Your Guide To Building Your First Ecommerce Agency From Scratch

It’s never been more affordable or convenient to enter the ecommerce world as a seller, so you might think that there would be less work going around for development agencies — but you’d be wrong. The low barrier to entry has massively raised the level of competition, requiring ambitious retail businesses to spend more on features and UX elements in order to keep up with their competitors.

Because of this, it’s also a great time to build an ecommerce agency. If you can become established as a reliable developer, you’ll consistently be able to find work — and since ecommerce results are so easy to track and chart (sales analytics data is comprehensive), you won’t need to make an effort to justify your expenditure. It will be justified by the money you help sellers make.

But how do you get started on that process? If you don’t currently have any such business, how do you chart a path to success?

That’s what we’re going to look at in this article. We’re going to cover what makes a dedicated agency worth building, how to choose the details of your website, how to present your content, and how to win your first client. Let’s get to it.

Why ecommerce specializing is so valuable

Quite often, a digital agency will advertise very broad services, perhaps wanting to give the impression that it can handle any issue and get results for any client. This is fine in principle, but in reality you’ll find that prospective clients don’t want to work with generic companies. They want to work with specialists. This is certainly the case for ecommerce sellers. The average business with a website gets some use out of it for enquiries and branding, but could shut it down entirely and stay in business. Ecommerce businesses are their websites.

Because of this, clearly stating to the world that your agency helps ecommerce businesses will establish you as an expert in the field, and reassure prospective clients that you won’t simply be giving them generic work with a slight ecommerce twist: you’ll be delivering real results that consider even the most minor of online retail considerations.

And the specialization shouldn’t stop at your business definition. When you start recruiting to fill out your team, you should painstakingly find the candidates with the most experience, enthusiasm and skill for the ecommerce world. If you can hire people who have previously worked in the industry, even better — they’ll be fully up to speed with the terminology, and may even have some useful contacts that could yield some valuable connections.

Creating your agency website

Even if you’re still in the process of building your team, you should make a priority of getting your agency website up and running as soon as possible. Why? Because it will take time for your website to be crawled and indexed (without being indexed, it can’t rank in search engines), and you’ll have more domain options the sooner you act. You don’t want to wait and end up missing out on the domain you were hoping for.

Here’s the process you should follow:

Choose your business name

You may already have one in mind, but if not, think of one to begin with. It should be simple, memorable, easy to type and say, and unlikely to create any negative or confusing associations (don’t overlap with any major brands).

Choose your domain

You can do this while you’re finalizing your business name, because you may want to tweak one or the other to ensure parity. If you’re set on a short business name but the domain isn’t available, it isn’t necessarily a big problem — just extend it as previously suggested, trying different terms until you find a suitable one that’s also available.

Choose your CMS

With your name decided and your domain secured, you need to decide what kind of CMS you want your site to run on. Since you’re going to be running an ecommerce agency, you clearly know how to build at least one variety of ecommerce site, but you likely won’t want your business site to be an ecommerce store — stick with whichever platform you prefer.

For most people, this will be WordPress, which is also advantageous because it can be extended to function as a store through the WooCommerce plugin. If you prefer building ecommerce sites through WooCommerce, you’ll have the WordPress skills to create a great site, and be able to highlight your expertise as a developer that way.

Additionally, if you prefer to build ecommerce websites through other platforms such as Magento, BigCommerce, or Shopify, you’ll be able to send external links to sample pages (or even set them to open in iframes if you’re very reluctant to send people away from your site).

(Even if you have no ecommerce aspirations, consider setting up some functional stores using dropshipping to form a portfolio of sorts. You’d only really need to run them until you had enough clients to use real-world examples. After that, you could sell them on — listing them under available starter stores for entrepreneurs, for instance — for a modest financial boost.)

Choose your hosting

Depending on the CMS you choose, you may have the option for your website to be hosted or self-hosted. Using a hosted solution is often the easiest approach, because you then don’t need to give much thought to the technical details (realistically, despite your technical expertise, you might well prefer not to have to work extensively on your own site), though it will present some restrictions you may find frustrating in the long run.

Taking the self-hosted path, however, will be considerably more work. You’ll need to secure the hosting yourself, which will require you to choose from a wide range of companies with different levels of performance and technical support. Choose poorly, and you’ll have an experience much like renting a flat from a nightmare landlord. Choose well, and you’ll have the reliable foundation of a hosted package with the freedom to make changes at your leisure.

If you end up going with WordPress, then obviously I’d be remiss not to mention Nestify! Running on top-end hardware with regular updates, automated backups, guarantees, 24/7 support and a massive 99.97% uptime, it’s really the pinnacle of what you can expect from a web host (like renting from a really great landlord who gives you free slices of cheesecake).

What sellers will be looking for

Assuming you handle all the design elements (a safe assumption given the business you’re in!), then once you’ve gone through all the previous steps, you should be ready to get going with your website. What matters now is catering your content to the clients you’re hoping to win, and that requires you to get into the mind of an ecommerce retailer and figure out what would convince them to reach out to your agency in particular.

Much of this will depend on the services you’re positioned to offer, admittedly, but you can always expand your offered range by hiring new people or diversifying your skill set. Here are some things that sellers might be looking for you to provide:

  • Store building and design. As the central role of an ecommerce agency, the store building and design process is utterly essential. Many businesses operate solely through this work because it’s a challenging and often daunting process, through the prevalence of easy CMS setup processes means that it’s no longer essential for an entrepreneur.

  • Product recommendation. If someone has just started on their ecommerce journey, they might be looking for some feedback on the products they’re planning to sell, possibly needing industry research, price comparisons, and similar fact-finding tasks. This is something your agency could plausibly provide.

  • Storage guidance. Any and all sellers that don’t rely exclusively on dropshipping need to handle their product storage, whether it’s done by one person from their bedroom or handled by a team from a warehouse. You could put a seller in contact with the most appropriate storage provider.

  • Legal advice. Distance selling regulations can be complicated, and with states having differing laws, it’s often confusing to figure out what exactly the requirements are for ecommerce shipping. If you accrue some expertise in this area, you can help sellers to determine their legal responsibilities.

  • SEO work. Search rankings are incredibly important for ecommerce businesses, because PPC traffic is reliable but doesn’t compound (build over time). Winning a decent ranking for a buyer-intent keyword is enormously valuable.

  • General marketing. From TV spots to social media campaigns, there’s a lot of freedom in the marketing world to get creative. If that’s something that interests you, you could take on that responsibility.

  • App development. Mobile shopping apps are more important than ever before, and the trend towards smartphone purchases continues to gather pace. If you have the skills to develop mobile apps, you could likely get a lot of business from doing so.

You obviously don’t need to offer all of these services — you could potentially be successful focussing on just one of them. This is just an indication of the kinds of things potential clients will be looking to see in your service lineup.

Getting the language right

If you’re going to be marketing to ecommerce businesses, you won’t be able to take the creative liberties that you might be able to get away with when marketing to other businesses. Online sellers know all the tricks of the trade when it comes to copywriting — in fact, they’ve pioneered many of them. Because of this, forget the blagging and concentrate on being authentic.

That’s not to say that you can’t draw from the ecommerce product playbook, though, because in that regard you certainly should take after retail copy. All of your marketing materials should be extremely clear and action-centric. Try to imagine that your agency is a product you’re selling to ecommerce businesses, and act accordingly. Write about the benefits, not just the features, and include all the social proof you can (in the form of reviews and testimonials).

And definitely work in as many favorable stats and specifics as you can. Simply saying that you helped a business and everyone there was very happy isn’t going to impress anyone, because it’s exceptionally vague and possibly meaningless. If you can say that you developed a fresh website for an ecommerce business and it led directly to a 40% rise in monthly revenue that has remained stable, you’ll find store owners extremely eager to see what you can do for them.

Earning your first business

Once your website is fully fleshed-out, you may wonder how you can go from that point to getting your first client. Well, to begin with, you’re going to need to make a concerted effort to draw people in — word-of-mouth recommendations are unlikely to be coming your way.

I suggest starting with the following three steps, as they should get you some traction:

  • Run some basic PPC ads. While it isn’t advisable to commit a lot of money to a PPC campaign at this stage of your business, it’s perfect for getting some eyes on your website and picking up your first enquiries. Try a monthly budget of $100 with a low cost-per-click on some niche keywords and see what happens, then tweak your settings over time to make them more cost-effective.

  • Mention your business through networking. When talking to friends, family, colleagues, and anyone else with whom you have a rapport, be sure to mention your new business and what it does. You’ll likely find that people are happy to help you out by putting you in contact with prospective clients and putting in a good word for you.

  • Pitch to some sites you think you could help. This is particularly good with businesses in your area. Look around for ecommerce sites in your locality and find some that you’re quite certain you could help to succeed, then form some introductory pitches and send them out. You may hear nothing back, but you might find that they appreciate your initiative and want to hear more about what you can do. That’s your way in.

For many companies, the first few clients are the hardest to earn. Once you’re over that hill, you should have momentum on your side, needing just to continue doing good work for your business to become a solid success.

Conclusion

Running an ecommerce store — whether it’s the tiniest dropshipping store or the largest Amazon-style powerhouse — is stressful and challenging. Don’t forget that your role as an ecommerce agency is to make that process easier, regardless of the specific service you’re offering. Focussing on that will help you shape your business effectively.

From start to finish, it shouldn’t actually take you that long to get your site underway if you follow the process we’ve covered. Get the foundation right, and you’ll be well-positioned to thrive — and remember to consult an expert if you’re unsure about any part of the journey (such as the hosting). Good luck!

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