How to Start an Online Business: From Diddly Squat to a Booming Career!

Want to learn how to start an online business, but feeling overwhelmed? Learn how a well-known (and well-paid) freelance writer started out.


Soul-destroying, isn’t it?

You look at popular freelancers, bloggers, and entrepreneurs.

With thousands of Twitter followers.

Hundreds of blog comments.

And digital products selling like hotcakes. At premium prices too.

Webinar? Sold out.

New infographic? Gone viral.

And then …

You look at your own online presence. A handful of comments. A few hundred Twitter followers. And a faint presence on Facebook.

Does it make you feel down? Overwhelmed?

Does earning a living online feel impossible? Like an insurmountable task?

In October 2012, I felt the same way.

I’d just quit my job.

I had no blog, no audience, no clients, and virtually no social media presence.

My plan was to take a year off to find my feet and recover from a near-burnout.

But things didn’t quite work out…

That Lazy Sabbatical Never Happened

Before quitting, I had struggled to cope with the increasing pressures of my marketing job. Smaller budgets. More work. The symptoms of a tough economy.

While I walked into the office with a smile painted on my face, I had lost my sense of fun. I felt more and more nervous about my Dutch accent. I suffered from palpitations. And I had my first bout of migraine headaches.

My boss told me to toughen up.

And I felt like a failure.

Deciding to quit my job and start my own online business wasn’t a dream come true – it was an emergency measure.

I never had an Aha moment about running my own online business. I didn’t have a burning desire to be an entrepreneur.

I’d simply had enough of working for a boss.

Exhausted from 70-hour work weeks and suffocated by self-doubt, my main plan was to take things easy and recover my sanity.

So I focused on what I had started to enjoy most: writing.

I had finished Jon’s Guest Blogging class. He and Marsha Stopa had taught me how to pitch and write guest posts, so that’s what I did. I wanted to build an email list, but I hadn’t figured out much else.

Heck, I didn’t even know how I’d make money.

But within a couple months, I stumbled upon my first copywriting clients.

Not the type of energy-sucking clients you’d expect as your first. These clients were fun. And they paid well.

As a non-native speaker, I had never thought people would hire me to write for them. What idiot hires a writer who can’t even speak proper English?

But soon I had a steady stream of copywriting clients from the US and the UK. Within a year, I was turning inquiries away. I cherry-picked projects and doubled my fees.

Want to know how I did it? And do the same?

Let’s start at the beginning …

Step 1. Decide to be a Beekeeper, Not a Zookeeper

Are you learning how to start a blog from scratch like I did?

Without a thriving blog? Without an email list? And without a social media following?

Then I have some news for you.

Your quickest way to make money online is not by affiliate marketing. It’s not by online advertising. It’s not by developing an ecommerce store or digital product.

Your quickest way to make money blogging is by offering a service.

And to attract initial clients for your service, you must turn yourself into an authority – quickly. Even minor authorities can charge higher fees; and without having to hustle, people knock on their doors to hire them.

Sounds impossible, right?

When you look at established authorities like Jon Morrow, Chris Brogan or Sonia Simone, you might feel intimidated by their wide-ranging and in-depth knowledge.

Do you feel you need to try and master everything too?

Don’t do it. Flimsy knowledge about a wide variety of topics won’t make you an authority.

Instead, start with a narrow focus – be a beekeeper, not a zookeeper.

To establish authority online, be a beekeeper, not a zookeeper.Click To Tweet

As a social media expert, for instance, you might want to focus on Facebook ads only. As an interior designer, you could start with learning everything about color schemes or textures only. Or, as a content marketing expert, you can focus on content strategy alone.

To build your authority, read real books. Or even better, study them and apply the knowledge. Real authority requires in-depth knowledge – knowledge you’ll gain by reading serious books, listening to real experts, and gaining hands-on experience. And this is much easier when you focus on a narrow topic.

When I quit my job, I thought about becoming a content marketing consultant. And I wanted to build an online audience so I could sell information products.

But I felt overwhelmed. Even frightened.

Content marketing was too big for me. I didn’t know much about Pinterest or Instagram. I wasn’t even on Facebook. Learning all these content marketing tools felt daunting.

So I followed my curiosity and narrowed my focus down to writing for the web – a topic I found fascinating. And when I decided to concentrate on that one topic, becoming an authority suddenly didn’t feel quite so impossible.

You might feel overwhelmed too. And you might think that everyone knows more than you.

Don’t despair.

You already have valuable skills and knowledge. You know more than you think you do. It’s a common human trait to think others know more than we do.

Write down a list of your existing skills, knowledge, and work experience. How could these benefit others? Which area fascinates you most? What would you like to learn more about?

Remember, don’t try learning everything about each wild animal in the world. Start out as a beekeeper – learn everything about one tiny animal. And then tell the world what you know about this tiny animal.  Because that’s how you establish your reputation quickly.

Step 2. Write a “Honeypot Post” to Boost Your Authority

The web is full of superficial posts.

You know the type of posts I’m talking about, don’t you? Ten simple tips to achieve this or that and seven mistakes to avoid if you wanna be awesome.

But a short list of generic tips doesn’t make you stand out. You’re wasting your precious time churning out flimsy posts.

To attract clients, you must stand out as a serious problem solver. You must write an epic tutorial instead of dashing off a series of wishy-washy posts.

We’re living in an amazing time – anyone can find clients online. But you must stand out from the masses who are also trying to sell their services. And you must go where your clients are – if you don’t have a large blog following yet, the best way to do this is by guest posting.

A problem-solving post published on a popular blog showcases your knowledge and experience. Potential clients discover you in a context they already trust – the pages of one of their favorite blogs.

To select a host blog, think about your potential clients:

  • Who are they, and what do they want?
  • Which blogs are they reading?
  • Do those blogs accept guest posts?

Guest posting is not as scary and difficult as you may think. Knowing how you can help a blog’s readers is more important than being close friends with editors. A willingness to put in the work is more important than creative writing skills.

To come up with a topic, think about your clients:

  • What’s the biggest problem your potential clients struggle with?
  • How can you teach them to solve this problem (or the first part of it)?

Don’t worry if you feel you’re not an established authority yet; you can insert serious authority enhancers into your blog post to strengthen your credibility and reputation:

  • Be as specific as possible – provide detailed steps on how clients can solve their problems. Sharing specific details demonstrates deep knowledge.
  • Make your post as useful as possible – don’t fret about giving away your secret tricks. Sharing your expertise makes potential clients more likely to hire you, not less.
  • Present detailed examples or case studies to show you can apply your knowledge in real (or at least realistic) situations.
  • Insert book citations, include credible stats, and quote experts to demonstrate you have current knowledge of your field.
  • Share strong opinions using power words. Don’t be afraid to alienate readers who aren’t right for your business.

A honeypot post solves a client’s problems clearly, succinctly, and seemingly instantly. That’s why it attracts clients to your business like a honeypot attracts bees.

Case Study: My Honeypot Guest Post on KISSmetrics

In October 2012, I published a guest post on KISSmetrics (now How to Write Seductive Sales Copy Like Apple. I had quit my job the previous month, and I wasn’t even sure yet whether or not I wanted to be a copywriter. (My bio still refers to content marketing expert!)

This guest post helped me win my first copywriting client; and over time, it generated around 10 great copywriting and blogging leads.

This is how I planned and wrote the post:

  • I studied the KISSmetrics audience who seemed business-focused – good prospects for copywriting or content marketing services. I spent several days reading and analyzing posts, and I noticed a couple of posts about Apple and Steve Jobs that were popular. That’s why I decided to use Apple as an example for a copywriting tutorial.
  • I spent more than a day studying Apple’s web copy, looking for examples of specific copywriting techniques.
  • I wrote an extensive tutorial listing 11 tips for writing web copy. Each tip explains a technique, analyzes an example of Apple’s copy, and encourages readers to apply the tip to their own web copy. The resulting post is over 3,000 words.

When I won my first copywriting clients, I didn’t have a thriving blog.

Hell no.

I hadn’t even started my blog, and I didn’t even have my website live. All I had was a landing page so people could join my list. My blog post and author bio generated enough interest for prospects to sign up and email me.

This approach can work for any service, whether you’re a coach, a freelance blogger, a web developer, or a social media expert.

Guest posting is often “sold” as a traffic-building tactic – a way to grow your email subscriber list. And that’s true, but here’s what few people realize…

A guest post can also lead directly to your first clients.

That’s what happened to me. People read my posts, liked what they saw, got in touch, and asked for my help. And guess what? Some of those inquiries turned into well-paying clients.

Once you’ve published your honeypot post and gained your first clients, how do you keep the momentum going? How do you turn a handful of inquiries into a steady stream of leads so you can handpick the highest-paying and most enjoyable projects?

Step 3. Dive into Every Aspect of Beekeeping

Yes, you can get noticed – and even get clients – with a single guest post.

If you’re lucky, your post will rank highly on Google and continue to generate email subscribers and business inquiries.

But you can’t sustain your reputation with only one guest post.

So, what can you do when you’ve already given your best tricks away in one extensive tutorial? Should you branch out into other topics? Should you stop writing about bees and start writing about butterflies, beetles, and bugs? Nope.

I tried to branch into related topics, but I found it’s far more effective to dive deeper into your topic and write more specific posts. Below follows a selection of guest posts I’ve written about different aspects of web writing:

Step-by-step guides:

How-not-to guides:

Specific aspects of copywriting:

Exploring narrow aspects of your topic can provide countless ideas for new guest posts.

Let’s look at another example, this time from someone else. Here’s how Chris Hexton writes about email marketing:

Each post explains one specific aspect of email marketing. Chris establishes himself as a prominent authority by covering all aspects within his narrow topic area.

To build your reputation and generate a steady stream of clients, you don’t want to turn yourself from a beekeeper into a zookeeper. Instead, write posts about the details of bee feeding, beehive ventilation, and bee medication, or about specific types of bees, like bumblebees, honeybees, and yellow-faced bees. (Did you know there are 25,000 species of bees worldwide?)

So how can you generate enough ideas to enhance your authority and gain a steady stream of clients via guest blogging?

How to Create 30 Guest Post Ideas in 30 Minutes

Start by taking 30 minutes to brainstorm. Challenge yourself to generate at least 30 guest post ideas:

  • Start with listing the top problems you can solve for your customers – don’t spend more than five minutes on this.
  • Write down ideas for how-to guides and how-not-to guides. Don’t worry about headlines; write down simple ideas – spend a maximum of 10 minutes on this.
  • Go deeper – which specific aspects of your topic could you write about? Keep generating ideas until your 30 minutes are finished. You usually generate your best ideas last.

Don’t worry whether you’re capable of writing a post about a topic while brainstorming. You can use this list to deepen your own knowledge too. Create a list of your favorite eight to 10 topics and start researching:

  • Look for stats and quotes.
  • Collect examples or case studies.
  • Read blog posts or, preferably, books that go into more detail.

Building your reputation is not about how many posts you write. It’s not even about how many tweets on Twitter or Facebook likes your posts get (although that may help). It’s about demonstrating what you know.

Showcase your knowledge and skills with detailed tutorials, and help readers get results.

And you know what’s so valuable about this approach?

While you’re gaining a steady stream of clients and deepening your understanding of your topic, you’re also building a rock-solid foundation for an online information business – a business based on selling e-books and e-courses.

Step 4. Grow Your Income by Pivoting from Services to Products

A service business is great – you can make money quickly.

And you can expand your online business by hiring people to do the work for you. Or increase your fees to make more money from each hour you work.

But you have another option: you can pivot your business and move into information products.

You’ve already laid the ideal foundation because each guest post has:

  • enhanced your reputation in your chosen field
  • helped you build relationships with other bloggers in your field
  • boosted your email list – the most valuable asset for your future online business
  • deepened your own understanding of your field (that’s priceless, too!)

And when taken together, your guest posts can form the basis for e-books and e-courses – products you can sell while you sleep.

Here’s how I pivoted from a service provider to an online training provider:

  • In my first year, I focused on building my target audience and sharpening my copywriting skills. I also launched my first Kindle book.
  • In my second year, I continued building my audience, launched my second Kindle book, and introduced my first premium online course. Half of my income was from client work; the other half from books and my e-course.
  • In year three, I worked towards gaining most of my income from e-courses and e-books.

Your progress may be faster or slower. It depends on the competitiveness of your niche, your current level of authority, and what online assets you already have.

Remember, I started from scratch. I wasn’t a copywriter. I had virtually no online presence – a modest number of followers on Twitter and a dormant LinkedIn account was all I had.

If I can start an online business, so can you.

Quit Doubting Yourself

You may feel overwhelmed.

You may even feel intimidated by others bragging about their huge followings, their launch successes, their great online business idea, or the amount of money they’re making.

But remember, everyone starts at zero. Zero followers. Zero subscribers. And zero profit.

You may doubt whether you’re able to pull this off.

That’s normal.

Even people like Neil Gaiman, Sheryl Sandberg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Emma Watson feel like a fraud sometimes.

Nobody is perfect. Nobody knows everything. And nobody possesses the perfect blueprint. We all stumble around from time to time.

So pick up the courage to get started.

And keep moving forward.

You can do it.