How to start an online business

With relatively low start-up costs and access to a global audience, learn how to start an online business from home – in just seven simple steps

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Startups was founded over 20 years ago by a serial entrepreneur. Today, our expert team of writers, researchers, and editors work to provide our 4 million readers with useful tips and information, as well as running award-winning campaigns.
Written and reviewed by:
Bryn Glover - Startups is reader supported – we may earn a commission from our recommendations, at no extra cost to you and without impacting our editorial impartiality.

It seems like everyone is starting an online business these days. Websites are cheap and can be run from home. Ecommerce sales are overtaking in-person. Plus, with business rates rising, the advantage of having an online-only business over a bricks and mortar site is clear.

That said, there are still unique challenges that an online company faces in 2024. As the internet continues to evolve, fraud is on the up. Standing out in a sea of global competitors is also a challenge – especially given how high today’s customer expectations are for instant service and gratification.

From conducting market research to launching social channels and dealing with pesky regulations, we’ll take you through every step of your online business journey and help you get started with ease. Keen to get your venture going? Read on to find out how to start an online business.

Or, if you’re ready to start your online business now, we can help you complete the first step in just 2 minutes. Discover if you should use a web builder, web designer, or build the site yourself by using our expert-built web solution comparison tool. It’s 100% free, and harnesses out team’s 20 years’ experience recommending digital products and services to Startups readers.

Professional website templates for under £100 per year

If you’re after a slick website that will impress your customers and build trust in your business, then paying thousands of pounds to a website developer isn’t necessary. Thanks to modern, professional-looking website templates, you can create one of your own in under an hour, and the ongoing costs are remarkably low – typically under £100 per year.

Business Website Template

At, we test and rate website builder tools, and we’ve identified Wix as one of the best you can choose for creating a business site. Wix even has a selection of custom website templates designed specifically for small businesses – you simply drop your own company information, wording and preferred imagery into your chosen template. Better still, it’s completely free to try for yourself.

Our top tip if you want to sell online...

If you’re looking to set up an ecommerce business on a budget, we’d recommend our top pick of free ecommerce website builder Square Online. Its £0/month plan allows you to sell unlimited products completely free of charge – which should help you reduce your set-up and running costs considerably!

1. Conduct market research

Come up with an online business idea

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’ve already come up with an idea for your online business. However, if you’re still in need of inspiration, your first step should be to try looking for a need.

Ask family, friends, peers, and forums whether there are any services, products or content that they’d love to be able to access on the internet, but haven’t been able to find.

Similarly, you should think about your own experiences. Has there ever been a time where you’d searched for something online, but hadn’t come across a good enough result?

Research and test the market

Before committing to investing time and money into your idea, you’ll want to know that it’s got the potential to be successful.

To help refine your idea and understand its potential to do well, carry out the following market research techniques:

1. Carry out a competitor analysis

Research all the businesses that could be considered competitors. Make note of how they work, what they’re doing, how well they’re doing, and who their customers are.

This will give you an idea of who your target customers could be – and will get you thinking about how you might do things better than your competitors.

2. Define your target audience

Understanding which internet users you should be targeting will help you to make important decisions about the way your website works, looks and feels. Do they have a particular age, income bracket, gender, profession, interest or hobby?

Our dedicated guide to calculating the size of your target market will take you through all the ins and outs of this process.

3. Seek feedback on your idea

Ask members of your target audience what they think of your idea, whether they’d visit your site, and how you might improve it.

You can ask people you know (though they must be people who’ll be absolutely honest in their feedback), or run focus groups and/or online questionnaires.

Expert Insight – Gina Farran, Glaize

How to start an online business - Gina Farran, Glaize

Gina Farran, the founder of disruptive nailcare startup Glaize, notes that, while it’s easy to get carried away with the romance of an idea, make sure you actually consider what the realities of running your day-to-day business will be:

“We all see the noise on social media about the glamorous life of a founder and what being a “girl boss” means.

“However, while I love what I do, I can honestly say that there is truly nothing glamorous about my life at the moment

“In fact, on most days, I’m covered in sticky nail gels while wearing a hoodie and thermal socks in an archway in Camberwell.

So make sure you don’t start a business for the wrong reasons – especially if you’re a female founder.”

Jargon buster

Traffic: The users visiting a particular website. The more traffic, the better!

Sessions: Individual visits that have been paid to a particular web page. Traffic tends to be measured in sessions, with a higher number of sessions indicating more traffic.

2. Choose your online business model

Having established what your online business is going to be all about, you’re now able to think about how you’re going to make money from it.

If you’re starting an online shop or otherwise selling products, downloads or services on your site, you’ll operate on an ecommerce business model, making revenue from sales.

  • If you’re starting your own ecommerce website, take a look at our step-by-step guide to starting an ecommerce business
  • If you’re interested in going down the dropshipping route, the above will still be helpful, but make sure you also pick one of the best UK dropshipping suppliers to integrate with whichever ecommece platform you want to use

However, if your website is to have a different purpose – for example, to provide on-site entertainment or informational resources to visitors – there are three main ways to go about monetising it:

  • Advertising. Businesses pay you to advertise on your site (usually via visual ads or sponsored content). The more traffic you attract, the more you can charge clients. The content on such websites tends to be free for customers to access.
  • Subscription. These sites tend to be ad-free, and instead make money by having the customer pay a one-off charge or a regular subscription fee in order to access the online service or website’s content.
  • Fremium. This business model involves giving the customer access to a basic version of your online service for free, but asking that they pay for additional premium features and privileges.

The model that works best for you will depend on what your online business is doing, and what you aim to achieve with it – though you can, of course, base your site around a combination of these. can help your business succeed

At, we’re here to help small UK businesses to get started, grow and succeed. We have helpful resources for helping new businesses get off the ground – you can use the tool below to get started today.

What Does Your Business Need Help With?

Get Started

3. Build your website

While you might imagine this to be a massive technological undertaking, building a website can actually be pretty simple.

Plus, it’s unlikely to break the bank – domain names tend to cost less than £10 per year, while many website builders can be paid for with manageable monthly subscriptions.

There are three main ways to go about getting a website up and running:

  • Build it yourself

Of course, this is hard work, and you’ll need all the right coding knowledge – but it’ll save you money and ensure you keep full control of your website. If you go down this route, you’ll need a domain name and hosting provider.

We’d highly recommend Bluehost; a highly affordable hosting option for almost all kinds of websites. Or if you want to compare more hosting services, check out our rundown of the best small business hosting providers.

  • Use a website builder.

Simple to use, many of these tools will take you through the entire website building process, from registering a domain name to designing your site’s layout using templates or drag-and-drop tools.

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  • Hire a developer

This is a good option if you’d like the guidance of an expert, although it may mean you’ll have to rely on them for fixes whenever something goes wrong or needs to be changed. Costs vary – top developers will be expensive, but you might find a student or graduate who’s willing to charge a low rate in exchange for the experience.

That said, finding accurate pricing information online can be tricky – but that’s where Startups can help. Use our web design price comparison tool to receive accurate quotes and pricing from top UK agencies that are tailored to your needs.

  • Still unsure which option is best for building your site? Take our quiz!

Find your ideal web building solution in 2 minutes – our expert Grow Online team has developed this free website quiz that tells you which route best fits your circumstances (i.e. based on your budget, time, coding skills, etc.)

For much more detail on setting up a website, including the steps to take and the costs involved, take a look at our comprehensive guide on how to create a website with either a web builder, web design service, or yourself with a hosting provider!

Visit this page for a full guide to the best website builders available for small business users.

Expert Insight – Rachel Watkyn, Aire

How to start an online business - Rachel Watkyn, Aire

When it comes to online businesses, Rachel Watkyn has truly been there, done that, and got the T-shirt. After triumphing on Dragon’s Den, she grew her SME specialist packaging Tiny Box Company to £12m turnover and now, she’s at it again, launching sustainable activewear brand Aire. She told Startups that, once you’ve launched your website, the real work begins:

The biggest mistake start-ups make is they build a website, and then just assume that the traffic will follow.

“When you first build your website, you have to assume that the site is positioned in the backend of some industrial estate with no passing footfall, because that is the reality until you become known.

“It takes constant effort and work to let people know where your fantastic site is, and years of hard graft to become positioned on the equivalent of Oxford Street.”

4. Fill your site with optimised copy

Whether the purpose of your website is to provide users with entertaining or informational content, share information about your offline business, sell products, or do something else, the written copy on your site will need to:

  • Be well-written, without unprofessional errors
  • Clearly explain, and inspire interest in, what you’re doing or selling
  • Answer what the user has come to your website/this particular page to find out
  • Be fully primed for SEO

This should apply to any of the written content you might have, from ‘about us’ pages to product information to full-blown articles.

Jargon buster

SEO: Search Engine Optimisation – employing techniques that make your copy rank higher on Google search results pages. The ultimate aim is to have your page appear at the top of the list when a particularly valuable and relevant phrase is searched.

Key SEO techniques include:

  • Smoothly incorporating (not cramming) relevant high-volume search terms into your website copy. Free keyword research tools can help you with this.
  • Gaining backlinks – having quality publications write about and link back to your website. A PR or outreach professional can help here – see section seven for more on this.
  • Ensuring the user experience on your site is fast, smooth and clean. This is something you should always keep in mind while building your website.

Remember, Google rewards relevance, so keep your content readable and useful first and foremost.

Consider including a blog

If your business is doing something that’s not naturally heavy on written copy – if it’s an online shop, for example – it could be worth including a blog in which you (or guest writers) write and share articles about your business, or related subjects.

For example, if your online business sells pet collars, you might choose to run a blog about caring for animals alongside it.

A blog section could benefit your website in a number of ways:

  • Quality blog posts show that you know your stuff, enhancing your reputation in the sector
  • Blog posts provide more content to be picked up and listed by search engines
  • Blogs can keep customers on your website for longer
  • Blogs provide an opportunity to talk about your products or services in a less salesy way

Expert Insight – James Badgett, Angel Investment Network

How to start an online business - James Badgett, Angel Investment Network

James Badgett is the co-founder of the Angel Investment Network, a website that connects entrepreneurs with angel investors, and knows firsthand just how important SEO is for online businesses:

“Organic discovery is critical early on before you have an established customer base and don’t want to invest in paid ads.

“In a world where Google’s algorithm reigns supreme, SEO needs to be one of your foundational building blocks.

“Take the time to ensure your site is optimised for key terms your audience are interested in. At our company, we have really prioritised key search terms for startups looking for investment across multiple territories – and have built this into the infrastructure of our site to ensure we rank highly.

“This also needs to be flexible and dynamic so you can adapt to changing trends in search behaviour.”

5. Comply with online business legal regulations

As an online business, there are several legal regulations you’ll need to comply with – that is, if you want to avoid being prosecuted…

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

Having come into effect in May 2018, GDPR gives consumers more control over their personal data, and says businesses must be entirely honest and consensual in their use of data.

Under GDPR, online businesses must ask for explicit consent before processing customers’ data. They must also be transparent about how they will use it, give customers the right to access the data a business holds about them, and comply with requests to have it removed.

And this is a regulation with real teeth – as the VinciWorks guide to GDPR points out, the likes of Amazon, WhatsApp and Grindr have all received big GDPR  fines in the last few years.

It also remains to be seen exactly how the UK leaving the European Union will affect data protection regulations. A government consultation on overhauling GDPR was concluded at the end of last year, and the UK is keen to develop a new regulation that balances privacy and business innovation.

Even if this does happen, you may have to still follow GDPR if you collect data from non-UK custoners.

Read more about the current regulations, and how they might benefit your business, in our GDPR guide.

Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003

These regulations concern electronic marketing and also address the use of cookies (data files which enable website owners to track what users are doing), and prevent them from being used for illegitimate .

If your site uses cookies, you must:

  • Inform website visitors that you’re using cookies
  • Tell users how to turn your website’s cookies off
  • Ensure your privacy policy explains how cookies are being used

Odds are that you’ve visited a website since 2012 – in which case you’ll have encountered a pop-up informing you that cookies are in use.

You can install a ‘Cookie Law’ plugin to make sure this happens on your own website, and some web builders like Wix have this built into their platforms so all you need to do is click to enable the cookie banner that lets users accept or opt out.

The Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002

This is an absolutely crucial regulation for any online business, and concerns the way in which online companies communicate with their customers.

Under this legislation, if you’re selling something online, you must:

  • Display your business’ name and address, contact details, email address, company registration number and VAT number on your website
  • Make it easy for users to read your terms and conditions
  • Always be clear about prices, taxes and delivery fees, and the terms and conditions of special offers
  • Confirm every order by email – you can set up an automated email response to ensure this happens
  • Make it clear that all marketing emails and/or unsolicited emails that you send are clearly identified as such
  • Make sure the sender of any communication sent by your company is identified

To learn more about exactly what is and isn’t covered by these regulations, check out’s very handy guide to The Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002.

You might also want to read our step-by-step guide on how to create a business email.

Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013

These regulations came into force in June 2014 and replaced The Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000.

They cover B2C (business to consumer, rather than business to business) dealings, and specifically address how the rights of your customers are protected .

The primary tenet of this legislation focuses on returns. It states that online businesses must give customers a 14-day period in which they’re able to cancel or return orders (of course, this excludes downloads and perishable goods). Returns must be met with a refund.

These regulations also demand that you give transparent information about the products or services you’re selling, your VAT, and your postage and packaging costs. Basically, your customers need to know exactly what they’re paying for and how to get in touch if there are any problems.

Although it’s written from a customer rather than business perspective, Which?’s Consumer Contracts Regulations guide is full of useful info on these crucial regulations.

6. Launch social media channels

Nowadays, it’s almost unheard of for a business – of any size – to not have any kind of social media presence.

Essentially a free marketing tool, social media has millions of daily users across the globe. This means, there are plenty of opportunities to get your business in front of potential customers on these platforms.

Of course, you don’t have to launch on every platform going. But it’s worth trying them all out to see what works best for you, and then investing more time into the ones which attract the most engagement (such as followers, likes, comments, shares, etc).

You can find advice on using certain social media channels to boost your business in our social media guides:

To get started, think about trying the following on your social media profiles:

  • Run competitions or giveaways. This is a great way to get people to actively engage with your brand.
  • Pay for ads. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram enable businesses to pay for their adverts to appear in target customers’ feeds.
  • Regularly share links to your website, products and blog posts.
  • Create a hashtag that represents your brand or product, and ask followers to share and contribute to it.
  • Post regularly, ensuring your tone and any imagery you share is cohesive with your brand as a whole.
  • Respond quickly to any queries or messages from potential customers.
  • Ask customers to share reviews and ratings of your business or products on their profiles.
  • Put links to your social media profiles on your website.

If you’d like to run your online business on an advertising model, it may be that you decide to forgo starting a website entirely in favour of social media.

In going down this route, you’ll share and advertise other companies’ products and services (having charged them, of course!) on your social media channels. In other words, you’ll be acting as an online influencer.

To find out more about this business model, visit our guide to making money as a social media influencer.

Expert Insight – Emma Doherty, Empower

How to start an online business - Emma Doherty, Empower

After starting her online fitness coaching business Empower with just a handful of clients in 2019, Emma Doherty (pictured above with some of her team) has used the power of social media to grow and now works with clients in over 80 countries and has a growing team. She’s therefore ideally placed to give Startups advice on how to effectively use Instagram, Twitter, Facebook et al:

“In this space, things are changing all the time, and there’s always new trends or patterns in content creation, so you have to constantly keep bang up to date.

“For example, a year ago my account would very much easily grow from just posting a picture with a nice caption, but now it’s all about video content and reels –  things that people can see and take in quickly (which is why TikTok is so huge now).

“There’s also a lot of pressure to always be posting stories and new, interesting content, but it’s crucial for online businesses to stay active to ensure new leads and high levels of engagement.

“And there’s no doubt it can be hard to compete in a space where a lot of people are creating quite similar content. To stay ahead of the game, we have to always be thinking of new ideas for when our concepts are kind of stolen or rehashed in just a slightly different way.

“Ultimately, I always have to remind myself that what works now might not necessarily work in a year, or even three months from now.

“However, while using social media can be hard work, get it right and it can really supercharge your business.”

7. Attract traffic to your online business

Besides climbing the Google rankings with excellent SEO practice (as covered in section four) and running engaging social media profiles (as covered in section six), there are other things you can do to attract traffic to your website.

Pay-per-click (PPC) marketing

In a PPC campaign, your search engine of choice will ensure that a link to your website appears towards the top of its results page when a user searches for a certain keyword.

In return, you’ll pay the search engine a fee each time a user clicks on your link.

One of the most well-known PPC systems is Google Ads, through which businesses can appear as “Ad” links at the top of a Google results page.

A PPC campaign can be a quick way to get traffic to your site, but it’s up to you to decide whether or not paying for each click is worth the results you’re getting.

Remember, the more successfully targeted your campaign and useful your landing page to users, the better results you’ll get – and the less Google will charge you for each click.

Email marketing

This is the practice of sending regular marketing emails (such as e-newsletters) to your customers and fans in order to keep them engaged with your brand, keeping them abreast of news and special offers.

Gather email addresses for your send list by adding a sign-up form to your website, and sharing it among your social media followers.

When asking for email addresses to build your send list, be sure to comply with GDPR standards.

Affiliate marketing

In an affiliate programme, you place adverts for your business – whether display ads or hyperlinks in articles – on other relevant websites (known as your affiliates) for free.

When a customer clicks that ad, comes through to your site, and then makes a purchase, you pay a fee to the affiliate website the customer has clicked through from.

PR professionals

A good PR or outreach professional will aim to push your business into the public eye by securing media coverage for it – for example, in magazines, newspapers and websites.

If they convince a website to mention or discuss your business, they’ll also try to get that publication to link back to your website. This can be hugely valuable from a high-profile, high-traffic publication.

Of course, with an understanding of the PR process, you could save yourself some money and set about the task yourself – though PR professionals are likely to have more contacts in high places.

As well as sessions and user numbers, you should also monitor metrics such as:

  • The amount of time users spend on each page
  • The bounce rate (if users are coming to your home page then leaving straight away, it could be that you’re targeting the wrong keywords)
  • The conversion rate (the percentage of visitors to your site who actually make a purchase)
  • CAC/CPA (cost per conversion/acquisition – what marketing costs have you had to expend to get each paying customer to your site, and might they be too high?)

What’s next?

Now we’ve covered the steps you’ll need to take to start your own online business, it’s time to actually do it. In other words, it’s time to begin building your own website.

You can find the ideal web building solution that matches your requirements, budget, skills, and time allowance in just two minutes using our free web building comparison tool. Try it now, and cross “start building business site” off your to-do list now. is reader-supported. If you make a purchase through the links on our site, we may earn a commission from the retailers of the products we have reviewed. This helps to provide free reviews for our readers. It has no additional cost to you, and never affects the editorial independence of our reviews.

Written by:
Bryn Glover - Startups
Bryn Glover has been Editor of since 2017. Running the site's content strategy, Bryn spends a lot of time speaking to entrepreneurs and preparing for Startups' annual editorial campaigns. Having worked in journalism for just under a decade, Bryn wrote for sites like The Times, Reader's Digest, Independent and Times Higher Education before moving into the small business world.
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