Ten Tips for Starting an Online Business


“A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention in human history — with the possible exceptions of handguns and tequila.” – Mitch Ratliffe

Starting your own online business has many parallels to starting a bricks-and-mortar store or launching a consulting business. Even kids setting up a lemonade stand on the corner have to do a bit of planning. They have to estimate expenses and profits, a good location, and a plan to catch customers’ attention. And if they want repeat business, they have to make sure the product is delicious.

Disciples of the “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” way of thinking don’t survive on the web. Your customers are out there, but they have to be able to find you.

The following are 10 basic steps for building a successful online business:

1. Select and Register a Domain Name

Your business may already have a name and a customer base. If so, choosing your business name as a domain name may seem the most obvious way to proceed. On the other hand, if your business name says little about your business, you may want to reconsider.

For example, if you’re in the business of selling patio furniture and your business is called Walker & Sons, Inc., walkerpatiofurniture.com is more likely than walkerandsons.com to attract customers who search for “patio furniture”. Having “patio furniture” in your domain name allows search engines to find you.

Once you’ve selected your domain name, go online to register it. The first step is to ensure that the name isn’t already owned by someone else. You should also register your domain name with .com, .net, .info, .biz and .org extensions  to make sure it isn’t used by others in the future.

Also, consider purchasing a domain name with built-in potential for online traffic. These are known as premium domains. In the above example, if patiofurniture.com is available for sale, build the cost into your business plan. It’s easy to remember, highly relevant to your business and a popular search phrase.

2. Find a Web Host

Your web host is the service that stores, maintains and presents your web sites and provides internet connection to those sites.

Finding an appropriate web host isn’t just a matter of choosing a service you can afford. You’ll want reliability and good customer support. If your business takes off, you may have to purchase additional server space in the future. You’ll need appropriate bandwidth so that your web sites run quickly and smoothly. Page load speed is another critical element of how your site will perform in search engines.You should also check how often the web host performs backups of your site information.

Web hosts provide a wide variety of software options. For example, if you’re selling products, you’ll need database software to use as an online catalog of your products and a shopping cart setup for your customers.

3. Design the Web Site

The do-it-yourself approach is tempting for new online entrepreneurs. It looks easy. Others have done it with some success. Hiring a web design professional is expensive. So is building a store. Would you really do it yourself?

A successful web site should look professional. Navigating your site must be easy, intuitive and fast. Again, avoid cookie cutter sites that are offered at no charge. You’re stuck with their design and their advertising. Besides, your site should be optimized (more on that later) and you can’t do that if you’re not in complete control of its content.

4. Set Up Clear Communication Channels

Make sure that there is a way for your customers to contact you by phone or email on every page of your website. One of the perks of a good web host is that e-mail is included in the service. Customers have to be able to contact you directly via an email address that is consistent with your site name – [email protected], for example.   For tracking purposes, it is also very useful to have a contact form that is linked to or featured on each page of your site containing several required fields – generally name, company, email, phone – as well as optional fields including comments, questions, company size, revenue, etc.

Consistency and availability are critical to the success of your business so make sure there is a clear communication path and that inquiries are answered as fast as possible.

5. Promote Your Web Site with Search Engine Marketing Strategies

Search engine marketing may be among the most mysterious of processes connected with setting up an online business. While printing business cards, catalogs and flyers with your URL is relatively simple, making sure that potential customers browsing the web find you takes some work.

You won’t be highly visible on the web unless search engines find you and decide your site has relevant content. The process of making your site visible to spiders and search engines is called search engine optimization, or simply SEO. Walker & Sons would achieve this by making sure the phrase “patio furniture” and specific products they offer (like “deck chairs” “firepits”, etc.) are used in site tags and throughout the content in a format that search engine spiders can read.     You may also try a pay-per-click model like Google AdWords to drive paid traffic to your site, based on keywords that you choose.

6. Streamline Ecommerce Process

If your business is selling anything online (also known as e-commerce), it is critical to have a smooth checkout process, including a well-organized and easily searched catalogue, a secure shopping cart feature, straightforward handling and shipping costs, and clear return policies.

The success of your business depends on rapid fulfillment of orders, timely response to inquiries and the appearance of professionalism.   Customer surveys and UX consultants can help give feedback and strategies for optimizing your customers’ online shopping process.

7. Build Your Brand Through Differentiation

While the internet can give you access to millions of potential customers, it has also lowered the barrier to entry for many of your competitors.  Because you are now up against these new companies, as well as up against established brands, you need sophisticated strategies to get name recognition.

What makes your company different?  Are you able to beat competitors’ prices or shipping costs?  Does your company have an interesting history?  Who can serve as the “face” of your company, offering a glimpse into the way the company works?  Social media channels like Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Google Places, LinkedIn and many others have proven very useful at helping companies both to put out information to promote the uniqueness of their brand and to collect information about what their customers actually think about their product or service.

8. Upselling and Cross-Selling Your Products or Services

Online selling requires another set of clever strategies. Once you get someone to your site, you have a great opportunity to educate her about other products and services you may offer through upselling and cross-selling. These tactics are important strategies for online business success. This means that related products are strategically placed so that customers can see the need for related products. If you’re selling shower curtains, you stand a good chance of selling shower curtain rings as well if you can remind customers that you have them in stock without putting on too much pressure.

9. Analyze Website Traffic

The trick to understanding your customers on-site behavior is to analyze your web traffic with analytics tools like (the free!) Google Analytics. What percentage of your site’s visitors click on links to your products or services? How long do they stay on each page? Are visits from search traffic producing more sales than visits from referring sites or vice versa?  Is your paid traffic delivering ROI?  These questions and many others can be answered with analytics tools.

10. Maintain, Manage and Improve Your Business

An online business isn’t a fire-and-forget venture. The information on your site must be current, correct and reliable. Catalog sites that sell products must have up-to-date prices and shipping charges. If the figures change, updates should be quick and easy.

A good accounting system is the backbone of a successful online business. Having expenses and income handled automatically saves you both time and money.

Finally, your business plan should include strategies for growing your business and timing its growth in increments. Adding new products or services is an obvious way to expand your online business, but improving cross-selling tactics or increasing traffic through strategic partnerships may be equally beneficial.

Your success as an online entrepreneur is a function of the effectiveness of your web site. Think of your web site as your store or business office.   Invest in it as you would in a bricks and mortar office and enjoy the benefits of an increased customer base.

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