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8 Ways to Start or Buy an E-Commerce Business in Midlife

Launching one may be easier and less costly than you think


Part of the America’s Entrepreneurs Special Report

You’ve read the headlines that scream about how the Internet economy is quickly reaching $4 trillion. And you’ve endured the cable news cycling through storylines of Internet powerhouses such as Amazon, Google and Facebook. Maybe it’s time for you to become an Internet entrepreneur yourself in midlife.

“I’ve started more than a dozen businesses in my life, and I’ve also kept up with the technology,” says Jay Whitehead, the 58-year-old CEO of LeagueNetwork.com, a New Jersey-based youth sports-themed enterprise. “And I can tell you that Internet technology will be the least of your problems.”

With a computer, you can establish a small- or medium-sized enterprise in as little as half a day. And you don’t need an ounce of web development skills.

Whether you’re starting a business in the bricks and mortar world or on the Internet, the fundamentals of commerce still apply: It’s someone trying to sell something to another human and either fulfilling an unmet need or finding a problem that needs solving.

Here are eight ways to do it:

1. Test the waters before investing in a custom web site. “You can build a small site on WordPress.com or Blogger.com for free, and if you see sales, then invest in a website,” says Vito Santoro, 68, who built a site back in 2004 that earned top Google rankings. He went on to co-found the video technology firm Vaetas.

“Too many people invest in an idea before they know it’ll sell,” says Santoro.

2. Consider looking for a micro niche. Let’s say you want to sell shoes. This is too broad. You’ll be competing for search engine positioning against major shoe brands and retailers like Walmart and Macy’s, as well as all the other shoe E-retailers.

So you decide to specialize in shoe sales to amputees (very specific). You buy a pair of shoes like other shoe E-retailers for $20 and sell them for $100, but you sell a single shoe — left or right — for $60, an incredible savings for the consumer. When you sell the other shoe for $60, you’re making more than the other shoe E-retailers. And to get the word out about your specialized shoes, you can target everything from veterans’ sites to blogs of those who have been in accidents.

Plus, your Google rankings might skyrocket because you’re not competing against the big boys.

If you’re searching for a micro niche or want to research one that interests you, you’ll likely find inspiration on Answerthepublic.com, which lists all the questions people are typing into Google.

3. Start a business because you can’t find something you want. Chances are, others are having the same problem. Ann Johnson, 55, launched her hand-crafted organic skin care line, All You Naturally, because she couldn’t find anything to alleviate her eczema.

4. Set up shop on an existing marketplace — from giants like Amazon and eBay to listing services like Craigslist to niche sites like Etsy. “It’s cheaper and faster and allows you to test the business viability of your enterprise,” advises Douglas McQuilken, a Charleston, S.C. SCORE small-business mentor with a long track record in software development e-commerce.

Gloria Pearson, 62, has been selling her handmade home decor items on Etsy for two years. The Californian chose this marketplace because “it was a ready-to-go storefront that didn’t require setting up a costly website, or working out such things as payment, shipping and marketing.”

She recently branched out on her own with the Mybooklandia site and is now faced with the challenge of “building credibility with Google.”

Selling on an existing marketplace frees you from having to worry about generating traffic to your store, “which is about half the work of e-commerce,” says Brandon Wright, an e-commerce consultant with ThoughtLab.

It’s also a great way to build momentum and possibly acquire a few skills, says digital marketer Ellen Purchase.

Dorez Douglas, 67, based in Los Angeles, has a storefront on Etsy as well as a standalone site (Nicoletbeauty.com) she manages with her daughter. They started to see a small profit after about a year. Her advice to aspiring E-merchants: “Find areas in the marketplace that aren’t oversaturated. Do lots of research about the products or services you plan to offer. Join internet business groups.”

5. Find a mentor. A multitude of business communities and groups provide great places to network, learn, and meet mentors. For instance, SCORE, the nation’s largest network of free business mentors, has chapters across the country that offer workshops and webinars as well as professional and technical resources.

“Find a mentor or mentor group before beginning your e-commerce journey,” advises Pearson. For handmade sellers, she recommends the online community “Flourish.”

Johnson, who belongs to several business groups on social media, says she’s benefitted the most from the Indie Business Network. “We discuss everything, from branding and logos to selling platforms to which printers to buy, and sometimes we just vent,” Johnson says.

6. When you’re ready to build a site or online shop, go with a fully-hosted, cloud-based service that handles the backend of e-commerce. Krista Fabregras, an e-commerce analyst at FitSmallBusiness, favors Shopify and BigCommerce for the beginning e-merchant.

“Basically, if you can log in to a website and upload a picture, you can build an online store on both of these platforms, and then easily expand into other channels as needed,” she says, noting that both platforms easily connect to the many shopping channels (Amazon, Facebook, eBay, and Pinterest) that any successful start-up will need to reach the broadest market.

Even with limited funds and zero technical ability, E-entrepreneur B.L. Ochman says she was able to set up a store on the Shopify platform for her product, Funwalkers: whimsical license plates that attach to older persons’ walkers and scooters.

The 60ish Manhattanite, who has a 30-year background in marketing and PR, says it’s important to have a strategy to leverage the Internet, including social media platforms. “Take classes in online marketing if you have to,” notes Ochman.

7. Join a collaborative-economy platform. That’s what retired teachers Joe and Debra Moreno did by launching their baby gear rental business on the platform of Babierge, where stay-at-home moms and retirees rent and deliver baby equipment to traveling families. It’s not a franchise and there are no licensing fees to get into the business. At last count, Babierge was in 115 markets across the U.S. and Canada.

After a small initial investment, the Morenos were up and running with inventory and a website, delivering baby gear to families vacationing in Phoenix where they live; six months later, they started to see a profit.

8. Finally, there is the option of buying an existing online site or store. A plethora of opportunities is available on online business marketplaces such as Flippa.com.

You can either buy a business on your own or hire a broker to facilitate the process. If you’re looking for a website broker, consider Digital Acquisitions or FE International.

“These guys buy and sell websites for a living and know what to look out for,” says Dustin Montgomery, a digital marketer for Shippers Supplies.

Chances are, if it’s for sale it needs improving. But with the right skills and know-how, you might be able to turn it around and make it into a viable business.

Risha Gotlieb
By Risha Gotlieb
Risha Gotlieb is a Toronto-based freelancer whose work has appeared in The Toronto Star, The Washington Post, AARP magazine, Reader's Digest, Pacific Standard and more. She is also a nonfiction author (The Lighted Path).

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