September 15th, 2022
Since I know how frustrating starting an online business is, I decided to write this lengthy blog post and share some tricks and tips I learned along the way. If just a few of you who read this avoid some of the pitfalls I experienced or take my best-practice advice, I’ll consider it a success.
This won’t be an article describing my entire story in detail, but I think some context is in order before I share the various tips and tricks I’ve learned.
I started writing blogs and articles on freelancing platforms like UpWork and Fiverr back in 2015. After a while, I realized that freelance platforms are only a stepping stone for me. They usually take 20% of your earnings, which is significant, and you’ll never ‘go big’ on a freelance platform. You can make decent money, but you’ll always be limited by the platform.
The next logical step was designing my own website and launching a content writing business. One issue though… where do I start?
This depends on where you live and how seriously you take the entire process. In the US, you can open an LLC in just a few minutes, but that’s no way to start a company. You need to do your homework before you should even consider starting a company.
The entire process took me nearly two years from start to finish, but is it even finished if I’m still finding things to improve? I wanted to get everything right from the get go and avoid any potential issues down the line, though I quickly realized that's basically impossible.
Opening a company, building a website, dealing with tax and legal matters… these are just a few problems I encountered and had to deal with. It certainly didn’t help that most of my clients are from the US and I opened a company in the UK while constantly traveling throughout Europe either.
Okay, you have a business idea, but not all business ideas are great ideas. As harsh as that might sound, it’s the truth. Before you start building a website or opening a company, validate your idea and whether it makes financial sense. Plenty of websites start out as hobby projects and take off from there, but if your sole focus is making it profitable from the get-go, make sure there’s a market for your business.
In my case, the idea was already validated since I had been writing blogs and articles for clients for over three years at that point. I had a few clients outside the freelance platforms but what I didn’t have was an outlet to attract more customers and grow my business. Working by myself, I could only manage so much.
My advice is to do some research, finding potential gaps in the market and validating your idea before doing anything else. Find out what other people are willing to pay for your product or service. A great tip is to use sites like reddit to ask whether people would use your website. A note of caution though: don’t explain your idea in detail since someone might steal it and beat you to the punch. Be somewhat vague and just get a feel for it.
This should tell you everything you need to know about your idea. If you’ve got a lot of competition, there’s obviously demand for your product or service, but breaking through the market isn’t going to be easy. Going into this, I knew there were hundreds of content writing services out there. Having used a few of them myself in the past though, I knew I had them beat when it came to quality.
If you know you can offer a better service than your competitors, I’d say you’re bound to make it in the long-run provided you persevere for months if not a year or two. Finding the first few clients is always the hardest. Word of mouth usually does the rest afterwards, but you’ll still have to put the effort and hours in.
I was lucky since I had existing clients that immediately signed up on Writingful as soon as I launched it. Don’t despair if you haven’t had a single order the first few months. Most new sites need several months if not a year just to rank on Google, let alone attract any real traffic or customers. Writingful is relatively new, and half of our clients are existing clients I brought with me when I opened it. Seeing as how we’re a relatively small team at the moment though, that’s not a bad thing since we prioritize quality over quantity.
This one can quite literally make or break your business in my opinion. Your website domain is how your clients will perceive your brand and how they’ll access your products and services. Think long and hard before choosing a domain name.
I knew I wanted a .com top level domain since it’s the easiest for people to recognize. Obviously, this depends on your industry as well. Modern SaaS businesses prefer .io domains nowadays, which is perfectly acceptable, but nothing beats a .com in my book.
Next, think of a catchy name that’s easy to remember. Try not to include any numbers if possible and avoid special characters like hyphens. Your domain name should be as memorable and as short as possible. Obviously, most good domains are sold out nowadays, but you can always come up with a few decent ideas if you spend long enough brainstorming.
Coming up with Writingful took me something like 2 months. This site was originally going to be called something entirely different, but I scrapped that idea since it was nearly 20 characters long. Initially, I started messing around with ‘Writing’, ‘Blog’, and ‘Content’, eventually coming up with Writingful as a play of words on Colorful. You might have picked that up by the vibrant colors used for the website.
I used Hetzner’s Domain Checker to look up available domains, but you can use other similar services as well. Once you have your desired domain, use a service like GoDaddy or Namecheap to purchase it. Don’t worry about buying your domain from one provider and using an entirely different provider for hosting. Setting up DNS is easy, especially using Namecheap which is what I use for Writingful.
Most people go with a hosted WordPress provider like Bluehost or some of the newer website builders like Wix and SquareSpace, but I wasn’t a fan of any of them. Not only do I dislike PHP, but I also wanted something I could customize to no end. Being a computer science graduate, I decided to build my own website using Next.js and Sanity.io for backend hosting.
Unless you’re a web developer, I strongly suggest you either hire someone who is or you go with a website builder. Building your own custom website is neither easy nor quick, but it is incredibly rewarding. Plus, you can set your website up exactly how you want.
I’ll do a write-up of Next.js and Sanity.io pretty soon, so stick around for that as well.
I’ll cover this topic in a separate blog soon since there’s a lot to go over. I went through ten different design iterations with Writingful. Always start by sketching out the design on paper first, then move it over to something like PhotoShop or Illustratior.
My advice is to launch the website as soon as possible. Get a working prototype up and running and launch it ASAP. Add extra functionality in incremental steps as you go along. A landing page, a contact page, and perhaps a pricing page is all you need to begin with.
Explain what your website offers, the benefit of your product and service, how much it costs, and where customers can find you. If you can somehow incorporate a blog section and start creating content, do it right away. I spent months trying to get this site perfect before launching it, only to find out I still had a ton of stuff to do. That’s my key takeaway. You’ll always find something you want to improve, so just launch the website and gradually improve it.
This is obviously entirely subjective, but I think that your pricing should reflect the quality of your work. Look at what your competition is charging, work out an estimate of your business expenses, and go from there. Don’t forget that running your own business is nothing like being self-employed. You have business expenses, taxes, employee salaries to take care of (if you employ people from the get-go), and so much more.
I have two different accountants (one in the US and one in the UK) and two different lawyers. I’m not suggesting you should do the same since my situation is unique and different, but you get the gist of it. Don’t try to do everything yourself. You might think you’re saving money but really you’re just wasting days and weeks of your life you could have spent making money (more than you saved).
Since I live in Europe (travel between Germany, UK, and Macedonia), I wanted to open a company structure in the UK. Even though most of our clients are from the US (80% of them), I wanted a UK LLP for two reasons:
If you live in the US, opening an LLC should be simple and easy. Because of Covid, the IRS might take a little longer to issue you your EIN, but you should be up and running in a month or two.
I wouldn’t use a payment processor other than Stripe though. I know there are other alternatives out there, such as 2Checkout, but none are as developer-friendly or as easy to integrate as Stripe is. The documentation is superb, they offer excellent no-code options, and the dashboard is a breeze to use.
Last but not least, I’d say stop focusing on minor details and get your business, and your website, up and running as soon as possible. You can improve it and perfect it over time, but if you’re always delaying the launch just to get everything perfect, you’re never going to succeed.
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About the author
Stefan is the founder and owner of Writingful. He's been working as a freelance writer for over 6 years, writing about anything and everything. His expertise lies in the Automotive industry, SEO and IT. He even built Writingful using Next.js and Sanity.io.