Starting your own ecommerce business may seem intimidating — writing a business plan, even more so.
However, a business plan allows you to validate your business idea, assess your financial position and create a concrete action plan for how you’ll deliver a product from the original source to the end consumer.
In other words, while the business plan might seem like it’s ultimately meant for other people’s benefit — potential investors, business partners or well-meaning family members who keep pestering you to write one — in reality, the business plan benefits you, the business owner, the most.
You’ll shape the vision and mission for your business and map out how you’ll get there. One study by Harvard Business Review found that entrepreneurs who write a formal business plan are 16% more likely to achieve viability than those who don’t.
An ecommerce business plan is a document that outlines your business purpose and goals, analyzes your industry and competitors and identifies the resources needed to execute your plan.
For example, which suppliers will you work with? What types of products will you stock? Who is your ideal buyer? How will you advertise your business? Can you afford to provide free shipping and still make a profit?
Here’s a step-by-step primer on how to write a business plan for your ecommerce store, what elements to include and how to use your own business plan to increase your chance of success.
Business plans help entrepreneurs maintain focus on their goals and shape the day-to-day running of a new business. The key elements of an ecommerce business plan template describe blueprints for growth, projected timelines and financial goals — clarifying topics like cash flow, expenses, marketing tools and distribution channels.
An executive summary provides a concise rundown of the key points in your business plan. In short, it should summarize your chosen industry, business purpose, competitors, business goals and financial position. Executive summaries average 1-3 pages and are ideally under two pages.
Explain the raison d’être for your startup. What problem will you solve for your customers? Who is the target audience? Where do you want your business to be in one, five, or 10 years?
Here are the main elements of an executive summary:
The problem statement or business opportunity: Describe a pain point or gap in the market that you are uniquely qualified to fill. (“As someone who used to own a convenience store, I heard many of my customers complain about the lack of healthy food options while traveling domestically.”)
Your business idea: State how you plan to approach the problem (“XYZ is a ready-to-eat meal company that lets travelers order and pack healthy meals ahead of trips so they can avoid eating fast food.”)
Company history: Describe what milestones you have achieved. Are you already working with suppliers? What is your current revenue? (“In 2021, XYZ fulfilled over 10,000 orders, generating $150,000 in revenue.”)
Industry and market analysis: Outline the trends in the market that affect your business, market size, and demand for your product. (“In 2022, the global health and wellness food market was valued at $841 billion and is projected to increase to one trillion by 2026.”)
Competition: Explain who your competitors are, outline their strengths and weaknesses, and make it clear how you will differentiate.
Timeline for key milestones: Project when you plan to achieve goals like breaking even, launching an IPO, or other key milestones.
Financial plan (if you are seeking funding from investors or banks).
Set short- and long-term goals for your business, such as achieving a certain amount of revenue or testing a new product idea. Business goals can be general and high-level or they can focus on specific, measurable actions (SMART goals).
The most realistic goal-setting approach is to set short-term goals as stepping stones to your long-term goals. For example, your short-term goal to decrease website bounce rate by 25% within 12 weeks might help you reach the long-term goal of growing conversions by 50% within one year.
Timeframes for short-term goals can range from a few hours to a year, while long-term goals generally take 1-5 years to achieve.
Outline your product offerings and specify where you’ll source each item. Some ecommerce businesses manufacture products in-house. Others work with wholesalers, manufacturers or print-on-demand businesses to resell their products.
Curate a tight product line that demonstrates your value proposition. Why should someone buy from your online store rather than another brand? Why would someone choose your products over a substitute if you don't produce goods in-house?
Ecommerce companies sell three types of products: goods, services and digital products. Tell your readers what you intend to sell and why. List each item and its purpose. For each, you want to answer the question “why?” Why are you choosing to offer these specific products and services? How do you plan on fulfilling orders?
If you’re offering a service, explain what you do and where. Are you local? Do you travel to your customers? Will you partner with similar service providers in other areas?
How will customers access the item if you're offering a digital product? Will they download software or education videos from your site? Will they pay a subscription or usage-based fee? What about licensing requirements? Mention intellectual property ownership (if applicable) including trademarks, patents and copyrights.
Describe your ideal customer. Define your product or service from their point of view. What problems does your product solve for them? What benefits or features do customers look for when shopping for that product type?
Create customer profiles that summarize your target audience in terms of demographics (age, location, gender, etc) and psychographics (pain points, interests, buying patterns). Consider creating customer segments based on shared characteristics if you cater to a wide audience.
Demographic data should include the following points:
Meanwhile, discover your target customer’s motivations, needs and wants as much as possible. Psychographic data should include the following points:
Outline your sales channels, both future and existing. For example, your main point-of-sale might be your ecommerce site. Be sure to include stats on site traffic and conversions so readers know how your site is performing.
Still, you might also offer your products online on marketplaces like eBay, Amazon and Etsy. Explain how each of these channels is performing and how you’re optimizing them for product discoverability and conversions (eg: following SEO best practices, using high-quality images, highlighting user-generated content).
Tell your brand's story, its purpose, and how the company was founded. In addition to the company description, provide details on how you currently run the business. List your business partners and employees and describe the business's legal structure.
The best brand names are memorable and communicate the essence of your business. Brand names gain icon status because they represent an excellent product or service, so don’t obsess over it.
That said, the right brand name can be your brand’s most valuable asset, driving differentiation and speeding acceptance. In fact, 71% of consumers prefer to buy from brands they recognize.
If you’re struggling to come up with a name, try using an online brand name generator as a jumping-off point. Remember, you’re not locked into a single brand name forever.
Describe the legal structure of your business. Is it a sole proprietorship, LLC, an S-Corp or a partnership? Consider speaking to an accountant if you’re not sure. Who is in charge of the business? List founders and officers and their contributions (both capital and expertise) to the company. Who works for the company? Include an org chart that illustrates who currently works for the business and the roles you plan to hire for. List their responsibilities, salaries and terms of employment (freelance, full-time, part-time).
Your business structure affects how much you pay in taxes, your ability to raise money, the paperwork you must file and your personal liability in the event of business bankruptcy, so this information is important to lenders. Also mention if you have filed or plan to file for any applicable licenses or permits.
Register a unique domain name for your business. A catchy brand name is essential because the domain is less likely to have been claimed by another business. Keep your domain name as short as possible and ensure it includes your brand name for SEO purposes.
Your mission describes the fundamental purpose of your business. It should tell people why the business exists and how it benefits its customers. For example, LinkedIn’s mission statement is “connect the world’s professionals and make them more productive and successful.”
However, be careful not to exaggerate. An overly aspirational mission statement is disingenuous and wishy-washy — no single corporation or small business will single-handedly “change the world.”
A vision statement is a declaration of what you want your business to achieve in the future by fulfilling its purpose. It describes your company’s “why,” while the mission statement describes the “who” and “what” of the business.
Your vision statement should define your values as a business (eg: reducing waste generated by single-use toiletries) and future goals (achieving a zero-waste world by implementing a circular economy).
Tell the story of how you conceived your business idea. Say you’re a former school teacher who discovered your artistic flair from making handmade pottery in your garage on weekends. Describe how your business has grown and changed since you first started it.
List the key personnel in your company. Aside from the founders and executive team, who keeps the business running each day? Here are a few examples:
Company owner — that’s probably you.
CEO — that’s probably also you.
Customer service manager.
PR and social media specialist.
Ecommerce businesses face intense competition and are liable to market disruptions because they rely on third parties (suppliers, shipping companies, wholesalers) to deliver a product or service. Knowing the market in and out will help you build a more resilient business.
A market analysis considers your ideal customer (their purchase habits and behaviors), competitors (their strengths and weaknesses), market conditions (industry trends and long-term outlook), and how your business fits into this landscape.
The point of a target market analysis is to:
Identify the most and least valuable markets.
Develop buyer personas.
Find gaps in the market to fill.
Assess the viability of a product or service.
The first step to identifying your target market is determining your total addressable market (TAM) — the maximum market size for your product or service. Who are your customers? What are their demographic and psychographic traits? When and how often will they buy your product?
The best way to obtain a high-level overview of your customer base is to consult your social media and web analytics. These dashboards show where your customers live, their age, gender, general interests and more. You can also use U.S. Census Bureau data to pad up this information.
Analyze the strengths and weaknesses of your current and potential competitors. First, find out who your direct and indirect competitors are. You can perform a Google search of businesses that sell similar products or scope out rivals in your local area.
Here’s what you need to know about your competitors:
What markets and segments they serve.
What benefits they offer.
Why their customers buy from them.
Details of products and services, including pricing and promotional strategies.
Search for publicly available information about your competitors. Aside from that, do some of your own primary research. Visit their website and complete an order or visit their physical outlet.
Next, analyze the information. Is there a segment of the market your competition has overlooked? Is there a product they don’t supply? Did you have a bad customer experience when you walked into the store?
Detail your competitive advantage in your business plan. Don’t just list things that your competitors do — that’s not analysis. The competitive analysis section aims to persuade the reader that you are knowledgeable about the competition and that your business idea has a significant advantage over the competition.
List the products and services you provide and how customers will access them. If you’re selling digital products, will customers have to stream or download the content? Do they pay a subscription fee to access a content platform or do they pay for each individual content piece? If you’re providing a service, will you provide it on physical premises or will you travel to customers’ homes? Will you sell physical products in a physical store or online? What is your website like? List each product, including a short product description and pricing information.
You need a go-to-market strategy if you haven’t already launched your business. How will you spread the word about your business? How and where will you advertise and what is your budget? If you run social media ads, for example, what platforms will you use and who is your target audience? Will you do content marketing and SEO? A thorough marketing plan answers all of these important questions.
Define which channels match your consumer demographic. Do your potential customers spend time on Facebook or do they prefer YouTube? First, figure out where your potential customers are. Next, create attention-grabbing marketing strategies and use them to reach your customer base.
Paid marketing channels
PPC advertising: Advertise on Google’s search engine and pay only once someone clicks on your ad. You can bid for ad placement in the search engine’s sponsored links when someone searches a keyword related to your business offering.
Affiliate marketing: Embed links to another business’s products in your content and receive a commission when someone makes a purchase using your unique affiliate link.
Social media ads: Run paid ads on social media apps and platforms like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to reach targeted audiences. Ads can use different creatives such as images, videos and GIFs.
Influencer marketing: Work with a popular influencer who will promote your products to their followers. Influencers are paid based on conversions or reach.
Organic marketing channels
Brands must use an organic marketing strategy to build brand awareness and engagement and drive website traffic.
Search engine optimization (SEO): Optimize your website, web pages and blog posts for maximum discoverability on search engines. This involves doing keyword research for your industry, creating high-quality content that attracts and converts and using keywords in the right places.
Social media posts: Organic social media posts build brand awareness and humanize the brand by providing a behind-the-scenes look at the company and allowing you to share engaging visual content to inspire, educate and entertain.
Blogger networks: Collaborating with trusted bloggers on link exchanges can help you build website backlinks, improving your search engine ranking.
Content marketing: Organic content includes blog posts, white papers, SEO pages, and more. This gives you content to post on social media and improves the discoverability of your website. Websites that publish high-quality content consistently rank higher in search results.
Email marketing: Create email templates for new and potential customers, cart abandonment, promotions and announcements and more.
Logistics and Operations plan
This portion of the business plan covers what you physically need to run your ecommerce company. Basically, it outlines how you’ll manage the flow of goods from the supplier (you or a third party) to the consumer. You cannot start a business without an established supply chain.
Your logistics and operations plan should cover the following:
Suppliers: Where do your raw materials or products come from? Do you work with a manufacturer who produces your product idea or are you reselling products from a supplier, wholesaler or distributor? What is the minimum order value? Do they require payment upfront or after the sale? Do you have a backup supplier in case demand spikes or there is a problem with fulfillment?
Production: Will you create your own products or use a third-party manufacturer or dropshipping company? If you’re creating your own products, where will this be done? What assets and equipment do you need? What are your operating costs?
Shipping and fulfillment: Outline how the product will reach the end consumer. How long will it take you to pack and ship products to customers? Will you use a third-party shipper? Will you ship internationally?
Inventory: How much inventory will you keep on hand and where will you put it? How will you track incoming and outgoing inventory? Do you need warehouse storage space?
The financial section of your business plan is where you prove the feasibility of your business idea and calculate your startup costs. It includes financial projections and statements that show your business’s current financial position and project where you hope to be in the future. This is one of the essential components of the business plan, particularly if you are seeking investment funding, a bank loan or a business partner.
In this document, you’ll forecast the company’s revenues and expenses during a particular period. Total revenue is the sum of both operating and non-operating revenues while total expenses include those incurred by primary and secondary activities.
If you subtract your expenses from your revenue sources, you’ll come up with your bottom line (profit or loss).
A balance sheet helps you calculate how much equity you have in your business. It summarizes your company’s assets (what you own), your liabilities (what you owe) and equity (money invested into the business plus profits).
A balance sheet enables you to calculate your net worth. All of your assets (machinery, inventory, business premises, etc.) go in a column on the left and your liabilities (accounts and wages payable, business loan repayments, business credit card payments, taxes) go in a column on the right. If you subtract your liabilities from your assets, you get your business’ shareholder equity.
This document shows how much cash is generated and spent over a time period. Cash flow determines whether your business is primarily gaining or losing money. Positive cash flow and profit margins are important because it enables your business to repay bank loans, purchase commodities and keep the lights on.
Writing a comprehensive business plan is crucial not only for staying on track in the first year or so after launching your business but also for securing funding, finding a business partner and evaluating the viability of your business idea.
Any would-be ecommerce entrepreneur can benefit from writing a business plan. In fact, the number-one mistake new merchants make is not having one. The business plan is where you’ll assess the market size for your product, calculate how much funding you’ll need and determine how you’ll produce the product and get it into consumers’ hands.
A business plan also helps you set clear goals and create an action plan to achieve them. On top of that, if you’re considering quitting your job to run your business full-time, the business plan can help you determine if this is advisable.
Writing a business plan clarifies the decision-making process and helps you define your unique value proposition. Having a marketing roadmap makes you more likely to allocate your advertising and marketing budgets judiciously because you have already defined your marketing channels, strategy and target audience.
Ecommerce business models are lean by nature, meaning you can easily get started on a bootstrap budget. With dropshipping, you can start a business without stocking any inventory. Simply register a domain name, build a website and market the supplier’s products.
Print-on-demand is another low-cost, no-inventory business model where you partner with a supplier of white-label products (mass-manufactured, generic products that can be customized). Examples include T-shirts, mugs, backpacks and smartphone cases.
You can sell these items per order under your brand featuring your designs. Everything from digital printing to order fulfillment and shipping is handled by your supplier.