Ecommerce For Non-Programmers

I got this email the other day from a loyal reader named George. About half-way through my response I thought to myself “this might make a good post” so I asked George and he was kind enough to let me post our conversation.



Your blog is an inspiration and I think what you put up really helps out budding entrepreneurs as well as those wanting to become one.

I had a few questions as I am interested in starting up an ecommerce site.

First of all it seems as if you and your buddies do all the technical work yourselves which I think is great. However for someone like me who is knowledgeable about technology but not a programmer what do you think is the best way to get a site built?

Is it better to hire developers abroad to save money or just get someone here to do the work?

Or am I just SOL because that would be a bad idea? I have experience in User Interfaces from my old job as well as experience working with developers in Brazil but none of those were for e-commerce.

Any suggestions would be much appreciated.



Thanks for the kind words – I’m glad that you are enjoying the blog.

You are definitely not SOL. The fact that you are very knowledgeable about technology, understand user interfaces, and have experience working with developers gives you a great shot of being able to make it work. I really think anyone that has significant experience buying products online has enough e-commerce experience to make a site work. The people that really struggle are the “mom and pop” stores that try to take their business to the web. While they have a great understanding of their product, they aren’t familiar enough with the online world to really formulate a plan and be able to guide a developer. For those people, I’d honestly start by telling them to buy more online.

When you buy a lot of products online, you become familiar with:

  • The registration process (including what to say in confirmation emails)
  • How sites organize their products
  • How you add items to your cart
  • The check-out process, including how payment is accepted
  • The confirmation process
  • The delivery – how long it takes to process the order, how long shipping takes, how long
  • The follow-up (if any) emails or mailings

I’m assuming you’ve already noticed these things hundreds of times without realizing it, so you’re probably a lot further ahead than you think. Now, specifically how you should attack the problem. I think eBay Stores are a great place to get your feet wet, but I’m assuming you want to make a legitimate go at it and for that I think you need your own store (side note: eBay stores is a great way to supplement e-commerce sales and draw people to your site…if your items are sold frequently on eBay and you can make some sort of profit, even if it’s less than on your site).

Before even worrying about the development, I would at a minimum:

  • Figure out exactly what you will be selling. Consider space restraints, shipping costs, and any other factor that might sway your decision.
  • Choose a name (do a few Google searches and a trademark search at to make sure no one else is using it)
  • Buy a domain name (I use GoDaddy, but any registrar will do).

You also might want to:

  • Set up a splash page on your own. If you’re good with Photoshop, you can probably whip up a quick logo and put it up there yourself using GoDaddy’s free landing page. This will probably take a few hours to learn super-basic HTML and just get the logo and “coming soon” up. Tizag has great tutorials. Alternatively, you could find someone you know who is graphical and have them do the design…or hire a graphic designer to do it for you.
  • Make a list of potential vendors or drop shippers and start contacting them. The splash page will at least show them that you are serious about the business. As I’ve learned recently, this can take several months because many vendors take weeks to reply to emails/calls, and many have wacky restrictions for online retailers so you need to have a lot of different options on your list.

Now, as you’re getting ready to delve in to the development, I’d take a few days to map out your site. Choose the different categories, a basic color scheme, and a layout. Essentially design the UI and the information flow throughout the site – it will force you to work through a lot of issues that can save you a ton of money/time with a developer. I usually just grab a big piece of poster board and do some hand sketches.

I see three options for you when you get to the development:

#1 – Yahoo Stores

The Pros:

  • Quick set up time
  • Great customer service (from people I’ve spoken with)
  • A huge community to ask questions to
  • Secure and proven credit card processing. It’s also a familiar interface for people – a lot of sites are Yahoo Stores and you probably don’t realize it.
  • If you are relatively tech savvy and are good with graphics, you can probably learn to do it yourself. They have fantastic documentation and a great developer community. There’s a lot said for immersing yourself in the task and learning how something works. Every developer I know started with something simple and gradually learned more and more. This is a great place to get started.
  • If you don’t want to do the graphics, you can hire a designer to template the site.
  • If you want to outsource the whole thing, they have a list of approved developers that have experience with Yahoo Stores. Their experience will save you time and money, and – if they’re a good company – they will be able to warn you about and help you overcome the little nuances of the software that only experienced users understand.

The Cons:

  • A lack of ability to customize. You’re at the mercy of their system, which is pretty robust, but I’m not sure how easy it is to add a blog or a forum to your site. Content really really helps build user trust and pull in traffic via search engines, so this is something I’d research and ask them about before taking the plunge.
  • Tiered pricing. As you grow, you’ll have to pay more for a higher package.
  • Monthly fee is higher than other alternatives…although the simplicity of paying one place and not a different domain company, hosting company, merchant account, etc is nice

#2 – osCommerce (open source shopping cart)

The Pros:

  • Quick set up time (although not as fast as Yahoo)
  • It’s free
  • Proven platform, and again a familiar interface for people.
  • It’s on your own hosting, so it’s easy to add a forum or blog or whatever else you want.
  • Can be templated on your own if you have a basic HTML/CSS/Photoshop background. If you want to give the install a go (not too hard), you can probably do the whole thing yourself.
  • A massive developer community
  • Extensions to add-on almost any functionality you can think of
  • You have access to the source code, so you can learn a bit more about programming if you want. Even if it’s following the instructions to install it, you’ll learn a lot.
  • Lot’s of developers who solely focus on osC customization if you decide you want to outsource it.
  • Less expensive on a monthly or per-sale basis than Yahoo.

The Cons:

  • Requires quite a few SEO plugins to be search friendly
  • You need to set up your own merchant account for credit card processing (although osC integrates easily with many popular merchant accounts).
  • If something goes wrong, there’s no one to call. You’re on your own. The best thing you can do is become an active member of the community so you know where to post and who to contact when something goes wrong.
  • You really do need to learn SOME coding over time to be able to manage and maintain an osC store in my opinion.

#3 – Outsource a completely custom solution (I’d advise against this).

I really think that either Yahoo Stores or osC are the perfect solution for any scenario to get started. We ran Detailed Image on osC for a few years before attempting our own cart. We needed to learn our customers and understand what was lacking from the site before attempting it on our own. Even if you want no involvement in the development, the developer communities are so strong for Y! and osC, that they’ll be able to be much more efficient than a developer starting from scratch. It could also take several months to a year to get up and running, and no business has that kind of time in my mind. The other options allow you to be up and running within days…a month at most. The months you save alone are worth it. That could equal out to be a $50k head start in sales, plus a $5k savings on a developer. If and when you reach a point when one of those solutions aren’t good enough, you can approach a developer to build your “perfect” cart with the knowledge and understanding of exactly what you want. You’ll also likely be doing well with your existing site – well enough to cover the development costs and be patient…even if it takes 9 months to develop you are still bringing in sales.

As far as initial marketing: keep it simple: post some items on eBay, start a blog (a must in my mind), do pay-per-click through Google and Yahoo and become a master of it, and submit a product feed to Google Base. Combine those with a monthly newsletter to existing customers and fantastic customer service, and you’ll be on your way to a great start.

Also – do you mind if I post this question/answer on the blog? I think a lot of people would find it helpful.

Thanks again for reading. Good luck with your site. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do to help.


7 comments on Ecommerce For Non-Programmers

  1. ne says:

    If you don’t mind my asking, why haven’t you covered/reviewed some representative of the wide range of paid shopping cart/ecommerce software solutions (hosted or otherwise) other then oscommerce. I mean, there is a robust market for such products out there with many options.

    As I understand it, osCommerce more appealing to the technically minded. Toi buy & skin an ecommerce product could run anywhere from $500 to $10,000+ but the software/liscense component of this cost is not huge.

    Is the fact that oscommerce is open source/free such a big +?

    The advantage of going with this sort of thing IMO is the range of solutions out there targeting various types of users from programmers to mom & pops (though I agree they may be disadvantaged for other reasons).

  2. jennsquared says:

    This is great, Adam! Although I won’t be doing e-commerce immediately, but I do want to set up a site that would be easy to convert. I’ll be playing with my sites to get it going soon so this is a great help!

  3. Adam McFarland says:

    Ne – there definitely is a massive market out there with hundreds/thousands of solutions.

    Yahoo Stores and osCommerce are the ones that my partners and I have had positive experiences with, and therefore are comfortable recommending to others.

    I’d certainly welcome comments, suggestions, reviews, etc of other platforms that people have had success with.

  4. Ed Kundahl says:

    You are misinforming newbies. Yahoo takes a percentage of sales, is not as seo friendly as they pitch it, and you are limited to the number of outside vendors who will design for it. There are hundreds of shopping carts that are far superior, come with better support than Yahoo offers and are far more customizable. No merchant’s needs are not the same. Every business is unique. As such, their shopping cart should reflect that and be customizable to represent the client in the best manner. Oscommerce is not even worth talking about for a newbie or experienced merchant unless they have someone on staff that can manage it. It is horrible for seo even with their add on modules. We convert os commerce and yahoo store owners to far better solutions…seems to be the major part of our upgrade business. thank you yahoo and oscommerce.

  5. Adam McFarland says:

    Well Ed, I can (somewhat) see your points about Yahoo and osC. I listed pricing as a downside to Y! and I mentioned the need to learn some programming as a downside to osC so I’m not really sure what you pointed out that I already didn’t.

    To be honest, your comment just sounds like a promo for your SEO company (link removed). As I said in the comment before yours, I’d be happy to hear suggestions for other platforms I haven’t been exposed to.

    Since we built our cart from scratch and we believe it is essentially perfect for our needs (if it’s missing something, I just program it in), I am not that experienced with a ton of different shopping cart softwares.

    I offered up my recommendations for what I know works and has a solid help community. Like it or not more money passes through Yahoo Stores and osC than most other shopping carts combined. If you have alternatives, please list them and why you like them

    Simply thanking Y! and osC for passing you business adds no value to the comments section and doesn’t really help out a first-timer.

  6. Tim says:


    Off topic, but did you look at multiple banks for your online business. I am in the process of opening a business checking account and am trying to find a bank that is friendly to multiple credit card transactions. Any suggestions would be appreciated.



  7. Adam McFarland says:

    Hi Tim,

    When you say ‘multiple banks’ are you referring to merchant accounts for credit card processing?

    We’ve done two different things. In both cases, we’ve done all of our business banking with Citizens Bank (local, good reputation, we all use it for our personal banking as well).

    With the old Detailed Image we used to process credit card payments. They auto-deposited the money into our bank account (not sure of the exact time frame, but it took a while to clear if I remember correctly).

    With our shopping cart, we integrated it with PayPal Payments Pro. A lot of people don’t like to hear this, but Payments Pro is very competitive and does not require you to show PayPal’s logo anywhere or leave your site when processing a transaction. I believe the fee is $29.99/month, and the percentages go down as you increase in volume.

    They also allow us to withdraw to our Citizens account at any time (every day if we want) and don’t charge extra for chargebacks or for cards where the address/CVV number doesn’t match. Plus, when people pay with PayPal it’s all deposited into the same account (as opposed to having money with a merchant acct and having it in PayPal).

    After running with each for a while, I couldn’t be happier with Payments Pro. Unlike regular PayPal payments, this has never gone down and never failed us at all.

    From a programming standpoint, it seamlessly integrates with osCommerce or Yahoo Stores…and I was able to use the documentation and sample code to get our custom solution working in about two days.

    Hope that helps. Drop me an email or comment if you have any other questions.


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