Stephanie Stiavetti had an IT job that she liked in Sacramento, managing a company’s servers, mobile devices and computers. Yet her real passion was cooking. She had attended culinary school, designed recipes, dabbled in freelance food writing and had even written a cookbook.
In 2015, Stiavetti decided to merge her backgrounds, launching the website FearlessFresh.com to sell her cookbooks, cooking “cheat sheets” and refrigerator magnets. Stiavetti says the site now “gets about a half a million pageviews per month,” and that, although she has taken a pay cut from her old IT salary, “I’m covering my living expenses without stress.”
“I would guess the success rate [for online businesses] is around 20 perent.”Kelly Azevedo, owner, She’s Got Systems
Stiavetti is part of a growing cohort that has found a way to monetize the internet, offering their own products, online courses, e-books and services — reaching customers from Midtown to Morocco. But having an expansive reach doesn’t mean it’s easy to run an online business as a full-time job.
It’s hard to nail down the success rate for online businesses, says Kelly Azevedo, the Woodland-based founder of She’s Got Systems, which provides coaching and strategy for online businesses. “There’s not much data on this, as it’s so hard to define what counts as an ‘online business,’ but I would guess the success rate is around 20 percent,” she says.
So what separates the one winner from the four also-rans? Here are eight things you should know about online businesses, as seen through the stories of local entrepreneurs giving it a go.
1. Find your niche
The market is big and crowded. Shopify alone claims to list 500,000 online merchants, and the ecommerce site PipeCandy estimates there are up to 3 million ecommerce sites in the world (excluding China). To stand out, you need to leverage your skill set — ideally, your unique skill set.
That’s how Stiavetti came up with the concept for Fearless Fresh. Katrin Rippel Galati, based in Davis, aims to do the same. She began her career in 2005 as a freelance writer and translator, translating websites from German into English. She launched her website, Translations on Purpose, in 2015 to “reach international markets, grow an international audience and make more sales overseas,” she says. Galati is still in the early days, making enough to support herself, but says her revenue “doesn’t yet exceed $90,000.”
Another example: In the California Capitol, John Corcoran used to write speeches for Gov. Gray Davis, and before that he worked in the Clinton White House. He’s a gifted networker with a fat Rolodex. In 2008, while working as a lawyer, he began blogging about law, networking and entrepreneurship. Soon the blog morphed into SmartBusinessRevolution.com. “It started very much as a side thing, where I was spending maybe a few hours a week,” explains Corcoran, who spent years living in Sacramento before moving to Marin. He says his site has generated more than $1 million and he now works at his business full-time.
2. You still need to sell something
E-commerce has been enjoying what appears to be unstoppable growth, and even most successful bloggers with heavy traffic to their sites can’t rely solely on online ads. Affiliate links, such as links on blog posts that go to Amazon, offer a bit more return on investment.
Corcoran wrote a blog post of “20+ Great Books for Entrepreneurs and Small Business Owners,” and each one links to the product’s listing on Amazon. If someone clicks on Corcoran’s link and purchases Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, Corcoran gets a small slice. “It doesn’t pay much, like 3 percent of the sale price,” he says. “But the cool thing is that if they buy something else after clicking through my link, I get 3 percent of that too. Sometimes people buy crazy stuff like a washer-dryer.”
The real money is in selling your own product or service. This is why Stiavetti of Fearless Fresh creates and sells cookbooks, laminated cooking cheat sheets and magnets. But the biggest moneymaker is in information products: think webinars and online training courses. Stiavetti has the Fearless Cooking Club, an online training course, in the works.
3. Engagement, engagement, engagement
Corcoran also dabbled in e-books, but found that “a book is a really crappy way to monetize a blog.” (E-book sales dipped 10 percent in 2017 alone.) Writing guest blog posts for sites like Business Insider, Forbes and Huffington Post helped him build credibility, but Corcoran says “this was a one-off effort, which ultimately sent traffic to the site I was writing for, rather than to my own website.”
Then he shifted focus to products that put him squarely in front of his customers. In 2015, Corcoran conducted a whopping 83 live webinars, which he says helped quadruple his email list (to the tune of 21,000 new subscribers) and haul in $200,000 in revenue that year. Corcoran still conducts around 30 webinars each year to boost engagement.
For Corcoran, the right engagement strategy was webinars; for others it might be YouTube videos or an Instagram following. “There’s usually a magical intersection between the way you like to communicate and the way your audience wants to hear from you,” Azevedo says, and that intersection should inform the engagement strategy.
4. Email is still king
Social media platforms come and go (remember Vine?), but an email list belongs to the owner, not Facebook. For most online businesses, it’s the fuel that makes the engine go. The most effective way to build that list is by offering a freebie in exchange for a user’s email address. Stiavetti has grown her business by using printable cooking cheat sheets to gather contacts. “That got them onto my list, and then I just gave them more free stuff once they’d subscribed,” Stiavetti says.
Corcoran monitors his email list the way a farmer studies his soil. It’s that important, as he can directly sell online courses to this email list — making every email address a hot lead. “My goal has mostly been to grow my email list,” he says. “As my list grew, my revenue kept growing and growing. Even better, my revenue became more predictable and consistent. It became less of a roller-coaster.”
The new General Data Protection Regulation from the European Union might throw a monkey wrench into this approach, even for online businesses operating stateside. The law prevents businesses from sending follow-up promotions just because the user agreed to download a single file. “To send someone a promotional email (or an ongoing newsletter), you are going to need to get explicit, freely given, unambiguous consent to receive those emails,” says Bobby Klinck, a lawyer who specializes in this field. The law only applies to European customers, and there are strategies for segmenting email lists to offer dual opt-in models depending on where a customer is.
5. More freedom does not translate to fewer hours
Most articles about “remote work” or “owning your own business” show someone at the beach, smiling down at their laptop and sipping a piña colada. This is a myth, spawned by culprits like Tim Ferriss’ blockbuster book, The 4-Hour Workweek. When Stiavetti launched Fearless Fresh, she consistently worked 16-hour days and felt so burned out, both mentally and physically, that she says she was forced to work less “on doctor’s orders.”
In 2009, Amy Porterfield had a full-time job doing marketing for Tony Robbins. She also worked early mornings and late nights to advance her ultimate goal — creating online courses for online business owners. The workload was staggering, so she went part-time with Robbins, and then left that job in early 2010. But even then, fully focused on launching her site, she still worked 60-80 hours a week.
Porterfield launched her site in 2010. Within four years, she hit $1 million in revenue, hired her first full-time employee, and now she describes it as a multimillion dollar company. “I’m still working a lot of hours,” she admits. “But the difference is that now I don’t have to work every weekend.” (Ferriss would have been more accurate, but sold fewer copies, if he’d called it The 80-Hour Workweek.)
6. Take online courses
When Stiavetti started, she was not naturally fluent in Facebook ads, web design or search engine optimization. She thought about getting an MBA, then factored in the cost and time commitment. She feared graduate school would be “all-consuming,” and was eager to get started. “I needed practical advice and fast.” She binged on courses, spending about $3,000 to learn what she needed.
Before spending a nickel on an online course that could be wasted on a scam or mediocrity, Azevedo of She’s Got Systems suggests getting a recommendation from someone who is not trying to sell you a course. “Before buying, I always ask to speak to someone currently taking the course, or who has recently taken the course,” she says.
Galati, of Translations on Purpose, first samples a site’s free content. She has taken classes on how to use Pinterest to grow her email list, speak in front of the camera, create products, build workshops and the list goes on.
Porterfield, who makes her living creating online courses, still regularly takes classes as a student, such as from Marie Forleo (an eight-week “B-School” program): “I’m always learning. Social media changes quickly. Online marketing changes quickly. I use these courses to fuel my brain.”
7. Geographic flexibility comes at a price
The ability to work from anywhere is one of the strongest lures of online business, right up there with not having a boss. One reason that Galati launched Translations on Purpose is so she can shuttle back and forth between Sacramento and Germany, where her family lives, without missing a beat. “And it gave me more flexibility when my son was born,” she says.
But it’s tougher to do in-person networking. Azevedo tells her clients that despite the geographic challenges, it’s still important to network, network, network. “Every time I travel, I add on time to do networking,” she says. She recommends attending Meetup events in your area of expertise, and if there aren’t any meetups, host one. If all else fails? “FaceTime and Skype,” she says. “Try and get face-to-face, even if it’s with a screen.”
8. You can make money while you sleep
Does that sound fanciful? A little kitsch? Perhaps it’s both, but passive income is one of the core reasons — sometimes the reason — people start these businesses.
“When I first started my online business, I thought it was a joke that you could ‘make money while you sleep,’” Porterfield says. “But when you have automated funnels [like links to buy content] running all the time, you truly do make money while you sleep.”
Back in his days as a speechwriter for Gov. Davis or working full time as a lawyer, Corcoran didn’t have time to attend his son’s school functions. But he recalls when, after his website was up and running, he joined his son on a field trip: There was no cellphone service, so he was able to disconnect from his online business. Afterward, he flipped on his phone and found $4,000 of new sales. “I was able to spend quality time with my son while generating revenue due to hard work I’d put in earlier,” he says. “It was the coolest feeling in the world.”
These moments of triumph, of course, are only possible when the entrepreneur does more than just take an online course or follow eight bits of advice: They need to embrace a new mindset. “They need to drive the ship and take responsibility for everything they need to learn,” Azevedo says. “They need to be a leader.” And great leaders, as the saying goes, can be born, or they can be made — and now they’re being made online.
On that note, I’m off to create my online course about how you can create an online course about online courses.