A map laid out on a table with a notebook, camera, magnified glass, cup of coffee, and pencil

How to Start an Online Business [10-Step Roadmap to Thrive]

For many, the idea of starting an online business is compelling as there are considerable benefits to owning one. However, getting started can be overwhelming if you’ve never created one before. It’s tricky to know where to start and, equally as important, how to build for success.

This guide will help by providing you with a step-by-step roadmap for starting an online business that gains traction and thrives. My goal through this resource is to provide you with a high-level understanding of what it takes to achieve success, so you know what lies ahead.

As a follow-up, I’ll explore and expand on each step in separate articles to provide specific action items that help you get your business up and running for your shot at making money. You can sign up here if you’d like me to notify you when I publish those resources.

Article Contents

Part 1: Foundation

  1. Select a Business Idea
  2. Setup Your Website
  3. Grow Traffic
  4. Build an Audience
  5. Promote Existing Products or Services (Optional)
  6. Start Earning with Ads & Affiliate Programs

Part 2: Expansion

  1. Learn from Your Audience
  2. Create Products to Sell
  3. Start Selling Online
  4. Advertise Your Products

Part 1: Foundation

I’ve broken this guide into two parts because this first section is all that’s necessary to start an online business and begin making money. It’s where I recommend first-timers spend the vast majority of their time when getting started, and you never have to extend beyond these steps if you don’t feel it’s necessary for you.

However, as your business develops, you will leave significant opportunities on the table if you don’t venture into part 2 at some point, which will diversify your business for added stability.

As a result, I’m covering the steps in part 2 of this roadmap so you can visualize the long game and keep it in mind as your business grows. You can decide later if expanding is right for your online business.

Step 1: Select a Business Idea

To build an online business, you first need to decide on an area of focus, niche, or topic. This step may be pretty straightforward, especially if you have an idea you’re already kicking around.

However, it can also be a stumbling block. Many of us have multiple interests, and settling on one idea can be tricky, while others get stuck because they don’t feel like they have any good ideas.

Here’s an example of what this looks like from a high level using my existing business, TennisCompanion. I could have decided to write about any of the following topics.

  • Sports
  • Racquet sports
  • Tennis
  • Tennis history

As a topic, ‘sports’ lacks focus, which means I’d be spread thin and have difficulty appealing to a specific audience. ‘Racquet sports’ is better, but it’s still pretty broad. For example, some people love tennis but could care less about racquetball or badminton.

‘Tennis’ is specific but leaves room to talk about various subjects within the sport, from instruction to gear, history, rules, terminology, strategy, and the pro tour. There’s a lot of ground to cover.

‘Tennis history,’ on the other hand, is a bit too specific and would limit my opportunity for growth as only a tiny portion of people who love the sport will ever care to learn about its history.

The topic of ‘tennis’ hits a sweet spot. It’s specific, yet millions of people worldwide are interested in tennis, providing substantial opportunity for sustained growth. Furthermore, underserved, less competitive pockets of opportunity within the subject enabled me to gain traction from the start.

This sort of hierarchy exists for virtually all topics. The key is to zoom in far enough while leaving enough room for growth, which is where striking the right balance can get a bit trickier.

In my next article, I share an extensive list of online business ideas to help get the creative juices flowing. Then, I’ll provide you with guidance to validate your topic and ensure it provides you with sufficient opportunity for growth while helping you gain a clear picture of the niche’s competitive landscape that enables you to break through.

Step 2: Setup Your Website

Creating a website for your online business is easier than ever, but there are a handful of decision points that can quickly overwhelm and stall those eager to get started. At the very least, here are a few things you’ll need to set yourself up for success:

  • A domain name
  • Hosting provider
  • Website template
  • Content management system (CMS)
  • Tracking and analytics

Furthermore, the solution you choose should be:

  • User-friendly
  • Reliable
  • Secure
  • Flexible
  • Fast
  • Scaleable

Perhaps most important, you want a solution you can trust because your website is the foundation for your online business.

Unfortunately, while it’s easier than ever to set up a website, it’s arguably more challenging to choose a hosting provider, website template, and CMS because thousands of options are available.

What often starts as a fun exploration of solutions can quickly become a frustrating and time-consuming exercise that leaves you deflated and unsure of which options are the best path forward.

To help, I’ll be sharing the exact highly-rated solutions that I’ve successfully used to start and grow my online business, and I’ll walk you through setting them up step-by-step to save you time and reduce friction in getting started.

In the spirit of helping you learn, I’ll also introduce you to some alternatives I’ve had positive experiences using, so you’re at the very least aware of them. Of course, if you’re up for researching and comparing, you can explore each and decide what’s best for you.

Step 3: Grow Traffic

Once you’ve set up your website, you’ll need to create content to generate traffic, which is where you will spend the bulk of your time and effort, especially when first getting started.

Content is the lifeblood of successful online businesses, including mine and those I’ve helped build before my own. Rich, quality content exposes your business to people using websites like Google, YouTube, Bing, and Yahoo to learn about your topic and answer their questions.

As it relates to growing traffic, here are the three most critical types of content that will have a dramatic influence on your results:

  • Articles
  • Video
  • Images

It’s crucial to create content about in-demand subjects that people actively search for online, so basic research is required to discover those ideas, and you’ll want to refine your content so that those looking can easily find it.

If you’ve never written an article or created a video or image before, no worries; I have detailed templates that clearly outline how to develop high-quality written and visual content by breaking it down into bite-sized steps. I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say it’s easy. It takes time and diligent effort to build content. However, I’m confident you can do it with some guidance.

Furthermore, I’ll show you exactly how to optimize your content to be found by search engines and subsequently discovered by users without appearing spammy. More formally, this process is called search engine optimization (SEO), which may seem complicated on the surface. However, it’s not nearly as complex as most people think, and I can distill it into a handful of actions you need to take for people to find you.

Long-term success results from consistently producing high-quality content that’s genuinely useful, so this is a crucial step that needs to become part of your business’s operating rhythm. Thankfully, the more you do it, the easier it gets, so don’t psych yourself out at this step.

If you’re completely opposed to writing or creating videos, you can outsource it for a fee, but I don’t recommend doing this until you’ve made a few pieces of each type of content yourself. If you go down this path, I have templates for my entire outsourcing process.

Step 4: Build an Audience

As visitors come to your website to view your content, you want to provide the most interested users with the opportunity to strengthen their relationship with you.

You can do this in a variety of ways, but one of the most straightforward is by offering visitors special access to resources above and beyond what you provide on your website. Here are a few simple examples:

  • Newsletter
  • Guide
  • Template
  • Checklist
  • Resource list

At the bare minimum, you can encourage visitors to sign up and receive a notification when you post a new article. The more value you offer with your content, the more likely you’ll be able to win with this strategy.

Regardless of what you give or the format, you’ll ask visitors for their email in return for gaining access and make it clear how you’ll communicate with them moving forward, so there are no surprises.

Regular communication is essential to breed trust and familiarity, keep your audience engaged, and build the relationship further. To that end, you’ll be sending an email roughly once per week. Of course, you don’t need to send a single email until you have your first subscriber.

When you’re getting started, there are email tools that you can use that don’t cost any money until you reach a specific number of subscribers, at which time it’s logical to start paying for the service. Plus, these services provide simple tools for users to sign up on your website.

When we get to this step, I’ll share the email service I recommend, so you have one less decision to make when getting up and running. I’ll also walk you through adding a signup form to your website and show you how to send your first email so you can do so confidently.

It takes time to build a quality list, so we’ll start this early. Over time, your email list will become one of your business’s most valuable assets as these individuals are most likely to take action and buy from you.

Step 5: Promote Existing Products or Services (Optional)

If you have an existing product or service, you’ll want to promote it to your visitors so they can take action if they’re interested.

For products, you can provide a simple way for them to buy them on your website or link out to a marketplace where you sell them, i.e., Amazon, Etsy, eBay, etc. However, selling on your website is easier than you might think, so don’t get discouraged if you’ve never sold online.

If you’re a consultant or freelancer, it can be as simple as creating a page where visitors can learn more about you and schedule a meeting.

Ultimately, this step ensures you’re not missing out on valuable opportunities from day one. If you don’t already have a product or service, that’s not a problem – this step is optional.

As we’ll cover next, you don’t need a product or service to make money online for your business.

Step 6: Start Earning with Ads & Affiliate Programs

Once you’ve published several pieces of content and your website’s traffic begins to build, you can start earning money by showing ads and promoting other people’s products through affiliate programs.

Advertisers pay publishers (that’s you) money when your visitors view or click their ads. The going rate for how much you earn depends on various factors, including your content’s topic, the company managing your ads, your website’s ad layout, visitor location, device, and the time of year.

On the other hand, many companies offer affiliate programs to grow their customer base, which allows you to make a commission when you successfully recommend their products or services. Most programs pay commissions as a fixed dollar amount or a percentage of the sale, and the amount varies significantly based on the value of the customer you refer.

Ad and affiliate revenue are one of the easiest ways to start earning money for your online business as your traffic grows and carries the added benefit that you never need to create or sell your own products.

Of course, some ad services and affiliate marketing companies are better than others, and most have requirements to be accepted. We’ll cover which you should pay attention to and how to get set up on these platforms in a future article.

Early on, I recommend that most people starting an online business focus their time and energy on earning money through these avenues until they build up a solid base. Many online business owners will focus exclusively on these income sources as they can be lucrative.

You can grow your business further by creating or reselling your own products, opening up new opportunities for growth if you choose, which we’ll cover next in part 2.

Part 2: Expansion

Depending on your situation, you may never need to explore the steps I outline in this section, but I’d be doing you a disservice by not at least exposing you to the opportunities.

As your online business grows and you become more serious about it, I’d be more inclined to encourage you to venture into this arena because you’ll strengthen and protect your business from the inevitable volatility you experience with success.

Step 7: Learn from Your Audience

As your traffic builds and your audience of email subscribers grows, you can learn a lot by allowing them to share their thoughts.

One of the easiest ways to start learning is by allowing visitors to comment on your content and pose questions for them to share. When we set up your website together, you’ll have this functionality at your disposal, so it simply requires you to listen and engage with them.

You can also solicit feedback and survey your audience through email, one of your most valuable feedback mechanisms, as you’ll have spent time actively building a relationship with them. Sending new subscribers open-ended questions or surveys automatically when they sign up can help provide a steady flow of insight.

Here are a few ways that listening to your audience can be valuable:

  • Expand existing content by uncovering gaps
  • Improve existing content by clarifying confusing parts
  • Understand pain points that you can help solve
  • Discover ideas for new articles and products

Although you don’t have to act on this information, your business will be better for it, and what you learn can go a long way to helping inform products you can create and sell to your audience.

At the very least, engaging with your audience can help validate an existing idea you may already have for your business.

Step 8: Create Products to Sell

As your traffic and email list grow, you’ll be developing a unique opportunity to create products you can sell to your audience. Most products will fall into one of two categories: digital or physical.

Digital products require you to package your knowledge, often in one of the following formats:

  • Ebooks
  • Courses
  • Memberships
  • Templates

These products are advantageous because you create them once and sell them repeatedly without any extra effort. They don’t require any significant upfront investment other than your time, and you can sell them on your website or a marketplace like Skillshare or Udemy for extra exposure.

Physical products are more tangible and often appeal to a broader audience. Furthermore, you can sell them on your website and marketplaces like Amazon, Etsy, and eBay, further extending your reach and ability to earn. However, they require an up-front investment in design, prototypes, and inventory.

Both types of products can present significant opportunities to grow revenue for an online business and are worth considering as long as you’ve validated your idea and are confident a need exists.

Together we’ll explore both types of products in-depth, and I’ll share my playbooks on how to get started with each of them.

Step 9: Start Selling Online

After creating your product, you’ll need to set up your website to sell it to your visitors and audience of email subscribers.

Like building websites, selling online is easier than ever, and there are fantastic pre-built solutions for securely facilitating transactions online for digital and physical products.

Furthermore, you can start small. If you only have one product to sell, there’s no need to set up an expensive full-featured online store. Instead, you can add a simple way for users to pay for your goods on your website that doesn’t cost you a dime until you make a sale. Best of all, you can get up and running with these payment solutions quickly.

As an alternative path for selling, you can list your product on marketplaces like Amazon, Etsy, and eBay. In the case of Amazon, you can leverage their systems and services to streamline your order fulfillment and customer service, which reduces the burden on you.

There’s a lot of ground to cover here, but I look forward to sharing more in future resources that will show you how to get it done.

Step 10: Advertise Your Products

If you reach this stage, you’ll be generating consistent traffic that you can expose to your product and start generating sales, so you may wonder why you’d ever venture into advertising for your products.

The truth is, you never need to if you don’t have the desire. However, targeted digital advertising can put your products directly in front of the most qualified buyers and fuel significant growth, assuming your margins are strong enough, allowing for ad spending.

Companies like Google, Meta, and Amazon are going to great lengths to make running ads more straightforward, so if you’ve never done it before, you can find success with some guidance.

If you’re uncomfortable handling the advertising, you can lean on agencies or consultants who will handle the entire process and only take a fee when they help you generate more sales, which is a win-win.

We’ll cover everything, from understanding if your product is worthy of advertising to setting budgets, getting up and running, and outsourcing.

Where to Next

From here, we’ll follow the roadmap and kick things off by “selecting a topic.” In my next article, 60+ Online Business & Monetization Ideas to Explore, I provide you with ideas for starting your online business, how to approach selecting a topic, crucial steps for validating yours, and long-term considerations to keep in mind.

If you’d like to be one of the first to know when I publish my next article, you can enter your name and email below, and I’ll send you a note when it’s live. Thanks for stopping by!

PS – I hate spam, and I’ll never abuse my privilege to communicate with you. Plus, I take your privacy very seriously and will not share or sell your email to anyone. I promise.

Can I Ask a Quick Favor?

Your feedback is invaluable. After reading this article, do you feel you have a good sense of what’s required to start and build an online business? If not, where are you struggling, and is there anything I can clarify to help improve this article for future readers?

Please post a comment below to share your thoughts.

Photo Credit @clay.banks

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