Guide to Starting an Online Business
According to recent research figures from the IMRG Capgemini eRetail Sales Index, some £133 billion was spent online with UK retailers alone during 2016, £18 billion more than the amount spent online in 2015. This leaves people in little doubt that doing business online is the way forward for success.
Today’s ‘always on’ digital world means that for any business to be successful, you need to have a strong online presence. In fact, businesses that have a website are 51% more likely to grow than those businesses without their own website, according to a survey of over 2,000 small and micro-businesses conducted by web provider 123-Reg.
Your business website is not only a place that customers will go to buy your products or services – it also serves as a research source for potential customers who are curious about your products or services. Simply having an online shop offering your product for sale will not be enough to entice in new customers – you need to provide plenty of useful information to help persuade new customers to buy from you. Customers will expect you to be online, so make sure you are giving them what they are looking for. You will also need to deliver outstanding customer services and keep your existing customers engaged with fresh information and useful advice.
Incorporating your business
Another thing to think about is building a bond of trust between your customers and your online business. New customers will want to be completely reassured that they are purchasing online from a reputable company that is a genuine business.
If you want to be taken seriously by your customers, and you want to prove that you run an honest online business that can be trusted, it would be in your best interest to officially register your new business. By going through the company formation process, you will be registering your company as a bona fide business in the eyes of the law. This can be very reassuring for your customers as they will be able to look up your company on the Register of Companies held at Companies House and see your listing there.
Registering your company isn’t expensive, so it won’t impact greatly on your available budget, but offers a level of trust to your potential new customers that is worth the price of incorporation.
Cost-effective business option
What is very appealing about setting up your own online business is the fact that it can be a very cost-effective option, so even those with a tight budget can successfully set themselves up online without breaking the bank.
Essentially, all you need to get yourself off the ground is an inexpensive domain name, low-cost hosting, and either a web designer to help build your website, or a DIY version that you can create yourself by using a ready-to-go website template.
From here, you can put your time and effort into building your content and marketing your site through up to date SEO techniques and reaching out on social media. It really is true that you can start an online business on a shoestring – all you need is plenty of time, patience, dedication, and to follow best practices to start building your business from the ground up.
This slow-burn flexibility side of building an online business is why so many people choose to build their business on the side while still having a regular paid job. Once established and generating an income that can rival what you bring in from your employed work, you can then safely choose to ditch the day job and put 100% of your focus into growing your online business to greater heights.
But how do you start an online business?
While it sounds like a great idea, getting started and knowing what to do first will often leave budding entrepreneurs scratching their head. How can you start a new online business without over-stretching yourself or completely blowing your budget?
The answer is to keep it simple and manageable. Let’s take a look at some key tips to helping you launch a successful new online business, but at the same time not allowing yourself to become overwhelmed, while enjoying every step you take towards your future success.
Choose your domain name wisely
Getting your business name and domain name right is crucial if you want to be easily found on the internet by your prospective customers. Luckily, domain names are quite cheap to buy, but they are still very important for your success, so make sure you put plenty of thought into what you want your business name and domain name to be.
Creating a name for your business may not sound too difficult, but you still need to find something that is unique, memorable and not already being used by another company. Also, you don’t want your name to sound too similar to another business, especially if they are in the same business sector as yourself.
Being mistaken for another company by accident is one thing, but when it is done intentionally to try to benefit from their success, or to trick their customers into buying from you because they think they are buying from the same company, is strictly frowned upon. You could end up being sued by that company and landed with a nasty court case that would finish your business completely.
Your business name is important because it gives your customers their first impression of you and your company – so you will want to make the right first impression that is both positive and memorable.
Make a list of potential business and domain names, then narrow your choice down into your favourite two or three options. You can take your favourite names and use an online domain name checker. This is a tool that will allow you to see if your chosen names are available, or if they are already in use by another company. There are a few domain checkers online to choose from.
Once you have found a good business domain name that is available, you then need to decide whether to buy a co.uk address or another option such as .com, .org.uk or .biz etc. To protect your brand, you may choose to buy up all available versions of your domain name to prevent anyone else from using them, even if you never actually go on to use them yourself. A lot of online businesses do this and will put a simple re-direct in place to send any visitors from their other domain names to their preferred main domain.
Above all, make sure that your chosen domain name is memorable and easy to spell. Make things as easy as possible for your potential new customers. You don’t want to have an obscure domain name that is overly long to type in to a search bar – or for it to have odd spellings or unusual wording, digits, hyphens etc.
Choose a good web hosting company
There are some very cheap web hosting companies advertising hosting services for as little as £1.00 per month, but just because this is a bargain doesn’t necessarily mean it will be the best option for your website. Always check the customer feedback and read online reviews before taking the plunge. Look for positive feedback about delivering good customer services and web support.
When your have an online business at stake, you will need to know that you can easily get in touch with your hosting provider at any hour of the day or night should your website go down. Also check that your web hosting service can provide you with UK based web servers and check what hardware they provide. Look at RAM and CPU numbers – the higher the numbers the better. Cloud services are often a wise choice as your service will automatically switch to another cloud-based server and remain live should there be any issues with physical servers at the host’s end.
Web hosting isn’t the cheapest element of setting up your online business, but it really shouldn’t be too cheap if you want to ensure a good service and consistent results. Having said that, you needn’t spend a fortune on hosting – just find the right fit for your business needs.
Building your website
Again, there are so many options available to help build your business website – some free options, such as WordPress, WIX, or similar providers, where you can start off with a free website to begin with and then take the option to upgrade to a fully optimised professional business website further down the line if you want to take things slowly.
You will also need to research add-ons and extra services depending on the type of online business you plan to run. For example, you may have two parts to your website where you may pay a low monthly or yearly cost for your front-end service, but you also need to integrate a subscription-based management system into your back-office – for another monthly or yearly fee on top.
‘Content is king’ is a saying that should stay at the forefront of your mind. While you will want to pack your online business website with your products or services for customers to buy, don’t neglect the fact that customers want more from websites than simply goods or services alone. They also want information. They want to get to know your company and build up a trusting relationship. You can do this by providing your customers with plenty of fresh, interesting and useful content. This means making sure that you have detailed product or service descriptions, and a business blog attached to your website that can provide a rich resource of useful and engaging content.
Excellent customer experience
Setting up your business website needs to look professional and trustworthy to help create the right first impression, but you also need to make sure your site is friendly and engaging. Your layout should be clear and easy to navigate. This is important because you will want your visitors to browse for products or services without any difficulty.
The most important element of your business website is to make sure it is very user-friendly. Offering plenty of useful information and engaging content will help to keep your web visitors on your page and discourage them from clicking away to a competitors site, especially if they are looking for more information about a certain product or service you provide.
SEO on a budget
Once you have built your website and listed all of your products or services for sale, you may think that is pretty much all you need to achieve. However, to get your website higher up the search engine results, you need to employ good SEO techniques.
A small business on a tight budget can make SEO gains without breaking the bank. SEO is important no matter what size business, but most small businesses don’t have the huge marketing budgets of big brands, so find it difficult to compete. But this doesn’t mean you will always be squeezed out by the big boys.
By using a number of different SEO tactics, a small business can compete quite successfully, especially when engaging with local communities where having you right on the doorstep is more trustworthy than going with a giant, faceless business that is based hundreds of miles away in a different part of the country.
Make sure you set up your business with Google My Business so your business appears on the results page with a local map and your business details displayed. This is a free feature that is optimised for each industry, and also appears across all recognised directories, such as Thomson Local, Yellow Pages and Yell.
Keep your blog topped up with regular, quality posts that gives your customers plenty of free information, advice, tips and tricks. The topics for your posts can be about your products or services, but also try to incorporate useful information and engaging content that is directed to your business sector. You should also share the latest news, features and opinion pieces that you see in mainstream media.
Don’t ignore social media
Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest etc. are an important factor for both raising your brand awareness and for engaging with your customers and building trust. Keep your followers coming back for more by regularly sharing new blog posts, product launches or service information.
The frequency and timing of your posts is also important. Take some time to get to know your customer avatar to understand their habits and preferences. If you know your target audience is absent between 9 am to 5 pm because of work, then discover what time of day they are hanging out on social media and be ready to be there to share your information with them when you can grab their attention.
Keep an eye on your analytics to see which sorts of posts get more likes, views and shares. Make more posts in the style that your audience prefers, whether that be highly visual posts, videos, or more informative ones. It is good to offer a nice mix of styles, but try to favour the styles of posts that deliver the most likes and shares. Try to work out what elements are important, so it may be your most popular posts are comical and make people laugh, or it could be posts that challenge or pique their curiosity – such as mini-quizzes or astounding facts.
You don’t have to be up at all hours of the day and night writing and scheduling posts. You can use a scheduling tool such as Hootsuite to release your posts at set times and frequencies. Take some time to test and learn what your target audience wants from you – and then consistently deliver this to keep them engaged and coming back for more.
As with everything you need to do – the best way to build your online business is to start small and gradually test out new ideas and build out those that work well. Take time to review and cast a critical eye over your progress as you go. If there are obvious issues to resolve or gaps to fill in your service, then fix these before you move on to the next level of your growth plans.