Selling Online In 2021: Everything You Need To Know To Get Started

/ ecommerce
Laura Wilson

If you’re here, it’s because you’re unsure where to start when it comes to selling online, or you aren’t satisfied with how you’re currently doing it.

We get it. It’s practically compulsory to sell online now, no matter what kind of business you have. While there’s a lot of information about how you can do it, sifting through it all can be a bit overwhelming.

But the process of selling online doesn’t have to be complicated. We’re going to take you through exactly how to do it—from coming up with an idea and setting up your online store to actually selling products. Let’s get right to it.

Start Selling Online In 6 Simple Steps

You know the first step that people take when they’re looking to get information or spend some money, because that’s how you got here: we look online.

Here’s what you have to do in order to find customers right at that first step.

1. Know your product

It might seem obvious, but the first thing you need to know is what you’re going to sell.

If you already have an idea or existing products you want to move online, you’re on track to start bringing home the bacon—or sell it to someone else. But if you haven’t figured it out yet, there are a few things to consider.

  • What problem can you solve?
  • What skills do you have?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What existing product can improve on?

Let’s look at Paperform as an example. Our co-founders Dean and Diony didn’t just wake up overnight and create an online form builder. They followed a similar process to the one outlined above. It went something like this:

  • Problem: Helping friends create forms that weren’t ugly
  • Skills: Coding and web development (Dean) & product development (Diony)
  • Passion: The tech industry and democratising digital creation
  • Existing product to improve on: Out-dated, unintuitive online form builders.

This simple cycle was the impetus for what Paperform has become today. And it all started from using skill and passion to find a solution to an existing problem.

📚  Check out Diony’s recent interview with Hosting Advice to learn more about Paperform's journey.

Of course, your situation will almost certainly be different. After all, it’s not every day that someone comes up to ask you to fill a gap in the market. Most of the time you’ll have to come up with the idea yourself, but that same principle applies.

It could be something essential, like a towel. It could be something borne from passion, like an online bakery. Or it could be a new web development tool that revolutionises the internet—whatever it is, just make sure you love it. You’re going to be seeing a lot of it.

2. Market Research

Alright. So let’s say you’ve got your idea for the perfect towel. Makes sense. As The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy so wisely tells us, a towel is a massively useful thing. Even so, you need to do some market research to determine the viability of your new product.

Market research is the process of discovering exactly who your target market is and making sure there’s actually interest in your product or service. Conduct surveys, run focus groups and hold interviews to make sure your finger is on the pulse of what the people want.

📚 Learn how to conduct market research in five steps.

The insights you gain from market research influences everything about your product, from the design to the way you market it.

💡 Tip: Consider the classic campaign run by Apple comparing Mac with PC. In the ad, the Mac is personified as laid-back and charming, while the PC is shown as an uptight geek (with a virus, which Macs are immune to). Apple had done their market research and knew the ad would connect with their target customer base.

Say the target market for your new line of towels is young women. Investigate what will appeal to them—from colours and fonts used in your marketing to what features they’ll expect and what social media platforms they use.

3. Identify your goals

It’s time to make a concrete business plan. This sounds complicated, but it’s really just a version of the dreaded “where do you see yourself in five years?” job interview question, except you’re asking it about your business.

Here’s the basic anatomy of a business plan:

  • What do you want to achieve? (Vision statement)
  • How are you going to achieve it? (Mission statement)
  • What are your core values?
  • What strategies will you use?
  • What needs to happen to achieve your strategies?
  • How will you measure milestones?

New business owners will need to decide how much time to put into the project. Is it a side hustle? Do you have an eye to bootstrapping your own startup? It’s okay to adjust goals as you grow, but try to set concrete processes and metrics to hit.

quote from Diony McPherson on a white background

If you’re adding an online element to an existing business, you’ll already have a general business plan, but you’ll still need to think about what you want out of the move online.

Maybe you want to increase profits? Overhaul order management? Offer more efficient ways for your customers to purchase? Getting into the eCommerce business is tough work, so make sure you’ve planned it out carefully.

4. Figure out the logistics

This is an extension of topics you will cover in your business plan. Where your goals are the big picture, logistics are the actionable steps you’ll take to achieve them. By logistics we mean:

  1. How you’ll produce your product/provide your service
  2. How you’ll stock and ship it
  3. What your pricing model will be

If you’re a SaaS company like Paperform, or plan to sell digital products, you won’t have to worry about shipping and other complex processes that come bundled with physical products. However, there’s still plenty to work out.

Make sure to take the time to iron out the nitty gritty details before getting started. Look after these upfront and you’ll save a lot of pain in the long-run.

💡 Tip: Paperform’s order management tools have everything you need to run and grow an eCommerce business. From inventory management and SKU creation to shipping and reporting, you can make sure your online store runs smoothly.

5. Decide on your eCommerce site

This kind of comes with the territory when selling stuff online. But with so many online store platforms to choose from, selecting just one can be overwhelming. (We’ll look at options in a moment).

Any site you make will have three main goals:

  • Informing potential customers about your brand/product/service
  • Ecommerce features to sell your products/service
  • Allowing customers to contact you

When selecting your eCommerce platform, think about what service is going to make this process as simple as possible. The best solutions—like Paperform—will offer you templates and in-depth guides to make getting started a breeze.

You’ll also need to create content for your store. At the bare minimum you’ll need pictures and product descriptions, plus any branding assets (logos and graphics, for example). Customisation can be a hassle with a lot of sites, so make sure to choose one that doesn’t require a PhD to change fonts.

6. Get eyes on your products

Inevitably, small business owners wear multiple hats. They’re responsible for any roles that need to be filled—from sales and data analysis to customer service and marketing.

Marketing is particularly important. But it’s difficult for folks not used to the marketing world to do things like monitor sales funnels, or come up with social media posts that show off their products.

If you’re bringing an existing business online then you’ll most likely already have your marketing down pat. But if you’re new to the digital world, start by creating accounts across every social media platform as a baseline (even Twitter. Bring holy water).

Then it’s best to play to your strengths. Comfortable writing blog posts? Double down on inbound marketing. Want to post killer Tik Toks? Go for gold. Or maybe you want to start an email list; a podcast; or record webinars with local influencers.

Just remember to fit the marketing around your online business to your audience. Don’t go posting on LinkedIn if your audience is on Instagram and don’t feel like you’ve got to nail every channel. Stick to what you feel most comfortable with.

💡 Tip: Marketing can be time consuming, which is why it’s important to use the right tools to make it easy on yourself. Use apps like Canva to design social media graphics and take advantage of Paperform’s 3000+ integrations to post automatically to apps like Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.

How To Choose A Solution For Selling Online

COVID-19 changed the way the world does business. The pandemic pushed more folks online than ever, with a colossal  4.28 trillion dollars in retail eCommerce sales in 2020 alone.

So, the chances are, your eCommerce store is going to be the predominant way you sell products. That makes the platform you use super important, both for you as the seller and your customers as the buyers.

What should you look out for? Here’s a quick list:

Cost: Take into account how much it will cost to host your online shop, as well as less obvious costs like hosting, domain names, transaction fees and traffic/earning limits.

Appearance: This isn’t just about whether your storefront looks good. You need to make sure that it’s simple to customise your site to look exactly how you want it to look, preferably with no coding or design skills necessary.

eCommerce functionality: Look for features you’ll need to run an online business, like product management, SKU generation and fast checkouts, as well as less obvious features like generating PDF receipts and the ability to add discounts.

Integrations: You need to connect your site to social media, port information into email management apps, run analytics and use payment gateways.

SEO: For your site to be seen, you have to know how to optimise your search engine results. Some platforms come with this functionality built-in.

Customer support: The best platforms offer 24-hour live chats with real humans, as well as support forums and YouTube guides (Paperform has all three).

Mobile optimised: With mobile spending accounting for more than half of all eCommerce sales, you need to make sure that your store is fully mobile responsive.

One last thing—if you’re new to selling online, you’ll be looking after most, if not all, of these processes yourself. For that reason, you want to find a solution that balances the necessary functionality with the right degree of simplicity.

Different Ways To Sell Online

There are a lot of different platforms for selling online. We’re talking more platforms than there are Fast and the Furious movies. Thankfully, just like the Fast saga, they’re not that complicated to analyse.

Solutions can be divided into two categories: online marketplaces and eCommerce platforms. We’ll take a look at options in both camps, so you can decide which is the best option for your specific needs.

Online Marketplaces

Best for: small businesses and individuals who want to make money quickly and easily without the need for their own personal online storefront.

screenshot of popular marketplace logos in a white background

Pros:

  • Easy to start selling fast
  • Exposure to relevant audiences

Cons:

  • Shipping and listing fees can add up
  • Most marketplaces take a cut of your product
  • Difficult to get products noticed
  • Lots of frustrating scams

These are websites hosted by companies that allow you to sell stuff on their platform. Think of sites like Facebook Marketplace, eBay and Amazon, among many others.

Just take a few pictures, choose a price based on existing items and you’re done. Products are split into certain product categories, meaning they’ll be exposed to the exact niche audience looking for them.

Online marketplaces won’t be the best option for everyone. But whether you’re looking for a bit of side income or a full-scale eCommerce business, they offer a convenient way for anyone to sell online.

Amazon

screenshot of amazon website

Amazon needs no introduction. With their sales platform you get access to an audience of 300 million active customers (that’s quite an advantage). But because it’s so popular, and populated with so many products, it’s easy for new products to be lost in the crowd.

Selling with Amazon also isn’t free. There’s a monthly fee that’s over double Paperform’s subscription cost—as well as a referral fee on each item. There are plenty of other fees as well (Bezos didn’t build a fortune handing out freebies) and no customisation, which gives you little opportunity for growing brand awareness.

All in all, not a bad solution for selling online. However, we wouldn’t suggest it as your first port of call if you’re planning to build a sustainable online business.

eBay

screenshot of ebay website

Like Amazon, eBay has been around so long that if it was a human it would be able to rent a car without paying ludicrous fees (25 years). Similarly to Amazon, if you sell with eBay you get a massive global reach to 187 million potential customers. You can also sell just about anything you can think of, from tea bags to t-shirts.

eBay’s business subscriptions are lower than Amazon’s. Though they do charge for listing an item with a fixed price, and there’s another fee if you want to run an auction. Add final value fees on top and you’ve got yourself a whole bunch of annoying fees to work through.

There is also little room to brand your listings. This makes eBay a decent enough option for individuals and established brands, but not for building your own eCommerce brand.

Etsy

screenshot of Etsy website

Etsy specialises in the crafty side of the market. It’s the place people go specifically to for handmade things—think jewellery, art and home decor. They offer more advanced customisation options than other marketplaces and allow you to embed your store on your WordPress website with their Etsy Shop plugin.

Creating a shop is free, but there are a few costs involved: listing fees (which you have to pay regardless of whether your items sell and are renewed every four months) and transaction fees.

If you want a basic store for your crafts, Etsy is a good way to go. However, it is a rather niche audience (which can be a positive or a negative) and the market is saturated with lots of similar products.

Gumroad

screenshot of gumroad website

Gumroad is designed for selling digital products. You can sell via the marketplace, as well as embed it in your existing website or blog (selling via marketplace incurs a 10% fee.) A feature that Gumroad offers that you won’t find in many other solutions, apart from Paperform, is the ability to capture emails—meaning you can build up a mailing list.

It’s free to create an account and start selling. Setup is simple and the UI design is fairly clean and intuitive. One drawback is the lack of customisation. Products are listed in the order they are uploaded, making it difficult to organise your store.

Gumroad is all about supporting the creator economy. So if you’re looking to sell things like digital art, eBooks, apps or even a podcast subscription, it’s a decent solution.

Local classifieds

screenshot of gumtree website

Craigslist, Gumtree, Nextdoor and Facebook Marketplace are all sites that allow you to sell new or used goods online. They’re a modern day version of newspaper classifieds, without the actual paper.

These platforms are mostly free to use (you can pay to boost listings), because all they do is give you a place to list your items. You look after the rest. You have to sort out the payment and delivery for any sales you make, and there’s little, if any, protection from scams.

You also can’t create a seller page, which means if you list multiple items they exist on pages independent of each other. These online marketplaces make it super easy to sell stuff without a website, and if you need to make some quick cash, they're your best option.

An eCommerce website

Best for: Business owners who want their own website to sell products and services.

logos of eCommerce platforms in a white box

Pros:

  • Sell across multiple sales channels (online marketplaces, social media and brick-and-mortar.)
  • Customised to suit your brand
  • Flexibility
  • Advanced analytics
  • Integrations with thousands of popular apps

Cons:

  • Often the more successful your business, the more you pay
  • Too much effort for selling basic goods/used items online

Contrary to online marketplaces, where you’re posting your products to someone else’s website, eCommerce sites like Paperform and Shopify empower you to build your own online store.

These platforms are specifically designed for eCommerce. This means they’re packed with relevant features, from product and order management tools to dropshipping functionality, payment processing and point of sale solutions.

Paperform

screenshot of paperform website

Paperform’s eCommerce features make it easy for anyone to sell online—whether you just want to clear out your garage or build your own branded web store. It truly is all you’ll need to start selling online in a matter of minutes.

If you can use a Word Doc, you can build an eCommerce site with Paperform. It's that easy. Start from scratch, or pick from 500+ expert-designed templates. Create beautiful forms and landing pages that empower you to sell your products or services, capture customer information and collect online payments with leading processors like PayPal and Stripe.

With Paperform, customisation is a breeze. We think you should be able to build a site that truly reflects your brand without any design skills necessary. Whether you want to tweak fonts, customise the UI or add your branding, you can do all that and more with our comprehensive theme settings.

From product, stock level and SKU management to managing subscriptions, we’ve got you covered for all your sales needs. You can manage refunds from within your dashboard and even generate custom PDF receipts.  

Want to connect with your tech stack? Use 3,000+ integrations to link your store with your favourite apps, from Notion to Google Sheets.

Best of all? We don’t take any commission on top of sales. That means your money is exactly that—your money. We also don’t restrict the amount of products you can list or the payments you can take. Plans start at $12.50/month and we offer a 14-day free trial, no credit card required.

Shopify

screenshot of shopify website

Shopify is one of the most popular eCommerce platforms for online sellers for good reason. Their solution is comprehensive, it offers different functionality that scales with the size of your business, and with prices starting from $29 per month, it’s cost-efficient as well.

Shopify stores can be used to manage online sales for digital or physical products. It connects smoothly to social media too, allowing you to sell on Facebook for example. There are a lot of themes available (though the majority require payment) and the customisation options are expansive, especially if you know your way around HTML and CSS.

BigCommerce

screenshot of bigcommerce website

BigCommerce is predominantly targeted towards big commerce stores and retailers (the spoiler is in the name). Prices start at $29/month and the Enterprise plan lets you develop your own custom pricing based on your business needs.

You can either host with BigCommerce, or integrate with an existing WordPress site. It doesn’t matter which way you go, you’ll find it to be a reliable platform with a slew of handy features suited to modern online selling.

With big brands like Skullcandy, Ben & Jerry’s and Burrow, this is a solution best suited to large-scale businesses—particularly if you’re selling to an international demographic.

WooCommerce

Screenshot of woocommerce website

WooCommerce is an open-source plugin that brings eCommerce functionality to your existing WordPress site. Add the plugin and you have everything you need to start selling online—from a secure shopping cart to product listings and shipping options.

📚 Learn about the best WooCommerce alternatives for WordPress.

It's also free. At least the base product is. You’ll have to flex your web dev skills (or hire someone with some) to create a site that suits your brand, as it can be difficult to set up. To get the most from the platform you also have to shell out for extensions, which can get costly fast.

Keep in mind that the platform's open-source nature means it's not suited for everyone. If you want a tool that “just works” out of the box, you’re better off going with a hassle-free solution like Paperform.

Wix

screenshot of Wix website

Wix is comparable to WordPress. It started as a simple web builder, but has blossomed into a full-scale eCommerce solution in the last few years. Where WordPress is all about granular customisation (and can be overwhelming for that very reason), Wix makes selling online easier.

There are a range of 500+ templates based around trending products and industries. For example, if you were selling clothes online you could select the “Fashion Boutique” template and get up and running even fast.

Themes are plentiful, however it’s not too easy to tweak them to your own specification. The drag-and-drop website builder is fairly intuitive though. Support is excellent too, so if you get stuck you’ll have no trouble finding assistance.

Start Selling Online With Paperform

From personal trainers organising fitness sessions to marketers selling tickets to online webinars, Paperform makes selling online fast and convenient for everyone.

Using our platform is much simpler than eCommerce solutions like Shopify, while retaining all the functionality you need.

Don’t believe us? Just ask freelance consultant, Dennis Karle. Karle used Paperform to bring his client’s brick-and-mortar flower shop online during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I initially played around with some larger platforms like Shopify to set up the store,” says Karle. “However, I quickly found that while their platform is powerful, it was perhaps too big and overwhelming for a small local business.

I needed to find a platform that would not only be easy for the shop owners to use themselves, but something they could easily update on a daily basis.

We ultimately needed to set up a backend system that would allow the owners to quickly and easily update product details... It [Paperform] was a breeze to automate the entire online shop with tools that had such powerful features, yet were still so approachable and easy to master. It actually made the process fun.

Due to our versatile creation tools and flexible functionality, Paperform is a digital Swiss army knife that covers every step of the eCommerce sales cycle. No coding or web dev savvy required.

  • Set up a SEO-friendly landing page
  • Add your products or services
  • Customise your site’s appearance
  • Connect with your favourite payment gateway
  • Integrate with third-party apps to simplify workflows
  • Send post-sale customer satisfaction surveys

On top of that we’ve got an award-winning customer support team full of real, live, humans around 24/7 to answer questions and queries day or night. So what are you waiting for?

Create a beautiful Paperform and start selling online today with our risk-free 14-day free trial—no credit card details required.


💡 Buying Online FAQs

What is the best site to sell stuff?
We'll always say Paperform is the best site to sell stuff for any need. However it really does depend on your needs. An online marketplace is suitable for simple, quick sales while an eCommerce platform is better for business.

How can I sell my stuff online for free?
Get starting selling online for free with Paperform's 14-day free trial. Otherwise, try a free sales website like Gumtree or Facebook Marketplace.

How can I sell my product online fast?
Just use one of Paperform's templates and connect to a payment gateway to sell any product in a matter of minutes.

What is buying and selling online?
The proper terms for buying and selling online are eCommerce or online shopping. Just like regular shopping it's an exchange or goods or services for money, it just so happens to take place in the digital world.

How do I start selling online from home?
To start selling online from home, first figure out what you can produce in your home, or what you can resell. Then, follow the steps outlined in this article.

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