How to Start an Online Store That Actually Grows [2020 Edition]
A few years ago creating an online store seemed mind-blowingly complex for medium and small businesses. You had to code your fingers to the bone to make your first sale. Luckily, everything is different now. Indeed, it’s never been easier to start an online store from scratch within just a short space of time.
No question, you’ll need to stick to a certain plan to do that — choose a prosperous niche for your online store, develop a smart internet marketing strategy, find the right eCommerce platform (you are not going to code your online shop on your own, are you?).
Later on, you’ll have to deal with shipping, payments, and design — decide on the carriers you want to use, think carefully about payment methods, pick a beautiful template or ask someone to design it for you.
The most important part comes last. It’s marketing, and it means everything in the world, especially if you are thinking to start a profitable online store.
You’ll need to learn how to shoot killer product photos, use various sales channels, including social media and online marketplaces, create high-quality SEO content (btw, SEO Writing Assistant by SEMrush should help you) and probably study the basics of PPC advertising.
Scary? A bit.
Launching an Ecommerce Biz With X-Cart Is Not Scary
Create a free 30-day trial with X-Cart to easily handle 1,000,000+ SKU product catalogues and keep your store fast.
But no matter how hard it may seem, here’s a starting-from-scratch guide that will help you set up an eCommerce business hands down.
Follow these simple steps to get your online store up-and-running in just a few days, or less.
Here we go!
Chapter 1: Choosing a Profitable Niche and Developing a Plan for Your Online Store
Building an online business is definitely a good idea with lots of promising opportunities. It’s all about creating a life of abundance and freedom for yourself. And it may bring you one step closer to financial independence.
But our ever-changing world makes the process of creating an online store a bit more complicated. And without constructing a clear-cut business plan, all your efforts may go down the drain.
Yes. Creating the right digital marketing strategy is a hard work. It can feel like you’re pulling information out of thin air or spending your time in vain.
But don’t give up.
This research can save you a lot of time and money in the long-run, preparing you for the challenges of tomorrow.
Here are a few points you need to take into account before launching your eCommerce store.
Choose a Perfect Niche Product to Start an eCommerce Store
As Ann Smarty from Internet Marketing Ninjas has put it, the biggest mistake online retailers make is “starting an eCommerce website in a niche they have no idea about”.
It means that if you are planning on diving into eCommerce, you should decide what niche to attack and study it from the ground up.
Here’s where you can start:
- Do eCommerce SWOT Analysis First of all, think of something you are good at. It may be simple. You regularly bake cinnamon snickerdoodles and your friends find them mind-blowingly delicious. Or, say, your fantasy is rich enough to create 135 types of dresses and your mom can get them tailored to you in just a couple of hours. Why not set up an online store? A SaaS one, not to rack your brains with coding open-source shopping cart software. There are lots of examples of successful online retailers out there. Turning your offline skills into an online business is a great way to enter the online market and be sure that hardly anyone will be able to copy-paste your offer.
- Find online business opportunities and gaps If you’ve got no special skills but eager to move the mountains of eCommerce and start an online store that brings profit, here’s another option. Scan the eCommerce market to identify the deficiency that can be capitalized on. Figure out what your potential customers are searching for online, but never find. Then add these products to your online store. And be the first to offer them to your buyers. They will appreciate it. You can also gather ideas on how to create an online store on eBay or on Amazon. There you’ll discover the list of eBay and Amazon most popular items.
- Carve a winning niche in a saturated market Creating your own niche in a saturated eCommerce market can be anything but simple. To do it right, you should deeply understand your audience and carve out the path to your customer’s minds. Moreover, you will have to be responsible for educating your target market on why they need such a product. The good news is that there will be no competitors breathing down your neck.
- Analyze your eCommerce competition If the product you’ve chosen for your online store is not one-of-a-kind, sooner or later you’ll have to deal with competitors. Pick up a couple of target keywords and check their performance in various search engines, like Google, Bing, and Yahoo. This should turn up a few competitors, both in organic and paid results. Take time to acknowledge your competitors’ pain points and then counter them. For example, Barnes and Noble’s bookstore were too slow to move their offline business online. Meanwhile, Amazon started an online store and became the online leader. They identified this market and focused on making the selection and shopping process easier for customers who didn’t want (or had no time) to visit a bookstore.
Build and Calculate Buyer Personas For Your Online Shop
It goes without saying, everyone is not your customer. And if you think your product you want to sell online is good for everyone, you are 99,9% wrong and will most likely have no sales at all.
So don’t rush to spend thousands of dollars on your marketing campaigns before you identify who your online shopping personas are and what they really feel.
- The easiest way to collect some basic information about your customers is to connect Google Analytics to your online store. It will help you view and analyze the full customer journey — from the beginning to its end.
- The second powerful source is social media. Such services as Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter will give you a broader idea of your users’ hobbies, careers, and social bonds.
- Polls, interviews and personal calls are the third and the most trustworthy way of studying your customers interests. These techniques should help you learn shopping preferences and preferred ways to shop online.
Don’t be lazy. Create a Google Doc and describe your ideal customer. What is he or she like? What music do they listen to? Do they prefer shopping online? – If yes, get set and open an online store.
Define Your Online Business Model
There are actually only two types of eCommerce business models — stocking products and drop shipping.
Say, you have a brick-and-mortar store and consider moving your business online. Then, stocking your inventory will be more preferable for you, as you already have a warehouse.
Yes, you’ll have to invest in shipping and warehousing. But, as a result, you get more profit as you can price your products based on your wholesale cost.
If you prefer this model, but have not found a manufacturer yet, study cons and pros of product manufacturing overseas.
Drop shipping means that someone else will handle the back-end of your online business for you. You won’t have to think about warehousing, shipping, inventory operations and the like.
Your focus will be solely on your online store. You’ll have to take care of customer relationship, search engine optimization, marketing, social media, and, of course, prices.
Drop shipping is the best choice for those who are just starting off. But it definitely leaves you with less money.
Think of starting an online mall where multiple vendors sell their products and manage their orders themselves? Get useful ideas in our guide to starting multivendor marketplace. Managing an eCommerce marketplace differs from managing a single-vendor online store. The same is true to the store launch scenario.
Develop a Complete Ecommerce Marketing Plan for Your Store
Now that you’ve defined your goals, chosen a niche and have at least a general idea of what your ideal customer is, it’s time to sketch a step-by-step marketing plan. It should help you sell online more efficiently.
Here are some of the questions you should ask yourself before you build an online store:
- How are you going to drive traffic to your fresh-baked online shop? Some of the key marketing channels include paid and organic marketing. Pay-per-click campaigns and affiliate sale networks are the examples of paid marketing. Social media, SEO, email & content marketing is, as you may guess, all about organic.
- How much can you afford to pay to acquire a customer? You won’t believe it but there is a certain formula to help you calculate your lifetime value of customer (LTV). It will help you better understand how much an average customer will spend at your online shop over time.
- Is there a story behing your eCommerce business? Storytelling humanizes your brand and adds meaning to the purchase. That’s why consumers like stories. You have to know what yours is. Oak Hall online clothing store, for example, revealed the full history of the brand since 1859. Being one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the nation, they’ve got a lot of things to share. What is your brand story?
- Are you ready for your eCommerce brand evolution? Nothing lasts forever and your actual tactics may need to evolve over time. If you want your online business to be relevant, you should be ready for changes.
- Is your team ready to carry out your internet marketing strategy? If you are going to actively market your eCommerce store, you may need a few more employees.
- What is an eCommerce Business And What You Need To Get Started
- How to Write an eCommerce Business Plan for Your Startup
- How To Choose A Profitable eCommerce Business Idea
- The Pros & Cons of Drop Shipping
Chapter 2: Technical Aspects You Need to Tackle to Create an Online Store
There are a few technical aspects you should cover before you add your first product to sell online.
- choosing the right domain name;
- finding hosting;
- setting up an SSL certificate;
- picking up an eCommerce platform;
- thinking about the features customers may need.
Not much. Let’s go into a little more detail on each of these points. You’ll see that starting a viable online store is not a rocket science.
Choose a Catchy Domain Name for Your Online Store
When a woman gives birth to a baby, she gives him a name.
The same goes for your “new-born” online store. It’s important to give your eCommerce website a short, intuitive name that is easy to pronounce. Just think of your customers and do not make them learn it by heart.
Your online store name should instantly jump into their minds, be easy to type and, what’s more important, unique.
The longest domain ever
This domain name claims to be the longest in the world:
You don’t need one. Shorter is better.
Where can you register a domain name for your eCommerce store?
Among the most popular domain registrars are GoDaddy and BlueHost. These services combine hosting and domain registration.
Before registering a domain, try this service to check the availability of the most common TLDs including com, net, org.
You can also register a domain name with X-Cart, our tech gurus can do the whole thing for you.
Btw, here’s an in-depth guide on how to choose a perfect domain name for your online store.
Choosing the Right eCommerce Platform to Start an Online Business
Before you start an online store, you have to choose between a fully-hosted eCommerce solution and a downloadable eCommerce software that you’ll have to host on your own.
In both cases, I suggest that you sign up for a free trial (almost all eCommerce solutions have one) to test the waters.
If you choose to host your online store on your own, you will have to:
- research the best hosting offers,
- install the eCommerce software onto your server,
- take care of the PCI compliance and other security aspects.
It may be rather complicated for a non-techie, but less expensive in the long run. Plus, you’ll have increased flexibility with your eCommerce store, which can be limited when you’re using a hosted eCommerce platform.
In this case, X-Cart online store builder is the right choice for you, as it is available on-premise. If you set up an online store using this eCommerce website builder, you will get unlimited control over every element.
Like many other companies, X-Cart is here to help non-profit organizations to stay afloat during COVID-19. With the help of our shopping solution, our friends from Books For Keeps managed to carry out the mission of delivering reading materials to children from low-income families. In just a couple of weeks, they launched an eCommerce portal where they could track inventory, sign up for memberships, and exchange messages with their clients.
Another option is to pay monthly for a fully-hosted eCommerce platform, such as Shopify or BigCommerce, and use it as you go.
Starting a SaaS online store, you lose control over your installation, customer data and look’n’feel.
Yes, hosted application providers will take care of your safety, PCI compliance, and backups. But as you have to rent their eCommerce engine and a payment platform, the overall monthly fee will be a way higher than the fee for almost any stand-alone hosting. So if you plan to save money, this option is not for you, sorry.
eCommerce Hosting & SSL: How to Create an Online Store That Is Maximum Secure
If you decide to go with a self-hosted solution, there’s no other alternative but to search for a hosting provider.
But be careful. Ecommerce hosting is a way more complicated. It has to protect your store’s sensitive data, provide you with daily backups, database support, fast speed and 24/7 customer support.
X-Cart hosting starts from $29,95 a month and combines all the features above.
Also, if you want buyers to trust your eCommerce store and be sure that their credit card data is safe, you might need an SSL certificate.
Green padlock in the address bar will instantly make your eCommerce site as trustworthy as Tom Hanks.
Must-Have eCommerce Shopping Cart Features to Look For
- What are Your Options When You Can’t Buy Your Ideal Domain Name?
- Ecommerce Security: 10 Simple Tips to Lock Down Your Site
Chapter 3: eCommerce Website Design: Steps to Follow
You may believe it or not, but your website’s design matters a lot.
People entering your online store experience a subconscious reaction to the design before they have even seen your products and read a line of your content.
This first impression based on the overall look and feel of the eCommerce site affects their decision. So think carefully about website design when you decide to create an online store and start selling your products online.
User experience is the second thing that should be taken into account. Once you have made that first impression, the attention is switched to the layout, navigation and even color.
If you clutter your online storefront with an unlimited number of banners and fields. Or your navigation is too complex. Or that awful red button looks extremely distracting. All that means your design is acting against your website’s purpose. The result — zero conversions and no sales in your state-of-the-art online clothing store.
Finally, SEO aspect. Without SEO, your newly designed website won’t work to its fullest potential. Adding alternative (alt) text to images is the main principle of web accessibility.
Brand Your Online Shop and Create a Cohesive Brand Identity
Before you build an online store you should develop a longstanding and likable brand with your audience.
Here are a couple of strategies that should help you uniquely position your eCommerce business above the competition:
- First, get a memorable online store logo. Not only it should establish credibility and build trust, but also be easy to recognize. That’s why it’s better to avoid stock images as anyone on the web can make use of them.
- Connect your eCommerce brand with social media. Use the same profile picture on all platforms.
- Be careful with the wording. Your tone and style should be consistent across all platforms.
- Communicate your message. Everything should convey a singular idea that your products are valuable and best bought here.
Pick an Online Store Template That Will Fit Your Business
Before you start browsing for eCommerce templates, you need to understand the basics of UX. You can start with exploring strategies top-selling eCommerce sites and smaller successful online stores use to boost conversions.
For example, Target.com discount store creates a sense of urgency, pushing timely and relevant sales events 6 times on a single page.
Zoffoli uses background video to communicate a powerful message.
Amazon uses horizontal scrolling to showcase curated product carousels on mobile platforms.
Nike does a great job shooting high-quality photos. They also convert website visitors into app users by placing a special tab on the upper part of the page.
Bellroy builds trust using 3rd party reviews.
CariD reassures buyers that the product will fit.
JCPenney makes emphasis on help and support.
Choose the template wisely. It should keep pace both with your eCommerce business plan and your customers’ needs.
- How The Best Ecommerce Sites Win at Web Design [23 Examples]
- 105 Ecommerce UX Tips: How to Seduce Visitors to Buy
Chapter 4: Adding Products to Your Online Shopping Cart
According to X-Cart survey of top eCommerce experts, product page has the highest impact (51%) on the success of your eCommerce site.
It means that the more attention you give to the products you sell online, including their photos and a well-thought-out description, the more successful your online store will be.
Here are a few simple must-follow steps every eCommerce beginner should know. You’ll find out the right way to add digital or physical products, shoot vibrant product photos, and write seductive descriptions.
Study the Basics of Product Photography for Ecommerce Stores
People are visual.
Studies show that people can only recall 20% of the material that they read versus 80% that they see.
So opening an online store with low-quality pictures is lame. Don’t make that mistake.
Learn how to shoot pictures like a pro to attract new customers and convert the old ones:
- Learn photography basics, like aperture, ISO, shutter speed, exposure, and lighting. You don’t have to buy a super-mega-pricey camera to create awesome pictures. The only thing you should have is the basic understanding of some of the functions.
- Set up a home (or office) photo studio. Your setup depends on what you are shooting. Smaller items can be placed inside the lightbox or right on the table with a backdrop.
- Shoot lifestyle images. Use people in your shots to show the way your product is used.
- Optimize images. Every perfect photo can be enhanced with the help of photo-editing software.
Create eCommerce Product Descriptions That Sell
Written words are enormously powerful. They inspire us to take action, make us roar with laughter or stay sad half the day.
But it gets even more exciting when it comes to shopping online. When a person is about to purchase something, he scrutinizes each and every word.
Learn these few online marketing techniques and start injecting power into your words:
- Repeat your idea several times — it will create the ‘illusion of truth’ and make people believe you.
- Understand the needs of your customers. Once you do it, your copy will become much more persuasive.
- Use benefit-focused copy to promise your customers a better version of themselves.
- Find out what language your buyers use to find your online store in Google.
- Use sensory words to create and describe feelings.
- Use scarcity to encourage impulse buys.
- Let them buy something small first.
- Do not hide the negative features of your product.
- Use power words: you, free, because, imagine, new.
- Conduct competitor analysis to improve your online shop’s copy.
- Try DTR method to influence people.
- Use buyers’ words to help people self-identify.
- Create a reward program to build customer loyalty.
- Rhyme — it will make your piece of content easier to remember and ideas easier to digest.
- Describe your item to the tiniest detail.
- Add reviews — they create trust.
- Tell mini stories, people love them.
The most strange (and the most common!) thing is that the guys who understand how to open an online store rarely know the right way to create product descriptions. So, tech guys, you’d better study the basics of copywriting 😉
- Product Photography: How To Market Products With Photos [19 Pro Tips]
- 19 Persuasive Marketing Techniques For Product Descriptions That Sell
Chapter 5: Ecommerce Marketing Strategy to Jump-Start Online Sales
Now that you’ve chosen a niche, defined your potential customers, picked a perfect eCommerce shopping cart, did all technical stuff and finally started your online store, it’s time to get down to business and launch a marketing campaign to grow your store.
Yes, drawing up a sound shopper marketing plan is never an easy job. Making it lucrative is even tougher.
However, we’ve got a few tips that should help you.
Starting an Online Store Is Impossible without the Right Tactics and Goals
If you try to Google for “eCommerce marketing” on the web, you’ll get 59,300,000 search results on that.
Don’t be scared. There is a gazillion of the so-called “growth hacking” tricks. But there are only three main things you have to do first — define your goal, your strategy, and your tactics.
A marketing goal can be traffic or revenue. Say, you want to boost your eCommerce sales by 145% within six months.
A strategy gives your goal a path. Building authority, using top funnel organic traffic and so on can be called a strategy.
Tactics is the way you are going to execute your strategy — collect email addresses, run email marketing campaigns, launch PPC ads, create an online store on Facebook, and the like.
eCommerce Content Marketing: Start a Blog to Drive Traffic to Your Online Store
When internet users are buying products or services online, they do care about who they are buying from.
That’s why every successful eCommerce business needs a blog.
Blogging generates traffic for your eCommerce site, tells the story of your brand to your potential customers and educates them, helps you rank higher in search results, builds trust and authority.
These are longform quality content, case studies, white papers, infographics, videos, checkist downloads, eBooks, and blog posts. You may also want to hire a couple of content writers who will help you write SEO-friendly content and add internal links. All that will accelerate the writing process.
Lucky you are if you already have an independent blog running on that well-loved WordPress, for instance.
This way you can easily add X-Cart e-commerce software into your blog post without writing a single line of code.
Have a look at the blog plug-ins below that can help you merge your blog with your eCommerce site and vice versa.
Optimize Your Online Store for Search Engines
Data reveals that 81% of shoppers make a quick online research before buying things online. It is most likely that your potential customers also do it. If so, you need to think about SEO.
Here are several things you need to know, including keyword research, on-page and off-page optimization, technical SEO and link building.
- SEO for Beginners, part 1: First Steps in Making Your Store Visible to Search Engines
- SEO for Beginners, part 2: How To Optimize Your Store Content
- SEO for Beginners, part 3: How to Create Product Descriptions That Search Engines Will Love
Start Marketing Your Online Store with Pay per Click Advertizing
If you are just starting off, pay-per-click advertising can help you boost your online sales. It will provide a wide range of ways to attract shoppers to your eCommerce site.
One of such strong programs is Google AdWords. It allows you to run campaigns such as search, display, video, and remarketing ads.
Social Media Marketing: Create Hype for Your Online Store before Launch
Not only social media can help you understand who your audience is and what their needs are. It is also a great place to generate leads for your online business. Do not underestimate this source of traffic as it works.
- SEO for Ecommerce: A Comprehensive Guide
- E-commerce SEO (Advanced Guide + Step-By-Step Case Study)
- A Simple (But Complete) Guide To Ecommerce SEO
- 7 advanced tips for Google Shopping ads
- How Ecommerce Brands Can Drive Qualified Leads from Social Media
- Grow your Sales with Google AdWords & Google Shopping
- 5 Ways Niche Brands Can Build a Massive Community
Chapter 6: Setting up Payments, Shipping & Inventory for Your Online Shop
When starting an online store, you should take care of handling shipping and taxes, accepting payments and managing your inventory.
Let’s dive into each point one by one.
Pick a Robust Payment Gateway Before Opening an Online Store
There are different ways of accepting payments. For example, accepting credit cards online via payment gateway, bank account, cash on delivery, gift certificate, and many other ways.
Also, you should know that most countries have their popular local payment methods.
- Americans like PayPal and credit card.
- Chinese prefer Alipay eWallet.
- Germans use Sofort Banking, Giropay, and Paysafecard.
Skrill, Authorize.Net, SagePay, Amazon Payments, 2Checkout are among the top payment processing companies in the world.
Well thought-out Merchant onboarding process is another reason for you to prefer one payment processor to another.
Businesses that accept card payments face various risks like fraud attacks.
To save your eCommerce business from online scammers, you need to monitor the transactions for unusual activity. You can do it on your own, or entrust your transactions to experts, like Kount, Signify or NoFraud.
Also, you can check X-Payments PCI Level 1 certified payment application. It integrates with these all-in-one risk management solutions and over 40 payment providers to protect your business from eCommerce fraud.
Select the Best Shipping Carrier for Your Online Business
Shipping can make or break your online business.
If you choose the wrong shipping partner, you may be left with overwhelming shipping costs or your customers may suffer an unpleasant shopping experience.
Just imagine how your buyer would feel if his package arrived all messed up and damaged.
Or a little girl who has been waiting for her Christmas present which was lost for good in transit.
BAAAD! Really bad.
As a result and on top of that all, you may be left in the red.
Yes, if you’re selling eGoods online, it’s not an issue. But if you need to deliver actual products to your clients, it’s important to pick the right shipping carrier.
Think about different options for different shipping zones. Free in-store pickup is a good choice for local businesses. But you still might need an option to deliver your goods to other states or overseas.
Give your customers the most accurate shipping quotes available with real-time prices. Australia Post, Canada Post, FedEx, UPS, DHL, USPS, Pitney Bowes, Pilibaba, and ShippingCalc are here to help you.
Or set up shipping rates manually, based on shipping zones, weight, cart subtotal, number of items and other parameters in your merchant account.
Inventory Management: How to Start an Online Store Without Any Inventory
Warehouses have become a key pillar for online retailers. To keep up with the industry changes and provide customers with viable solutions you have to constantly improve your customer service:
- consider using centralized inventory system, like POS, to store and access all your inventory data at any time;
- update inventory records as soon as a sale is made;
- forecast demand for products, locations and quantities;
- regularly analyze performance of your inventory management process and so on.
On the other hand, drop shipping allows you to create an online store without any inventory and warehouse at all.
Such shopping carts as Shopify or BigCommerce offer dedicated services for setting up a drop shipping business.
- Order Management, Shipping and Fulfillment Tools: the Essential Guide
- How Ecommerce Is Changing Warehouses for the Better
- Tools to beat the fraud: from manual checks to enterprise-level automation
Chapter 7: How Much Does It Cost to Create an Online Store in 2020?
If you are planning to launch a huge online brand like eBay or Macy’s, starting a business online is likely to cost you an arm and a leg. Plus, you’ll have to acquire a money printing machine, as you will hardly do without it.
However, if your dreams are moderate enough, you won’t need much.
Let’s try to count how much money you are likely to spend if you choose X-Cart as an eCommerce platform.
How to Start a Drop Shipping Online Store [+ Costs]
The cheapest and the easiest way to start an eCommerce store is drop shipping. You do not have to spend money on building a warehouse or buying products to sell. The only thing you should do is to find the right supplier. The amount of revenue earned is the selling price minus the cost of goods sold and a small drop shipping fee.
Here’s the minimum investment that you need to launch a dropshipped online store:
- Choose a web host — $27.95/month for X-Cart Starter hosting plan
- Register a domain — $3.75/month
- Install an open-source shopping cart — zero dollars for a free edition with all the essential features or $495 for Business edition for mid-sized and growing businesses
- Sign up for an SSL certificate — $6/month for Comodo SSL
- Sign up for a credit card processor (optional) — $41,66/month for X-Payments connector
- Create a merchant account to process credit card payments from customers — $10 (monthly statement fee) + $25 (minimum payment service fee) + 2-4% (commission fee) + $0.20-$0.70 (additional per-transaction fee) + $10-$20 (chargeback fee) + $120-$1,000 (credit card terminal)
- Purchase a template (optional one-time cost) — $0-$149
- Expand your store with apps (optional) — $0-$499 for an app
Here’s what we get:
$27.95 + $3.75 + $495 + $6 + $41.66 + $10 + $25 + $0.20 + $10 + $120 + $0 + $0 = $739.66
That’s the sum of money you have to pay to start an online store.
If we exclude one-time fees for an eCommerce platform and a credit card terminal, we’ll have only $124.66 a month.
How do you like it?
How to Start an Online Store with Inventory [Traditional way]
Building an online store the traditional way, with a warehouse and inventory, will cost you nearly as much as starting a dropshipped online store.
You will only need to put aside money for your initial cost of goods.
The total sum can range from a few hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars. It depends on the type of products you choose to sell and the kind of marketing activities you choose to use to grow your store when it is already set.
To Sum Up
Now that you know how to start an online store and how much it costs, it’s high time to muster up your willpower and start selling.
If you are still unsure, feel free to get in touch with me.
I’ll be happy to discuss it with you one on one.
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Addicted to yoga, interested in philosophy, and totally mad about copywriting. She loves using the power of words to inspire people and help them grow their eCommerce businesses.