How to start an online business - tips & what to consider
Online business is booming; Internet sales have contributed over 18% to total retail sales in 2018/19. And, there’s no indication that online buying is going to slow down any time soon.
Before we delve into the advantages, tips, and best practices, for the sake of this content, we’re defining an online business as any where part of your transaction takes place online. This could be to attract a phone call that leads to a sale, download software that results in a subscription or something such as e-commerce, where the whole transaction takes place on your website. Regardless of the category you fit into, there are some basic principles to follow and techniques to take advantage of when starting an online business.
What are the advantages of starting an online business?
Apart from the trend that people, in general, are spending more time online than ever before, there are some unique advantages to running an online business in comparison to a physical one.
- Your business isn’t fixed to a physical location that relies on footfall to attract customers.
- You do not have the large overhead costs of a premises, such as rent, utilities etc.
- Most online businesses can be started from home.
- You can start with a small investment and grow your business before committing too much time or money.
- You’re able to reach an international customer base.
- There are many online platforms and tools that support online businesses, such as Shopify for ecommerce that make getting started easy.
- You’re able to reach your customers at a time that suits them and not just your store/office opening times
- You can work remotely and fit your business around your life.
There are many more advantages, but they’re unique to the type of online business you’re looking into getting set up. Let’s look at the types of online businesses and what’s important for each.
Creating an online business; what are your options?
Online businesses can be broken down into a few categories; e-commerce, lead generation and software. You may have a business idea that crosses over into all of these categories, or a new idea that doesn’t quite fit into any. Regardless, there are principles to follow in each that will help you to remain competitive in an online environment.
Ecommerce, in short, refers to online stores that supply products that can be ordered directly through their website without ever seeing the physical item. Ecommerce is rather broad; it could be anything from a store selling high-end art to a startup clothing company looking for a way to get their product in-front of people. Think of it this way, if you’re buying and selling products online, it’s e-commerce.
- Price point is important - it’s much easier for online shoppers to compare online prices in comparison to walking between physical shops that stock the same product.
- Shipping needs to be minimised - shipping is one of the largest reasons consumers purchase elsewhere. If you’re able to cut down on these costs in comparison to a competitor, your customers will reward you for this.
- Imagery - as there is no physical store to check out what you’re selling, high-quality imagery is really important. Taken 1 or 2 photos of something? Why not take another 3 more? Give your customers everything they need in order to click ‘buy now’.
- Returns policy - again, your customers aren't in a physical store to try on and view a product. You’ll need to bear this in mind as many people will buy something with the intent to return it if it’s not right for them. Make it clear what your policy is and create one that works for you and your customers.
- Website - Retailers pay a lot of money on their branding and store design to build their business and improve the buying experience. Luckily for you, you can achieve the same results through website design, without hiring an architect to map out your storefront! Make your website unique and constantly look for improvements or ways you can build a brand.
Lead generation tool
Another type of online business is lead generation for a specific service or product. Although this type of business is usually partnered with a physical sale process, such as a phone call or pitch, most of the decision making made by the user will happen wholly online. These type of businesses could be anything that turns an anonymous user into a business lead.
- Your prices usually aren’t online - these types of businesses usually have varying prices depending on what the user needs. Because you’re not competing on price, you need to stand out in terms of the information you provide users, and convince them through your online activity that you’re the best company for the service they’re looking for.
- Testimonials will help to convert - You may not have any reviews when your first launch your online business, but you should be encouraging customers to leave them once you’ve sealed a deal.
- Call-to-actions - Your online business has one purpose, and that’s to generate leads. Make it easy for customers to call you, send an email or send an instant message when they’re in the buying mindset. Include call-to-actions across your website; something as small as having difficulty to find your phone number can lead to users visiting a competitor.
- Website - Create your identity through your website and make your service personal by using imagery and the right messaging. Allocating time to creating blogs or service pages that answer questions about your industry can be great for this. It’ll be unique content to your website and, if you’re answering someone’s questions, it acts as a soft-sell that could lead to them picking up the phone.
Your online business, or more specifically, your presence online, may be used as the first point of contact when trying to get users to download software or digital tools. Your website should be used to inform and educate your audience, not only about the software you offer but also by publishing blogs for your users. Bear this in mind if you’re utilising the internet for software:
- Content is key - you need to explain who your users are, relate to their pain points and make it clear what your service is offering these types of people.
- Testimonials convince other users - if you have reviews from like-minded individuals who have used your software to resolve an issue or streamline something in their life, make sure your other customers see this.
- Be clear - software is often a simple solution for complicated issues. If your explanation or the way you sell your software sounds confusing, people will be less likely to give it a try.
- Website - your chance to brand yourselves and portray the right image to your customers. Consideration for imagery, i.e. do you use real-life photos or illustrations, all have an impact on how users view your website. Your website is crucial to convince users they should click download.
- Free trial - if you’re offering paid software, consider offering a free trial for users. People are much likelier to trial software if it’s free, and if your product is that good, the trial will sell itself!
Start the right way: what you’ll need for your online business
Having your idea is only one part of the journey. If you trust that you’ve conducted enough research, or have an idea that you know can compete, you need to make sure you’ve ticked some of the other boxes that are necessary for running an online business.
A website that suits your business & represents you
While it is possible to run online businesses without a website, such as only using social platforms or third party ecommerces websites such as Amazon, we recommend that it’s a must-have. You’re not restricted on how your website looks, you won’t be competing on social feeds with a variety of other businesses, and you know that any traffic visiting your website is valuable. Not only this, but a website will allow you to collect analytic information about your customers that can be used further down the line. Here are our top website considerations:
- Build your website on a platform suited to your business type. For example, Shopify is great for e-commerce but not suited for a lead generation business.
- Make sure that you set up Google My Business, Google analytics, Google search console and Facebook Pixel (if you’re going to utilise Facebook & Instagram for your business). There are many guides online on how to do this, and even if you don’t use the data they collect now, it can be invaluable for your future efforts.
- Domain & hosting: In order to register a website and keep it active, you’ll need a unique domain nameand pay for hosting. This service can usually be purchased together, but you can’t get started without it.
A strategy to get in front of your customers
Having an amazing website is one thing, but making sure people can find you is another. As a new online business, you’ll have a tougher time getting in front of your audience in comparison to established companies. However, this just means that you need a sound strategy in place and a unique way to approach things.
- You’ll need to consider SEO as you build your website. There are many guides on SEO online, but as a basic principle, it helps your audience to find you when searching online. Without SEO your website, however beautiful, may never get seen.
- Keep in mind ways to stay relevant to users who have already visited your website. This could be through the collection of email addresses and sending regular updates or offers, utilising social remarketing, or offering a website tool (such as a tax calculator) that means they keep returning.
- Social profiles have their place for online businesses, and they need a guide on their very own, but as a rule, only create them if you’ll be using them and staying active. A deserted social profile looks worse than one that doesn’t exist. On the flip side, an active social profile is much more effective than no profile at all. You can interlink your website and social media to complement each other and direct users from one to the other, so consider whether it’s something you’re ready to launch, or if you’d be better adding in once you’ve got your hands on other aspects of your business.
- Online advertising can be a great way to attract new users, or get a particular message across for a given amount of money. A well-structured advertising campaign can deliver measurable ROI that can be scaled to increase sales and profitability.
- Regularly update your website content. Whether this is through blogging about your industry or creating new pages, new content is a chance to rank for new keywords and show Google your site is active. Adding free information that’s valuable for your users is a great way to build a relationship with them.
Imagery and branding
Imagery and branding are heavily linked to all of your online activity. Creating a website page? You’ll need some images. Want to share something on social? Another image for that.
- Photo imagery: There are many stock photo websites that allow you to use their photos for free, and these can be a great resource to get your online business up and running, but also come with drawbacks. You don’t have control over how they look, and you’ll find other businesses using them online too. If you do find yourself relying on stock images, consider paid variants that you’re less likely to find on your competitors’ websites and gives you more choice.
- Illustrations: There are also many websites that offer free illustrations. However, illustrations are usually required to be more bespoke to your business. If opting for this style, you may need to purchase design work further down the line.
- Colour palette: Consistency across your online social profiles and website is needed to reinforce your brand, especially as a new business that people aren’t used to seeing. A colour palette is a set amount of colours (usually starting between 6-10) that you’ll use across your online platforms. For example, if there’s something you want in red, you’ll already have a specific red colour for your brand to use.
Market research: what is your competition doing?
Market research is key for many reasons; there’s a lot you can learn that will guide what you do online. Is there something they’re doing well you can adapt to improve your service, or is there something they’ve explained poorly on a website page you know that you can improve upon? Here are a few of the elements you can draw inspiration on or look to improve:
- Website structure - is it easy to navigate and are they covering all of the areas that you’re planning to in enough detail?
- Imagery - are there images of low quality, do you like the style & would you be able to recognise their company through their branding?
- Checkout/ conversion experience - is it easy to check out on their website or take an action such as picking up the phone? Do you find their sales pitch online too pushy, or do you think they’re missing a trick?
- Product range - are there any product categories or individual pieces that you’re not featuring? Also, take note of the quality of their images, description etc. as improving on these could be what makes or breaks a sale.
- Social activity - are they posting regularly online and are people engaging with their posts? Understanding how your competitors are going about this can be a great way to inspire your own ideas.
An address for your business
Although you’re operating an online business, HMRC still requires that you provide a business trading address. This information is displayed publicly on your website, stationery and marketing material. So, what are your options?
- Use your home address - you may be starting your business from home which means you can use this address. However, if you don’t want this information readily available for the public, do not opt for this option.
- Rent a physical location - this usually isn’t feasible for new online businesses and may defeat the reason you started in the first place. You can rent a premises and use this address as your business address.
- Use a virtual address - you can sign up for a virtual business address that is suitable for all business types. For a monthly or annual fee, you’ll be able to display this address for business purposes without the cost of a physical address, all the while keeping your home address private. More information on this service below:
Starting an online business? We’ve got an address for that
UK Postbox has been supporting online businesses for over 10 years through the provision of virtual addresses and online mail management. You can choose between a London or Dorset based address to display as your own, select a mailing plan based on how often you expect to receive letters and then, using our online platform, manage all of your mail online.
No matter what your company structure is or how long you’ve been operating for, our business address service offers all of the services you need. Here’s what they can be used for:
- Correspondence Address - to give to suppliers for inbound mail
- Business Trading Address - to use on marketing materials and stationery
- Registered Office Address - for incorporated businesses
- Directors Service Address - to protect directors privacy at home
- Ecommerce Returns Address - an address to receive all of your returns
- Dropshipping & Fulfilment - for businesses selling in the UK & EU
Additionally, your address comes with access to our mail management platform which has a load of handy features for businesses. Here are a few examples of what you can do online through our platform*:
- Mail forwarding - forward your mail domestically or internationally with a touch of a few buttons
- Parcel forwarding - get a parcel forwarded on to a destination in the UK or overseas easily
- Store mail - need something saved for your records, or you’re not ready to reply? We can store it for you.
- Scan mail - when we receive your mail we’ll let you know. If you then need to see the contents, we’ll securely upload it for you to read.
- Destroy mail - no longer need some post? Let us know, and we’ll destroy it and dispose of it safely.
- Send letters online - if you need to respond or send mail, tell us what you’d like it to say and where it’s going - we’ll handle the rest!
*Additional charges apply for forwarding and storing mail.