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Launching an online business; 10 golden rules

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Within a mere decade the internet has become a firm platform for highly successful and profitable business. According to one study, one in six people in the UK in 2013 were running an online business from home.

Whether you're hoping to sell your unique design work for extra cash or want to quit your day job for an innovative new digital launch, here are 10 essential tips from the experts who have done it themselves, from Arianna Huffington who launched groundbreaking news website The Huffington Post to Natalie Massenet who paved the way for luxury fashion shopping on the internet with Net-a-Porter...

1. Think like a journalist

Nailing a new and unique business idea is much like searching for an underground news story or trend before it goes viral.

Former journalist, Natalie Messenet, had an impeccable sense of the zeitgeist before she launched the pioneering luxury fashion e-tailer Net-a-Porter.

"Journalism teaches you about getting the “scoop” – getting the news before anyone else and then telling the story in words and pictures," said Messenet in an interview with The Zoe Report. "This is a skill set that can be so useful as an entrepreneur; getting to the new idea first, then selling the dream."

Her first idea was coffee shops: "I was told there was no money in it. It was before the whole Starbucks thing." Expensive candles followed. "I took samples to several designer stores in LA, but they all said that nobody would pay more than a dollar for a candle."

Massenet soon learned to disregard her doubters. "There were a lot of unimaginative private-equity people who said that women would never shop online. I think about those people a lot. I'm sure their wives are having Net-a-Porter bags delivered to their homes every day," said Massenet.

2. Listen to your customer, not your competitors

With thousands of businesses on the internet, it can be easy to get lost in the noise. President and CEO of Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer, puts her success down to always thinking about her users.

"I always put the user first when I get ideas pitched to me. I like to think of my mom and wonder if she would be able to get an idea right off the bat," said Mayer when she was an executive at Google.

"When you have strong competitors it makes everyone work harder, and that makes search better and that’s ultimately really better for users," said Mayer in another interview while working for Google. "That said, we’ve always done well focusing on our users and that’s really where our focus has stayed. Analyzing what are their problems, what are their needs, how can we roll out features that serve those users best and that’s what we’re staying focused on. It’s important not to get too distracted by the competition, especially when you’re building new features and new things."

However, bear in mind that your prospective customers may not necessarily know what they need. Mayer has said, "When you’re a leader in search you really do need to be looking at both the user needs and also ‘where is the technology going to take us. What’s possible and what’s not'. Sometimes you have to follow the technology."

3. Don't wait for your business idea to be perfect

Dessi Bell, the founder of activewear brand Zaggora - one of the fastest growing e-commerce companies in the UK and delivering to 126 countries worldwide - says a common mistake she sees entrepreneurs make is over thinking a product, without seeking customer feedback. Bell couldn’t find a fitness-wear product to help her get into shape for her wedding and decided to make her own after thoroughly googling the market.

"The key is to try and launch even if it’s not the final product so you can test the market and collect customer feedback ASAP in order to bring the perfect product for the customer"

4. Test the waters as cheaply as possible

The limitless nature of the internet means you can create webpages and launch websites with very little investment. Sometimes even for free.

Co-founder of fashion rental website Girl Meets Dress Anna Bance suggests the early days of a new online business venture are all about testing as cheaply as possible.

"Putting a basic website live to confirm demand for your product is a great first step," said Bance at The Guardian's Small Business Network Q&A. "Once you know the market potential exists and customers are excited you can build on that and expand further and decide if a retail space makes sense."

Alternatively, test the waters by launching your brand on online market spaces such as Ebay, Etsy and ASOS Marketplace.

Twin design duo and founders of fashion accessories label Finchittida Finch, recommend these platforms because they are affordable and already well established with a big following.

5. Build your brand on social media

"Because some social media channels will take a while to grow fans or followers, I recommend setting up company accounts as soon as possible on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest," said Bance. "It's about establishing a presence so your fans have somewhere to follow your progress. There's no need to delay any channel, even if your activity is slow to begin with."

Gretta van Riel, founder of SkinnyMe Tea, an Australian all-natural detox product used Instagram almost exclusively used Instagram to build the brand which has now gathered 340,000 followers. "We don’t just talk about the product, we talk about everything in the health industry and emphasize our product as a part of a healthy lifestyle, not a ‘just another diet,'” said van Riel on Mashable.

Dessi Bell said social networking made the biggest difference to her business. "Word of mouth is such a powerful tool and Zaggora has such a wonderful fan base of women wanting to achieve great results."

6. Use data, not emotion

While your idea might be based on passion or a gut feeling of a trend, it's important you always revert back to data.

When speaking at Stanford University's Entrepreneurial Thought Leader Speaker Series, Marissa Mayer told her audience that despite the size of the Google corporation, internal politics have remained minimal because they heavily rely on data.

"We do so much measurement that you don’t have to worry, will your idea get picked because you’re the favorite, or will someone else’s idea get picked because they’re the favorite or because they have a better relationship with the person who’s the decision maker. The decisions get made based on data, and that really frees people from a lot of those types of concerns."

Sophie Cornish, Founder and Director of notonthehighstreet.com, told Stylist, "As much as I believe in instinct, I know that hard facts are among the greatest drivers of success. Gather and interrogate business data of every kind – sales patterns, customer surveys or market trends – and act on it."

7. Make customer communication and support easy

"The internet is changing everything, breaking down barriers, letting people explain things in words we understand," says Sarah Beeny who launched online dating site, mysinglefriend.com, and online estate agent Tepilo. "We had half a million questions in the first 18 months from people looking for anything from mortgage brokers to paint suppliers, so we've added a directory of property services, and that's going really well."

The key to the success of healthy snack delivery service Graze is down to the information customers are allowed to input. "From a customer’s experience point of view, you go online, you tell us when you want your box, where you want your box, and you rate food. So you can say, ‘I love flapjacks, send me flapjacks regularly,’ or, ‘I hate olives, never send me olives.’ We then pick a box based on your ratings and preferences, and we send it to you on the day you’ve requested." says co-fouder Ben Jones.

Meanwhile, brands such as ASOS and notonthehighstreet.com use Twitter to instantly respond to customer queries and complaints.

8. Keep it exciting

Kodak and Blackberry were once household brands but are now struggling to survive because they failed to keep up with the latest technology. It's important to keep researching and experimenting to move forward in a rapidly changing internet space.

CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos said at the 2013 World Economic Forum in Davos, “If you double the number of experiments you do per year, you’re going to double your inventiveness”.

Online luxury fashion entrepreneur Sarah Curran prevented her website my-wardrobe.com from becoming lost in the dust of competitors - before she left the brand to became strategy leader at Shop Direct - by ensuring the website kept surprising and delighting its customers with exceptional product, customer service and an improved experience online.

9. Take a break from the digital world at the end of the day

"The idea that we always have to be tired to be successful is wrong," said Arianna Huffington, founder of news website The Huffington Post, at Stylist's inaugural Life Lessons event earlier this year. "We need to do a digital detox every once in a while. It helps to do away with our worries."

"When I go to sleep, I turn everything off, and listen to meditation tapes. So I can enjoy what I do. Performance is improved when our lives include the time for renewal, wisdom, wonder and giving," added Huffington.

Marissa Mayer has also shared her views on burnout, saying it's not necessarily about getting eight hours of sleep or getting time at home. "I have a theory that burnout is about resentment. And you beat it by knowing what it is you're giving up that makes you resentful...Your rhythm is what matters to you so much that when you miss it you're resentful of your work".

"So find your rhythm, understand what makes you resentful, and protect it. You can't have everything you want, but you can have the things that really matter to you. And thinking that way empowers you to work really hard for a really long period of time."

10. Set goals that work for you

"We would have given up long ago if the ambition had been to be Twitter-like billionaires," said Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet, the UK's largest network for parents. "We feel that our user group is a massive stakeholder in the operation and we have never been in a position where we had to do things that we don't think sit well with our philosophy because we are not owned by a big company and we are not chasing profits," she says.

"We now make a profit, we earn enough money to pay our staff, and we are still recruiting. We are not perfect but we can hold our heads up high and say we will work with brands in ways that are good for them and for our users."

Meanwhile, for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos the biggest gut call he made was launching delivery offer called Amazon Prime. "It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet, $79, that gives you free two-day shipping on everything you buy for a year. When you do the math on that, it always tells you not to do it."

Bezos found that while Amazon's Super Saver Shipping experiment was not good for the short term, it paid off in the long term because it increased customer loyalty with a higher frequency of orders.

Images: Rex Features

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