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How to Build an Online Business From the Ground Up


When I first decided that I wanted to quit my job and create my own successful online business back in May 2011, I was driven more by blind determination than belief. In fact, for many months thereafter I couldn't shake a little voice in my head that kept telling me how fruitless my efforts were.

What I failed to realize was that launching your own successful online business doesn't have to be a pipe dream. It isn't an unattainable goal that will forever live only in your mind. In reality, becoming a relatively successful online business owner requires a few more skills than you probably have right now. The rest you can pick up along the way.

What makes the real difference -- far more than technical ability or entrepreneurial nous -- is your belief and determination. Those are the assets that will pull you through the roadblocks and setbacks that inevitably await you. With that in mind, in this post I want to give you a roadmap that will equip you with the knowledge, belief and determination to launch your own successful online business.

1. Pick the Right Path

If you're anything like me then you have dreams of passive income success.

That's how I started -- I wanted to build websites and generate an income from them. What I didn't appreciate is that the learning curve is extremely steep and it is likely to take years before you can make a liveable income from passive income projects.

I can personally attest to that likelihood -- although my total net income in April 2013 was a shade under $8,000, just one third of that was what you might call "passive" income (incidentally, usage of the word "passive" in this context is a misnomer, but that's a topic for another day). Although passive income is perhaps the ultimate goal for many people, there is a far easier and more immediate way to make money online.

I am of course talking about freelancing. Freelancing is the reason I was able to quit my job; it is in fact the reason you are reading this. After months of passive income failures I turned to freelancing and discovered a whole world of possibilities that I had never previously considered.

The process of making money from freelancing may initially be intimidating, but it is in fact relatively straightforward. That's why I find it so appealing and consider it the best way for any would-be online business owner to make money online.

2. Assess Your Abilities

The first roadblock you are likely to come across in terms of building a freelance business is figuring out what service you will sell. I have found that many people are quick to assume that they have nothing of worth to offer to potential clients. To this I have one response: Everyone has something of value to offer to other people.

If you can realize just a fraction of your worth in your own business that you generated through your employment, you will make just as much money as you ever did (and probably much more).

For instance, let me assume for a moment that you are employed or have been employed at some point in your life. Your employer didn't hire you because he or she fancied throwing some money away -- they saw inherent value in you. Not only that, but they had to factor in multiple financial considerations when calculating your worth: employment costs, taxes, overheads, profit margin, and so on. If you freelance then those considerations are reduced dramatically. If you can realize just a fraction of your worth in your own business that you generated through your employment, you will make just as much money as you ever did (and probably much more).

I appreciate that it may not be obvious what your chosen service should be. If you are say a graphic designer, writer or bookkeeper, it's obvious. But for others that may not be the case. Take me as an example -- before I launched my business I was in charge of property management and development in my father's business. There is no obvious connection between that and freelance writing, and yet here I am. If we dig a little deeper though we see that I spent a lot of my day composing professional letters and emails. Although writing wasn't technically my job, it made up a proportion of what I did.

So don't be afraid to think out of the box when it comes to assessing your abilities and remember this: almost everything is outsourced these days. Outsourcing has become extremely popular in today's economic climate because hiring an outsider to do work is often cheaper than hiring someone full time. Now is as good a time as any to launch a freelancing business.

3. Identify Your Client Base

Once you have decided upon the service you are going to offer, the next step is to figure out who your clients will be.

I want you to be specific here. If you're planning on being a freelancer writer then you shouldn't identify potential clients as "people and businesses who want a writer." Marketing yourself as a specialist will give you far more clout in that industry and lead to greater opportunities down the line. It also gives you an opportunity to work within a specific field that you find particularly interesting.

Take me for example -- I write almost exclusively about the WordPress Content Management System, blogging, freelancing, and entrepreneurship. These are topics I love to write about and people know me as someone who writes about those topics. Because of that I attract highly qualified prospects without having to look for them myself.

While you may have to be less picky when you're just starting out, always have your ideal client in mind. At some point when your business reaches a level of maturation, you will probably overhaul your client base and hone it down to those specific areas in which you want to focus.

Although identifying your client base is important in terms of establishing a business that you enjoy, it is equally as important so that you know how to market yourself and where to look for your clients. That is the next step.

4. Establish Your Platform

In my opinion, the perfect freelance business is one that markets itself. Through word of mouth referrals, examples of your work on the web (if applicable) and a quality online presence, you should eventually find yourself in a position where you are no longer reaching out to prospective clients for work. They will approach you.

You reach this goal by building a platform -- typically made up of a website, blog, and social media outlets. These are the tools you can use to establish yourself on the web as a business that offers a solution to a specific problem (which again highlights the value of specialization).

Your platform should clearly advertise a few things:

  • your expertise
  • your experience
  • examples of your work
  • testimonials

For the most part, those four items represent the entirety of what any prospective client is looking for. Provide them with the answers before they have asked the questions.

You need to pour a great deal of effort into your platform in order for it to perform effectively.

I cannot understate the importance of the quality of the various online properties that make up your platform. Your website should not be a half-hearted, incomplete affair. Your Twitter account shouldn't have just a handful of followers. Your blog shouldn't be updated once every two months. You need to pour a great deal of effort into your platform in order for it to perform effectively. It is almost worse to have a "dead" platform than nothing at all.

But make no mistake -- your platform can develop into the fulcrum that drives the success of your business. All of the new clients find me in three ways:

  • via my blog
  • via bylines on other blogs
  • via social media

I don't reach out to clients; they come to me. That puts me in a position of great strength -- they are specifically interested in my services and I am in a sense "pre-sold." Without a platform for people to find and contact you, the chances of your prospect referral system becoming self-propagating is greatly reduced.

5. Market Yourself

Once you have created your platform, the next step is to find prospective clients. When you are just starting out they will not simply come to you, as you probably have no established means of them discovering you. Until that time comes, you will need to put the effort into seeking them out and making yourself known.

There are a number of ways in which you can do this and approaches vary depending upon what field you are operating in. For instance, if you are a web developer/graphic designer/writer, your first port of call might be the Freelance Switch Jobs Board. Alternatively, you may decide to start local and cold call businesses near you. Or you may leverage the power of Google to find businesses that are clearly in need of your services -- for instance, if you were a social media strategist you might look for businesses with a poor social media presence. The possibilites are practically endless if you are creative enough in your thinking.

The key here is confidence. Even if you are brand new to the scene, you must act like you are a seasoned pro. While you certainly shouldn't lie about your expertise or experience, you should look to put a positive spin on your value to the prospect. And remember -- whatever relevant work you did (or do) in your job can count as relevant experience.

If you fear the concept of approaching the market without any prior freelancing experience, seek out opportunities to work for free with reputable people or businesses. You can then use this experience to bulk out your portfolio and obtain testimonials without the pressure of actually having to find someone to pay you straight off the bat.

The key to getting started (whether you get paid or not) is to find quality clients. Quality clients lead to more quality clients. Poor quality clients lead to more poor quality clients or no clients at all. Think long term with your business -- what kind of client do you want to work with in a year's time? Those are the clients you should be targeting now.

Exponential growth will be driven by the quality of clients you engage with. To get the best referrals you must do quality work for reputable people. These are the people that will appreciate you as a professional and thus refer you to likeminded prospects. Although you may choose to take on one or two low quality clients to get yourself off the ground, always be looking to make that step up. No one made good money freelancing by competing on price -- compete on quality instead.

6. Take the Next Step

The above five steps are not an overnight blueprint for success. In fact, they represent months -- or even years -- of hard work and determination. But Rome wasn't built in a day and neither will your business be.

The key to success is in applying yourself rigorously to the fundamentals. It is all too easy to work hard in the wrong way and get nowhere, so focus instead on what really matters:

  • Your Abilities: what do you have to offer?
  • Your Client Base: who are you going to work for and why?
  • Your Platform: is it made up of online assets that project the best possible representation of your expertise and experience?
  • Marketing: have you discovered where your ideal client operates and have you found the best way to promote your services to them?

If you nail all four of these areas then there is no logical reason for failure. To put it another way, if your fledgling business is struggling then it means that you are almost definitely failing in one of the above four areas.

While there are many pathways to success, freelancing is a sure-fire way to give your online business a solid foundation for growth. With a reliable income and established clients in place, you can start work on implementing passive income strategies as you move your online business forward.

So what are you waiting for? It's time to open a new chapter of your life and build a successful online business! If you have any questions please do not hesitate to ask them in the comments section below.

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Photo Credit: Jakob Montrasio.

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