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Q: I recently lost my job and am thinking about starting a business. I have a good idea for a website, but I am concerned about all of the competition. Do you think it is possible to make my online business different and better, and if so, how? — John

Part 1 of 2

A: The short answer is yes, starting and succeeding online is most certainly still possible. Indeed, online businesses are still a relatively recent phenomenon.

So this week I want to talk about starting successful online businesses generally, and next week, we'll drill down a little deeper.

How do you succeed? I am a believer in the power of not re-inventing the wheel.

People have already figured out what works online, so your job is to listen to what they have to teach. And when it comes to online businesses, this is especially true because e-business is definitely a different animal.

Because of that, and to tap the power of the Internet, it helps to understand what makes it unique and how to use that uniqueness for maximum advantage.

In this regard, Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com is as good of an expert as there is on this subject. Here is what he says makes for a great business website. Ask yourself:

"Does the Website harness the unique characteristics of the Internet to create a strong value proposition for customers, one that could not be easily duplicated in the physical world?"

According to Bezos, the reason Amazon.com took off like it did was because it did something online that could not be duplicated offline, namely, it offered every book in print for sale.

Because it was impossible to duplicate in the physical world what he created in the virtual one, the business became a hit. So the first thing you must offer is a site that is unique to the Net, and in these days of Web 2.0 tools (video, polls, forums, etc.) that is not hard to do.

The question then becomes: What other unique characteristics of the Web can you use to your advantage?

I suggest that, essentially, there are three more:

1. Low Overhead: Web-based businesses have a distinct advantage over their brick-and-mortar cousins in that it is, or should be, far less expensive to do business online:

  • There is no rent required for a store
  • Labor costs are usually far less
  • And there is no sales tax.

And so, because of that, you should be able to sell for less.

2. An Even Playing Field: Aside from simply being able to look as good as the Big Boys (in itself a not insignificant thing), the Internet also affords you the opportunity to compete with them on a far more even level.

First, the cost of entry into the market is low; for example, drop shipping means you need not even need to stock actual products.

Next, because you are small, your customer service should be better. Advantage, you. Thus you have a better chance of competing against big retailers online than you ever would if they actually moved down the street.

3. New Markets: Because you are not stuck only selling to people in your area, as small businesses have been for eons, you have a unique opportunity when you take your business online.

You can sell to people in other cities or other countries. Previously, only giant multinational corporations like The East India Trading Company or Nike could do that. So to succeed, your site should be geared to selling to people all over. A world of opportunity and markets is, quite literally, available to you. This is an opportunity unique in history and should not be passed up.

The important thing then is to keep all of these things in mind as your build and grow your site and online business.

Use the uniqueness of the Net to your advantage.

Today's tip: Formed in 1600, the East India Trading Company was created when a group of merchants were given a monopoly to trade with the East Indies. The Company transformed into a ruling power in the 1750s, and it soon thereafter was granted the right to collect taxes on behalf of the Crown.

Discontent with its rule grew as it annexed states and instituted harsh policies. After the Indian peasant rebellion of 1857, desire to dissolve the Company grew, and it was finally dissolved in 1858.

© 2009 Steven D. Strauss, www.MrAllBiz.com

PART 2:…………

Q: I recently lost my job and am thinking about starting a business. I have a good idea for a website but I am concerned about all of the competition. Do you think it is possible to make my online business different and better, and if so, how? — John

(Part 2 of 2)

Note that I am not talking about the business side here. What you sell is entirely up to you. Instead, I want to look at the online side of online businesses, and what makes that work.

I suggest that there are two key components to creating a successful online small business. The first is, you have to have a great site. The second is, you have to market your site so that people can find it.

Now, maybe the preceding paragraph seems self-evident to you, maybe you are thinking, "Thanks for the great insight there, Steve!" But I don't think so.

Think about how many truly mediocre sites you run across.

So the first secret online is to have a professional, elegant, site. Do that, and the rest is much easier, but fail to do it, and your chances of e-success are diminished greatly.

This brings me to the second factor — e-marketing. I spoke about this subject — online small business success — last week with Jeff Zimmerman, the Vice President of Product Management for Online Marketing and E-Commerce for Network Solutions.

Network Solutions (a company I do some work with), is an excellent friend to small business. It is one of those great Net companies that has been around seemingly forever. For instance, when I got my web address back in the late 90s, www.MrAllBiz.com, it was Network Solutions who helped me. Since then, their services have grown to include everything from web hosting and site design to e-commerce and online security.

Jeff first pointed out that succeeding online is much easier than some people think, and much more affordable, for three main reasons:

1. Marketing online is unique: Offline, marketing often is a shotgun affair for many small businesses. They spend a lot to target a lot of people (in the newspaper, on the radio, etc.) with the intent of hopefully hitting a few. But online, especially with tools like pay-per-click, it is much easier to spend your marketing dollars more specifically and intelligently by buying only those keywords and geographic regions that have the highest likelihood of success.

2. Tracking results is easier: Because of No. 1 above, it is easier with online advertising and marketing to track your results. Offline, it is hard to say how someone finds you and makes a call (signs, ads, networking, or what?) but online, you can see immediately which keywords pull best, which ads work best, which pages convert the most, etc.

3. Cycles are shorter: Quicker tracking means you can adjust your online ad campaigns much more quickly. If a TV buy does not work, it may take months to find out and adjust. Not so online.

It is getting ever easier to start and succeed online because tools are making it possible to create a site that can get noticed. If you build it, they won't necessarily come. But if you build it right, and market it right, you can bet they will.

© 2010 Steven D. Strauss, www.MrAllBiz.com