- Are you thinking about starting an online business? The good news is there's never been a better time to start.
- The software and technology available today make it easier and faster to build a website and get your business up and running.
- Before you look into website platforms and get stuck into web design, you need to think about business structure, insurance and much more.
- In this guide, we break down the six key steps you need to take to bring your business idea and website to life.
I’m betting that you’ve heard this phrase before… “There has never been a better time to start an online business”.
Is that true, and if yes, what steps do you need to take to start an online business in Australia?
Let’s address the first question: Is now the best time to start an online business?
In my opinion, it's a definite yes! It is now extremely easy to start an online business. The technology and systems are there for you to get running in the shortest possible time and you can start with very few initial overheads.
There are also some excellent reasons to start an online business including:
- It's typically portable
- You can work your own hours or build it whilst still working your regular job
- It can be tangible as far as being an asset and potentially sellable down the track if there is good profitability or cashflow established.
The downside to being easier to build an online business is that it’s easier to build an online business. Are you with me here? Removing the barriers to getting started means that new players and potential competitors are popping up every single day.
It’s fair to say, therefore, that the real work in an online business is in getting found.
That is a whole different ballgame though, so for now let’s assume you are taking the plunge and want to stake your claim on the world. Where do you get started?
How to Start an Online Business
Here’s my guide and six steps to starting an online business:
- Determine the products or services you want to sell
- Identify the target market for your product or service
- Decide on your business structure and protect yourself from potential liability
- Choose a platform
- Build your site
Let's get into it...
1. Determine the Products or Services You Want to Sell
An online business can take many shapes and forms. Are you wanting to sell goods for example? Are they physical or digital products, or are you looking to transition your physical service to an online format (e.g. remote consulting)?
All of these business models have their own unique challenges and moving parts. Below are some of the things you need to consider for each model.
a) Physical products (e.g. clothing, homewares, hand-made goods, tools, jewellery, etc):
- Are you going to hold stock or use a dropship or Amazon-style fulfilment model?
- How will you manage inventory?
- What processes will you have in place for returns and refunds?
- If you're selling food-based products, what liability insurance should you carry?
b) Digital products (e.g. downloadable resources like checklists, E-Books, online courses, pay-on-demand webinars, etc):
- How will you distribute content?
- How will you collect payment?
- How do you manage digital rights and prevent sharing of your resources?
c) Virtual Services (e.g. online coaching, virtual assistant, on-demand consulting):
- How will you manage calendars and bookings?
- Will you collect payment upfront, take deposits, or invoice after the service is completed?
- Do you have a refund policy, or what guarantees do you have in place?
- Do you have privacy policies and terms and conditions written up, and do you need liability cover?
2. Identify a Target Market for Your Product or Service
Once you’ve decided on the type of online business that you want to build, the next question is to determine what type of demand or market there is for your services or goods.
You may already have a good idea of the level of demand based on what prompted you to think about an online business in the first place.
For those of you that haven’t yet established whether there is a broader market for your product or service, here are some things you can do to test the waters before you throw your time and effort into your venture:
- Test the market via Facebook Marketplace
- Do keyword research
- Do a Google search
- Test out demand using a landing page and email signup
- Join business groups on social media
- Research service-on-demand websites
If you’re looking to sell a physical product of some kind, test the market via Facebook Marketplace. Place the item for sale at a particular price point. If you are run off your feet with inquiries and you sell the item very quickly, experiment with small price increases to see where the market value is most comfortable.
You can also do a keyword search on Neil Patel and see what the search volume or Cost per Click is for your item (if it already exists). This will give you an idea of the competitiveness of a product and provide some initial validation of a demand for an item/s.
If you are offering digital services, google the type of service you are thinking about offering. Are there other people already downloadable content on-demand?
Run a landing page with email signup and find out if people are prepared to join a waitlist for your service.
If you are a consultant or virtual service provider, get involved with some of the business groups on Facebook and post a question to the group like “What is the going rate for a virtual assistant” and see what responses you get.
Research service-on-demand websites to see if other people are getting paid to do similar services. If they are, you have validated there is a market. It may also give you a guide as to what people are prepared to pay for your service.
3. Decide on Your Business Structure and Protect Yourself from Potential Liability
Your business structure is important from the outset. I’m not qualified to advise in this area, so the recommendation is to seek out an accountant who understands the business model you are wanting to establish.
Ask them the benefits of operating as a sole trader vs company or trust. If you sell physical products, then GST and inventory management may be a factor. Take their advice on the accounting side of things but take care if they are registering the business name on your behalf.
Accountants may be good at the figures side of the business but are often not so up to speed with how registered business names affect domain name eligibility. In Australia, there are some strict eligibility rules when applying for a .com.au domain name.
You can read the licensing details on the auDA website, but in general, your business name and domain name should be as closely related to each other as possible.
Other domain extensions such as .com are not so strict on eligibility. Whichever way you go, take care in registering both to avoid unnecessary costs or legal challenges down the track.
On the subject of liability, we also suggest seeking your own professional advice on business insurance and legal requirements relevant to your service or industry.
4. Choose Your Platform
This is an important aspect of your business setup because changing platforms down the track is a big exercise. Trust me on this one, as I’ve done several platform migration for clients and there’s a lot of moving parts in any scenario.
It's best to take your time and research thoroughly at the beginning and save yourself some heartache or double handling expenses later on.
What should you look for? As I don’t know your individual business product, service or model at this stage, I can’t make recommendations about what brand platform you should use.
I will, however, briefly explain the two main types available, which are Open Source Software vs Proprietary aka Hosted Solutions.
Open Source software uses code that is shared across the internet. For this reason, it is often cheaper to run as you can host it relatively inexpensively. What you need to be aware of, however, is that the onus is on the business owner to make sure all updates are completed when they come through.
You really want to know what you are doing with this option as you are dealing with payments and personal information. If that scares you, then you can consider a hosted or proprietary system instead.
A hosted solution is simply a piece of software where software and security updates are managed by the provider and are often the quickest way to launch as much of the setup is there for you already.
Some examples of hosted solutions in an ecommerce sense, are Shopify and BigCommerce. These platforms are purpose-built for online shopping and designed to work out-of-the-box. They offer a range of free templates to start from and also offer payment, marketing and other integrations.
Non-Product Software Platforms
For business owners launching e-products or online services, there are likewise, a number of providers that are purpose-built to suit your desired business model. There are so many in fact, that it’s not feasible to list them all here.
Do you need a funnel-based program, a lead generation tool, and enhanced email automation or something else?
What we suggest here, is that you do your research or seek professional guidance with a solutions consultant. If you’d like to compare software solutions yourself, then a good place to start is websites like G2 which offer software comparison and customer reviews. You can also reach out to the SavvySME community for advice and recommendations.
Often, software companies will allow you to trial their tools, so take advantage of those opportunities and ensure that the program you are going to run with is intuitive (for you) to use, offers good training and support and is scalable.
Some quick advice...
Before you get started on any platform you will need to have some form of payment collection established. Most buyers are familiar with PayPal already, but for straight-through credit card processing, explore secondary options like Stripe.
5. Build Your Site
You have two options to build your site: DIY vs custom-built websites. Let's take a look at the pros and cons of each option:
When it comes to building your website, you can either go down the do-it-yourself pathway or have it built for you. I am going to go out on a big limb here and recommend that you at least start with the DIY option.
I know that sounds counter-intuitive for someone that builds online businesses for a living to recommend you learn to do it yourself, but here’s the reasoning: If you approach a development company after you’ve done some self-learning or had a go at building something yourself, you will be in a much better position.
For starters, you will have enough basic knowledge to know if you are being overcharged, plus you’ll be in a better position to negotiate favourable terms as you know you’ll be able to do some of the low-level, but time-consuming fulfilment yourself, e.g. adding and categorising products.
If you are like most start-ups, your margins will be razor thin in the early stages. If you can keep the development and other costs down in the early stages, then you will have a bigger budget for marketing which is where you will need it most to get early traction.
Of course, if you have a bigger startup budget, lack the technical expertise, want to scale quickly or have to get your product to market urgently, then bypassing the learning process at the beginning and getting a site built for you makes sense.
In this scenario, your learning comes post-launch, but is sometimes easier as you have the final product in front of you and can see how it all fits together.
The next step is finding the right development partner. Not all developers will have experience working on all types of online business models, so it’s important to take this step carefully.
Only you will know which company is going to be the best match for your particular business, but here are some questions that should all have a big ‘yes’ at the end of them.
- Can they show you other similar sites that they have built, and do you like their general style?
- Have they been in the industry long enough to be around past the first two years, and preferably for the next five years?
- Do they offer ongoing support beyond the website and have the inclination and resources to help build your business through mentoring or extended services?
If you’ve got three green lights at this checkpoint, get the deal put in writing and understand what the ongoing costs are going to be.
Wow, you’ve got this stage already? Good for you. No seriously, if you have even come close to launch you deserve another big round of applause because many people have given up on their dream well before they get to this point.
The launch is another article all on its own, so I am going to provide a bit of an overview here of what a launch entails.
From a technical point of view, a launch means pointing your domain name to the program where the website is hosted. There may be a few steps involved here, including activating your software to a paid account, connecting the domain name to the admin portal and/or adding zone records to your domain host.
It may also mean setting up new email accounts and configuring those to your devices.
If you have gone down the “done-for-you” path, your project partner should be handling most of this for you.
If you have self-built your online business, you will follow the instructions of your chosen provider or platform and get in touch with their support services if you require additional help.
It can be a bit nerve-racking at this point, as there are a few things that need to line up and speak to each other, so there is sometimes a delay in the site appearing even after you’ve made all the necessary changes. Stay calm and be patient.
Once the domain is active, we would typically complete a range of post-launch checks before publicly sharing the site details. Checks include cross-browser and cross-device checks, making sure all order and contact forms are working correctly, testing orders and email sequences, and generally running the live site through its paces.
Set up a Google Analytics account so you can track your progress over the coming months and years ahead.
Get some friends to help test and provide feedback and keep improving the site as you go.
Once you are satisfied that everything is working as it should, publish your link on your social media channels and start your marketing initiatives. Yes, you guessed it, the real work starts now!
Getting an online business is getting easier every day, and without a doubt, is the way of the future due to its flexibility, lower overheads than traditional models and external factors (e.g. COVID-19) encouraging all of us to move to more contactless touchpoints.
Successful online businesses will ultimately still solve a problem. They are simply delivering the solution in an alternate format and I personally see that increasing exponentially over the next decade.
Building an online business is not without its challenges and some duty of care is required to ensure that both customers and business owner are well protected, with clear policies and if necessary, appropriate insurances.
For those with the time and inclination, an online business can be started quickly and be operational in the time it takes to learn a particular platform. Choose a platform that meets both your budget and is easy for you to maintain.
If seeking professional help to build your online business, ensure that your chosen partner is behind you beyond the initial launch period and has experience in your chosen vehicle of commerce.
Finally, I wish you well and congratulate you on your insight into the future of the global economy.