Sunday, 8th August 2010

How to get started quickly and easily in e-commerce (and my new site)

A little background before we get started - I've worked with the web since 1999, both for agencies such as Mando Group and online retailers. Having worked for both providers and users of e-commerce systems gives an interesting perspective which I'm hoping to bring to this post.

A few years ago if you wanted an e-commerce solution you had very little choice, you had to have it developed bespoke for you. This is was and remains an expensive solution, with the larger agencies the cost quickly escalates into the tens of thousands of pounds. That said just because the solution is expensive it does not mean that it is necessarily the wrong path, it all depends on exactly what you are trying to achieve.

A bespoke solution (so long as you nail the development company down to your function requirement document) will be exactly as you want it. Digital agencies will be there to support you throughout the life of the project right from initial idea to the day your replacement site is launched. A full service digital agency will also be there to help with online marketing which if you don't have the skills within your own organisation can be a real benefit. A website with no visitors is pointless.

However, these days with a little determination and skill it is possible to build yourself a powerful e-commerce site using readily available technology. This when you think about it makes a great deal of sense, after all PC manufacturers for the most part use readily available components and simply add their own style to the box and the same goes in many other industries.

There are literally hundreds of these systems but they are generally split into two types. Cloud hosted solutions (such as were you simply use an e-commerce solution like any other service or systems hosted on your own server (such as Magento). Of the two cloud hosted solutions are the simples but as is often the way with simple they are also the least flexible.

Web development agencies will tell you that these off the shelf solutions are not suited to busy e-commerce sites but these days that is simply not true. Magento powers some of the largest stores on the planet and has a team of developers working constantly on security and improvements.

It might sound like I'm beating down on digital agencies - I'm not. They are fantastic if you have a large budget and want your hand holding, however, if you fancy having a go yourself it is possible to build an e-commerce site to a very high standard and this is exactly what I decided to do.

I've wanted to work for myself for years in one form or another but I'm happy my employer and job as well. So after much soul searching I came to the conclusion that I could do both. However, I had a few problems. No product, no site, no payment gateway.

Problem 1

I quickly came to a deal with employer that I would buy product off them and sell it myself just like any other trade customer can.

Problem 2

This is the interesting one. I did not have the budget (or in my case the desire) to go down the agency route, I wanted to do this part myself. I'm good with html and css having built 9 sites in the past year for work but I'm not a designer.

Tip 1: Don't try and do everything yourself or you will fail. If you need a skill which you don't have contract it out. Need a contractor? Have a look at Linkedin - you will find many competent contractors out there who are more than happy to help you at very favourable rates.

I chose the designer Amy Clover and she did all my graphical work. Amy successfully developed a distinctive look for my site but I still had the problem of what e-commerce system to go for.

I didn't want to go down the Magento route, as powerful as it is I felt that it would probably need more maintenance (and skill) than I wanted to out into the project. My focus needs to be on selling to make the project work as it is been run in my spare time.

I tried out many solutions and found that offered the best all round system. It is so easy to use and install' it features large product images' clear calls to action and it has that 'feel' of slickness that I wanted. I cannot praise ecwid enough at this moment in time I feel it is the best of the breed.

The back end of ecwid is also very complete, orders are easy to process, products easy to add and manage (stock control is standard). The only bit that was difficult to sort out was the shipping methods. For most people this would not have been a problem but as my chosen products weigh between 25kg and 5 tonnes so my shipping matrix is more complex than most.

Problem 3

The choice of payment gateway is critical, they handle the financial transaction for you. I've chosen to go with Paypal because it offers both credit card and paypal payment methods as well as a well trusted brand. This is important as you need to build consumer trust.

The Result

Play Area Bark was launched on Saturday 11th of July - a mere 8 weeks after the project was started (trying getting your web development company to do that for you!), the first sale came 8 days later. If you have the determination and drive you can build yourself an online presence on a tight budget. The total cost of the project to date has been less than £500!

Click on the logo below to have a look at my new site, comments are very welcome!

Play Bark

Whatever way you choose - good luck it is fun and very satisfying. There is nothing like getting your first sale!

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Mando leaving present - Aston Martin Driving Experience

When I left back in May (it really doesn't feel that long ago) Tony bought me a voucher for a driving experience with the money from the whip round. These vouchers are only valid for a year and they don't run the experience during the Winter months so I thought it was time for me to pull my finger out and get it booked! November 14/15th was the last weekend of the year and it was wet!

When you arrive at the car park for the circuit (Pro Drive is in Warwickshire) you get a on a mini bus that takes you to the pit lane. There you sign in and they give you a slip detailing what you are going to be doing when.

The first part of the experience is an orientation drive around the circuit, you are driven by an instructor in a Mitsubishi Evolution at a slow (ish) speed to show you all the corners etc.

Then you get onto the interesting part, after you have been around the track you move onto driving your car of the day. I have to say this part of the experience was fantastic, they really want you to enjoy it. If you want to drive slow, that's fine, fast, that's good also. I had four laps.

The circuit consisted of two straights and a series of chicanes at each end. The first lap I was really just getting used to where I was going, but on the second I was able to start stretching the car's legs. It's hard to describe how quick the Aston Martin V8 actually is (and this is the baby one!) 380 horse power in a two seater results in epic performance. Down the straight I was able reach around 120mph! On the second lap I got onto the power a little early in the corner before the long straight and the car's back end stepped out, very controllable - you really appreciate how well balanced these things are when they slide.

The third lap was just amazing I'd got used to the car and the track and was really able to get going. So much so that I caught up a Lamborghini - I kept my distance through the corners but the instructor told me to close right up on the back of it. On the exit of the final corner before the long straight I was told to go for it and over take the Lambo. Fantastic, both cars going hard, down the straight. The Aston should have been slower but the guy in the Lambo wasn't pushing as hard as I was so I reached the corner first. Not ever day you overtake a Lambo whilst driving an Aston Martin! (It was the orange one in the pic below)

After the experience was over the instructor marks you on your car control. They didn't tell you that at the start either. Interestingly the scale was 31-38, not idea why! Anyway, flattering he gave me a 37+ saying it was a pleasure to take someone around who could drive and really wanted to enjoy it.

Finally they take you around in another Mitsubishi Evo on a fast lap. Interestingly down the straights the Aston was just as quick as this fast demo lap, through the corners they rain you in but not as a passenger on the fast lap. This lap was fun, quite violent and over very quickly!

On the way out of the circuit you are also taken on a four wheel drive circuit as a passenger. This was fun but I've actually drive off road myself and it is never as good as a passenger.

So I just wanted to say thank you to everyone at Mando who put into the pot for me when I left. I had a great time at the track and really appreciate it.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

windows 7 wpa

I came across a problem with Windows 7 RC when I tried to put it onto my works wifi network (which runs WPA encryption). My Laptop would not see the network at all!

Reading around I'm not alone and a number of people have had this problem.

The solution for anyone who is still looking relates to the Channel on which the wifi is broadcast. I found that simply changing the Channel on which the router broadcast solved the issue.

I suspect it is region related (RC1 is an American distribution) however I've not tested this theory. Change the channel on your router and you should be fine.

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Thursday, 27 August 2009

Windows 7 RC vs Vista

2 years ago I bought a new laptop, my first machine for the better part of 6 years. This system came with Windows Vista, 2gb of RAM and a dual core CPU and worked pretty well. Recently it became pretty slow so I decided to format it up and try out the new baby from Redmond.

Initial results and comments:

- Prettier
- Easy to install
- Excellent driver support
- Fast
- Reliable

I’ll post more as I give it more use but initial results seem great to me. Much improved on Vista!

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Some of the things I've been working on recently

I left Mando Group back in May so that I could work on improving my skill set. One of the key skills I'm looking to improve is my css/xhtml knowledge so I needed to get to a position were I could build websites. My skills as a designer are somewhat lacking (I'm not an artist) so we drafted in Amy Clover (ex Martin Dawes) to ensure we had strong visuals. Once the site had been designed I got to work on my first commercial build in a long time Rock Salt Online.

Please have a look and let me know your comments from both a technical and a users perspective. a lot of work went into the site and we are looking to improve it further. Also feel free to throw it a link :-) if you like it!

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

What a day (SEO related)

Well it has been an interesting day for those of us who spend our days looking at the results pumped out by search engines. Firstly the deal between Yahoo! and Bing, I've been thinking for a long time that a company with the money and power of Microsoft won't simply sit back and take it.

Microsoft want in on search, this is the company that once underestimated how the internet would penetrate into daily life but boy did it come back! With Internet Explorer dominant in the market these days having smashed the hold Netscape once had. As SEOs we need to watch this with interest!

As with all things media hype is ahead of the curve - it will be a couple of years at least before this deal hits the streets. A huge amount of change needs to happen first (regulators need to pass the deal, technology integration between Yahoo! and Bing etc.

And for those who say it'll never happen... Check out this in F1 I'm looking forward to seeing Hamilton Vs Schumacher!

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Want to know SEO? Here you go!

Most SEO is simple and straightforward. If you follow this article by SEOmoz you won't go far wrong.

In my opinion 90% of the rankings equation lies in these 4 factora

Friday, 13 February 2009

Interesting article

Sunday, 21 December 2008

My first website

For those who might be interest I've dug out the very first website I built. It was for a Uni project - part of a information systems design module. It was actually this build which put me into my online marketing career path. Here it is from way back in early 2001.

Grott Video Website

Sunday, 3 August 2008

My experience with Linux

I guess adding the work Linux to the title of any blog is going to give away early on that I have quite a passion for all things technological. Before I get to the point I really want to cover let me tell you a little bit of background. Back in 2001 my step dad introduced my to Linux – I was using windows 2000 at the time and to be honest I found that Linux could be a pain in the neck. Simple things like playing a DVD or connecting to the internet were really complicated in comparison to the offerings from Redmond. My dissertation was written using OpenOffice and Visio (I know it is a Microsoft product but the was nothing under Linux at the time that compared). After this I started working and really had little time for my old Linux box.

So five years went by and my computing life revolved around XP – but during this time I never actually owned a computer (except the Linux box that was in storage). Strange for someone working in online marketing to not actually own a machine but it was not necessary because I always had access to a computer. I really think this shows how they are in many ways becoming terminals to the Internet, a way of getting online rather than an end in themselves. But in late 2007 I decided enough was enough and bought a Dell laptop, I was amazed by how cheap it was. Only £520 for 2 cores, 2gb of ram, high contrast screen, big disc and a case. When I last bought a machine a similar “level” not spec would have been over a grand.

The machine came loaded with Windows Vista which I have to say is pretty good. Everything works with ease and looks pretty. However, that said it does have a major downside – it loves power. Even with the spec of my new machine it felt slow at times. Linux has always been in the back of my mind so I decided that maybe it was time to give the OS another go. After a little research Ubuntu looked like a good candidate. A quick 700mb download later and I was ready to give the new system a whirl.

You can install it from Windows in a sectioned off part of the NTFS partition – very clever feature that I have not seen before. It seemed much simpler than resizing partitions, creating new partitions etc. It does have a slight performance penalty but for a taster I went with it. One install later and I had a flickering, distorted screen. Good job. Install number two using safe mode drivers went better. Followed by installing the propriety ATI drivers and control panel. So at last I had a machine I could see but not use. It took me a further two hours to get the Wifi working and I am still not quite sure what got it going.

Running the system is fantastic, it is really really fast. Has all of the software I need and works perfectly. However, it must be said that before Linux can go mass market it needs to become simpler to install. I have worked on or around computers for nine years and this was still a tricky task. Put simply it should not be that hard, Windows can be installed by a 10 year old with a Coca Cola the same can't be said of Linux which is a real shame.

I love Linux but until it loses some of its “quirks” it will remain a closed book to most people. Although I am sure it will get there and it has come a long long way since I last experimented with it more work needs to be done.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

A great source of SEO information

I thought I would add a quick note for anyone who is looking to learn more about SEO. I have found that on Youtube is if you search for "Whiteboard Friday" you come across lots of videos by Rand Fishkin of These are fantastic covering a lot of stuff in little 5-10 minute clips. Of course the site is also well worth a read with lots of useful tools that allow you to check lots of details about how a site ranks and why it ranks.