The top 10 tips for starting up an online business from the experts
We gathered a panel of experts who have all made a success of running a business online, to find out what helped or hindered them.
The panel consisted of Tom Adeyoola, Founder and CEO of Metail, Rikke Rosenlund, Founder of BorrowMyDoggy, Karen Hanton MBE, Founder of Toptable.com and Sara Murray OBE, Founder of confused.com but more recently Buddi and Non-Executive Director of Bohoo.com. Each of them had plenty of advice for the audience of budding entrepreneurs.
1. A background in tech is not essential
Although it would help, you don’t have to be a whizz at coding or know all there is to know about websites to be successful. Tom said “I’ve always been a strategy guy—but I knew enough about tech to be dangerous. You need to understand enough to know who you would need with you to solve the problem.” And Karen insisted “don’t be intimidated by tech!” Finding the right people to fill in the gaps in your own knowledge is a sensible move and you will learn who you need to help you do the parts you find more of a struggle.
2. Find your people
For all our panel, finding the right people to work with was vital. “Don’t be scared to not know things—find people you can work with and conduct research,” says Karen. It’s a possible money saver for you, added Sara, “ask yourself how much tech knowledge do you need? Could you outsource to save costs?”
Tom agreed, saying: “Companies are moving towards Cambridge to get closer to AI research. Go back to where you studied to find your people. I co-funded a PhD student—he came to us instead of Google. He was interested in our problem and joining us to solve it, not how much he could earn.”
3. Testing, testing
Rikke started out using the Lean Startup Methodology which essentially allows you to find a gap in the market where your business can solve a problem, provide a better service and (perhaps more importantly) allows you to find out if your business idea is even viable in the current market. She explained: “Most of you just starting out won’t have the benefit of unlimited pots of money, but the lean business model encourages you to use the resources that you do have in a controlled way, so you can be more efficient and plan for long-term.”
Having a safer way to test your business idea is a great way to start out and makes sure you’re in a better position financially if things don’t go to plan.
4. Should you consider an app?
It could be tempting to launch an app as part of your business, but Tom explained that building web pages that are mobile responsive negate the need for an app. “They can be a hold up—apps take up space and people don’t want to download too many things onto their phone.” Perhaps further down the line, you might have more time and funds to explore an app, but in the beginning, the focus should be on the website.
5. How high-tech is too high?
Much like not requiring a background in tech to get started, you don’t always have to use the most cutting-edge systems or tools to serve your customers. Karen used the example of her business of making travelling with your pet and suggested: “if you choose a life with a pet you are also possibly less inclined to spend time worrying about the latest technology, you’re too busy walking your dog!” By considering the demographic who will be using your services, leading tech may not always be the answer.
6. Exit strategy
An important question raised was “should a business always have an exit strategy?” Karen answered “At the beginning, I didn’t even know what one was—I learned terms like that along the way. Having one is not a bad idea, but my experience is that you should keep an eye on who might buy you out—but don’t focus on it. You might even partner with them instead.”
“It’s a modern term and I believe it’s detrimental to business,” added Sara. She paraphrased the great businessman Warren Buffet who said: “Build your business like you want to leave it to your grandchildren.” A business should be something you take care of and seek to grow rather than set out with a view to sell on as soon as you can.
7. Money matters
“Don’t think about the money you’re going to make, think about the impact for the customer, make it about the difference you can make,” said Rikke. She gradually implemented fees for BorrowMyDoggy services, when initially it was free, but she offers more benefits to her customers (insurance for their beloved pet being one of them) that outweigh the costs, meaning they are more than happy to pay. Believing that you are charging a fair price and remaining confident in the face of a difficult sales pitch is no mean feat, but Rikke said that by building up slowly she kept prices fair and her customers trust her to provide a better product in return.
8. Problem solving will help you find an audience
Tom explained “we live in a time now when it’s easier than ever to find consumers to test ideas cheaply. An exciting idea can be tested but think really hard about solving their problems first.” Once you know the problems or ‘pain points’ people have or experience when using a product or service, you can begin to understand the audience your business will be for.
BorrowMyDoggy started with Rikke noticing that dog owners wanted more options for dog care and that many people wanted to be able to enjoy a dog but didn’t have the ability to fully commit to owning one. Both these problems helped her to find a community of people her idea could help.
9. Quit talking and start doing
“Beg, borrow, steal, everything” said Sara and “quit talking and start doing.” The panel had all discussed their ideas, but then they acted on them. Tom suggested asking yourself the first few questions: What makes your business unique? How are you going to get your product sold? Can you use tech to help? And go from there.
“Make use of the Business & IP Centre” encouraged Rikke, “it’s a fantastic resource and can help you to take action and make your idea a reality.”
10. Stay passionate
The panel was unanimous on this one. Your business needs to be something you are passionate about – whatever it is. “This is a life choice,” said Karen. “A work life balance is great but it’s important to know that running your own business doesn’t give you much time off.”
Rikke agreed, adding “I’m a firm believer in passion – do something that helps you to enjoy the journey.” Building a business from scratch is daunting, but if it’s something you truly believe in, it will be so much easier.