Monday, April 18, 2011

Been a Little Quiet Lately... Running this Biz of Photography

A little too quiet if ya ask me! :P But I've decided to quickly pop up in the form of a blog post --although I have a feeling most of you are waiting eagerly for a new Photography with Imre episode. Soon! I really do want to get'er done! ... I've been watching too many spaghetti westerns lately.

So what has been keeping me so busy (other than old western flicks and playing Bioshock 2 for hours on end)? A couple of years ago I used to have a website dedicated solely to my photography. It was a really simple HTML site with prints of my shots for sale using PayPal's shopping cart. But at the time I was up to my eyeballs in university classes and a regular day job, so when it came time to renew the domain, I just let it be.

But with all the fun I've been having with my YouTube videos and a decent amount of traffic making it worth my while to do more with this venture, I recently redesigned my personal website by gearing it towards the videos and music I produce. In addition, I thought it would be nice to start selling my prints again, so for the past few of weeks I've been developing my own shopping cart system using PHP (I would've used ASP.NET but decent hosts can be pricey). Just before starting to write this blog post did I finally finish it, along with a lot of other things one might not at first consider. If you too are thinking about starting something like this, you might find this walk-through of what I did interesting. But as usual, here's the legal spiel: although I'm fairly well educated and have experience in the realm of business, I'm not a lawyer or legal expert, so you should consult a qualified individual for advice applicable to your region and specialty. Ok posse, let's giddy up...

The Online Store
I don't want to spend too much time here, but it's worth mentioning a few points to consider if you're thinking of selling your prints online. Now I happen to be a programmer so I could create the online store I wanted, but whether you program one yourself or get an off-the-shelf solution, there are a few universal things that come to mind:
  • The store should be easy to use and navigate for customers - There's nothing worse for a shopper to deal with than a buggy system or one with a difficult learning curve; not good for the reputation either.
  • The store should be easy for you to use - Not only will your customers be the ones utilizing your store, but so will you. Prints and descriptions don't upload themselves. Complicated or poorly designed systems might be wasting your time and in most cases, you'd rather be selling than learning such a system.
  • Flexibility and customization - Again, I created my store so it fits perfectly into my site design, but some might have agreements that prevent you from changing certain aspects of it, while others might simply be too challenging to easily integrate for most. Branding is an important facet of business, so I'd recommend selecting a store that you can customize to blend into your site. In regard to flexibility, many off-the-shelf solutions generally have far more features than you'll need, so hopefully you can find one where you can remove and ignore undesirable elements.
When I designed my store, some key points I wanted was...
  • The ability to use any type of product not just prints. I might consider selling my wood carvings someday, so by designing more openly, my store can accommodate almost any kind of product.
  • A simple search bar allowing for customers to filter for a specific category of product, by name in ascending or descending order and the ability to show a certain number of results per page.
  • The ability for customers to easily modify or remove products from the shopping cart.
  • A summary page before sending the transaction through to PayPal for processing; this gives people a chance to review their order just to be certain everything is the way they want it to be.
  • A verification checkbox to force customers to read and agree with the terms of my online store. This is a nice way to prevent some incidents where a person was too lazy to bother reading what the policies are before ordering.
  • Hit tracking for pages and specific products. This can be helpful to see trends and determine which prints are worth discontinuing and which ones should be promoted more, etc.
  • A simple administrative area where I can view, add, edit and delete the products in the store.
I wouldn't say this was very difficult to program by any means; it certainly took more of my brain power to design and develope the iPhone game I released a while ago. But doing something like this is still a serious commitment of time and energy, even if you're going to integrate an existing solution. And for those of you seeking suggestions for online stores... I hate to say this but I actually don't have a clue what's out there. As a geeky programmer, I actually enjoy the challenge of building my own stuff, so I haven't really looked. Use the power of Google my amigos.

Have a Plan!
This is a really important area of running any business, not just an online store, and also helps with developing content such as a frequently asked questions (FAQ) page and legal agreements between you and your customers. There are lots of things to consider here and depending on what your preferences are this list might get a whole lot bigger:
  • Will you offer a warranty? If so, how will you handle such issues? What does your warranty cover? For how long? What might cause the warranty to be voided?
  • Will you offer customers the chance to return goods? If so, under what conditions? Any time limits? Can customers get a refund or exchange of goods? How will you handle tough customers or ones that have damaged goods?
  • If you sell a product, you'll likely need to get it to your customers, so remember shipping. What shipping methods will you use (e.g. postal service, couriers like FedEx)? What does it cost to ship your product? How about two products or more? What happens if your product is damaged by the shipping firm; how will you handle such issues?
  • It's also important to consider how you'll track orders that you've gotten. It's nice to know if you're making a profit or if that new marketing campaign is worthwhile.
In an online store, you're not really there to converse with your customers and answer any questions or concerns they might have. This is where the FAQ page comes into play. If you take a look at mine, you'll see I've covered several things like why I've made prints available in only certain sizes, about my copyright, suggestions on frames, shipping, discounts, etc. In addition, a link to my contact page is clearly visible so that people can get in touch with me if they have questions or concerns not answered on the FAQ page.

The Terms of Sale
In this day and age, legal agreements are all around us and no longer does it take a handshake or physical signature to be bound to one. Just by surfing most websites, you implicitly agree to how that organization may use your information and what liabilities they can be held accountable for if things go awry (usually very little!). As mentioned above, I placed a checkbox on my shopping cart page that must be selected in order for the transaction to continue. I've never liked the approach of being shady with legal terms; I'd rather put them right out there for everyone to see and as far as I'm concerned this can help avoid problems down the road. So when customers on my store are ready to move on, they must check the box and it is my hope that they have actually bothered to read the terms, as well as understand and agree to them. In the case that a customer didn't bother to do so and an issue arises, it's very likely I would have the upper hand in a legal case... hopefully though, that will never happen.

Not to sound overly protective or anything, but I'd like to add that the content I wrote on my website is copyright and shouldn't be copied... not necessarily because it would be such a terrible thing, but rather for these reasons:
  1. I wrote that material myself and although I believe it's perfectly legal, it's better to have a qualified lawyer write this kind of content.
  2. If you write such material yourself (even if a lawyer does it for you), I firmly believe you'll have a much better feel and understanding of your own business. In other words, you can tailor make content that perfectly fits your website and/or company policies.
  3. I also think that it's a great learning experience in regard to understanding how much can be involved with something so seemingly simple.
By no means is this an exhaustive post. Running a business is no small feat. I've certainly learned a lot about this as I've owned a company since 1995 and have two master's degrees in the field (MBA and Master of Project Management)... but I still have a lot to learn as it is! Anyway, at the least I hope you have found some use out of this post and I wish you good luck if you venture out on your own. And yes, soon I will be done the time lapse episode! L8r!

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