Atomic Mall's Lessons on Building an Online Marketplace
By Greg Holden
Lots of entrepreneurs have pie-in-the-sky ideas for their ideal business. The difference for Mike Shannon is that he followed his whim and made his vision for a totally new online marketplace a reality. The 44-year-old single father from Yakima, Washington said, "Atomic Mall was a brainstorm I had in January 2008." Shannon's story in launching Atomic Mall presents many lessons showing how, even in times when the economy is slowing, entrepreneurs can start up new marketplaces and achieve success.
Lesson 1: Follow your vision.
"I already had a couple of sites that sold electronics online," recalls Shannon. "I was upgrading one of them and I said to myself, I've always wanted my own online marketplace. Instead of pouring all this energy into redesigning my existing site, I'll start from scratch and make this site where anyone who wants to can sell their wares. At the time I had no clue about how many online marketplaces were out there."
Lesson 2: Focus on the user experience.
One of Shannon's biggest goals was to create a site that provided a good user experience. "I want it to be easy to use," he says. "I have been to so many sites that are clunky and with no sense of natural flow - they make you register, register, register. Anyone who comes to Atomic Mall can shop, choose items, and check out, and never see the word "register."" The registration data is gathered when the customer fills in shipping details. "They aren't even aware they are registering," he says.
Lesson 3: Don't get discouraged by what the competition is already doing; do what they do, only better.
One of Shannon's early goals for Atomic Mall was to charge no listing fees, but to charge a Final Value Fee to make money. "When I saw a another site that didn't charge a Final Value Fee, I was crestfallen," he says. "I thought, this is absolutely free, how am I going to compete with this?" Today, Atomic Mall does charge Final Value Fees, and it is still doing well.
There isn't one particular thing that stands out on the Atomic Mall site. They do some things eBay doesn't do, such as allow the sale of live pets. But what strikes you is that they do a little bit of everything: the site's home page tries to mention virtually everything that's going on at a given moment. You learn about the newest seller, the top seller, the latest news. Most of the functionality comes from Shannon himself, who manages the site from his home.
Lesson 4: Don't be afraid to take a do-it-yourself approach.
Shannon has been selling online since before the Web, in the 1980s. But this site is considerably more complex than others he has managed, and he has had to learn programming as he goes along. "This was my first foray into PHP and coding a database on a high level," he says. "I had no experience with it beforehand. I did 95 percent of the programming myself. At the time, I didn't realize there were packages where you could set up your own auction site. I didn't know any better."
Lesson 5: Make Backups.
Atomic Mall went out of beta and opened to the public on July 1, 2008. Through July, the site had 60 unique visitors per day. By August, that number climbed to 600; in late 2008 the number went over 7,000. The number of members has grown from 61 to 3900 in less than six months. Shannon says his biggest challenge running Atomic Mall has simply been to keep up with growth and keep the site running.
"Every time you solve a problem, you inevitably create three more that need to be fixed," he says. In July, Atomic Mall experienced a denial of service attack that originated from China. "For the first ten minutes I had no idea what to do," he admits. "The site was getting 40,000 requests per second, and it crashed the server. But we keep backups on an almost hourly basis so we were able to get back online quickly."
Lesson 6: Keep growing and be open to help and suggestions from others.
Shannon's 13-year-old daughter, Leah, helps him with some of the graphics. The 61 beta users who signed up to use Atomic Mall when it was being tested in the first half of 2008 also contributed. "The best part of running this site has been the feedback from members," he says. "The original 61 are the greatest. They helped me shape the site and create its visual impact. The gave me great feedback early on and plenty of tips and suggestions of features I never would have thought of. I owe a great debt to them. You can't do everything, especially when you are primarily a one-man operation like I am, so I use my members as testers."
One of the features is an "offers" module, which enables prospective buyers to make offers on what they want to buy. Some of the features Shannon is planning for the future are based on member suggestions. They include a shipping calculator, and an auction format - at this writing, Atomic Mall sales are based on offers and fixed prices, not auctions. "It won't be the typical auction format you see at eBay or other auction sites."
The merchandise sold on Atomic Mall to date includes an antique bicycle that fetched $750 and an oak headboard that went for $1,000. One of Shannon's goals is to sell a car before Christmas. At present, he's happy to have created his own convenient, simple-to-use site in less than a year. "It's not a cookie cutter site, and you either love it or hate it," he says. "I think the whole experience has been good."
About the author:
Greg Holden is EcommerceBytes Contributing Editor. He is a journalist and the author of many books, including "Starting an Online Business For Dummies," "Go Google: 20 Ways to Reach More Customers and Build Revenue with Google Business Tools," and several books about eBay, including "How to Do Everything with Your eBay Business," second edition, and "Secrets of the eBay Millionaires," both published by Osborne-McGraw Hill. Find out more on Greg's website, which includes his blog, a list of his books, and his fiction and biographical writing.
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