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Interview with Business Computing World

November 22, 2009

INTERVIEW: Benjamin Dyer, Actinic’s Director Of Product Development
Actinic is a specialist UK-based company providing e-commerce and EPOS solutions for small and medium retailers. Founded in 1996, Actinic has supplied solutions for thousands of companies in the retail sector, both online and offline. Benjamin Dyer, Actinic’s director of product development, gave BusinessComputingWorld an insight into selling online. Interview by Christian Harris.

BCW: What’s your job role at Actinic and how long have you been doing it?

BD: I am the director of product development for Actinic. I am responsible for software development, quality assurance and third line support for all of our products and services. I also do a fair amount of writing for various blogs and magazines. I have been in this role for 15 months now.

BCW: Do you consider yourself an e-commerce expert?

BD: Absolutely, I would even go so far to call myself an ‘ecommerce nerd’ and many have.

BCW: What type of job challenges do you face?

BD: The biggest issue is simply balancing the needs of our customers. We have around 10,000 UK customers and when our software is running their businesses it’s a difficult juggling act to make sure we keep them happy and continue to innovate. A feature that is absolutely critical for one business isn’t even on the radar of another, so we have to be annoyingly pragmatic sometimes.

BCW: Tell us about Actinic software. Why would anyone need it?

BD: Actinic is desktop not server-based ecommerce software and has been around longer than most (since 1996). This brings a number of obvious advantages such as the data ownership and the ability to run a true multi-channel/multi-user retail operation within your own environment. Our software also has the ability to take mail order and telephone orders securely as well as connect with our EPOS (Electronic Point of Sale) tills system. We also have an incredibly robust payments service, Actinic Payments, that offers complete integration with the software―very important if you are running a busy ecommerce operation.

BCW: Actinic sells different versions of its software. What’s the biggest seller?

BD: Currently it’s our ‘Business Plus’ software. This allows multiple users within an organisation to connect and control their e-commerce operations. Although hot on the heels of this is our Express product for people just starting out in e-commerce. It’s Web-based and there’s no contract tie-in, plus it is priced very competitively and we like to think it’s the simplest and easiest cart on the market.

BCW: Are there any limitations with a turnkey online shopping cart system such as Actinic compared to a fully-customised solution?

BD: In my experience the limitations are outweighed by the benefits. Actinic is tried and tested by thousands of users in some truly weird and wonderful business sectors. This has forced us to do many of the very difficult developments that often gets overlooked when looking at bespoke, such as tax inclusive pricing. Bespoke allows people to get what they want immediately, but it very often fails to scale as a business grows which can turn into an expensive nightmare. And there’s the issue of when the guy who programmed the site leaves, your site could be in jeopardy.

BCW: Your software caters for sole traders up to high-volume box shifters. Give us an idea of a typical Actinic customer.

BD: It really varies and it’s becoming an impossible task to pigeon hole our customers―they operate in every sector and some are well known names like the Royal Opera House, British Film Institute, the Scout Association, Vivienne Westwood and the Henley Royal Regatta. We have several customers that started out on our Express product with little or no e-commerce experience that are now turning over several million and using our top end Enterprise product. As we have a broad range of products it allows customers to grow with us, so if I have to choose a phrase I guess I would describe the typical Actinic customer as ‘ambitious’.

BCW: Do you think it is important that UK sellers choose a UK-based e-commerce provider?

BD: Yes, without question. It just makes complete sense both commercially and technically. I was recently speaking to a customer that has come to us from a competitor. His biggest frustration and the reason he is now using Actinic was down to our support centre being in the UK. His previous supplier did have a support desk but it wasn’t just in a different time zone, it was in a different day, totally unworkable. If he now needs help it’s a local call away. If you are buying additional services such as hosting, again making sure it’s based in the same geography as your customers is absolutely critical.

BCW: Electronic point of sale (EPOS) can be confusing and expensive. How does Actinic make is simple for sellers to get on with the business of taking payments?

BD: We get compliments about our intuitive and easy to use interface—many EPOS systems are overly complex. The nice thing about our EPOS offering is its pre-configured with software pre-installed, so the merchant really has very little setting up to do. We have also spent a lot of time developing a robust fail-safe architecture which means tills can carry on working even if the network fails.

BCW: Search engine optimisation (SEO) is critical for success. Does Actinic software help sellers to get their site’s noticed?

BD: Yes, we are very proud of how search engine-friendly our software is. Because Actinic is a desktop software, changes to the merchant’s site are uploaded when the product changes. These pages are static HTML and search engines love nothing better than HTML. Many of our new merchants often report up to a 20% increase in sales because of the search engine-friendly nature of our sites. It also helps that I have an absolute SEO obsessive on my team so we are always looking at ways of improving.

BCW: You’ve helped develop lots of shopping sites. What are the main considerations someone setting up shop for the first time needs to consider?

BD: The most important consideration at the moment is to make sure you research your payment methods. PCI DSS is a hot topic and it amazes me the number of site designers and implementers that are still recommending solutions counter to these policies. The simple fact is, if you are using a PSP (Payment Service Provider) you are compliant.
BCW: What tips can you offer an experienced e-trader to help grow their business online?

BD: It’s all about customer service. Selling online is still a huge growth market and unless your business is totally niche there are plenty of competitors desperate to snap up your customers. Use all the available tools out there to reach out and connect with your customers. Social networks have really helped too—why not try using Twitter or Facebook and bridge the gap between you and your customers.

BCW: What are the biggest challenges facing Actinic today?

BD: We have some interesting technology challenges ahead. Because of our model and the ability to configure and run our software in so many permutations we need to ensure our product quality is absolutely rock solid.

BCW: What’s next for Actinic in terms of technologies?

BD: We are currently putting the gloss on the next major release of our software, version 10. This includes some long awaited features and functionality, especially for high volume merchants. We are also busy working on some pretty exciting stuff in the bat cave.

BCW: You must have seen hundreds of online shopping sites that use your software. Do you have a favourite success story?

BD: Absolutely, we have a customer http://www.cultpens.com which is run by a fantastic couple. They gave up the London life to buy and run a stationary shop in Devon. Within a short period they noticed there was a huge demand for all sorts of weird and wonderful pens so they started a small online business. Today Cult Pens are one of the biggest pen suppliers in the UK—if you search Google.co.uk for the term ‘Pens’ they are no 2! I love this sort of success story and it’s brilliant to be associated with it.

BCW: Anything to add?

BD: Thank you for your time and taking an interest in Actinic.

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