The e-commerce scene can be likened to an ocean. A vast blue ocean. Products are akin to marine creatures, swimming, waiting to be scooped up by the fishermen who sit at the shore or in their boats with their nets and lines. The best catches go places — they either fall into the hands of fish mongers at wet markets, get packed and sold in air-conditioned supermarkets, or go straight to the consumer who’s willing to travel to the wholesaler.

The waters — depending on its location — can be rather turbulent. Uncharted territories are even more dangerous. No one knows what lies beneath. No one knows how customers will react to a new species. There is no such thing as a map. The compass spins. How does a fisherman — or e-commerce business owner — navigate these waters without capsizing his or her boat?

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Christian Schiller, Co-founder, PricePanda, a Rocket Internet-backed price comparison website, has four tips on how online retailers or entrepreneur can steer and sail, and make a mark in the burgeoning global e- and m-commerce markets. Prior to founding the company, he was also the Entrepreneur in Residence within the Rocket Internet incubator.

The platform, which is available in Mexico, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, has directed more than a million to its partners’ shops, as of January 2014, since its launch in 2012. The company has more than 500 shops as partners. 

Here are the tips:

1. Develop a firm grasp on your business model
“You need to pinpoint what drives your business, current trends in user behaviour, and direct or indirect competitors. Basically, you have to understand all of the links within your company’s ecosystem,” he said.

In the case of a known business model, entrepreneurs have the luxury of looking at how it has evolved in mature markets. If the characteristics of an emerging market support the requirements of your business model, that is a pretty good start.

2. Understand the key challenge your customers face
Schiller said, “The most challenging part of breaking into emerging markets is getting inside the head of a user from a vastly different cultural background than yourself.”

The solution, according to him, is to understand the challenges users face on a daily basis. Overly zealous young players can lose their footing when they ignore cultural and logistical barriers — which play a huge part in creating a successful global company.

As a player in the e-commerce industry, it is inevitable to think global from day one. However, in doing so, the business owner cannot forget to localise its dealings. Thus, the word ‘customer’ here cannot possibly refer to one single demographic.

For example, when PricePanda launched in Thailand, Schiller told this author that he looked into providing a country-specific focus.

3. Become the best at solving your customer’s number one problem
While customers might have many problems, your job is to figure out the number one problem they want to see resolved. “Take this key problem and think of ways you can help them to solve it,” he said.

“Dedicate as much energy and practice needed to ensure your business is best at solving the said problem,” added the entrepreneur. Be a painkiller, and not just a vitamin.

He continued that concepts, based on numbers and well-researched insights, should be executed without the fear of taking risks. Startups should compare themselves with local competitors, and seek to serve the best user experience, especially as an international startup in different markets.

4. Never lose passion and energy towards becoming better — every single day!
Oh, passion. It’s not just a fluffy word used by motivator speakers. While this is not advice strictly restricted to e-commerce startups, entrepreneurs need passion to stay motivated in the long run.

Schiller agreed, “… especially through tough times. You have to set a mission and create a vision for yourself and your startup.” This vision will energise the team to pursue excellence by the standards of the entrepreneur.

He added, “Trust insights you may have and use them as inspiration to move your company forward.”