How to start a business – your first 10 steps
Do you dream of starting a business but have no idea where to begin? Or are you struggling to get a fledgling enterprise off the ground?
If so, you’re not alone. In fact, I was inspired to write this article after reading a forum for mums starting businesses this morning, and noticing that women had the same few questions about starting a business.
All too often, people come up with what they think is a great business idea, but that’s it. They may have fantastic experience in one area of their business – manufacturing, marketing, project management experience or finance – but are clueless about the rest. You could say that they have no idea what to do with their idea!
What they really need, and what they’re looking for, is a process – a way to join the dots.
The first 10 steps you need to take when starting a business
If this sounds like you; if you have an idea, but no idea what to do with it, we’ve put together the first 10 steps you need to take in starting a business to help give you some guidance. They are:
- Have a workable idea.
- Come up with a name.
- Identify your customers.
- Build your website.
- Craft your message.
- Work out your sales platform.
- Plan your marketing and PR strategy.
- Get on social media.
- Sort out the legal and financial stuff.
- Write a business plan.
To find out more about each one and get advice on how to tackle them, read on.
1) Have a workable idea
Once you understand how to come up with business ideas, you see them everywhere (a business idea is, in its simplest form, simply an opportunity to solve a problem people have).
But not every apparently-brilliant business idea has the potential to go all the way. And the only way you can have a reasonably educated guess at an idea’s potential is to conduct market research.
All too often we see people coming up with an idea that love and are convinced will make them millions. But when they put it to their potential target audience they’re not enthused.
So if you have a business idea, don’t be afraid to put it to the test. Find people who would potentially be your customers (and will be honest… don’t just canvas well meaning friends and family who will only say nice things!) and ask them what they think of the idea.
Would they pay for it? How much and how often – getting the right price point (especially one that is profitable) is almost as important as finding the right idea itself.
Also ask them how they solve (or try to) the problem you want to solve already. This will give you an idea of the competition you’ll be up against.
Hopefully your business idea will come though research intact. If not, can you adapt it? Or is it simply a no-go? And if it does fail the market research test, don’t be too upset. It’s much better to find out now, than six months down the line when you’ve invested time, money and hope in trying to make it work.
2) Come up with a name
Once you’re confident you have a workable business idea, the next step is to give it a name. Seems easy enough, right? But in fact there are a number of things you need to consider:
- Does your name describe or convey what you do (and does it need to?).
- Is anyone else already using your name?
- Are there any suitable domain names available?
- Can you register it with Companies House if you need to?
- Does it have any negative connotations?
- Is it easy to say, spell and remember?
Once you have a shortlist of ideas you like, you need to start researching. First stop would be a site where you can purchase domain names, such as 123-reg. Check whether your preferred company names are still available. If possible, get a .com or .co.uk, or similar relevant name. If it has gone, check the site that is registered with that name to ensure that no similar or high profile businesses already exist with the same name.
Try to avoid adding hyphens to your name to get a domain name. And make sure that, when written down it makes sense, and is easy to spell. For example, let’s say you started a business called ‘My sister’s ex’. Your domain name – mysistersex – may attract the wrong kind of traffic!
If there is ever a chance you may want to turn your business into a Ltd company, you also need to check with Companies House that no other business has already registered your name (you can read more about that here, and the variations on a name that are accepted).
And finally, it’s wise just to sense check your shortlist. Ask people what they think of the names, and what they make them think of. You want a name that stands out for the right reasons, not the wrong ones!
3) Identify your customers
Taking of customers, you’ll need a few to make your business work! So where will you find them?
We always recommend that businesses get really clear on their target market before spending too much time and money building their business. After all, everything you do needs to be with your customers in mind. So you need to know them well.
So who are your customers? What are their lives like? What problems and worries do they have? And where does your business fit into their lives?
Don’t be afraid to really narrow down a defined niche of customers. The more specific you are about who you help and how, the more powerful your marketing and sales communications will be.
You may find these two articles helpful when narrowing down your potential customer pool:
- How to target your digital marketing and get better results.
- Four simple steps to defining and reaching your target market.
4) Build your website
Most businesses today need some form of online presence – whether it’s an all-singing, all-dancing website, or a simple Facebook page. But unless you have expertise in that area, or plan to use it as the main shopfront of your business, you don’t need to invest a fortune in building a bespoke website.
You can build your own professional-looking site using WordPress for less than £150. Or use free website builders such as Wix or Weebly (three of the least techy women I know have built really nice sites using these – if they can do it, you certainly can!).
If you do decide to bite the bullet and get your site professionally designed and built, take your time to find the right person/people. A few quick tips:
- ALWAYS buy and own your own domain name – you’ll pay much more if someone else buys it, and could be held to ransom over ownership of it in future.
- Get at least three quotes and check they all include the same things – beware of ‘hidden’ add-ons.
- Ask to see live websites they have created – make sure you like their work and that their sites function properly!
You’ll find more tips to help you in these two articles:
You can also read interactive reviews of some of the most popular website builders here.
If you’re not ready for a website yet, consider a Facebook page. It’s free to create and is a good way to tentatively establish a business presence and brand, and start networking.
Other considerations you need to take into account is branding and design – what’s your look and feel? Your logo? Colour palette? What type of images will you use?
It’s worth investing in a professional logo – people will form opinions of your business, good and bad, based on your logo. It has the potential in itself to win you business, or even to lose it. So get a good one! (If you’re really struggling for money, try websites like Fiverr.)
Take the time to consider your broader brand too, and ensure it’s consistent across all media.
5) Craft your message
Once you’ve established your target market, you need to work out how best to sell your products or services to them. What messages are going to resonate with them? And what type of language will they respond to?
To start you need to go back to the problem you solve for people, and identify your USP – your unique selling point, the thing that makes you different from everyone else. Once you’re confident you’ve got this right, you need to ensure that every message you convey has this USP at the heart of it. You need to be clear about the problem your customers have, how you solve it, and why they should trust you.
If your website is one of your primary marketing tools, it’s worth getting a professional copywriter to craft your main pages. Once they’ve established your key sales message you can then adapt this yourself across other mediums.
And as with design, it’s essential that you establish a brand tone of voice for your business and use it consistently. You also need to be aware of SEO, especially if you’re banking on attracting customers through organic searches. It pays to understand how to write SEO copy, and make sure you keep your site updated with fresh content regularly. A weekly blog is an easy way to achieve this.
Some articles that can help you create effective content for your website:
- How to write a blog people will want to read.
- Learn the secret of writing powerful headlines.
- How to write a perfect About page.
6) Work out your sales platform
How are you going to sell your products or services? Will people buy or hire you from your website or shop directly? Or will you advertise and sell through a third party?
If you’re selling products through your own website, you may want to consider a platform like Shopify. You can link out to your Shopify shop, or add a plugin into your WordPress site to create a Shopify Buy Button that’s fully customisable to your brand’s look. (You can also sell via your social media channels using Shopify.)
It may take a while though to establish your name and grow traffic to your own site. So when you start out you might want to consider selling through third party websites such as Etsy, Folksy, Amazon Marketplace and notonthehighstreet.com.
Lampshade designer Miranda Law built her business from scratch selling via third party platforms, while gradually growing traffic to her own website. 18 months after launching her business, she was earning a living from it. She explains how she did it, with tips for using each platform here.
If you’re selling services, you may want to look for websites and online directories serving your industry. Pick your directories carefully, and ensure they attract enough of the right kind of client. As a freelance copywriter, I pay £6 a month to list on a freelance network. Within six months of joining it had brought in over £12,000 of work, so it definitely pays for itself!
7) Plan your marketing and PR strategy
In order to spread the word about your business, you need a marketing strategy – however rudimentary.
We recommend creating a proper marketing plan. This helps you to be structured in your thinking, identify opportunities to market yourself, and budget your finances so they work hard for you and deliver maximum results.
Without a plan, you’re more likely to fall into a scattergun approach, in which you can easily overspend, without learning what does and doesn’t work so you can focus your money on more profitable areas in future.
There are a number of helpful marketing articles on our site that may help you, including:
- Three reasons every business needs a marketing plan.
- Five expert tips to maximise your marketing objectives.
- Three effective marketing strategies for introverts.
- 10 quick marketing tips that work for freelancers.
- The five biggest marketing mistakes small businesses make.
As well as marketing, it’s worth considering PR. While you may not (yet) be able to afford a professional PR consultant (although they can be an invaluable investment if they can get you exposure in the right media), you can learn some simple strategies to help spread the word about what you do.
You may find these articles helpful:
- Five quick marketing and PR tips for food businesses.
- How to write a press release that gets results.
- Your 30-second guide to writing a press release.
- 10 ways to advertise your business locally for free.
8) Get on social media
When we first launched Talented Ladies Club we didn’t have a marketing budget. As a self-funded start-up by two freelance mums, we needed to do everything on a shoestring.
So social media was a godsend to us. Free to use, all it required was time and knowledge, and we set about learning how to get the most out of it. One of our wisest investments was paying a social media consultant to teach us the basics of Twitter. Within a year, we’d grown our followers by over 11,000, and, until our SEO really kicked in, Twitter was by far our best source of traffic. And it was free!
Other platforms, such as Facebook, Pinterest and YouTube have worked similar wonders for other businesses.
Some quick tips for getting started on social media:
- Pick one (or two) sites that your customers are on and use them – you don’t have time to do more than two sites properly.
- Keep your branding consistent – make sure your profiles match your website, and use the same colour palettes, images, logo and tone of voice.
- Follow the 80/20 rule – make sure that the balance of your activity is 20% self-promotional and 80% quality content.
- Be clever with your time – set aside clear pockets of time each day to manage social media and don’t go over them. Be wary about letting it take over your life!
You’ll find more helpful advice on social media in these articles:
- Your beginner’s guide to using Twitter for business.
- The advanced guide to selling on Pinterest.
- 10 common social media mistakes – and how to avoid them.
- How to measure social media success.
- Four easy mistakes to avoid on social media.
- Creating a social media schedule that works for you.
9) Sort out the legal and financial stuff
If you’re starting a business, you need to make sure you’re legal and above board. And that means deciding what structure you want your business to take – are you going to be self-employed/a sole trader or start a Ltd company? – and let HMRC know. (You can learn more about both on the government’s really helpful website.)
It’s also a good idea to open a specific bank account for your business. Not only will it make it easier to borrow money for your business later on if you need to, but it makes bookkeeping much more simple! It also helps to make your business appear more professional.
10) Write a business plan
One of the most important steps in starting a business, in our opinion, is writing a business plan.
If you need investment for your start-up, a business plan is essential. But we recommend tackling one even if you’re not looking to borrow. Why? Because it forces you to consider every aspect of a new business – all the things you must address to make it a success.
It’s quite easy when planning a business to focus on the nice bits. The parts of a business you enjoy, and possibly the reason why you’re starting it at all. But thats not enough. To shape a successful business you need to consider it in a more rounded way, and that means thinking about the less fun bits. The parts of it that will stretch your expertise and knowledge.
The very first step we took when starting Talented Ladies Club was to have a stab at a business plan. As it was right at the very beginning, we didn’t have a lot of the answers at that point, but it was a brilliant exercise as it showed us everything we did need to think about, and quickly revealed any holes in our logic.
We’ve put writing a business plan as step 10 in our list here because all the work you’ve done, and information you’ve gathered so far, will help you get your business plan off to a strong start.
So how do you write a business plan? There are dozens, if not hundreds, of free templates available online. We spent ages finding the one that was the best fit for us (HSBC). And in fact, adapted their structure as the basis of our own template in our membership club Kickstart. (We also created an easy-to-follow guide to writing your business plan to take some of the pain and guesswork out of it.)
If you’re getting ready to write your business plan, you may find these articles helpful:
- How to write a business plan.
- 10 common business plan mistakes.
- How to plan a business without a business plan.
Get your business started the right way
Of course this isn’t everything you need to do and know when starting a business – we don’t have the space to cover it all here! – but it is a good start. Every step we cover here is an essential consideration in building a successful enterprise, as we strongly recommend you ensure you tackle them all.