Do you want to start your own online business but aren’t sure how?
Building an online business can be a great way to be your own boss, generate an income and work towards financial security.
But how do you get started?
More importantly, how do you get started in a way that sets you up for success?
This 20-step guide will walk you through the steps involved in getting your online business up and running. This isn’t just for one specific industry or type of work: no matter what sort of business you want to run, this guide will help you get started – the right way!
1. Decide what service or goods you want to provide
You’d be surprised how many people come up with an idea or two and then dive in without thinking them through. Most attempts at monetising those ideas will ultimately fail, some sooner than others.
They don’t fail because the ideas are bad. They fail because they were too broad or not well thought-out.
Instead of setting yourself up for disaster, take some time to decide exactly what you want your business to be about by asking yourself:
What sort of work am I passionate about? Starting an online business takes a lot of time and energy. Make sure you are choosing work that you care about, otherwise it will be hard to see it through to success.
What industry do I want to focus on? Take some time to brainstorm ideas. Use tools like Google Keyword Planner to figure out which one has the best market strength. This is the smartest one to focus on.
How can my previous work experience/educational background help? Do you have any experience in this industry? Have your studies or previous jobs touched on it at all? Is this something you are passionate about and self-educated on? Figure out what makes you qualified for this work.
Do I want to sell goods or services? Don’t try to do everything at the beginning. Decide what you want to sell/provide first and figure out how to do that well.
What connections do I have that can help me enter this industry? Having contacts that can help you out with referrals, promotions, or advice can give you a definite advantage when starting a business. Make sure to cultivate those relationships.
Use these questions to narrow down your options so that your idea is tightly focused. Later, you may decide to add more services or products, but you’ll have a much smoother start if you begin with a narrow focus.
2. Pick a business name
Branding is an important part of starting any business (online or not) and it all starts with a name. So choose a name and make it relevant and memorable.
Naming your business will also help you think positively. It makes your new work more real, establishes an emotional connection, and increases your motivation to succeed.
3. Check your local laws
Don’t get yourself into legal or financial trouble by ignoring the legal side of things.
Research and follow the laws that govern your business in the country or state that where you live. Failing to do so could result in tax penalties, audits, forcible closure or at worst, incarceration.
A tax accountant and/or legal advisor can help you figure out what these laws are if you are nervous about researching them yourself.
4. Set up a separate bank account
It is crucial to keep business and personal finance separate
This will allow you to more easily track your business’s profit and loss. It will also make reconciling your accounts much easier when your tax return is due.
Your bank may allow you to set up a free checking account. If not, try a local credit union or independent bank, as they may have fewer requirements for new customers than large banks.
5. Create a starting budget
One of the benefits of starting an online business is that your initial expenses will be relatively low compared to a brick-and-mortar business. But there will still be some things you need to pay for, such as a website, marketing, or product development.
Decide on a set amount for start-up expenses, even if it’s only a few hundred dollars. This will help you decide where to spend your money and keep you from dipping into your personal savings during your first few months in business.
6. Link a PayPal account to your checking account
Paypal makes it easy to make and accept payments online, reducing the need for credit cards and bank transfers, keeping your details safe.
7. Create a website
If you are going to have an online business, you must have a website.
Not having a website will immediately damage your credibility. Potential clients won’t have anywhere to learn about your work. You will seem instantly unreliable.
Don’t be tempted to get a free Wix or Weebly website builder — they will save you money but cost you business. They are generally free because Wix and Weebly use your website to run their own ads, which also makes you look unprofessional.
Instead, use some of your starting budget to invest in a personalized domain name and hosting.
A domain name is the address of your website, such as WorkOnlineBlog.com, and a hosting plan is how you rent online “space.” There are many companies out there that allow you to purchase both of these at low prices. Some of our favorites are BlueHost, WPEngine, and DigitalOcean.
If you are confused about domains and hosting, don’t be afraid to talk to customer service at any of these companies. They will be able to help you decide which plan is right for your needs.
Once you have a domain and hosting, it’s time to set up your website.
If you can afford to, hiring a professional designer will save you time. If you want to go the do-it-yourself approach, WordPress is one of the most popular website interfaces and easy for beginners to learn to use. Find a theme that is simple, professional, and easy to customize.
We recommend Elegant Themes for pre-designed styles that look very professional. If you know a little more about building a website, you can start with a framework like Genesis and build from there.
Don’t worry about making your website too elaborate at the beginning. A few well-written pages are all you need to get started. Begin with your Home page, About page, Services page, and Contact page, and add more as you find that you need them.
8. Educate yourself
When you own a business, you never stop learning. And some of the most important learning happens before you even start selling.
First, study your chosen industry. Learn what services people buy and how much they are typically willing to pay for them. Look for any gaps in the market where you can focus your efforts.
Do you need to study certain skills, such as copywriting or social media management? Do you need to learn more about running a business in general?
It’s important to learn about online marketing. There are free advertising options, such as social media accounts, and paid options, like Google Adwords. Learn about both to decide which would be best for your business. Are there sites in your industry that will feature your products? Start making a list of them now.
9. Get on social media
Having a presence on social media is a near-mandatory part of running an online business these days. It allows you to connect to your audience, build a public presence, and learn about your industry.
What social media accounts you need will depend on your industry, so investigate where people in your industry hang out. Do they use Facebook or Instagram? Should you make YouTube videos or pin things on Pinterest? Are people on Google Plus?
Start with 2-3 platforms and build from there as you get more comfortable with social media. Twitter is great for creating an online presence, and a LinkedIn account will help you find work and connect with potential clients. Beyond that, what you select will depend on your type of business.
Remember, you are using these social media accounts to build a professional presence, so create pages in your business name rather than using personal accounts. Post things related to your business and industry, not photos of your family vacations or your political thoughts.
10. Find your industry leader
In every industry there are thought leaders — the trendsetters, the stylemakers, the people who have been incredibly successful and share their knowledge with others.
You can learn a lot about running your business from these people, and a lot of it can be found for free on their websites and social media accounts. This will help you learn about running your business; connect you with others in your industry through comments; and hopefully bring your work to the attention of these industry leaders, which can give your online presence a huge boost.
11. Network online with others in your industry
One of the most amazing things about the world of online business is how eager everyone is to share information and help each other out. So don’t just read and observe — get involved in the conversation!
If you read a great blog post, comment on it or share it on your social media accounts. Join communities of other online workers. Reach out to colleagues on Twitter or LinkedIn.
Don’t just focus on the industry leaders. Connecting with people at every level in their careers increases your exposure and can result in referrals and job offers. It can also keep you from feeling too isolated, a problem that many online workers struggle with.
12. Set goals for the next 3, 6, and 12 months
When you’re starting a business, you want to do everything at once. But if you take on too much work right away, you risk getting overwhelmed and burning out.
Instead, create specific goals that you can act work towards, then space them out over the next twelve months. Where do you want your business to be in three months? In six months? In a year?
Once you know what your goals are, list 3-4 actions that you can take to help you reach each of those goals. This will create a road map for your first year in business and make the process of learning and growing much less intimidating.
Be careful not to make your goals too vague. If one of your goals is, “I want to earn a living,” it can be difficult to figure out whether you’ve achieved that or not. A specific goal, such as “In six months, I want my online business to be earning $4000 a month” is much easier to work towards and evaluate.
13. Develop a marketing strategy
All that learning you did about marketing back in #8? It’s time to start applying it.
If you set up your website and expect business to come to you, you’re going to be disappointed. Instead, create a proactive marketing strategy based on what you’ve learned about your industry and what you can afford.
Will you use social media accounts to market your work? Will you write emails to sell your services? Does it make sense to pay for advertising in trade magazines or on Google? Will you sell products on a website like Etsy that allows you to pay for “featured” spots?
If you’re still not sure where to start, begin with free options, such as social media and an email newsletter, to keep your costs down. Later, you can add paid options such as fliers, mailings, or Google ads.
Don’t be afraid to ask other people in your industry for advice– chances are, they have lots of it to share.
14. Create a schedule for yourself
When you run your own business, there’s no boss breathing down your neck and holding you to deadlines. There are no weekly staff meetings. You have to hold yourself accountable for finishing what you start.
Creating a work schedule will help keep you on track. Use it to determine not only what you will work on but also when you will work. Do you do your best work in the morning, or are you a night owl? Do you want to stick to a 9-5 schedule? Are you trying to achieve a four hour work week?
Set specific hours and do your best to stick to them. This will help you treat your online business like a job, not just a hobby. It helps you take it a little more seriously.
15. Create something free
This strategy actually works incredibly well for any type of business. It’s also one of the best ways to build an email list. “Incentive” doesn’t really cover it — the point is to offer something free that people can sign up for.
One of the best ways to draw people to your website is to offer them something free – a monthly newsletter about your products, an ebook about your services, a report that answers their questions. This not only positions you as an expert, it also introduces visitors to your products/services.
Make sure that whatever you are offering is something of real value that shows off your skills and knowledge. Offering something cheap or useless will make your business look bad.
In order to get their free product, visitors should have to sign up with their name and email address. Services such as MailChimp or Constant Contact will walk you through building sign-up forms and show you how to put them into your website. Or, if you work with a web designer, he or she can create one for you.
16. Guest post
Most industries have well-known blogs that accept guest posts, and lots of people read them. If you are given a guest post spot on one of these, you will gain instant credibility for your business. Guest posting is also another form of free advertising.
Pick a topic that you can write about with authority and pitch it to the blog owner. Your guest post should include real, valuable information and should finish with a bio that links to the free product on your website and social media accounts.
This positions you as an expert, introduces new people to your work, and drives traffic to your website, all of which will help you land more business.
17. Create an editorial calendar
You’ve taken some time to learn about your industry, so you should have a good sense of how people in it position themselves online. Use this information to create an editorial calendar for both your website and social media accounts.
Plan out what sort of information you will share, where you will share it, and how often you post. Don’t be too ambitious: create a schedule you know you can stick to. Consistency is key online — if you disappear for a few weeks, people will stop following you, and you’ll have to waste time building your online presence all over again.
If you plan out what you will post and when you will post it, though, you will never be stuck wondering what to write about — or worse, forget to write anything at all.
18. Start blogging
Once you have your editorial calendar planned out, you’re ready to create a blog on your website.
Blogging is great for online businesses. Not only does it provide visitors with useful information, it also improves the SEO of your website by adding new keywords with every post. This gives search engines even more ways to find your website.
Write about relevant topics: answer questions customers might have, share lessons you’ve learned, link to interesting resources and discussions. Remember, blogging isn’t about the hard sell. If you write a post that obviously says, “Buy my products!” you lose readers. But you can always include links to your Services page, your free products, or a Hire Me page.
19. Build your list
Your free product, guest posts, and blogging should all work toward the goal of encouraging people to sign up for your email list.
An email list is exactly what it sounds like: a list of the names and emails of people who are interested in your business. MailChimp and Constant Contact can help you store this information.
Your list is essential for keeping in touch with your current and potential customers. With it, you can share information, drive traffic to your website, test special offers, or launch new products — and you know that the people seeing these emails want to see what you have to offer.
A word of caution about email lists: make sure you update your list only with email addresses that people have voluntarily given you. If you add emails without permission, the recipients may mark you as “spam” which can damage your credibility or even get you banned from using the email service you signed up for.
20. Start selling
If you’ve followed these 20 steps, you now have a website, a social media presence, a business plan, a network, and an email list. And, more importantly, you should have an audience of potential customers ready to buy.
That means it’s time to start selling — congratulations! You now have an online business that’s ready to go.
Going through all 20 steps may seem like a lot of work when you’re ready and excited to get started. But don’t rush in. Taking your time will pay off in the long run when you don’t have just a business — you have a successful career.