How to start an eCommerce website

I constantly have customers wanting to start selling their products online but they have no idea where/how to start.

First thing one needs to decide is if they want to build a custom solution from scratch or take advantage of an existing ecommerce framework like Magento or SaaS like Shopify.

Unless you are in need of a very specific type of website, I usually advise against building a custom solution. The main reasons for this are:

  • Time
    Building from scratch takes a long time to develop, test and deploy. It is also needed that one has a clear idea of what they really want to create otherwise it can be quite time consuming testing different solutions and approaches to deal with specific situations and scenarios.
  • Cost
    Time is money and if it take a long time it will also take a lot of money to do. Keeping with a certain budget can be difficult to guarantee because custom websites are hard to estimate timewise.
  • Maintenance
    After deploying a custom site it will need to be maintained specially to guarantee security. The site would need to be continually tested for vulnerabilities and patches developed once they are found. Making sure it is PCI compliant is critical for most websites.

What platform should I use?

This leave us with the choice of an existing platform for the website. Currently there are 3 major contenders, each with their pros and cons: Magento, WooCommerce and Shopify. According to these 3 solutions take over 50% of the market share for the top 1 million sites. WooCommerce leads with 29%, followed by Shopify (22%) and Magento (8%). As you look more into the top ranking sites WooCommerce is surpassed by Shopify and Magento even more share. This is because these are very different solutions that appeal to a different type of people and websites.

WooCommerce is really just a plugin for WordPress. It was built on top of WordPress to satisfy the need for an easy way to sell products for wordpress users. It’s popularity rose especially due to an existing large wordpress community and a very intuitive and easy user interface.
However, because it is not a standalone ecommerce platform, WooCommerce is much more limited and less powerful than the other 2 solutions. Typically I would recommend it for simple websites that do not have have a lot of traffic or needs.

Shopify is a SaaS solution which means that you do not have to host it yourself. It is provided as a service and hosted on shopify cloud infrastructure. There are 2 major drawbacks in my opinion: cost and versatility. First you have to pay a monthly fee (well, in truth you also have to pay for hosting any of the other 2 solution mentioned here) and a commission for every transaction you make (this is a major downside for sites that have sales volume). The other disadvantage is that you do not really have full control of the code. This make customization much more limited.
On the up side you will have hosting, security and maintenance covered and it is an easy platform to use.

Magento is the more powerful platform of them all. This is why it is used by bigger players in the market. It is a more complex platform and with a stepper learning curve but in my opinion it is worth it. You can build pretty much everything you need with this platform!
Although it is most know for it’s free Community version, magento also offers an Enterprise Edition which is fully managed but also the most expensive solution out there.

What about design?

After selecting a platform you should consider how you want your site to look like. It must be appealing to the eye otherwise you will not get sales for sure!

Again here you need to make a decision: build a custom theme, buy a ready made one or just go with a basic free.

For the same reason mentioned above about using an existing platform I usually advise customers to get a ready made theme. These are usually packed with additional features that will enrich the user experience at your site and at a fraction of the price compared to develop from scratch.
Many of these theme have also a lot of different versions/skins that you can use and are highly customizable (specially the ones for magento). Using them as a starting point for your final design is the most cost-effective solution.

Themeforest is one of the most known marketplaces to buy a theme. You can find themes for all frameworks at competitive prices.

Another great option is TemplateMonster. They offer a variety of different themes that are not as used and might help you to stand out from the usually

Where should I host my website?

For me the best hosting type is cloud hosting. Due to its decentralized structure, you will get a stable and scalable solution that can easily adapt to most demand time of the year in terms of sales (like Christmas and Black Friday).

There are a lot of different hosting companies on the market and it is very hard to make a choice. For the reasons mentioned here I would suggest Cloudways. They have what it takes to match your needs with specialized solutions for both magento and wordpress. And all at a fixed monthly rate! No bad surprises at the end of the month!

For magento I suggest a server with a minimum of 4GB RAM in the Digital Ocean cloud infrastructure.

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