Thinking about launching a website? It can be intimidating when you’re first starting out. But throughout my time as an entrepreneur, I’ve come up with a set process for ideation, testing, promoting and monetizing. First, a little about me. Over the past 20-some years, I have launched multiple online businesses. Some I consider successes, while others have been failures. I’ve always been interested in education, so I launched my first business in that industry at age 18. I provided a private tutoring service that offered students in-home sessions.
While it was successful, I quickly grew out of it and moved on to other interests. In the early 2000s, I decided to up my game and move into digital marketing. I had the educational and content side down, but digital marketing has a lot of moving parts, and it took a little more effort to learn. I spent hours at Barnes & Noble reading about the Internet and online marketing. Reading about it wasn’t enough, though; I needed to tap into shared knowledge.
This is my first big tip: network. And network strategically. It’s essential for getting your foot in the door. Networking allowed me to connect with others in the digital marketing industry. And with this open exchange, I saw how I could use my education background to mentor newbies in the digital marketing industry.
Training others allowed me to hone my strategies and be more successful.
The first big success was PearlyWrites, LLC, a digital marketing company specializing in content strategy and SEO that I launched in 2003. Now I’ve had the good fortune to be part of several great startups and companies. And I’ve used my experience to start several online companies, including my newest co-venture, MarijuanaRates.com.
Here are the steps I typically take to launch an online business:
Step 1: Decide on the Type of Business
This is the ideation stage. The best business ideas, in my experience, come from a mix of the things that I’m passionate about and a problem I’ve found. For example, I’m passionate about education and writing. And back in the early 2000s, I saw that many companies needed quality content, which is how PearlyWrites got started. Identify your passions, solve a problem and you’ll be on your way to a solid online business idea. Of course, it’s not only important to think about what service or product an online business will provide, and how that service or product will differ from competitors, but also how to provide that service or product. Will it be an e-commerce site? Lead generation? A subscription? That “how” might change down the line, but it’s good to have a general outline upfront.
Remember, starting a business can be scary. It’s not abnormal to ask questions like:
• Is my idea stupid?
• What will make my business stand out from the competition?
• Will my business succeed?
• What if my business fails?
• Will my business make money?
You’ll find many articles written about how entrepreneurs succeed, but not many discuss the failures. Here’s the thing: You’ve got to embrace those failures and learn from them. For example, during the early years of PearlyWrites.com, the business took on its own direction, and I didn’t like where it was going. Clients wanted the quick win of “black hat” SEO and thin content. I didn’t. It took about a year of adjustment to bring it back to the intended direction, and we lost some clients in the process. But our integrity grew. And I’m still happy I did it. At the time, losing clients seemed like a failure, but it worked out in the long run.
Step 2: Research, Research, Research
It’s crucial to learn about the potential market before putting an idea to work. I first like to figure out the volume of the potential market for the business idea and work out details about the potential audience. In other words, how many people can I reach, and what are the demographics of those people? What age are they? What interests do they have? Where do they live? For volume and SEO metrics, I use tools like MOZ, SEM Rush, and Google Keyword Planner. You can get a general idea of search volume by coming up with a list of keywords you think people would search to find your service or product, entering that list into something like MOZ, and then adding up the reach of those individual keywords. I use tools like Quantcast and Alexa to gain insight into the demographics of the potential target market. Google Trends is also a useful tool for this purpose. You can even pick a potential competitor site and check out their audience demographics with Alexa and Quantcast. To discover competitors, simply do a Google search for sites that might fall into what your site will offer.
Step 3: Choose a Relevant Name and Start Branding
There’s no doubt about it, choosing a name can be one of the most frustrating parts of starting a business. For me, that’s certainly the case.
Here’s how to make it a little easier:
1. Make a list of ideas related to the services the business will offer. Write down everything that comes to mind.
2. Narrow it down to the top 10.
3. Use a service like GoDaddy or Google Domains to search available domain names.
4. Narrow down options even further according to what’s available.
5. Run those through a tool like Google Keyword Planner to discover potential search volume for your name (if relevant).
6. Run your refined list by friends, family and colleagues. After you’ve picked a name, begin branding from day one. Remember, it’s important that the business name reflects the business offerings.
When launching PearlyWrites, the name fit what my company offered, which was content creation. But as I expanded as an SEO professional, PearlyWrites didn’t reflect all my service offerings. Although I continue using PearlyWrites, I created other businesses that keep my possibilities open. For example, my business partner Mitch Strohm and I launched Natural Media, LLC in 2015. Under that company, we run MarijuanaRates.com.
Step 4: Pick a Project Management System and Set Deadlines
Since many web businesses begin with a self-employed individual or partnership, I’ve found that setting up a project management system to keep my growing business on track is essential. Of course, not every business needs to start with paid software and tools. Many software companies offer a free or low-cost option to allow for the management of projects.
Some management tools to check out include:
• GSuite (Google Apps – Drive, Hangouts, Voice)
• Sprout Social
• Mail Chimp
Also, you might want to consider building your site on WordPress, which is a platform I’ve often used. It’s an easy platform for new business owners to create and manage, and it can be scaled as your business grows. Finally, create a “road map” that lists out your major project goals for the current month and the two following months. It’ll not only help you stay on track for the current month but for future plans as well.
Step 5: Read Up on Your Industry
There are some things I’m passionate about, but that doesn’t mean I’ve mastered the field. It pays to explore and read everything you can about your prospective industry. Check out forums like Reddit and Quora. Pick up industry-specific books. And chat with those already in the industry. You don’t have to attend school or classes, but you can stay up to date with the latest developments by building a network you can tap into for knowledge and new insights. I think a good book to read is “Marketing in the Age of Google” by Vanessa Fox. It’s a great resource on understanding how to work within Google’s rules toward being successful with your web business.
Step 6: Build a Support System
All entrepreneurs think they can succeed on their own. I’ve certainly been there. The reality is that we all need a support system— whether it is a significant other, a business partner, family, or friends. It can be one or several individuals whom you trust and who have your best interests in mind. Fortunately, my spouse has been my support from the time I launched my tutoring service. My sisters are extremely supportive, along with my two childhood friends and my business partner.
Step 7: Practice Patience, Review and Ask Questions
Not every business will succeed or grow in the direction it’s intended.
In moments of doubt, it’s crucial to be patient and ask questions:
• Do I need to change direction?
• What’s working about the site? What isn’t?
• Am I creating content that’s reaching the right audience?
• How is my audience interacting with my site?
• What can I improve upon now, and what can wait?
Reach out to your network if you’re having trouble with your business. People are open to sharing and willing to have conversations. And if someone helps you solve a problem or is willing to be a mentor, make sure to reach out and thank them.
Step 8: Use Your Day Job to Grow Your Business
Some prefer to jump all in, quit their day job and start a business. And sometimes, that can work. But there’s a strong argument for growing a business while you have a steady income. If you can balance having a full-time job and a side hustle, it’s a great way to transition into your business full-time. In my case, working full-time and having a business was a great learning experience. I had consulted with corporations but never understood the internal workings.
Once I dove into the corporate setting, the missing pieces fell into place. I figured out why sometimes, as a consultant, I didn’t receive responses quickly. There are a lot of moving parts in a corporation. Understanding both sides of the equation helped me improve upon my business. And having control over my businesses and multiple streams of income allowed me to push boundaries during my corporate life.
Step 9: Slowly Start to Monetize
There’s no one set way to monetize. PearlyWrites monetize by offering project-based services. MarijuanaRates.com’s monetization is a combination of the items below:
• Crowdfunding: MarijuanaRates.com tried Patreon to crowdfund. It’s a creative community. But if crowdfunding is your go-to, find the platform that works for your business.
• Affiliate: As a cannabis-related site, MarijuanaRates.com naturally taps affiliates in the cannabis space. The types of products you review or promote should be closely related to your site’s mission. That said, Amazon’s affiliate program covers many types of businesses, as does CJ.com.
• Advertising: Advertising on MarijuanaRates ranges from sponsored content to display ads. When a website has consistent traffic, businesses may be interested in advertising.
• E-commerce: Recently we’ve been considering e-commerce as a way to offer more to our users. Instead of sending the user off-site, like in affiliate marketing, e-commerce offers a solid way to offer your audience a one-stop shop.
• Services: While MarijuanaRates.com doesn’t offer digital marketing services, its parent company, Natural Media, LLC, does offer those options. Of course, not all of these paths will work for every site. Start slowly with the path you think will work best. Then mix in other monetization methods as you see fit.
Step 9: Start Now
Sometimes you just have to try an idea. If it doesn’t work, go back to the drawing board. With the advancement of technology, starting an online business is now a low-overhead venture with high potential. So start today. Throw your idea against the wall, and see if it sticks.