With that a stream of new, previously inconceivable, business ideas has emerged and some entrepreneurs have made millions, if not billions, by harnessing the power of the Internet. But for every successful Internet entrepreneur there are hundreds of people who have pursued the allure of dot.com wealth and fame only to burn through all their start-up capital, run out of cash and have to close shop without ever getting their idea off the ground. Here’s how to get it right.
What is it that successful Internet entrepreneurs do to build a valuable business?
To answer this question I did in-depth research into seven online businesses (see the table on page 85) that survived the lean and challenging period after the dot.com boom and bust (2000 – 2004). All seven businesses were considered to be successful because they created significant wealth for the founding team. In examining these businesses, I focused specifically on the strategies, behaviours and perspectives that enabled this group of
Internet entrepreneurs to uncover innovative business ideas, build valuable enterprises and make the right strategic choices to realise that value. This article will outline some of the insights that emerged from this research.
I will first outline why the Web creates a new and different context for launching a business and to contrast this I will highlight what traditional business principles still apply.
I will identify three mechanisms for creating economic value in Web-based businesses and I will describe the practices employed by successful Web entrepreneurs to uncover ideas, launch new products and services, build the business and realise value from their investments.
Why the Internet is different
The Internet is an emerging technology that is still rapidly evolving and growing. It has only been accessible to a regular person (i.e. you and me) since the early 1990s, making it between 15 and 20 years old. This may seem like a long period of time but most comparable technologies (telephones, the fax machine and television) had not even reached critical mass after being available for 20 years, while the Internet has moved well beyond that in its short lifespan.
Because of the nature of the Internet as a tool that enables people to communicate, interact and transact and because of its rapid uptake by users, it creates a platform where business people suddenly have easy access to a very wide audience. This means entrepreneurs with niche product or service offerings can more easily find and transact with large numbers of people in a specialised audience.
For example, if you have a deep interest in Calvin and Hobbs comics, prior to the Internet your chance of finding a market to trade such comics would have been slim but with the Internet you can find, interact with and sell to other people who love Calvin and Hobbs. Chris Andersen called this concept of reaching a niche audience via the Internet Long Tail (see his book The Long Tail for more on this idea).
The Web is a flexible open technology. Anyone can learn to use and manipulate it for their purpose. The never-ending supply of HTML coders in India is testament to this. This means that the Internet can easily be used as a platform for business purposes; it does not require an unattainable skill or a huge sum of money to be able to use it. This makes the barriers to entry into a new business much lower than they may have been in the past.
Because the Web is inexpensive and easy to use and because it provides access to a wide range of potential customers and users, it creates a platform from which new creative business ideas and business models can be launched. It is a hot-bed for entrepreneurial activity. Initially this created irrational excitement among investors and business people, giving rise to the dot.com boom and bust. But since then a number of entrepreneurs have taken a more pragmatic and profitable view of the potential of the Web for creating new business opportunities.
Related: Online Business Idea Guide
What remains the same?
The dot.com bust in the early 2000s introduced an element of reality to the way people viewed the potential of the Web. It demonstrated that in spite of all the promise and hype around the Web, certain traditional business principles still apply. Whether you are operating the most innovative, cutting edge Web company or a mundane tyre manufacturer with no Web presence you still need to:
- Create something that appeals to a particular customer base
- Generate more revenue than cost over time
The businesses that survived the dot.com bust were the ones that had established a paying customer base and were at least breaking even or close to breaking even. Avoid falling into the trap of seeing the Web as a magical land in which all traditional business principles fall by the wayside.
The Web often puts increased pressure on entrepreneurs and business owners because people who use the Web want more, for less (and they often expect to get stuff for free). This creates new and often challenging economic relationships between revenue, cost, volume and profit for Web-based entrepreneurs. Those that succeed understand that in the medium-term they need to make a profit to survive.
What Constitutes Value On The Web?
When the Web was first proposed as a business platform, there were many discussions and debates about how one creates value by doing business on the Web. Because so much is made available for free on the Internet people often grapple with the idea that if you give away everything on your website, where does the value come from. Over time it has emerged that value on the Internet is created in one of three ways:
- Sell stuff. Firstly you can sell something via the Web. It could be a product (e.g. digitised music, rare books, specialised software) or a service (e.g. storing and printing photographs, copy editing or accounting services). In addition, the Web creates a useful platform for selling information (e.g. Hoovers, Gartner and Trendwatching.com) or selling marketing opportunities. Marketing opportunities come in the form of advertising space (e.g. a banner advert on Yahoo.com) or sales leads (e.g. TripAdvisor.com providing information to travel agents about people who are interested in buying a holiday package to a particular destination). Selling via the Web, whether it is products, services, information or advertising opportunities, is the best way to create a sustainable independent business over time. It is the application of traditional business practices using a new platform.
- Create innovative technology. The second way to create money on the Web is to create a piece of technology that can do something that very few others can. Because the technology underlying the Web is rapidly evolving and changing, there are always new opportunities to do things that others have not done in the past (e.g. create the technology to upload and watch video via the Internet with relatively low bandwidth as the YouTube founders did. YouTube was sold 18 months later to Google for $1,6 billion.). This is a more risky approach and the entrepreneur is too often dependent on selling the company or the technology to a third party to realise value from the investment.
- Establish a massive user base. The third way to create value on the Web is to establish a large user base on your website. The logic goes that if you get many users, over time you can generate value by selling premium products or services to them (e.g. Craigslist, the mostly free classifieds site, charging for property listings in certain premium areas) or by selling advertising space on the site. Even if your company is struggling to generate revenue from your large user base, there is a strong chance that an established company will want to buy the business to access your user base (e.g. Yahoo buying Flickr, the online photo sharing site or Microsoft offering to buy Facebook to get access to all Facebook users). Adopting this as a strategy is highly risky. The number of websites that create a user base the size of Craigslist, Facebook or Flikr is very small yet if you get it right the payoffs can be big.
Many successful Web-based businesses employ a combination of two or even all three of these value creation mechanisms to establish a strong competitive advantage. For example, Google uses its proprietary search algorithm (#2) to generate a large user base that they monetise through advertising (#3). They also sell goods and services to their large user base via their Google Apps website (#1).
The value that arises from each of these three mechanisms can be recognised in one of two ways. Either the business is sold to a larger organisation for a premium (at which point the entrepreneur usually becomes very wealthy) or the business operates in the medium term as an independent profit generating operation. The table opposite describes the outcomes for the seven Internet ventures that were examined as part of this study.
Strategies, Behaviours & Perspectives Employed By Successful Web Entrepreneurs
To get an understanding of the specific practices that underlie success for entrepreneurs building Web-based ventures I created rich and detailed case studies from multiple data sources for each business. The following four themes emerged. These ideas are not necessarily easy to implement but they appeared to be strongly related to the entrepreneurs’ successes.
Related: Ways to Come Up With a Business Idea
Uncovering ideas: Start as a User
In all seven cases the entrepreneurs founding the business could be described as users first and entrepreneurs second. They had a specific need for a product or service that they thought could be effectively delivered via the Web so they created a solution to meet that need and in so doing realised they had uncovered an opportunity for a new business. For example, Joshua Schachter, describes how he uncovered the idea for del.icio.us as follows:
“There was no point at which I said, ‘I’m inventing this wonderful new thing.’ I just sort of realised that I had evolved my own filing system, and it worked for me. I’d used it for a long time before del.icio.us even showed up. This was the codification of that practice. I eventually put del.icio.us on a server and opened it up to other people, and it began to spread by word of mouth.” Building a business on the Web is riddled with uncertainty and ambiguity.
Because of the rapid changes in technology and business models new opportunities are emerging all the time. But it is difficult to tell the real opportunities from the distracting sideshows when there is so much uncertainty and ambiguity in the market.
Being a user brings entrepreneurs much closer to the problem. It enables them to develop solutions that fit with what they want and need and therefore with what the market wants and needs. In a confusing market this is critical and in this context, it appears that there is significant value in developing a business around something that you know well and need for yourself. You may develop it for yourself as a side project and launch it as a business later.
Getting traction – Forge a following
In six of the seven cases examined, the entrepreneurs established an online community of followers attached to the business. These were not just communities of customers. They were communities of passionate disciples who monitored and followed intricate details about the business on a blog published (in most cases) by the founder. In some cases the founder had been publishing a blog before they started a business and they reported on the business as they moved through the entrepreneurial process. In other cases they began publishing a blog as an inexpensive marketing strategy for their new venture.
But in all cases they put effort into their blog, created a reader base and that reader base later served as resources for the venture with respect to (1) getting new ideas – the reader base would share ideas for new products, services or features; (2) testing concepts – the entrepreneur could test a new concept and/or tool with the reader base before developing it further or launching it to the public at large and (3) viral marketing – certain members of the reader base would forward links to blog posts or to the company’s website to everyone in their email address book and thereby create a flurry of word of mouth advertising. The entrepreneurs had to play their part in this deal, they were diligent in publishing their blog and they often gave stuff away to their reader base. A small price to pay for a substantial return.
Staying relevant – Tinker, experiment and adapt
Online businesses are invariably being built in a fluid and changing environment. From the case studies it emerged that in such an environment, flexibility is a virtue and goals may actually work against you. None of the entrepreneurs examined got locked into specific time orientated goals. In many contexts goals are very powerful for driving success but in the online entrepreneurial environment, goals may actually hurt you. Research has shown that one of the primary reasons that goals are valuable is because they narrow your focus and cause you to lock in on a specific outcome.
This works well where it is clear what the outcome should be, but in an uncertain, ambiguous environment, the outcome may not be clear and in such circumstances it seems that being flexible and adaptable about where you are going and how you will get there may actually help you to make the most of the situation. Therefore, instead of goal-oriented behaviour, the entrepreneurs in these case studies showed signs of tinkering, experimentation and adaptation and they allowed their goals to emerge and change as they went through this experimental learning process.
Recognising value – Time the exit
The final item that is key in this context is “when to get out?” Five of the seven entrepreneurs examined in this study realised significant monetary value from their efforts when they sold the business. This highlights that timing was critical to their success. Being scientific about when to sell a business is very difficult but being aware that it may be beneficial to sell the business at the right time is important.
Most sales of successful online businesses are to larger corporations with related business interests. They buy the venture to access and use the technology developed in the company or to access the user base of the website.
As an entrepreneur it is important to be conscious of the fact that there may come a time in your business’s life cycle where a viable option would be to sell the business.
This will be prompted (1) from the outside in – you will start getting enquiries about whether you might be interested in a deal or (2) from the inside out – you will start to feel like your return on effort is diminishing and running the company has begun to feel more like work than play. Either of these is a sign that it might be worth selling.
That said, two of the seven entrepreneurs in my study were still running the business at the time I interviewed them and they were having a blast doing it so your ideal outcome may be sustainable, profitable, ongoing business. Whatever you desire in your entrepreneurial endeavours, the Internet is an exciting and challenging, high opportunity, high risk, high return place to do it.
A Top Lesson From Vinewave: Success Doesn’t Happen Overnight
Launching a side business that makes money even while you’re sleeping has never been easier. Lawrence Cawood of Vinewave explains how it’s possible to build a multi-million rand business completely on your own, in your spare time, with nothing more than a computer.
Vinewave doesn’t produce sexy consumer software, which is why you’ve probably never heard of the company. Its most popular piece of software, for example, is a staff directory. But it is special for a number of reasons. First, Vinewave is a South African company, despite the fact that you’d never guess it from perusing the website — all prices are in US dollars. Another surprising aspect of the business is its client list.
Users include Sony, Samsung, Harvard Business School, the United Nations and SpaceX. Most astonishingly, however is the fact that, for a very long time, it had only a single employee: Founder Lawrence Cawood. Since 2010, Lawrence has owned and operated Vinewave completely on his own, from a single computer at his home.
Although he is now looking to scale the business aggressively, his initial aim was to create a business that could provide for him and his family, without demanding 80-hour work weeks.
“I wanted to be able to spend time with my family, so my aim was to create a lifestyle business that didn’t demand crazy hours, and that would allow me to work when and where I wanted,” says Lawrence.
Vinewave ended up being exactly what he was looking for. Working on his own, Lawrence created a business that quickly boasted around R1,6 million in annual revenue, and a valuation of R10 million.
Being an online business that targeted companies all over the world, time and space was irrelevant. “I would often wake up to discover that I had made R60 000 in sales while I was sleeping,” he says.
DOING THE WORK
Of course, that doesn’t mean that you can become a multi-millionaire while watching TV in your pyjamas. Lawrence is quick to add that launching Vinewave wasn’t easy. Sales were slow to come in and refining his software demanded hard work.
“It took me six months to make my first sale,” says Lawrence. “Also, as the only person in the business, I had to work hard. I was responsible for absolutely everything: The website, advertising, SEO, product development, and so on. However, the nature of the business allowed me to do things on my own terms. Where and when I did the work was irrelevant, meaning I could spend time with my family when I wanted. Even though I had to invest a lot of time and energy into the business, it provided a certain sense of freedom. Normal business limitations didn’t apply.”
As mentioned earlier, Lawrence is now working harder on the business than he did in the early days, since he is looking to scale, but Entrepreneur spoke to him about the ins and outs of creating a lifestyle business or side project that doesn’t demand absolutely all of your time.
Here’s his advice for creating a business that can make money while you sleep.
1. Product, not service
The more successful a service business is, the more time you’re likely to have to invest in the business, since you are essentially trading your time for money. For example, if you have a photography business, every new client will cost money, require more time and add complexity to the business. Selling items online, in contrast, is easier to scale as a business, since the difference between selling ten and 12 items isn’t all that much. Easiest of all is a business that sells a digital product. The added cost and complexity that comes with every added customer of a piece of software is very small, since there is nothing to package or ship. For this reason, a company like Facebook, Dropbox and, indeed, Vinewave is hyper-scalable.
“I think it’s important to be passionate about what you do and to pursue something that you’re knowledgeable about, but you also need to be realistic about the demands of the business you have in mind. Some ideas and products demand more time and resources than others. If you want a business that you can run on the side, you need a product that is relatively easy to ship and sell. Software is easiest, of course, but a physical product isn’t out of the question. Just make sure that systems and processes can be put in place to streamline the process and free up time.”
2. Build a better version
Unless you’ve got a lot of time and money on your hands, reinventing the wheel isn’t a good idea. A company like Google, Apple or Amazon can gamble big on revolutionary ideas, but if you’re looking for a manageable side business, you want to instead focus on creating a better version of an existing product.
“You want to look at what is already selling, and build something similar, but better,” says Lawrence. “As always, you want to identify a burning problem, and provide an elegant solution that people are willing to pay for. The last thing you want to do when you don’t have a lot of time and money to invest is to try and create a new market on your own.”
3. Listen to customers
The best way to launch a business that scales quickly and easily is to create a product that customers are eager to buy.
“It took me half a year to make my first sale. I wanted to sell a suite of products, while customers wanted to be able to choose the products they needed. It’s important to listen to customers and give them what they want,” says Lawrence. “Also, remember that customers are sophisticated these days. They have high expectations. Even though I am selling a B2B product, I’m cognisant of the fact that my users are also users of things like Facebook and Instagram. Ultimately, people use things that are elegant and simple and easy to use. They pick the best product.”
Unfortunately, this means that there are no shortcuts to success. A bad product won’t find traction. Lawrence suggests launching an MVP (minimum viable product) and refining it. “Listen to customers and create something they truly want,” he says.
4. Think big
Lifestyle businesses used to be small and location-specific. Thanks to the Internet, that’s no longer the case. Geography has become irrelevant.
“Just because you have a lifestyle business doesn’t mean that you have to sell to your immediate community,” says Lawrence. “You can now sell to the whole world, which means that you can make money anywhere, at any time. You can sell around the clock. This is particularly true if you’re selling a piece of software that’s delivered instantly, but it’s also true of physical products. Shipping around the country and internationally is less difficult than it once was. Don’t think small. Expand your potential market as much as you can.”
5. Look and act professional
The traditional shopfront is increasingly being replaced by the website. Vinewave’s customers, for instance, had no idea that it was a small South African company with a solitary staff member. Lawrence spent time and money to create a professional website that looked great and attracted large clients, and that was all that mattered.
“The size and location of your operation doesn’t really matter, provided you appear professional at all times, and offer great service,” says Lawrence.
“As I said earlier, customers have high expectations these days, but as long as you meet those demands, everything else is irrelevant. You can sit at home and answer customer emails in your underwear, as long as your customers are satisfied with the product and service that they get from your company. Around 98% of my customers are from overseas, so I knew it wouldn’t work if I tried to sell in rands. Instead, I created a website that sold in US dollars. You have to respond to the demands and expectations of your customer.”
6. Marketing made easy
A lot of people are intimidated by the thought of marketing and selling a product. For many, the idea of creating a product is enticing, but they are intimidated by the thought of having to market and sell. According to Lawrence, however, marketing and selling is easier than ever, thanks to the Internet.
“I’ve almost never spoken to a customer and I rarely interact with them via email. If people are happy with your product and it does what they want it to do, you rarely hear from them. So you needn’t be put off by thoughts of difficult customer service,” says Lawrence.
“The same is true of sales and marketing. Through things like SEO and online ads, you can make customers come to you. You don’t need to cold call, just create a product people are actively searching for. Spend time and money on your website, and invest in SEO and online ads. When done properly, these things can drive your entire business.”
6 Steps To Building A Million-Dollar Ecommerce Site In 60 Days
Jared Goetz spent only 30 minutes a day and built a colossal Shopify sales machine.
Jared Goetz, serial entrepreneur and member of The Oracles, always had a knack for reaching an audience. At 26 years old, he’s co-founded four multimillion-dollar companies.
Whether he’s throwing the world’s largest foam party with fire breathers and circus acts (“Electric Flurry”) or selling inflatables to college students via viral campaigns (“Dumbo Lounge Sacks”), this serial entrepreneur knows how to turn an audience into a profit machine.
His latest venture, The Gadget Snob, is no different. An ecommerce store that supplies everything from jet-flamed pencils to laser keyboards, Goetz took his business from zero to $2 million in 60 days by plugging into the right audience. That’s no small feat in a competitive industry forecast to surpass $4 trillion in sales by 2020.
Goetz’s secret sauce to reaching the masses? Experimentation. As he explains, “You don’t know what people will respond to until you try a lot of things. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box.”
Goetz shares six key components to building his million-dollar ecommerce store and turning profits in less than a business quarter.
1. Don’t reinvent the merchandise wheel
“Many owners think they have to reinvent the wheel with the merchandise they sell,” Goetz explained. Instead, he suggests focusing on products with a proven track record of success. “An easy way to spot a market trend is gauging how a product performs on social media. If an item is getting 10,000 Facebook Likes in less than a few hours, that’s a tell.”
When choosing merchandise, it’s also crucial to differentiate between commoditised and unique products. Commoditised products are widely available. Unique products are less accessible handmade or niche products that aren’t mass produced.
“If you go niche, gauge demand first. Observe what people are looking for. You might be surprised to see what’s selling.”
2. Create a formula, then rewrite it
Ecommerce comes down to a formula, Goetz says, and the outcome is affected by different variables: Product, advertisement, landing page optimisation, and customer lifetime value.
“Once you figure out what produces the best margin, copy that. Most who fail in ecommerce are 90 percent there but haven’t worked out all the variables in their formula,” Goetz shares.
For Goetz, a pivotal variable was drop shipping. “I spent a lot of time bootstrapping my earlier companies. Drop shipping was a game-changer because it allowed me to advertise before securing the inventory, yielding greater outcomes.”
3. Build a legit Shopify store
A successful Shopify store must win confidence. “In the sometimes-fraudulent digital ecosystem, you have to earn a consumer’s trust,” Goetz says. “A money-back guarantee and free shipping guarantee are great places to start.”
Goetz also suggests choosing a theme that’s congruent with your industry. “With branding, you want to look professional, not spammy or creepy.” Gadgets are fun and technical, so his site has bright colours and precise language. “If I were running a men’s fashion store or toy store, I’d change my theme to match the merchandise and brand. Branding is key to converting customer views into sales.”
4. Find winning ads with huge ROI and scale
For Goetz, marketing comes down to one word: testing. “The only way to find out what works is to test it many times,” he says. “Test 10 audiences on each product, so you know where to invest your energy.” For The Gadget Snob, Goetz hired an ad manager to optimise Facebook campaigns. “When you strike gold with a successful ad, replicate it, but scale incrementally to ensure you’re staying targeted.” He suggests increasing ad spend 20 percent per day, not 500 percent.
When building campaigns, it’s also vital to use language that’s shareable and creative. Sales psychology is your friend. From his perspective, classic scarcity techniques have been around for centuries for a reason. “Try incorporating a quantity incentive: if you buy one, it’s full price; if you buy two, it’s 50 percent off and so forth.”
“Creating an email list is also vital. Email campaigns have a higher conversion rate than cold Facebook campaigns, and you can incentivise email campaigns with rewards. You can make money by merely pushing ‘send.’”
5. Hire a VA, then specialists
For Goetz, hiring a virtual assistant was essential to scaling. “At first, my VA helped with everything,” he says. Once his site got off the ground, Goetz hired people with specialised jobs for specific tasks.
He also stresses the importance of universal procedures. “Having clear onboarding processes and procedures is key to growth. Make your systems as easy as possible because while you might have 100 orders today, tomorrow you’ll have quadruple that.”
6. Get your customer support airtight
For a store to operate at full throttle, Goetz stresses the importance of customer support to maximise your profits. “You need your customer support to be airtight and available 24/7,” he says. “Online shopping goes all night and people place orders at all hours.”
To support questions and concerns, Goetz says that live chat and around-the-clock customer service is a must. “In our era of Amazon Prime, customer service expectations have never been higher, he says. “The last thing you want is a minute hiccup or technical goof obstructing a sale.”
Ultimately, ecommerce allows entrepreneurs to reach untapped markets and reap the rewards. As Goetz puts it: “My ecommerce site affords me ultimate freedom.” By following a few basic steps, you, too, can build a Shopify store to run from anywhere in the world, and perhaps even create your own million-dollar sales machine.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
10 Businesses You Can Start Part-Time
Find your perfect match for a successful part-time start-up.
Start your part-time business today
- Public Relations
- Freelance Photography
- Corporate Videos
- Small Business Advertising Agency
- Writing, Editing and Proofreading Services
- Internet Marketing Consultant
- Web Design
- Tax Accountant
- Business Consultant
- Business Plan Consultant
Launching a company – even if it’s operated part-time – is all about drawing on your skills, talents and interests to create a viable business. What you know and what you’re good at form a good basis for a part-time business because these companies either become an extension of what you enjoy doing most or they are based on your strengths.
Working part-time while still maintaining a permanent job is time consuming and often exhausting, so choosing what you take pleasure in or are good at can keep you focused and motivated. The right fit is important when it comes to launching a part-time business. Selling a service rather than a product does not require large start-up costs, which means you can grow your business without financing until it becomes self-sustaining.
Are you looking for a business that you can launch in next to no time?
Corporate Communications & Promotions
Corporate communications covers a host of areas, mainly because this is the sector that takes care of how companies look to the outside world – something that is very definitely a service, but also that is not often taken care of in-house.
If you can write, edit, have a knack for advertising, can take photographs or create promotional and corporate videos, you can offer your services part-time to companies both large and small that are in need of these services.
- 5 Thoughts To Give You The Courage To Make Change
- Develop Digital Marketing Competency In 3 Simple Steps
- How To Build Organisational Wealth Through Increased Efficiency
- The Workspace And MiWay Announce Entrepreneur Competition
- Successful People Always Chase the Impossible – Here’s Why
- A Top Lesson From Vinewave: Success Doesn’t Happen Overnight
- Budget 2018/9: 3 Key Tax Areas To Look Out For In The Speech
Start-up Industry Specific3 months ago
How Do I Start A Transport Or Logistics Business?
Entrepreneur Profiles3 months ago
10 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Businesses From Nothing
Business Plan Advice3 months ago
Writing a Business Plan May Not Be Your Idea Of Fun, But It Forces You To Build These 4 Crucial Habits
Company Posts1 month ago
Enhance Your Entrepreneurial Flair With An Online Postgraduate Diploma From The University Of Pretoria