In 2013, I was working in a design agency in London, while dreaming about entrepreneurship and traveling the world.
One day, an idea struck me. Most people viewed design and entrepreneurship as completely separate skillsets… But didn’t it make more sense to combine them? I decided that it did, so I started Despreneur, a magazine for design entrepreneurs.
Over the next 3 years, I grew it into a multi-author platform where people could learn about tech, design, and business, and then, in 2016, once I felt that it was time for me to move on, I sold it for a considerable (to me, at least) amount of money.
Despreneur changed my life forever. It turned me into an entrepreneur. It provided me with the flexibility and income to travel the world. It made me grow as a person.
And today, I want to share the most important lessons that I learned over those three years of blood, sweat and respect…
3 most important questions you need to ask yourself
Here’s the thing: building a profitable business is hard. Really hard… That’s why a vague idea of wanting to do so is not enough. You need a clear motivation that will keep you going even when things get tough. And believe me, things will get tough.
So how do you get that motivation you need in order to push through the inevitable obstacles? You do that by taking the time to understand why exactly you are doing what you’re doing. What will you get out of all that hard work?
Here are the three most important questions to ask yourself.
- What kind of lifestyle do you want? Look, everyone wants to have a lot of money, but why do you want it? Is it so that you could travel the world for weeks, months, or even years at a time? Or because you want to be able to stay at home and take care of your children while still providing for them financially? Or maybe you want to acquire enough passive income producing assets so that you’d reach the point where you’d never have to work for money ever again? There are no right or wrong answers. What matters is getting clear on what you want in this one life you have.
- How much would that kind of lifestyle cost? Now, once you are clear on the big picture, it’s time to work out the details. How much money would you need per month to maintain that kind of lifestyle? Work out a monthly budget for accommodation, food, clothes, entertainment, travel, etc. and don’t freak out if once you add everything up, you realize that you’ll need a lot of cash – having a concrete number in mind will keep you motivated until you get to that point.
- What kind of business do you need in order to be able to afford that lifestyle (in terms of money and time)? Now that you know both what kind of lifestyle you want and how much money you need to afford that lifestyle, you need to consider what kind of business you should build. For example, if you simply want to replace your current income so that you could stay at home with the kids – a relatively small website might do, meanwhile, if you want to travel the world in style, you’ll need to be more ambitious. Remember, you don’t want to work for your business, you want your business to work for you, so think carefully about how much time you are willing to invest each week and if it will produce the monthly cashflow that you want.
You might be tempted to skip these questions and jump straight into building a business. Sure, you can do that… but I wouldn’t recommend it. In my experience, people who lack clarity tend to procrastinate a lot, get easily distracted and generally struggle to get things done. Can you blame them? You can’t expect someone to stay focused and productive if they don’t really know why they’re doing what they’re doing. So, calm down, don’t rush, and take the time to think things through. That will make everything a lot easier in the long run.
A simple and affordable hosting plan, like the ones offered by Hostinger, is more than enough in the beginning.
Once you get clear on why you want to build a business and what kind of business it should be, get started right away. It’s normal to feel the temptation to procrastinate on it by telling yourself that you need to do more research or write a business plan, or wait until you have the money for a custom design. Don’t give into it! You need to get going. You can figure everything out along the way.
Here are the first five steps you should take.
Get a good domain name. Have you already come up with a name for your blog? Do some brainstorming if not – it has to be short, memorable, and reflect your brand. It’s best if your domain name ends in .com because dot-coms are the easiest to remember. However, the .com is a very popular domain and your desired domain is most likely taken. Think about alternatives like .xyz that is forecasted to dominate the internet in the upcoming years. You can check the availability of various domain names here. You can buy a domain name either via Hostinger or through your hosting provider.
Get a reliable web hosting. A decent web hosting is a must for any online business. Don’t go overboard, though. I remember when I launched Despreneur, I got an expensive hosting package and that was a mistake. While it might not cost that much on its own, the problem is that all these seemingly small expenses add up really quickly, and can put a serious strain on your budget, especially if your business isn’t generating enough revenue to cover those expenses yet. An affordable and reliable plan, like the ones offered by Hostinger, is more than enough in the beginning.
Install and set up WordPress. You might be wondering which blogging platform you should go with. Just stop. Install WordPress. It’s the biggest content management system in the world which powers ~27% of the internet. This means that it’s constantly updated, bugs are fixed fast, and there’s a huge ecosystem that is full of plugins, themes, etc. So don’t try to reinvent the bicycle. Go with WordPress.
Set up an email autoresponder. An engaged email list is one of the most valuable assets that you can have as an online entrepreneur. Don’t wait until you have built out your website, or until you have an opt-in freebie ready, or until you have written an entire email sequence you have in mind. Set up an email autoresponder and slap an opt-in form on your homepage on day one. Improve as you go.
Make sure that your design is clean and beautiful. Overlooking the importance of web design is a huge mistake. It doesn’t matter how great your content is if your blog looks like a complete mess. Get a premium WordPress theme (take a look at 2017’s best selling themes on Theme Forest). It costs less than $100 to make your website look professional (you can upgrade to a completely custom design once you get the business going).
Again, don’t procrastinate by telling yourself that you need to research this or research that, it’s just your anxiety talking. Sit down and get these 5 tasks done in one day. You can always adjust things as you go – the most important thing now is to get started.
Build an engaged email list
As I’ve already mentioned before, an engaged email list is one of the most valuable assets you can own as an online entrepreneur, therefore you need to make list building your top priority from the day one.
Here are some practical tips that will help you grow your email list.
Optimize your web design for conversions. I can’t emphasize the importance of web design enough here – you will have a hard time building an email list if your design isn’t optimized for it. Where to start? Deal with the #1 conversion killer first. Also, make sure to plug these “leaks” that are costing you subscribers!
Offer a free product as an opt-in incentive. I recommend you to create a free product and give it away for free as an opt-in incentive. It works best if you split the product into several parts and then deliver it via email over the course of few weeks (here’s a great article on creating an email course). Just make sure that the free product is of such high-quality that you would be okay with charging money for it. Remember, people judge your premium content by your free content, so you can’t slack off on the free stuff.
Provide your subscribers with exclusive content. Your email list consists of your most loyal readers, therefore you have to treat them like VIPs. It’s not enough to give them the free product, you also need to offer them exclusive content, otherwise, why would they keep opening your emails after your product sequence is done? I recommend sending out a weekly email with valuable content that is meant for subscribers only. People like being a part of an exclusive club!
The most important thing to understand about email marketing is that you have to add, add, add value before you ever ask for anything. Do you like reading emails from companies that only reach out when they want to sell you something? Well, neither do your subscribers, therefore make sure to treat them as people, not as cash cows. Spoil them with freebies, exclusive content, and your attention. Remember, email marketing is not about making a quick buck, it’s about building mutually beneficial relationships.
Content is king
There’s quite a bit of debate around the question of what the ultimate royalty of the online marketing world is – design or content. What’s my take on it?
While I think that design is extremely important, and that bad design can sink your business, ultimately I’m on Team Content, because quality content is the key to building a loyal and engaged audience. A loyal and engaged audience (or lack therefore) is what makes or breaks an online business.
Here are three tips that will help you get your content right.
Add value. The #1 purpose of your content should be adding value to the lives of your readers. You might look at websites like Buzzfeed and be tempted to go the route of vapid articles and click-bait articles, but the reality is that this model was created to maximize ad revenue and for it to work, you’d need to generate huge amounts of traffic. It might seem counter-intuitive, but writing in-depth articles that genuinely help your readers makes it easier to monetize your website, because building an audience that trusts you and is interested in what you have to say is a better business model than trying to milk those pageviews from random visitors with goldfish attention spans. So whenever you have produced a piece of content, ask yourself, does this really add value? In other words… Write epic shit.
Don’t forget SEO! Now, while you obviously should be writing for humans first and foremost, it’s important to optimize your content for search engines as well. Don’t know much about it? Learn from Brian Dean (Backlinko). I suggest you to start with the brilliant Skyscraper technique.
Listen to your readers. You must remember that you aren’t writing for yourself, you are writing for your audience, and therefore you have to pay attention to the feedback that you are getting. What topics are your readers most interested in? What questions do they have? What do they want to see more of and what do they want to see less of? Remember, the surest way to create content that resonates with your readers is listening to them and giving them what they want.
Please understand that there’s no way of getting around this. You simply have to produce quality content that provides value to your readers on a regular basis. Don’t waste your time looking for shortcuts or hacks. Just put your head down and start writing.
Promote, promote, promote!
There’s this belief that if you create great content, the readers will come. Here’s a cold splash of reality: no, they won’t. Today, the internet is such a noisy place, that if you don’t make an effort to put your work in front of people, it will go unnoticed among all the other things that are competing for their attention.
Here are some things you can do to get those eyeballs.
Guest post on top blogs in your niche. When you start out, you are an internet nobody, and you have to make a name for yourself. How can you do that when you have no audience of your own yet? You go to people in your niche who do have huge audiences and write super high-quality posts for them (yes, for free!). That will get you exposure to tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people who otherwise would have never heard of you. Read this guest posting guide and get to work.
Build a decent social media following. While social media following isn’t as valuable as people often perceive it to be (social media marketing should always come after email marketing and content marketing), it’s still useful in terms of sharing your work and interacting with your audience. Pick 2 platforms to start with (Facebook and Twitter are probably your best bets) and start building a following on them. Just remember that providing value and resharing is the key – only share high-quality links that your followers would find interesting.
Network with other people in your niche. You should start building your network immediately so that it is already there once you need it. Reach out to people in your niche and interact with them without any hopes of immediate payoff (and never approach someone by asking for a favor). Have conversations. Make friends. Then once you do need for a favor, you won’t feel all awkward and sleazy when asking for it. Here’s a great guide that can help you learn to network the right way.
The biggest mistake that bloggers make when it comes to marketing is that they don’t promote their content enough. Think about it: you put all that time and effort into creating a great piece, and now what? Are you going to just let it die a silent death?
No? Then share it via appropriate channels with people who might find it relevant. You should only be spending 20% of your time and energy creating content and 80% of your time and energy on promoting that content. So promote, promote, promote!
Let’s keep it real: the purpose of the business is to generate profit, that’s why it’s a business and not a charity. So how can you do that?
Here are three tips that will get you started.
Don’t be afraid to monetize. Going from an unmonetized website to a monetized one can be scary. Will people think that you are selling out? Are you charging too much? What if no one buys what you’re selling? You have to ignore all these thoughts and do it anyway. You are building an honest business by providing value and charging money for some of that value. Remind yourself that when doubts and fear start creeping into your mind.
Start with offering a small product first. People often look at A-listers in their niche, see all the shiny expensive products they are selling, and think that they have to produce something comparable in both quality and price in order to be able to sell it. That’s not true at all. Most of these A-listers started by selling cheap scrappy products to their small emails lists. Which is where you should start too. Ebooks, email courses, video courses made of PowerPoint presentations. Keep it simple and keep it under 50 bucks.
Focus on turning first-time buyers into regular customers. Understand that each product of yours should serve as a gateway drug. Yes, you need to keep it simple and cheap in the beginning, but you still have to provide enough value for the person to feel happy about having bought it, because only then will they consider buying your next product. And the next. And the next. Sure, you can make a quick buck from one-off sales, but that’s shortsighted. Happy customers are how you build a solid, sustainable business.
Asking people to give you their hard-earned money is probably the scariest part of being an entrepreneur. But you can’t be one without doing it. To learn more, check my list of business lessons every first-time entrepreneur needs to learn.
Work smart and hard
When it comes to productivity, a lot of people are trying to work smarter, not harder, even to the point where hard work is looked down upon. Well, guess what, this is just laziness talking. Sure, your business should serve you, not vice versa, so I’m not saying that you should turn into a crazy workaholic. However, the reality is that building a business will take a lot of hard work, and anyone who’s telling you otherwise is probably trying to sell you snake oil.
That being said, here are three tips on how to work smart, so that you wouldn’t needlessly waste your time and energy.
Don’t get distracted by the “feel good” tasks. There are a lot of things that are easy-to-do and make you feel productive, but in reality it’s just a way to procrastinate on doing hard things that actually push your business forward. It might be tempting to spend hours upon hours on researching social media strategy, or posting Twitter updates, or making minor design tweaks. Don’t. What you should be doing is a) creating quality content (both free and premium) b) promoting that content. That’s it. Everything else is just extras that should not be consuming much of your time.
Focus on 20% of activities that bring 80% of results. There’s something called the Pareto principle that says that 20% of efforts produce 80% of outcomes, meanwhile, the rest 80% of effort only produces 20% of outcomes. That’s why it’s important to take a look at where you are spending your time and energy, and what is producing most of your outcomes, then optimize accordingly. This can drastically increase your productivity if you do it on a regular basis (say, once a month).
Run small experiments to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s best to keep an open mind and take a scientific approach to running your business. Sure, you might think that offering a new opt-in freebie will lead to increase in conversion rates. But that’s just an assumption. You don’t know. That’s why you need to be constantly A/B testing things. Remember, these seemingly small decisions add up to a lot of money in either lost or gained revenue over time.
You will still need to work hard. But these tips will help you make that hard work more effective.
Just don’t fall into the trap of chasing the latest shortcuts and hacks in an attempt to avoid doing the work. Nothing beats hard work and perseverance in the long run.
Take yourself and your business seriously
I love being an entrepreneur, and while it has its ups and downs, I wouldn’t change it for anything else.
That being said, I know it’s not for everyone, and if it’s not for you, it’s best not to waste your time and energy on it.
You can’t build a business half-ass. You either give it your best or you fail. And sometimes you might also fail after having given it your best. There are no guarantees.
So, before you start out on this path, ask yourself: are you willing to work hard for several years without having any guarantee of success?
It’s understandable if you aren’t. That’s why most people aren’t entrepreneurs. And that’s okay.
But if you are willing to take on this challenge, then before you do anything else, make the decision to take yourself and your business seriously. That’s the only way of having a shot at success.
As Yoda said, do or do not. There is no try.