Top ten tips for starting an online business
Did you take part in Joanne Hawker's #MarchMeetTheMaker challenge? I did and absolutely loved it! I met so many incredible makers and felt really inspired to share my business story. I was so fired up by it that I honestly could have written so much more for each daily prompt and so I thought I'd explore one of those posts in a bit more detail.
The prompt I'm going to look at is 'Top Tip', which I approached on Instagram as tips I wish I could tell myself if I were starting my creative online business again; it got lots of saves and comments so I figured it is a topic worth exploring some more. Plus, knowing just how many business guides there are to read through and jobs to do when you're first starting out, I'm going to limit this to my top ten tips for starting an online business based on everything I've picked up since I started back in 2012.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on these tips and if you have any to share too. So, grab a cuppa, have a read and let me know what you think by leaving a message in the comments field below.
Tip 1 / Look, assess, test, repeat
Get that design how you want it before releasing it into the world. In the beginning I was so impatient about getting my designs into my online shops that I would stop at an early stage of the product development process instead of giving myself a few days to step back, look, assess, test and test again. I still get over excited about releasing new designs but I try my hardest to ensure I leave enough time to develop and review until I'm totally happy with the product before hitting publish. This formula of 'look, assess, test, repeat', can be applied to other areas of your business too, so keep it in mind when working on finances, organisation methods and product description writing.
Tip 2 / Take the best photos you possibly can or pay a professional
Get the right photography equipment and editing tools and either take the best photos you possibly can or pay a professional. I wish I'd paid a professional sooner while I was practising my own photography skills. As soon as I did my sales shot through the roof, easily paid for the professional photography cost and took my business to the next level. The photos not only lead to a noticeable increase in sales but they got noticed and featured as adverts in top magazines, such as Good Housekeeping, Country Living and House Beautiful. And now, after years of practice photographing and styling my shots, I'm now taking my own product photos.
Tip 3 / Learn about SEO and implement it immediately
I know, it's boring but it's a step you mustn't skip. Go and learn about SEO, spend time on tags and product descriptions and you will see a difference in your stats. When I opened my Etsy shop I barely knew what SEO was. Were there even useful guides back then like there are now? I can't remember any but then I was probably just diving on in because I was too excited. It's only in the last year that I've really begun looking at how SEO, product descriptions and tags can help; wish I'd done that sooner.
Tip 4 / Get your pricing right and DO NOT undersell yourself
Repeat after me: I will not undersell myself or price my work too low, I will value me and my work.
Did you know I sold my first hand embroidered handmade handkerchief for around £2? At that price I was actually giving it away. It makes me laugh now at the silly prices I was charging back then just to get a sale and it took me a good year or so before I realised I didn't have a business at all if I were to continue charging such ridiculous prices.
And so, I got on the t'internet and researched pricing formulas and was gobsmacked when I realised how many other parts of the product and product development process I hadn't factored into the price; I really was just giving products away.
If you're not already familiar, pricing formulas work a bit like this:
material cost + hourly rate (time taken to make) + postage and packaging costs + a percentage of the time taken to design, test, photograph and market the product X 1.5 = wholesale price
material cost + hourly rate (time taken to make) + postage and packaging costs + a percentage of the time taken to design, test, photograph and market the product X 2 = retail price
Those are just examples and I encourage you to research other formulas but the main things to remember are:
- you MUST pay yourself a decent hourly rate because just like someone with a 'normal job' you have bills and rent to pay and you have to feed yourself too.
- if you are not making a profit, then you have no business. Profit helps take your business to the next level as it means you can invest in new tools, equipment, material and maybe even get some staff!
- by underselling yourself, you undersell and damage the entire market. I do not agree with charging just for a bit of pocket money or even doing work for free, it's not fair on those in the same field whose business is their main income. Also, in my personal opinion, I think it makes you look like you are not taking your work seriously and not valuing yourself, which isn't appealing to customers. If I see a product priced too low I immediately wonder what's wrong with it, whereas a product priced properly speaks of professionalism and quality.
I think a pricing formula approach works well for a repeat product (e.g. cards, prints, laser cut jewellery etc) but it's a whole different ball game for original pieces of art and that's something I don't know anything about. If you're selling original pieces of art then I would start by researching how to price your work and talk to fellow artists too.
Tip 5 / Do the sums first before offering a discount
If you have priced your products and work properly, then only you will know whether you can offer a discount, run a sale or offer a promotion code, so really this is entirely up to you. But the main thing to consider is this: do not be pressurised into giving a discount. I can guarantee it, you will be asked by customers for a discount if they buy multiple products or even just one product. Before rushing in to say yes in order to secure the sale, take a moment and go and do your sums first. You need to make sure you are still earning a living wage and that it works for you and your business. Only you will know this. If the customer really wants the product, then nine times out of ten they will pay for it. Just ensure you know your own shop policy and what you can and cannot offer.
Tip 6 / Customer care
Good customer care from the beginning is essential because without customers you have no business. Always be polite and professional. Don't reply when you're grumpy or send that email you've always wanted to send when you experience a tricky customer. Step back, put yourself in their shoes and see how best you can help. Remember though, you are not a charity giving away freebies and discounts left right and centre (see tip above), you are an individual earning your living through your business. On occasion you will be pushed into offering more or someone might change their mind on a personalised item you have made for them, so ensure you have a clear refund policy in place, which is easy to access for customers; know exactly what you can and cannot offer and treat your customers how you would like to be treated.
Tip 7 / Self care
There is absolutely no denying it, running your own business is hard work and it can easily lead to burn out if you don't take care of yourself. Sadly, it's very easy to run yourself into the ground by working every hour possible and not taking breaks but that can actually put you back. Not taking a break or working reasonable hours for 3 months could result in you needing 3 months off to recover, so, it's a no brainer. Get plenty of sleep, have a routine, be organised, eat properly, get regular exercise, chip away at goals gradually, get up from the desk every 20 minutes, drink plenty of water (this is a common one among the self-employed, not drinking enough throughout the day), have a clocking off time and don't work in isolation (see next tip).
Tip 8 / Networks and groups
Working on your own every day can get so lonely and be a little soul destroying if you don't see your friends or get out and network. It's oh so easy to not socialise because you're so determined to take your business to the next level but that's not good. Getting out to see friends or being part of network or group (online and offline) is brilliant for inspiring you to achieve your goals, bounce new ideas off friends, rant if you've had a bad day, share tips, encourage each other and well, have a bloody good laugh and some fun!
I've only just joined my first ever regional Etsy group in Somerset and it's one of the best things I've ever done. Not only have I made some wonderful friends but I'm getting to meet fellow creatives and new people, which is especially great as I'm new to the county. It's also a brilliant way to open doors and find new opportunities. For example, I've just become a Somerset Etsy Team Leader, which I would never ever have imagined happening when I asked to join the group! So, go find groups and events and get involved both offline and online.
Tip 9 / Less fire fighting and more achievable goal setting and good organisation
From my experience of starting up and running a full time business I've learnt that you need to be super organised, not get distracted and work efficiently, otherwise you are continually fire fighting and working in chaos, which can have a negative impact on your customers and therefore your income.
Think of ways in which you can work more efficiently based on your own situation. Maybe you could turn social media notifications off, spend one day a week on the boring but essential jobs (accounts, stock check, etc.), make up some popular stock in advance or get a planner. Whatever it is you do, find a method that works for you.
I have tried numerous ways of working to ensure I achieve goals, get orders out on time and don't work in chaos. I'm currently trying out a new method as I type this blog post and I will be sharing it in a few weeks, so watch this space.
Tip 10 / Reflect and celebrate your achievements
Remember to reflect, acknowledge and celebrate the small wins you make on each step of your business journey. It's very important to do this and for me, I've only truly started doing it in the last year or so. By doing this you can see just how much you've achieved, see the direction you're heading and encourage yourself to keep going!
I've really enjoyed writing theses tips because it's helped me consider areas I could improve on and I hope you find them helpful too. Do you have any top tips for running a small business or maybe some clever tricks for working more efficiently in all lines of work? I'd love to hear your thoughts, so please do leave them in the comments field below and share this post with your fellow small business owners or those just starting up.