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What’s the best online business to start?

There are 6 ways to start an online business and I've tried them ALL. By the end of this post, you’ll know exactly what's the best online business to start.

Ramit Sethi · April 11th, 2017

howsyouridea

There’s no question that if you really want to find success as an entrepreneur, starting an online business is one of the best ways to do it. Below, I explain how to find online business ideas, set some ground rules for starting an online business, dig into your options, and finally present the best business to start.

Just want to jump to a list of business ideas? Here are 30 successful online businesses to inspire you – or for you to copy.

One thing that I’ve learned from my years of practically screaming that at the top of my lungs is that when people realize this, they typically go through three steps:

Step 1: Excitement
“Awesome! I’m going to start an online business and make millions of dollars passively! Better book that flight to Cabo now.”

Quiz: What is your earning potential? Choose the answer you agree with the most
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Step 2: Hesitation
“Wait a second…I don’t know what kind of online business I should start…”

Step 3: Giving up
“Ah well. I never really wanted to start an online business anyway. It would have been too much work and I don’t really know what I’m doing. Now, how do I return that one-way ticket to Cabo…”

Repeat the next time someone finds out about online businesses.

And I don’t blame anyone for giving up either — after all, the answer isn’t always clear and that makes it easy to get frustrated.

So the question remains:

What’s the best online business to start?

Well, there are actually 6 main options for online business ideas to pursue — and I have systematically tried them ALL. I can tell you with no uncertainty that there is only one online business that I think is the best. By the end of this post, you’ll know exactly what’s the best online business to start.

Before I tell you, though, there are two rules to online businesses that you need to remember if you want to find success:

Online business rule #1: It’s about your customer…not you.

When I asked my readers “What excites you most about starting an online business?” 2000+ of you responded — which was awesome…

…until I realized how ME-focused a lot of your responses were.


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“I want ___.”

“I need ___.”

“I’ll have more time for ___.”

Rarely do I hear things like:

  • “I’m really good at helping my friends with their relationship problems. I don’t want to just help people 1-on-1… I want to help THOUSANDS of people.”
  • “I love helping people get in shape. I want to help as many people get fit as possible.”
  • “My friends are always coming to me for cooking advice — and I LOVE it. I want to share my delicious recipes with as many people as possible!”

Look, I get it — we all want to go into online businesses because it will give us flexibility, time to spend with family, more money, and a bunch of other great reasons…

…but those shouldn’t be the ONLY reasons. That can’t be where you start but it can be where you END.

If you really want all those things, you need learn to dig deep into what your customers really want and put their needs first.

Only by factoring your customers into your system can you turn your dream or passion into a real business that’ll make you money.

Which brings me to…

Online business rule #2: Passion isn’t everything.

This is a brutal and hard truth to swallow — but it’ll make you a better entrepreneur once you do.

Others will sell you dreams of a 100% automated “turnkey” business based on your passion that’ll make you millions while you nap on a beach in Hawaii.

That’s a lie.

Don’t get me wrong: your passion is important. You should create a business around something that interests you — but it won’t help you decide what idea to pursue, how much to charge, and how to SELL without coming off like a sleazeball.

The determining factor between successful online businesses and the ones doomed to fail are BUSINESS SYSTEMS.

So, which online business system will be the most profitable? How do you know if people will pay? How do you get traffic and buyers and repeat customers?

Today, I’m going to show you the different ways you can start your first successful online business — with my specific recommendation for the best.

The 6 best options for starting an online business

Here are the 6 options for online businesses you can start.

  1. Software (including apps)
  2. Physical products
  3. Advertising
  4. Affiliate marketing
  5. Coaching
  6. Online courses

Better yet — here’s an illustration that’ll show you where these businesses stand in terms of startup costs (low costs beats high cost) and profit margins (the higher the better).


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A few takeaways:

  • Using a simple framework lets you see instantly if a business model is attractive or unattractive (most people never do this).
  • You don’t have to quit your job and raise millions in venture capital funding — which I’ve actually done and can safely say it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
  • Online courses and coaching look like the best businesses to start. They’re both very attractive…so how do we decide?

Before we jump into that though, I want to explain each online business model — and how I’ve approached them in the past.

Software

Everyone wants to create the next Snapchat or Instagram — and it can be even more tempting if you’re a programmer.

I mean, we’re always hearing stories of sexy new Silicon Valley startups getting billions after their company goes public — why would you NOT start drooling?

The reality is that this simply isn’t a viable option for a lot of us, though.

For most, we can’t even code. And I think I’d rather go play in traffic than figure out the technical stuff that goes into it.

And even if you CAN code, chances are you don’t want to deal with the challenge of marketing, distributing, and constantly upgrading your app.

Software and apps require you to absolutely nail it right away. Otherwise, you spent all that time creating a product no one will buy.

Don’t believe me? The app store is a graveyard of apps no one ever downloads (check one developer’s story here about how he only made $36 in TWO months).

Later, I’ll describe some better options that allow you to adjust to the needs of your customers — options that’ll take less time and energy and help more people.

Physical products

You might think your idea to start selling steampunk cosplay outfits on Etsy is amazing — but the truth is, the profit margins are incredibly low.

For example, we have a notepad that our designers created internally for the IWT staff. We debated selling it to our readers — UNTIL we found out that we would have to price the notebook at around $50 just to break even.

And after we shipped it to people, our profit margins would have disappeared completely — all for a tiny notepad.

I know there’s some money to be made with physical products — but the profits are much better with online products.

Advertising

We’ve all seen (and been horribly annoyed by) this business model before — typically in the form of little advertisements a la Google Adsense on the sidebars of websites.

And they DO make money…kind of.

As you get traffic to your site, some people will click on the ads and when they do, you get a few cents — or maybe even a few dollars.

BUT they don’t really make that much money.

I tried this for IWT before — but quickly realized that I needed a HUGE amount of visitors (somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million) per month in order to make good income on ads.

That’s a lot of traffic and a good way to fall prey to churning out pointless clickbait. No thanks.

Affiliate marketing

I used to dabble a lot in affiliate marketing back in the early days of IWT. The way it works is a blogger will write a review of something like “My favorite credit cards” and at the bottom they’ll say, “You can sign up for the card here — NOTE: this is an affiliate link.”

So if you click that link and sign up, the credit card company pays the blogger an affiliate commission ranging somewhere from $50 to $75.

There are affiliate programs for anything too — books, weight loss products, what have you.

And it’s great — at first.

When I used affiliates, I only promoted products that I used myself and knew that my readers would value and enjoy.

As soon as I put in an affiliate link on my site, I became ING Direct’s number one affiliate in the world — overnight.

I was making more than $10,000 a month just by putting a link on my site!

However, I soon learned that it wasn’t a great long-term plan. My click-through rates tailed off and I ended up having to spend all this time dealing with advertisers.

At the end, it just wasn’t worth the time so I stopped.

Coaching vs Online Courses: Which is the best for you?

Spoiler: Both business models are great — but the best one becomes clear once you weigh the benefits of each.


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I love coaching. I actually believe it’s one of the best ways you can learn business skills. In fact, you’ll pick up skills you’d never learn with any MBA through coaching.

Some other benefits:

  • It’s a fast way to get started with your online business
  • You can charge premium prices for the work
  • You’ll learn your clients’ deep fears, desires, and barriers — incredibly valuable nuggets of information you can use to grow your business

Coaching also has its limitations though — you can only take on a limited number of clients, constraints of travel as well as time to meet with clients, etc. — which is why I prefer online courses.

I’ve taught thousands of people how to start new businesses, become freelancers/consultants/coaches, scale their existing business, and adopt psychology mindsets on how to live a Rich Life through my courses.

This is my favorite business model by far. Online courses are low-risk, high-reward, and they scale incredibly well. All it takes is for you to sell an information product like a video or written course.

Some other benefits of online courses:

  • You’ll be able to reach out to tens of thousands of people all over the WORLD
  • You can create something ONCE and have it generate money for years to come
  • You can scale your course LIMITLESSLY and watch your profits grow every time you do

It’s the cornerstone of IWT — we generate over 95% of our revenue through online courses.


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This is revenue we generated just a few years ago — you can BET it’s much more now.

In the end, whichever one you choose will be good. BUT I would highly recommend doing both if you can.

Still not convinced? In this video I tackle getting over the mental hurdles we place on starting an online business around coaching or courses.

Which online courses could you create?

Now comes the fun part (as if you weren’t having fun already).

It’s also easy to get tripped up when coming up with a course idea.

“I don’t know, Ramit,” people say, “I’m not an expert in personal finance or salary negotiation. I don’t know anything that people would pay for!”

Oh really?

Take a look at these 4 amazingly weird (yet successful) courses.

  • Toilet Trained Cat: Train cats to use the toilet. Revenue through books and online courses.
  • Ghost Hunting 101: Live out your dreams of becoming a ghostbuster through courses by the International Ghost Hunters Society. Revenue through CDs and online courses.
  • Female Musician Academy: Learn how to market yourself as a female indie musician. Revenue through online courses.
  • Design/Build/Downsize: A workshop tailored for tiny home enthusiasts and beginners. Revenue through online courses.

Still not sure? At IWT we believe in SYSTEMS. And below is the start of the system we use to find six-figure businesses for thousands of students.

They’re designed to lead you right to a well of fantastic business ideas that people will pay you for TODAY.

Four questions to ask yourself:

Question #1: What do I already pay for?

It’s so obvious, it’s damn near brilliant. We already pay people to do a lot of different things and by asking this question, you open the floodgates to all the possible business ideas around you.

For example, you might pay someone to:

  • Clean your home
  • Train you at the gym
  • Cook you dinner
  • Train your pet (maybe to use the toilet?)

Whatever it is, take just a few seconds right now to jot down a list of things you ALREADY pay people to do.

Question #2: What skills do you have?

Now, what do you know — and know well? These are the skills you have that you’re great at — and people want to pay you to teach them.

Some examples include:

  • Fluency in a foreign language
  • Knowledge of a computer program like Excel or Photoshop
  • Cooking ability

Write down a list of 10 of these skills. I don’t want you to hold back. Write down ANYTHING that comes to your mind and you’ll start seeing what people might want to pay you for.

Question #3: What do my friends say I’m great at?

I love this question.

Not only can it be a nice little ego boost — but it can also be incredibly revealing.

Are your friends always telling you that you cook the best meals? Maybe they’ve been asking you more for fitness advice and gym routines? Have they ever complimented you on how great your apartment looks or how well you dress?

All of those things can be turned into successful businesses.

Go ask your friends today what they think you’re great at. I assure you that they’ll give you a big list of things right away.

Add these things to your big list. Aim for around 3 – 5 new items.

Question #4: What do I do on a Saturday morning?

This question actually comes courtesy of my friend, Ben Casnocha.

He said, “When you’re trying to find a business idea, think about what you do on a Saturday morning before everyone else is awake.”

How do you spend that morning? Are you browsing fashion websites or fitness subreddits?

Which YouTube channels are you binge watching? Maybe there’s a project you’re devoting yourself to all day.

Alternatively, ask yourself: If you were stuck in a room with a person for 3 hours, what could you talk about with them the entire time?

This is a powerful method of discerning your passion if you’re unsure — things you’ll love to share with the world.

When you’re finished writing your 15-20 ideas down, you’re well on your way to finding a successful business idea. They don’t all have to be good — but try and get them all down so you have a good place to start.

Bonus: To find out more on finding the perfect online business idea, check out my Ultimate Guide to Starting an Online Business.

At this point, some of you already jumped 50 questions ahead:

  • “But what if I’m not sure what I’m good at?”
  • “An online course? But I don’t have a website/traffic.”
  • “What kind of software should I use for…”

SLOW DOWN.

Part of trusting the system is focusing on ONE step at a time, not jumping ahead. I have a proprietary process to show you how to identify what you’re ALREADY great at… and what the market will pay for. You need to find a burning pain.

Am I going to teach you that right now? Not yet. You can join my course when I open it again — join the waitlist and I’ll let you know when it launches.

For now, I want you to know that YES — you have passions and experiences in you that people will pay for. Even if you’re not yet the world’s expert on them!

Let’s take a minute and celebrate. You already learned more in this post than in the last 3 months of reading blog after blog.

What I want you to do TODAY

I want to make it easy for you to learn the best online business to start — and how to grow it.

That’s why I’m revealing some of the real numbers and results from my business — along with case studies and other premium material — to my behind-the-scenes priority list for Zero to Launch.

Get ready to learn the exact beginning-to-end system I use to run a successful online business and make money online.


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My 10-minute video on “How I went from a $4.95 eBook to a $12,000 Course.”
What you’ll learn from this “Behind The Scenes” video guide:

  • The 4 crucial turning points that skyrocketed my online business success
  • How pricing and positioning can be the ONLY difference between a colossal flop and a runaway success
  • Mistakes that cost me millions of dollars — and how you can avoid them
  • The exact steps that took me from a $4.95 eBook to a $12,000 course

Are you ready to go from no idea to a recurring revenue stream? Do you want to build an online business that PAYS YOU to live the life you’ve always wanted?

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