.

What we’ve learned

When the curriculum was formed it was intended to push teams down a certain path. Select a product, select a drop ship supplier, pick a shopping cart platform, build, launch and market. We’ve quickly learned that the teams used those steps as a guide but navigated their own path, which is good.

As advisors, we now have to shift the curriculum to fit the needs of the teams and the direction they’ve chosen. For example, we need to up our game on B2B contracts and get legal advice on forming those types of relationships.

We’ve also learned that some teams moved quickly to a new idea after realizing a path wasn’t working financial or logistically. That is good to see.

Finally, we’ve seen and heard that teams are creating synergy amongst themselves.

A recap of the project so far:

First week of E-commerce Camp is in the books

Drinking game supplies, local salsa, cubicle windows and wine baskets are just a few of the niche product ideas to come out of the first week of E-Commerce Camp.

As I described last week, the local media company that I work for in Cedar Rapids, Iowa has invested time and money for six teams and more than 40 people to start an e-commerce business. Each team has $5,000 in seed money and a basic curriculum to follow each week.

The assignment for week one was to select a niche product to sell via a dropshipper and report how the decision was made. The teams also had to provide reasons to believe they’ve could turn the idea into a profitable business.

E-commerce assumptions

During the kickoff event last week, two assumptions circulated. First, selecting a niche product would be easy and, secondly, it’s likely that some of the teams will select the same product to sell.

If you have some knowledge of e-commerce businesses, you already know that those assumptions didn’t last long. Selecting a niche is likely one of the hardest and most important decisions that help determine the success of the business. We found that each team would like more time and, as you can tell from the list above, the diversity of the business ideas is quite varied.

Selecting a niche

As we hoped, each team took a different approach to selecting a niche. Teams were quick to eliminated ideas for seasonal products. Some considered partnering with an existing Iowa business. Others looked deep into the passions of its team members. Certain teams made contact and pitched potential solutions to existing business as part of the research phase too.

It was interesting to see and hear the conversations that occurred throughout the week. Most teams took a ‘secretive’ approach to selecting a product at first not wanting someone to steal the next great idea. As the week progressed and the enormity of the decision settled in, the collaboration opened, which was great to see.

Act like a start-up

The E-commerce Camp curriculum is set up that decisions points can be adjusted. We encourage each team to act like a start-up. Pivot points will occur, so the decisions reached during week one may not be the business idea that comes to fruition in a couple of weeks.

For example, some of the niche ideas that were tossed aside, at least for the moment, include creating a senior dating website and selling hunting bows.

And most of the teams still have key business questions to answer. What are the licenses needed to ship wine? What’s the cost and process to ship fresh salsa? Some questions are more broad. How can we create a business with more than a single point of failure?

Next phase

Week two of E-commerce Camp is set up for each team to determine the brand and purchase a URL. They have a week to make some more decisions and report back.

Each team is off to a good start. As and advisor it will be my role to counsel each as best I can to give them access to information and resources that will help them make the best decisions possible.

I’ll continue to update our progress.

Iowa media company gives employees $5,000 to launch e-commerce business

The local media company I work for – The Gazette Company –  and more specifically the agency formed within called Fusionfarm launched today an internal project awarding teams of employees $5,000 to start an e-commerce business.

The company has agreed to invest $30,000 for six teams to plan, launch, market and maintain each business with an offer to share in the revenue over a period of time.

The goal is to increase the e-commerce knowledge within the agency and to increase collaboration between product, sales, technology and creative resources.

That’s pretty darn cool. We’re calling this process E-Commerce Camp.

Three people, me included, have worked for more than a month to gain as much e-commerce acumen as possible to create a core curriculum each team can use as a guide. In return, each team will report weekly on the progress and lessons learned.

Each team was required to have at least one representative from each area of expertise listed above. The only limitation is that teams cannot use a wholesaler supplier. We ended up with six teams of seven people.

That equals 42 people, or approximately 10 percent of the entire company who will collaborate to deploy a start-up e-commerce business. The curriculum calls for launching in the first couple of weeks of January 2013.

The curriculum, in simple form, includes 10 main steps:

  • How to choose a good niche
  • How to find a URL and brand name
  • How to find dropship suppliers
  • How to set up a merchant account, tax ID and credit card transactions
  • How to choose a shopping cart platform
  • How to design your storefront
  • How to optimize your site for search
  • How to build and execute an e-commerce marketing plan
  • How to monitor your site and transaction performance
  • How to tell if you’re making a profit

The idea came from Tim McDougall, the Vice President of Products, Publisher of The Gazette and a main partner with Fusionfarm. He, myself and Aaron Frerichs, the Manager of Digital Production, formed the curriculum and will act as advisors to the teams. Our Vice President of Sales and Fusionfarm partner Chris Edwards and Fusionfarm’s Director of Product Development Kelly Homewood will also act as advisers.

Not every detail is finalized and we’ll all be learning and adapting throughout this process. I’ll update the progress here and on the Fusionfarm blog.