Starting up your online business

With e-commerce growing by 14 per cent year-on-year in the UK and online shopping at an all-time high (estimated at over £750 billion in the UK as of 2022), there has never been a better time to think about starting an online business. Whether you are feeling the strain of your current job or simply considering other options available, you are not alone in wanting to explore e-commerce opportunities. Research from online payment service provider shows that as many as 50 per cent of Britain’s office workers are frustrated entrepreneurs, who have considered setting up their own business, with the most popular choice of a business start-up being an online venture.

Many would-be entrepreneurs can face a range of obstacles when trying to join the e-commerce revolution and some fail to understand the number of steps which need to be completed before an online business is ready to start trading. It can often feel overwhelming, which discourages them from pursuing the venture. However, knowing what processes are involved is generally half the battle.

Fortunately, there are a few simple steps, which if followed correctly, can ensure that setting up an online business is easy and hassle free:

  1. Register a company
  2. Write your business plan
  3. Register a domain name
  4. Create your website (and make it secure!)
  5. Set up an Internet Merchant Account (IMA)
  6. Start your online and offline marketing to drive traffic to your site

The following advice is designed to keep any budding entrepreneurs on the right track and on your way to trading online as quickly as possible:

Step 1: Registering a company

Firstly, you will need to set up a legal entity which is required if you want to trade online. Happily, registering your company and getting a company registration number is relatively straightforward in the UK. You can start the process by visiting the web portal.

Your other option is to use a Company Formation Agent; the cost of this starts from about £15, or for a full package that takes away all the admin, up to £90 (and can even be arranged on the same day if required.)

Related: Registering as a company limited by guarantee

Step 2: Write your business plan

Writing your business plan enables you to be prepared for every eventuality. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • Who is your target audience?
  • What are your sales forecasts?
  • What are your future plans for the company and how are you going to get there?
  • How much is it going to cost you to set up and run your online business?

Related: Writing a business plan: The basics

Step 3: Register a domain name

Once all of the basics have been covered, you will need to begin setting up your online presence. The first step is to choose and then register your domain name:

  • Select your web address carefully as a good name or brand will help you drive traffic to your site
  • If possible, try to get a TLD (top level domain) like a dot com – but if you intend to only sell in the UK then a is perfectly fine (or even the super-short, and hence easy to remember domain ‘.uk’).
  • Registering your domain name is relatively easy and costs £3-£25 depending on the type you require

Related: Nominet’s domain look up tool – The WHOIS lookup tool will return domain information for .uk,,,,,,, .cymru and .wales – more advice also available here.

Step 4: Create your website

You have two main options here: either get a pro in or DIY. Working with a web developer will ensure that you get a bespoke site that meets your business needs. However, there are a now a number of excellent website builder software platforms on the market that can help you get a functioning and reasonably good looking website up and running.

NB: To ensure your start-up online business has the best chance of succeeding your website absolutely must be ‘Mobile friendly’ and ‘Secure’ (https). Do not skip these steps when building the site.

Related: Find the best Website Builder Software for your business.

Step 5: Set up an Internet Merchant Account (IMA)

You will need to open an online merchant account – often referred to as an internet merchant account (IMA). This is separate to your business bank account and is required specifically for online trading. It can take up to several weeks to set this up, but there are faster services available.

Services are available to help new online businesses set up an IMA and start trading within 24 hours. To ensure your IMA application is accepted you will need to:

  • Provide a business plan and an accurate account of your previous business experience
  • Supply personal documentation to prove you are who you say you are
  • Decide how you want to accept payments, whether its over the web, phone or a combination of the two and if a multi-currency platform is needed.
  • Make sure that you are PCI compliant. This is the security standard that applies to any business that handles or stores card details and was mandated by Visa and MasterCard. Failure to be compliant can cost your business severely with daily fines and even suspension of your processing facilities from the card schemes in the event of a security breach
  • Be aware of the security risks associated with trading online. Fraud is a major issue for online retailers and can cost merchants valuable income, therefore it is vital to select a risk management platform that reduces the risks associated with ID theft and allows you to safely and quickly accept online payments
  • Finally, be available. Many accounts lie dormant for longer than necessary while waiting for documentation and signatures. So make sure that you are easily contactable as it will speed up the approval process.

Related: Choosing the right merchant service for your small business

Step 6: Start marketing to drive traffic to your site

Onsite you should make sure you have a basic analytics package running so you you can analyse your visitor stats. Try to plan a structured content strategy that focuses on publishing useful and informative pages. Use compelling headlines and focus on benefits in your copy. Make sure to include testimonials and any relevant credentials that will build a trust with your potential customers.

Offsite, you might want to look at PPC (pay-per-click) advertising with Google AdWords and Microsoft Advertising. They both have introductory offers for new websites but beware of bidding too high initially. Make sure you create accounts with all the main social media sites and link them to your website. If your are selling products rather than services highlight your pictures and images – particularly good for Instagram and Pinterest. And be sure to brand all your offline marketing materials with your website details.

Related: Video: Best practice website marketing tips

While there are a number of hurdles that would-be entrepreneurs have to overcome when starting a new online business, the process should be exciting and not painful. To ensure that the new online business is given the best possible opportunity for success it’s vital that you understand the basic operational requirements and know where to turn for advice when it’s needed.

This article was contributed by Michael Norton

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