Platform Design 101: Building a Business (Part 7)

Building a Business

<- Read Part 6: Production and Distribution

Before talking about building a business from your online platform I think its important to once again define exactly what a platform is, and then define what a business is, and see where the two might be similar and different.

In the beginning of this article we defined an online platform as a “place” (blog, podcast, webcast, etc.) online where you share information for a specific audience. We also mentioned that the information should provide specific value for your audience, helping them either alleviate some pain, or promote their passion.

A business is also an exchange between two parties. I mentioned earlier that a business is having a product or service that provides enough value, either through the removal of pain or the pursuit of a passion, that people will pay you money to receive the solution you provide. This is the core essence of business — an exchange of value between two parties.

So, how is your online platform and a business different?

First, an online platform doesn’t require a reciprocation for the value you provide to your audience. In fact, using the word “audience” implies a one-way direction of value.

But is that actually true? As the person designing the online platform are you truly receiving nothing in return? Well, perhaps not in terms of financial gain, but in other terms you are, indeed, receiving value back from your audience.

Value in the online space comes in many forms. From social proof (“I have 10,000 Youtube subscribers!”) to audience engagement (“I receive 300 emails each day from my audience!”) to support for the value of your content (“My posts are shared across 1,000 websites!”), each of these, while not a monetary exchange, is a huge value to your platform, brand and impact on the community.

So, as we move through this article and talk about product development, Ecommerce solutions and setting up systems for your business, I want to you to keep in mind that money doesn’t necessarily have to be a part of the equation. It can be, but in my book the real value of your platform is in the positive impact you have on your audience.

Making money should be a result of the value you provide, not the sole purpose by which you engage with people.

The first (focusing on the needs and potential value for your audience) is sustainable for a very long time, and the second (focusing on how much money you can get out of them) will cause some serious burnout and lack of long-term focus.

Okay, with that understood, let’s talk about the first thing to consider which can provide great value to your audience — products!


For the sake of this article, I’m defining a product as either goods or services. Each type of product you develop and provide for your audience has different pros and cons to it’s implementation on your platform, so I’ll break them down in to various categories and share with you my own approach to product distribution.

Of course, distribution is just one part of the product lifecycle. The entire process is something like this:

  • Research and Development (R&D)
  • Prototyping
  • Manufacturing
  • Sales and Marketing
  • Fulfillment and Distribution
  • Customer Service

I am not going to get in to the details of each of these (because, let’s face it, these articles are long enough as it is), but I want to share what I would do in order to implement the sale and distribution of products through your online platform. Not each part of the product lifecycle will apply but I’ll share as much as I can in the hopes that it will prove useful.

Before that, though, let’s talk about the two main types of products you might want to offer to you audience.

Digital vs. Physical

Of course, you are probably well aware of how digital and physical products are not the same.

Of the two, digital products are generally the easiest to deal with. The product is essentially ones and zeros on the computer, which means that you don’t have many of the same problems that you might with a physical product. But a digital product isn’t just a downloadable file. Here are some examples of digital files that you might be considering:

  • Electronic Book or PDF
  • Digital video downloads or streaming video
  • Audio books or music
  • Image or graphics collections
  • Online membership site or forum membership
  • Software or apps
  • Online consulting
  • Design or other services
  • One on One or group coaching and education

There are really an incredible diversity of potential digital products which you could sell or give away so don’t think you are just limited to putting together an eBook or slapping together an infographic.

For physical products, the main challenge for most people is the fact that you have to deal with the manufacturing, storage and distribution of an actual object. However, there are a lot of systems available that don’t require you to ever deal with that side of things yourself. Here are some examples:

A lot of the best types of physical product sales are in the affiliate sales arena. Affiliate sales don’t have to be scammy or sleazy either. If your platform is related to a specific topic that you are passionate about, and you find a product that matches the needs of your audience perfectly, then providing that information to your audience isn’t out of alignment with the core values of what you stand for.

For example, if I was running a travel website, and I found the ultimate carry-on luggage, I would definitely want everyone to know. I would probably put together a review video and article showing the product’s pros and cons and if someone used that to purchase the product, I might get a commission.

I generally recommend that you don’t do this too aggressively, and that you do it for products or services that you truly believe in and use yourself. If done the right way it will increase your reputation and authority with your audience, rather than deplete it.

Okay, so let’s say you have an idea for a product, or you’ve created a product that you want to distribute through your platform to your audience. How can you go about it?

Of the 6 items I mentioned above, there is really only 2 items that relate directly to your online platform. These are:

  • Sales and Marketing
  • Fulfillment and Distribution

Sales and Marketing

Sales and Marketing is about the process of generating interest in (and understanding of) your product. The good news is, if your website is truly geared towards providing as much value as possible to your audience, then you already are a long ways towards establishing the trust and authority that your audience requires before making a buying decision.

Marketing is really all about building a relationship with your customer, and since your entire online platform has the built-in intention of doing exactly that, then you really only need to focus on maintaining and enhancing that relationship.

For the sales of your products through your online platform you require the processing of payments, usually credit or debit cards and occasionally PayPal. Depending on the type of product you are offering, different sales systems will work for you. And many sales systems are integrated with a product fulfillment or distribution system, so I’ll talk about specific solutions in the next section.

Fulfillment and Distribution

There are several systems you can use for distributing your products. Here, I’ll mention some of the ones I use and recommend for both digital and physical products:

For Digital Products

Gumroad (
Gumroad is one of my favorite ways to sell and distribute digital products. It is super simple to set up, you get paid twice a month and they have unlimited storage for your digital files. They are always adding new features such as subscriptions, website integration, and more, which is another reason I’m a big fan.

WooCommerce (
WooCommerce is a free plugin for WordPress that adds ECommerce functionality to your site. While the core plugin is free, in order to add on certain functionality (such as integration with MailChimp, or checkout options) you may have to pay for a (occasionally expensive) extension. But if you have a simple store front then this is a good solution too.

Paypal (
Paypal is a mixed bag. On one hand there are so many hoops you have to jump through to set up a Paypal business account that it can be frustrating to make it work. However, Paypal has a lot of great things going for it and since it is one of the largest online payment processors in the world and you can easily set up payment buttons for your site, it may work great for you too.

Squarespace (
Before I mentioned Squarespace as a web hosting solution. But they also integrate ECommerce with their websites so you can set up a store quite easily. But unless you only have one product to sell, you will need to upgrade your account to either their Business ($26.00 / month) or Commerce ($36.00 / month) levels to make the most of their services. The advantage of their system is that they don’t take a cut of each sale (which the others all do).

Stripe (
Stripe is a robust online payment processor. The main problem, as they state on their website, is that it is “Build for Developers”, which means that unless you’re a whiz with integrating APIs on your website this probably isn’t for you.

For Physical Products

All of the solutions I mentioned above also work for physical products. The main difference between them and some of the ones below is the process of order fulfillment. Using Gumroad, WooCommerce, Paypal, Squarespace or Stripe to process your payments means you also have to send out the products yourself. Of course, there is one place that is perfect set up for shipping …

The Post Office
If you are producing and storing the products yourself, the PostOffice may be your new best friend. While they don’t help you with order processing, they are probably one of the simplest ways to distribute products. Just don’t forget to include shipping fees in your prices or you’ll lose some money on each sale. You could also use a service like FedEx or UPS, but the Post Office rates are often comparable if not cheaper.

Amazon Marketplace
You can set up an Amazon Marketplace store to sell your physical goods. They have two different types of accounts for Individuals or Professionals, each with different features and costs. The individual starts at $0.99 / sale (plus fees) and the Pro costs $36.00 / month (plus other fees).

ClickBank (
ClickBank is the service related to online affiliate marketing. So, if you are producing a product this could be a good way to get the word out there and set up an affiliate commission system. In case you’re new to affiliate commissions, they are basically a share of the sale that you pass on to those who help to market your product. A lot of online business people sell affiliate products for a commission (as I mentioned above), but you could also be the product creator and offer affiliate commissions for others. For ClickBank you will need to get product approval (a $49.95 one time fee) and pay a sales fee ($1.00 + 7.5% per sale), not to mention the affiliate commissions, which typically start at 50%.

EBay (
EBay is known for auctions, but you can also set up a store to sell your products. I’ve had many friends who set up EBay stores and have done quite well with them. This is more of a hands-on approach, like the Amazon Marketplace. They also charge a percentage of sales, but setting up your store is pretty easy. However, they have pretty heavy integration with Paypal, if you’re not a fan of that payment processor you might want to go with a different option.

Naturally there are many more options for both digital and physical product payment processing and order fulfillment, but these are the big players in this area. Which would I recommend?

Unless you’re setting up a complex series of products (such as event registration or personalized goods) I would go with Gumroad for payment processing and use them for digital product distribution, or use the Post Office to send out physical products. When you get to the point where you’re selling a higher volume of physical products (around 100+ / month), then I would switch over to EBay (if you’re okay with Paypal) or Amazon Marketplace.

But building a business is more than just creating and selling products.  To be successful you need to have the right mindset, and that is the next and final topic for this series of articles.

Read Part 8: Business Systems ->


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Mark is the founder of Akamai Websites and has been designing websites, user interfaces and graphics for over 25 years. Originally building websites for clients such as Disney Channel and Warner Brothers, he was also a member of the team that developed Rotten Tomatoes, and was Jet Li's webmaster and assistant for ten years. After 8 years working in China, building websites for movies and celebrities, building online businesses, and designing interfaces for mobile applications, he moved to Hawaii where he helps businesses craft their online platforms.

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