How to set up a successful online business

Contributor - Chris Barling

A female entrepreneur checks the online orders on her company website

Many people dream of the perfect business, one where great profits are made with minimal effort. There are no guarantees, but Chris Barling, chairman of ecommerce and EPOS supplier, SellerDeck, knows many people who are doing just that by running an online business. So, where do you start?

1. Look to the web

More than any medium before it, the internet provides the potential to make money for you whilst you put your feet up. Marketing, providing answers to questions consumers ask, selling, taking payment and even delivery can all be fully automated. If something can happen electronically – it can happen without your intervention.

2. Find a niche

If you want to relax, nothing must threaten your business. If a market is very small – and you dominate it – competitors will not be particularly interested. So the simple rule is this – if you want to succeed more easily, find something that is in a small market and very specialist. Competition kills margins, so if there are going to be new entrants (and there are if you are in a good size market), you will find it hard to succeed with your feet up.

3. Let buyers serve themselves

The great thing about the web is you can get customers to serve themselves. The way to reduce cost and to save effort is to make things as easy as possible for customers.

Some tricks are to spend time considering the navigation of your site (ie how sections are organised, where section lists appear on the site and how to search for items). Get a few friends and colleagues who are not familiar with the site to buy something while you observe, you will learn a huge amount about how to make things easier to find.

Learn from these exercises; put the changes in place and increasingly your site will do the selling for you. Remember to make available all of the information people are likely to want. This will not only save calls and emails, but it will also lead to higher conversion, too.

4. Automate your marketing

If you use pay-per-click advertising, investigate automated tools to try to set up as much as possible to happen without intervention.

Ensure that your ecommerce software can automatically display your best sellers, new products and suggest products that other buyers also bought.

By trial and error, establish the best follow-up marketing. For instance, send a discount voucher to anyone who hasn't bought for six months, to remind them of your existence and trigger a response.

You have to experiment with how long before you send the email, what to say, the size of incentive and so on. Once you have found the formula, it can be used repeatedly with little effort, although it pays to re-run tests after 18 months or so as consumer behaviour does change over time.

5. Provide stunning service

While good service can't be achieved with your feet up, it can certainly keep them there once it's in place. If you can create a culture in your company where great service prevails, you'll have less rude awakenings that disturb your day. And happy customers will cost you less.

6. Don't be too greedy

Don't take too much money from the business. In other words – don't kill the goose that lays the golden egg. You certainly won't be relaxed if you experience a serious cash flow crisis.

7. Feet up and money flowing

Does the perfect business, with millions flowing in with little effort, really exist? As ex-Apple CEO John Scully discovered, maintaining high margins without the continuous ingredient of the 'X-factor' that Steve Jobs brought was incredibly difficult. So the short answer is no.

Do lifestyle companies exist with defendable niches that can make you moderately rich with limited effort? Yes, and there's more in the area of web sales than anywhere else. But it does take skill and effort to find them in the right business in first place. Good hunting.

NOTE: If you are generating an income from your website, you may be classed as self-employed or employed depending on the form your business takes. You may need to register with HM Revenue & Customs as self-employed, complete a self-assessment tax return and pay tax on your earnings.

Written by Chris Barling of SellerDeck.

Expert profile picture


Chris Barling

Chris Barling is the Chairman of Powered Now, a company he co-founded. An enthusiastic entrepreneur and business angel, Chris has a passion for helping small businesses take advantage of new technology. He has over 40 year' experience in the IT industry.

What does the * mean?

If a link has a * this means it is an affiliate link. To find out more, see our FAQs.