How to create a defensible eCommerce business plan
Most businesses are built on a dream, a passion, or a noble goal of fixing something that lacks a proper solution.
But unfortunately, many businesses don’t last more than a few months. A discouraging truth about eCommerce is that 90% of startups fail in the first 120 days.
Suffice to say that in order for your business to survive its first precarious years—and to thrive beyond them—you need a solid business plan.
After all, some of the most common reasons why businesses fail include lack of capital, inadequate management, and a faulty business model. Much of this is a symptom of poor planning. Here’s how you can better plan for your brand’s future and create a strong eCommerce business plan.
Back to basics: what is a business plan?
A business plan is a roadmap for how to structure, operate, and manage your business. It includes the important elements that define your company—such as your name, description, capital needs, product categories, target market characteristics, and business goals.
A thoughtful business plan can prepare your store for a successful launch and/or help it to scale in the right ways. In the latter case, an annual business plan review and revision can help you adapt to industry changes and anticipate new trends or consumer behaviors.
In a nutshell, a business plan helps you to:
Secure funding. By having a business plan that details the who, what, where, when, and hows of your business—you’ll enjoy an easier time building trust with investors and piquing their interest.
Filter distractions. New trends and distractions crop up all the time in eCommerce, making it especially important to have a plan that holds your business accountable to (read: focused on) particular goals.
Do your due diligence. When you’re first figuring out how to start a business, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and act on gut feelings. But building a business plan requires you to slow down and perform more thorough research on your target market, product(s), financial plan, and more.
Plan for the long term. Your business plan will help you to better gauge where your business should be in both the short and long terms. It can also act as a compass, estimating the steps you need to take to get from where you are today to where you want to go.
Grow your team. A business plan not only gives you a sense of who to hire and when, but serves as the glue binding your team to one, clearly defined vision.
Grow your operations. Between your tech stack, staff, supply chain, website, and more—there’s a lot that needs to be put into motion before your eCommerce business can take off. Your business plan should outline all of these moving parts, helping you strategically build out your operations.
What to include in an eCommerce business plan
An eCommerce business plan is structured similarly to a traditional business plan. However, it will detail things like your website builder, sales channels, fulfillment process, and goals that are distinct to running an online store.
Here’s a breakdown of what you should include in your plan:
01. Executive summary
Though this is published at the beginning of your business plan, your executive summary should be written last.
This summary is exactly as it sounds. It connects and introduces all the components of your document for readers who want a brief overview of what your business is all about. It’s similar to a hook or an elevator pitch that compels readers to continue scrolling.
Keep this summary short. Do not exceed one page, and include a brief description of your product or service, growth opportunities, and why your business is set up for success. What do investors or teammates need to know right off the bat?
02. Company name and description
In this section, you’ll want to outline the who, what, and why of your business. Rather than going into details about the products you plan to sell (this comes later), talk about your vision for the company. Share your motivations, values, and problems that you plan to solve.
Your description can include things like:
Brand name - Selecting a meaningful name is particularly important for eCommerce businesses since your website domain will be closely associated with your brand. Jeff Bezos famously named Amazon after the world’s largest river because his goal was to create the world’s largest bookstore, but also didn’t want to be tied to books. Similarly, you’ll want to pick a name that you won’t outgrow. If you need some inspiration, give Wix’s store name generator a whirl.
Domain name - At this point, you’ll want to have registered a domain name. Use Wix’s domain name search to check if your preferred domain is available. If the domain is taken, you can take one of several steps: contact the site owner directly, tweak your domain (e.g., add a verb like “get” to the front of your name), use a different TLD than .com, or use an abbreviated form of your name.
Background - Your description is a great place to share why you started your business in the first place. What inspired you to create your brand? Who do you plan to serve? What do you plan to accomplish? While you want to avoid waxing poetic here, it’s worth giving your readers an inside look into the history of your company.
Vision - Your vision statement should capture the ideal state of your business. In other words, what is the future that you’re building towards—not just now, but five or 10 years from now?
Mission - Your mission statement, on the other hand, should express what you’re striving and able to achieve now. While your vision statement provides the 30,000 foot view of your company, your mission statement acts as a compass for your team and keeps them motivated to do their best.
Business structure - Be clear about whether your company is a sole proprietorship, an LLC, s-corporation, c-corporation, or partnership. If you’re not sure which applies to you or which one to pursue, consult a lawyer or accountant.
Key personnel - Name key team members like your cofounders, CEO, partners, and upper management. There should be no question about who owns the company, and who is responsible for managing what. This is not something just meant for appearances—your team should be well-structured to ensure efficiency and growth.
Core values - Your values should represent how you plan to run your business. Investors and employees will want to know that they’re backing the right horse, not just from a financial perspective but from a human perspective. Your values will naturally make an appearance in your vision, mission, and background, but make sure that your values are clearly stated for readers to refer back to.
03. Ecommerce market analysis
Your business plan should include extensive information about your industry and the people you plan to serve. The last thing you want to do is enter the ring blindly or operate based on assumptions alone.
This section should describe everything from the barriers to entry, to how your business fits into the existing landscape, to how much opportunity exists. Remember that you’re the expert here. Not everyone who gets their hands on this doc will have as much insight into the industry—nor the time to research it on their own—so you’ll want to provide all the essential information up front.
Target market - Estimate the number of consumers who need your product (based on real independent research) and how often they may make a purchase. Revisit your buyer personas and describe who you’re planning to target. Is the need for your product growing, based on the climate of your industry? What consumer behaviors have you observed? Are there any doubts or questions that you should address?
Competitive analysis - Identify your top competitors and perform a deep dive into their strengths, weaknesses, top products, pricing strategies, and more. You should know how your business stacks up against these players. For example, many companies manufacture and sell hair and body care products, but Lush built its reputation by taking a stand against animal testing, over packaging, and harsh synthetic ingredients. The company has a clear niche within the cosmetics and bath products industry. They create unique, memorable products that are easy to differentiate from competitors (and fuel brand loyalty). The most important thing at this stage is to be honest in your assessment. Don’t turn a blind eye to areas where your company needs to improve or any risks that you run. At the same time, zero in on any product gaps or niches that your company can effectively target to get ahead of competitors.
Special considerations - As an eCommerce business, you may not simply sell D2C from your branded site. You may also choose to sell on third-party marketplaces like Amazon, sell wholesale, or open brick-and-mortar locations. Each of these may involve a different set of competitors and buyers. Take the time to look into each of these channels separately. Understand how you plan to compete on all of these different fronts (or perhaps now is a good time to define which is most important to start off with).
04. Products you’re selling and why you’re selling them
By now, you’ve likely mentioned your product several times within your business plan. Still, you’ll want to have a section that clearly lists out your products.
In this section, describe your pricing, product positioning, margins, product life cycle, and key differentiators. You can include pictures and product reviews if you’ve already tested your items in the market. Or, if you’re still in the research and development phase, describe your timeline and progress in detail.
It should be clear whether your products are private label or sourced elsewhere. If you only sell a few items, provide a more detailed description of each. Alternatively, if your catalog is too large to list out, give a more general overview of each product type, plus the strategy behind them.
If your business plan is meant to serve as an internal doc for your team to use (or even if you want investors to see where your capital is going), include a section that describes how you plan on tackling logistics and operations. There are tons of things to keep track of on this front, from the suppliers you’ll need to work with to the storage space you’ll require.
Here’s a breakdown of information you can include.
Suppliers - List out your suppliers for raw and/or finished goods. Where are they located? How do you plan on connecting with and managing them?
Production - Are you dropshipping, manufacturing, hand-crafting, or buying your products wholesale? Include details like lead time, contingency plans (for when demand spikes), and other essential details about your supply chain.
Equipment - What hardware and software will you need to conduct business? Include your website builder and other subscription-based tools that you’ll need.
Warehousing - Explain where you plan on storing your products—whether that be your own warehouse or a third-party logistics (3PL) provider.
Facilities - Do you plan on opening a brick-and-mortar location, or will you have a designated office space? Include where your team members will be operating out of and how that might change as you grow.
Personnel - You’ll want to be clear about the chain of command and which roles are filled or need to be filled. Don’t forget to think about any legal or accounting needs, in addition to board members, consultants, and employees.
Inventory - How do you plan on handling inventory management? This is an area where lots of businesses stumble, so you’ll want to have a clear strategy (and the necessary technology) to keep this in check across all of your sales channels.
Shipping and fulfillment - Do you plan on fulfilling orders on your own or will you outsource this responsibility? Moreover, how will you handle international shipping if your brand plans on selling overseas?
06. Marketing and advertising
It’s no secret that you need a good marketing and advertising plan to grow your eCommerce business.
But you may be surprised to know that a staggering 37% of surveyed startup owners said that poor online marketing caused their businesses to fail. Of this cohort, 35% said that a lack of online search visibility was the top reason.
That’s why you don’t want to haphazardly build your eCommerce marketing strategy. Think of—and document—the various components of your strategy:
Social media ads
Organic social media
Radio or TV
A strong marketing plan doesn’t necessarily require a big advertising budget. But you’ll want to name your top channels upfront and specify whether these things will be handled in-house or with an agency’s help.
07. Financial plan
So you’ve got big plans for your business. How will you fund them?
This is where you reassure readers that your head isn’t just in the clouds. While this is probably the least fun to write, the viability of your business (and your reader’s confidence in you) relies on having a firm grasp of the numbers.
If you plan to seek financing, then investors and lenders will want a sales forecast along with your list of expenses (this includes both fixed costs and variable costs) to ultimately ensure that they’re making a sound investment.
Or, if you don’t plan on seeking third-party funding, a financial plan still tells you how much money you’ll need to run your business and helps to protect you from unwelcome surprises. The last thing you want is to run out of money before you can establish yourself—which is one of the top five reasons that eCommerce startups failed in the same survey mentioned above.
Consider including theses elements within your financial plan:
Income and expenses
Cash flow statement
Break even point
Customer acquisition cost
Financial projects for next five years
Get cracking on your business plan today
Whether you’ve just dipped your foot in eCommerce or have been in business for years now, you’ll need an up-to-date business plan to run a tight ship. Download our free business plan template today and build a solid foundation for your brand.
Editor, Wix eCommerce
Allison is the editor for the Wix eCommerce blog, with several years of experience reporting on eCommerce news, strategies, and founder stories.