Practical Ecommerce

Crucial Skills for Ecommerce Entrepreneurs

What does it take to be a successful ecommerce entrepreneur? The answer might surprise you.

If you did a quick search for “crucial small business skills” or “must have entrepreneurial skills” in your favorite search engine, you would find dozens of articles each offering their own spin on which skills — or, more often, attributes — are absolutely essential when you’re starting a business.

Common themes on these lists include “leadership,” “strategic vision,” “operational focus,” “empathy,” and “empowerment.”

One list even suggested that entrepreneurs need to be comfortable being uncomfortable. “There can be times as a business owner that for months on end you will be in a state of stress, worry, anxiety, and discomfort,” the article in question said. “Being an entrepreneur means being able to live and function in this state for extended periods of time.”

While I suppose that basic stress management skills are very important, in my own list of crucial skills for ecommerce entrepreneurs, I wanted to focus on practical skills that can be learned and executed rather than on esoteric things like “leadership” or more basic things like stress management. I am also assuming that the entrepreneur in view has limited financial resources and will be doing much of the work rather than hiring several employees.

Be Able to Write Well

Writing well, which means communicating your point with proper spelling and grammar, is vital when you’re getting a business started.

Think about this, for every product on your ecommerce site, you will need a well-written product description. You’ll also need to compose your privacy policy, return policy, “About Us” page, and transactional email copy, just to name a few things.

When it comes to marketing, there will be the need to compose blog posts, Twitter tweets, Facebook updates, Yelp business descriptions, and email newsletters. You have to write ad copy for your Google AdWords campaign. And then there are meta descriptions, customer emails, and vendor emails.

To learn to write well, consider getting a copy of the AP Stylebook and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. These books will help you know how to properly punctuate your prose and give you hints about how to handle some specific writing situations. You might also want to follow a writing blog or two, such as Copyblogger. And if you really want to get this skill down consider taking the free MIT Open Courseware Class, “Writing and Reading the Essay.”

The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White.

The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White.

Know How to Learn

In my personal dictionary, “entrepreneur” is synonymous with “jack of all trades.” If you’re starting a business, you will need to do all sorts of things that are new. So almost by definition, you will need to learn new skills.

Some examples might be product photo manipulation in Adobe Photoshop or writing basic HTML code for your site. You need to know how to get the most out of your ecommerce platform and, for that matter, how to choose an ecommerce platform or shopping cart.

Thankfully, learning is a skill that, well, can be learned. Begin by trying to decide how you learn best. Do you like to read things — like this article, for example? Would you rather listen to an explanation or watch a video? Do you need a person you can interact with to learn something new? Or do you learn best with some combination of these? Figure out how you learn best, and you will have gone a long way toward mastering this crucial skill.

If you find that you learn best from videos, consider getting memberships at sites like Lynda, which provides software and photography training, or Think Vitamin, which teaches web development and design.

"Writing and Reading the Essay" at MIT Open Courseware

“Writing and Reading the Essay” at MIT Open Courseware

Be a Skilled Listener

I think that entrepreneurs must be good listeners. You need to hear your customers and really understand what makes them happy or not. You need to be able to listen to instructors as you learn new skills. You need to be able to listen to advice, sometimes even when you don’t want it.

Here are three things you can do to boost your listening skills.

First, stop talking. When you are having a conversation with a customer, partner, vendor, potential employee, consultant, or lawyer, try to spend more than half of the time just listening, not talking.

Second, check that you’ve understood by restating. During natural pauses in your conversations, try to restate what you’ve just heard — something like, “so you’re saying that we need to invest more in social media if we want to boost sales?” If you have accurately understood what the other person was saying, he or she will give you a positive response. If not, that person will make the point in a new way.

Third, ask follow up questions. One of the best ways to deal with an angry customer is to ask questions.

But What About…

Writing, learning, and listening were probably not what you thought you were going to be reading about when you clicked on this article, “Crucial Skills for Ecommerce Entrepreneurs.” But when it comes right down to it, I think that just about every other skill one might name can be more easily managed when your ecommerce business is small.

For example, I thought of suggesting accounting skills. But you can hire an accountant quite reasonably. I know of some ecommerce operations that pay as little as $300 per year. And there is a lot of great accounting software available, too.

I thought about web design and development. Ryan Carson, who is the founder of the Think Vitamin site I mentioned above, said in a recent podcast that web design and development skills gave entrepreneurs a significant advantage. But I know ecommerce entrepreneurs who have succeeded without these skills.

I could have also suggested that you might need business management skills. But I don’t think these are crucial either. As evidence, Mike Monteiro, co-founder and design director at Mule, a successful design firm, confessed to a crowd at a Typekit event in San Francisco last month, that he did not have business management skills when he started his company.

Summing Up

Starting an ecommerce business can certainly be a challenge, and, as has been stated, there are certain skills that you’ll want to acquire. But be bold, and learn as you go.

Editor’s Note: Do you have suggestions for “crucial skills for ecommerce entrepreneurs?” Let us know in the comments, below.

Armando Roggio

Armando Roggio

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  1. altteam April 28, 2011 Reply

    Quote: "In my personal dictionary, "entrepreneur" is synonymous with "jack of all trades."
    That’s sooo true )))
    Really agree with every point.

  2. Louis Camassa May 2, 2011 Reply

    Armando-interesting points! From another vantage point, what about the business choice itself? That is, what is being sold, for how much, etc…?

    For those weak on the skills you mention, they could still be very successful if they have low priced products, products in high demand, excellent customer service, etc…

    Also, being able to interview and hire superstar staff (surround yourself with professionals) would be a valuable asset to any ecommerce entrepreneur!

  3. Armando Roggio May 11, 2011 Reply

    Louis, I humbly disagree. I do not think that low prices, or even high demand products will necessarily lead to success without marketing. And marketing requires writing.

  4. Kate Price October 24, 2011 Reply

    I was eager to read this to see if it fit with my experience in my own successful online business. You absolutely got it right on every single point, so hats off. Being a successful e-commerce entrepreneur has been an enlightening, fascinating and fun experience, and it’s also been unexpected in many ways.

    1. WRITING WELL: The Elements of Style is a great book, and that’s a great place to start if your writing could use improvement. Even as a kid, I had the ability to express myself pretty well in writing. This skill has been of immense utility again and again throughout my life.

    2. LEARNING TO LEARN: This is a "classic" entrepreneurial skill, but it’s deceptive in its simplicity. The one thing that’s helped me, no matter what field, is an ability to find solutions. Know what you don’t know! Eliminate your blind spots even if it’s uncomfortable, ask for feedback and then get into action.

    3. LISTENING WELL: This is something I definitely need work on…thank you for the reminder!

  5. Andrew Youderian May 23, 2012 Reply

    I wrote an article on a near-identical topic titled "Must Have Skills for eCommerce Founders". We both included "Know How to Learn" as an essential skill, but I detailed 3 others I think are crucial for success:

    http://www.ecommercefuel.com/must-have-skills-for-ecommerce-founders/