Welcome to part two of my five part series of articles on setting up your own online store. If you are just starting out, then I recommend you read the first article in the series – Part 1: Finding Your Product Niche.

If you followed the guidelines in Part 1, you will have chosen your product(s), validated your business idea and given it a name.

The next step is just as important: Setting up your platform. This includes claiming your website name, deciding on your platform, and choosing a company to host your website.

You will also need to lock in at least one payment gateway and ensure your site is ready for secure online transactions.


Step 1: Register your Domain Name

A domain name is basically a website’s address – it’s what you type into a web browser to access a website.

Nobody can actually own a domain name. When you register yours, you are simply renting it, usually through an Internet service provider.

Simply search online for ‘domain name registrars’, pick a reputable service provider, and check on their site to see if the domain name you want is available.

You will then be able to immediately register your website’s domain name. You will likely have to pay in advance for an agreed period, usually for one year, renewed annually.


Research domain name registrars to find out if your name is available and how much it will cost to register it. If the name you want has already been used and/or is not available – or not available as a .com or .co.za – consider alternatives. Once you are confident you understand what a domain name is, how to register it, and what you are likely to choose as your name, then move on to the next step.


Step 2: Choosing a Site Host & Platform

Next you need to choose which service provider will host your website, and whether you want a pre-designed template, or would prefer to custom create your own platform.

A hosting company will provide you server space for your site, allow users to access it on the Internet, store all of your digital information/data securely, and provide basic support services.

You can sign up with separate service providers for domain name registration and hosting, but many companies also offer an affordable all-in-one package.

Now let’s talk about how to build your website.

There are two main routes to do this: a custom platform developed from scratch, or a pre-made ‘out-of-the-box’ solution.

A custom-designed website provides you with greater creative freedom and control – with your developer, you can decide how your site will look and how your customer will experience it. You also have more control over your payment gateways – which we will come to next – and will likely pay the minimum ecommerce transactions fees required.

But building a custom website can be extremely expensive, and can also take much longer to complete.

On the other hand, there are many, top quality out-of-the-box website design packages that can provide you with a template that can be launched almost immediately. This option is also usually highly affordable, can include both domain name and hosting services, and can offer you additional features and technical support.

However, pre-made sites offer limited creative or technical variety, meaning you cannot change the site much to suit your individual design needs. Many of the more basic template packages can also be quite limited and more difficult to scale as your company grows – and will likely charge you higher transaction or subscription fees.

These are only a few of the main pros and cons to think about when choosing a custom vs a pre-made ecommerce website. Make sure you do your research thoroughly before you commit.


Step 3: Payment Gateways & Merchant Accounts

One of the most critical aspects of setting up your ecommerce platform is choosing your payment gateway and connecting a merchant account to your website.

A payment gateway is an integrated verified third-party electronic payment technology necessary for ecommerce. Think of it as the online equivalent of the cashier till or card reader at your local bricks and mortar store.

When your customer makes a purchase on your site, they provide you with credit card details, and the gateway processes that payment securely. A merchant account temporarily stores a payment while credit card and transaction details are verified. Once this is done the merchant account transfers the funds from the sale into your bank account, either right away or periodically (usually monthly).

You are not expected to understand how it all works in detail. But you do need to select a payment gateway and merchant account that are compatible with each other and with your ecommerce platform, and is available for use in your country.

In South Africa, there are many reputable service providers that will offer both the payment gateway and merchant account in one package, so investigate these options, and then select the package that best suits your needs.

For a custom website, you will have to integrate a third party payment gateway of your choice into your platform. If you have chosen to go the pre-made site route, many of these companies also offer integrated payment gateways, allowing you to trade immediately.

While some payment gateways require you to be a registered business, many allow individuals and independent ecommerce entrepreneurs to subscribe to their services as a ‘non-merchant’ account.

Again, it is up to you to thoroughly research your options before you decide which payment gateway best suits your needs.


Step 4: Get an SSL Certificate

Finally, your platform will need a Secure Sockets Layer – or SSL – certificate to verify that the data on your site is protected from online fraud and that your customers’ personal and payment details are secure.

Most Internet service providers will include or offer an SSL certificate, but it is up to you to ensure this crucial component of ecommerce is activated and up to date at all times.

Once your platform is set up you will be ready for the next stage of your ecommerce journey: order delivery.


Some Tips for Setting up a Platform and Payment Gateways

  • Ask friends or colleagues who are already owners of ecommerce sites which domain hosts or platforms they prefer – personal referrals from satisfied customers are often the best recommendations.
  • Join ecommerce-orientated groups on social media channels such as LinkedIn or Facebook; these are usually full of useful information and fellow online entrepreneurs happy to share advice and mentorship, especially about the above main key technical elements: domain registration, hosting, platforms, payment gateways and SSL certificates.
  • Spend as much time as you need researching your options, especially when it comes to platforms and gateways, as there are numerous websites out there that offer comprehensive comparisons – just make sure they are not trying to subversively sell you on one solution over the others!
  • Be patient. Do not rush into making a decision about these four elements as they are the foundation of everything to follow.


Next article: Part 3 – Shipping to your Customers