How to set up an online business from scratch – a step-by-step guide to success

Let’s not mess around with a long introduction! Let’s get straight into the step-by-step guide for how to set up an online business from scratch. Here we go!

Domain registration

What’s in a name? Quite a bit.

Your domain name is super important because it becomes the land you build your house on.

Your domain name represents your business and becomes your brand. 

You really need to consider your domain THOROUGHLY before snapping up something from GoDaddy or NameCheap.

If possible, get a .com domain name. These are the most popular and also the most rare – all the good ones were registered decades ago. 

You can invest in a snappy and short .com domain name but remember that this is a business expense and if you buy a domain name for say a million dollars, you sure as hell need to make your money back and fast.

Many alternatives to .com domains are becoming popular and these are often related to the niche you’re in. Technology companies seem to be going for .io and .ai names. Agencies sometimes go for .media domains. Many businesses are now opting for .co domains instead of .com.

Some of the things to bear in mind with domain names:

  • Short and memorable is best
  • Be descriptive if you can (e.g. “carinsurance.com”)but you don’t need to be (“google” didn’t mean anything until recently)
  • Be careful of what your domain name looks like when it’s fully written down e.g. www.kidsexchange.com (Kids Clothing Exchange) and www.penisland.net (Pen Island sells pens)
  • Easy to pronounce
  • Avoid obscure or “clever” names that confuse people e.g. “mavyrick” or “procrea8”

Domain registration is very straightforward. If you’re using a service like Wix or Shopify you can even get a domain name as part of the sign up process, or you can use a domain you already own.

Remember that what you pay for a domain upfront is sometimes more than your annual domain renewal fee. Some domains sell for thousands of dollars upfront but then renew at less than 10 bucks a year. 

I’d suggest buying a domain for less than $10 when you’re starting out – you want to keep costs low. The search for that perfect domain might take a little longer but it’s worth it.

Test your domain name before you buy by asking family and friends what they think of your options.

Remember that your domain will be used for your email addresses as well, so the shorter the better. Nobody wants to keep spelling out or explaining a domain name every time they’re asked for their email address over the phone or at a meeting.

I personally prefer using www.namecheap.com for my .com domains and then I use the local registrar or a local hosting company for country domains e.g. .co.uk or co.za. 

Avoid the mistake of registering a domain name that is similar to an existing business or infringes on the copyright name of another entity. It’s not worth the battle and you will only make lawyers rich. Do your research by checking local trademark registries and search for the domain name in Google to see what comes up.

Don’t change your domain name unless you really and truly need to. Changing domain names is changing brands and you don’t want to do this. Your brand holds value – people have started to associate your brand name with your business and if you change it you will need to build up all that awareness and trust from scratch.

Spend a lot of time now to decide on your brand name and domain so that you don’t have to make costly mistakes down the line.

Website platforms

The website platform you choose is dependent on a number of factors. Are you building a blogging business? Will you be selling anything online? Will you be running a course? Are you looking for leads only or do you also want to sell physical products?

When you are starting out there is no need to hire a web developer unless you want to create a truly custom site.

As your business grows and matures you might need to add custom features and create a unique website – but remember that this process comes with its own costs and headaches.

I’d suggest starting with simple, easy to administer options which won’t cost you a lot of money.

Let’s look at some options depending on your business objectives.

I want to sell physical products that I make and will arrange delivery to my customers

My suggestions:

  • Shopify
  • Woocommerce-powered WordPress site

Shopify is by far the easier of the two options but requires a monthly subscription.

WordPress with Woocommerce is free but the required plugins you will need are not – and the learning curve is steeper than Shopify.

My verdict: Shopify

I want to dropship products (someone else makes and ships the product to my customers)

My suggestion is Shopify with Oberlo or Aliexpress integration.

I want to blog and create content while growing an audience

This option is great for people who love to create content – writing, video, illustrations or photography. 

What you need to think about is MONETIZATION. How will your website make money? Nobody wants to build an audience and not make money from it.

There are many ways to monetize your content site or publication. These include:

  • Advertising
  • Affiliate links
  • Sell ebooks or courses
  • Sell physical products
  • All or a combination of the above

The platform I recommend for this type of business is without a doubt WORDPRESS. You should use a good WordPress hosting company and use a premium WordPress theme.

I recommend WPEngine for WordPress hosting and ThemeForest for high quality premium WordPress themes.

For affiliate links I recommend ShareaSale and ClickBank affiliate networks. 

If you want to sell ebooks you can quickly set up a sales funnel using Gumroad or you can sell books through one of the following platforms:

  • Amazon Kindle
  • Nook
  • Rakuten Kobo
  • Apple
  • Google Play
  • Scribd
  • 24Symbols
  • Thalia
  • Hive
  • Bold.de
  • Angus & Robertson
  • Mondadori
  • WHSmith
  • Payhip
  • And more

Remember that the audio book format is growing too and for audio book markets you can also sell on sites such as:

  • Scribd Audio
  • Audible
  • Kobo Audio
  • Nook Audio
  • Hoopla Audio
  • Audible
  • Apple Books Audio

Hosting

Your hosting company is the foundation on which you will build your house – it  needs to be solid.

When choosing a hosting company for WordPress, choose a company that offers:

  • 1-click WordPress installation
  • Backups
  • Security
  • Dev and Production environments
  • Great support
  • Automatic WordPress core and plugin updates
  • Reliability and uptime

My recommendations are WPEngine and Siteground – I have personally used both.

You don’t need to register a domain through your hosting company but it can be useful because everything is set up and configured in one go – but that is up to you. 

A good hosting company will also offer free support if you need assistance with domain set up or WordPress installation on their platform. If you get stuck don’t be afraid to reach out to their live chat, telephone or email support.

Your business email

You need to set up a professional-looking business email or email addresses for your business. Having a Yahoo or Gmail address doesn’t cut it these days. Your hosting company can set up your email accounts for you or you can do it yourself using a service like Google’s GSuite.

Try to avoid using the usual “info@yourdomain.com” or “sales@yourdomain.com” email addresses because spambots will send to those email addresses by default and you don’t want to receive spam emails that will overwhelm your inbox.

Maybe something more creative like hello@yourdomain.com

I recommend the GSuite option because it includes a number of business tools such as cloud storage, employee account management and more.

Website tracking

You need to understand how many people are visiting your website and what they do on your website.

Google Analytics is free to use and easy to set up. If you set up your tracking code with Google Tag Manager you will also be able to set up additional tags for your Facebook Pixel and Google Conversion Pixel, which are important for ad campaign tracking.

Some of the important metrics you will monitor after you have successfully set up your website tracking include visitors, acquisition sources, bounce rates (what percentage of visitors leave your site after visiting only one page), time per session, pages per session, location, device and conversions.

You can set up conversion goals to track how many visitors result in leads or sales.

The useful thing about website tracking is that you are able to identify trends over time.

Are you getting more traffic from organic search over the past 6 months?

How is that Facebook campaign performing this week compared to the previous week?

What are the seasonal trends that are important to your business?

These and many other questions can be answered with website tracking, and with Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager you will be able to really understand your website traffic and customer behaviour.

Ecommerce setup

If you plan on selling products or services through your website you need to think about the ecommerce platform and what elements you’ll need.

As I mentioned earlier, Shopify is my first choice for ecommerce, followed by a WordPress site with Woocommerce.

Your ecommerce platform needs to cater for a number of elements:

  • Shopping cart and checkout
  • Secure payment gateways
  • Choice of payment gateways depending on the customer’s location
  • Upsell tools and recommendations
  • Transactional emails to confirm the purchase, give information about shipping and let your customers know when they can expect delivery
  • Conversion emails to recover people who have abandoned their shopping cart without completing the transaction
  • Customer support
  • Shipping management and tracking
  • Shipping fee management
  • Inventory management and product page management
  • Reports that include sales, add to cart, checkout, cart abandonment and other ecommerce metrics

Shopify has all these elements and many more and is currently the gold standard for ecommerce platforms.

Working with a team

When you set up your online business it might be only you or a small team.

If you’re a true solopreneur you are responsible for every aspect of your business. You have to create the product or service. You have to do the marketing. You have to set up and manage the website or ecommerce platform. You have to respond to customer queries and ensure the service or product fulfilment process is working properly.

A solopreneur does all the work but also reaps all the reward.

If you want to scale as a solopreneur you might need to think about hiring a virtual assistant or setting up a virtual team. You may even need to hire staff, depending on the nature of your business.

In the case of working with other people, remember that you now also have to wear the HR hat. You need to manage performance, pay people, hire them or fire them.The more people you hire, the more of a manager you become and less of an operational entrepreneur.

Your objective might be to set up highly skilled teams and efficient processes that require little intervention from yourself. This frees up your time to do other things. Once the machine is working smoothly, you can set up another business or focus on growing even larger, if that is your goal.

No matter what your objectives, you will need to work with people and develop the important skills for managing them:

  • Leadership
  • Motivation
  • Training and development
  • Administration
  • Performance management
  • Respect
  • Communication

There are many courses and books available about people management and you should read and practice what you learn. 

In my experience a good manager has the following attributes and does the following:

  • Empower your team
  • Try and make yourself redundant by skilling up your team (so that your time can be freed up)
  • Listen to your team
  • Respect your team
  • Be firm and make good decisions decisively
  • Never undermine your team
  • Don’t tolerate gossip or negativity
  • Empathise
  • Give them what they need to do their work properly
  • Don’t be afraid to put your own shoulder to the wheel and lead from the front when you need to
  • Delegate without trying to retain control
  • Trust your people

In the online world you can work with fantastic people from anywhere there is an Internet connection. Don’t be afraid to hire remotely and set up virtual teams – this is the way the world is moving.

Realise too that many people you work with are part of the gig economy – they will work you with you for a few months or years and then move on. As long as you have the systems in place your business will continue even if you lose employees.

Planning your website

The key to a good business and a good website is planning. If you have done your homework you will have a list of products that are proven to be marketable and your initial prototypes have tested well with your target audience.

You are now ready to plan the next phase of your online business.

You can sell your products or services online through he following platforms:

  1. Your own website (Shopify or WordPress powered by Woocommerce)
  2. Social media commerce (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and more)
  3. Messenger and chatbot

When you sell through your own website you need to acquire traffic to your website and then sell to your visitors. You will need to build a list of contacts or leads and email them your offers.

This method of selling gives you full control over the sales process AND you own all the data.

Social media commerce is direct selling on the social media platform. The social media platforms make a cut of the sale and they keep the data – so although powerful you must ensure that you diversify your sales channels to rely on more than just the social media platforms.

Messengers and AI-powered chatbots assist with sales. They can be implemented on your social media platforms or on your website and act as virtual sales assistants. Chatbots reduce your costs and have in some cases done away with the need for any human intervention during the sales and conversion process.

Technology can enable entrepreneurs to grow at scale with relatively low cost and without the hassle of hiring more employees but can be a double edged sword as people need to hear a human voice or feel true human empathy when they interact with your business.

Let’s look at the process of planning your website:

  1. Understand what keywords people will search to find your products and what content will attract visitors to your website
  2. Build a sitemap based on your keyword research
  3. Create a wireframe of your website
  4. Test your wireframe by asking a small group of friends and family to test the site
  5. Adapt the wireframe based on the feedback from your test group
  6. Build a mockup of your website using the logo, fonts, colours and imagery that align with your brand’s CI guidelines
  7. Test your mockup
  8. Adjust the mockup
  9. Move to the build phase

Building your website

Once you have a great mockup and sitemap, you need to actually build your website. 

If you’re using WordPress you have access to excellent premium WordPress themes through online marketplaces such as ThemeForest.

Shopify also has a premium theme marketplace but has excellent free themes to choose from.

I recommend you create your web copy in separate Word or Google documents so that you can always restore pages from the original source.

Your web copy should be written by someone skilled at writing for online: someone who knows how to:

  • Write for SEO
  • Write for humans and not only search engine bots
  • Persuade, inform or entertain
  • Represent your brand personality and recreate it through their words
  • Be concise and to the point

Each page of your website should contain the following elements and adhere to the following quality standards:

  • Title (for SEO purposes) no more than 60 characters including spaces
  • Meta description (for SEO purposes) no more than 160 characters including spaces
  • One H1 heading
  • H2 and H3 headings where appropriate
  • Images and embedded video where appropriate
  • Call to action elements
  • Text links to relevant internal and external websites
  • Good formatting: bold, italics, quotation marks, paragraph breaks and spacing
  • Make the content easy to SCAN – people don’t read online, the quickly scan for information
  • Short and concise sentences and paragraphs
  • Perfect grammar and spelling

Web copy has a very important job: it needs to inform, persuade, sell or convince your audience. 

Please make sure it is well written.

Images for your website need to be optimsed for web: make sure they are saved using the following guidelines:

  • Web format
  • Web size
  • Use a filename that describes what the image is about
  • When uploading images remember to include an image title and alt tag so that search engines know what the image is about too

Once you have the content and images for your web pages ready, it’s time to build your website.

Use your sitemap as a guide and create the various pages. The platform you use should have a WYSIWYG editor (what you see is what you get) so you can format the text and add links and images as appropriate. 

When saving the pages remember to keep the page URLs short and descriptive so that search engines know what the page is about.

NEVER change a URL once it has been published because this will result in a broken link if other websites link to that page. 

You may need to use a web developer to build your website if you don’t feel like doing it yourself. My recommendation however is to do as much as you can yourself and learn from your mistakes. There are plenty of people who will assist and the WordPress or Shopify communities are very helpful.

Learn by doing. Once you know what you’re doing you can teach others and grow a team of experts.

Launching your website

Once your website is ready and you have tested every element, process, form, shopping cart, payment method or call to action element, it’s time to launch.

I recommend a SOFT LAUNCH so that you launch without anyone knowing about it first. Once your website is live you can test it and do proper post-live quality control.

Test before you launch. Test after you launch. Test after you make changes.

Nothing destroys a great marketing campaign faster than a form that doesn’t work properly or a checkout process that doesn’t work.

After a few days of testing you can push live any marketing and let everyone know about your website. This is the HARD LAUNCH and there is no turning back now.

Congratulations! You’ve launched your site. Now the real work begins.

Promoting your online business

Your website is live. Your first visitors have started showing up. No sales yet. No leads. Nothing.

Now what?

Build it and they will come does not apply to online businesses. You have to market the hell out of it, build traffic and audiences and lists and focus on the phases of the customer journey:

  • Awareness
  • Interest
  • Desire
  • Action

Looking at it another way, you need to focus on acquisition, conversion, retention and reacquisition.

We’ll dig deep into these areas in later chapters, but for now let’s take a look at what you need to do immediately post launch.

Set up your social media platforms

I recommend you set up the following, depending on the nature of your business:

  • Facebook page 
  • Facebook group
  • Instagram account
  • LinkedIn page
  • Pinterest account

I would use Twitter last purely because in my experience this requires a ton of active tweeting and community management.

You can create social media posts using a platform like Canva, or you can create the images yourself using Adobe Photoshop or similar, or you can hire a social media manager or designer to create the posts for you.

Once you have a couple of launch posts, schedule them to go live about once a day.

Don’t post too often or you will annoy your followers.

Don’t post too infrequently or people will forget you exist.

Remember that the social media algorithms are working AGAINST YOU when it comes to free posts – they are businesses who want your money.

Organic posts are good for creating small amounts of initial awareness (if you post using appropriate hashtags) but organic social will NOT work to get you solid traffic or leads or sales. You will need to spend money on advertising if you want social media posts to reach anyone. It is estimated that organic (no-paid) posts reach less than 1% of your followers – this is the harsh reality of social media marketing.

Email blasts

If you have an email list now is the time to send out a launch mailer that links to your website.

Go through your contact list. Personalise the emails. Email individuals and proudly share the news that your business is live.

Ask your contacts to tell their contacts.

Get the news out there

Tell your friends and family and ask them to share your business website. Self-promote shamelessly.

Remember, you have created products or services that give people value. Don’t hide this fact.

This initial awareness is pretty much general and untargeted – you are using the spray and pray method but soon you will need to focus on targeted audiences who are most likely to convert into customers. This is the acquisition phase of digital marketing.

Over to you

What are your thoughts and suggestions for setting up an online business from scratch? Let me know in the comments below.

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