The internet may be the great equalizer of the entrepreneurial world. Depending on your industry, the barrier to entry can be minimal, and overhead is often low. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy; in a saturated platform, your product and business need to stand out.
1. Business services
Online business services can range from financial services such as bookkeeping and accounting to consulting. Some may require person-to-person interactions, but with today’s abundance of conferencing tools and online communication, it’s likely you can connect remotely.
Online is a great way to generate business, says Ryan BeMiller, founder of digital marketing website Shopping Signals. “You can establish yourself as an industry expert,” he says, and then sell that expertise to a business in need.
- Tip for getting started: Create, maintain and promote a website. Clean, organized sites encourage customers to trust you, but you also need to promote yourself constantly. “Many people think, ‘If you build it, they will come,'” says Antara Dutta, small-business owner and volunteer at the Small Business Administration’s mentoring program SCORE. “But just because you’re on the internet doesn’t mean everyone on the internet can see you.” Try paid advertising or search engine optimization to get the word out.
- Biz ideas: Business consultant, bookkeeper, information technology consultant, virtual assistant
When thinking of online business ideas focus on your core area of expertise, your risk tolerance, what competitors are in the market and how long it would take you to enter that market, and how much money you have to get started.
Often, when people think of online businesses, they think of e-commerce, or the ability to buy and sell products online. The industry has seen rapid growth over the years; according to Forrester Research, online retail sales grew four times faster than overall retail sales from 2015 to 2016.
When determining what to sell, however, take a niche approach. “You need to be appealing to a focused audience, especially when you start out,” BeMiller says.
Forrester’s study also found that toys and pet products were some of the fastest growing retail markets in 2016, so if you have a creative idea for Fido or a new toddler must-have, now’s your chance.
An added tip? Have a backstory. “The one good thing about online is that you have the ability to differentiate yourself visually and with language,” Dutta says. In a saturated market, telling a story gives you a chance to hook potential customers.
- Tip for getting started: BeMiller recommends that new businesses try drop shipping, which involves finding a manufacturer that is willing to ship right to the consumer. You advertise online, a consumer makes a purchase, then the order is sent to the manufacturer’s warehouse for shipping. You’re not stuck with a lot of inventory, which helps keep the risk factor low.
- Biz ideas: Clothing, home goods, specialty items
3. Affiliate marketing
Affiliate marketing has become a way for anyone with an online presence to monetize content. From food blogs to comparison shopping sites, promoting someone else’s product can earn you a percentage of the sale.
Affiliate marketing’s little sister, internet influencing, has also started to become popular in the age of social media. If you’ve established a large following on sites such as Instagram or YouTube, you may get paid a set fee for promoting a company’s product. Though internet influencers don’t normally receive a share of the profits, one-time payments can add up.
- Tip for getting started: Amazon niche sites are a good way to get started because they have a low cost of entry, BeMiller says. A niche site focuses on a specific product, such as vacuum cleaners, with links that take readers to Amazon.com. The owner of the site then gets a percentage of each sale.
- Biz Ideas: Blogging, social media influencer or expert, product reviewer
4. Tech services
Consumer electronics aren’t going anywhere, and advances in technology are inevitable. Tech-savvy entrepreneurs can benefit from the rise of the machines by establishing an online business to help people with online functions such as website design, app development or SEO optimization.
- Tip for getting started: Small-business owners are often overworked and may not have time to keep up an online presence, a factor that Dutta says is absolutely necessary even if the business is primarily brick and mortar. Identify local stores that could use an online boost and focus your design, software or app-building expertise on them.
- Biz ideas: App developer, website designer, SEO expert
If you’re looking for more of a ready-made business package, consider buying an online franchise. More than just McDonald’s and Foot Locker, franchises can include companies that perform website design or business services, such as Background Screeners of America.
- Tip for getting started: Head to franchise matchmaking sites like Franchise Direct to explore potential opportunities. Online franchises might not come with the same name recognition as brick-and-mortar stores, so you need to make sure it’s a reputable company. For instance, talk with other franchisees to get their honest perspective.
- Biz ideas: Website design, medical billing services, app design
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Updated September 1, 2017.