The 5 hardest things about setting up an online business – that no one prepares you for.

1/06/2016 06:00:00 am HELEN STILES 3 Comments

Happy New Year everyone! So I thought I'd start the year by looking back at what I've learned in the 9 months since quitting my full time job to start a new career in interiors. I knew that setting up my online interiors boutique would be both rewarding and difficult, I knew there'd be long hours and little down time. But there are some things that surprised me. Here are 5 of the hardest things about setting up an online business – that no one prepares you for:

1) The reality of doing EVERYTHING yourself. From setting up your email, phone and printer to deciding which graphics applications to invest in, accounting system to use and web-hosting service to subscribe to.  Whenever there's a problem (latest Apple upgrade kills your email?) then it's your precious time and effort to fix it.  That's before you've even started working on anything remotely interesting like finding suppliers, designing stock, writing your blog, creating newsletters, implementing your marketing plan, growing your mailing list, updating the website or processing orders. There is NEVER enough time.

2) You need to use loads of new systems. Virtually everything I do requires a system or software which I've had to learn from scratch. Learning on the job makes you pretty slow and inefficient, which I have found hugely frustrating. It's like every seemingly simple task takes 3 times longer than you thought it would. Of course, this gets easier with time, but there's always more to learn. As an example, here are some of the systems I now use every day:

- Website content management system: to update photos, text and offers on the website
- Shopify: the eCommerce engine that underpins the Hide & Seek website. It's where I go to update stock, change product information, create product collections and process orders.
- Photoshop: for editing, cropping and manipulating photos for the website and blog posts.
- Lightroom: for editing and cataloguing product and lifestyle photos.
- Canva & Picmonkey: for creating professional-looking graphics for social media posts
- Campaign-monitor: to manage mailing lists, design and send newsletters and manage subscribers
- Blogger: for writing this blog!
- Google analytics (amongst other tools) to understand traffic sources, profiles and patterns.

And don't even get me started on moving from a PC to Mac at the same more thing to learn!

3) Social media takes time – lots of it! I run an online business, so I knew social media was going to be important. I just didn't fully appreciate how much time I'd have to invest. I've found Instagram to be the most useful, followed by Facebook and at{mine}. I'm also doing more on Pinterest, Houzz, LinkedIn and Twitter and know that I really ought to get into SnapChat and Google+ too. Each platform has its own rules, audience, style, posting formats, peak-times, and etiquette, which you have to abide by to get results. And it's no good just posting the odd picture either. You need to be a sociable and engaged user – reading, commenting on and sharing other people's content, if you want the same in return. I underestimated the sheer amount of time involved in planning posts, editing images and engaging across social media. Now I try to limit myself to 2 hours a day (excluding work on the blog) and stay focused. It's no magic bullet, but after several months focusing on key channels I am starting to see results.

4) Shipping is a minefield. Obviously with an online business, everything needs to be sent out to customers, but I seriously underestimated the time and complexity of setting this up. All the shipping suppliers have different size and weight limits for parcels, different logistics arrangements, online booking systems and volume requirements. There are multiple rates for geographic regions, even just within the UK (and these don't match up easily to the shopify shipping process either, another headache, grrrrr). Almost no one wants to ship large furniture. You have to negotiate hard to get the best rates, set up multiple accounts and then work out a fair and simple way to charge for them (whilst I'd love to absorb these costs, as a small business it's just not practical yet). And then there's packaging. Getting everything from a coaster to a coffee table wrapped safely (and nicely) brings its own issues (unless you have a small fortune to spend!)

5) Physical networking is key. I knew from the outset that setting up an online store would be a bit like opening a physical store, except you've chosen a premises on a backstreet that no one ever walks down, in a town no one ever visits. I chose this route as I wanted to be able to fit my work around my family rather than be tied to store opening hours, but I hadn't really considered how important networking would be for getting people to know that you exist! I probably thought social media would be enough. And like everyone, I started out relying on family and friends to spread the word, but this only gets you so far. I have started to be really pro-active in reaching out to PRs and journalists, via phone, email, social media and events. I've joined relevant groups on Facebook and twitter and engaged with fellow-bloggers (it's nice to know you aren't alone!) I've also reached out directly to interior designers, stylists and enthusiasts and been featured in some pretty cool blogs and publications as a result. I've had Hide & Seek products featured in photoshoots for Fired Earth and Armadillo by some very cool interior stylists, and have myself taken on new interior design clients. Every new contact leads to another – and networking physically as well as virtually is key to that. 

Of course there have been loads of positives too, and some things have been easier than I'd anticipated. I've loved collaborating with up and coming designers, designing my own products, sourcing quirky, individual items for the store, going to events and trade shows and generally indulging my passion for interiors! I see more of my kids (dropping them off and picking them up from school every day) but less of my husband (evenings are all about working, usually late into the night). Luckily I have discovered that I can survive on very little sleep! So If you're thinking about setting up an online business, I would absolutely say go for it. You never know how much you can do until you try!

(Photo: Carole Poirot)

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  1. Amen to that Helen! Number 1 has most definitely been my biggest wake-up call since leaving the corporate world. You'd think, being a freelance PA, I'd know all about doing things myself, but helping others is a breeze compared to trying to figure out why my Mac refuses to connect to my colour printer!! Like you, I've also discovered that social media will only do so much. Actually leaving the comfort of my virtual world and meeting real, live people has made such a difference to both my PA business AND my blog. Great article x

  2. Thanks so much Sue, it is nice to connect and know you're not alone, isn't it? But the perks of doing something you love, for yourself, make it worth it. (I think!)