Starting an online business

It's never been easier to take the plunge with an online business. All it takes is one brilliant idea, the guts to take the risk and a little bit of capital. Here's our guide to setting up yours...

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According to Mintel, recent reports indicate that online sales in Europe will double between 2013 and 2019 from €165 billion to €330 billion.

Ofcom states that the UK surpasses other European countries with its eagerness to purchase goods and services online, creating a wealth of opportunity to exploit the online market. With the UK as Europe's leading online retail economy is it possible that there has never been a better time to take the plunge with an online start-up?

Have a business plan

The first step to creating and launching any business is to have a detailed plan of what it is you are trying to achieve; this forms the basis of your business plan. Your business plan will outline your business concept, your target market knowledge, your marketing and sales strategy, in essence what your business hopes to achieve and how you hope to achieve it and how much money you'll need to get it done. It is important to be clear about how your website will add to your business? Is there a market for your online business idea?

Research the markets your business will compete in

Research is crucial and forewarned is forearmed as the saying goes. You'll gain a higher chance of success, if you are willing to take the time to research your online business idea thoroughly. For example if you know who your competitors are and can be sure that you can supply the market with a niche product or service that can successfully compete, then that is just the start.

A strong business plan can also help you to secure financing so it's imperative that you take your time over this.

Getting your business online

Everyone wants an all singing, all dancing website, but these are not always practical; your website has to communicate to your customers, explain to them clearly the goods you have for sale or services you offer and make the 'buying' experience - the way someone would acquire your goods and services - quick, simple and pleasurable. It's important not to forget to optimize your website for mobile too. In 2014 the Huffington Post reported that 30% of mobile users will abandon a shopping cart if it is not optimized for mobile devices.

You might find, dependant on what your online business idea is, that you don't need to build a website, other online tools might be more appropriate. For example, many who have products they wish to sell have used eBay as an internet platform instead of creating a website and have done so, so successfully that they've created successful million pound turnover businesses, mainly boosting their sales through exports.

Setting up your website

If it is a website that you need for your online business, the first part of your set up process is purchasing your domain name; and determining whether your website is something that you can manage and build on your own or whether you will need professional help?

You'll have to run a check to see if the web address you want is available. And find a web hosting service to host your website upon.

Remember your website will only be beneficial to you if people can find it, so making sure your site is searchable is of key importance. You will have to optimise your site; meaning you will have to make sure that behind the scenes all your web content, page descriptions and images are correctly tagged so that your site is SEOed. SEO means search engine optimisation, which simply means your website has been designed in a way that improves your website's visibility for search engines such as Google; making it easier for potential clients and customers to find you, if for example they search for your website through Google.

Business requirements

When you set up a business there are always a few I's that need their dots and T's that need to be crossed. Just because your business is online doesn't mean that you won't need to go through the same steps to protect your business.

Selling goods online is termed as distance selling and this requires you to comply with the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations and the Electronic Commerce Regulations, in which you are obliged to provide consumers with specific information prior to them placing an order with you, provide them with an order confirmation and information on their rights to cancel. It is also imperative that you familiarise yourself with the Sale of Goods Act and Trading Standards.

If your online business has a requirement to hold data on your customers, you will have to  register with the Information Commissioner to comply with the Data Protection Act 1998.

By law your website must also comply with the Equality Act 2010, which necessitates your need to ensure your website can be accessed by anyone with a disability. According to W3C, the governing body of the World Wide Web, up to 20% of people are affected by some form of disability so by providing an accessible website you increase your audience reach and potentially increase sales.

Even if you are running your business from your bedroom with just a laptop, it is always imperative that you have good small business insurance to protect you against many of the risks facing small business owners, such as damage to stock, office equipment and business interruption cover.

Marketing your online business

What would be the point of all your efforts to create a bright new future for yourself through your new business launch - if you never let the world know you existed?

Marketing a new online business will help it grow

Marketing your new online business is essential, you have to get your brand name out there. Word of mouth is the cheapest form of advertising known to man. So inform suppliers, friends and family, in fact anyone that you meet about your new online business. You don't have to hire a PR company, a well drafted press release sent to local, national and your business sector press can work wonders. As is exploiting social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to gain following and generating some interest in your brand. Joining affiliate programmes will also help to generate sales.

You could also start a blog that would allow you to communicate to your customers and gain their trust through providing them with any developments, promotions, advice and information on your company's area of expertise.