April 12, 2019
Do you want to start an online business to make money online and be free of the 9-to-5 grind? Spending hundreds of dollars on complicated courses and fancy tools isn’t necessary. The internet is full of free, high-quality information and efficient, budget-friendly tools. You just need to know where to look. Let me show you.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I will earn a commission, at no additional cost to you. Read my full disclosure here.
Disclaimer: This is not financial or legal advice. It’s information based on my personal experience building a profitable online business. It will be most helpful to those in the United States.
How this guide works
Do you want to start a blog with as little overwhelm as possible? Then start with my other post, How to Start a Blog (to Make Money or Otherwise), instead. You’ll be up and running in minutes. You can think about all the business-y stuff later. That’s how I did it and many, many others do as well.
This post, on the other hand, is a FREE alternative to the pricey courses that teach you how to start an entire online business from the ground up. If that’s you, read on!
Follow the steps in order. They build on each other. I’m a systems girl. I took great care in ordering the steps to minimize backtracking and disorganization.
Take your time. Be thorough. It’s unlikely you’ll finish in one sitting but it shouldn’t take you weeks or months to get started either. Get off the ground quickly. You’ll make endless tweaks as you go — we all do — so you might as well have a short runway.
The online business model we’ll use is called content marketing. It’s popular because it works for almost any type of online business, from selling yoga mats to teaching knitting. Plus, it’s low risk and requires little investment. It takes time, but it works. For more, read What is Content Marketing?
7 steps to starting an online business
- Choose a style that suits you
- Outline your strategy
- Establish your systems
- Prepare to make money
- Set up your website
- Start an email list
- Create a productivity schedule
Want a simple printable version for easy reference? Useletter subscribers get it free. Sign up here and I’ll send it to you right away.
1. Choose a style that suits you
Consider your temperament. This matters. How do you want to spend your days? Day-to-day life of online business owners varies drastically. Some work 40+ hours a week. Others (me) prefer to treat it as a side hustle. Don’t follow someone else’s path blindly. Tailor yours to you. For a clear example of how I differ significantly from a fellow online entrepreneur, read “Consider your style” at the end of my Elite Blog Academy review.
What do you dislike about blogging, social media or the online world? Don’t like Facebook Groups? Facebook in general? Don’t like writing? Or podcasts? Make a list of the things you have no interest in or avoid completely. Now, going forward, don’t do them. Really. I’ve been at this a long time. I’m telling you, no matter what so-and-so guru says you “need” to do, you do not have to do those things. Figure out a different way. That’s what free and fulfilled online entrepreneurs do. For the things you can’t eliminate, delegate, automate or streamline.
What are your bottlenecks? What are the things most likely to slow you down or hinder your progress? Get personal. Name them. Face them. Have a plan to tackle them. For example, do you get distracted by what everyone else is doing? Turn off social media. Do you procrastinate? Set deadlines for yourself. Do you waste time? Use a time tracker and get accountability. Discipline yourself to stay in your lane.
What are you passionate about or good at? Make a list of 3-5 things. Prioritize them. If you need ideas, read my posts How to Find or Re-find Your Passion and How to Decide What to Blog About (ignore “blog” in the title for now). Your main, overarching topic is called your niche. It’s the thing you’re known for. For example, Nike’s niche is shoes. Martha Stewart’s niche is home things. Now, starting with your first niche idea, answer this…
Can you talk about it weekly, for several years? You’ll be producing a lot of content about your topic. Content marketing is a long game. Brainstorm a list of possible content pieces. If you can quickly come up with dozens of ideas related to that niche, you’re probably good. If not, revisit your list in the step above and choose a different niche. Then answer this…
Can you be a go-to resource in that niche? In other words, when someone thinks of that topic, will your name immediately come to mind as a great resource? If not, niche down. Here’s what I mean.
Pick 5-7 main topics that fall under your niche. Look at the list of content ideas you brainstormed above. Gather them into 5-7 sub topics. As you go, you can use these in all kinds of ways: as categories on a blog, hashtags on social media, Pinterest board titles, etc.
Pick a medium. You will be producing a lot of content on a regular basis. How do you want to communicate — writing, talking or showing? The answer to that question should guide your choice of medium. Here are the main medium choices: blog, video or podcast. Not sure? If you prefer writing, choose a blog. If you prefer talking face to face, or if it’s better to show how to do your thing, choose video. If you prefer talking but not necessarily showing, choose a podcast. Example: My friend Heather MacFadyen is a people person and connector. She started her online journey with a blog but struggled to maintain her enthusiasm. Once she switched to an interview-style podcast, her platform exploded. It was a much better fit.
2. Outline your strategy
What will you sell? Whoa, that escalated quickly. Yes. The fact is, if you want to make money, you have only two choices: (1) sell your own stuff or (2) sell someone else’s stuff. Pick one income stream to focus on at the start. (You can and will add others.) More labor-intensive streams: physical products, membership sites, services, handmade goods. More passive(ish) streams: affiliate marketing, digital products, online courses, book writing and drop shipping.
Let go of the hub & spoke model. For years, common advice to new online entrepreneurs has been to start a blog then sell stuff from there. It’s the classic “hub & spoke” model. I’m no longer a fan. Instead, your suite of products (i.e. what’s going to make you money) should be your center. Everything else you do, including your content, should point to it.
Who is mostly likely to buy what you sell? Call them your target audience, customer avatar or buyer persona. Or, cut to the chase and call them your customer. These are your people. Now imagine one person from that group who represents the average. Give him/her a name.
What are they like? Where do they live? What’s their family like? What’s important to them day to day? What are the products they buy, writers they read, shows they watch, influencers they follow, magazines they subscribe to, stores they shop at, music they listen to? Keep this list of attributes so you can use it for ad targeting in the future.
Why will they buy what you sell? What problem does it address or need does it fill? This is their pain point.
Why won’t they buy what you sell? Do they have a limited budget? Can they get it somewhere else? Is there a better version available? Does it take too much time? Too complicated? Do they not know it exists? Are they unfamiliar with you? Are they not convinced it works as promised? Face these head on, not only in the thing you’re selling, but also in how you talk about it. Answer these objections directly on your sales page(s), as FAQs and in your content.
Where do they hang out online? That’s the social media platform you’ll master first.
What do you want them to say about you? When one of your people is talking about you to their friends, what three qualities do you hope they’d use to describe you? Get ideas from a list like this or this, or, think of a company you admire and see what they value. Filter everything you do through this list. Ask yourself if the content you produce, the people you associate with, the projects you take on, the things you promote and the conversations you engage in help you become more of those things. Got your three words? Now put them together in a sentence. Congratulations, you just created your values and mission, without an expensive consultant or weeks of committee meetings.
Summarize what you do. Do you want to help, inspire, teach or entertain? Choose one. Then use this template: I help / inspire / teach / entertain (YOUR PEOPLE) with (PROBLEM or PAIN POINT) by (SOLUTION or WHAT YOU SELL). Having trouble with that template? There are more to choose from here. Congratulations, you just wrote a tagline. Also use it for your elevator pitch, when people ask you what you do, on your about page, contact page, sidebar, social media profiles, Gravatar (more in a minute), media kit / advertising page, business card and WordPress site description. Also use it when you apply for affiliate programs.
3. Establish your systems
Keep track of everything (ongoing). Save everything business related in one spot. Of course this includes money (more on that later). I also keep track of receipts, account information, invoices, tax info, copies of important emails, phone call notes (date, time, with whom I spoke, questions I asked, answers, etc.). Be slightly obsessive but don’t overcomplicate it. It’s key to staying organized, saving time later and avoiding hassles at tax time or in the event of an audit.
Contact your city, county & state (and maybe HOA). Are you allowed to run an online business where you live? If so, are there any requirements you should be aware of? SBA is a resource as your local Chamber of Commerce or City Hall.
Pick a name. Be thoughtful about your name choice. Read this post for tips. Is anyone else using it? Check availability and trademark use with Formal Founder. Or, use Namechk to make sure it’s available as a domain, and on all major social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn, etc.). Go to Google, type the name in the search box with quotation marks. Try it as a .com in Google Chrome. Do a trademark search of your own. (Note, just because it looks available, doesn’t mean it necessarily is, but it’s a good start.) Need business name ideas? There are generators for that.
Sign up for G Suite ($6 per user / mo). Sign up for G Suite using the name you chose. Register the domain name during signup. G Suite is all the Google Products you know (Gmail, Drive, Calendar, Keep, etc.) but packaged for small business. You’ll get a lot of things at once if you use G Suite: a domain name with privacy, a domain email address which you must have for your email list, domain emails for any team members you bring on in the future, a separate workspace for your business for healthy work / life boundaries, a login & password storage tool eliminating the need for a tools like LastPass or 1Password, access to all the Google apps on your mobile devices plus syncing and so many integrations with other apps, tools & services online.
Set up Drive in G Suite. Create three folders: Make, Market and Manage. Going forward, file everything appropriately in these folders. Make = anything related to creating content like content ideas, writing, video, scripts, etc. Market = anything related to promotion like branding, social media, networking, etc. Manage = anything related to running your business like finances, taxes, operations, business forms, etc. (This is my adaptation from Paul Graham’s Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule, a worthwhile read.)
Set up Gmail in G Suite. Create three labels in Gmail: Make, Market and Manage. As emails come in, label and archive them accordingly. For example, you might have a G Suite receipt in your inbox. Label it “Manage” and archive it. We’ll deal with it later, during your “Manage” time.
Set up Google Keep in G Suite. Use it for brainstorming & ideas, always add a label! Suggested tags: ideas, receipts, topics, hashtags. Simpletivity has some good Google Keep tutorials.
Take a headshot and photos. Make this simple. And free. Find a friend with a new-ish smartphone (an iPhone with Portrait mode is great), go out at the “golden hour” (i.e. an hour before sunset) and have your friend snap photos of you. Keep the background simple and clean. Here are more tips for getting a headshot right. If you’re a high achiever, take extra photos with various backgrounds, outfits, expressions, props (relevant to you). Save a duplicate of the originals in your G Suite > Drive > Market folder (because this is part of your branding). If needed, edit your photo in PicMonkey which allows transparent background and has other cool tools. For free. Use this photo whenever a profile picture is requested.
Set up a buzz file. A buzz file is a designated spot to store nice things people say about you. This comes in handy if you need testimonials (ask permission to use first) or if you need encouragement and want to be reminded what you’re doing is helping others. Take screenshots and/or save emails. Most of mine come via email so I have a label in Gmail. Otherwise you could save them in G Suite > Market (because they’re part of promoting and social proof).
Save your signature in digital form. That way, when you are emailed a document to sign, you won’t need to print it out, sign it by hand, scan it and send it back. Save time by using a saved, digital version of your signature instead. How? On Mac, use Preview to save your signature. Then drop it in a PDF. On Windows, use Adobe Reader. More options are here. Save your signature in G Suite > Drive > Manage (because it has to do with business finances / operations).
Sign up for all social media accounts. Use the domain email address you created when you signed up for G Suite. Use the same username everywhere. Choose a business account for Instagram and Pinterest. Use your tagline (see “Summarize what you do” above) in your profiles for now. Use your headshot for profile pics. You’re only going to master one platform at a time, but better to sign up before someone else takes your username.
Sign up for a Gravatar. Gravatar is a service you sign up with once and it makes your picture show up next to comments you leave on other blogs and around the internet in general. Use your domain, headshot and tagline from above.
Get a PO box ($8 per mo). You’ll be asked for a business address in many places. Plus, you must have a physical address for your email list (do not make one up). An address other than your home is good for privacy. Go to the USPS website > PO Boxes. Check different towns for prices, box sizes (the smallest is sufficient) and availability. Where I am (TX), price depends on box size and length of contract but is less than $100 a year. Are you going to be able to check your mail regularly? Consider that when you decide on a location. My post office allows me to use the street number with my box as a suite number instead of “P.O. Box” as the street.
4. Prepare to make money online
Get an EIN (Employer Identification Number). This is a unique identifying number for your business, much like an individual’s Social Security Number. I always use my EIN instead of my SSN for business related documents and forms. Despite its name, you do not have to have employees to obtain an EIN. It’s free to apply and only takes a few minutes, but if you need a walkthrough video, here ya go. Use this on bank account forms (coming up), the W-9 (also coming up) and other financial forms.
Get a State tax ID Number. Will you need to pay state income tax? If so, you may need a state tax ID number. Check with the SBA in your state.
Open a business bank account. Keep your personal and business finances separate. Get an online account or an account at a brick and mortar bank. I use and like Spark Business. Just keep your personal and business accounts separate and look for free (or fee-waived) options. Here’s a list of free business accounts by state.
Apply for a business credit card (maybe). We are 100% debt free, including the business, so we don’t do debt. However, if you pay a contractor (designer, virtual assistant, accountant, etc.) with a credit card, you may not have to issue them a 1099 come tax time. Or just pay them with PayPal…
Apply for a PayPal Business Account. Many online money transactions involve PayPal to one extent or another so it’s important to have your own PayPal account. I recommend a Business (Merchant) account. The sooner you sign up with PayPal the better, because it takes time to verify your account and link it to your bank account. Sign up here.
Apply for a Stripe account. Stripe is another payment service you are likely to use at some point. Sign up here.
Do you need to charge sales tax? If you sell your own product(s), you might. To find out, find your state here. I made 3 phone calls and asked 3 different people (on purpose) to make sure I got the same information. You should also be aware of Nexus.
Consult or hire professionals about your situation. You may choose to do this if applicable. Reasons why you might: register a trademark (I used Gerben Law to register the Useletter® when I was ready), get liability insurance, choose a business structure (in my case — yours might be different — I operated as a sole proprietor first, then formed an LLC through Nolo, and have since become an S Corp) or whatever might apply to you.
Fill out and save a W-9. Many companies will ask you for a W-9 before they pay you. I keep one filled out completely, except for the date. When I’m asked, I simply type in the date and email it as an attachment, or upload where indicated. You’ll need your name, business structure, address, EIN and your signature. All of these you worked on above. Download a PDF version of the W-9. Edit the PDF like I mentioned above (for Mac or for PC). Save in G Suite > Drive > Manage. Just drop in the date when asked.
Set up an (easy) accounting system. Don’t overcomplicate or overthink this. Just keep all money-related things (money going out and money coming in) in one spot. It’s so worth having it set up from the start. The easiest way to do it is to use a Google Sheet similar to this. Of course, save it in G Suite > Drive > Manage. You can also use free accounting software like Wave, or premium software like FreshBooks or QuickBooks. If you don’t want to do keep the books yourself, you can hire someone like Sarah Khornak or use the services of a company like Bench Accounting.
Set up business expense categories. I used the IRS business expenses to determine my categories. Makes it easier at tax time. These are some of mine: advertising (FB Ads, marketing materials), contractors (designers, tech help, virtual assistants, etc.), professional services (lawyer, accountant), education & training (courses & resources for learning), travel (overnight travel away from primary residence including airfare, hotel/lodging and taxi/parking/rental car), meals & entertainment (during a business trip or meeting with a client, not lunch breaks in your hometown), office supplies (things you use and replace like hardware, software, postage, stationery), 0ther expenses (bank fees, PayPal fees, business insurance, affiliate commissions that you pay to your affiliates). Related: 10 Tax Tips for Bloggers.
Track non-cash items too (ongoing). Like products you are given, conference swag, Swagbucks and similar things. These are all taxable.
Link your accounting software to your bank account (if applicable). This process will vary depending on the system or software you use.
Enter any transactions from the above steps in your accounting system (ongoing). For example, you can now pull out your G Suite receipt from Gmail > Label > Manage and record it as an expense. Get caught up. This is an ongoing task.
Scan your receipts (ongoing). Have you collected any receipts in this process? Scan and file them! Use the Google Keep app (for Mac or for Android). Save them in G Suite > Drive > Manage (because it has to do with business finances). This is an ongoing task.
5. Set up your website
Set up your website ($5-$35 per mo). Regardless of your medium (blog, video, podcast), you need your own website. Why? You want a place you control where people can always find you. I have a WordPress site on WP Engine which I recommend if you’re serious. (Use coupon code wpe3free to get 10% off your first payment.) If you need a very budget-friendly option, follow my tutorial here. If a blog is your medium of choice, it’s automatically built into your website whether you use WP Engine or Bluehost.
Install a theme. If you went with WP Engine, you have your pick of Genesis themes. Here’s what I use. If you used Bluehost and need something free, I recommend GeneratePress. Watch my video about how to use GeneratePress here.
Delete & install plugins. I have a love-hate relationship with plugins. Only add plugins as you need them. The ones I recommend for sure are Yoast SEO and Antispam Bee. A good backup plugin is UpdraftsPLUS. I also use WP Rocket to make my site fast. You can see more plugins I use here.
Install Google Tag Manager. This allows you to put all your tracking codes and pixels — like Google Analytics, the FB pixel, the Pinterest Tag, etc. — in one spot. No more having to paste all those things separately or use plugins! If you’re using WP Engine, read their post Google Tag Manager for WordPress. Alternatively, Jason Whaling has a good GTM setup tutorial. Or, check out Google Tag Manager Fundamentals in Google Analytics Academy.
Install popular tracking codes. Use Google Tag Manager to install these immediately. Why? Because they will start tracking your site traffic and data from the get go. It will be so beneficial down the road when you start to get a bit more advanced. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did this at the beginning. Here are the codes to install first: Google Analytics, the Facebook pixel and the Pinterest tag. (See tutorials above.)
Set up Google Search Console. Do this via the Yoast plugin you installed above. Here’s how. It may take a while to populate.
6. Start an email list
Sign up for an Email Service Provider (ESP). Your email list is one of your greatest digital assets. Don’t send to your list via your personal email account; it’ll be messy and you may violate the CAN-SPAM Act. There are lots of ESP options, but a good, free option to start with is MailerLite.
Write your welcome email. Do this within your ESP Dashboard. Set it to go out to brand new subscribers as soon as they sign up for your list. Read How to Write an Effective Welcome Email (and 12 Examples That Get It Right) for some good tips.
Create & set up a lead magnet. Sometimes called a freebie, your lead magnet should be an “intro” to the main thing you want to sell. An easy type of lead magnet is a PDF which can be created directly in G Suite (Drive > Docs > Make). Make it a quick win for the recipient. Here are some examples of lead magnets.
Create your email signup landing page, almost done page and thank you page. These are all separate pages on your website. For each one, go to your WordPress Dashboard > Pages > Add New. On your landing page, make sure you have an opt-in form (gotten from your ESP). Here’s my landing page for the Useletter®. An “Almost Done” page is if you choose double opt-in with your ESP (my recommendation). Here’s my Almost Done page. Lastly, create a Thank You page. Here’s mine.
Record the places you put opt-in forms. Save this list in a Doc or Sheet in G Suite > Manage. Why? Because if you ever switch ESPs or need to edit your optin forms, you’ll have a list and won’t need to go hunting for them. Additional places you might consider putting opt-in forms: home page, about page, contact page, at the end of your posts, sidebar, footer.
Test your subscription process. Subscribe to your own list! Opt in for your lead magnet. Send a test email to yourself. Stay subscribed. This will help you catch any glitches your list experiences.
Set up a Feedly account. Feedly allows you to follow RSS feeds in one spot (What is RSS?) . It will keep your information consumption organized. Subscribe to your own RSS feed. Subscribe to others in your niche.
7. Create a productivity schedule
Calculate the amount of time you have to spend on your business in a week. Do you work alone? What other responsibilities do you have? If you need help, read Tell Your Time. How many hours can you realistically devote to building this business? Don’t worry if it’s not a lot. In that case, just apply the formula below, put your head down and do what you can!
Make a weekly work schedule on your Google Calendar. Split your time 3 ways. Allot 60% to Make, 30% to Market and 10% to Manage. As you can see, at the beginning you’ll spend the majority of your time creating content. Once you’ve got content to promote, you’ll spend 30% of your time doing that. The rest of your time will be spent doing the administrative stuff (Manage). KEEP IT SIMPLE. There will be a thousand people saying you “should” do a thousand different things. Resist. High quality content is your key. At the beginning, you have one job: BUILD AN EXCELLENT PORTFOLIO OF CONTENT. Here’s how to create a schedule with Google Calendar.
Work the plan. If you do the above things on repeat, you’ll eventually start to see progress. It will take a while. As your portfolio of content grows, these percentages will shift. Less time can be spent on content creation and more can be spent on building relationships and promotion. Also, these percentages are a rough estimate. Tweak as you go and find your own rhythm. Just work the plan.