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Editorial
How to Start An Online Business in 6 Steps
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Lori Mihalich-Levin image
Lori Mihalich-Levin,
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@mindfulreturn
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How to start on online business? An e-commerce store full of products, or a blog with an e-commerce website attached, an online boutique or any kind of home-based business sounds like an appealing idea. But what are the start-up costs to fund your business idea, and how do you make that business idea come to fruition? Starting a business is no easy feat, but with the right steps, you can be successful online.

So are you wondering how on earth to start an online business?  I’m here to tell you a bit about how I did it.  But before we dig in, let’s have a round of applause for power of the internet, shall we? 

Back in the day, if you wanted to start your own business, you had to actually go market the idea in person. You had to buy ads in newspapers and magazines. Try to get yourself on TV or radio. And go around town with physical things like posters and paper. You probably needed a store or office, too. 

With the arrival of the internet, the barriers to entry are low, low, low. Get yourself an idea. Buy a domain name. And you’re off to the races.

I’m not here to say that launching an online business is easy, or quick, or that it doesn’t require work.  As we all know, the internet is a noisy place, and our e-mail inboxes are crowded.  Yes, it takes a lot of effort to cut above that noise in the online world.  But I am here to say that it’s possible. In fact, it's very possible. And a lot of people do it successfully. And they do it with a heck of a lot less start-up capital that was previously needed to get yourself off the ground.

My own online business, Mindful Return, is a program that helps new moms and dads navigate the transition back to work after their maternity and paternity leaves. The program also helps employers, who offer it to their employees as a parental leave benefit, to retain their new parent talent.  The key feature of my program is a cohort-based (think: people in the same phase of life, taking the course together), asynchronous (think: You don’t have to be anywhere at any given time) online course

Mindful Return is about four years old now (it’s basically my third child) and thriving. Here are the siex steps I recommend you take if you’re interested in launching your own online business: 

1. Get fired up about solving a problem. At some point, you may have said to yourself, “Wow, life would be so much better if [NAME INNOVATION OR PROGRAM OR INVENTION HERE].”  I had that moment myself after having my second child. I was drowning in life (and tears) as a full-time working mom of a two year old and an infant.  And I realized that while there seemed courses out there about everything baby-related, I couldn’t find a curriculum around how to plan for and head back to work after maternity leave.  My husband (a career coach and business-owner himself) asked me what I was going to do about this dearth of resources.  And I committed, in that moment, to becoming that thoughtful, trusted resource for new working moms. 

Whatever problem you are trying to solve, be sure it’s something you’re passionate about.  Something that doesn’t feel like work.  Because you won’t devote the time, energy, creativity, or sheer willpower to launching something amazing if you don’t care (a lot) about it.

2. Seek consumer feedback. “How do I know if there’s a market for this thing I’m dreaming of creating?” you are probably asking.  “How do I know if the logo I’m thinking of will resonate?”  Or perhaps “Will anyone actually pay money for this? How much money?” While I can’t answer these questions about your specific lightbulb of an idea, someone. Don’t incubate your product or idea in a vacuum and keep it the best-guarded secret in town until it’s “perfect.”  There is no such thing as “perfect.” And you’ll get new and great ideas from talking to your potential customers.  

After I hired a logo designer, for example, I ran my favorite of her logo ideas by a few dozen new working moms to see what resonated most. I was pleasantly surprised to find they had a consensus opinion.  Early on in my business, I also gathered a bunch of new working moms at my house for a Sunday brunch.  They were my first focus group, and I bounced many an idea off of them.     

3. Believe in baby steps (a.k.a. you don’t have to quit your day job). At least not right away. It took me about four months to craft the complete (though ever-evolving) curriculum for the Mindful Return course.  And I did this, and launched my blog all while working full time as a lawyer at a health care trade association.  How did I write the course while working full time and being mom to two crazy but wonderful little boys? In tiny, tiny increments. Just 20 minutes here. Another 45 minutes here. And maybe a plane ride or two for business travel

What I’m saying is that if you’re passionate about solving a problem and are inspired to start an online business, don’t drop the idea simply because you think you don’t have time.  The journey of a million miles truly does start with a single step. And then another. And then another. Have a long time horizon in mind. Build your patience skills. And commit to not giving up.

4. Research your tech tools. If you’re planning to start an online business, the internet needs to become your friend.  Can you believe I wasn’t even on Facebook before I launched Mindful Return?  It’s true. I had to get over my own hang-ups about social media and the online space before I could embrace it for my biz. Now my Mindful Return FB page is a critical part of my marketing strategy.

Knowing I wanted to run an online course, I needed to research my online course platform options. I wound up using Ruzuku, which I still use today, because it proved easy to use both for the course designer and for course participants. 

You’ll want a website too, of course. I first started by noodling my way through creating a Wordpress blog. And then later hired someone to help me convert it to the Wordpress.org version and to make it look more professional. Which leads me to Tip #5.

5. Grow your team, bit by bit. Chances are, if you want your online business to grow into that world-changing operation you’re envisioning, you’ll need to grow a team as you grow the business. But at the beginning, it’s probably just you. Accountant. Chief Marketing Officer. Scheduler. Chief Operating Officer. Assistant. All in one person. After a while, that won't be so sustainable, however.

When I started out, the first people I hired were a graphic designer for my logo, and a lawyer to help with the legal aspects of getting incorporated. If you have a physical product, you may need team members who know something about manufacturing. And perhaps a web designer early on, too.

Don’t worry about who you do or don’t have the ability to afford at the moment. Just do what you can. Take the next step forward.  And know that wherever you are in the early stages of starting your business is exactly where you’re supposed to be. 

As Mindful Return grew, so did my team. In addition to the others I mentioned, I now have an accountant. Someone to help with social media. A dad who co-created the Mindful Return Paternity Leave Course with me. And a wonderful co-moderator who helps me coach the moms in the Mindful Return course and with whom I launched the Mindful Return Maternity Leave Template.  Your team will evolve as your business does.

6. Just START. That's right; do it. Yes, you’ll be able to think of a million reasons not to start this online business you’re dreaming of.  You don’t know how. You don’t have a business plan. (Note: Did any of these steps say you needed to write a business plan?) You don’t have time. You don’t know if it will work. My response?  So what?

I’m here to tell you to JUST START working toward that idea you have. Take baby steps. Every day. One day at a time.  Commit to sticking with it for a year, and see what happens.  You may very well surprise yourself.  And at the least you’ll have learned a ton of new skills.  If you need daily inspiration as you set out, sign up for Seth Godin’s daily e-mails. They’re short. Inspiring. And perfect for helping the new entrepreneur believe in herself.

Good luck to you as you blaze a trail in the online world with your niche business idea. My parting words to you? Online businesses require in-person efforts. Businesses don't just come out of no where. That network of real people out there in the world who know you, love you, and would do anything to see you succeed? They will be your best brand ambassadors. Engage them in the process. Yes, your product may be web-based. But it’s the real, in-person connections that will truly launch your business.

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Lori K. Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the founder of Mindful Return, author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, and creator of the Mindful Return E-Course. A partner in the health care practice of a global law firm, she also is mama to two beautiful red-headed boys. Lori holds a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.  Reach out at lori@mindfulreturn.com if you want someone to guide you through the launch of your own online biz.

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