Business Game Plan: How to Start an Online Business
NOTE: This is just one path of many and no business is a one-size-fits-all. We are a firm believer in creating your own path and don't do what everyone else is doing. But if I were to start my business all over again, this is the path I would take.
I began my career as a freelance designer and I took on any job that I could. I would work for people I knew or they would refer me to one of their friends. I just worked on any design job that I could get my hands on and had no real direction on who I was as a designer and didn’t have a real foundation. I didn’t market myself or didn’t even really know how. I decided I wanted to make design my full time business but I wasn't really sure where to start. I searched for hours and hours, read countless blog posts, watched endless webinars on how to start an online business and what the best practices are. There are so many running pieces and it can be really confusing when you don't know where to start first, what to invest in, and how much you can afford to do yourself. So this guide is a general game plan that will help you launch your business. These are steps along the way that I learned so that you can have a solid foundation for starting your online business. At the end I also included a checklist on each step that outlines starting a business. Please think of this as a general guideline.
before we begin:
When you are creating an online business you are either going to be product-based or service-based business. From my experience, I have found that it is much easier for you to start a service-based business because it is an easier and faster way to get started with very little money and it’s the best way to build your audience. When you build up your audience first, you are able to make products that cater to your audience’s need and therefore, more likely to make a purchase. However, there are businesses based on products and that’s okay too. That just means the timelines for these types of businesses are going to look slightly different when it comes to branding. With a product based business you will have to put more money up front and invest in branding sooner. For example, if you are going to have a product that requires packaging then you will need to have your branding elements on your packaging which means you need to have all your branding done prior to this step of the process.
For a service-based business
For a product-based business
steps to take:
1. Business Idea
First you need to decide if your business idea is a good idea. Are you already making money doing what you want to do? Or are you starting from scratch with a fresh idea? This step may seem obvious but you want to make sure that you are positioning yourself in the right market. Some markets are oversaturated and some markets are just too small. Find your niche.
Niche - adj - denoting or relating to products, services, or interests that appeal to a small, specialized section of the population.
You probably heard the word "niche" when it comes to narrowing your focus on a business idea. Finding your niche is about finding your place in the market where you are focused on a specific topic so that you become the expert in that field which ultimately makes you stand out. For example, saying you want to be a personal trainer isn't going to make you stand out. There are thousands and thousands of personal trainers and you'll get lost in the middle of all of them. You must get more focused. A better option would be that you are a personal trainer for expecting mothers or you provide workout plans for postpartum mothers.
Example: If you are in a personal trainer Facebook group and an expecting mom named Samantha is asking for a personal trainer, everyone in the group should be able to recommend your services to Samantha. They should know that you are the expert in that field and you can help Samantha out. If people see that you are the expert then they will most likely refer or tag you in Samantha’s post which would result in you standing out and hopefully getting their business.
By limiting your scope, you are becoming an expert in your field. You are able to concentrate on that one thing and do it well and become known for it.
Do you have a good business idea?
Answer these following questions:
1. Are you solving a problem for someone? Having a business is about finding out what your audience needs and giving them the solution to their problem.
2. Are you able to make money from it? Do you have to put in more work and effort than it's worth? What kind of profit would you make from each product or service?
3. Is your business idea sustainable? Is this business going to be a long term plan? Is it a good enough idea to withstand time and continue to provide for your audience in years to come?
4. Are you able to grow? Are there additional products/services that you can do that will allow your business to grow or are you going to rely on one product or service to keep making you money?
5. Is this your area of expertise? You have to find a balance between your actual experience and your passions. Just because it is something you love to do, doesn't make you an expert in the field. Are you going to be able to offer high quality products/services that people will actually want to buy?
6. Why do you want this to be a business? Knowing your “why” will be what drives your business and your decisions and your motivation. If you are starting a business because you want quick money, then you probably aren’t going to be successful. People buy because of your “why” - watch this Ted Talk to learn more. or read his book Start with Why by Simon Sinek
2. Create a Business Plan
Once you have decided that you have found a good business idea, it is time to map out your business, your values, goals, your unique selling proposition, products/services, marketing and content plan, etc.
The best thing to keep in mind is that your business is probably going through the most amount of changes the first six months. You might still be deciding who your dream client is, you might find that one product idea isn't working for you, or you might come up with a new idea that you want to try. This is why the business plan is just a preliminary plan to give you direction but don't spend all your time planning every single detail. We will come back later and update your business plan to keep you on track.
We have a business plan template in our shop that you can work your way through. It makes it so much easier when you follow step by step and answer all the questions. When you are done you will have a completed business plan, taking away all the stress and confusion.
3. Setup a basic website
In your business plan, you should have decided what your goals for your business will be. Use these goals to decide your layout for your website. If your goal is to sell items, make sure your shop is on the homepage. Or if your goal is to get people to sign up for your newsletter, make it easy for them to sign up. Usually a good starting point for your website pages includes: home, about, services or shop, portfolio, blog, contact.
Plan your website content before you begin. Start with wireframing your pages with quick sketches.
Once you have your website sketches completed, you will start creating your website. There are a ton of different platforms out there but at Brand Blitz we are all about Squarespace here so we suggest hopping on the Squarespace train. (If you want to read more about Squarespace vs Wordpress - read this post)
The great thing about Squarespace is it is easy to setup and they have templates for you. You can upload a few pages, change the content, and get started right away. When you are starting a business, time is money, and you don’t have a lot of time to learn a new platform, and Squarespace takes very little time to learn. They also have so many integrations that work so well with online businesses. We believe in Squarespace because it gives you the power to make changes and add or take away the things you need without having to hire someone to help.
As I said earlier, don’t worry about branding yet! Which is crazy coming from a brand designer, right? But you will get a more meaningful brand once you get your business running. Branding is more than a logo and it really takes your core values, your voice, and creating visuals to reflect your brand. So please know the reasons why branding is important but also understand that the stronger the foundation of your business, the more likely your brand will truly reflect what you’re business. You can get a professional looking website just by using Squarespace templates and nice high quality stock images. Make sure you use the same colors and fonts throughout the website to make sure everything stays consistent.
We have a FREE website playbook that walks you through setting up your Squarespace website which you can download here.
Now that you have a website setup, you can start sending people to your home base. So how are you going to market to your audience? Where are they hanging out and what are you going to do to attract them to your website?
At Brand Blitz, our marketing plan is all about providing content. In order for people to purchase from your business, they have to trust you. So we choose to provide a ton of free content so that they can see the quality of our work and see that they actually get results from it. If our free content is working for them, then our paid content must work for them too.
So what type of content can you provide?
The type of content marketing that we highly suggest to start with is blogging. Blogging has become the number one way for us to get people to our website. By writing a blog post article, we get better SEO ranking, you can post it to Pinterest which gets you more shares, and in return you get more views to your website.
Blogging can be time consuming and there are a ton of tips to improve your blog posts but the return is higher for blogging more than any of the other content we provide. To be fair, your audience might not read blogs and that might not be the best option for you. For another business that we have started, that audience isn’t on Pinterest and few actually read blogs, so I have to find ways to provide content in other ways. Experiment and find what works for you.
Also, with blogging, people will go read your article and then hopefully explore the rest of your website, either viewing your services or shop or signing up for your newsletter.
Our other goal and another way we provide content is to get our audience to our website and get them to either purchase from us or have them join our email list/join our community. We want to gain a captive audience that we can connect with, share experiences with, and share our products with. We want that audience to tell us what they are having problems with and we want to solve them. So when our audience makes it to our website, we have places for them to sign up for our email newsletter.
There are multiple reasons for having a newsletter:
You are able to connect with your audience. You can open the lines to communication just through email making the experience personal. You can let users get to know you, provide valuable information to them, and get to know them.
Email is the highest conversion rate for getting people to purchase something from you. You are able to directly talk to your audience and connect with them and gain their trust.
You own your email list. Out of all the social media platforms, we don’t own our followers. If any instagram or Pinterest were to shutdown or delete your account then you lose all of those followers. However, with an email list, you are still able to keep their email addresses and stay in contact with them.
It is probably the easiest way to stay connected with your audience. Newsletters don’t have to be time consuming or highly designed. Most email platforms also allow you automate and plan your emails so you can schedule ahead.
Squarespace allows you to integrate with email platforms including MailChimp and ConvertKit so it makes it really easy for users to get on your newsletter.
Social Media Marketing
Choose 1-3 social media accounts and determine a strategy for each.
Even though we just talked about how we don’t own our followers on social media, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use social media to market our business. However, don’t feel like you have to use every single platform either. Don’t overwhelm yourself. When we first started with social media, we started with one platform and mastered it before we started using another one.
We keep a content calendar where we schedule our blog posts, social media, and newsletters so we attached a blank calendar so that you can fill out your own. If you are going to start with blogging, just schedule your blog posts at first. Once you have your blog posts figured out and get into the flow of writing and posting blog posts regularly, then you can add in your newsletter and social media content or the other content you plan on doing.
5. update/expand your offerings
Hopefully your marketing efforts have gained you an audience. You should have either a service or products that you are currently selling on your website. Now this is where you need to decide if your offerings are still working for your audience. Are you still solving your audience’s problems? Could you be solving other problems for them?
How do you find this out? Ask your audience! You should have been nurturing your email lists and making sure you are staying in contact with your audience. Ask them their struggles or problems they are currently having. This is a good way to find out which products or services you can offer to help them solve their problems.
Another way to survey your audience is to use Facebook groups. Make sure you are asking people who are in your ideal audience but ask them what they are having problems with.
- Don’t do what everyone else is doing. Don’t offer the same thing a competitor is offering. Figure out what you can do different. This will help you stand out.
Sometimes people don’t know what they want. One of my favorite quotes that Henry Ford supposedly said about the invention of Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Just because a person says they need a logo, they might actually need a full brand identity but they just don’t know the difference. So take your audience’s feedback and try to think out of the box.
6. streamline your processes
This might seem like more of a pain then a necessity but you will thank yourself in the long run. Write out all your processes from beginning to end. Are you offering services? Write down your step by step process on what you do in order to complete that service. For example, if I am doing a website design, I have a process that is written down all the way from the first inquiry to the design questionnaire to launching all the way to a one month follow up call. Your process should be detailed enough that if you gave it to another person to follow then they would be able to complete the process.
Complete the lists for all processes in your business. For example, what are the steps that you take to create a blog post? From gathering research, writing out the blog post, gathering images all the way to sharing on social platforms.
By laying everything out, you can decide where you can cut out extra steps or improve the process. This will also keep you organized so you aren’t stressed out or skip a step. Third, if you ever hire an employee or a virtual assistant, you will already have your processes ready to be passed on to your virtual assistant, saving time and money.
Once you have all of your processes streamlined, you can put them into a task management/client management system. We are obsessed with Asana over here for project management plus it’s free!
7. revisit your business plan
Now that you have a solid foundation, you will have a better understanding of your business, your audience, and your values. You might have found yourself shifting from your original ideas or you might have found that your target audience isn’t who you though they were. This is where you can go back into your business plan and make the necessary changes.
8. really invest in your branding
Now is the time I suggest to invest in branding. Now the option of how you want to invest is up to you. You can hire a brand designer to create your branding for you which is more custom to your needs or you can choose to DIY your branding. It depends on what makes the most sense for your business. We offer templates in our shop and a ton of resources to help you brand your own business but we also can create a custom brand and website option for you.
If you want to DIY your brand - We have some great blog articles here to get you started:
We are 100% supportive of you DIYing your own brand from scratch. However, as a professional graphic designer, we also believe in getting help from a professional. That is why we provide templates to get you started so you don’t have to start from scratch. We like to give you a solid foundation that you can build on and still look professional. We like to give you all of the tools and resources so that we can guide you through the process but you are still able to take control. Our ultimate suggestion is that if you can afford to invest in a professional brand designer or web designer then you should. But we also know what it’s like to have a small budget and wanting to have control over your business.
If you invest in branding, make sure you take the time to look for brand designers. Designers have distinct styles and processes and you should make sure that you mesh well with them. For our design studio we like to talk to our potential clients first so that we can make sure we are on the same page. If we don’t think we are the right fit then we can recommend other designers to you or provide other options for you.
If you would like to schedule a call with us, you can contact us here
Once you have your branding established then you are able to really market to your audience and make sure that you are getting traffic to your website. Branding is an investment and if done properly, you will see returns on that investment quickly.
9. growth and sustainability
Your growth and future goals of your business are up to you. Make sure your business is sustainable and that you continue to work towards growing your business. Continue to grow your services or products, your email list, your tribe, and your team.