This post aims to help you grow an online business quickly and under budget. For context, I'm currently working on my third online business.
- The first time around, I started a small publishing company. In less than 2 years, we published 20+ books and hit 250,000 copies sold.
- The second business was an education company with a high-ticket offer. After satisfying 60+ clients, we pivoted.
- The third business I’m building is service-based — but remains 100% online and asynchronous.
I share all this because the advice I offer wasn't gleaned from articles and community boards. It's information I learned the hard way; through trial and error, money made and money lost.
If you want to learn how to build an online business fast using limited resources, you're in the right place.
Step 1: Define your product
How will your business make money?
Until you understand how you'll generate revenue, nothing else matters. This single metric should guide your early days.
Here are a few additional questions to help you answer that one:
- Are you selling a product or a service?
- How much will it cost to deliver?
- How much will you charge?
- How will people buy from you?
- What alternatives do your potential customers have?
How you answer each of these questions will impact the business's day-to-day operations. For example, a product-based enterprise might require less time but more capital. A high-ticket service will require a more hands-on sales process than a low-ticket one.
There is no one perfect business model. There is only the perfect one for you. A creation that leverages your strengths, experience, and network to deliver unique value.
I shifted from products to services over time because of my makeup. I like interacting and educating customers. And because I'm willing to add that layer of engagement, I can charge a premium. That premium rate means I need a much smaller customer base to achieve my financial goals. But it also means some of my time will always be tied to earning potential.
My online business provides a service but makes money by selling that service. Therefore, I need to figure out how to move more of my time and energy from provision to sales to increase revenue.
Step 2: Define your target audience
Now that you know what you want to sell, the next question is, who are you selling to (i.e., positioning)?
In the early stages of your business, the answer should be almost no one. The more clearly defined your target customer is, the more effective your marketing, sales, and delivery will be.
This is, by far, the most common and fatal mistake I see starters make. Talented individuals create a good solution to a common problem or desire. Then, they take their offer to the market and inevitably get lost in a sea of competition.
Here’s a good litmus test: what does the average person do when they encounter your product and price?
- If 90%+ of your interactions are lukewarm maybes (that could work for me, I could see myself buying that) — your positioning isn’t strong enough.
- If 90%+ of the people who see your business have a strong negative reaction (this is stupid, way too expensive, who would buy this) — you’re on the right track.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, these negative interactions are more valuable than positive ones. They tell you where not to waste your time while hinting at where to look next.
While selling books, I grew an email marketing list to around 7,000 subscribers. It included people from all stages of life, from college students to retirees and everyone in between. The common denominator was that they loved to read and wanted more books, so I sent them recommendations and deals.
A portion of them (about half) expressed interest in learning how to write a book. A smaller percentage of that group wanted to write a book because they knew it would have a positive ROI on their business. So, I created educational materials to service this need at a price point that reflected the resulting value.
For most of my list (90%+), my offer was out of their budget and didn’t suit their needs (e.g., they just wanted to write a book for fun).
Who stands to benefit the most from what you have to offer? Every business decision you make should be run through this question as a filter.
Step 3: Get your first sale
Business equals sales. If you’re not selling something, you’re not in business.
We try to distort this fact by the types of businesses we start. People who build product-only online businesses, software startups, or other non-customer-facing entities believe that separation excuses them from the sales process and developing sales skills. But this couldn't be further from the truth.
The fewer customer interactions you have, the harder it will be for you to understand what drives them to choose (or not choose) your solution. On the flip side, the more interactions you have, the greater your feedback loop will be about what works, and the higher your chances of success will be.
All that is to say: If you can sell to one person, you can sell to millions.
That first sale will likely require a bit of guerilla marketing — email, call, and meet-up in person with prospective customers. Have an honest conversation about what you're building, and then make the ask: Will you buy this?
Not, would you buy this? Or, are you interested?
If you don’t want theoretical feedback, don’t ask theoretical questions.
Will this make you uncomfortable... tremendously! But is it the most effective way to validate your offer, and will it save you from wasting time and money on a bad idea: 100%.
When I first pivoted from publishing to high-ticket offers, I took three people in my network out to lunch and pitched them. Two said no, one said yes. The concept was proven, refined, and ready for my list. Those initial conversations enabled me to close the dozens of sales that followed.
You only need one yes to prove your concept could work. That's it. Design, marketing, promotions, partnerships, upsells, etc. All of that is noise until your first sale is made.
Step 4: Focus your marketing
Marketing is just sales on a grander scale.
The purpose is to make the right people aware of what you offer, prove that you are a trustworthy solution, and invite them to purchase. Every marketing book can be boiled down to helping you do one of those three activities better.
There are thousands of ways to market your online business, but the broad categories are:
- SEO articles and pages
- Social media images
- Social media videos
- Traditional media
- Physical promotional items.
For most online businesses, you should stick with digital options from that list. Next, your timeframe and budget will decide which to pursue.
- Social media advertising is a good short-term solution if you need fast results and have money to spend. You can hire influencers to promote your product or create and run ads on popular platforms.
- If you need fast results but don't have money to spend, a bit of hustle is required. Choose a single social media platform and go all in on it. Perfect your content, post aggressively and engage with every comment.
- SEO is the answer if you have time and a strict budget. Create website content that answers questions, educates customers, and highlights your offer. SEO is the highest ROI activity any digital-first business can do. But it requires patience and planning to execute well.
Regardless of your budget and timeline, focus will be the differentiator between successful and unsuccessful campaigns. Once you have your first sale, choose one growth method (social, SEO, ads), one media type (text, image, video), and one message to communicate.
I've used all the methods to varying degrees over my career, but my favorite is SEO. Every hour I invest in searchable content pays dividends down the road. Build those assets consistently over a long enough period, and growth becomes automatic.
For example, I sell a few hundred copies of my books every month (and have for over 8 years now) without spending a single dollar or minute on advertising. How? Because I optimized my digital assets to give people what they were looking for (search engine optimization).
High effort in the beginning and a long tail of consistent results thereafter — precisely what I wanted.
Is there an entrepreneur you can emulate? A product company whose level is within reach? What did they do to get where they are now, and how can you put your spin on it?
Step 5: Turn your efforts into data
Once you follow the steps outlined thus far, you’ll start to gain traction. You’ll look at your business and feel a mix of excitement and anxiety.
Every entrepreneur understands this feeling. The best way to combat it is with data.
The more you understand how your business works, the more equipped you'll be to continue, scale, and replicate that success no matter the environment.
A few critical questions for this step include:
- What activities lead to sales?
- How much money/time does it take to get a new customer?
- Are you making measurable progress toward your goals?
This is where things like analytics tools and features become helpful. They provide accurate numbers on daily activities.
But here’s where I diverge from most other advice you’ll find on the internet. Metrics and analytics shouldn’t be a surprise. They should merely confirm what you’ve already learned by working in your small business.
Ideally, they should act as a support system. They prove that what you’re doing is working and provide details on where to focus your efforts.
My publishing business benefited greatly from guest post opportunities. My education business grew from podcast interviews. I understood these worked before seeing the data. But by seeing the data, I could measure how well and optimize how I went about them in the future.
Data is your secondary feedback loop. Customers should always be your first.
Step 6: Leverage success into partnerships
Growing a business quickly and cheaply is achievable.
Even if the competition has grown, the mechanisms to run a thriving small business have flourished, making it a better time than ever before to bring your idea to life.
My last piece of advice is to invite other people into your journey. Online business is a people sport. You first succeed by understanding what you have to offer and aligning that with what people need. You reach the next level by communicating in a way people what to hear and using their responses to perfect your product.
Finally, you reach the highest level by enabling others to benefit from the success you’ve had through partnerships and affiliates.
How does a restaurant become a billion-dollar business? They franchise. Every franchise is simply a licensing model — this worked for me, so I’ll share this model with you in exchange for shared profits.
In the same way, partnerships and affiliates exponentially expand your reach by creating a mutually beneficial program for those involved. Here’s where to start:
- List individuals with audiences or businesses that overlap with your audience. Avoid direct competitors. Seek out those with complimentary services or offers.
- Reach out 1-to-1 and show how your business fills a gap for their audience.
- Have them share your offer with their network and give them a percentage of each sale that comes as a result.
If sharing your revenue feels difficult, run the numbers. Would you be willing to give someone 30% of each new sale if it meant doubling your business? What if the partnership 10x-ed it?
I, too, was a skeptic until I saw the plan in action. One email from a partner author got me 700 book sales in a single day. Today, roughly 30% of my income is affiliate revenue from recommending tools and people I trust.
The high levels tactics explained above are the steps I followed to get to where I am today. Fast growth requires focus. Affordable growth requires creativity. Both are entirely within your reach.