How to Start an Online Business: Go from Zero Ideas to Running a Successful Online Business in Your PJs (Even if You Have No Capital)

how to start an online business

Wondering how to start an online business?

Maybe you’ve heard a ton of stories about successful online business owners.

Like Jon Morrow, who started a blog from scratch and now earns over $100,000 a month from teaching people how to write. 

how to start an online business quote

Or Chandler Bolt, who wrote six bestselling books and took his online business, Self-Publishing School, to $16+ million in only five years.  

Or Michelle Schroeder-Gardner, who lives life freely on the road in her RV or on the water in her sailboat, all because of the income generated by her blog Making Sense of Cents

Or Ramit Sethi, whose net worth is now $25 million… all made through his online business and book sales.

how to start an online business quote

I know, you’re shaking your head right now.

  • “I have no idea how to start an online business.”
  • “Those people probably had business backgrounds.”
  • “They probably had a ton of backers and huge capital.”
  • “I don’t have what it takes/I don’t have the talent/I’m don’t have the head for business and technology.”

Well, here’s the thing.

You don’t need to be perfect to start an online business.

In fact, Jon Morrow is paralyzed from the neck down.

Ramit Sethi started out from scratch, the son of Indian immigrant workers who couldn’t afford appetizers on their once-a-month dinners out.

And just because you’re here?

Just because you’ve typed “how to start an online business” on Google?

That shows a ton of things about you.

It shows you have the guts to try. The curiosity all entrepreneurs need for success. The courage to explore. That’s all you need for now (really!).

I believe you DO have what it takes to start your own online business. 🎉

Now, take your innate powers and use this blog as a guide. In it, I’ll show you:

  • How to start an online business with less than $100 (I started mine with $75!)
  • My secret five-ingredient formula for online business success
  • A step-by-step guide on starting your own business
  • And more!

Let’s dive right in.

how to start an online business

Watch My Video: How I Started My Online Business + 4 Tips to Build a Great Service-Based Biz

Want to dive into my four favorite tips for building a great service-based biz? Watch my YouTube video below.

How to Start an Online Business with No Money (Case Study: How I Grew Express Writers from $75 to $5 Million)

Ok, here’s a question a ton of people ask.  

How much money does it take to start an online business?

And with the ton of questions come a ton of answers.

Just type “how much money does it take to start an online business” into Google, and you’ll get 5,170,000,000 results. (That’s how important this question is!)

google how much money does it take to start an online business

And you can sift through all the answers that tell you $3,000 or $5,000 or even $10,000.

Or you can read my case study, and learn how I did it with only $75.

That’s right!

Way back in 2011, I was a 19-year-old girl who didn’t have a clue about the “outside world.”

Not because I wasn’t interested in it (you bet I was!)…

…but because I grew up in an abusive religious cult.

You might think the book The Handmaid's Tale is purely imagined, but I lived it every day in my father’s house.

There were beatings, curfews, and rigid rules. We couldn’t wear open-toed shoes, the color red, earrings, or pretty modern hairstyles. (Read the full story in my 3rd book, Woman Rising: A True Story.)

But amidst the oppression, fear, and claustrophobia, I decided to go for it and start my own online business.

It all began with a passion for writing and $75.

how to start an online business quote

I signed up for Upwork. I started writing for cheap clients and building my skills. When I had too many clients to handle, I hired my first writers.

And I took it from there. Growing steadily throughout the years. Never looking back. Always relying on the #1 ingredient that kept clients coming back for more: amazing content.

Today, Express Writers is a thriving content agency with 90+ talented team members, over 5,000 clients, and 30,000 completed projects.

express writers stats

Source: expresswriters.com

We’ve grown to hit the seven-figure mark. (YAY!)

So, here’s what I’m saying.

If I could do it, young, broke, clueless about the world, and stuck in a religious cult as I was…

…then you can to.

All you need to start with is passion.

Ask yourself, what would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?  

Then, go ahead and do it.

You don’t need to be perfect.

You don’t need huge capital.

You don’t need an entrepreneurial background.

You don’t need to be a graduate of business school.

If I could start my online business with $75, you can to.

Now, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of how to do it, plus the keys you need to scale once you’ve gone that first mile and started up your business.

How to Start an Online Business from Scratch: A Step-by-Step Guide

Let’s start with the ground level fundamentals. 

If you aren’t a beginner and you already have a great idea for an online business, you can skip this part.

But if you don’t have a clue on what kind of online business you want to run, where to start, or what to do first, read on.

Here are three essential steps you shouldn’t miss. 

Step #1: Build a Business by Doing what You Love

A ton of people start an online business because they want to get rich.  

Sadly, only a tiny percentage of them become successful. 

Why?

They hate what they’re doing.

Sure, maybe they’re making money doing it. Maybe they’ve scaled and people consider them experts in their space.

But let me ask you something.

Is success really only about making money?

The answer is no.

Look ahead five or ten years from now.

Do you want to see yourself struggling just to live each day because you absolutely hate what you’re doing? Even if you have a ton of money in your bank account?

Or do you want to feel happy, fulfilled, and proud of what you do?

As Albert Einstein once said in a letter to his son, it’s doing what we love that’s really worth it.

Einstein quote

Source: brainpickings.org

So before you take that first tiny step to starting your business, ask yourself this: “Is this something I love?”

I promise you, it works.

I know, because I started my own business purely on love. I love writing. I love words. I wrote a 200-page medieval fiction novel when I was 12.

That’s the secret behind never giving up: love what you do.

And if you start your business based on the dream of living a life doing what you love, you’ll succeed.

Step #2: Find a Need and Fill It

OK, disclaimer time.

You can’t start a business doing ANYTHING you love.

For instance, if you love cultivating star-shaped onions, you’ll probably have a hard time finding people who’ll buy.

The key is to find the sweet spot between what you love and what people need.

Back in 2011, I knew my passion was writing. But I didn’t launch a business before I was sure there was a market for it.

So I registered on Upwork, which was known as oDesk back then. Luckily, I found 13,000 projects needing an online writer.

My passion met my market, and the perfect business idea was born.

Here’s how to do it: find a need and fill it.  

It’s not hard.

Let’s imagine your skill is web design. And you want to serve people in the dental industry.

Now, quickly Google a keyword like “problems of dental clinics.”

google - dental clinic problems

Source: Google

From this initial search, you find out that one of these problems is “patient accumulation.”

Here’s how you can help: you can build beautiful, compelling, user-friendly websites that help boost patient accumulation for dental clinics.

This is just the start.

You can also jump on Quora and LinkedIn to see what people in your target industry are talking about.

Or you can join a Facebook group and learn the struggles of dentists, and how you can help them.

dentist Facebook groups

Source: facebook.com

Always remember, the magic happens when you come from a place of help. Not profit. When you genuinely care about getting people past their struggles, success will follow.  

Step #3: Create Your Website

My first website looked like this.

EW first website

Source: starterstory.com

The logo you see up there?

I created it by opening up a Word doc, typing “Express Writers” and changing up the color and font.

Not kidding!  😉

Because here’s the thing: building a website is crucial to starting your online business.

And you need to build it now.

No, you don’t need to take up 10 courses on how to code. You don’t need to study until you’re perfect. And you don’t need to hire thousand-dollar developers.

You just need a first iteration.

Check out this guide on how to build your website from scratch, then just get started.

Remember, a website isn’t like a brick-and-mortar storefront. You can tweak and refine it with time.

Check out what Express Writers’ website has become over time.

EW new website

Source: expresswriters.com

How to Start an Online Business: 5 Secret Ingredients That Lead to Success

Now, let’s dive into my secrets for success.

These are the five essential keys that took my business from a tiny $75 startup…

…to a thriving brand with thousands of loyal clients.

How to Start an Online Business, Key #1: Grow in a Healthy Place

I know, I’m not your therapist.

I’m here to teach you how to start an online business.

But the truth is, you are the foundation on which you’ll build your business. I mean, you as a person. So if you’re not in a healthy place right now personally, it’s impossible to grow a strong, healthy business.

I’m telling you this because this was me at 19. I’d started up my business, and was running it from my father’s house — which was a cult. (Want the full story? Read my memoir, Woman Rising.) The toxic atmosphere of doom and gloom, the rigid rules, and the claustrophobia made me feel like a child in a dark room.

It was impossible for me to reach for the sun and grow personally, so it was impossible for my business to do the same.

It was only when I left home and for the first time experienced the giddy freedom of being in the outside world that my business started to take flight…and grow 200% every single year.

So maybe you’re like me. Maybe you’re trying to grow your business in a dark place. Maybe you’re with toxic parents or a partner who holds you down.

Or maybe it’s a boss who doesn’t even know your name. Or colleagues who are constantly bickering and backstabbing each other.

Or maybe it’s a place you don’t want to live in, a bad situation, or a memory you need to let go of.

Whatever it is, let it go.

Here’s a great quote from Ariana Huffington to inspire you.

Ariana Huffington quote

Source: oprah.com

How to Start an Online Business, Key #2: Find the Right People to Grow With You

One huge mistake new businesspeople make it to hire the most skillful people.

They go through the resumes and pick people who’ve earned their PHD, or people with 20+ years of experience.

And that’s great, but skills and experience aren’t the #1 thing to look for when hiring.

In my experience, the hardest people to work with were the “veterans” who couldn’t take a word of advice from anyone.

On the other hand, I've found gems of people who are a dream to work with, with less experience but more eagerness, aptitude, and the desire to learn. And that goes a long way to long-term success.  

When hiring, look for people who are:

  • Humble. Humble people will listen, absorb, learn, and acknowledge their mistakes. They’ll grow faster than arrogant “experts” who won’t listen to a thing you say.
  • Hungry. Most people study for 20 years, and then stop. Hire people who are excited to make learning a lifelong process.
  • Smart. Hire people who are quick to adapt, openminded, and out-of-the-box thinkers. Remember, growing a business online requires constant evolution. You want your team to be flexible and able to change with your business year-by-year.
  • Passionate. This ties in to what I said above about passion. When someone loves what they do, they’ll go all out every time.

A great tip here is to go with your gut. If your mind is 100% convinced this is the right person, but your gut is screaming “NO,” don’t do it.

Here’s how Kris Duggan, chief executive of BetterWorks, puts it:

kris duggan hiring quote

Source: nytimes.com

Two extra tips when hiring:

  • Think of people you hire as partners. They’re not simply “employees” who do all the heavy lifting for you. They’re in the game with you, and your goal is to develop them as individuals as well as professionals.
  • Don’t think of them as your best friends. That said, keep your professional boundaries. You can be as friendly to your partners as you like, but don’t go all out and invite them over every Saturday to cry about Netflix movies or your ex. (Just sayin’. 😉)

Shoutout: If you want to learn more about the hiring process, you can sign up to apply to G.R.O.W. with Julia, my mastermind/community of talented entrepreneurs. Inside my community, I teach everything you need to know about finding the right people to hire, with templates for when you’re ready to post for the position.  

Sign up for the waitlist here.

Join GROW with Julia

How to Start an Online Business, Key #3: Set Up the Right Processes

Great processes are your business’s lifeline, as they keep everything running smoothly.   

business processes

Source: kissflow.com

To start building one, ask yourself questions like:

  • How will our products/services be delivered to our clients?
  • What platforms will we use to communicate with team members?
  • Who is involved in the process, and how?
  • How can we measure and maintain our process?

One amazing platform you can use for streamlined processes is Trello.

Trello allows you to assign tasks to team members, add workflows, update project statuses, and more.

Even though we've developed our own systems at Express Writers, we still use Trello internally.

Over time, you can develop your own process platform, if you want to take on building Rome. 😛

We did this at Express Writers by creating an ecommerce platform and internal team room. But it took over $200k. Custom development definitely isn't for the faint of heart.

How to Start an Online Business, Key #4: Invest in Quality Tech

If you’re offering services online, you NEED quality tech.

For example, you need:

  • A beautiful, user-friendly website
  • A platform or store where you can sell your services
  • Paid subscriptions to tools

An excellent example of tools we subscribe to are SEMrush and BuzzSumo.

They help us look up keywords and perform position tracking for our clients. Which means, they boost our services and help us provide 10x value with our products.  

Here’s a look at our pro SEMrush dashboard.

SEMrush dashboard

Source: semrush.com

Always remember, paid tools won’t only boost your services. They’ll also give you a USP (unique selling proposition) to set you above competitors who aren’t into quality tech.

How to Start an Online Business, Key #5: Build Your Presence

Remember this quote from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams?

If you build it they will come

Source: pinterest.com

It sounds unrealistic, but it’s true.

When you build your presence online as an authority in your industry, people WILL come.

But how do you do this?

1. Commit to creating awesome content.

It can be weekly blogs, social media posts, podcasts, or books.

They key is strategic, consistent, audience-aligned content that pulls readers in like a magnet.  

I’m telling you this because it’s exactly how I grew Express Writers.

I never paid for a single ad. Instead, I committed to publishing engaging, valuable content every single week.

The results were amazing. Over time, we skyrocketed our growth, pulling in all of our 5,000 clients from our content alone.

But remember, you can’t just create random content and throw it at a wall. You need to know exactly what you’re doing (a.k.a. you need your own personalized content strategy).

Join GROW with Julia

2. Build something that earns a lasting presence.

Don’t focus 100% on building a presence in itself. (That’s like posting social media photos with a fake smile on.)

Focus on building an amazing business that speaks to your audience’s deepest needs and drastically improves their lives.

Your presence will follow.

A great book I recommend on this topic is Built to Last by Jim Collins. In the book, Jim talks about the habits of visionary companies, and how you too can earn the right to a lasting presence.

3. Grow slowly and steadily.

Don’t rush.

Don’t go for growth that goes up and down like a hockey stick.

Don’t try to do everything at once, a sure recipe for burnout.

Instead, select your circle of focus. For instance, that might be to publish a high-quality blog 2x a week. Stick to it.

When it’s going along smoothly, delegate it and move on to the next circle of focus.

Slow and steady always wins the race.

How to Start an Online Business: It’s Not as Hard as You Think

I know, you’re totally new to this.

All you’ve done so far is read amazing stories of people who’ve made it in the online space.

Jon Morrow, who moved to a dream home in Mexico to write blogs by the sea.

Ramit Sethi, who took a 6-week world tour with his wife for their honeymoon.  

My business partner/husband Josh and I, who moved into our very own dream home in the middle of a pandemic.

You wonder if you can do it too.

You wonder exactly how to start an online business and lead it to success.

Let me tell you this, I believe in you.

You’ve already gone way further than most people will go by simply reading this blog to the end.

The next thing you need to do to climb the mountain of your dreams is to take that next small step.

Dream up your business. Nail down what you love doing. Find a safe, peaceful place where you can grow. Hire the right team members to be your partners. Earn your presence through a business that comes from a place of empathy and help. You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish, one step at a time.

GROW with Julia
how to start an online business

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