A Guide to Starting an Online Business for Free

FT Contributor  | 

E-commerce has experienced massive growth in recent years. It’s gone from generating revenue of $1.3 trillion in 2014 to $4.2 trillion in 2020. And by 2023, that number is expected to climb to a staggering $6.5 trillion.

This means there’s never been a better time to get on board with e-commerce and start selling online. And the best part is that it doesn’t have to require a major investment, or for that matter, any investment at all. Here’s how to start an online business for free.

Decide What Your Online Business Is

Having a business plan from the start is crucial if you want to launch a successful e-commerce store. For starters, you’ll need to know what industry you want to break into and what your online business will be before opening it. Otherwise, it’s going to be an uphill battle without a formal game plan in place.  

Here are some specific things you’ll want to consider:

  • Who your target audience is;
  • What types of products or services you want to sell;
  • What level of competition you’re facing;
  • Current trends that are happening within the industry;

Besides that, you’ll want to create a budget for your small business and look into legalities such as whether you need a business license to sell online. This should help crystallize your vision, accelerate the speed of your launch, and prevent you from making unnecessary mistakes.

Gauge the Demand for Your Product or Service

You’ll also want to determine how much demand there currently is, as well as what the forecast is over time. According to Shopify’s Mark Macdonald,

“Demand is determined by a few factors, including the number of people seeking your product, how much they’re willing to pay for it, and how much of your product is available to consumers, both from your company and your competitors. Market demand can fluctuate over time — in most cases, it does.”

Performing keyword research through SEO tools such as Google Keyword Planner and Moz Keyword Explorer is a great way to get a baseline reading of how much demand there is. Simply enter a keyword, and these tools will let you know how many searches it receives each month and how much competition there is. Google Trends is another effective tool for market research. Enter a search term or topic to see what the interest level is over time and how popular it is at the moment.

Beyond that, you may want to take a look at recent statistics, reports, studies, and any other data you can find from reliable sources such as trade journals and government agencies. Doing so should provide you with a bird’s eye view of demand so you’ll know whether a particular online business is worth pursuing.

Find a Free Online Website Builder

Although robust online website builders with a lot of bells and whistles usually cost money, there are several basic options available that are completely free. Two of the most popular options are Weebly and Wix; they have everything you need to build a professional e-commerce store.

Some features of Weebly include:

  • Unlimited items;
  • Item badges;
  • Shopping cart;
  • Inventory management;
  • Automatic tax calculator;

Some features of Wix include:

  • Access to hundreds of customizable store themes;
  • A library of images and icons;
  • Built-in marketing features for SEO and email marketing;
  • Free mobile optimization of your online store;
  • 24/7 support;

Using reliable online website builders like these is important because it allows you to create a quality online store even if you have very little design experience. Most platforms require zero coding knowledge and will handle many of the backend tasks for you.

To use a free website builder for small business, you’ll need to sign up for a free account, choose a template, create product pages, personalize your design, and so on until you have an attractive store that your customers love.  

Use Existing Online Sales Platforms

In addition to having your own website, it’s smart to leverage existing online platforms such as eBay and Etsy. These allow you to get your products featured on massive online marketplaces with the potential to reach millions of customers.

So, rather than having to build your customer base from the ground up, you can bring attention to your online business much quicker and get revenue pumping in. Besides the boost in exposure, these platforms also offer tools, support, and education to help grow your business more efficiently.

First, you’ll sign up and begin listing your products on the marketplace. Then, the platforms take a small cut of your earnings (eBay, for example, takes a 10% final value fee) for each transaction. While this does reduce your profit margins slightly, it’s usually beneficial in the long run because you can sell more products than if you were only using a free website builder for small business.

Consider Free Content Management Services

According to HubSpot, “Nearly 40% of marketers say content marketing is a very important part of their overall marketing strategy.” Blog posts in particular are an effective way to reach target consumers, generate leads, and build brand equity. So, using a free content management service is definitely something to consider.

Two of the most popular free options are WordPress and Blogger. Just sign up and use these platforms to create targeted content around popular keyword phrases your audience is interested in.

Market Your Business Online

Effectively marketing your business online is absolutely essential to gaining traction. Even with an amazing e-commerce store, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle simply because of the high level of competition most brands are up against. That’s why you need to develop a sound marketing strategy right out of the gate, ideally using multiple channels to maximize your exposure.

According to small business marketing software GetResponse, these are currently the most effective online marketing channels:

  • Email marketing;
  • Social media marketing;
  • Search engine optimization;
  • Content marketing.

Monetize Your Online Business

Finally, you should know that there are other ways to monetize your online business beyond just selling a product or service.

Here are a few examples:

  • Create DIY information resources;
  • Offer training sessions on products or services;
  • Be a consultant;
  • Sell other business’s products through affiliate marketing.

These tactics all allow you to generate additional income, while at the same time increasing your digital presence.


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