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How to Launch a Successful Online Business

For entrepreneurs, there's nothing more exciting than channeling your passion, creating something from scratch, and watching a business idea spring to life. 

When you start an online business, you gain advantages like lower upfront costs and more flexibility to pivot your ideas. However, even for the most booming businesses, there are also unexpected bumps in the road, especially when you’re getting a new endeavor off the ground.

Whether you're launching a brand new startup or updating your brand’s online presence, here's our step-by-step guide to launching a successful online business.

Identify your ecommerce opportunity

Embarking on your online business journey starts with finding your ecommerce focus

No matter what you choose, if you start an online business in an area that you love, chances are better you'll enjoy working on and growing that business. Matthew Chojnacki, the founder and owner of 1984 Publishing, a boutique book publisher based in Cleveland, Ohio, considers his online strategy key to growing his business over the last twenty years. "People often have this idea that work isn't supposed to be fun, and that fun isn't supposed to pay," says Chojnacki. "But the fun part, or the passion part, is always the key to success. It's an extension of what you enjoy and do in your life. Because if you're not passionate, that business is going to be a thorn in your side."

That doesn't mean your business needs to reinvent the wheel. Simply improving what's already there can be just as successful. "If you think inside the box, and what's already been done, that's fine," Chojnacki says. "But can you make it better? Are you coming up with a new, untapped idea?" 

In the early stages of launching your idea, research existing businesses to start narrowing in on your unique concept. Chojnacki suggests asking yourself a few questions:

  • What do you enjoy doing in your personal life or for fun?

  • What types of opportunities are there in that realm?

  • How can you generate income from something that you find fun?

Create your business plan

After you've landed on an online business idea, the next step is writing a detailed business plan. Informed by deep research and analysis, this document is a robust roadmap of your operations, goals, outlook, and opportunities. One of the main goals of a business plan is to help you organize your thoughts and be focused and intentional about growth and strategy. At the end of the document, readers should be excited about your company and have a clear sense of why you're the right person to bring this business idea to life. 

Putting together a full business plan might not make sense right away. Part of starting a business is experimenting to find your unique niche. For entrepreneurs who are developing their business plan as they go, a shorter document that's a few pages long can be just as useful. 

Build the foundation for a strong brand

Developing your brand is one of the most exciting parts of starting an online business. This is where your personal passions and professional acumen intersect and you formulate how you can communicate what makes your business special.

A successful brand is well-defined and built for personal connection. "There are all different ways to explain what you stand for," says Chojnacki. "But people have to understand and connect with a brand almost immediately. You don't have the luxury of building a new brand over a 20-year period with endless cash. If you're doing it on your own as a sole proprietor, you need to somehow stand out."

There are limitless ways you can communicate your values. Many online business owners enhance and extend their brand by connecting with customers in person. For example, a business might offer local pickup of online orders, or an entrepreneur might give a keynote speech at a conference. Developing a brand strategy, or a brand marketing strategy, is another way to define your brand proposition and create channels of connection.

A brand strategy is as detailed and organized as a business plan: It's a long-term blueprint outlining your values, mission, and vision. Within this strategy, the brand mission goes hand-in-hand with a brand vision. "The vision is really important, whether it's your vision statement or defining your purpose," Chojnacki says. But he notes that these statements don't need to be lengthy or grandiose: "Sometimes less is more."

A simple slogan or elevator pitch can capture your brand and help create an emotional connection to your work. "When you're selling something, with a brand, how are you supposed to feel when you get that item or service?" Chojnacki explains. "That emotion is really important. The brand should make you feel in some way. And it can be any feeling: sad, scared, excited, wealthy, cool."

Brand strategies also outline a business’s visual identity, communication style, and touchpoints. "It might mean a personal story; it might mean your passion around why you're doing your business," Chojnacki says. "It also might mean what opportunities or advantages you're giving them through your brand."

There's no one right or wrong way to communicate your brand, he adds. "Depending on the type of business you're trying to launch, some are all about good quality and the best pricing. There doesn't necessarily have to be an amazing story that goes with that. The business is a great way for customers to save money and get exactly what they want." 

With the right website-building platform, you can do everything from launching sophisticated marketing campaigns right from your own house, to easily creating branded videos to feature your products and tell your story. You can even implement back-office functions—like accounting, invoicing, shipping, and order fulfillment—without needing to hire a whole team of employees. As a first step, decide which online tools are right for your small business.

According to Chojnacki, one of the most effective and easy-to-integrate marketing strategies is also one of the most traditional: email campaigns. "Customers want to be up-to-date on products and what's selling, and they want advance notice on what might be on sale," Chojnacki says. "Email lists are a really important small business tool, because you want to bring those customers back." He adds that the excitement generated by email blasts can be especially effective if you're selling an exclusive item or running a sale. "No one wants to miss out. No matter how old you are, there's always that fear of missing out. Whatever product you're selling, you need to create some level of excitement."

Integrating social media capabilities into your marketing plan is also important, because it allows you to have a more personal touch and connect directly with your audience. "You want to bring customers back," Chojnacki says. "And you want to make a customer for life." 

Small business owners can clear up time to focus on marketing by automating other aspects of their business, including appointment scheduling and ecommerce functionality.

Optimize your website for launch

Making a website is the last piece of the puzzle after you've developed a business plan and brand strategy. This step involves concrete actions like choosing a domain name and website template for your business. 

Luckily, Chojnacki says, building a website can be a piecemeal process. "You can start with a landing page that has just contact information, and then build it out as your story builds out. You don't have to have your whole business thought out." Having your mission figured out is a must, he adds. "Are you opening a restaurant? Are you selling books? Are you selling clothing? That has to be solid."

Chojnacki adds that having a good handle on your business angle and audience is also important before diving into building a website. "What's your focus? If you're selling clothing, are you looking for millennials or Gen Xers? So that has to be at least organized before you even think about a website."

When you do start building out a website, certain elements should be part of your design strategy, including core colors, fonts, visuals, written content, and your logo. Your website layout can also reflect your brand identity. You don't need to hire a professional photographer or spend too much money on these elements. What's most important is conveying to customers who you are — and why they should be excited about what's coming next. 

Still finding your focus? Read our guide to identifying your ecommerce opportunities.

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