If you’re here it’s because you are ready to take the next step. To build something — anything — that showcases your passion and skill, and challenges you to learn everyday.

Here’s to starting your online business in 2018!

A generation of online business owners

It has never been easier to start a business. Start-up costs are low, customers can be located anywhere, and most online businesses can be operated alongside other employment.

If you make, sell, freelance, or run any other type of online business there is a community of like-minded people and fairly standard set of tools you can use to get off the ground. We aren’t going to list those tools here, or recommend how (and when) to register your business. Connect with us on Twitter or Facebook if you have questions like that, or want us to provide a deeper, more tactical perspective on any of the framework below.

Today, let’s talk about getting into the right frame of mind, and most importantly, just getting started.

From idea to online business in just 12 weeks

Is this valuable? (1 week)

Start by figuring out why your customers need you. Are you a freelancer that has noticed how many companies do a poor job with their email campaigns? An industrial designer who could never find the perfect pot for desk plants?

You’ve already got an idea, and it probably reveals a lot about your passion, skills, and experience. Now you just need to make sure it’s a business.

Figure out where your potential customers are hanging out, and see if they’re actively looking for the things you make or the services you provide.
What alternative products or services are these customers currently buying? Can you clearly differentiate between your product/service and the alternatives? Why will the customer care about this difference (speed, price, quality, etc.)?

The point is to come up with a list of 5 or so questions that you can attempt to objectively answer. Answer them on paper. Revisit them and continue to focus them every day for a week.

Start small (1 week)

There are lots of ways to test whether there are customers for the business you want to create. Here are easy and low cost ways you can test to see if there is demand for your product or service:

  • run Facebook ads to see how many people click through
  • review Google search trends to understand how many people are actively searching for your product/service
  • use your network to have potential customers fill out surveys about your product/service
  • interview potential customers one on one to better understand the reasons they buy this product/service, and how they make those decisions

If you think there is sufficient demand for your product/service it’s time to get started. The “tests” above are great, but they’re flawed. The only way to know for sure whether or not people will want your product/service is to sell it. For real. Even if it’s not perfect.

Show, don’t tell (4 weeks)

At this point, you need to deliver value to your prospective customers. That could mean starting a newsletter or writing blogs that deliver meaningful insights to your target customers. Or, it could mean an early version of your product or service. Either way, if you think there is a big enough market, and you have some reasonably good guesses about where your customers are hanging out, it’s time to deliver some value to them. Everything you’ve done up until this point as been to understand your potential customers and the overall market need for your product.

At this stage though, you need to get paid for the value your deliver. It’s the only way to keep pushing your business forward. Note that we didn’t say you need to be paid with money.

For example, maybe you’re starting a new digital agency and you want to differentiate your business by applying a specific design style to online stores. There’s nothing wrong with discounting or doing pro-bono work for the right client, provided you can stretch some creative boundaries and get a firm agreement for public referrals after the work is done. There are lots of ways to exchange value outside of money, especially when public referrals or a case study could be worth a lot more to you in the long-run.

Personally communicate with your customers/audience (4 weeks)

Now that you have customers — or at the very least a small audience that is getting value from your content — it’s important that you work with those early fans to get feedback, improve your offering, and turn them into vocal advocates.

In our experience, people are happy to help, so long as you’re honest, authentic, and respect their time. Try some of these:

  • Ask for candid private feedback or suggestions. Constructive criticism will help you improve the product/service.
  • Ask readers to send your newsletter to a like-minded friend. If you are making/selling a product, give your early customers a discount code for their friends (it never hurts to offer your customer the same discount on their next purchase too). These referrals are easy to track using tools like Mailchimp and Shopify. If people are willing to refer you to friends, they are getting value.
  • Invite early customers/readers to help you test new products and features.

The key with everything above is authenticity. Don’t ask for feedback if you’re not willing to use it. Give your customers/readers a good reason to tell a friend. No matter how much someone loves your product, we are all busy. Make it easy, convenient, and enjoyable for your customers/readers to engage.

Is it working? Are you working it? (2 weeks)

Is your readership growing? Have you sold anything based on a referral (directly, through social channels, etc.)?

If the answer is yes, you’re onto something.

Are you working on your business with some level of consistency? If you planned to write two blog posts per week, and you’re 8 weeks in, do you have 16 blog posts to show for it? If you are making products by hand, and offered to ship goods within one week of ordering, are you hitting that target?

If the answer is yes, you’re building something.

Take your time

Remember, you started this business because of your passion and skills. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are new businesses. Be grateful for the customers/potential customers you have. Be proud of the work you’ve done so far. Be consistent in working on your business. Always moving forward, always having a little bit of fun along the way.