Lessons Learned From An E-Commerce Adventure

It is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all; and even more important to learn from your mistakes.

That is what I keep telling myself after having invested the time and cash equivalent to a Harvard MBA in an e-commerce start-up that has stalled and is winding down. Not a happy prospect in light of all the media pre-occupation with e-commerce success stories and the young millionaires watching their IPOs rocket into cyberspace. But the headlines ignore the more frequent stories of new e-commerce businesses that do not hit the stock market jackpot. Many of them either settle into a low-key niche or exhaust their resources and fold.

This is the story of an Internet venture that did not make the headlines, but offers some useful insights for entrepreneurs evaluating their own initiatives. The lessons learned are applicable to your own new venture or to an investment in someone else’s.

In mid-1998 we launched a new company called nxtNet (www.nxtnet.com) with the slogan … “taking you to the next level on the Internet”.

My partner and I both had prior successful entrepreneurial experience in computer products and wanted to start a new venture together. We decided to develop a business that would catch the next wave of e-commerce services for mid-sized companies seeking to do business on the Internet. After long discussions, searches for a unique service offering, and many draft business plans, we developed a market strategy and then chose Intershop Communications as our software development platform. This product had the advantages of being suitable for single or multiple online storefronts, and offered a flexible, economic and comprehensive solution. We committed to the product, staffing, facilities and equipment to start training and development immediately. The two of us provided the time and cash required to get started.

By October 1998, we had an initial product with application as an online storefront for an associated computer business. At the same time, we realized that the application had wide appeal to other computer dealers and could be sold as a multi-user database service and e-commerce resource. We had developed a consolidated catalogue of 85,000 computer products from multiple distributor product databases that allowed rapid search and comparison for product information, pricing, and current sources. Users could access the catalogue from the Internet and find a product by manufacturer, category, and part number, key word or price range and immediately see the alternate sources and prices with links to more technical information, preferred dealer pricing and actual stock levels. Additional features allowed the catalogue to be customized so that any computer reseller could present the database as his own online storefront. This option offered all the search and product information features to his customers, but showed only retail pricing and enabled the online ordering process.

The product offering quickly received positive feedback and strong indications of support from all the participants – resellers, distributors, and manufacturers. It was a comprehensive, powerful, and effective tool for buying and selling at all levels within the Canadian computer distribution channel. Resellers recognized the value in an online resource to save time and effort. Distributors and manufacturers saw the opportunity to promote their products, and major publishers in the industry wanted to offer complementary online services to their subscribers and advertisers. How could we fail with all this enthusiasm and support?

While the potential for success clearly existed, everybody had the same questions and reservations – “Who is there now?” “How many are using it?” and “I don’t want to pay until it’s bigger”.

Reasonable objections we thought, so we added features and content for free. We promoted the product with free trials and low cost subscriptions for reseller access. Then we coaxed, persuaded, sold hard, and made deals. The “contra” became the standard for obtaining press coverage, free ads, mailing lists and promotion in exchange for free participation and future consideration. Activity on the Web site and catalogue grew to 3000 visitors per month with over 800 subscribers and the distributor list increased from three to twelve.

But revenue remained near zero as most reseller subscribers declined to pay for the service. Reasons were “it should be free – let the advertisers pay”, “I don’t use it enough”, “there are lower cost options”, or “we built our own solution”. The audience did not grow fast enough even after we offered it for free, to satisfy the advertisers and content providers. Without persistent and conspicuous sales and marketing efforts, all the participants quickly lost interest. Meanwhile the costs of database maintenance, ongoing development, site hosting, Internet access, sales, marketing, and administration were increasing.

Clearly the old entrepreneurial model of controlling costs and growing revenue was not going to apply. We had to realign our profile to show how zero revenue and high initial costs could still lead to significant investment returns like other well-known Internet ventures. So from early 1999 we started an aggressive search for financing, estimating our requirements at $500,000 to $1,500,000 over the next two years before achieving positive cash flow. More business plans, spreadsheets, and glossy presentations to demonstrate future valuations up to $20 million, even $40 million.

We knocked on many doors, from banks to government agencies, from angel investors to venture capital, from stock promoters to business consultants, and again received lots of encouragement, but no financing. So the founding partners were faced with a continuing cash drain, no relief in sight, and the limits of their own resources rapidly approaching. It was time to put the project on hold. Strategic partners or investors might still be developed to proceed with the project, but the ongoing expenditures were stopped in late 1999.

So what are the lessons learned? We already knew that nothing ventured, nothing gained. We now also knew that big successes in the new economy require big investments. Entrepreneurs may start small, but large investments will be required from new sources to achieve significant success. And no one will put significant money into a venture unless it is the only remaining requirement.

The concept, product, development, marketing and staffing all have to be in place before an investor will provide the final ingredient – his cash. Exceptions are likely only where the management team has already succeeded in the same arena, or the investor himself can deliver the missing elements, such as customers or management skills. No investor is going to take the chance that the entrepreneur with a good concept or product will also be able to deliver the required management and marketing skills to succeed, after he has the cash.

Next time we will know better. And there are side benefits from this expensive learning experience. I can now admit that with the knowledge gained through our association with Intershop Communications, I was confident enough to make an investment in their stock on the German Neue Markt at 65 Euros last year. It went over 400 Euros last month and is still rising with their rapid growth and the prospect of a NASDAQ listing this year. Almost enough to recover my investment in nxtNet.

So the most important lesson is that education in the new economy is essential, and not free, but it can lead to success outside the original plan. Learn, be aware, and be aggressively opportunistic.

Traditional Marketing – An Introduction to Offline Marketing – Part 1

The Art of Marketing as a whole

Marketing is the process of establishing which products or services that might attract certain customers, and then determining what strategy to use to promote them. This mutual procedure is intended to create value for customers and build strong customer relationships in order to obtain trust and recognition within a business. The main purpose of marketing is “to attract” a target audience or specific individuals who are interested and want your product or service that you offer. That then leads to the primary goal of any business which is to ultimately make sales, or in other words, “to sell”.

While referencing to customers, it can be said that they are the main focus of marketing activities. It is pertinent to ALWAYS do these three key things:

  1. Identify the customer
  2. Maintain the customer
  3. Satisfy the customer

With these key factors in mind and the impact that advertising has on the potential success or failure of a business, it is correct to say that marketing in general is one of the most vital pieces of the business world.

Traditional Marketing

Traditional marketing is also referred to as “offline marketing”. The term traditional simply means the “passing on” of something, such as beliefs, customs, or practices. So when you think of traditional marketing, you should comprehend that it consists of techniques and strategies that have been used for a very long time. In addition, you can think of its relative term, “offline marketing”, as any method or means of promotion that does NOT include the internet.

Traditional marketing mainly focuses on the company and the product, as where online marketing centers on the customer and their interests. So basically, you would use traditional marketing to expand your business and strive to distribute your product through the three main geographical levels (local, regional, national) and ultimately worldwide. There would apparently be less focus on the actual customer and their needs although some might disagree with this logic.

The Four Ps

The four Ps, also known as the “marketing mix”, was developed by Jerome McCarthy after the term became widespread in the early 1960s. The four Ps are the four essential ingredients of marketing. They incorporate the following:

1. Product – All businesses revolve around a product or service. You must first develop a unique and quality product or service that you intend to sell. Here are other aspects:

  • Brand name
  • Purpose
  • Style
  • Safety
  • Packaging
  • Support
  • Warranty

2. Price – Second, you should investigate the price value of your competition (if any), and then determine the cost of your own product or service that’s both affordable and will earn you revenue. Other things to consider are:

  • Discounts
  • Types of payments
  • Seasonal pricing

3. Place – Third, you have to decide how you will distribute your product to the customers or where you will offer your service. More decisions to be made include:

  • Market coverage
  • Inventory management
  • Warehousing
  • Distribution centers
  • Order processing
  • Transportation

4. Promotion – Lastly, the marketing and campaign portion comes into play. You must determine who you will market to and what advertising methods and strategies you will use to acquire potential prospects. This is the most important piece of the marketing mix and can make or beak a business. Additional things to take into account are: 

  • Workforce
  • Publicity
  • Marketing budget

All four elements of the marketing mix must be completed and well thought out before you can think about starting any campaign for your product or service.

Is traditional marketing beginning to slowly disappear?

Traditional marketing is becoming a lost element in the business world. Many people are now marketing their businesses online as the number of internet users grow substantially every year. To give you a quick insight, there are currently over 1 billion people who use the internet today. I mean how can the offline market even compete with that? But just because a new revolution has arisen doesn’t mean the old ways are no longer effective. Traditional marketing can still produce plenty of customers and lead to major profits if it is used correctly. So don’t think that you should just market your business only on the internet. The idea is to incorporate both online and traditional methods to see maximum results.

Things to remember

The crucial points to keep in mind is that in order to achieve success in the business world, you must always do the key three factors of identifying, maintaining, and satisfying the customer and you have to constantly fulfill the four Ps of the marketing mix. The more often and the more effective you complete these two tasks, the higher amount of profits you will see yourself earning in your business.

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Real Estate Management Fees

The property investor has decided to hire a management company to take care of their many properties. They interview several before making a decision on the company they will hire. There are many things they will be comparing, among them the real estate management fee the company charges. The investor needs to determine whether they want to pay a monthly percentage or a flat fee for the managers services.

Investors should look at more than the monthly fee they will be paying. Sometimes for a higher percentage you will receive more services. The cheaper rate of some managers does not include the extra fees charged. Find out if the advertising is included in the normal fee. Will they be charging each time they show the property to a potential client? Are their leasing fees on top of the management fees? The investor should read each companies contract to determine what is included in their real estate management fee.

A real estate management fee is charged based on a percentage of income collected with a minimum monthly base fee. Fees will often vary by the type and size of the property. Fees can be a flat rate for a single family home or 6 percent of the rental income for larger properties. Larger properties typically command a lower percentage rate (ie, 2 percent) than a single family home that may be quoted up to10 percent. Fees are negotiated on a per property basis and depend on many factors including condition, location and size of the property, etc. Leasing and other auxiliary service fees are separate and in addition to the management fee.

The investor should ask what services cost extra. They should determine if evictions are an extra fee. The contract should state how and when the fee is collected. Will the investor be billed or is it deducted from your account? On a monthly or quarterly basis? Is there a cost to prep the units for rent? And what is the typical cleaning fee on vacancies?

A management company fulfills many services for the investor. The company takes care of the daily activities of renting the property, collecting rents, accounting and monthly statements, hire contractors for services such as cleaning, groundskeepers and maintenance work as well as supervise any work. The real estate management fee the investor pays provides them with peace of mind.

The investor has interviewed several companies and found the fees are close in range with a few exceptions. They decide to further investigate each companys contract and references. By comparing all the services and getting good referrals, the investor can make an informed choice.

Interviewing the management company to determine the real estate management fee that charge is the first step to hiring a reliable company. The final cost the investor will pay the management company is determined by many things as well as the monthly fee. How well the company communicates with the investor and tenants, how they handle problems, their attention to detail in the leasing process and their ability to maintain the property in good condition all determine the investors final costs on each property.

Hiring a good management company helps the investor rent his property faster and provide preventive maintenance before problems become major repairs and expenses. The investor should look at more than the initial monthly fees when determining how much it will actually cost them if they go with the cheapest company.

Satellite Internet Bandwidth Providers

Satellite internet connections are great in those regions were there is no access to DSL or cable internet bandwidth. This type of service connection works by the data being sent via satellite. A satellite equipment dish is arranged pointing toward the south. This dish transmits signals to satellites which are in a position about the earth usually stationary and internet access from the Internet provider is provided through this type of connection. Satellite internet bandwidth is available worldwide including ships at sea or mobile vehicles.

Advantages and Disadvantages

This type of bandwidth service makes access to the internet in those areas where other forms of bandwidth are not available. It also eliminates the need to use dial-up – in fact this bandwidth is faster than dial-up. An advantage with this type of bandwidth is that downloading and uploading is much faster. Installation is also fairly rapid.

Since the signal from the computer must travel so many miles in order to reach a satellite and return to the computer this causes a delay or latency between the request for data and receiving that data. The average lag time for satellite internet is often found to be between 500 to 900 milliseconds. This is not acceptable for any applications where real-time access is necessary for instance internet gaming, video conferencing, video chats as well as any VolP telephone calls. Another disadvantage is the weather does affect this satellite feed. Rain does not actually block the signal but it can cause a form of interference that is known as "rain fade" and this can slow the download as well as upload speeds causing a very irregular internet connection.

Initially as Well as Monthly Cost

Satellite internet access is more expensive that other types of broadband access in fact it is 2 to 3 times more expensive than DSL internet access. Not only is the monthly fee more expensive but the initial cost of setup is very expensive since it involves satellite dish and satellite modem. Initial setup may range from between $ 600 to $ 2000.

Major Providers

HughsNet is the number one satellite internet provider with a basic monthly fee of $ 49.99. HughsNet offers uploading and downloading speeds that are fairly fast and have great technical support. But the internet speeds fall off sharply during the evening peak hours and also there is a daily limit on uploading and downloading or bandwidth usage.

The number 2 satellite internet provider is WildBlue with a monthly basic package of $ 69.95. They offer much higher download and upload limits but in exchange for this, the download speed suffers. But if you have a concern with downloading and heavy internet use, this provider would probably be the best for you.

Provider number 3 is the internet provider MyBlueDish which monthly fee is also $ 69.95. They currently work with provider WildBlue in order to provide faster internet and allow for a lot of download bandwidth monthly. But, they are much slower than the other providers. MyBlueDish also has 24/7 tech support that is excellent.

Basically, satellite internet bandwidth usage is great for those living in remote area or who are based on ship or who are constantly mobile or any situation where there is no other option for broadband. Internet access by satellite is extremely better than the next viable option, which is, dial-up and is the only other method of accessing the internet in remote areas.