small business

If you’re a small business owner, now could be the time to consider selling your product online. Online shopping is so popular that, according to the “U.S. Online Retail Forecast, 2011 to 2016 ” report by Forrester Research, Inc., e-commerce sales in the U.S. are expected to reach $327 billion by 2016.

Providing a product online is one of the easiest ways to become an entrepreneur, and one of the best ways to boost sales for your existing business.

Steve Chou (pictured right) and his wife, Jen, learned just how popular online shopping is when they started their online business, Bumblebee Linens, on a shoestring budget. Within a year, they saw a six-figure profit. While Chou’s success is a little out of the ordinary, he insists that starting a small business doesn’t have to be complicated.

“Thanks to open source software and a slew of very inexpensive, fully-hosted shopping cart options, you can start an online store in a matter of days if you have products to sell,” he says.

Whether you’re interested in starting a business online or bringing your offline product to the Internet, these five things can help get you started:

1. Webhost

You’ll need a home on the Web, so your first step—aside from having something to sell—should be finding a hosting service that can provide you with space for your e-commerce store. You have the option of paying for a hosting plan or finding free hosting, so be sure to fully research each option to figure out what’s best for you.

Questions you may want to ask include: How much storage does the webhost provide? How much does additional storage cost? Does the host have e-commerce capabilities? In addition, you will want your own IP address; your webhost can usually help with domain name registration.

Chou points out that you can buy hosting for as little as $4.95 per month. Try to choose a plan that allows you to scale up to more space and bandwidth as your business and sales grow. As your sales increase, you will be able to afford to pay more for your hosting

2. Website design or template

Chou says it can be much easier to purchase a template or hire someone to design your site than to try to code it yourself. With an e-commerce template, you can quickly and easily create a catalogue of items, add descriptions, and set up navigation for customers.

If you have the budget and are looking for a site that’s a little more personalized, a customized e-commerce Web design from a professional can be a great way to get exactly the look and usability that you want for your site.

3. Open source shopping cart

small businessChou recommends installing a free open source shopping cart for your e-commerce site. A shopping cart is essential for handling orders for your business and for processing payments, and open source (freely available) carts are generally easier to customize than proprietary carts. Many of them will allow you to install upgrades as needed, and they often come with additional features.

Research your options and consider shopping carts with extras like inventory tracking and newsletter management. An added bonus: Some open source shopping carts, like other open source software, are backed by lively online forums where you can get many of your questions about the product answered.

4. SSL certificate

Your customers need to trust that their information is safe on your site. If you’re going to be taking online payments, find out if your platform or shopping cart provides an SSL certificate. This certificate protects, or encrypts, all the transactions between your server and the customer’s Web browser so third parties, including bots or malware, can’t read them.

5. Credit card processor

You need a way for customers to pay. If you already have a business and accept credit cards, you likely have a merchant account. Check with your service provider to find out what you need to do to set up payment processing through your e-commerce site. You may also want to check with your webhost or shopping cart to see what payment processing options it provides.

Another option is to offer third-party payment processing. Many large companies have payment processing services that can all help you process payments from customers, and they also offer merchant accounts that allow you to accept credit cards. Many third-party payment options also allow customers to check out using their smartphones.

Chou’s e-commerce site gave him the opportunity to reach more customers than he ever could have with a brick-and-mortar store, and he’s enjoyed the experience. “Basically, I work for fun,” he says. “I design microprocessors for a living, and I don’t want to give up the technical aspects of my education.” But he now has another option on which to fall back.

“Not too many people can say that they work for fun,” he points out. And if he does decide to quit his job, Chou can help Bumblebee Linens grow even more. With these five elements combined, you too can be ready to grow your business by expanding your customer base through the Internet.

Miranda Marquit is a freelance writer and professional blogger specializing in personal finance, family finance and business topics. She writes for several online and offline publications. Miranda is the co-author of Community 101: How to Grow an Online Community, and the writer behind PlantingMoneySeeds.com.