20 Tips for Starting an Online Business in 2018

Starting your e-commerce business in 2018? Download this presentation that online payment processing veterans Melissa and Rachyl put together, featuring 20 tips for avoiding many common mistakes made by first time online businesses.  Then set up a time to go through it one-on-one with Rachyl for more detail!

Recommended Reading: The One Thing

If there were only one book I would recommend to business owners, “The One Thing,The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” is it.

This book clearly walks through what focus is, why it is important and how to achieve it in practical terms. As a bonus, it’s a quick read!

The specific questions laid out in “The One Thing” aren’t exactly the ones I’ve used through the years, but they are good and the entire approach is so similar to what I’ve found works through the years, that as I read it, it made me wonder if the authors had been inside my office (or mind).

I read it on loan from the Columbus Library, but of course “The One Thing” is also available from Amazon. (I have not been compensated in any way for my review of this book, and those are regular links, not affiliate links)

Reading Technical Proposals

A client of mine recently received a proposal from a software developer, and asked me to look it over and let her know if I thought it was “ok”.  As far as proposals of work from an independent developer go, it was pretty good.  It had a long list of bulleted items that would be included, was broken into 4 phases of work, with a separate cost estimate for each phase.  The one thing it was missing, at a high level, was a delivery timeline estimate (would phase 1 take a week? a month?).

But the first thing I noted, in my feedback to her, was that it was very much written both by and for the developer.

I found that it was really good at detailing a bunch of technical tasks I was sure she didn’t specifically request. In some cases, it even detailed some tasks I wasn’t sure she’d actually want performed. Conversely, I recalled several specific features she wanted developed, that I didn’t see listed.

Incomplete proposals are fairly common, it can seem tedious to write out every little detail (and also feel pretty thankless before you’re getting paid), so I asked her, “Do you feel like he truly understands what you want?” and gave her a couple small examples of where his proposal didn’t match my understanding of the product she was trying to get built. One of her responses is what prompted me to write this post.  She said:

“I didn’t see that feature in the proposal either, but I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe he included it, but just in technical terms I didn’t understand”

To me, that’s not “ok”. Before signing off on any proposal, or any other contract, formal or informal, you should always feel confident that you understand what it says.

So what’s a non-technical reader supposed to do?

Know what you want

You probably have a good idea what you want, and it’s ok that you do not know every detail involved in creating it, that’s why you’re hiring someone.  Being able to spell out what you want may seem easy, but actually this is the bulk of the hard work you’ll need to do. “I need a website” is not sufficient, you need to be very clear about your vision. You need to go into as much detail as you can, and you need to understand any decent developer will likely still have good questions when you’re done. If you get stuck describing, in your own words, what you want, it’s ok to describe it by using examples – as long as you can be specific about what about each example you want (and what you don’t).

Get really practical. List out all the things you can think of, even little things, and even though it may be tedious: “show my phone number on every page”, or “customers should be able to purchase in USD with Visa or MasterCard, but not American Express or Discover”. List out everything you don’t know: “Can I use the merchant account I got from my bank to accept money online, too?”, or “Will the logo I bought for my letterhead work for the iPhone app icon?”

Ideally, you’ll have written all that down before you ask anyone to bid on the work.  That way, when you get back a proposal or estimate, you can look for all the things you asked for.  It’s actually a good sign, in my opinion, if the person bidding on the work asks for a copy of your list in electronic format to use to start their proposal.

If you don’t see some specific thing you wanted listed anywhere in the final proposal, but you know it was in your list, you’re in a great place to start a conversation about it.

Ask Questions

Even talking amongst themselves, technical people often say things like, “I don’t see feature X, can you point it out to me?” in a discussion about whether a written proposal truly covers everything. My client was worried that might be offensive to her developer, but it’s nothing to shy away from.

Best case, they simply forgot to include it, or summarized the information in a way that wasn’t clear to you. That’s easy to resolve, you just ask them to add it in or make that section clearer. Worst case, they intentionally omitted it, but even that can be a huge positive. If they intentionally omitted it, the reason may be because it’s beyond their skill set, or they disagree with it, or they believe it contradicts something else you requested. Any of those reasons can (and should) lead to a good conversation, and is certainly information you’d rather have now, than after a portion (or all) of the work is complete.

No matter how good your list was, how many questions you ask, or how much you ask to be rewritten for clarity, you should not feel bad.  Even people whose whole jobs are writing specs (or designing software) forget things, contradict themselves, and ask “obvious” questions from time to time. The end result, and whole point, is a proposal that you feel confident you understand. You should be comfortable you understand what you’re going to get, and the proposed amount of time and expense it will take, just like any other decision you make about your business.

Domain Names

For business owners without a technical background, it can sometimes seem daunting, the number of new terms involved in getting a website up and running.  One of the first you’ll likely think about is domain names.

What is a domain name?

It’s pretty common advice these day, to check if the domain name is available, before settling on what to name your business. It’s a part of your web address, how people will find your company online, and many companies include it on their business cards, too. But if you’re not technical, it may not be 100% clear what is & isn’t a domain name.  For example, look at these 3 URLs (website addresses):

If those examples seemed a bit tedious, I apologize, but I wanted to give quick rundown so that I can point out that there are ways to get a website with your company’s name in it, that do not require buying a domain name or hosting.

So a working website must have a URL, but it is not 100% necessary to purchase your own domain.

It is entirely possible that your business will be sufficiently served by a subdomain on a free service, or even a Facebook page, at least at first. However, I do agree with the general consensus that if you are just starting out, you should try to pick a company name which is also available as a domain name.

Why do I need a domain name?

The biggest reason is that I assume your hope is for a successful business.

If your business becomes successful and you do not own the domain name, it is virtually guaranteed that someone else will purchase it, waiting for the day when you want it, so that they can charge a premium to sell it to you.

Even worse, if you never checked, and someone else was using that website before you, or started using it while you were growing (because they hadn’t heard of you & saw the domain available), they will have good reasons to ask you to cease and desist using that name, and even if your business is far more successful than theirs, they may be in the right.

How much will a domain name cost?

Many domain names are inexpensive, often under $10/year.  If the domain name you want has common words, you are likely to be quoted a much higher price, due to the “waiting for a premium” behavior I mentioned above.  For example, I searched for “cat.com” today, and it was not available, but “cat.pet” was offered as an alternative, for over $3,000!

The easiest way to check if the domain name you want is available is to go to a service which sells them.  The company you’ve probably heard of due to their Super Bowl commercials is GoDaddy.com, another one that I’ve used is Name.com.  Here are the results of my “cat.com” search on each of their sites, today.

domain name search at name.com

Screenshot: Name.com

domain name search at godaddy.com

Screenshot: GoDaddy.com

Please note, buying a domain name from either of these services will not create a website at all, it just means you own the rights to create that website, so no one else can make it / use it as long as you own the domain.

Free Legal Resources

Dublin Entrepreneurial Center offers free Professional Small Business Advice (including legal advice) every Thursday, as well as ad hoc events on specific topics.


The Ohio State Bar Association offers a “Legal Basics for Small Business” handbook, here: https://www.ohiobar.org/ForPublic/Pages/StaticPage-86.aspx

Of course, if your legal concerns have nothing to do with starting a business, the list of available resources is much longer. Here are several good resource lists that are far broader than business concerns, some resources they post to are free, some depend upon income to qualify for free or sliding scale fees:

https://www.columbuslegalaid.org/ (see also http://www.ohiolegalaid.org/pro-bono/ for state-wide listings)



Photo Resources

If you’re a photographer, you probably want to use your own images & know all about model release forms, etc. But if not, how do you get great photos it’s ok to use on your website, without spending a ton of money?

There are a ton of online resources, and a lot of them have used the word FREE so that they’ll come up in your search, but the actual terms are actually often a bit more complex.

For this website, I used Pixabay. I found a photo I liked quickly, and it didn’t require me to signup or pay – it simply let me download, in the size I chose.

All the images on Pixabay are released under Creative Commons CC0. https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en

They offer even more information about what that means, here: https://pixabay.com/en/blog/posts/public-domain-images-what-is-allowed-and-what-is-4/

Side note: The Pixabay explanation of “what that means” is great reading if you are an amateur photographer not familiar with model releases, etc. & want to use your own photos.

Additional Photo Resource Websites

Here’s a very brief partial list of some of the other sites I’ve looked at. There are many, many more out there.


It appears each image is licensed differently, so you’ll need to check if its ok to use commercially (they have nice simple interface to make that easy), and some require attribution, but it did let me download an image in one of 2 sizes with no signup & 100% free


I found their license confusing.  I think it means that the photos are meant to be altered before you use them, or else require attribution. it did let me download an image (no size options) with no signup & 100% free, after I agreed to their Terms.  If you ARE a photographer, this one has some neat aspects, like #Quest, a  daily photo challenge. http://morguefile.com/quest/1


This site says “Stock Photos & Video Footage for as low as $0.20USD/download or free” what does that mean?  Why is it worded that way? All the photos I looked at were listed as “Royalty Free License”, when I hit download, it wanted me to signup, so I moved on.


The free version of the photo I looked at was small size & required attribution, “no attribution required” started at $3 for small (400 x 266px) and went up to $10 for Hi Res (5600 x 3721px) and $75 for “Extended License” Hi Res.  An explanation of the “Extended License” can be found here: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/terms-popup.php


The first few images I looked at were all CC0 license & downloaded with no registration or fee.  A little strange thing to me is that each picture lists a different photo website as the source (they don’t all list the same one).  Also, the downloads have no sizes, and just open in the browser as a .jpg.


This site has much more than just photos (icons, vectors, etc.) but their are “plans” you need to join & choose from, as well as 2 different licenses.  Read more here: http://www.shutterstock.com/subscribe 


The first few images that caught my eye were all listed as “Premium Collection” $499.99.  Again, there are multiple plans: https://stock.adobe.com/plans and some specifics to their licensing: https://stock.adobe.com/license-terms


This site has a credits system, so pictures are priced in credits (many I looked at were 3 credits, for example, and had an option to add an “extended license”) If you only want 1 photo, the minimum plan was $33 for 3 credits, but if you needed multiple images and would have more needs every month, there was a $99/year subscription with 10 images/month, so the pricing varies wildly.  Read more here: http://www.istockphoto.com/plans-and-pricing

Creating an LLC

There are many articles about creating a company, including this great set from the state of Ohio.

The first step that many mention is that you will need to decide the type of company you want to create, legally (an LLC, a Sole Prop, a Corporation, etc.).

I had decided in advance, that when I began my company, I wanted it to be an LLC. The process in Ohio is fairly straightforward, and it is theoretically possible to avoid spending money, beyond the $99 filing fee to register with the state, using form #533A.

However, I spent a bit more, and I advise everyone to carefully consider their options, and to consider not going it solo on this process.

First of all, I’m not a lawyer, and I’m a big advocate of always seeking legal advice. So reading the form, the full implication of some fields was basically just fodder to way over think & then feel uncertain about my answers anyway. But, if all I wanted was legal advice, it turns out entrepreneurs in the Columbus area have many great resources available.

But one field in particular really threw me for a loop, Statutory Agent. This is basically the whole second page of the form, so it must be important, right? In fact, the Statutory Agent (also sometimes called a Registered Agent) can be you, but MUST be available at a specific physical address (within the state) during all normal business hours. Since initially I knew I’d be the sole employee of my company, not being able to go meet with clients, let alone take a day off, was a deal breaker.

So if I don’t want to be my own Statutory Agent, what are my other options? I found & looked at several companies. Some offer just Statutory Agent services, and these are the cheapest, as low as $49/year. Many bundle Statutory Agent services with something often called Compliance, where basically, they warn you when forms, filings, and other things are due. The reminders sounded useful to me, at least for the first year, as I’m well aware I don’t know what I don’t know.

I also noticed it’s important to choose a stable company, because any change, even just a change of address for the Statutory Agent must be registered with the state and costs money. Here’s another great page provided by Ohio, discussing Statutory Agents in more detail: Statutory Agents

There was another option I noticed, while doing my research. Their are larger companies that specialize in helping people create new companies quickly & easily, these are the ones you’ve probably heard the names of already. They provide Statutory Agent services, but I couldn’t find a way to only hire them as a Statutory Agent, at least not easily, and I started reading about the full packages they specialize in.

The packages were all similar.  These companies will walk you through filling in the state’s registration form, and then will electronically submit it on your behalf. You can use them as your Statutory Agent, and they all offer a Compliance service, as well as to apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) for you. Many also offer a wide range of additional business and legal forms with similar “walk you through it” guidance for completion.

What I found confusing was the pricing.  Online, it was difficult to tally up what a package including all the services I was interested in would cost, so I called several of them.  In the end, I chose Rocket Lawyer.  I chose them, because of the companies I called, the minimum cost for Statutory Agent Service plus filing was lowest versus other large package companies (though it did include extras, and was much more expensive than going it solo plus a $49 Agent).   But one thing in particular that it included was not only an extensive library of legal forms, but also “Ask a Lawyer” service, including up to an hour in each specialty. To be fair, I haven’t tested that aspect yet, if I do I’ll be sure to post about my experience.

In the end, I spent over $400 on the package (including the $99 filing fee that went to the state of Ohio). But I felt very confident that my paperwork was correct and that I had purchased a useful resource pool for other steps I needed to take in the first year, such as creating a Operating Agreement for my LLC (recommended by every expert I consulted, but not 100% required – and only took 5 minutes on Rocket Lawyer) and my business contracts.