The past 20 years has seen many entrepreneurs and business owners take a business online to grow faster, serve a wider variety of customers with more interesting digital products and services, and sell subscriptions to things that just aren’t possible in the physical world.
The past 20 days of stay-at-home orders have required the rest of us to figure out quickly if we can do this too.
Our new normal is making many of us take a hard look at how we can keep our businesses alive, especially businesses who have long relied on brick and mortar stores, physical studios, private practices, and in-person connections to deliver our products and services.
The conventional thinking we’ve embraced is “virtual can’t replace in-person connections,” and for some businesses that’s true.
But necessity is the mother of invention. If the past 20 days have demonstrated anything, it’s that the instant need to bring your business online has produced more ingenuity, creativity, and courage in experimenting and building new services that are likely to permanently change consumer behavior as we move forward.
For many, we may never be going back to a world with just physical stores and a simple, static website with a pretty picture and a phone number.
While this may feel scary, here’s the good news: When you start to explore how to take your business online, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for your physical store, studio, or practice. It actually means you get to rethink how you can use an online business to:
- Get new customers faster by pulling in people from more places than your physical store or studio can serve.
- Expand the services, convenience, and ways you deliver your offering–bringing more value than you thought possible to more people in more places.
- Rethink the kinds of results and transformation you can offer your customers when you remove the limitations of four walls and having to travel to a physical spot.
When you stop thinking about taking your business online as a terrible thing forced on you (which for many, of course, it is), and instead treat it as an opportunity to rethink the core assumptions you’ve held about your business since you started it, something magical can happen.
The next three steps are designed to help you think through how to take your business online thoughtfully, creatively, and by embracing the full potential of both the Internet and “real life” together.
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In this article…
1. Figure out how to take it online
As you think about how to take your business online, this is the million dollar question. Hopefully through platforms like Amazon, Shopify, and even Etsy, you see an obvious path to taking your business online when you sell physical products that can be shipped anywhere in the world.
But what about the rest of us? What other businesses can go virtual?
Look Beyond Physical Ecommerce
It turns out while selling physical goods online via ecommerce is a well-established path, there’s also a new and emerging set of platforms for selling online subscriptions, memberships, online courses and more.
This means that businesses that once would have had to spend thousands of dollars to build a website to bring their physical studio, in-person trainings and workshops, or 1:1 coaching or instruction services online, now can take advantage of new platforms that let them easily offer live video sessions, organize online courses, set up small coaching groups, and run direct digital subscriptions–all in one place, all under their brand, instantly available on every platform.
What kinds of businesses can now also go online with these new options? A few examples:
- Businesses where expertise is being shared in-person but could also be delivered virtually. For example, this could include art classes, piano lessons, or any kind of professional training.
- Services that help someone build a practice or habit that’s important to them. Online personal training, fitness classes, or mediation workshops are all businesses that can now be taken online. In fact, when these services–and, increasingly, communities are in someone’s pocket, there’s less friction, excuses, or reasons not to stick with a program and see better results.
- Offerings where live video interaction can expand or enhance an in-person relationship. We’ve seen a flood of creative services now be offered on Zoom. For a set of services, many are finding that they might work better delivered virtually rather than in-person. And as travel picks back up and we value convenience even more than we did before, an online option will be expected. Increasingly, we will expect to choose between getting served online or in-person.
Here’s a great example. Slow AF Run Club: Martinus Evans has grown an Instagram and podcast following centered on a unique running niche—slow runners—into a 5,300-strong online community of runners. On his Mighty Networks platform, Evans offers training plans, weekly live coaching, and courses.
While there are some businesses that are impossible to take online, like a massage studio, nail spa, hair salon, or cosmetic dentistry practice, even these businesses have gotten creative with a new set of offerings they may continue well after “stay-at-home” orders are lifted. Their new services include:
- On-demand video consultations and recommended packages of home treatments, DIY kits, and products that can be delivered to your home.
- A guided mediation course, online massage and relaxation workshops, or other instruction, as we all learn to do things ourselves.
- A new delivery or house call service for nails, hair, and more that may be delivered at home even after we’re allowed to go again.
As these online businesses demonstrate, there’s always room to get creative. If you own a restaurant for example, you won’t be able to replicate the lunch hour rush online. But you may have already moved to an online delivery ordering system and could consider sharing your expertise with live cooking classes or a course of mastering the basics around the kitchen.
Once you start understanding how your business can make a virtual transition, you can focus on using this opportunity to even improve your services for the better.
Plan for virtual expansion
Bringing your business online is more than just making a virtual version of the services you already offer. It’s an opportunity to improve your business and potentially make it even stronger, even after stay-at-home orders are behind us.
Here’s how going online can make your physical business even stronger:
You can reach more diverse and interesting customers. When you take your business online, you can bring together more diverse and interesting people to serve. This isn’t just about the number of customers you can have online vs. physically, but it’s also about the kinds of people you’re able to reach.
It’s not called the worldwide web for nothing.
As you attract more diverse customers, they won’t just make your business more interesting to you, but as you move a studio or coaching business online, they’ll be contributing their stories, experiences, and unique ideas to the group, making it more valuable to everyone with each new person who joins and participates.
Imagine an online yoga studio populated by people around the world, approaching yoga styles and practices differently. Sure, you’re giving people a chance to learn from you, but more importantly, they have an unparalleled opportunity to learn from each other.
Moreover, with modern software, you have more ways to connect and impact people–keeping their goals top-of-mind and excuses for not changing behavior, paying attention, or building new habits to a minimum.
It all adds up to creating a better business with online and real life pieces that strengthen and reinforce your offering.
Your business is accessible 24/7, and strengthened by the people you’re able to connect. When you bring a business online, not only can you sell product around the clock, but you can even introduce something new and valuable: The ability to connect your customers to each other with no additional work from you.
For a business that sells physical goods (like Oiselle, a fitness brand created by women athletes for women athletes), connecting your customers to each other to share their stories, experiences, and ideas in pursuit of their goals in a community means your business is bringing more value to everyone with each new member who joins.
Use this opportunity to make how you move your business online even more valuable for your customers, not just with convenience, but connections between people.
Identify what will change
The last question is potentially the most important. Online businesses are a bit different from physical ones. Think of it as working in a different medium: For the best results, you’ll have to be flexible and make some changes in your approach. Here’s what you want to keep in mind online:
- Be explicit and connect the dots. When you move your business online, some of the non-verbal cues, benefits, and value can get lost. We’ve all had the moment where something written can be misinterpreted or lost in transaction. Be direct, clear, and obvious in your online offering. Define terms, use examples, and keep aiming to get more detailed and specific, even when you think you might be too wordy. Details matter when you’re moving people to a virtual subscription or offering.
- Focus on the value that you’re able to bring to people. Now that you’re aiming to be more specific online, push yourself one step further: What results or transformation are you offering them? This isn’t to learn a new skill or build a new practice, but rather, capturing for people what will happen to their lives when they have this new skill or practice:
- Will they be able to manage stress and anxiety better with a new set of daily practices?
- Will they be able to get a raise or better prioritize the different projects they’re being asked to juggle?
- Will they have a deeper connection to their values, purpose, or have greater impact as a result of your services?
So, if your business is one that either obviously or less obviously can make the move online, you’re ready to expand to include new customers or services, and get more specific (as moving online requires), congratulations! You’re ready to make this move.
Now, it’s time to find the best platform to bring your business online.
2. Choose An Online Home For Your Business
If you are starting an online store to sell physical goods, use a Shopify store or Wix or Squarespace website.
To bring a fitness studio, health or wellness practice, coaching business, training or workshop offering online, or even host a virtual conference, you’re going to be looking at a slightly different solution.
To deliver a service business like this online in the past, you had to find a developer to customize a WordPress website with roughly 10 or so different plugins, custom options, and a ton of work. You not only needed to set up digital subscriptions, but then deliver on someone’s payment with online courses, videos, exclusive content, and more.
By “more,” it typically meant adding by popular demand a Facebook Group after the fact to connect members to each other, as another benefit of one’s digital subscription.
The result was a mess of custom software and different platforms tied together with string and duct tape.
Today, fortunately, your options are a bit better.
Sure, you can still use a WordPress website and a Facebook group, but you can also tap a new generation of software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms expressly designed to deliver and grow services businesses digitally.
So let's talk about the ultimate thing you can build online for your business: culture.
Mighty Networks is a powerful cultural software platform that brings community, courses, content, commerce, and live events together. Mighty's flexible Spaces let you build the membership YOU want, adding in features like live streaming, online courses, discussion forums, and written and video content. You get these all in one place, under your own brand and domain name, instantly available on web, iOS and Android.
What’s included in what you can sell on a Mighty Network? Here are a few highlights:
- Online courses. On a Mighty Network you can create a “typical” online course with course content, but that’s only the beginning. You can also add a dedicated course community directly to an online course, or even build your online course “live”, using your members and a community to create course content that you publish after the fact.
- Small coaching groups. If you run a studio, think about this as the equivalent as a group class. You can have different groups for different topics, and can even establish regular small groups to support, encourage, and learn from each other.
- Events. You can create regular events directly within your Mighty Network that correspond to classes, meetups, and regular value-producing check ins.
- Direct subscriptions. You can sell annual, monthly, or one-time subscriptions to a paid Mighty Network or keep it free and sell online courses or groups within it. There’s a ton of flexibility without requiring hiring a developer or a designer to deliver them.
Between Shopify for physical goods and Mighty Networks for digital services, you’ve got some great options to move your business online.
3. Find your competitive advantage
Now that you’ve chosen the software platform to take your business online, what’s next? Here are four quick steps to reach out to your existing customers as well as start to think about how you’re going to get new ones:
- Start with your existing customers. The benefit of moving your business online is that you’re starting with the customers or clients that you currently serve in your physical location. This is a great moment to make sure your client list is up to date, you have people’s email addresses, and you are set up to reach out to them. This list is one of your most valuable assets, so make sure that it is easily accessible, well-organized, and quick to add to (even automatically over time, given your new website).
- Get the word out. When sharing the move with your existing customers, make sure to emphasize the unique strengths of your online offering, especially those parts that are creative, different, and represent fresh thinking over your existing store, studio, or service.
- Up your service game. Your existing customers should feel like they are important to you. Staying in regular contact with them, asking what they need, what services they want to see from you, and how you can help them achieve more of their goals faster and with less effort will help you reap major rewards down the line. When you move your business online, you have more “tools in your tool box” to offer a higher quality product or more services to your customers. Take advantage of the opportunity.
- Ask for referrals. Don’t be afraid to ask your existing customers to refer new ones to you, especially now that you can serve more people with your combined online and physical business. The most powerful source of new people are going to come from the people who know you and love your offering. It’s why staying in constant contact with them and upping your service game will have major payback today and in the future.
- Be consistent and creative in your communications and offering. Life moves pretty fast. Choosing a day and time of the week that becomes the regular moment you reach out to people with something that adds value to their lives will ensure that you and your business will stay top of mind for them, especially when we’re not driving by your studio every day. As you learn what your customers and clients want from you, stick with a regular time and offering to communicate out to them.
As you feed your customer list and scale it up with new referrals, you can start to grow your business even faster with a stronger offering. You can utilize all of the wonderful things you do in your physical offering plus the new features you now can offer because you’ve made the call to take your business online.
Ready to start?
Even as stay-at-home orders go away and we start to re-open the economy, we’re not going to be returning to the world that we knew even a few short months ago. And the savviest businesses among us have been quick to pivot to a new, more compelling online business that will only make their physical stores, studios, and services more valuable when they’re open again.
Those entrepreneurs and business owners with the courage and creativity to experiment now with how to take their business online, will come out of this crisis stronger, more agile, and with more options than those that don’t.
Where are you going to fall?