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How to start a small online business—and use Dropbox as your base

No matter your professional experience, it seems like it’s never been easier to set out on your own and start a business online. But with so many opportunities available today, where do you begin? Find useful strategies and advice in this complete guide to starting a small online business.

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A solopreneur running their small online business from their home office

Have you had a reoccurring issue with something that you can’t find a solution to, like a lack of resources for industry-specific information? Or, have you always been creative but never had the chance to pursue your interest?

Well, now could be the time to launch your own online business.

There’s no denying it—it’s a busy and competitive market out there. And having a great idea is just the tip of the iceberg. But don’t let this put you off—backed with a solid strategy, good research, a strong suite of tools, and a positive attitude, you’ll be ready to launch your business with confidence.

We’re going to take you through some of the key steps in the process of starting a small online business, beginning with the most important factor: your idea.

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First thing’s first—come up with a strong business idea

Your idea is perhaps the most important part of your business. Longevity should be at the forefront of the process of starting a business—you don’t want to launch, or invest in, a product or service that won’t last.

You might have a vague idea of what you want your business to achieve, but have hit a wall when it comes to finalizing your plans. One way to break through this is to identify a problem that needs to be solved.

Online forums are a powerful resource for this—what problem are people regularly trying to find a solution to, but not getting any results? What questions are going unanswered or unresolved by groups who could become your target audience?

Keyword research, through freely-available tools like Google Keyword Planner, can also help to develop your business idea. This is the process of reviewing search engine data, to understand what people are searching for relating to various topics. This data might identify high-demand topics with relatively low competition, or niche pain points that your business could address.

The beauty of running an online business is that new markets and opportunities are being introduced on a regular basis. If you’re opting for a one-person business model as a “solopreneur”, there are a plethora of options available—from blogging and content creation to web development and music production.

Music production can be a lucrative small online business for digital content creators

Do your market research

This process may seem tedious, especially if you’re eager to get started, but it provides a firm footing that will pay off in the long run. 

It’s no exaggeration that the world of online business is extremely competitive. That’s why it’s so important to clearly define not only who your business is going to serve, but also how

Understanding the market will put you in a better position to communicate your business to your target audience when you’re ready to start trading. 

Steps that should play a key role in your market research strategy include:

  • Competitor analysis—is an existing business already selling your product or service? If so, how could you do it better? What will make your business different?
  • Identifying your target audience or consumer to develop a buyer persona—what is their age range, family status, and occupation? Do they live in a specific area or region? What are their interests and spending patterns?
  • Understand the current (and future) demand for your product or service—this ties into the idea development step in the previous section. Is the industry you want to enter relatively new, and still growing? Or is it well-established, but struggling to adapt to modern markets?
  • Assessing the viability of your idea—this relates to all three of the above points. Do you actually know enough about the product or service you want to sell? Would you or anyone you know be willing to buy it?

By putting in all of this effort, you want to make sure your notes are safe and easy to retrieve. Cloud storage makes it easy to keep track of your research and findings, so you can update your files from any device whenever you get a burst of inspiration.

Once you’ve identified what makes your target audience tick—and how you’re going to adapt to their needs better than your competitors—you can start expanding your business strategy.

Develop your business strategy

Like researching your target market, working on a business strategy may seem like an unnecessary step. But it is a much better use of time and resources than jumping into a business venture that is doomed to fail because of insufficient planning and preparation.

A business strategy outlines your objectives, growth and financial plans, and overall vision. Even if you have little or no startup costs, knowing which actions you need to take in order to compete in your chosen market will give you a clear roadmap for development.

Part of this stage could involve coming up with a business name (if necessary) if you don’t already have one. You should also consider the kind of online business model you want to pursue, such as freelancing, eCommerce, or information products like online courses.

Your business plan needs to be flexible and driven by up-to-date market analysis and information. This includes recognizing your prospective strengths, as well as your potential weaknesses and how you plan to overcome them.

Other factors to include are your payment methods, marketing plans, and how you would be able to react to any unexpected changes in market conditions. If your small business will be trading products, you also need to think about your inventory sourcing, sales, and distribution functions.

  • While you’re building your strategy, keep track of your progress by using Dropbox Paper to note down your ideas for business names, development plans, and marketing strategies.
A solopreneur working on the business strategy for their small online startup

Take care of the legal aspects

The legal requirements for businesses vary from state to state. So, you will need to familiarize yourself with the laws and regulations in your region before launching your online business. 

Some of the legal requirements you will need to think about include:

  • Registering your business with the relevant authorities
  • Obtaining any necessary permits and/or licenses
  • Applying for state and federal tax ID numbers
  • Registering for any trademarks, patents, or copyright
  • Talking to a consultant or tax specialist if you need guidance or assistance

With the Dropbox document scanner feature, you can use your mobile phone to scan important documents like contracts and statements of work from anywhere. 

Once these files have been digitized, you can manage them more efficiently in your Dropbox account. You can also create seamless eSignatures with HelloSign—making it much easier to request signatures from clients and other parties to make sure your contracts are legally binding once your business gets going.

Once you have all of these aspects in place, it’s important to keep them safe. Backup and store your documents in Dropbox Backup—a secure cloud system where your files will be accessible anytime and anywhere you need them.

Build your website and establish your online presence

Having a user-friendly, visually-pleasing website is absolutely crucial for a small online business. In these early stages, it’s best to keep it simple with your navigation, functionality, and graphics.

When prepping your website, store product images, and videos in your Dropbox account to choose from when you’re ready to build. Dropbox Paper will also provide a useful space for writing and editing website copy before it goes live on the site.

The first step in building your website will be choosing your domain name and preferred hosting platform. Given the multi-channel nature of online business today, your site needs to be optimized for more than just desktop users. It’s estimated mobile retail sales in the United States accounted for 36% of overall digital spending in 2021—and this figure is only going to increase in the future.

As a digital content creator, opt for Dropbox Shop—a customizable online storefront that lets you add content directly from Dropbox. 

With Dropbox Shop, you can share your listings directly with your customers—no middleman necessary. You set the tone and branding of your shop, with an ad-free storefront, customized URL, and seller profile.

A digital content creator’s storefront on Dropbox Shop
But don’t just launch your website then leave it to do its thing. Check on the performance of your site and evaluate your listings, to learn what’s working well and what needs improving. With Shop, the analytics you gather into key customer trends will help you adapt your sales strategy to exactly what your customers need.
View analytics and performance data for your digital merchandise with Dropbox Shop

Develop a marketing strategy and grow your customer base

Effective marketing is increasingly important in today’s tech-savvy world. Small business owners need to constantly develop their approach to attracting potential customers and clients.

Use your market research notes and the buyer persona you developed to tailor your marketing campaigns. Your messages across organic, paid media, email, and social media should be consistent and reflective of your customers’ needs and interests.

As a small business, cultivating your customer base and reputation is important—you don’t want to overload customers with information and end up being marked as spam! Instead, start small and use the feedback you gain to gather deeper customer insights.

No matter what type of business you are venturing into, you will need to create content for your website that is meaningful for your target audience. If you’re selling digital content like workout videos, you could create a free series of articles offering advice (such as how to warm up and cool down effectively), encouraging readers to subscribe to your service.

Streamline your process to boost productivity

Running a new business—especially when you’re self-employed or leading a very small team—can be a bit overwhelming. Thankfully, working online means that there are plenty of ways to simplify your workload so you can focus on growing your business.

When you operate from a centralized system like Dropbox, a variety of tools are at your disposal to streamline many of the mundane, day-to-day operations. These include:

  • Integrations with a range of communication and productivity tools like Zapier and Gmail
  • Dropbox Paper for managing tasks and project plans
  • Dropbox Backup for automatically backing up your files to the cloud
  • Device syncing, so you can work on your files in Dropbox whenever and wherever you get a spark of creative inspiration

It can take some time for your online business to take off. But don’t worry if you don’t see overnight success—we’re ready to help you bring your vision to life.

Dropbox productivity and collaboration tools make it easy for your to streamline processes and help your small business to run efficiently

Take your business to the next level with Dropbox

The suite of tools and features available with a Dropbox account provides the most effective base for starting—and growing—a small online business.

Dropbox is designed to make working as productive, creative, and efficient as possible. Whether you’re selling digital content as a solopreneur or delivering a project to a client and need a space to get live feedback and annotations, Dropbox has a feature to help.

Simple, secure file sharing and cloud storage is just the start. Once your business expands, you can organize your team, collaborate in real time, and even back up your entire computer—just in case the worst happens, and you need to recover your files later.