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.

Internet Marketing Systems Cost Money – Read This First

Who Am I

I'm not going to attempt the normal practice you'll see all over the internet, and especially when being sold Internet Marketing systems, of telling you how poor I was and how cold it was living under a bridge in New York. I do not believe any of that any more, having read it in almost every other sales pitch on the 'net. No; I'm an ordinary healthy bloke, nearly fifty, married with two kids, and four grandschildren. I am very blessed to live in New Zealand, own the home, drive a nice car, have plenty of work as an independent contractor, and am priviledged to fly the old DC-3 Dakota for fun.

So why am I getting into Internet Marketing? Because I have ten to 15 years of useful working life left, before my value to my customer base diminishes. Nobody wants to engage old farts, and there is no leverage in selling my time. When I take a day off, a day's pay is lost – for good! While I do do the good life, I do have debt and do not wish to retire that by selling assets. I am determined to pay off all the debt, while also enjoying my lifestyle, and more. I want to replace my income, and boost it!

Internet Marketing Costs Money

If you are down to your last five bucks, go buy a lottery ticket! You will not turn your luck around on the internet, and establishing yourself on the net is going to cost money. I'll be honest, I've spent in the order of $ 2,500 on cost per click (CPC) marketing maybe two years ago, to make $ 40 after several months which I never collected; And another $ 800 – 1,000 in the last three weeks getting started up again. I'll be honest, I've made $ 26.40 so far, and that was within the first few days. Since then, nothing! So I'm not a guru, but I am here to tell you what I've learned.

I've bought three products in the last three weeks:

  • A Cost Per Action (CPA) Pay Per View (PPV) system,
  • A web page template system, and
  • A traffic generation system.

What I bought does not matter, but here's what I've learned. These systems are good, and I've no doubt that they're going to work when I get them all tuned up. One warning though, these systems sell flat out so do not expect a personal response to your questions. These guys have email engines set up to deal with the sales process. They're not sitting at their desk serving your questions very often. Face it, they've made it already and they're out on the beach!

Lessons I've taken from the last few weeks:

  • There is no instant money system, everything needs setting up and that takes time and money;
  • After your first purchase you will always be upsold, always; And
  • You are going to have to do some homework, there are some things you'll have to learn for yourself.

It Costs Money and There's Always More

Typically here's what will happen. You'll see an advertisement for a 'sure thing' marketing system. You'll watch a very reliable video, and you'll decide to spend the first $ 40 – 60.00. Once you've bought the system, you'll be offered a set of 'copy and paste' campaigns that you can put to work right away, then another bonus that will save you months and months of learning on your own. Within 20 minutes you'll have spent over $ 500.00. Next, you'll discover that you need to set up an account with a CPC network, or a PPV network; And that you need to register a domain. This will all cost you more before anything starting to offer your advertisements, or sell a thing. Nothing for it really, but to knuckle down, persevere and do the work. Be prepared to fund some set up costs, and feed the networks until you've learned what works! It does not need to be expensive, but it will require some time and funding.

Buy In Steadyly

The good news is that you can buy in for just the initial sign up fee, usually of $ 75 or less. The trick once you've bought that is to read the following offers carefully then decline them. Each time you decline, the offer will be discounted – up to three or four times more. Decline them and get started with the basic package. The first introductory lesson will tell you not to worry if you did not buy the special or the bonus, as you can still follow though and they'll be available to you anyway. Take the time to go through the training that comes with these packages and follow through with the required action. The lack of the bonus offers will not hinder your learning. Buy the bonus packages when you're set up and ready to use them; They'll be worth it then.

If you look at the detail on a lot of these pages, they're at least two years old and still selling. Compare the dates on the 'evidence' they present. Do not give in to the urgency of the offer. It's there to upsell you.

While I would not buy a system that has not got a money back guarantee, I'll treat that guarantee with some skepticism. Be prepared to ask for your money back though if the system is not performing for you and especially if the upgrade package is not available to you.

Summary

Getting into Internet Marketing is no different to getting into any other business, it costs money, takes time, and requires you to learn and apply lessons. You'll need to put time into setting up pages and systems. Dont let that knock you back though; While it costs money, it's not outrageous. Consider it an investment in a business, and you'll be on the right track; Think of it as the silver bullet, and you'd be better to go buy a lottery ticket!

Good luck. Get started, and stick with it. See you on the beach one day!

Pet Insurance Horse Coverage

Many people board horses and often pay high expenses to cover the pets. Dogs, cats, and other household pets often go without care because the owners cannot afford to pay the medical treatment and medicines to care for the pets. Horses are more expensive than common pets, but the laws state that these creatures need medical treatment and vaccines, thus what can an owner do. Owners can take out pet insurance policies that will cover the pets 80/20 in most instances. Horses undergo various different ills than common pets, thus, special coverage is needed for these beautiful creatures.

The Internet has a wealth of resources that specialize in pet insurance, including horses’ coverage. Few owners may have other types of pets that will need specialized coverage, including goats, cows, hermits, pigs, mice, guinea pigs and so forth. While most insurance coverage plans will not cover many of the different household pets, few will offer coverage to common pets, including horses.

Horses are high maintenance critters that require special coverage. Thus, the Internet is open to suggestions, making available horse policy that will offer a generous amount of coverage to owners. Few policies will cover dental work, including coverage for both pet and owner. The policy will offer “personal accidental” coverage, and so forth. The downside is these insurance policies often cost more in premiums than standard insurance policies. Since we are dealing with a huge high maintenance animal, the premiums are higher, since the company will be paying out a fortune for vet care.

One of the common laws regarding horses that apply to owners in various states is the Equine Warning Laws. These laws protect horses and owners against liability, damage, and so forth. The owner is responsible to put up Warning Signs to warn the visitors that accidents/incidents can happen and direct them to safety, plus telling them, they are not reliable if the visitor fails to adhere to the warnings. Not every state has this law to protect homeowners; therefore, the owner would be wise to look for Pet insurance that will cover liability. Pet insurance coverage for horses will often cover the pet and the objects used for the pets needs, including horse trailers. The policies will cover theft, damage, loss, and so forth.

What horse insurance covers

Each policy is different, but few company’s will cover liability, death, stables, personal accidents, theft, riding liability, ‘loss of entry fees,’ hire in for horse maintenance, dental, straying, saddles, tack, vets charges, and so forth. Some of the leading claims filed for horse care are death accident/illness, vet fees for accident/illness, tack and saddler fees. Few providers offer comprehensive coverage to horses extending the coverage to more than forty different states. Thus, pet insurance for horses can offer advantages to owners that transport their horse out of state for shows, trades, and so forth.

Filing Claims

Many of the claims are similar to standard forms, however few companies’ present claims that target the specific incident and/or accident, including illness. For example, if you horse is ill then the company may send a form for that specific need. The company will recommend that you immediately contact the company via the toll-free hotline provided to you and immediately seek treatment for your animal. After you are done at the vet, the company will encourage you to make contact with the company. The claim forms are often downloadable online, thus making it convenient and easy to get the claims to the insurer immediately. Of course, you must go through the same procedures as standard health insurance, by sending receipts to the company. The hotline is setup so that you can get immediate disbursement if necessary.

Advisory: horse insurance may come with higher premiums if your animal is a high-risk. If your horse is used at Rodeos, Racing and so forth, there may be additional coverage needed, and you should expect to pay higher premiums. Few insurance companies may offer generous rates even if your pet is high-risk, so again shopping around are the best solution for getting great rates and comprehensive coverage.

Porter’s Five Forces Model And Internet Competition

According to Porter’s Five Forces Model, in my opinion, competition has increased overall as a result of the internet and e-Commerce. The internet and IT has made it possible to both focus on the top and bottom lines and market share is expanded and costs are cut. Many products and services exist just online, major companies have gone online to successfully augment the brick and mortar corporations, and the playing field is all the way to edges of cyberspace, wherever that is. We will further evaluate this stepping through all five forces.

Buyer power is higher when buyers have more choices. Businesses are forced to add value to their products and services to get loyalty. Many loyalty programs include excellent services that customers demand on-line. Customers want to solve their problems and many times they are more successful on-line than on-phone. Also, we see internet savvy businesses springing up offering more valuable goods and services at lower costs. Now with the advent of eBay, many people are assuming roles as drop shippers. Individuals can have a thriving business selling goods of larger companies without having to carry inventory.

Supplier power is higher when buyers have fewer choices from whom to buy. As mentioned earlier, drop shipping has increased the amount of suppliers available. All an individual has to do is form and agreement to sell products for the company. The company takes care of all the logistics. The same is true of associates programs that Amazon.com and Google.com offer. Associates allow a webmaster to earn money by recommending products from others. This increases supplier offerings.

Threat of substitute products or services is high when there are many product alternatives. This is different than having many suppliers. Examples of alternatives are exchanging brand names, substituting credit card capabilities, and looking at better values from cheaper sources. The internet allows this with the “global economy”. I can substitute my product by purchasing from companies overseas where labor, services and products are cheaper, but of comparable quality.

Threat of new entrants is high when it is easy for new competition to enter the market. Well, what have we been talking about? Now, small operations can open shop with less than $10.00 per month and make a lot of money. As inventive as people are, there are always opportunities to do improve a product or service or just create and sell something new. Recently, many new entrants have made even more money authoring Ebooks that tell others how to do what they did. Rivalry among competitors is high when competition is more intense within industries.

On-line book stores and catalog companies are an excellent example. Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com are very competitive. However, there are many also smaller niche affiliate bookstores that when combined take a great deal of market share. They offer even more competition. However, both major bookstores have used IT to create value for their customers. These values include associates programs, ease of payment and shipping and many, many others.

The internet offers avenues of competition to existing companies and opportunities for start ups. Now businesses can enter the market on-line with few barriers to entry. Porter’s Five Forces Model can help demonstrate the attractiveness of starting your on-line business. A business person should use the model to identify competition, make a plan, and implement the process.