How To Start an Online Business

In the past, all businesses needed real estate – a storefront or office space.

Many still do, but the growth of online business means it’s not the necessity it once was.

Budding entrepreneurs can now start businesses without having to make as big of an investment or take on as much risk – which is great. All you need is a good idea, some money and time to get started with, and you can start an online business.

To be clear, the risk is still there, but the barriers to entry are lower than they once were. If you’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur, starting with an online business is one of the easiest ways to get your foot in the door. And online businesses, when run well, can be extremely profitable. Online business contributes to the economy to the tune of $966 billion.

If you’re ready to claim your part of that number, here are the first steps to take.

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1. Identify a need.

You can do everything else exactly right, but if you’re trying to sell something no one wants, your online business will fail anyway. Your first order of business has to be figuring out a product or service that people actually want or need.

If you have an idea that you think people will be interested in, confirm that with market research. If you have enough money, you can hire a firm to do market research for you. If you really don’t have that much money, you can get creative and do it yourself.

One option is to start building an email list before you build your business, to make sure there’s interest in what you have to offer. You can also dig into widely available stats on demographics to understand your target audience a little better. And you can make use of a number of resources that focus on helping businesses understand consumer behavior.

A couple of businesses like Ask Your Target Market and GutCheck will connect you with members of your target audience so you can ask them questions directly and gain a better idea of what they’re likely to think of your product.

Starting an online business? Step #1 is market research - confirm people will be interested. Click To Tweet


2. Develop a business plan.

Once you know your idea has a realistic customer base, you need to start working on your business plan.

If you have any interest in attracting investors, then a business plan will be one of the most important tools you have for convincing them to buy in. Even if you aren’t explicitly looking for investors, creating a business plan will help you clarify your goals and figure out the specific steps you need to take to achieve them.

Make sure your business plan includes an analysis of the competition and a clear positioning statement of where you fit within the market. It should also include information on your target audience, which your market research should have given you a nice head start on collecting.

All of that gives you the information you need to make sure your approach is solid. With that in place, you’ll have an easier time working out the chronology of what to do when and what finances and resources you’ll need to complete each step.

In short, your business plan should do two key things:

  • Make a case for why your business idea is a good one, and
  • Provide the roadmap to turn your a good idea into something actionable.


3. Create your brand.

As you’re steadily moving toward the point of your launch, it’s time to work out how your business will appear to the world. If your business is the thing you run behind the scenes, your brand is the face it presents to the audience once the curtain’s drawn back.

Your business = the thing you run behind the scenes. Your brand = the face it presents to the world. Click To Tweet

If you’ve gotten this far without settling on a business name, then it’s time now to make a decision. Picking a name for your business is hard, but I don’t have to tell you how important it is.

The name is the biggest decision to make as you work on your brand, but it’s one of many. You need a logo, a style, and a clearly defined positioning that communicates just what makes your product so worthwhile to your audience.

If you’re still working on your own as you get to this step, then this is a good point in the process to start growing your team. If you don’t have the money to hire employees, consider looking for freelancers or a marketing agency to help.

Determining the right look, feel, and messaging of your business is something that’s ultimately up to you, but having some experienced experts pitch in to make sure you get it right is worth it.


4. Build your website.

If you do hire marketing professionals to help you develop your company’s brand, then creating the website should be part of what they help you do. You’ll need to purchase a domain name that’s close enough to your business name to be intuitive for users. If your business name is unique enough, you can go straight for the most obvious choice:

If the most obvious domain is already taken, then you may have to get a little creative.  You can either go with one of the other domain extensions like .net or .me, use a hyphen or underscore between words to change things up, or add a minor addition to the name, like a go at the beginning or a word that clarifies the industry afterward.

Another option is to switch steps 3 and 4. You can avoid running into the problems stated above, by choosing your company name based on what domain names are available. Use our domain registration tool to see what’s available.

Make sure the website design matches with your overall visual branding and your website copy effectively communicates your brand positioning. The work you did defining your brand should shine through in the website you create.

For an online business, your website is everything. You need it to look good, be intuitive to navigate, and make a clear case to visitors why they should buy.  Take time to get it right, and run the finished product by some other people (ideally people in your target audience) to get their take.

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5. Prepare your inventory.

Now it’s time to create or stock up on whatever you’re selling. If you’re selling physical items, you want them ready to ship by the time any orders start coming in. If you’re launching a service-based business, this step is where you should clarify your process.

If you’re selling digital products, like SaaS software, then you need to make sure the product is ready. Do user testing to ensure that it not only does what you’re claiming it does, but that customers will be able to use it without confusion or difficulty.

Obviously this step will vary considerably depending on the type of business you’re launching. Just be sure that, before your actual launch date, you take whatever steps are necessary to ensure you’re ready to start providing what you’re selling by the time your first customer is ready to buy.


6. Create (and start executing) your marketing plan.

Before you actually get going, you should establish your marketing plan. Your market research and branding work should have already helped you clarify your positioning and audience. Use that information to determine which marketing channels to pursue and the messaging to use for them.

Every business is different and marketing isn’t one size fits all. Most online businesses will want to make use of a mix of content marketing, social media promotion, and paid search promotion.  

If you don’t know much about online marketing to start, this may be a step to hire out. There is a learning curve to get started and some mistakes of ignorance can cause serious consequences – you wouldn’t want to find yourself facing a Google penalty due to trying an outdated SEO strategy, for instance.

If you really don’t have the funding to outsource your marketing, then take some real time to research online marketing best practices. Sites like Moz, HubSpot and Copyblogger all have good, reliable resources for beginners.


7. Launch!

Launch day will be a big day for your company. If your website isn’t already live, then you’ll definitely want it up and running on launch day. You should put out a press release, set up any PR interviews you can get, and start your marketing campaigns. And you should be prepared to start filling orders and fielding any questions that come through.

Your first day in business is a big day, but your success will depend on what you do for every day that comes after.  Be prepared to work hard, learn as you go, and make a point of providing great customer service.  Running an online business isn’t easy, but if you take the right steps and do the work, the rewards can be great.

Ready to start your online business?

Step 1: Download our FREE checklist to stay on track!

Step 2: Build your website with HostGator.

Step 3: Launch!

Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.