Start an online business

How to Start an Online Business

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Starting any new business (big, small, home based, whatever) can be exciting and fun; but it does require research, structure, discipline and persistent effort to launch.

While it may not seem like it right now, the rewards are far greater than simply making money. They're the chance to have real freedom. Satisfaction. Achievement. Education. Friendships. Partnerships. New experiences. And much more.

Regardless of whether you are working on an eCommerce store, a mom and pop business, or just being entrepreneurial about an opportunity that has arisen, this step-by-step guide will provide everything you need in order to get a new enterprise up and running.

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As you'll see from the steps below, the most important part of starting up is understanding what you are doing, and why. Click on any of the links below to jump directly to that section:

  1. Idea
  2. Business plan & viability
  3. Work out how to make money fast
  4. Startup
  5. Launch
  6. Start marketing
  7. Network, network & network
  8. Work with your money
  9. Become operational

It's important to reign in your excitement and make sure that steps 1 and in particular, step 2 (Business plan) are done properly before putting the business together. Proper research, from the outset, will save time, effort and money in the long run, so don't skimp on creating a comprehensive, well researched business plan.

Extra effort in step 2 means less work at the end (around step 9) and a significantly smaller risk of failure.

1. Idea

Coming up with new idea for a startup is great fun. But, some ideas are better than others, in the sense that they have a clear potential to generate revenue.

Not all ideas need to be innovative and new, but all good ideas need a defined potential market.

In other words, who will need the product or service? and why will they use you?

From this perspective, a valid idea is one that you are willing to devote months, possibly years, of work to trying out. Any idea that you are only half-heartedly committed to will likely fail. Find an idea that you are passionate about and believe can be built into a business.

Here are some common things to try:

  1. Start an online store
  2. Start a blog/website
  3. Find a work from home job
  4. Offer your skills & services online
  5. Affiliate marketing

The type of business you create is really up to you. For example, Grumpy cat earns millions, and all they needed was a cute kitty to get started.

Try to come up with ideas that involve things you love doing. This will help you persevere when others are giving up.

We've got stacks of cool ideas in our business ideas database.

2. Business plan & viability

This is where the real work begins.

A business plan needs to look at everything that could possibly help or hinder things. I strongly recommend investing time and effort here.

Not only will the process of creating a plan help to research and uncover new opportunities and connections (for example, discovering meetups and support at your local chamber of commerce), but it will also provide potential investors, banks, family and friends with the information they need to make financial decisions that affect the business from the outset.

Business Idea Viability

Quickly find out if your idea is viable and worth investing in.

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  • Quickly perform market research and learn how to improve conversions to prove viable sales & conversions.

    Offers a really low barrier-to-entry in terms of time, effort and cost make it perfect for taking new products, services, ideas & campaigns. Research keywords, plan a funnel and use Leadpages to test it out quickly and easily.

Use SEMRush to research and understand how well market players/competitors are established and what their online network looks like (SEMRush has a limited free plan). Get an idea of the potential size of the existing market (if any) using Google's Keyword Planner.

Quickly find out if you can drive sales & revenue with CRO (Conversion Rate Optimization) using Leadpages and Google Ads or Facebooks Ads to drive traffic to your landing page(s).

At the end of your viability test you should be able to determine whether or not it is worth pursuing your idea and turning it into a startup. If it looks promising you can start planning in depth, creating a website, marketing, and so on. If not, at least you've saved yourself a lot of time, money and effort setting up a whole new business.

Remember that the value of a business plan is the knowledge and information learned about the business. The plan itself is simply a document that shows other people you have done the required homework.

Make sure you consider things like:

  • Tax (state and local)
  • Legal
  • Licenses and permits
  • Loans, grants and other finances
  • Employment and jobs

The beauty about most of the administrative work associated with building a business plan is that it only has to be done once. After that, you know a lot more about a lot of things and subsequent startups will go a lot quicker.

3. Work out how to make money fast

One of the easiest ways to fail at a small business startup is to spend too much time developing products and new concepts. Don't mess around with complex Web requirements, custom Web developers, and time-consuming bells and whistles that are not absolutely vital to your income stream.

Look at Craigslist; it's hideous, but wildly successful.

Know what your minimum viable product is, how long it will take to get it, and who to sell it to. A minimum viable product is the most basic version of a product/service that can be taken to the market and sold to generate an early income stream (that helps to keep your business afloat while you improve the offering).

Some entrepreneurs take their new prouducts and services to random people and try sell it to them. If they can't hit a small target number of sales then they relook at their value offering and try to improve (all before investing a lot of time and effort developing an idea that's simply not going to work).

The crux of the matter is this,

Understand how you'll make money.

Are you going to rely on Website traffic to generate lots of income via Google AdSense? If so, make sure you research precisely how much traffic is needed in order for the site to be profitable.

If you're offering a service, have you made sure that you can afford to do the work at a price the market expects? You don't always have to be cheaper, but if you're not cheap you have to be the best.

If you're selling stuff, are you certain you can attract business despite there being significant competition from established retailers (like Amazon and eBay) who are able to offer really low prices?

Look for ways to ensure that some money starts coming in as early as possible.

The longer it takes to get your first paycheck, the less likely you are to be able to continue. Especially if you are a self-funded solo-preneur.

4. Startup

The startup phase is like trying to herd cats, and is characterized by activities like:

  • Finding office space (or setting up a home office)
  • Getting office equipment
  • Setting up communications
  • Getting a website
  • Obtaining loans and finance
  • Establishing contact with partners and service providers
  • Employing staff or hiring companies

Arguably the first thing you need out of everything on the list is a decent workspace where you can be productive. Let's take a quick look at that here...

Setup a (home) office

It's important to claim a decent office space somewhere that is quiet and without distractions. Don't try work in front of the TV. You'll need a bunch of things, but the most important are:

  • Workspace (desk, comfy chair, etc)
  • PC or laptop
  • Fast, reliable Internet connection
  • Communications (phone, Skype, email, etc)
  • Office software - see the essential 'work-from-home' free software list
  • Sundries (memory sticks, printers, scanners, etc)

Most office supplies can be purchased cheaply from the main suppliers like Office Depot and Amazon.

Check out our list of the top home office furniture to suit any budget.

But, it pays to learn a bit more about how the cloud can help improve your business communications by lowering costs and offering far more power and flexibility than tradition landlines.

What home office would be complete without some super cool high tech office gadgets? When in doubt, it's worth investing in technology if it is going to save time. Time is your most important asset, so tools and technologies that can streamline things are well worth it.

5. Launch

Once a company has become operational and (hopefully) served a few customers without any major disasters occurring, it is time to launch. What goes into a launch really depends on the enterprise itself, and the resources available to you. However, it's worthwhile doing a launch because even if it is only to family and friends:

  • it represents the start - something you should take pride in
  • it introduces you to PR (Public Relations), media (Newspapers, magazines), marketing, and advertising
  • it drives awareness and (hopefully) new clients
No matter what business you are in; the business you are in is marketing.

Hand in hand with your launch goes a lot of marketing. You'll need to think creatively about strategies that will bring the most return as quickly as possible.

Press Release Quick Start

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  • Discover how to create newsworthy content and convert that into valuable media coverage with a compelling pitch.

    Learn how to 'hook' journalists using attention-grabbing headlines and convert these into valuable media mentions.

6. Start marketing

Because of the explosion in tools and technology services designed to make starting and running business online easy, the barrier to entry has been lowered. This is a double edged sword because it means that far more competitors are able to get into the market, making it easy to start, but harder to get noticed.

Marketing is where the real work begins.

To start with, having a well designed business card goes a long way in terms of helping you (and any staff) network effectively. It can mean the difference between someone remembering to call and offer you a new contract, or not.

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In addition, marketing via your website takes quite a bit of time, effort, practice, and skill. You will need to be able to publish great content that potential customers would find useful and interesting.

Hand in hand with great content comes social media marketing and email marketing. Social media is great for reaching out to new people, generating buzz, and generally being seen. While email can help cement relationships and generate loyalty and repeat business.

Check out:

The good news is that most forms of online marketing are relatively inexpensive. The bad news is that they are also relatively ineffective until you have learned how to do them well.

7. Network, network & network

Just because you are working from home, and online, doesn't mean that you are exempt from making real-world connections. It's super important to get out and about and meet like-minded people and entrepreneurs.

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As important as marketing to your target audience is, networking and making valuable connections can be just as important (if not more). Attend local meetups and events. Find out what your local chamber of commerce has going on.

Above all else, seek out the right advice and information, and follow the influencers who provide that information. Learn from others, and share your knowledge - that's how the traditional and online business ecosystems operate. Check out these networking tips for more.

8. Work with your money

I'm not going to sugar coat it... money will become all consuming. Whether it is deciding how to spend it, how to make it, how to invest it, where to find it, who to borrow it from, and so on.

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From my experience, I always prefer to bootstrap - unless the lack of funding poses a serious threat to the survival of the business.

Bootstrapping is a term used to describe self-funding of a new venture by an entrepreneur.

Basically, it means finding ways to ensure the launch and growth of your startup without relying on investments or loans and there are a bunch of ways you can save on costs and even employ people without spending too much cash. Check out entrepreneur ideas (for bootstrapping) for more.

The old saying, "you have to spend money to make money" is genuinely true.

If you're planning on making money without spending a cent; you're doing it wrong.

It is important to set aside a budget that is affordable, but also allows you to buy hardware, software, supplies and services that can save time and increase productivity.

Your most precious asset is time; not money.

For example, it is possible to download a free CMS system and create a website yourself. But, the time required to learn how to use it, and the skills you'll need to learn to work with it effectively are all completely wasted. It may take weeks or months building a site like this, instead of hours or days (using an online website builder) - and in the meantime you could have been finding customers, generating leads, and making sales.

The same goes for almost every other aspect of the business - invest money in things that save time and help make the business better. This could be:

Remember, you don't have to throw cash away getting everything at once. But, for each item, there will come a point where it is costing you more to do without it - and that's when it becomes the right time to invest.

If it turns out you do need to find an investor to raise funds then these 3 tips on how to pitch your startup to investors will definitely help you avoid some of the mistakes I made.

9. Become operational (triage)

Triage is basically a fancy term for damage control or fighting fires. There will be people who frown upon the use of this term because, with proper planning, a company should not need damage control. Of course, they are right...

In reality, you will find that there are plenty of glitches. The most important thing is to recognize that there will be problems and undertake to fix them as quickly as possible. Build a culture of excellent customer service from the start.

I have found that most customer complaints can be turned into really positive experiences provided the customer feels you are paying attention and resolving their issues efficiently and effectively. If you can get through the triage stage with your reputation intact then congratulations, you are now in the business of marketing.

Have you recently started up? What obstacles did you have to overcome? What would be your 3 most important tips for other people about to start up?

Share your tips, ideas and advice in the comments.

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