How to Start an Online Store: Part 2 – Business and Suppliers

Last week we’ve covered the basics of starting your online store. We’ve talked about choosing your market and your particular niche, We’ve covered the main questions you need to figure out before you start building your actual store. Finally we went through the main business models and scanned some of the most innovative and interesting implementations in B2C (business to consumer) ecommerce.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s turn your idea into a real store. This part of the “Starting an Online Store” guide will show you how to register your business and how to build the operational basics for your store. At the end of part two of this guide you’ll know how to find the right ecommerce suppliers, integrate your business with said suppliers and set the prices for your products.

How do I register my online store as a business in the US?

Note: This part of the guide is intended to work as a guide mainly for readers in the US. That’s why some of the acronyms and type of companies you’ll find in here are going to be aimed at those of you registering your business in the US. If you are registering your business elsewhere please leave a comment as to where you intend to register your business and I will try to get back to you with more info.

That being set, most of the information you’ll be reading here is in essence applicable in other countries or regions. Even though business structures may have different names and have slightly different usage in different parts of the world, their purpose remains pretty much the same, as globalization tends to level the playing field.

So let’s get started with why you would want to register your store as a business?

Sure, planning and building your business is a great way to spend your time and effort. But you also need to work as a legal entity.

There are basically two ways you can register your business:

  • as an un-incorporated business (solely owned or owned by a partnership) or …
  • an incorporated business.

You can start as a Sole Proprietorship (the most popular type of business for ecommerce entrepreneurs) and move to other forms of businesses as your chances of success increase.

If you are the sole owner of an online business, the Sole Proprietorship (also known as DBA – “Doing Business As“) is the easiest form to register and manage your business. It actually works as an alias for the individual doing the business. Because of this, the owner is personally liable for the company. That means that all debt is imputable to the owner. However, as Sole Proprietorships are usually low-liability businesses, a lot of startups work under this type of legal entity.

The second big option in starting an un-incorporated business is the General Partnership. In Partnerships, more individuals get together to start some kind of business. Just like the Sole Proprietorship, Partnerships are easy to set up and manage and because partners share equal control on the company, the liability and profits are also shared.

Incorporating your company

Like I’ve mentioned above, the second category of companies falls under the “corporate” model. When you’re incorporating your company you don’t become a corporate behomoth and you don’t automatically get billions in revenue, as you’d expect. It just means you’re operating under a different set of rules. Plus you get to do a lot more paperwork and pay some extra taxes.

Pros of incorporating the business

The most important reasons to incorporate your company as an entrepreneur are liability protection and documenting deals with partners.

By far liability protection is the most important reason to incorporate your company. Under a corporate structure, your business is treated as a separate legal entity. If things go awry in your business (and sometimes they do) the company is liable for paying all debtors, not you. That, of course, if you have been operating your business in a legal manner.

Basically, registering as a corporation will keep your assets (house, car, golf clubs) protected from any issue that might arise operating the business.

The second important reason to incorporate your company is documenting a business deal with partners. Whether you are raising money from investors or selling shares in your company, you need a corporate structure to do this.

Cons of incorporating the business

You may hear other reasons why you should incorporate your company, things such as tax benefits, business credit and transferable ownership. But don’t rush to register your corporation just yet. Most entrepreneurs are doing just great running un-incorporated business in the beginning. Tax benefits are usually tangible when your company is already successful enough. So if you are just a startup, you can probably forget about tax benefits.

Building business credit means companies are evaluated independently from their owners but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a good thing. If you are a startup with no cash in the bank, no sales and no clear plan, that fresh business credit won’t be of help much.

Finally, saying an incorporated company is a lot easier to transfer to other individuals or companies leaves out a very important aspect. Before transfering your company (hopefully selling it for lots of cash) you need to build this company. So again – this won’t help you that much either.

But the biggest disadvantage small businesses that incorporate have to face is paperwork. Lots of paperwork. You will have to fill in state reports, organize annual meeting and deal with involved bureaucracy.

Then there’s the fees. You’ll be paying fees for legal council, tax filling and others. Professional help is not cheap. Plus you get the minimum franchise taxes and others. These amount to thousands of dollars in fees, which is a bit much for small business owners.

So incorporating a company is no easy feat. Or better said – it’s not easy to manage an incorporated company if you are a small business owner.

But if you do find yourself in need of incorporating the business, here are the most important type of corporations you can choose:

LLC – Limited Liability Company

You have probably heard one thing or two about LLC (Limited Liability Company). It’s the most popular form of business among small and medium businesses, including online store owners. It combines what is called pass-through taxationfor its members with the limited liability corporations provide.

Although not technically a corporation, it is a great choice for those that want to join a limited liability partnership. It basically works as partnership or sole proprietorship in terms of taxation. This means the owners (called members) pay taxes on the LLC’s profit directly. The company doesn’t fill taxes separately, which makes things a lot easier to manage.

This types of businesses are actually pretty young as a commercial concept. The LLC structure was first formed in 1977 and now it’s accepted in all US states and a throughout most of the world.

At the heart of LLC stands the “Operating Agreement“, a document signed by all members, setting the rules under which the company will be managed. It covers things such as profits sharing, company management, adding or removing members and more.

The LLC is the most popular choice in the world right now for forming partnership, usually chosen by groups of up to 5 members.

Although starting and managing a LLC is less complicated than a corporation, it is still more complicated than starting and managing a sole proprietorship or a partnership. You will probably have to hire a legal counselor to help you with the set up and operating the company.

The Regular Corporation (C-Corporation)

The Regular Corporation is … well … the corporation. A company organized as a corporation is a separate legal entity from its owners (called shareholders). The company can thus protect owners from liability issues or company debt.

The corporation provides advantages such as:

  • easier capital inflow (through stock sales),
  • ownership can easily be transferred through stock transfer
  • being a separate entity it can and will act independently from its owners. This means it can sue and get sued, it can own property and it will be taxed independently from its owners
  • tax advantages can be substantial (a lot more business expenses can be deducted)

Once the corporation is set up, it will pay taxes separately from its owners. This can lead to double taxation as companies are taxed on profits and once those profits are distributed, shareholders will also have to pay income taxes. The double taxation problem is solved by incorporating as a S Corporation (see below).

Corporations are not necessarily ran by its owners. The shareholders own company stock. This gives them the ability to elect Directors, organized under a board of directors. Once this board of directors is set up, they appoint Officers (CEO – Chief Executive Office, CFO – Chief Financial Officer etc.), which are the people that actually run the company on a daily baisis. Of course, if you own 100% of stock, you can appoint yourself as the one and only director, be the officer and run the company.

On the other hand, if your company will be owned by more individuals, the Board of Directors and the Officers will run the company. Both the Board of Directors and The Officers have to abide to an internal company document called “Corporate Bylaws“. This document sets the rules on operating the company and can be extended or modified as the company evolves.

The Corporation is a lot more formal than the LLC and of course, the Partnership or the Sole Proprietorship. The records have to be carefully maintained, there is a mandatory yearly Directors and Shareholders meeting and every decision has to be documented and reported.

Although the corporation is harder to form and maintain, it is the oldest and most reputable form of business organization.

Registering as a S-Corporation

When registering as a corporation, you should take into account the S-Corporation. By filling in the appropriate tax election form to the Internal Revenue Service, the company will be taxed as a Sole Proprietorship or a Partnership.

The main advantage for you and your partners is that income and profit is passed through to the shareholders, thus solving the double taxation problem mentioned above.

Even though you’ve solved the double taxation issue – you’re still stuck with the paperwork and specific regulation, which can be a burden for online retail startups.

To wrap things up, here is a rundown of the main types of incorporated business structure you can choose, each with its own pros and cons:

Once you have decided on whether you’re registering your business as a sole proprietorship or incorporating it you can check the specific regulations for your state here and start the registration process.

Integrating suppliers with my online store

You’ve figured out your market, planned on how you’ll build and run your store and what your business model is. You’ve registered your business and you are ready to go. Or are you?

Well hold on there, you still need to have those products you’re selling. That means you need to source your merchandise from suppliers.

Generally speaking, suppliers are those businesses or individuals that are willing to supply you with products priced below end consumer value. Still a bit unclear? Well say you will be selling plain t-shirts. You know you can buy those t-shirts for $20 at the closest store. If you do buy t-shirts in that store, you will be buying them at end consumer value. You are the end consumer. Because you cannot price them at a higher level you are basically stuck with them – hence the “end” in end consumer.

What you need to do is go find yourself some suppliers that are willing to sell you those t-shirts for less than $20. Why would they do that, you say?

Remember the whole B2B business model? Some companies just work this way. They manufacture the products or sell them in bulk and let other companies sell directly to the end consumer.

( The basic operations needed to run your store )

When dealing with suppliers you have to be ready to make a commitment before they agree to do business with you. This commitment can come in many forms but usually it’s one of the following:

  1. buy products in bulk: say you are willing to buy 50 of those plain t-shirts. You can negotiate your purchase price down to $15. Willing to buy another 50? Maybe the price can go even lower, to $10 and so on. The thing you have to remember here is that although bulk buying can be a potentially great deal in terms of price discounts, you also have to sell those products. If you get stuck with $500 worth of t-shirts that you are not able to sell, you have just wasted your money. It doesn’t matter how much you saved purchasing said products. What matters is making a profit and making your customers happy.
  2. commit to a target: maybe you are not willing to buy 50 plain t-shirts, because you don’t know what your potential customers are willing to buy. You are, however, confident they are willing to buy something. So you commit to a monthly, quarterly or yearly sales target. The supplier will than give you a startup discount for purchased products. This discount can increase as you sell more and more merchandise. You can list the products on your online store, stock as little inventory as possible and ship and restock when orders arrive.

 

Once you’ve made a deal with one or more suppliers you will be selling your products right on your store. When the orders start pouring in (or maybe just trickle in the beginning) you have to make sure customers receive the products they’ve paid for. This part is called “fulfillment” as in fulfilling your promise to send the product to the customer in exchange for the payment you have received.

Fulfillment means any task done inside or outside the company that assures the right products are shipped to the customer. Usually this means:

  1. order management: checking order information (customer info, address, number of products etc) and forwarding order details to the right fulfillment center to be completed. If you are a startup this may mean you will be checking the customer details, maybe confirming the order and then planning on where to get the products from.
  2. pick and pack: this is the usual term for picking products from the warehouse shelf and packing them to make sure they are ready for shipment
  3. shipping the products: once products are picked, packed and ready to go, they have to actually leave your warehouse. When this happens you will either bring them yourself to your customer’s address (highly unlikely) or commission a company specialized in shipping (such as FedEx or UPS) to do so.

 

We will talk a lot more about fulfillment later on in this guide but for now I just wanted to give you an overview on the usual processes in handling orders and shipping products to the end consumer.

Fulfillment can be done either within your company, by the supplier or as a mix between the two. Let’s have a look at these scenarios:

  1. fulfill orders within the company: this is the way most medium to large companies fulfill their orders. They build inventory for most of the products they’re selling (especially popular items), stock them in warehouses and when orders arrive, employees in the warehouses fulfill these orders. This process implies a rather large inventory and it can be an ineffective way to handle orders for startups. That’s why most ecommerce startups require another form of collaboration with suppliers:
  2. fulfillment is externalized as suppliers “dropship” orders:  this means you can just showcase products on your store and orders are shipped by your supply partner. Rather than stock on products, you can just forward orders to your product supplier and that company will take care of the shipment. The individual product is then shipped to the end consumer and you are invoiced for said product. You profit from the difference between the retail price (the price you posted on your website) and the price you’re paying to the supplier.

 

Usually, most online retailers (such as yourself) choose a combination between the two and maybe some other processes.

( The example below is illustrated in the figure above. Combining basic operatiosn with supplier drop-shipping. )

For example, let’s say you partnered with two suppliers (see figure above). Supplier A will provide you with plain t-shirts. Supplier B brings in sneakers. After you start your store you receive two orders. Customer X is asking for 2 plain t-shirts. Customer Y is asking for a plain t-shirt and a pair of sneakers.

You will have to treat these orders differently. Order number one, the one where customer X paid for 2 plain t-shirts is forwarded to Supplier A and he will dropship these items and then invoice you for the products.

Order number two is a bit more complicated. You will have to ask supplier A to send you one plain t-shirt (if you don’t already have it on your inventory) and Supplier B will send you a pair of sneakers. You will be invoiced on those products and once you have them in your warehouse you can pack and ship them to the customer.

You can also choose to work with external fulfillment services, such as Fulfillment by Amazon. These services relieve you of the burden of picking, packing and shipping your orders. For a cost.

By building and interlinking separate operations such as those mentioned above, you are actually building what is called a supply chain. The supply chain means any interlinked process that enables you to move products from the manufacturers or wholesalers to the consumer.

The supply chain is not a static structure. It can and it will change as your online store evolves. As you add new suppliers to your supply chain, your ability to distribute products to consumers will increase and so will your revenue. But speaking of adding suppliers to the supply chain …

How do I find Ecommerce Suppliers for my Store?

Yeah, how DO you find suppliers for the online store? Now that you’ve got a sense of why you need suppliers, how to negotiate and deal with them, let’s have a look at how to actually find them. When you’re looking for merchandise suppliers you’ll see that you have two big options when choosing, each with its pros and cons. These two options are domestic suppliers and overseas suppliers.

Assuming you are in the US, using domestic suppliers will be a very viable option but you should also consider the second. Overseas suppliers can be a great addition to your supply chain. They can be used when in need of additional product options or lower prices. Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of using these two types of suppliers.

Domestic Suppliers

Pros:

  • (usually) higher manufacturing standards
  • improved shipping time
  • intellectual property protection (might be really important if you design your own products)
  • no cultural or communication barriers
  • no import taxes
  • safer business relationship
  • easier to check references for reputable manufacturers or wholesalers
  • lower minimum level ordered quantities

Cons:

  • higher prices
  • less products to choose from (not few, just less)

( Directories providing links to domestic US suppliers )

Overseas suppliers

The most important thing you need to remember when dealing with overseas suppliers is that you have to be very, very careful. If you are inexperienced, you should ask for professional advice on how to get the best deals and protect yourself from fraud. Also – if you do find yourself in need of doing business with overseas suppliers, choose to contact those that provide a local sales office or agent or order using established marketplaces that provide escrow payment options.

Pros:

  • (usually) lower prices
  • ability to deliver unique items to your customers
  • a wide array of suppliers you can choose from
  • established online marketplaces provide an one-stop shop for retailers

Cons:

  • you will have to deal with customs, local taxes and special conditions when importing
  • low or zero ability to dropship to your customers
  • must buy larger quantities to actually get said lower prices
  • inability to change or customize orders
  • inability to reorder popular items – usually stocks ran out and without a preexistent order, the supplier will probably not sell the goods you’ve purchased last time.
  • cultural and communication problems
  • longer shipping time
  • harder to check for supplier references

( The most reliable services that connect you to B2B suppliers overseas )

Although the services mentioned above are a great way to find the right suppliers, you can also do your own digging and search for independent manufacturers or wholesalers.

There is no standard way of doing this but some tips may help you get closer to your ideal suppliers:

  1. Contact the manufacturer directly: saw some product you’d like to have? Probably your customers would also. Have a look at the label and contact the manufacturer. They must at least have a name and using that, you can use Google to find out more about them.
  2. Speaking of Google: try going deeper in your search results. B2B traders and manufacturers are not really great at marketing (that is the retailer’s job) so their websites scream “so 90’s” and they are not really optimized for search engines. That’s why you should click further than you’re usually used to in order to find a hidden gem.
  3. Trade fairs: yeah, people still do that. Especially in the B2B trading world. You can find a list that might interest you here and here.

 

So hopefully you now know a thing or two about finding suppliers and you’re going to get the best deal possible. Great! What’s next? Oh, yeah, prices:

How do I set the Price for My Online Store’s Products?

When it comes to pricing, you have two rather simple concepts to always keep in mind:

  1. Cost of goods sold (COGS): this is the cost you have paid for the goods plus any costs associated to getting the goods in your inventory and ready for sale. This includes, but is not limited to: shipping, handling or customs taxes.
  2. Operating expenses: this is the total cost associated with running your business. This includes rent, utilities, wages, marketing costs and others.

Basically, the prices of sold products have to cover the sum of these expenses. The bottom line is always the same: Profit = Revenue – Costs.

Your company will report a gross revenue by selling products. Profits come when you are selling enough merchandise, at the right price, to cover your costs.

Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than this but you get the picture. You have to price your sold products where you can be profitable. However, prices need to stay competitive to the market. This means that there’s a balance you have to keep. Prices should be big enough to keep you in business but small enough to be competitive with other online retailers.

Pricing strategies

1. Markup on cost means you add a certain percentage to he cost associated with the product. It is usually a standard percentage somewhere between 15% and 40%, enough to keep you profitable and your prices competitive.

The formula works like this:

Item cost + (Item cost x Markup Percentage) = Price

Say for example we are selling plain t-shirts, with a cost of $20. We’ve set the markup at 30%. The the price would be:

$20 (Item cost) + ($20 x 30%) = $26

2. Manufacturer suggested retail price (MSRP) is another way small businesses can set their prices in such a way that they are profitable but not too expensive. MSRP is the price the manufacturer recommends to resellers so they don’t start price wars that can benefit no one. This type of price setting leaves out a lot of options for the online store owner and should not be a general rule in the long run.

Above are just two of the simpler ways prices can be set to attract the consumers. We will get into a lot more details in the “Marketing your store” part of this guide so stay tuned.

For now, this concludes part two of the “How to Start an Online Store” Complete Guide. Part three will focus on building your fulfillment operation (picking, packing, shipping and returns) and how to build a brand identity and the actual store front. See you soon!

See part 3 of “How to start an online store”: Fulfillment >>

Featured image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/27017674@N06/8915361750

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