For anyone who has started their own online business, they will know it is a brilliant but brutal and completely all-consuming beast: the baby that never sleeps, and the lover that never leaves your thoughts. A single minded obsession that fuels you to just keep pushing!
For many entrepreneurs, it seems impossible to take a moment to reflect on what you have already achieved (that’s a whole other article) because every fibre of your being is focussed on the next big milestone, the next big deal, the moment your balance sheet goes from red to black.
Recently however, my darling husband enforced a “no device” weekend. I was surprised with a few days at a beautiful hotel (Bless) to relax, luxuriate in his company and let’s be honest, drink some wine. Sounds great, but for the first 3 hrs it felt as though I was deserted on a barren “deviceless“ island wondering if my baby was drowning. That is until the pinot noir kicked in and the Hubbie’s goal of getting me to a place of gratitude and reflection kicked in. (Thanks babe!)
In just 120 days I had launched a website and social media channels, gained good search rankings online, been featured in the media, formed strategic partnerships, employed my first team member, started turning profit in month 2, and had achieved 77% growth in August from the prior month —all while working a full time job! I finish up my corporate gig next month and have been able to completely replace my pay (though my goals extend far beyond just replacement).
I am not going to glamorise this. I would be doing every hard working entrepreneur, would-be entrepreneur and business owner a disservice by painting this as a ‘yachts and champagne’ success story. The past 120 days have included virtually no social life, 70-hour work weeks, re-growth that I do not care to comment about and an embarrassing low level of “house maintenance”.
Also, while mine is a pretty awesome start up success story (and I acknowledge still very early days), I have had the benefit of years of corporate and strategic project execution experience to draw from, giving me a rare insight into online execution, marketing channels, partnerships, brand management and sales and service strategies.
Which got me thinking about the thousands of fabulous female entrepreneurs who will embark on their own start up journey this year, and any advice I would give for creating a great online business.
1. Find a need and fill it
Ok, this is not a new idea and sounds a little “Captain Obvious”, but nonetheless is still a very important exercise to complete. What is the need I am filling? How is my product, service or perspective unique? Is there a gap in an existing market, or am I creating a whole new challenger segment? Be clear on what need you are filling and then research, research, research. Who else is playing in your space, what is their price point? The purpose of researching is NOT to copy, nor is it to feel deterred by the competition- it is so that you, as a strong, capable and ambitious woman can have a very clear view of the “current state” environment you are about to enter. This is also directly linked to point number 3 which we will get to shortly.
2. Dancing in the moonlight
If you are anything like me, capital can be hard to come by. I had zero appetite to take out a loan and my service offering does not really fall into the “angel investor” category, which is why I moonlighted. Starting your business while still gainfully employed can be a great way to dip your toe in the water and mitigate some of the common start up risks like running out of money and underestimating demand. This will not be a viable option for everyone, especially if you are already working and busy with raising a family — but it certainly worked for me.
3. Be clear on your brand
What is your tone of voice and what do you stand for? Are you professional and polished? Are you cute, fun & flirty? Do you want to appeal to the quirkier natured client or intentionally create broader reach? Be clear on the idiosyncrasies, colours, flavours, knowledge, and point of view that makes you, you! Create a mood board; write down any phrases that come to mind, Pinterest cool colours and shapes that resonate with you. This will form the basis of your Logo and Web design brief (yep, you really should write one of those). The best brands are the ones that are truly reflective of the product and service offering and appropriately capture the personality of the person behind it. For example just like me, my website is pink, vibrant and easy to read. LOL
4. Invest in the right infrastructure
I know that Sheryl Sandberg has been quoted as saying “done is better than perfect”, and while I agree on some fronts, when it comes to creating a brand doing it right and making an impact really should be your aim.
If you are selling a particular product and are concerned about cost you may be able to start off small and leverage social media channels as a sales platform including Facebook, eBay etc. instead of launching with a website. It really depends on your goals. For me, I took more of a go hard or go home approach. Whatever sales and communication channels you do choose to use though; make sure the branding and tone of voice are bang on.
You only get 1 chance to create a great impression and by not having the correct level of site functionality or an appropriately branded Facebook page you could actually be burning leads. It is far easier to impress people right out the gate then to have to “win” them back down the track after you have done an upgrade or a rebrand.
Phased approaches may save on initial outlay, but they do not support meteoric growth. Have a vision and strategy, stick to it, invest in it and repeat after me “If you build it they will come”.
5. How do I find you?
You could have the prettiest, shiniest website in the world with the best products and most awesome price positioning, but unless people can find you all of your hard work is pointless. Marketing, especially online marketing and most importantly SEO campaigns, should be viewed as a BAU expense, not a “nice to have”. Enlisting an SEO or Digital marketing expert can make or break your online business. It typically takes 1-4 weeks for them to research common search terms for your industry or related industries, before then spending a few more weeks compiling content and implementing a campaign, which will then take up to 90 days to start reaping significant benefits (as in improving your overall ranking and generating lots of enquiries). This means that your best case scenario is to get a marketing plan in place in conjunction with the set up of your site. I was so scared at first at the thought of having a locked in monthly outlay, but it really does work. I guess that’s why there are so many new SEO & Digital Marketing start-ups making a killing!
Also, in terms of your marketing strategy it is good to diversify. Use every channel available; Email marketing to your website subscribers, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. It’s important to tailor the content depending on the sales channel and audience but for the most part any posts, articles or offers you write can be “re-purposed” across your different lead generation channels.
6. Prepare to be a saleswoman
Get reaaaallly comfortable with becoming a sales woman. When running your own business every person you meet is a sales or referral opportunity. Practice explaining what your USP is, or if you haven’t launched your business yet, perfect a brief explanation on what your plans are to get your idea off the ground. Opportunities come in so many shapes and in some unexpected ways. You never know when a casual chat with your local barista will turn into a purchase (yep, that’s actually happened to me).
7. Press it up
Those who are press savvy will understand that PR does not need to be a dirty word. Sometimes there can be such a stigma around “self promotion”, but building your brand profile through the press is far more important than just getting your face in the local rag; it’s about positioning yourself as a subject matter expert. When people trust your product or service and feel that you do know what you are talking about, they are more likely to commit to buy. Additionally, through brand recognition you could receive loads of referrals.
Naturally, how aggressively you hit the PR and Marketing route really is down to your product or service and personal level of comfort in this space. If you simply don’t have the funds to enlist a PR company to help with your growth, subscribing to sites like “Source Bottle” which alert you to any media outlets who are looking for comments or articles from business owners, professionals or experts in a particular field can be a really cost effective way of getting your brand and your name out there.
8. Mitigate risk
It is entirely possible to run a lean operation whereby most things are done in-house, I mean that is the great benefit of running an online business from home. However, some things are best left to the professionals. The most sage and consistent advice I have received from sponsors and mentors is to get your legal, company and accounting structures in place. Decide on whether you will be a Sole Trader or Company. Do you need a family trust? Have you applied for your appropriate ABN, ACN and GST registration? Have you purchased your domain name, privacy protected your domain name, registered your business name, trade-marked your logos, written terms and conditions, set up business accounts? All of the boring stuff could actually save you a lot of heartache in the long run. A simple oversight like not registering a business name could spell the end of your otherwise illustrious eCommerce career. Likewise with the tax man, there are some really simple, cheap and effective ways of managing your money to ensure you are not hit with an audit or massive tax bill at the end of the year. Xero software is a particularly user friendly example.
9. Be kind to yourself
Finally, you are not meant to have all the answers. Do be kind to yourself. Sometimes you will feel like you are kicking goals, other days you will feel so defeated that you think you have no right being in business. Just as long as you are learning and adapting your model as you go, that is all you can do. Surround yourself with people who can help you on your journey. Friends and family will try their best to prop you up, but it also helps to spend time with other entrepreneurs who understand your sleepless nights and soaring exhilaration. Above all though, trust your gut and inner guidance, there is a reason you have made it to this point. And if you can’t believe in yourself all the time, for what it’s worth, I believe in you!