Cute, colorful stickers designed by small business owner and illustrator Devin Kane.

5 things I wish I knew when I started my online business

january 3, 2024

Hi, I'm Devin Kane, the Dev behind Dev's Doodles Co. I've always had a passion for art and creativity, so when I wasn't finding happiness in my career after college, I decided to take the leap and pursue art. In 2019 I started an online shop where I could sell my designs and share my passions. Two years later I was able to turn my online business into a full-time job!

If you're thinking about starting an online business of your own, here are five things I wish I knew before starting an online business.

Devin Kane smiling while drawing.

Thing 1: Develop a community

Many small business owners work alone, and it can be hard to get through tough days without someone you can talk to that knows the struggles of being a business owner. It's important to develop a community of fellow business owners that you can lean on, and who will cheer you on and offer support.

You can build a community by reaching out to other business owners through social media, joining business groups, and attending networking events. I joined local small business groups on Facebook and a few larger-scale groups as well, like Babes in Business. You can find these groups by searching your state or town followed by "business owners" or "small business support." It's a great way to connect with people in your field and a safe place to ask questions and get advice about starting your online business. I've found that this is also a great way to find local networking events, as most groups will create their own events for members to meet and learn in person!

One of my favorite ways to meet business owners organically is at local pop-up events where you can meet a variety of people with different specialties and backgrounds. Don't be afraid to reach out to folks you meet—chances are other online business owners would appreciate having someone they can connect with.

Thing 2: Be your authentic self

Not everyone is going to like what you sell, and that's OK. When I first started my online business, I wanted to please everyone and I ended up burning myself out trying to come up with products everyone would love. In the beginning, I was more focused on making money than establishing a brand and identifying an ideal customer. This led to me creating products I wasn't proud of and an online business without a clear message.

Over time I realized this method wasn't working, so I spent time establishing a clear brand and started creating and selling products for my ideal customer.

This provided me the opportunity to set myself apart from other online retailers and build relationships with my ideal customers. After I changed direction and became entirely true to myself and my brand, I gained a loyal customer base that continues to support my business through every new product launch.

Devin Kane wearing a cap with a smiling flower and flashing a peace sign.

Thing 3: Don't be afraid to outsource work if you need to

Take note of the tasks that are not your strengths and see if you can hire someone to do them for you. When I first started selling apparel in my online shop, I was making the T-shirts myself. The quality wasn't what I wanted, the materials were expensive, and the process took up so much of my time. I didn't have the energy to give my full attention to other tasks.

After many frustrating days, I decided to outsource the job to a local screen printer and although the upfront costs were more expensive, outsourcing the work gave me the time and energy to focus on new projects and peace of mind knowing that my products were going to be high quality.

Thing 4: Blur the boundaries between personal and professional content

When I first started my business, I got caught up in what people would say or think about me. I was afraid to show up as myself online and I only posted photos of my products. I wasn't getting many sales or engagement on those posts, so I started to pay attention to what the people who inspired me were doing. They weren't hiding behind their products like I was; they were present on their social media channels proudly talking about their business and products. They shared photos and personal stories about their lives and business and in doing so they were creating strong relationships with their customers.

While I was terrified to put myself out there, I knew if I wanted to create a connection with my customers I needed to show up and take pride in myself and my business. Not long after I started making these changes, I noticed a big difference in my sales and engagement on social media. My customers were relating to me on a personal level and instead of looking at me as a business they saw me as a friend. This is incredibly important as an online retailer because oftentimes you do not have the opportunity to create personal connections with your customers face to face.

Another tip I'd like to add here is about the visual aspect of your social media presence. When you're sharing photos, whether of yourself, your workspace, or your products, you want them to look as professional as possible. A clean, distraction-free background can really make your images pop and keep the focus on what matters. Microsoft Create's image background remover tool is incredibly handy for this. It lets you easily remove or change the background of your photos, ensuring your social media posts always look sharp and on-brand.

Taking pride in my business gave me a boost of confidence. I started appreciating all the hard work I had put into building my business and I was no longer embarrassed to talk about it. Instead, I was excited to share more and as a result I became motivated and inspired to create more products.

Thing 5: Set goals

Without goals you won't have a clear view of what you're working toward when you start your online business. When I created my brand and established my ideal customer, I also wrote down several goals I wanted to accomplish with my business. One of the major goals I had was to create a happy corner of the Internet that people could follow for encouragement and products that would put a smile on their faces. I also made financial goals, social media goals, and other fun goals like getting an order from each of the 50 US states! This helped me decide what path I wanted to take and what aspects I wanted represented in my brand and products.

As a business owner, setting goals and actionable steps towards those goals is a great way to hold yourself accountable and stay motivated. I set a variety of goals for myself, then listed the steps I needed to take to help me reach those goals. From there, I created ideas based on each step and put them to use. Breaking down the big goals into smaller more achievable steps will help you stay motivated and give you the satisfaction of checking off each task with every step. It is so satisfying to reach your goals and the added feeling of accomplishment definitely helps keep you motivated! If this sounds daunting, this template from Microsoft Create can help you define your own goals with steps and measures to make sure you reach them: S.M.A.R.T Goals template.

Starting—and sustaining—an online business is hard work and a lot of trial and error, but it is also so rewarding and I couldn't imagine doing anything else. I hope this helps you avoid some of the mistakes I made along the way and navigate you into the right direction as you decide how to start your online business.

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