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Welcome to the world of commerce on the web. Here are the top five things that any business that wants to participate in this space should do:

Evaluate the field

This does not mean respond to the first marketing solicitation that comes along. Meet with the serious exchanges. Check their references. Don't assess the options strictly from a cost perspective. Most exchanges are as much in the business of recruiting merchants as they are in the business of running exchanges right now. By being one of their early buyers or sellers, you have a much better chance of negotiating a favorable deal with them. Assume their published terms are a starting point for negotiation. Don't agree to any deal with an up-front cost. Let the exchange earn its way based on a sustained transaction volume. The cost of having to start over is going to be much higher than the cost of transactions, should it come to that.

Implement the minimum necessary to play on their field

I've always supported the software development maxim, "You can do it right or you can do it twice." However, in this case, you really should do the minimum integration you can get away with until you're sure that you're in the right space. While your project managers and architects will grimace at the idea that you may have to accept orders by e-mail rather than by EDI or WebAPI, you want to lean toward the minimum investment in time and energy on the part of your over-committed technology staff until the field narrows and you're sure you're not going to have to change horses in mid-stream.

I recommend you evaluate using e-mail parsing (using Perl or something else) to pull the necessary fields from a predetermined format of e-mail to get the necessary order details into your order-management or procurement system. The downside risks are that the e-mail format may get changed without your knowledge - in which case you have a backlog of e-mail to process - or some necessary fields may be missing. Proper escalation procedures should be able to mitigate both these risks.

If you'll indulge me for a second, my advice would be don't do any development until you have signed contracts (with whomever you are integrating) . I've seen more time wasted (and wasted more of my own time) in implementing solutions based on promises from Business Development that everything would come together before the contract was signed than I care to recall. Assess needs and plan for the solution - then wait for a signed contract before you implement.

Participate in and support the development of standards for your industry and its specific business processes

If standards are going to be developed, you want them to work with your systems. The genius is in the details - make sure the details will work with your systems by having a say in what they are. In eBusiness, all solutions are ultimately implemented at the bits and bytes level. If no one is working on standards for exchanges in your industry, spearhead the development of standards with your competitors and the major players in the exchange marketplace. There is power in collaboration.

Evaluate all future technology purchases based on how easily they permit integration with key trading partners

See what software your competitors are using. Investigate and query other companies that are using any software you're considering purchasing. Try to find commonality in software. Look for competitive advantages over your competitors in other areas. Think of your IT infrastructure like the tax rate - if you all work together, you might be able to get the legislature to give your industry a break, in which case you all win - rather than as a differentiating factor.

Continue to investigate available options

As the field narrows - if the field is indeed too broad in your industry - evaluate integration options. When it's clear that one exchange (or more) is here to stay, invest in integration. By then, there may be standards you've been part of creating, the software you're using may already support integration, and the exchange's software may offer more of the hands-free functionality that is supposed to save your company money.

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