Simple tips for growing your new online business – Stuff

Hooman Bahreini is the founder of online marketplace platform Shopless.
OPINION: Starting and sustaining a successful e-commerce business is full of ups and downs, with lots of lessons to be learned along the way. It’s certainly not a linear process.
In 2016 I began my own business journey to develop Shopless, an e-commerce platform where Kiwis can post ads and list their items for free.
Like all fledgling entrepreneurs, I’ve faced some big challenges and had to adapt and grow.
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Here are the key take-aways I’ve learned from the past few years that might be useful if you’re considering starting your own online business.
Our business model is ‘Pay for Promotion’, where people can boost their listing to get more attention for an additional fee.
The Shopless website went live in July 2019 and we immediately faced our first big issue: Shopless was an empty marketplace.
We needed buyers to attract sellers and we needed sellers to attract buyers, but we had neither. I could barely convince even my closest friends to list something!
It soon became clear that we needed a strategy to grow the platform.
Initially we began by approaching big companies, but despite our offer of free listings they didn’t come on board. Why? Because they didn’t need to.
We were also in direct competition with the likes of Trade Me and Facebook Marketplace, so for the next 18 months we trialled different strategies including using marketing agencies to help us grow our community, buying lots of products to sell online, and offering free listings.
Eventually we discovered that the best strategy for us was to start with small businesses and work up towards the bigger businesses – not the other way around. We also decided to narrow it further to focus on a single category, building around that, and the first category we chose was job listings.
It’s a strategy that has paid off so far, attracting multiple recruitment agencies and hundreds of jobs within a fairly short period of time. The business has grown as a result and, as of today, there are nearly 3000 jobs listed on our platform.
As if to confirm our direction, I recently saw a programme about Amazon in which Jeff Bezos explained a very similar growth strategy. If only I’d watched that programme earlier and saved myself 18 months of trial and error!
In my view, the most important aspect of a successful marketplace is its platform. It needs to be simple to understand, minimal (remove everything that’s not necessary), easy to navigate, and easily scalable for growth.
The payoff is a platform that your customers like to use, and that allows you to build and maintain your community.
Why should potential customers choose your business over others? A few years ago I was introduced to Toms Shoes and their One-for-One model, which donates one pair of shoes for every pair sold.
I loved this idea, and it encouraged me to develop Shopless as a charitable platform too. Now Shopless donates 20 per cent of its revenue to charities that are working against global warming or helping refugees.
We’ve partnered with two charities in each space: NZ Red Cross and Change Makers, and Forest & Bird and KaiCycle.
When we invoice our clients, they can choose which charity they’d like their payment to support. We do this because we’re passionate about helping these particular causes, and it’s a good way to engage with potential customers who want to give back to causes they believe in.
It’s also an opportunity to align with investors who have similar values. As a startup, we needed to raise funds, and I was certain that investors would view it as bad for our business to donate 20 per cent of our revenue to charity.
In fact, it was the opposite, and a number of investors have expressed interest because, for them, it’s not all about money.
Whatever your unique selling proposition, ensure you’re transparent. We donate 20 per cent of our revenue – not profit – so that businesses can see exactly how much is being donated. Honesty, openness and transparency are key to building trust.
Starting a business on your own means you need to learn many skills – and quickly.
In 2018 I left my job as a programmer to focus fully on Shopless, and it was a big, risky decision.
I had to jump in the deep end and be adaptable, and that meant juggling many new roles that I was unfamiliar with, including sales, marketing, SEO, accounting, fundraising and people management.
Seek advice from someone who has been in business for a while and whose business is successful. It doesn’t matter if they work in a different field. This lends perspective and insight, and being able to talk through your challenges with someone who’s been through it before is invaluable.
Don’t be afraid to outsource when you need to. There will always be things you’re not good at or that you don’t have the time to understand. I know a lot about programming but I knew very little about graphic design or fundraising, so I engaged people with those additional skill sets.
My final tips? Never cast an idea aside until you’ve given it real consideration, and always trust your gut instincts.
Things won’t fall into place overnight, so don’t give up on your dream – if at first, you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.
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