‘Ecom Hell’ Writer on Starting an Ecommerce Business

For potential merchants that think starting an ecommerce business is simple, Shirley Tan disagrees. She has the expertise to disagree, having recognized her first ecommerce website in the 1990s, which became a market leader, and she later sold. Her new novel, Ecom Hell, explains what it takes — in the trenches — to successfully conduct an ecommerce business.

We talked recently with Shirley Tan.

Shirley Tan

Practical Ecommerce: You are an ecommerce pioneer. Your new book is Ecom Hell, a provocative name. Why did you write it?

Shirley Tan:“I wrote it for people that are only beginning in ecommerce. My point of view is that the actual work in ecommerce begins after the customer places the order. Everything leading to this, all of the marketing, all of the search engine optimization, web design, all of these are completely important. However, at the end of the day, the clients care about receiving their goods. It is the post-sale customer experience that’s important.

“I wanted the new entrepreneur coming into this area to have a excellent comprehensive idea about what it is going to take not to only start but to conduct and grow the organization. Occasionally, it may be hell, when people do not start off on the right foot.”

PEC: You based, AmericanBridal.com from the 1990s. You climbed that to be a dominant retailer of wedding goods, prior to selling it in 2009. What’s the state of ecommerce today?

Tan:“The present state of ecommerce is extremely tough. I tell my clients it is Amazon’s world. They are the big gorilla in this area. They’re everywhere. They appear to sell everything. What can new ecommerce merchants, even the men and women who’ve been in ecommerce a very long time, what can they do to actually differentiate themselves?

“The margin for error is decreasing. People need to really be on top of it. They must really just select a course and work all of the leverages that they can to achieve success. However, it’s definitely a very fierce landscape. No doubt.”

PEC: Tell us more about your ecommerce experience.

Tan:“I started off as a merchant in the late 80s. I did so when I was in school. I was just a normal retailer, using a brick-and-mortar shop. In the early 90s, I started a mail order catalogue, and loathed it. Hated it. It was lots of work. When online came about in 1996 and I registered the domain name, put up a site on the Yahoo! store platform, and did not understand what I was doing. It really took a backseat to the retail shop too. I think it took me a long time to determine what the online company was about.

“I sold the side of this business to my partner in 2004 and took over the internet and focused all of my energy on that part, AmericanBridal.com. I offered it in 2009. By then, we had a total of seven sites. We also had bits and pieces of a wholesale company that didn’t succeed. It was not all 100 percent home run, but I think it to be a fairly good achievement.”

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PEC: Tell us about your new company, Ecommerce Systems.

Tan:“I took off some time once I offered American Bridal. I actually had some soul looking for what I wish to do. What am I passionate about? I truly do love the ecommerce area. I like the advertising piece. I enjoy the strategy. I like growing companies. At heart, I am a merchant. Nowadays, I am helping small businesses. It gives me lots of satisfaction in order to still do that — to have the ability to contribute in that manner.”

PEC: There are people reading this that could be considering starting their own ecommerce business, or a new aspect of the present business. What is your advice to them?

Tan:“The biggest thing is — even in the event that you have an existing business and you are considering branching off to another niche — there are 3 things to remember.

“First, concentrate on a persuasive message. What’s this new business going to be around? If you have done it before, how is it going to be different from the past companies? Who are the audience — not only the demographics. Who are the customers which are most likely to purchase from you? Why? What do you have in common with them? Focus on a persuasive message of who you are and that you are not. You will need to go after that audience. Share your worth and go after them with a vengeance. That is number one.

“The next thing is to nail down your merchandise. In case you have only 1 vendor and that source goes off, then what? You have spent all this money in a web site, in maybe an infrastructure, a back end, and you pin your whole entire strategy on this supplier will come through for you. That is too many eggs in 1 basket. It is best for you to have more control over the products. Meaning that it is either your design, you are making it, or you’ve got some sort of intellectual property into it, so you control the destiny of your goods. Otherwise, it’s only a commodity. Everybody sells products, right? The margins are slim. It’s competitive. The next man will only lower the price merely to make the sale. It is like a race to the bottom.

“Third, people hear this all of the time but it’s true. Be passionate. It is not absolutely crucial, but it helps. By way of instance, a friend is considering getting into ecommerce, I asked her,’Why would you wish to do this?’ She said,’Well, I could make some cash. I don’t know anything about this distance.’ I find it to be problematic. She’s my buddy. I am trying to be gentle. But she’s considering quitting her corporate job and putting some money into this. I am scared for her. The passion part can help you get out of bed in the morning. It helps you when clients are yelling at you or if you are having a rough day or any time your workers let you down. Passion helps get you out of bed and keeps you moving.”

Ecom Hell.

PEC: Your new book is Ecom Hell. Where can someone purchase it?

Tan: It is available on Amazon — I self-published it in print and electronic, as an ebook. If you are a Amazon Prime member and you’ve got a Kindle, you can borrow it from the library at no cost. Or it is $6.99 for the Kindle version.”

PEC: Any other ideas?

Tan:“A lot of people — large companies, small businesses — they are all thinking of the upcoming hot popular product. They need to be another iPhone. However, it’s more important to concentrate on the superb service. Add value to the clients, because consumer products come-and-go. Products can be knocked off. It’s only like the next knock-off or another mark down, or concerning pricing game.

“However, what if you could win over your customers’ hearts? Imagine if you can win over a mind share, so customers think of you to fix problems, not market products? If that’s what they think of your organization, it’s just like printing money.”

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