How to start an online business in 5 easy steps

Find out how to start an online business in 5 easy steps during COVID-19 in this practical guide to e-commerce, packed with advice and ideas about getting started.

8 min read

In tough times, it makes sense to diversify your income streams. That way, if one source dries up, another is ready to supplement sales.

It can be a challenge to shift from a traditional brick-and-mortar shops to an online shop or from face-to-face consultancy to virtual services. But while social distancing is practiced in the UK during COVID-19, many small business owners will have no real choice but to go digital.

Offering online services can help maintain your cash flow and pay the bills. It also means small businesses can continue to offer valuable service. Services which people rely on physically, mentally, or professionally. Offer to meet clients 1:1 on the phone, over email, or over a video conference such as FaceTime, Zoom, BlueJeans, Google Hangouts. For group sessions, Youtube, Facebook Live or Instagram are good options. A reliable internet connection is important and remember to lock your meetings to maintain privacy. 

For brick-and-mortar shops, diversifying means it’s time to start up an online business. Or if your shop is already online, putting a bit more time and energy into your site’s quality so that shoppers have a seamless shopping experience. You could try running sales on social media or form new partnerships and make your products available on multiple sites.

If e-commerce is new to you, here are some tips to help you get started.

1. Identify the right online marketplace for you

There are many online sites built specifically to help you sell your products. But it’s easy to make the mistake of starting an online business by selling your products on the wrong platform.

Here are some things to consider when identifying the best online marketplace for your products and customers:

  • Your products’ look and use. If your products are handmade and crafty, open an Esty shop. If they’re made in a factory and have a more commercial appeal, sell them on Amazon.

  • Where your customers hang out. Consider the people who buy your products. Would you peg them as likely to shop on eBay? Or if your products have a local appeal, might you get more traction on Facebook Marketplace?

  • Your time. Building a website on Shopify or Squarespace is ideal for keeping your branding consistent with your actual shop and maintaining the most control. But it’s a bigger time commitment, and only you can decide if that’s a commitment you’re prepared to make.

  • Your resources. Another thing to consider before you create a website is how you’re going to promote it. If you have your customers’ email addresses and think they’d be happy to hear from you, great. Or maybe your business has a large following on social media, and you can promote your website there. But if you don’t have good communication with customers, you may find it more useful to sell your products on Amazon or another global platform.

2. Show your products in the best light

Literally. Selling your products online means every item must have a photo and a name, and preferably a description. If it’s clothing, you need to describe the feel of the fabric or an occasion to wear it. If it’s a cooking utensil, tell your customer what it can do, just as you would if they turned to you in the shop and asked, “What is this?”

But most importantly, you need to capture high-quality photos of each product to catch the eyes of online buyers. After all, you’ve got a lot of competition now—every other similar vendor is selling online.

To start, consider the best place to take photos of your products. Put time into details like bright lighting and a neutral background. You might decide to hire someone with a bit of photography experience from a gig work site like Behance or Fiverr. These gig work sites are especially helpful for connecting creatives with local work. You might also find someone on there to write your product descriptions if you don’t feel up to doing them all yourself.

3. Add products to your online shop

At this point, you may be more concerned with getting your products online fast than perfecting your own online retail space. So let’s focus on a few sites where setup is quick and easy:

  • Etsy

  • eBay

  • Amazon

Etsy

Once you’re ready to start selling on Etsy, setup is easy. Simply upload your business’s logo, complete the “about me” section and shop announcement, and outline your shop’s policies. Etsy has additional resources to help you list your products and market more effectively. Depending on how many items you intend to list, you can get an Etsy shop up and running in a day. That said, it may take weeks to get your first order. So it’s essential to focus on things like search engine optimisation and shop setup.

eBay

eBay has plenty of tips for business owners looking to sell on their site. And the good news is that setting up a shop on eBay doesn’t take much time. That said, some users—particularly those new to e-commerce—may find the process confusing. If that’s the case for you, you can hire other companies to set up your shop for you. They can help your shop stand out as a professional retail space on a site with lots of competition.

Amazon

A couple of things to note before jumping into Amazon wholeheartedly as a selling platform:

  1. Getting approved to sell on Amazon’s marketplace is getting tougher. You’ll have to provide a lot of documentation upfront.

  2. If you plan to sell items on Amazon during COVID-19, you may be unsuccessful. As of March 2020, Amazon has been prioritising the delivery of medical and household supplies and stopping shipments of non-essential products to their warehouses.

If you decide to list your products on Amazon, you’ll enjoy benefits like stellar brand analytics and access to millions of consumers.

4. Connect your online shop to your QuickBooks account

It’s easier than ever to keep your business transactions up to date because QuickBooks integrates with a variety of e-commerce platforms. The process is simple:

  • Choose a platform and launch your shop through the vendor’s site.

  • Follow the steps within your platform to connect your online shop to QuickBooks.

  • Process, track, and deposit customer payments from QuickBooks directly.

Naturally, there is a small fee to accept payments with QuickBooks, but the benefits outweigh the costs. By connecting your shop to QuickBooks, you’ll always have accurate, real-time data on your account, inventory, and taxes. Plus, with all that data at your fingertips, you’ll know when it’s time to hire an employee or re-evaluate your expenses. And when it comes time to pay taxes, you’ll also have all your information readily available, making it easier to file.

5. Tell your customers where to find you

Once you have an online shop up and running, tell your customers. Here are some places where you should be getting the word out:

  • In a Google search. Many businesses have listings on Google, making it easy for customers to get directions or leave a review. Not only is it free to create a Google My Business listing, but you can control the information visitors see. Besides giving your business a great intro paragraph, be sure to link to your e-commerce site, so customers can start shopping.

  • On your physical shopfront. If you’ve had to close your doors temporarily, loyal customers will want to know where to find you. And you can make it easy for them. Post a QR code in your window to direct customers to your website. Making a QR code is easy. Copy your website URL into a free QR code generator and take a screenshot of the result. QR codes are also great for sending customers to coupons or to your social media profile.

  • Everywhere you sell. Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are all good places to post about your new site. Change your Instagram bio to include a link to your website. Then post a photo showing off your new retail space. Encourage followers to share your new site in their own stories or posts for a percentage off their first order.

  • In an email or text message. If your business has collected customer email addresses or phone numbers, it might be time to use them. After all, customers who are loyal enough to want coupons and points sent to their phones will want to know you’ve got an online shop. Just be thoughtful in your messaging, and give them the option to opt out of future messages. 

Tough economic times, as a result of sickness, natural disaster or something else, can create havoc for sales and foot traffic. Finding a new path forward isn’t easy, but it is essential.

As you can see, there are plenty of resources to help you along the way. If you do decide to start an online business it doesn’t mean giving up on your shop front dream. It’s just an expansion into another dimension – and the chances are it’s an option your customers are going to love.

We hope you found this article about starting an online business useful. Did you know our QuickBooks blog covers a wide range of business-related topics designed to help you manage your business?

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