Today, setting up an online business is just as legitimate as setting up a physical one. A lot of the preparation and thought processes will be similar, but the benefits of starting up online are significant when it comes to the amount required in initial costs, since you don’t need a storefront or office building – or even any employees.
In short, you will need to tackle the following 9 steps:
- Identify demand
- Write a business plan
- Decide how you will monetise
- Train yourself up
- Assess your cash flow
- Create your website
- Set up payments
- Get the word out
- Make it official
Step 1: Identifying Demand
Obviously, if there is no great demand for your product or service in the marketplace, then there is no point in pursuing it. It’s better to quit while you’re ahead. This first step of identifying whether there is in fact a market for your business is probably the most important and could save you valuable time, energy and funds. So how do you go about it?
This is the best place to start. Search engines give us a unique insight into what consumers want and need – what they are actively seeking out – which is an incredibly helpful resource. Keyword research is the practice of finding and researching the common words and phrases that people enter into search engines. If you find that a lot of people are searching for the terms related to your idea, then you know you have a potentially viable business.
There are a number of useful tools that can help with keyword research, but a good place to start with is with the Google Keyword Planner. It helps to generate keyword ideas, and shows how well those keywords perform. You can then build on that research with tools such as Keyword Tool and Übersuggest.
Know Your Competitors
Next, you need to make yourself aware of your competitors and what they are doing. You will find them easily enough by searching the terms that you want to rank for in Google, and seeing who comes up on the first page. Consider these 10 websites on page one your main competition.
So, what are they doing right? Take the time to have a really good look through their sites, and at the same time ask yourself: what could I do better than them? Why should customers come to you instead? What is your USP?
Lastly, assess your profit potential. You now know if there is a demand for your product or service, and you have some idea of how existing businesses (your competitors) are serving the market’s needs. Now, ask yourself, is that competition already serving the market well enough? Are you able to offer a new, different, or better, take on that product or service? Because that should be the aim – why bother otherwise?
Think as well about the longevity of your business idea. Be aware that it is much easier to sell to repeat or existing customers than it is to constantly attract new ones. If you’re offering only one product or service, think about how you can turn that into a viable niche that will build a long-lasting relationship with your audience, getting customers to buy from you again and again.
Step 2: Making a Business Plan
Every good business starts with a solid business plan. This is a crucial step that will form the backbone of your business and how it’s going to work, so take the time to do it properly.
Here are the main components of a good business plan:
Start With a Summary
Start by laying out everything you’re going to cover in the plan: content, goals and highlights. This part is very important if you’re going to be sharing the plan with others who will want to quickly grasp your business idea. You may find it easier to write this last. It should include:
- Background info
- How much money you need
- A company manifesto
- An overview of the market
- A list of your competitors
- Your USP
- Financial projections
Introduce the Business
This is the section that goes more detail on the company itself, why it’s being formed, it’s mission statement, intended strategy and current location, staff, legal status, etc.
Introduce the Offering
Use this section of the plan to talk about what you’re putting out there: the products or services themselves. You may want to mention the manufacturing process, inventory and fulfillment, and anything you might venture into in the future.
Spell Out Your Strategy
Make it really clear what your intended marketing strategy is. Without marketing, there is no business. Think about crucial details such as your target audience, market research, advertising and PR. Link this up with the amount of budget you’re likely to have available to spend on marketing, and scale accordingly.
If an investor is reading your business plan, at some point they are going to want to know the nitty gritty details – things like how much you want to borrow, when you need it by, sales forecasts and key timelines for the growth of the business. This is the place to include that information.
Who Are You?
Detail everyone who is currently involved in the business and what their role is and will potentially be in the future. Also include any details of future roles you may wish to fill. Explain how you expect the business to grow to meet its objectives in the future.
This section is best saved for last. This is where you include and go into detail on all of your financial considerations: projected profit and loss, cash flow statements and balance sheets. This forward planning will be essential to determining whether your business is a good investment.
Step 3: Choosing a Monetisation Route
There are many different ways for a website to earn revenue. Let’s look at some of the more common ones. When writing your business plan, you must be clear about the different ways that your site is going to pay for itself.
Affiliate marketing is a really popular way of making money online. It is essentially a kind of performance-based marketing, where an online retailer will reward its affiliates (who link to its products) with a commission on sales. This is a good way to earn an income from product reviews or roundups.
Ecommerce is simply setting up an online shop, selling your products online rather than from a physical store. Amazon.com is an example of a (massive) ecommerce store. So if you are making products to sell, ecommerce could be a good solution for you.
Drop shipping is a bit like an extension or variation of ecommerce. It is a method of supply chain management that allows the seller not to have any inventory whatsoever – they simply manage the sales process and then product handling and dispatch is handled by a separate manufacturer, retailer or wholesaler. Drop shipping is a useful method for selling bulk items like art prints or designs on t-shirts.
Display ads are essentially online adverts that are shown on a webpage, like a banner or sidebar ad. They are often image-based, and the advertiser pays to display them on your site.
Sponsored content is really just another way of advertising for brands, but in the form of sponsored articles or blog posts on influential sites, rather than traditional display ads. If you own an influential site and a big brand wants to be featured on it, you can charge them for a sponsored post. They are a less in-your-face form of advertising than standard adverts, and tend to mention the brand (positively) in passing rather than shouting about it.
Your website might be a place where clients come when looking for a particular service. In that case, you are making your money through client services. So if you are a designer, a handyman or an agency, for example, your website will act as a first point of reference that could translate into enquiries and paid work. If this is the case, make sure you’ve thought about your sales funnel.
Saas stands for Software as a Service. It is a centrally hosted software licensing and delivery model, where software is licensed and offered on a subscription basis. Examples of Saas sites include Google Apps, Pitchbox and Classy.
Step 4: Training
Training is the essence of starting a micro-business. It’s about about taking responsibility for your own learning as you advance, and being able to do more for yourself, instead of relying on expensive suppliers and outsourcing. This could be anything from writing great content, to learning the principles of SEO, or nailing the basics of bookkeeping. If you’re not keeping up with regular training, then at some point you’re going to stop progressing. You’ll reach the limit of your knowledge and capabilities and your business may suffer. In the digital world things move fast and it’s important to stay current with recent industry trends and technological innovations.
Luckily there are some amazing free courses out there on every subject – and some paid ones on sites like lynda.com, which are well worth the investment.
Free online training resources
Step 5: Assessing Cash Flow
These days, it is possible to set up an online business for very little. Cash flow demands depend on the nature of the business you are forming, and what you will need to get it going. It is useful to have at least some capital behind you when you first set out. Weigh up what your costs will be at the start, and plan for how you’re going to reach your financial targets if you haven’t already got your capital set up.
If your business requires some initial capital that you don’t currently possess, then you will need to obtain some sort of loan or investment. There are various methods for funding small business ideas. First off, you might want to explore the following:
- Personal overdraft
- Credit cards
- Debt finance
- Money from friends and family
- Personal savings
Some of these options can be risky, running up large debts if you’re not careful, so make sure you seek professional, tailored financial advice before charging ahead with any of these.
The other option is to try and attract investors. If you’re confident in your idea and it’s one that you think investors would be genuinely interested in, then this may be a good route for you. This is essentially Dragon’s Den-style equity funding – you sell a stake in the business in return for capital and, quite often, the chance to leverage your investor’s contacts and expertise.
Crowdfunding is the future of business finance. With the growth of websites like Kickstarter, new businesses around the world are using money from complete strangers to fund their business ideas. Crowdfunding works great for innovative business ideas that are going to help people like new medical tools or life-changing gadgets, but it’s widely used for creative projects like films. Put some crowdfunding feelers out there and offer incentives like special products or equity if it feels right.
Step 6: Building Your Website
This is the showpiece of your business. Since you won’t have a physical workplace or storefront, it should be the pièce de résistance of your business. Good aesthetics, clear navigation, well-written content and ease of use are crucial to building a website that will offer a pleasant experience for your customers – an experience they will want to repeat, you hope.
Before you build your site, you must choose a domain name. For an effective domain name, aim for something that fits the following guidelines. It should be:
- Easy to spell
- Letters only (avoid numbers and hyphens)
- Available – no existing trademarks
- Suffixed with an appropriate extension, e.g. .com, .net, .org
Now you have your domain name, you will need to buy hosting. This is where your website will live. Buying hosting is buying space on a server owned by a web hosting company that will make your site accessible to the world.
Many sites will offer domain names and hosting in one, including 123 Reg and GoDaddy mentioned above. Do your research beforehand to see which host will be best suited to your needs. Don’t always go for the cheapest option as this could have repercussions for your site’s speed and user experience. Check out my recent post on budget web hosting solutions for some good options.
Then it gets to the really fun part – building your website. You may be surprised to learn that you don’t need to be a hotshot web designer or developer to build a really decent-looking website. CMS tools like Wix, Squarespace and WordPress put the power in your hands. Each of these options allows to you modify the appearance of your site and create something that will look the part for your business. I like WordPress, as the number of different themes and plugins available is fantastic, and the whole thing is generally more customisable. If your aim is to create something very customised then you should consider working with a developer.
This is also a good time to start thinking about your logo and brand identity. You may wish to employ a freelance graphic designer or brand manager to help you with this.
Step 7: Setting Up Payments
For many types of online business, your revenue-generation will depend on customers being able to make purchases on your site. This could be them signing up for your webinar, downloading an ebook or even buying a product from you. Luckily, nowadays taking payments online is a much simpler process than before.
Set Up a Business Account
First off, if you haven’t already, open a separate bank account for your business. You will find it much easier to keep track of business income and outgoings this way.
Get on PayPal
Second, register a PayPal account. PayPal is a global online payment system, which will enable you to easily receive payments from your customers, and make transfers yourself. Many payment gateways rely on you having a PayPal account, so get this set up first. It doesn’t take long.
Finally, you will want to implement a payment system on your website. This will be the section where users can shop and pay for things. There are various options with varying degrees of support, from complete packages to plugins. The one you choose will depend on how confident you are with the CMS and with adding new features and managing the site yourself.
Step 8: Marketing Yourself
Each of these steps could have an entire book dedicated to them, but I’m working with one post here, so bear with me. To break it right down to the most basic considerations, here are the areas you really can’t neglect when it comes to marketing your online business.
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation, which is the process of making your website as relevant and trustworthy as possible so that it ranks highly in search engines for your customers’ search terms. This kind of visibility, e.g. ranking on page 1 of Google, is often referred to as ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ ranking, because the website has to prove its popularity and usefulness to get there. It has been shown that organic search results generate more clicks that paid ads. In a nutshell, SEO is influenced by:
- The right balance of relevant keywords in headings and body copy
- Having good-quality content that is useful or entertaining, not spammy
- Updating or introducing new content regularly
- Linking to external pages with authority
- Linking internally throughout the site
- Whether your site is optimised for mobile and tablet users
- Having other trusted sites linking to you
- Domain age
- TLD extension
The PPC channel (stands for Pay Per Click) that most people recognise is Google Adwords, but there are other PPC options out there too if you fancy delving into further research. Paying for Google Adwords will make your website visible for certain keywords on the search engine results page, but you must pay (per click) to have them there, and they get significantly fewer hits than organic results. As a new business who may not have built up much domain authority, PPC is sometimes worth considering to help get the word out there, but should be considered a short-term strategy in contrast with organic SEO, which is a more long-term marketing investment.
Good content is absolutely critical for your website. It helps you provide information, build a brand tone of voice, create trust and boost your SEO. Here’s why:
- Google loves fresh content and frequent updates – the more of this you can offer, the more your site will be indexed and the more likely it is that you will rank well
- Your content is where you’re going to include the keywords that your target audience is searching for. You mustn’t cram them in – the objective is to include them naturally within content that is useful and relevant for readers. Keyword oversaturation can actually damage your site, making it feel ‘spammy’
- Regular content helps your visitors feel informed and updated, reminding them of your presence and showing that you are still relevant
Many online businesses choose to include a blog on their website, which can be regularly updated, thereby ensuring there is fresh content for both readers and search engine crawlers.
Ensure that you keep your tone of voice consistent across the entirety of the site, and be sure to have it spell-checked to avoid errors that will reflect poorly on your professionalism.
It goes without saying that nowadays it’s highly important to have a social media strategy, especially for a purely online business. Social media can generate a surprising amount of business and it can also help you gain a band of loyal followers. Social media management tools are very useful for consolidating the process (which can become very time consuming) and scheduling posts across different channels all at once – try Hootsuite or BuzzBundle.
Step 9: Dotting the I’s and Crossing the T’s
You’ve made it this far, now you just need to make it official. I recommend checking for all applicable laws on starting a business in your country. Remember, just because you’re online, doesn’t mean that the rules don’t apply to you.
- It’s important to make sure that you are clear on things like taxation and possible customs charges if you’re planning to ship things abroad
- Using freelancers who are working overaseas? Make sure you’re following appropriate employment law
- Be up front and transparent on your ‘About’ pages about what your website is about and how you make money
- You’ll have to disclose the fact that you use affiliate links if you’re going down that route
- Include a contact email or number for people to get in touch if they have a complaint or are concerned about something
So, chances are you may be feeling slightly overloaded right now. There is a lot to think about, plan and prepare when starting a business of any kind, but it’s important to do it right. Take it step-by-step and enjoy the huge rewards and satisfaction to be gained from watching your business and customer base grow.
Do you have experience of starting an online business? Let us know your thoughts on this article and what you would add in the comments.