Online Business Ideas: 8 Options for Digital Entrepreneurs

online business ideasIt’s 2014, and if you’re thinking about starting a business, it’s almost redundant to say that it’s going to be an online business in one way or another. So much of what’s happening in the business world is happening online, and so much of consumer attention and money is being funneled directly into the computer screen, that practically every business these days has to have an online strategy.

However, creating an online business can mean venturing into new territory for many people. The online marketplace is huge, and it can change dramatically very quickly. Creating a business structured around online opportunities means being aware of the potential for everything that you’ve built your business around to change at a moment’s notice. You need your business to be flexible and versatile, and focused on real customers with real needs.

Online Businesses

No matter what your skill set, there is probably an opportunity online for you to establish a business around what you do best, and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. The Internet is driven by enthusiasts, and if you can find a niche market of 1,000 people who love what you do there willing to pay for it, you can make a living just selling your products and services to them.

That may sound idyllic, but the truth is that it’s not all that easy, even though it is worth it. Building any business takes hard work, and you have to be doing something that you love if you’re going to succeed at it. Without that love and without that passion, you’re not going to have the energy to push yourself through the hard times.

One of the most common themes of business on the Internet is failure. One popular saying is, “fail early and fail often.” But failure has a different flavor than it used to. It’s important to remember that you’re going to fail until you succeed, and try to learn from your failures, rather then letting them stop you. One of the advantages of starting an online business is that you can start it small, and grow it as it develops. If market needs change, or if you mis-estimated the market to begin with, you can adjust or you can close up shop and start again quickly, without the headaches that come from managing a physical business in the real world.

You don’t have to invest everything in one business, although it is important to start one at a time and give it your full attention. If you can get your head around that attitude, and you’re willing to put in the time, you have the opportunity to build your dream online.

Publishing Free Information Sites

The original concept of the Internet, and the web, was that people would publish and connect with information there. Publishing information is what the tools for the Internet were built to do originally, and they’re very powerful at it. Google has built a huge business around helping people search for the content they’re looking for. You can tie into that business, and make a name for yourself just by collecting and publishing information.

The most straightforward business that you can build can be as simple as putting up a website using a free service from Tumblr, Google, or many other free hosted website providers. Start collecting and gathering information that you think people need to know about, and publish reviews or analyses of this information, with links to the original source. Maybe interview some experts, and put those interviews online. You don’t have to worry about protecting access to your content or charging for it to start with. You can even make money with a free site.

The way to make money with a free site is through advertising. By taking on ads, you can generate an audience who will come to you for the information, and be exposed to the advertising you provide. Advertisers in the niche that you’re targeting will pay to put their logos and their content onto your site if you can prove that you have the attention of an engaged audience. Google has a program called AdSense that allows webmasters to make money from the content on their site, and will even generate dynamic links to the best ads to make you money based on how Google understands what you publish.

In addition to putting up free information, there are a number of useful supporting services that you can integrate into your site to help keep the audience engaged. For example, you can use a free plug-in discussion service such as Discus that let’s you add a live threaded discussions any piece of information you put online. This is great for blogs, but it can also be great for information sites. The more active in fault your audience appears to be, the more interested advertisers will be in reaching out to them. You can also ad free social media sharing services from companies such as AddThis but will make it easy for people reading your site to share it with their social networks, increasing your visibility.

Let your passion guide you in this. Don’t try to create a site just because you believe there’s a market for it. Building an information site takes a lot of time and a lot of energy, and it needs the type of dedication that can only come from doing something you truly love. As long as you can provide information that is interesting and relevant people who have an interest that you share, you can generate an audience and build a revenue stream this way.

Selling Access to Specialized Information

On the other hand, there is some information that is so valuable that it’s worth charging people for. if you’ve ever paid for access to a specialized newspaper or online magazine or even access to a legal database, you seen this in action. Somebody has spent the time and effort to compile or create information that they consider to be worth charging for, and they’ve convinced you and many other customers to pay them for it.

Your creativity is the only limitation when it comes to thinking about what types of information you might want to sell access to. Consumer Reports has built a business around private access to reviews and test results about products we all know and use every day. The cable television station HBO has created an online version of their service that allows people to access streaming versions of their television shows, but first you have to pay for the cable station itself. Similarly, Netflix has made huge business out of online streaming of movies.

There are companies who hire experts to create specialized reports about different industries, and who private access to exclusive whitepapers and statistical analyses about these industries. If you have specialized knowledge in any areas like this where there maybe businesses looking for this type of information, you may be able to build a business around your reputation.

If you don’t already possess specialized knowledge about a specific industry, you may be a good researcher with the time and energy to go out and gather information that would otherwise be difficult to put together in one place. You might know of a special needs community that could benefit from centralized information about products that would be useful to them. For example, parents who are looking for schools or recreational facilities for their children, or people looking for senior centers with specific requirements. Your time and effort researching companies in these industries and compiling that information into a website can be marketed and sold. Charging people for access to specialized information is one of the oldest and best established business models on the Internet.

Another way to make money with paid access to content is by acting as a broker for virtual goods and services. For example, you could create a business for yourself buying and selling domains, investing in ones that you think are going to increase in value, and then reselling them at a profit. This is a speculative business, and it does take a certain amount of cash upfront, but if you think you have a knack for it could be very profitable.

The information you sell does not have to be original or exclusive. Much the same with you could present a custom Version of the telephone book, you can collect information from Google searches, compile it into your own database, and charge for access for that. But don’t just copy somebody else’s documents. Whoever put those together has rights to the content and presentation, and you don’t want to be violating anybody’s copyright. You must compile and present your information in an original way, and make sure that you’re adding enough value that customers will be willing to pay you for it.

Consulting

One of the benefits of the telecommunications revolution is that we no longer need to be physically located in the same space in order to provide our services to another person. The opportunities for freelancing have increased exponentially with the advent of the Internet. Right now, you can go to sites such as Elance.com and hire talented professionals in any range of fields to do whatever work you need for whatever price they consider reasonable. There are even discount sites like Fiverr.com where you can hire someone for just $5.00. Services like this allow any individual with a skill and some initiative (including you) to pursue possible job opportunities online.

It’s important to know how to use these services effectively. Many of these services charge freelancers a monthly fee in order to have access to advanced features such as the opportunity to bid on more then 20 jobs in a month, or to highlight a bid and make it stand out more prominently. You may also need to pay extra in order to host an adequate portfolio of your work online so that potential customers can see how talented you are and begin to crave your work.

Another way to take advantage of these online virtual consulting businesses is to centralize the services of other consultants you find online, and charge a premium for your service as the person who manages them. If you’re good at managing remote workers, you can put together relationships with a hand-selected group of remote workers in an industry you are familiar with, and can set yourself up as a consultancy by centralizing and providing curated access to other people’s services through you, charging as much as you need to in order to make it profitable.

For many people, using these virtual services is complicated because they don’t know how to deal with remote workers themselves. By putting yourself in that position, you provide a benefit to your customers, and provide access to customers for virtual workers who would otherwise not be able to reach them.

But you don’t have to go through a service such as that in order to sell your consulting services online. It’s perfectly possible for a person with a strong reputation in any field to set up a private website with a menu of consulting services, and make them available to the general public by telephone and by e-mail. Online personal coaching, social media consulting, web design, and even writing and editing services are among the more popular opportunities out there.

Some of the richest opportunities for online consulting come from supporting successful existing online businesses. For example, you may want to present yourself as an eBay consultant, teaching people how to sell effectively on eBay. Commercial sites such as eBay try to set themselves up so that their interfaces are as simple as possible, but as soon as there’s an opportunity to make money, people figure out ways to game the system. Learning some of these tricks, and teaching people how to use them effectively, can be a great way to start your business.

You can also consult with people who are new to the Internet, teaching them the best ways to get online, how to establish and manage their e-mail addresses, how to search effectively for the most valuable results, and even how to set up a simple website. No matter how simple the skills may seem to you, there are people out there who will pay good money to be walked step-by-step through the process of building a WordPress site. Use the knowledge you have, and make it available to others.

But the consultant market isn’t exclusively for assisting newcomers to the Internet. Even experienced Internet users and big  businesses need the consulting services of professionals to help generate the attention that they require for their information and their services. Updating Twitter feeds, responding to the session posts, maintaining Facebook newsfeeds, and a wide variety of support services for social media tools can provide a wealth of opportunity for an independent consultant. If you have the ability to communicate in an effective and engaging manner, and relate in a human way with the people who use your potential customers products and services, you can sell your consulting services as a social media expert.

If you choose to become an online consultant, make sure to be very clear with your customers about how you’re going to charge them, how much you’re going to charge them, and what they can expect from you. This is still a relatively new industry, and until people become more familiar with it, the clearer you are about how you run your business the better.

Teaching

While consulting is usually done one on one, online teaching programs can be set up so that one lesson can teach hundreds if not thousands of potential students. One of the most exciting new opportunities in recent years is the advent of online teaching. With the rapid change of pace in our world, people have to learn new skills constantly in order to remain employable. If you know some of the skills that people are desperate to learn, your ability to create simple instructional materials and deliver them in a concise and clear manner can make you money. Generally, the best-selling instructional materials are targeted at beginners, so the threshold for experience is low as long as you know how to teach well.

There are a few websites right now where you can set yourself up as an online teacher right away. One you may have heard of is Udemy.com, where individuals with skills and the ability to present themselves well can create a course by assembling a collection of videos and e-books, and make the materials available online. Udemy.com handles the billing, finds the customers, and provides a clean interface to make the transaction as smooth as possible. For the record, I’ve done business with Udemy.com myself, and in fact I’m publishing this post on their blog, so I know what I’m talking about.

It’s also possible to set up a website by yourself where you can centralize a collection of e-books and videos, and sell access to them through something as simple as a hosted WordPress site for a fee. Learn more about building a WordPress business here. There are “drip delivery” and “autoresponder’ services that will allow you to sell access to a sequence of course materials delivered on any schedule that you like, to lead your students through your courses from beginning to end over a specified period of time you define.

If there skills you think you can use to provide consulting services, these same skills can also be used to create online lesson plans. Teaching people how to set up and use Google Analytics for their website, how to bake a cake, how to finish a novel, or any set of skills that you’ve developed in your life can be compiled into text, audio, or video lessons you can present online.

If you don’t think you have a skill that anybody would be interested in learning about, just do a Google search for “how to” followed by the skill that you know how to teach. You may be amazed to discover that people are currently selling videos and courses online about that skill that you thought nobody would be interested in paying for. Don’t let that stop you from adding your voice. Just because a class exists, does not mean that it’s being taught the way that you can teach it. If you have something to add to this conversation, you have a market.

Publishing Books Online

There’s been a renaissance in recent years in independent publishing. The older business model of large publishers who have exclusive access to an market is breaking down, and the availability of easy access to online publishing tools to Amazon and other large booksellers is making it possible for independent writers and publishers to create their own works, and reach out directly to their audiences.

A few years ago, A number of companies including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Sony introduced a range of inexpensive and convenient electronic book readers. At the same time, they established a standard for publishing electronic books that makes them substantially less expensive than printed books. This opened up a huge new market for independent book publishers. It’s now possible to create a digital version of a book and sell it directly to customers for very small price through Amazon, one of the largest online search engines, and its many competitors. Since this is such a big part of Amazon’s business, and Amazon is such a big company, the opportunity to get involved in electronic publishing and reach a new audience are very good right now

If you like to write, this could be the best time to get started. Since you don’t need to pitch your idea to a huge publisher, or print 1,000 copies of a book just to make the cost of printing practical, you can pursue topics that are driven by your own passions, and reach out directly to an audience who shares your passion. The fact that a book can go directly from the writer’s computer into the reader’s computer with a one-click purchase on a portable device without ever having to be printed removes a huge barrier to publishing.

But even with the convenience of electronic publishing, book printing is still a big business, since many people do prefer to read their books on paper. Print on demand services are now making it practical for people to write books and have them printed only as they are ordered. Through services such as CreateSpace, Lulu, and many others, it’s possible to write and publish a book that can be printed and delivered directly to anybody who orders a copy at a price that provides reasonable return for the book printer and the writer, without making the book ridiculously expensive for the reader.

There are also high-end book publishing companies that will print hardcover books for you OnDemand. The pricing for these is higher, but if you want to produce high-quality books of photographic art, it’s worth the extra cost to be able to create something of true value. Sometimes these books may cost $40 or more to print, which will reduce your margins, but if you have a following of people who are truly interested in your art, it can be a great way to go.

This course on online publishing is a great way to learn more.

Selling Virtual Products

When it comes to selling products online, there are so many ways to go about it these days that it’s impossible to come up with a comprehensive list. A number of businesses have sprung up in recent years designed around helping individuals sell the goods and services that they can provide quickly and efficiently to customers around the world. Some of these companies help with billing, some help with invoicing, some help you track your expenses, and some just make it easier for somebody to pay you with a credit card.

One of the least expensive ways to get started with online product sales is by selling virtual products. A virtual product is something digital that can be distributed directly to the customer over the Internet as soon as it is purchased. With electronic virtual goods, there’s no need to create the physical inventory. Once you’ve created your initial product, you can sell as many copies of it as the market will pay for, and satisfy your customers needs instantly.

Some examples of virtual goods that you can sell online are videos, online courses, subscription newsletters, access to private areas of websites, and downloadable music. The range is endless. The trick is not to develop a product until you know that there is a customer base out therefore it. Join discussion groups, bulletin boards, and read comments and product reviews online. Find customers who are looking for a solution to a problem you know how to solve, and who are willing to pay for it. Once you come up with a solution you can sell them, let them know that it’s available, and adjust your offerings constantly according to the feedback you get.

One variety of information product facilitated by the existence of the Internet is the e-mail newsletter. If you can define a niche of people interested in the type of information that you can collect and provide to them on a regular basis, you can set up an e-mail newsletter and charge people for access to it on a regular basis. For example, you might be able to generate a list of one thousand people who are all interested in bargains at local restaurants in your area, or the latest news about any topic you enjoy researching. Just because you find it easy to collect this information doesn’t mean that everybody else does. Your ability to compile and present this information in a clean attractive manner is worth something.

What’s more, if your newsletter provides links to products that people might want to buy, you can get advertising revenue from people who want to list their products in your newsletter, as well as a percentage of those sales using affiliate marketing, which we will be discussing soon. Of course, if you do accept advertising, you must be sure to let your readers know when placement is paid for and not purely editorial.

Selling Physical Products

On the other hand, you may prefer to sell physical products. There are a number of ways of going about this. If you’re craftsperson, and you produce your own goods, you can take orders through a website like Etsy.com, or set up your own e-commerce website where you can promote your goods. Ideally, you should be able to generate interest in your products by building a mailing list of people who are already satisfied customers. Participating actively in groups and communities online where goods like yours are sold and discussed is one way to get people aware of you and your products, and to find out what types of products you should be producing to meet real needs.

Depending on where you live, you may be able to sell foods that you’ve cooked in your kitchen as specialty gourmet items. In some states, it’s not legal to ship this type of product across state lines, or even to distribute them through delivery services, so make sure you understand your local regulations. However, if you make spectacular jellies, amazing chocolate, or baked goods that the neighborhood kids a  rave about, you may have an opportunity to build a business around them online.

An alternative approach to producing physical products is selling goods that are purchased from manufacturers overseas, or even shipped directly to a customer from a third-party vendor. That last approach is called drop shipping, and it can be a viable alternative if you know of a solid wholesale source for a product that you know you can sell to a customer base you can reach. Of course, with a market like this, the privacy of your wholesale source is the only barrier to entry for any competitors who also have access to the same customers.

One of the nice things about selling physical products online does that you can tie your physical sales directly into your favorite shipping service. A customer can enter their information once, and you can create a link between your site and your shipping service site that will allow them to automatically build a customer for exactly the cost of the shipping, so you can pass that through without having to worry about charging for it or estimating.

Affiliate Marketing

If you’re interested in selling products, but don’t want go to the trouble of making your own, you might want to look into affiliate marketing. Affiliate marketing allows anybody who has registered with the manufacturer or seller of a product to gain a commission when they refer customers. Sometimes those commissions can be as much as 50% of the sales price of the product, so theoretically a strong affiliate marketer stands to make a lot of money with clever marketing.

Affiliate marketing used to have a bad the reputation, like a get rich quick scheme, but in recent years it has matured significantly. You may still see people who try to game the affiliate system, promoting “squeeze pages” that sell outdated, mass-copied content for $97. But the real key to success in affiliate marketing is to know your audience and know that you’re providing them with something of real value.

Companies who sell through affiliate marketers appreciate the access affiliates provide them to markets they would not otherwise be able to reach. Your ability to gather a list of people who would be interested in the types of products you represent lab value both to your customers and to the you’re selling for.

If you’re interested in affiliate marketing, it’s important to align yourself with companies that produce products you have confidence in. As an affiliate marketer, you’re putting your name and reputation on the line every time that you recommend somebody else’s product. It’s also important to realize that bloggers have a responsibility to let their readers know if the company selling that product they’re recommending is giving the blogger a kickback every time a customer they recommend purchases. That’s not merely etiquette, that’s actually the law of the land, so be careful.

The opportunities for affiliate marketing are endless. They range from tiny percentages for product sales at huge sites like Amazon.com, to massive percentages from more obscure producers of online courses, videos, and other products that have targeted niche customers who need your help to find them customers. If you have access to an audience of people who follow what you write, and you believe that your audience would honestly appreciate and enjoy the products that you can introduce them to, affiliate marketing may be a great opportunity for you.

Build Your Own Dream

There are many benefits to starting a business online. You may want to do this so that you can be your own boss, or because you already have access to a broad range of people on the Internet you follow and trust, and you would like to be one of them.

The best place to start with an online business is with a blog or a podcast. One way or another, no matter what kind of business you’re starting online, you need to establish a reputation for yourself. That reputation will follow you everywhere you go online, and will generate types of customers you’re looking for. But publishing and maintaining a blog or a podcast, you can establish yourself as an expert in any area where you want to build your business.

Think about the people you know and trust online. Where was the last place that you got a recommendation for a product you actually purchased. If it wasn’t from a personal friend, it very well could have been from a professional who specializes in the topic, and whose reputation you’ve come to know and trust from a blog or podcast. Take a look at that blog, and other blogs like it, and think about what it takes to manage and maintain something like that. That’s how you build a reputation, and that’s how you build trust.

Creating a blog isn’t difficult, but it is hard work, can you need to be tillage about it. Set yourself up with a regular schedule and stick to it. Don’t try to set yourself up to do more than you know you really can. Some people will tell you you have to post five times a day ago to get followers. Some people say once a week is enough, as long as the content is consistent and worthwhile. It may take a while before your content gets indexed in Google, and you start to see results, but consistency is really the key to successful blogging.

One thing to consider is the platform you use for blogging when building your online business. Don’t waste your time building information for somebody else’s product. You can do some marketing and some market research on places such as Facebook, twitter, and Google plus, but these are not the places you want to build your reputation and your business. You should on the platform for your own blog, and on the e-mail addresses in your own mailing list. don’t rely on the stability of somebody else’s business model in order to support yours.

One of my favorite recent sayings about business opportunities is, “build your dream, or somebody will hire you to build theirs.” You have the opportunity now to build your dream business. If you take this opportunity, you can live the life of your dreams. Or you can continue to work for other people, and help them build their dreams. The choice is up to you.