Starting an online business as a digital creator is the ultimate path to freedom – especially if you’re planning a long-term relocation abroad.
But, for many people, knowing how to get started is the hardest part.
I’ve been making money online since 2017, so I know a thing or two about online businesses. Here, I’ll share my 9-step checklist for starting an online business this year.
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My 9-Step Checklist For Starting An Online Business
These are the steps I’d follow if I had to start an online business from scratch tomorrow.
#1. Find Your Business Idea
Any business will fail if it’s offering something no-one wants.
This happens when entrepreneurs start from a standpoint of what they want, rather than what the market wants.
Instead, identify a group of people searching for a solution to a certain problem. Your product or service will provide that solution for them.
For example, I created Digital Émigré to help British citizens solve the problem of losing their EU citizenship.
You can get a good sense of demand simply by Googling key search terms for your business idea.
What are other people searching for? Check out your major search terms on Google Trends. Are they on an upward trajectory, or are they flatlining?
Also, check out your main keywords using an SEO tool like Semrush, Ahrefs, or UberSuggest.
See if people are publishing books about your idea on Amazon.
Last but not least, check out the competition. Are there other businesses offering similar services? Don’t let that put you off – it’s a great sign that your business idea is in high demand.
There’s usually always room for a newcomer, because you’ll bring your own perspective to a tried and tested model.
#2. Narrow Down Your Niche
To figure out which niche is best for you, look for the sweet spot between three things:
- Your skills and expertise
- What you actually enjoy doing
- What the market wants (and is willing to pay for)
Where these three overlap, you’ll find great online business ideas. For example, I’ve always enjoyed writing. I first trained as a journalist and gained a lot of experience in this skill.
Later down the line, I discovered that a lot of tech companies need a constant flow of interesting digital content, and could afford to pay well for it. Bingo – a solid online business idea!
#3. Find Your Target Audience
What sort of people have problems that your skills can solve?
Perhaps your target audience is similar to your existing customers from your current or previous job.
For example, let’s say you work in an accounting firm serving small businesses. Your target audience as a self-employed online accountant could be small business owners.
Once you know who your target audience is, it’s time to get into their heads. Learn more about their specific hopes, fears and daily problems.
Spend time where they hang out online (e.g. Facebook or LinkedIn, forums, Reddit, or blog comment sections) and strike up conversations with them.
When you start creating content for your business, these conversations will be invaluable to guide the content creation process.
#4. Research The Competition
It really helps to see what other business owners are doing, especially those who are further ahead than you.
So the next thing on the checklist for starting an online business is to research your main competitors. It’s easy to find them with a quick Google search.
Check their websites to find out:
- What services they offer
- How they talk about their services (e.g., what sort of language do they use to describe their services?)
- What sort of experience they have (LinkedIn is also great for this)
- How much they charge
You can then use this info to figure out where your business would fit in relation to the competition, as well as narrow down your unique spin.
Look for gaps among the competition. What can you offer that they don’t?
#5. Buy Your Domain Name
It’s fun to brainstorm different domain names. But the fastest and most flexible way to get started is by using your own name for the website that hosts your online business.
If you’re a freelance writer, coach, consultant, or blogger, then it makes sense to buy your name as a domain name (just like this website is my name).
As business blogger Adam Enfroy points out, using your own name for your website allows you to easily pivot if your initial business idea fails (or you move on to something else).
I’ve owned the domain you’re reading this on since 2014. It’s been through several iterations. This most recent one is only two months old at the time of writing (September 2022).
Using your own name is also the first step in building your personal brand – an extremely powerful tool in the world of online business.
But what do you do if the domain name for your name is already taken?
Well, don’t bother with creating hyphenated versions, as they’re more cumbersome for your visitors to deal with.
You could try adding another word to your name, such as “bysamanthanorth.com”, “hellosamanthanorth.com”, or “samanthanorthwriter.com”.
Do everything you can to stick with dot com.
But don’t overthink it. Just buy whatever’s available yet still encapsulates your business idea as far as possible. And check out my post on the pros and cons of different types of domain names for blogs.
Namecheap is a great place to find affordable domain names.
#6. Set Up a Simple Website
Every online business needs a home on the web. So let’s walk through how you can get yours.
The main purpose of your website is to showcase your products and services for your target audience. Think of it as your shop window on the Internet.
It’s not essential to include a blog on your website. Many online businesses start with just a simple one page set up.
If this is you, then Carrd is the perfect way to launch your website. Carrd offers a wide range of beautiful one page sites for the measly price of just $19 per YEAR!
But if you want to take full advantage of SEO and audience building, you should consider setting up a website that includes a blog.
You can use a blog for all sorts of things, from writing informative “how to” articles to help your target audience, to writing product reviews to earn money from affiliate marketing.
Having a blog gives you a great deal of flexibility. I highly recommend having one.
Check out my guide on how to start a blog.
If you want to focus on building a blog, then you should set up your business website using WordPress instead of Carrd.
WordPress itself is free, but you’ll need to buy web hosting to run your site. Lots of options are available, from shared hosting for a few dollars a month (such as Bluehost or FastComet) to dedicated specialist (expensive!) hosting services.
I’m currently running all my websites on WPX, a managed WordPress hosting service. They charge $24.99 per month for up to 5 websites.
That price may seem high in the early stages of your business, but it’s great value for the amount and quality of support you receive. I ask the WPX support staff for help with things ALL THE TIME, and they always oblige.
Once you’ve signed up with WPX, their experts will handle the entire installation process for your new WordPress site – making it super fast and simple to get set up.
What’s more, websites run at lightning speed on WPX, which not only improves your user experience but also your Google search rankings.
For serious bloggers and online business owners, I highly recommend WPX.
#7. Spread The Word
Now you’ve got your domain name and website set up, things are starting to fall into place.
But a new website will be invisible to Google. So we have to find other ways of getting the word out.
The next stage of this checklist for starting an online business is to start spreading the word about your new venture.
I recommend starting with your closest networks, such as friends and family members on Facebook, then expand to more distant connections, e.g. colleagues and acquaintances on LinkedIn.
Don’t be shy!
Tell them you’ve started a business, who you help, and what you’re offering.
Ask them to spread the word to anyone else in their network who might need your services. You’ll be surprised at how well this can work.
But spreading the word among friends and family members can only take us so far.
To really ramp up your chances of finding clients fast, you need to get comfortable with cold outreach. Yep, contacting complete strangers to offer your services.
First thing to do is to create a ‘hit list’, with names and emails of potential clients. These will normally be the decision-makers directly affected by the problem that your business solves.
For example, if you’re a freelance B2B content writer, you’d create a list of heads of content, content managers, and marketing managers at companies in your target industry.
LinkedIn is a great way to find this info, but manual Google searches are also useful. Once you’ve got their names, you can use a handy tool like Hunter to dig out their email addresses from across the web.
You then send a personalized short email to each contact. Don’t copy and paste the same email each time!
You can reuse some of the text (such as the part talking about your services), but there should be at least one custom part.
Here’s an example of how I typically reach out to potential clients for my content writing and SEO services. clients. It’s simple, direct and lightweight.
Hi [First name],
My name is Samantha, and I’ve worked with [Brand names]. I help companies generate new business with creative content writing.
[Add custom compliment related to their business, or reference someone that you have in common]. Do you need any help writing content at the moment?
You could easily tailor this text for different industries. But generally, keep your outreach emails casual, short and simple. Avoid using overly formal language. If they don’t reply in a few days, I’d then send a brief followup.
Ideally, the goal of these emails is to get them onto a brief ‘discovery’ Zoom call with you. You can then ask probing questions about their specific problem, to see if you’d be a good fit to work together.
#8. Start Building Your Personal Brand
Earlier on I mentioned the value of having a personal brand online.
Having your own website with a blog is an important first step in personal branding. But you’ll also need to actively create content online that reflects the niche you want to be known for.
You should create content that helps your target audience (free of charge) and publish it regularly so they can engage with it.
This benefits you in the following ways:
- You showcase your expertise publicly – which can attract new clients
- You build trust among your target audience – they start to see you as the expert
- You discover more information about your target audience, including their problems, needs, and interests. This helps you create more targeted products and services to help them.
In the last year or two, Twitter and LinkedIn have emerged as the best places to build a personal brand on social media.
Personal branding gurus teach strategies and toolkits so you can take a systematic approach to building and growing a brand on those platforms.
But it all depends on where your audience spends time. If they’re more likely to be on Instagram and TikTok than Twitter, then you should start creating content for those platforms instead.
#9. Get Your Business Seen on Google
The final item in our checklist for starting an online business is one of the most important steps you can take for your long-term success.
You’ll need to get seen on Google by the people who are searching for what your business provides. Creating and publishing search engine optimized (SEO) content on your website is the best way to achieve this.
For example, let’s say you’re offering freelance content writing services for fintech companies.
Imagine how much business you’d get if your website appeared on the front page of Google every time someone typed in “freelance content writer for fintech.”
SEO is an effective marketing strategy, but it’s also a long game. You won’t see results from your SEO efforts for at least the first few months.
But done properly and consistently, good SEO can bring you sustainable business for many years to come.
I’ll go into more detail about how to start using SEO in a future article.
Why start an online business anyway?
Starting an online business is the ultimate way to gain global freedom. You’ll create portable income that will bring you financial stability, no matter where you are in the world.
In the past, people who wanted to relocate had to find a job on the ground in their target country, This was often challenging because of issues such as visas, language skills and cultural fit.
Fortunately for us, we live in the internet age. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work has experienced a massive boost.
More people than ever are starting side gigs, niche websites, online coaching businesses, or selling digital products.
What’s more, the pandemic has forced people who felt they were forever tied to the office to find new ways to work from home.
In most cases they’ve managed this with only a laptop and perhaps a phone (or Zoom). Perhaps this shift has already shown you how easy it would be to convert your existing job into an online business.
It could even give you the push you need to become a digital nomad.
That’s an excellent mindset with which to dive into the rest of this article.
The quickest and easiest online businesses to launch
Not all online businesses follow the same model.
Some (e.g., e-commerce) require more upfront investment than others.
Others (e.g., selling online courses) need you to master a lot of moving parts before you can get started. This brings the risk of getting seriously overwhelmed.
You need the simplest, leanest form of online business possible, one that you can get up and running without delay.
The quickest way to get started is to sell your existing skills online.
Most types of work can now be delivered remotely. All you need to do is to package your offerings in a way that solves a problem for your target audience.
For example, that might look like consulting in your area of expertise: marketing, HR, management, business strategy, finance, and so on.
Or, it might look like selling your services, such as in graphic design, coding, copywriting, editing, translation, accounting, etc.
In these difficult times of inflation and rising cost of living, many people could benefit from earning extra income online. The good news is – it’s never been easier to do so.
I’ve walked you through my nine step checklist for starting an online business.
We’ve looked at everything from finding a viable initial business idea and narrowing down your niche, to the practical steps involved in staking out and promoting your place on the web.
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