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How to start an online business in 2021

You don’t have to do all of these to start an online business, but they’ll certainly increase your chances of success.

The web is full of guides on how to start a business, but, frankly, there is no one way to achieve online success. Online businesses can be large or small, solopreneurs or partnerships, franchises or freelancers, e-commerce or service-based. In this article we’re going to break down some of the basic things that all of these businesses have in common. You don’t have to do all of these to start an online business, but they’ll certainly increase your chances of success.


Online business ideas


The good news is that great ideas cost nothing. They’re absolutely free. And you can start working on yours right now. All you need is a pen and a piece of paper. Here are a few online business ideas you might consider:

  • E-commerce Store 
  • Social Media Consultant
  • Digital Marketing Consultant
  • Content Producer
  • SEO Specialist
  • App Developer
  • Brand Strategist
  • Salesforce Specialist
  • Agile Coach
  • UX and/or UI Designer
  • Data Analyst
  • Cyber Security Specialist
  • Blockchain Consultant
  • Lawyer


If there’s one phase of a new business that will make all the other phases easier, it’s research. 42 per cent of start-ups fail because there was no actual need for their product or service.

How to start an online business checklist


Have a great online business idea but have no idea where to start? Don't panic! See our checklist below on some ideas on how to get the ball rolling. 

1. Research your industry

If there’s one phase of a new business that will make all the other phases easier, it’s research. 42 per cent of start-ups fail because there was no actual need for their product or service. Once you’ve got your bright idea, you need to dive deep. What’s the search volume like for your business keywords? Who are the major competitors in this space? What’s your point of difference? Who are your customers? What are their hopes, frustrations and pain points? Many of these questions will inform your business plan (we’ll get to that later). If you don’t know where to start, Google has a free keyword research tool.


2. Network online

B2B businesses should obviously think about networking with industry professionals, but even B2C businesses can get a lot out of platforms like LinkedIn. Before you launch your business, reach out to prominent industry figures: send them DMs, comment on their posts, visit their websites, attend networking events. It might surprise you how willing people can be to help a new business. If you find a good mentor, use this chance to get feedback on your business plan and overall idea. “In general, people do business with people they know,” Susan Guillory wrote in Forbes, “If you don’t ask, you can’t get what you want.”


3. Set realistic goals

Setting ambitious but realistic goals is one of the hardest parts about starting an online business, particularly if you have no experience. What should your revenue targets look like for the first quarter, or the first five years? What sort of ad spend is ‘reasonable’? The answers to these questions will change for every business (which is why networking and professional feedback is so crucial—see above). In general though, your goals should follow the tried-and-true SMART system. That means they should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. If you’re struggling with this, Aussie tech-juggernaut Atlassian has a good guide for writing SMART goals.  


4. Write a business plan

Unless you’re applying for a business loan from a bank, or investors, you probably don’t need a comprehensive, 28-page business plan. A one-pager should do the trick. This is a crucial document, because it forces you to analyse your business objectively, from all angles. The Australian government has a handy guide for business plans, but here are the basics. Your plan should include the problem you’re trying to solve, a one-sentence elevator pitch, a breakdown of your target audience, a broad marketing plan, a list of expected costs, and a rough sketch of your financial predictions for each quarter. A good place to start is the SWOT analysis: remove all emotion and calmly analyse your business’ Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.


5. Think about inventory

If you’re planning an e-commerce business, you’ve got the added hassle of inventory management and supply logistics, which any e-commerce pro will tell you is no picnic (the silver lining with e-commerce is that you can make money while you sleep, which really is living the dream). Creating your own webstore is easier than ever now, thanks to online platforms like Shopify and Squarespace, but there are other things to consider: will you pay for warehousing, or takeover the garage? Will you cut-out inventory all together and try dropshipping? Don’t forget about e-commerce platforms like Amazon and Etsy, too. You lose a bit of personalisation and control, but tap into a huge potential customer base.  


5. Build a COVID-proof marketing plan

COVID-19 has changed the online marketing game. For one thing, more of us are shopping online than ever before. Deloitte found that, during the three months between March and May 2020, Australia Post facilitated an additional $2.4 billion worth of e-commerce transactions. “Today we can see companies splitting into two groups,” Deloitte says, “they’re either overwhelmed with orders, or they’re lacking orders and interactions.” Research suggests that although more customers are shopping online, they’re expectations are rising at a similar rate. 14 per cent of shoppers now make purchases through social media, and online businesses need a robust, multi-channel marketing plan that hits all the major purchase points: organic search, social ads, email, mobile and direct website transactions. They also need their digital and inventory systems humming on all cylinders, to deal with spiking demand. Deloitte sums it up nicely: business owners need to “accelerate digital channel adoptions, deliver the right message, to the right person at the right time.”


Ultimately, there is no one right way to start an online business. It’ll depend on hundreds of factors—two of which being your own resilience and willpower. If you’d like to learn more about starting a business online, check out RMIT Online’s business short courses. Or browse the full range of courses on offer here