Let me start off by saying, I'm not naive enough to think that there is a single blueprint or one-size-fits-all secret to building a business.
However, I do remember what it was like sitting at square one two years ago, knowing that I wanted to start my own business, and wondering to myself day after day, "Okay, NOW what?"
It's hard to know where to start. Especially when you see other online businesses you admire and they're off to the races doing ALL THE THINGS. They've got an active blog, an engaged Instagram audience, multiple product offerings or clients coming out of their ears, super professional "onboarding processes" and "bookkeeping services" -- all the bells and whistles.
When you see all that, it can be tempting to want to follow suit. It can be tempting to chase ALL THE THINGS because you want to feel like a legitimate business and (duh) you want to be making money.
BUT here’s the problem with doing all the things: If you don’t find focus, especially in the beginning, it’s going to feel a lot like you’re trying to fill up about 20 buckets at one time. A little time and attention to social media, a little to your website bucket, your branding bucket, your audience bucket, your email list bucket... and suddenly you're filling up all those buckets at a snail's pace and not really seeing substantial growth in any one area.
Now, what sounds more efficient to you? Trying to fill up 20 buckets one drop at a time, or filling up one bucket before moving on to the next?
That's why in the early days I chose ONE thing to focus on at a time so that I wouldn't get burnt out concerning myself with 20 different aspects of my business.
I also discovered that in business, ORDER matters. Often, one aspect of your business is dependent upon another, so I sat down and thought about what a successful online business would look like to me. Then, I simply worked my way backwards asking myself "If I want X then what Y needs to happen first?" Each thing that I focused on would form a foundation for the next so that with every major growth period, I was setting myself up for success down the road.
Now, again, I'll issue this disclaimer: There are an infinite number of variables that contribute to the success or failure of a business. However, I do think that there is value in learning from those that have gone before in order to create a toolbox of ideas for you to implement in the building of your own business. And that's what I’m aiming to provide with this post. Not to give you a recipe for success, but to give you MY recipe for success in the hopes that you can pull out a few ingredients to use for yourself.
Now, all that said, let’s assume you too are at square one right now. You have a general idea of the kind of business you want to create, but you have no products, no clients, no revenue, no audience.
Here are the 5 crucial steps I would tackle (and the order I would tackle them in) to get you making some sustainable revenue.
1. Get clear on your WHY.
Goal: CLARITY + CONNECTION
Yes, it might be a little cliche by now, but there’s a reason that Simon Sinek’s TEDx talk is one of the most watched EVER and it’s because he’s right: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
I truly believe this is the most important foundational element to building a brand that has the potential to grow and flourish. And it begins with answering this question:
Why does your business exist?
Hint: it's probably not the first thing you think of. Your why shouldn't focus on your services or products; it should center more around your beliefs and your mission in the world.
Let's say you're a wedding photographer. "To provide quality photography services to brides" isn't going to connect with anyone. Ask again. Why does your business exist? --"Because I believe that memories are one of the most valuable things we carry with us in life. The more valuable memories I can preserve for people, the richer their lives become." Ah, that's better.
If you can figure out the answer to that question -- something that will connect with people on a deeper, emotional level -- then you'll equip yourself with the tools you need to cultivate the ideal audience for your business. Your WHY will serve as a magnet for people that come across your brand, attracting your ideal audience and repelling those that don't resonate with your mission. And THAT is what you’re aiming for.
Investing the time to get clear on what you believe in, what you’re about and what you stand for will also help you establish guiding principles - an anchor if you will - which will help you make decisions as you create your business.
But how do you figure out your WHY?
If you’re planning to keep your online business a solo venture, dive into your past and ask yourself what were the pivotal moments that led you to start this business or that contributed to your beliefs. In the Better Branding Course I lead students through an exercise called “Owning Your Origin Story” which is all about looking at your life as if it were a book with chapters. What were the pivotal “plot points” that moved you from one chapter to the next? Your why is probably hidden in these pivotal moments and getting crystal clear on those more important facets of your brand will act as your foundation. Whatever changes you might make in the future to evolve your business model, your offerings, your target audience, etc., your WHY will likely not change that drastically, so it's a great place to start.
To give you an example, Made Vibrant’s WHY has stayed the same since I opened its doors in January of 2014. Made Vibrant aims to help people live as their best, brightest, most vibrant selves. I believe that when people show up as the fullest expression of who they are, the world is a better place. I’ve done that through brand design and client work, as well as writing and learning resources. So many aspects of my business have evolved over time, but that WHY has and will remain my anchor. That's because I took the time to ask those hard questions in the beginning, and I infused my mission into every aspect of my business as I moved forward.
2. Create the best, first version of a brand identity and website.
Goal: VISIBILITY + LEGITIMACY
Now, once you have your WHY, it's time to craft it into some sort of visual identity that can quickly and powerfully communicate your message in the digital world.
The truth is, a well-designed website gives you credibility as well as a digital address. It allows people the opportunity to find you and to know more of what you’re about.
But, this is where a lot of people get stuck. Building a website or a brand can seem really overwhelming if you’re not tech savvy or trained in design. But, it doesn’t have to be!
Start by creating a simple and versatile logo. You don’t even have to use Photoshop (just check out my post showing you how), but you do have to have an idea about what kind of tone you want to convey in your brand. In fact, this is the very reason I created the Better Branding Course - to help entrepreneurs who are just starting out that want a professional-looking presence at an affordable price.
So many people let this one step in the process hold them back because they want it to be PERFECT right out of the gate. Spoiler alert: it won't be perfect.
The point is, you have to start somewhere. Use tools that will set you up for success (like Squarespace, whose templates are modern and responsive right out of the box.) Ask for help when you need it. But just get something out there because until you have some kind of digital home, it's going to be hard to establish legitimacy with any kind of audience.
Which leads me to the next step...
3. Identify your audience and deliver value CONSISTENTLY. (Like… no matter what.)
Goal: TRUST + COMMUNITY
When I started Made Vibrant, I knew that whether it was selling branding packages, hand-lettered prints, OR teaching products, I was going to eventually need somebody to sell to. Enter... your audience.
Getting specific about your audience helps you figure out the pain points and challenges of one single like-minded group. If you’re trying to reach everyone, it’s going to be hard to pin-point what exactly they struggle with and how they interact with your products or services. However, if you narrow your focus to a smaller, more concentrated segment of people, some of their challenges and struggles will start to get more similar. This will allow you to get highly specific with your messaging, speaking straight to that group of people.
Narrowing your audience also helps you tailor your offerings to a well-defined need. Made Vibrant specifically targets what I call soulful creatives. These are creative people with an interest in personal growth, learning, and self-made success. Because I defined this audience very clearly up front, I’ve been able to hone in on the unique desires, goals and needs of this audience.
Some questions to consider when thinking about your ideal audience:
- Is this an audience I want to be working with?
- Is this a group of people that want (or better yet, need) what I’m offering?
- Is this an audience I’m uniquely equipped to help?
Once you have this group of people identified and clearly understand who they are in your head, you can decide what information is valuable to them and how to deliver that value.
There are some differences of opinions as to whether a blog or newsletter is better to focus on, but I’ll go with what has worked for me. I believe in the power of email. It’s captive and I believe that it allows you to create a lasting, more personal relationship with people in your community.
Within the first month of my business, I started a weekly Monday morning email newsletter, recognizing that my soulful creatives would appreciate a boost of inspiration or motivation to begin their week. It was slow to start (my first one I sent to just 2 people!) but over time it has grown to almost 3,000 people. I've sent a weekly email for almost 68 straight weeks. Delivering value consistently not only tells my audience that they can trust me (I'm reliable in the value I deliver) but it also tells them that I care about helping them. That way, when I do offer a paid product, they are more inclined to buy because they trust me and feel I've already delivered a ton of free value. I cannot emphasize the value of consistency enough. If you want people to trust you with their dollars, you have to prove to them that you're worth it. That you can follow through.
The key with this audience step is TIME. Building a community will take time, but it is absolutely crucial for setting yourself up for success down the road. You can create the most valuable product or service in the world, but if you don't have the right audience to share it with, your revenue opportunities are going to be limited.
As a bonus, I used my email newsletter to communicate directly with my community and ask what they want, what they are excited to learn about. This information in turn informs my product development, which ensures that my products already have demand. It's a beautiful cycle!
4. Do the work.
Goal: EXPERIENCE + CREDIBILITY
I know you were hoping that all five of these steps would be relatively painless, but here's the truth of it: there's no shortcut to doing the work.
You can build a solid audience around your WHY, you can deliver value to them consistently, but if they don't trust that you know what you're talking about - they won't buy.
If you're a designer, make your portfolio easy to find and share your work. If you're a photographer, take a ton of photos. If you're a coach, help people and actually have some results to share. If you're a maker, make things and share them!
This is usually when those that are just starting out say, "But if I need clients to get clients, where do I start?"
Take on free work if you have to. Make sure you're not spending more time on it than you have to, but help a few people at a super reduced rate or for free just so that you have some testimonials and work to show.
Not only will these clients/projects give you credibility with your audience, the experience will also give you a ton of content to write about and share with your community.
5. Create a quality product or service that your audience wants and sell it, baby.
GOAL: PROFIT + SUSTAINIBILITY
Hopefully you've already started making some money in your attempt to work towards #4, but if you're interested in selling products or offerings that will bring you recurring income (e-books, courses, group masterminds, etc.) then by this point you have all the ingredients you need for a successful launch: You have a strong emotional foundation to your brand, a website for people to find you, an audience to sell to, and the experience to pour into a quality product.
The same "bucket theory" applies to developing your products, though. You don't want to release 12 at once without understanding things like the price sensitivity of your audience, what kind of launch sequence works best for you, etc.
Start with one product or offering and get that to a place where it's streamlined and running smoothly. If you can come up with a launch formula that works well for your audience, there's no harm in replicating it for future products or offerings.
I will say this though: if you're a service-based business, consider testing the waters with an online product, something that you can invest time in up front and that can help you make revenue from that point forward.
I'm a BIG fan of revenue diversification. By diversifying your revenue streams, you can create a more stable, sustainable business because no longer will you feel the pinch if you have a slow month and no clients coming through the door. The same works vice versa. If you exclusively sell products, make sure you have a service-based offering that you could send out to your audience if a launch didn't go as planned or if one of your products stops bringing in substantial revenue.
As you continue to develop your products, it's a good idea to revisit each of these steps and view these 5 phases as a cycle. Re-evaluate your WHY and make sure it still rings true for you. One year later do you still feel your website accurately communicates to your audience? Does it show the breadth of your work? These are the questions you want to continue to ask yourself.
Running a profitable online business isn't easy, but I believe that these five basic steps will provide you with a rough outline of how to move forward and build your dream business, as long as you trust your gut and build it in a way that is aligned with who you are as a person.
Wishing you the best of luck, and can't wait to see what you create!