Online start-ups are everywhere. I've been responsible for a few over the years myself. The internet is an exciting place. It's relatively inexpensive to start, it offers ample opportunity and virtually anyone can consider building a business from their bedroom, or corporate tower.
Clearly there are fantastic opportunities but the reality is that most start-ups simply remain little more than a 'start-up'. But I'm also reminded that there's not much point in setting up a new website unless there's a purpose, which in the case of a business is to make money.
For many embarking on the start-up journey, it seems to me that too many simply abandon the basic principles of planning and organisational development. It's probably in part due to the stimulating and expansive newness of cyberspace, and likely to be brought on by the apparent freedoms this new environment brings. Whatever the case may be, I have observed many who charge into their online development whilst leaving behind some very basic principles.
Last year I was asked to help an online start-up business after it had developed its own brand – it was too late and they'd got it horribly wrong. While this business has struggled, I'm nevertheless confident there will be many online businesses that will succeed handsomely.
So how to avoid the pitfalls? In very general terms, I would follow four basic principles in developing an online start-up:
- Treat it like any other business or organisational development. That means business and marketing planning as you would for any other entity. In other words, don't treat its newness as a reason to assume that you can always advise yourself and not seek wise direction from professionals. For example, if your basic focus needs to be on 'sales' and 'cash flow', then keep the focus on these elements, rather than just on the website. Above all, be ruthless with yourself in admitting if the venture is unlikely to work and call it quits before you lose everything. A good thing about online activity is that the ongoing costs are less likely to be crippling once a site is shut down. A good start to get your thinking sorted is How to plan a strategy.
- Have a strong, fresh and viable idea. Over the years I've been treated to a series of people asking if we'd be prepared to participate in online start-up ideas – everything from a different kind of dating site to gaming platforms. The truth is that few have been very original and would need to operate in catch-up mode against a market leader that has already well cornered the market. Trade Me is a New Zealand case in point. Unless there is a very powerful new approach which carries a strong business case, don't even think about it. On the other hand, there is no limit for genuinely fresh ideas where there can be a proven need in the market.
- A website, particularly one that is entirely online in its activity, relies heavily on effective planning, which should include consideration of any number of marketing options (online, social media, SEO and above-the-line). See Surf the social media wave with the right web platform and 23 tips for effective and efficient use of social media.
- Give careful consideration to the particular issues involved in developing an online brand name and URL (website address). Too often the entity's name is not considered properly in context with the crucial role of your basic web address. See Six tips for creating a name for your online start-up.
Fraser Carson is a respected communications and social media consultant, and commentator. He has particular experience and interest in community building, the not-for-profit sector and business development.