Bottle.

An idea with bite ... Aussie entrepreneurs Chris Peters (left) and Rob Ward invented an iPhone cover that doubles as a bottle opener.

With the Olympics just around the corner, there is no doubt that the competitive nature of Australian athletes will be on show. But this isn't the only arena where our competitive spirit shines through on a global level. It's also alive and well among Australian entrepreneurs.

Maybe it's our geographic isolation that fuels it. Perhaps it's an ingrained Aussie battler syndrome. Or maybe it's simply our culture of "going for gold" that sees us do well in a competitive environment as long as we can hear "Oi Oi Oi" when we cross the finish line.

Whatever the reason, it's going to be interesting to see where Aussies stack up in this year's Shopify Build-a-Business competition, which began this week. Shopify is a Canadian-based e-commerce platform which allows business to create online stores and websites. However, the competition is open to Australians.

Last year's competition saw Australians dominate, resulting in three Australian businesses securing eight of the winning places. This is particularly impressive since Australian businesses only made up eight per cent of entries.

Creating a million dollar business

This competition doesn't culminate in a gala dinner at your local hotel, where you're presented with a nice certificate and a trophy. This year there will be four winners and they will receive a $US50,000 investment for a five per cent equity stake from a mentor. This values the company at a cool $1 million. Not bad if you've just started your business.

The mentors include: Eric Ries (author of best-selling bible The Lean Startup); Tina Roth Eisenberg (design guru at swissmiss); Daymond John (investor on The Shark Tank, which is the US version of Dragon's Den); and Tim Ferriss (best-selling author of The Four-Hour Work Week and startup investor).

If winners don't want a mentor to become involved, they can simply take the $50,000. The four winners also receive a trip for two to New York to meet all the mentors; $20,000 Google AdWords credit and an article in Fast Company.

Harley Finkelstein, chief platform officer at Shopify says: "Australian entrepreneurs did extremely well in our last contest. We have big hopes for the online shops that will be created in Australia this year, and feel strongly that it will have a lot to do with the incredible entrepreneurial culture that currently exists in Australia. Australia seems to be one of the strongest geographies in terms of online shop creation."

The competition is open until the end of February 2013 and the winners are chosen based on the highest gross sales in any two months during the competition period. This means entrants can cash in on the lucrative Christmas period.

Last year's competition saw Australians dominate, resulting in three Australian businesses securing eight of the winning places. This is particularly impressive since Australian businesses only made up eight per cent of entries. 

Last year's winners include Melbourne-based entrepreneurs Chris Peters and Rob Ward. They founded Annex Products. In true Aussie style, the pair created an iPhone cover that doubled as a bottle opener.

"We figured we would give [the competition] a shot but didn't think we had much chance of winning as we were just starting out," says Peters. About three months into the competition, the duo noticed they were one of the top 10 contenders.

"When we realised we had a decent chance at winning we threw everything we could at increasing our on-line sales," he says.

"We raised our advertising budget, increased our PR push and did as much as we could to promote our products and website. And it paid off. Our sales over November and December were over double our previous month's sales and we moved so much product that we ran out of stock for a few days, a week before Christmas."

Entering the competition was a catalyst for growth in the business. Peters says the competition pushed them to try harder and they wouldn't have made as effort without the incentive to win. As part of his prize, Peters flew to New York earlier this year, met with Seth Godin and received cash. However, he believes that this year's incentive is even more valuable.

"The involvement and support you will get from mentors in this year's competition is way more valuable than the prize money. I was just thinking if we had won this year's competition we would have had Tim Ferriss as a mentor and investor - now that would be amazing."

E-commerce strategies

Peters offers the following advice to Australian business owners who are thinking about entering. However, these strategies are applicable to any business that is selling online.

1. Promote, promote, promote

"If you can't afford a public relations company then learn how to write a press release and get it to as many people as you can find," says Peters. He adds that it's also useful to create content that people want to share. "A quirky video can be more effective than a written press release so experiment and use what works."

2. Boost your fan base

"Build a community that supports your product and use them to help sell it. A Facebook page is a perfect way to do so," says Peters. Other forms of social media such as Twitter (to engage with customers) or Pinterest (to showcase your products) can also help to spread the word. Underpinning this is to pay close attention to customer service. "Respond to questions quickly," he says. "Zendesk.com is a great tool for managing this."

3. Analyse everything

"Track and measure everything you do whether it be a promotion code or a simple change to your homepage," says Peters. "Google Analytics is the best tool for this so learn how to use it and monitor it daily. You want to know where your customers are coming from so you can promote directly to them. "

4. Quality photography

"If you're selling a physical product online then good high resolution product photography is a must. Use a professional photographer if you're not up to the task," he says.

5. Make it easy for customers

"Keep your site clean and clear," says Peters. "You need to guide your customers through the sales process so make sure you have an obvious call to action. A big 'BUY NOW' or 'LEARN MORE' button on the homepage lets your customers know what to do next. It might sound pushy but it works."

6. Experiment with advertising

"Find out what advertising works for you and use it. For us, Facebook ads worked great but Google ads didn't. Again, test and measure whatever you do. Note that Facebook has changed a lot since then so make sure you monitor your ads as well."

7. Your product story

In the interests of full disclosure, I will add that I am a guest mentor in the competition, advising entrants on marketing. So I will add this piece of advice: remember that your products can tell a story. That is, it can be tempting to simply display the specifications of your products (height, width, features, and the materials it's made from). While this information is important, consider whether your product has an interesting story behind it - one that will engage people, one that they will remember and share with others.

If your product hasn't got a quirky story behind it, then paint a picture of how it can be used. Create a scenario - or story - where customers can picture themselves using it, where they can see how it might make their lives easier or more fun. Don't fall into the trap of simply listing your product's features; make it clear to customers what the benefits are going to be if they purchase it.

This competition is an innovative concept that some business owners will hate - and others will relish. But the reality is that if you're going to shy away from a bit of healthy competition, then maybe it's time to consider whether you should really be in business.

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