How to

Increase efficiency and lower costs on popular eCommerce platforms

 

Many online store owners wonder, “How on earth am I supposed to compete with Amazon?”
With their product selection and fast fulfillment times, it’s no wonder customers
are flocking to these eCommerce platforms.

Selling with Amazon and eBay

Since Amazon’s platform is so large, many shops opt to have products fulfilled by Amazon. However, the fees are undeniably high and can take away the profit you make on each item.

Lowering your seller fees is no easy feat, though. Amazon runs a complicated system where users are a flat fee per item as well as any associated category fees while eBay runs a percentage based system, taking anywhere from 8% to 15% of the item value.

Using Amazon, you can drop the £0.75 item selling fee by purchasing their £25.00 upgrade seller plan, which is great for larger stores on the platform. You may also opt to contact Amazon to purchase products directly from you, so they maintain inventory and you don’t lose any profit whatsoever, though this is a rather difficult process that will likely end in a rejection.

With eBay, opt to remove any of the additional “highlighting” features offered. A well written listing with professionally taken pictures will do wonders, compared to a bolded title, etc. You can save up to £3.00, so it’s definitely worth a look.

Alternatives to Amazon and eBay

While you can lower your seller fees with these popular eCommerce options, opening your own eCommerce store can be a great option to keeping more of your profit while also having greater control on customization. You might opt to have someone host your store for you, host it on our platform or perhaps run it yourself. Some options include Shopify, a cloud hosted shop platform and Magento, a free Adobe-owned eCommerce platform.

Costs for the software can range anywhere from the low, low cost of free up to hundreds of dollars, so be sure to weigh your options carefully. Shopify allows for easy dropshipping, while Magento’s most attractive feature is that it is free.

However, if you opt to use a self-hosted platform such as Magento or WooCommerce, it needs to be run on a server. Don’t make the mistake of choosing a cheap shared hosting plan though, as it will likely end up that you’re upsold to a virtual server or are suspended due to overuse of shared resources. As the old adage goes, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Automating accounting and finance management

Seeing your store grow and turn a profit is every shopkeeper’s aspiration. However, as you emerge as a retailer, you will eventually need to pay your staff and produce financial statements for tax purposes, especially in Europe, where value added taxes (VAT) are leveraged differently across member nations.

Whether you choose Xero or Sage, managing your accounts payable and receivable can be a nightmare, especially if you’re manually inputting client transactions. We can help you increase your business’s efficiency through the automatic posting of transactions, automated staff invoicing and more. Not only will this save you time, it can increase your business’s revenue as you can spend more time on what you love.

Increasing the productivity of your staff

A moderately sized business will usually have at least a few employees working to manage inventory, find suppliers, etc. Your team is the core of your business — it simply cannot run without them. Make their jobs easier with software — we can create something that manages stock, assigns work to staff and more. They’ll spend less time performing menial tasks and more time running your business, allowing it to flourish.

 

 

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Think before registering a “new gTLD” domain

TLD stands for Top Level Domain. It’s the last part of a domain name – for example “.com”. The “g” stands for global which just means it’s not tied to a particular country.

About a year ago, there were just a few gTLDs and everyone wanted a .com for their business, their brand or their own name. .com was thought to be the most credible option since it stands for “company”.

The web has been around a long time, though, and good .com’s are in short supply. If you’ve ever had a great idea for a business name or a product name only to find that the .com is taken and isn’t being used for anything in particular, you’re not alone. Because they’re cheap to register and keep, and potentially very valuable, some people have made a very tidy living from hoarding good names and selling them at very inflated prices.

To try to solve this problem, about a year ago, a lot more TLDs arrived. Coffee shops can get a .coffee, clubs can get a .club, accountants can get a .accountant and so on. We very quickly went from a small number of TLDs to a huge catalogue.

For a lot of brands and businesses, it means that you can finally get the name that you actually want.

But it isn’t quite that simple.

Each gTLD, new and old, is maintained by a company. That company leases names on gTLDs they own, to wholesalers (“registrars”) who sub-lease it to you. The older gTLDs are generally provided by Verisign, an American company that has been doing this since around 1985. Over the last 32 years, they’ve not changed much. Their prices have increased roughly in line with inflation and there hasn’t been any notable foul play.

The new gTLDs are owned by a range of other companies. The best known is Uniregistry. There isn’t any evidence of foul play from Uniregistry either – but they don’t have the decades of stability that Verisign has.

Because of the regulations governing TLDs, instead of giving notice to increase their prices, Uniregistry have set fairly high prices for many of their extensions and have discounted them initially to gauge demand. This means that they can effectively increase the price of domains at the top of a hat if demand isn’t what they had expected. This has already happened to some of the extensions, including .guitar and .hosting.

In conclusion, you don’t get any more or any less guarantees buying a “new gTLD” relative to a traditional one. You do get more uncertainty, though.

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Make your documents searchable without giving up control

Ever year, I get a letter from my accountant. Our year end just finished and he wants a pile of paperwork from me to prepare our annual accounts.

I print it all off (sorry, tree), put it in a box, walk it over and dump it on the receptionist’s desk.

Someone their end then has to do some menial tasks like looking through our bank statements and make sure there’s an invoice for every payment in and out. I don’t envy that person!

They might scan it all in or make another paper copy of it for their records.

This sort of workflow is really common amongst accountants, solicitors, conveyancers, IFAs, estate agents etc.

It’s a huge waste of time because:

  1. A lot of the time, you are literally looking for a needle in a haystack
  2. You are following the same process for each customer

You might have heard of OCR. It’s where you scan the paperwork in and the text becomes searchable like on a web page or in a Word document. Maybe you’ve even been pitched to by a company offering a “document management” company. They want you to send them all of your files (??!) to do the recognition and for “safe”-keeping.

But what if there were a way to get the same benefits without ever giving up control of the documents? What if you didn’t have to pay a subscription or tie yourself in?

What if it were dead easy to find precisely what you’re looking for? (an invoice from the council on the 2nd of May for £120).

Enter, bespoke software. Neato!

Bespoke software is a great fit for document management because it gets around the biggest security concerns, eliminates vendor tie in and cuts your ongoing costs substantially.

We’re experienced software developers and we’ve done this before and we can do it again. Give us a call if you’d like to start taking control of your documents.

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How to choose the right backup strategy

We hear a lot about backups being neglected, and wrote an article some time ago about why backups are so important. Yet, what can be equally infuriating is a backup policy that is not as useful as it might seem when the times comes to actually use it. This article touches on the pros and cons of different approaches. In particular, we consider the speed to restore a backup, compression to save space and encryption to protect the backed up data.

Speed to restore

If you have a lot of important data – whole server backups, VM snapshots or lots of static contents – videos, images and so on, speed is important. It is not unknown for a backup restore process to take several days in these cases, due to a sub-optimal backup choice. If you have a lot of data, one backup strategy must be the speed and cost of restoring everything in a worst-case scenario. An excellent article suggests why Amazon Glacier is the wrong choice for this.

If you have double-digital gigabytes of data to restore, I strongly recommend against lots of compression or encryption for your backups. If the data is very sensitive, consider backing up to an encrypted disk rather than encrypting the backups directly as it is often faster. Compression and deduplication (i.e. storing incremental changes over time) also deteriorate the speed of your backups to sometimes unusable levels. Finally, consider the geographic distance between the backup storage and your normal server – it should be great enough that it survives a disaster, yet small enough that data doesn’t have to travel far.

Compression, deduplication and encryption

Compression means rewriting files in a more efficient way and has a lot of similarities with deduplication, storing multiple copies of files by only recording changes over time. Compression and deduplication are perfect for accidental deletions as it’s easy to restore a handful of files from months or years ago. In these cases, the speed doesn’t matter much as, without compression and deduplication, you probably would not have been able to store the files for so long anyway.

Encryption is a more complex subject. Platforms that claim to offer encryption often offer encryption that can be decrypted by someone else. This sort of encryption offer negligible security benefits in my opinion. Good encryption needs to be end-to-end, meaning that there is only one feasible way to decrypt the data at any stage – with the relevant key. The downside is, strong, end-to-end encryption can be slow and, combining it with compression can make restores very slow indeed. It also places additional stress on your servers, potentially increasing hosting costs.

For sensitive data, such as e-commerce databases, separate the sensitive data and store it somewhere away from prying eyes. Tarsnap is an excellent choice for this sort of sensitive data. Although the pricing seems fuzzy, at least one of our clients stores data at Tarsnap at a surprisingly low cost.

RAID and Snapshots

One client this week found out the hard way that neither RAID nor snapshots were of any use when the hosting provider had a major incident, resulting in corrupt data, overwriting the snapshot with the corrupt data and eventually telling him that the snapshots shouldn’t be used as backups.. Right.

Snapshots are actually great when they are done properly – a few are stored off-site. They are fast to restore and generally very reliable. However, they only apply to backups being made by a hosting company on a virtual machine that they sell. It is not feasible to back up an entire running system consistently. Therefore, if you rely on your hosting company for backups, you should have a second backup, in case you hosting company get it wrong – as they often do.

Backup Service Providers

With our managed hosting and managed cloud, we take care of the complexities of backups. Other managed service providers generally do the same. I would still urge clients to keep their own backups, particularly for the cases of a dispute between the provider and the client, but, generally, someone else is worrying about it.

For others, on unmanaged services, consider Tarsnap for your most sensitive data. If you use a control panel, such as cPanel, there is already a great backup tool built in, that is specifically designed to work with your server, that just needs some space. The space should be somewhere else, off your server, and, you might be surprised at how cost effective that backup space can be.

Get help implementing backups

Contact us to get help designing and implementing a backup strategy that really works

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How to Choose a CDN

There has been a surge in the number of CDN services and the use of CDN services in recent months. In this article, we will consider why a certain provider might be a good fit.

Whole site CDN / static website

Whereas CDNs are conventionally used to host only static assets (CSS, Javascript, fonts and images), some informational websites, where every user sees the same page, can be served entirely from a CDN. In this case, you point your domain at the CDN service and the CDN acts as a reverse proxy for your website, much like Cloudflare and Incapsula, but without the bells and whistles. The CDN caches the whole website in different locations, meaning that your website load time is excellent. When you update content on the website, such as publishing a new article, you clear the CDN to reset the caches.

This type of CDN is known as a Static Site CDN, and tends to include a number of features to make it easy to host static content in different locations. If your website is based on Javascript, you can also consider pre-rendering it to improve speed and help Google to find your content.

Whereas static sites, that is, sites with just HTML content, were popular in the ’90s, they are less common today. Therefore, you may need software to generate one for you, using your existing website. Such static site generators are, incidentally, also surging in popularity. Specialist CDNs for static sites, such as Netlify, include built-in tools, although plenty of open source tools are available for different programming languages. Plugins are also available for WordPress.

You can, generally, use almost any CDN for your static site. However, you should consider the reach of the CDN (as always, they should be present where your users are). The features offered by the CDN are also especially important, as, for example, you may want to use your own SSL certificate and control cache expiry times. Aside from Netlify, we have found KeyCDN to be an excellent choice to maximise the use of modern software innovations as well as an extensive network and reasonable prices.

Network coverage

Your CDN should, first and foremost, be present where your users are. Cheap CDNs, like MaxCDN, generally cover locations where hosting is cheaper, to keep costs low. If all of your users are based in the EU and US, this may be ideal, but bear in mind that users (and potentially search rankings) outside these areas – that is, primarily, Australia and Asia, will be limited. Consider whether, for a small percentage cost difference, it is worth using a CDN with better coverage.

Equally, many of the “big name” CDNs, like Edgecast and Akamai, have points of presence in a very large number of locations. The benefit it touted as the content being as close as possible to the user. This is, potentially, correct. However, bear in mind that if the POP does not have your content in its cache, which is more likely on a larger network, it has to fetch it, usually from your server, before delivering it. This is far from ideal. To counterbalance this, some such CDNs offer their own storage facility, that should be considered alongside the CDN offer.

Neither Akamai not Edgecast (now Verizon) sell directly to small businesses. Akamai’s CDN is available via Rackspace and Edgecast is available via Speedy Rails. These resellers offer access to the same network although the level of control is sometimes limited, and in particular, there may be significant additional costs for certain features that are free with smaller CDNs.

Features

Features should be considered carefully. There are numerous software innovations that, alongside good network coverage, are a significant benefit:

  1. HTTP/2
    To vastly simplify this evolution in Internet standards, if your server or CDN supports HTTP/2, all modern web browsers, including mobile, will be able to download more than one resource using the same connection. Since there is some overhead at both ends for each connection, HTTP/2 can make a surprising difference to the speed of your website.
  2. Compression
    Conventionally, we hear that HTTP compression, such as gzip, makes websites faster. In reality, one of the reasons why this is not always the case, is that the server has to compress the content before sending it. If the compressed content is not cached, which it usually isn’t, and the website is busy, it can add noticeable CPU overhead to the server, slowing down the website overall. A CDN that implements compression for you is giving you access to compression for nothing.
  3. Minification
    CSS, HTML and Javascript can be minified, that is, most of the white space can be removed without impacting the functionality of the files. Consider this carefully, as the implementation of a given minification algorithm may break your specific content. CSS is generally safe, Javascript and HTML can be less safe. Much like compression, offloading this to the CDN saves your server some of its resources.
  4. Expiry Times
    Some CDNs let you specify your own expiry times, and specify headers too. Fine-grained control over the amount of time that browsers hold on to CDN-delivered content, and how long the CDN itself holds on to the content, can be extremely useful to ensure that your website it as fast as it can be, without impacting functionality.
  5. HTTPS
    Whereas most CDNs let you use HTTPS, some are stuck in the dark ages, when there was a cost associated with it. These are generally the larger CDN networks and also Fastly. For these, you may not be able to use HTTPS with your own domain, due to certificate limitations, or may not be able to use an EV SSL certificate, if you would like to, due to the cost involved in setting it up and maintaining it. This is likely to change in the near future, as standards such as SNI are implemented more widely.

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