Building your brand: How to start and build a successful online business

Online business is not for the faint of heart. You have to be a particular kind of stubborn to succeed. If you don’t 100% believe in your products or your ability to achieve, you won’t go the distance. I’m a member of a lot of Facebook groups for people in business and every week I see business owners struggling to get sales, establish a brand, and attract customers. And even more throwing in the towel because it’s far easier and safer to get a job.

When you have a job you can work your hours and come home to watch “The White Lotus.” Which is often the better choice for a lot of people. People love the chance for a fixed stable income and more time outside of work. But on the other hand, owning a business gives you the chance to be in charge of your own earning potential. And when it comes to starting a business, the barrier to entry has never been lower. You don’t need thousands to begin.

What to keep in mind as you start an online business?

Shopify, Wix or Squarespace are affordable and make it easy to build a website in a matter of weeks. The key to success is understanding your audience. For products, it’s knowing what styles people want. Getting this wrong means you have products that just don’t sell.

But it’s not just the products they want to buy. What do they expect from an online store? What would stop them from buying? How do they want to be treated? What price do they expect to pay for your product? Where else do they shop? One of the biggest keys to success of an online business is finding the objections to purchase and countering them.

How to handle clients

For example a customer might not trust an online store. So you can emphasise your safe security measures for their financial details. Or they may want to see products in person. So you can create that in-person experience online with product descriptions, photos and video. For example, last year I introduced a virtual try-on tool that helps customers see how the product looks on their skin, giving them a better understanding of its size, shape and colour.

Knowing how the client wants to be treated is vital. Clients want to be heard. When there’s a problem, it’s not right to jump into solution mode. They want the chance to vent frustrations.

Sometimes there are mistakes in business, so doing your best to make it right is important. But don’t throw refunds at everyone or discounts or you will go out of business. It’s vital to have clear return policies in place for damage, returns, exchanges and change of mind. Your early customers are your biggest chance of repeat customers, so start building loyalty early.

Build stronger bonds

When customers feel like you are their friend, the Chandler to their Joey, they will eventually be more inclined to support you with repeat business and referrals. With the first purchase, I begin building loyalty with email segmenting. I offer a discount on a repeat purchase and highlight the additional benefits customers can get with every repeat purchase.

This is a sophisticated sequence that encourages loyalty right up to the twentieth purchase. At this point the customer now gets their own permanent discount code to use.

Adjusting to trends

In fashion, what customers wanted last season will be different this season. If you ignore this, you risk going to market with products that are out of date. This is important in industries like clothes fashion and interiors where trends and colours come and go.

A good online store will have a mix of classic pieces as well as trendy seasonal items. The bigger your range the more likely a customer can find what they want. You give customers a chance to build a collection. I have customers who collect silver bangles or gemstone rings.

Having plenty of colours and variations in stock allows them to keep building a collection. But a big inventory leaves you at risk too, so it’s about finding that balance. You want enough stock so that clients have plenty to purchase but you don’t want it gathering dust on shelves. I clear out stock that isn’t moving quickly with sales and move on to new designs quickly.

Effective marketing for start-ups

With new items, even though I have a good feel for what my clients want, it’s only the purchases that prove it. So I start with a small run to test the market. Then I reduce risk, if it’s not successful I haven’t wasted thousands in manufacturing. If it sells well I restock.

My clients know that some products are limited and that actually encourages them to purchase before products sell out. Turning clients into testimonials will help build social proof. I encourage online reviews with email sequences, and then I use those reviews to build trust.

On Google alone, I have more than 730 reviews which helps customers believe that our products are quality and they’ll get good service. When you start building an online business you will need expert guidance—to a degree. There’s plenty of coaches ready to take your money to teach you how to build a store, learn SEO or master Facebook ads. And those skills are useful, but you can risk spending too much learning and not enough time doing.

Be open to learning and understand there will be things you find difficult. It’s not good enough to ignore— it’s your job to learn the skills you need. When I started I had no idea about SEO but now my site ranks for thousands of keywords and drives hundreds of visitors to my website. If I’d found it too hard and ignored it I would’ve missed out on a huge opportunity.

Dealing with manufacturers

In addition, it’s also important to learn manufacturing, pricing and marketing to give yourself the best chance at a good first impression. Building an audience organically is great, but it takes time, so investing in ads is the best way to get awareness in the early days. Your focus should be conversion. If people are clicking on the ad but not purchasing, you know there is a problem with your store. Being open to having ways to work things out is key.

Being unique matters but that can be difficult when you are starting out. You need to trust your designs and feel confident that clients can’t buy the same elsewhere. This will differentiate you in a sea of competition. Building relationships with manufacturers has always been vital. When I was starting I had small order runs and no one wanted my small orders.

I’ve had to build relationships with manufacturers and look after them as they play an important part of the team. Understanding cultural differences is important for overseas manufacturers. They have a way of working and it’s important to show respect for their traditions and family. It’s important to meet them in person and tour their workshops.

This will build the relationship but also give you trust that they are manufacturing ethically and sustainably. I avoid manufacturing in countries with questionable human rights records where we can’t trust that workers are protected. We focus on manufacturers who produce quality products so we can feel confident in making that promise of quality to our customers.

As for sustainability—it’s not a ‘nice to have’ — it’s vital. Making sure you responsibly manufacture your items and reduce wastage is important. Never ever inflate your sustainability claims, or you’ll be accused of greenwashing and your reputation will suffer, perhaps permanently. I have a clear sustainability policy and share it on my website so my customers can trust that Desiderate is an environmentally conscious organisation.

Janine Leghissa is the founder of Desiderate an Australian online jewellery store and in 2022 she launched its sister fashion label Taleeta. Janine has won several awards for ecommerce excellence including a Gold Stevie for Best Online Shopping Site and an Gold AusMumpreneur Award for Business Excellence (NSW/ACT).