Starting your own business is an exciting process—and it can be quite lucrative. In 2021, 44% of freelancers reported they earned more by working for themselves than they did with a traditional job.
It’s part of a trend that increases every year; more people are starting businesses, and more people are seeing positive rewards. Whether you’re interested in working for yourself full time or want to start a side hustle, now is a great time to launch a business.
The 17 steps outlined in this article will help you plan and start a successful business. Each step builds upon the next, so we suggest reading through the list in order and making sure that you check off each stage as you go.
Table of contents: How to start a business
1. Find a business idea
When considering different business ideas, think about:
- Your existing skills and certifications
- Your access to necessary equipment
- Any additional training you may need
Depending on the answers to your self-assessment, you might want to consider a few of these business ideas:
- Provide a service to other business owners: 47% of companies plan to use more freelancers in the coming years. Many of these businesses will need help from skilled professionals who are able to provide graphic design, web development, content writing, project management, technical support, customer support, and administrative support services, among others. You could provide these services—and even create an agency as you grow.
- Sell handcrafted products: If you’re artistic, you could consider starting a business where you make and sell products, including both digital and physical goods. Sites like Etsy, Creative Market, and Gumroad allow independent creators to start selling online in just a few clicks.
- Open a dropshipping e-commerce store: Dropshipping e-commerce store owners sell products via an online store without maintaining any physical inventory. Instead of sending packages directly to their customers, these business owners rely on manufacturers and other third parties to handle shipping and logistics.
- Teach lessons: Video conferencing and whiteboard software programs have made it possible to run a classroom from anywhere with an internet connection. Many successful educators and tutors on Upwork teach everything from foreign languages to crafts.
While choosing a business based around your existing skill sets will likely be the fastest path to self-employment, some business owners find it worthwhile to invest in skills training and launch their career in a new field. This all depends on your personal preferences and the potential return on your investment—there’s no right or wrong answer here.
Understand the “why”
No matter what business venture you choose to start, be very clear about the reason behind your choice.
Ask yourself what your primary motivation for choosing your business idea is. You may realize that:
- You’re passionate about the business
- You need or want the schedule flexibility
- You’re interested in making a specific annual income that the business can support
Again, there’s no right or wrong answer here, but identifying your why will help you move forward with planning your business and establishing a brand that feels true to who you are.
2. Identify your target audience
Once you’ve identified what you’re going to do and why you’re going to do it, you’ll need to figure out who you’re doing it for. This is your target audience.
To find your target audience, you’ll need to consider the following details:
- Demographics: These are statistical data points about your possible customers or clients. Demographic information includes age, income, gender, education level, and more.
- Psychographics: These are psychological factors that influence your potential audience’s belief systems, including values, ethical beliefs, lifestyle, aspirations, and political opinions
- Interests: How a potential client spends their time—at work or in leisure—often influences whether or not they’re likely to engage with your business.
- Behaviors: Audience behaviors indicate how they will interact with your brand, such as in person or online.
You’re likely to find that your target audience is made up of several groups of people with some shared characteristics. Creating buyer personas is a good way to keep track of the differences between each audience group.
3. Pick a business name
Many freelancers decide to operate under their own name. However, depending on your goals, industry, and business structure—more on that in a bit—you may need or want to come up with a business name.
Creating a business name can be as simple as registering your actual legal name and service (such as “John Smith Web Design”) with the relevant government and tax authorities. Or, you might come up with something distinctive and catchy related to your industry and brand.
A good rule of thumb: keep your business name simple and easy to say and spell. If you’d like to operate under your given name but it’s very difficult for others to spell, consider using a simpler or stylized version of it as your business name.
For example, I have a long last name, which you’ll see in this article’s byline. I have found that it’s often misspelled by others. As a result, when I registered my own business name, I incorporated my initials rather than my full legal name.
4. Validate your business idea
Before you proceed with making your business idea official, take some time to validate it. This process is also called market validation.
When you validate your business idea, you confirm how much demand for your product or service exists within your intended audience groups.
Harvard Business School outlines the market validation process in 5 steps:
- Write down your goals, assumptions, and predictions about the business
- Consider the size of your market and what share you could potentially hold
- Listen to online chatter about your business or industry
- Talk to members of your target audience
- Test your products and services
By conducting business idea validation early in the planning process, you might avoid wasting time on ideas that aren’t likely to be profitable.
Conduct market research
The market validation process requires a fair amount of research. However, you don’t have to run a full-scale study. You’ll be able to gather much of the information you need with the help of Google, social media, and other online tools.
During your market analysis and research process, you'll want to discover more about the following:
- Who are your competitors?
- Where are your competitors located (both geographically and online)?
- What traits do your competitors share?
- How will you differentiate yourself from your competitors?
- Where and how do your competitors market their businesses?
- What is the average price point for similar products and services in your intended market?
- How are people talking about your industry on social media?
- What kinds of searches are people doing online that relate to your business?
The presence of some competitors is good because it means a market for your business idea does exist. Too many competitors, though, might indicate that the market is oversaturated. If this is the case, you’ll need to work hard to make your business stand out.
5. Write a business plan
Once you’ve decided on a business idea and validated it, you’ll want to begin writing a business plan.
If you’re tempted to skip this step, don’t. A business plan can help you increase your chances of growth and success, as well as obtain financing.
Your business plan doesn’t have to be complex—even simple ones are useful. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), a business plan will:
- Act like a GPS to guide your business growth over the next three to five years
- Help you develop key business milestones and plan for how to reach them
- Bolster your ability to obtain business funding
A basic business plan should include the following information:
- Company summary and purpose
- Target audience data
- Services or products for sale
- Competitors and how to compete with them
- Customer acquisition and retention strategy
- Marketing and sales strategy
- Key goals and milestones
- Financial plans
You’ll probably find that you need to add more detail to your plan as your business evolves. Some business funding opportunities will also require a certain level of detail in your business plan in order to be considered for a grant or other financial award.
6. Review your finances
The next step in starting a business is making sure that you have enough capital to start your venture. You’ll also want to make sure that the business has the potential to bring in the income you need.
Calculate your estimated profits
First, write down all the monthly expenses you expect to incur in order to keep the business running. This includes both variable costs (like gasoline) and fixed costs (like rent).
Next, assign a monetary value to your time and sales. This can include cost per item, rate per hour, or rate per project. Estimate how many products you expect to sell per month, or how many hours you plan to work if you’re a service provider.
By multiplying your expected working hours or sales by the dollar amount you established above, you can estimate your expected revenue.
Finally, subtract expenses from your total expected monthly revenue. The money that is left over is your net profit, or profits before taxes.
You’ll want to make sure that the number you end up with is positive, not negative. If it’s negative, you won’t bring in enough money to keep your business running. If this is the case, you’ll need to examine ways to cut costs or increase revenue.
Estimate income needs
In addition to calculating your estimated profit, you’ll also need to estimate your personal income needs.
If you’re planning to run your business as a side hustle, think about how much money you’d like to earn each month. Perhaps you have a particular goal in mind that you’re saving for or you know you’d like a certain amount of extra cash every month.
If you plan to be self-employed on a full-time basis, think about what you need in terms of rent or mortgage, utilities, food, health care, transportation, and other living expenses.
Compare your expected monthly profit with your income needs. Will your monthly profit pay for these personal expenses? Don’t forget to factor in tax payments as well.
7. Find a location (if needed)
If you include the cost of an office space in your estimates and are confident you’ll have the revenue to cover the rent or mortgage, you should now begin to look for a location from which to operate.
For internet-based service business owners who cannot or would prefer not to work from home, coworking spaces offer affordable alternatives to renting a full commercial office space. Many coworking establishments allow business owners to rent flexible desk space or a private office within the building.
If your business needs a physical location for selling products or meeting with clients, you’ll want to make sure you conduct all your market research before signing a lease. The goal is to be sure you’re operating in the right location for maximum exposure to your ideal customer base.
8. Consult with an attorney and tax professionals
Some businesses are required to register with the government or obtain special tax and operating permits. These requirements can vary by location, so you’ll want to consult with lawyers and tax professionals who are familiar with your type of business and operating location. Possible needs may include sales tax collection permits, operating licenses, and taxpayer identification numbers.
9. Consider business insurance
Some businesses are required to purchase insurance policies. This requirement could come from the government or from a client.
You may also decide to purchase insurance simply to protect your business and assets. Dinghy and Next are two examples of companies that offer business insurance policies for freelancers. The type of policy you purchase will depend on your business structure, location, and services.
Additionally, you may wish to purchase your own health insurance, disability insurance, life insurance, or other personal policies.
10. Fund your business
If your business will require a significant investment to get started, you may want to consider seeking funding. This can help your company pay for initial inventory costs, rent, employee wages, and more.
There are several ways to obtain business financing. An accountant or a financial advisor can help you decide which of the following is best suited for your business:
Many private banks offer financing options to small business owners and freelancers. While the availability of and requirements for financing varies by institution, you may see a combination of the following:
- Secured loans: A secured loan requires collateral. This operates much like an auto loan or a home mortgage—if you aren’t able to complete payments on the loan, the bank will take your collateral (such as the house or the car) instead.
- Unsecured loans: An unsecured loan does not require collateral; however, a good credit score is generally required in order to obtain an unsecured loan
- Lines of credit: A line of credit is like a loan that you tap into as needed. For example, if you take out a $50,000 secured loan to buy a work truck, you’ll utilize your financing once—the day you purchase the vehicle. If you take out a $50,000 line of credit, though, you can apply this financing to multiple purchases up to the credit limit.
When you use a loan or a line of credit, you're always responsible for paying your lender back.
Small business loans
In addition to bank financing, small business owners are often eligible for loans backed by the government. These small business loans often have lower interest rates than loans through banks. However, they may come with additional requirements such as completing an education program.
- In the U.S., the SBA offers several varieties of guaranteed loans, including “microloans” of $50,000 or less
- The U.K. government offers small business “Start Up Loans” with a fixed interest rate of 6% (as of April 2022). Business owners have one to five years to pay back their loan.
- In India, entrepreneurs with Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprise (MSME) businesses can apply for an unsecured, government-backed loan of up to one million rupees to help them start and run their businesses.
These are only a few examples of countries that offer government-backed small business loans to their citizens. If you’re interested in acquiring this type of financing for your business, check with your country’s business or revenue administration offices to learn more about possible options.
Unlike business loans, which must be repaid, a business grant functions more as a gift. There may be stipulations about how you’re allowed to use the grant money, but if you meet the requirements, you won’t have to pay it back.
It’s often harder to get approved for a business grant than a loan; you’ll probably need to go through a rigorous application process. To maximize your business’s chances of approval, you may want to work with a grant writer who can help you.
Check for small business grants offered by governments, professional organizations, charities, corporations, and other groups. In the U.S. grants.gov is a great place to start.
The crowdfunding financing model involves collecting a pool of relatively small contributions from a large number of people.
Crowdfunding involves one-way or two-way exchanges. Some crowdfunding campaigns ask individuals to contribute to a business without any expectation of repayment or goods or services in return.
Other crowdfunding campaigns, such as those on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, operate on a preorder model. Businesses collect contributions and promise to provide supporters with some sort of product or service at launch.
Finally, some businesses choose to obtain funding through investors. The two main types of business investments are equity and debt.
A debt investment functions similarly to a loan. The investor gives money to the business in exchange for repayment on a set schedule—with interest. The business is responsible for repaying the loan, regardless of whether they’re profitable or experience a loss.
In an equity investment arrangement, the investor is given a stake of ownership in the business. As such, they receive a percentage of profits (assuming the business makes money) instead of repayment via installments. Of course, if the business loses money, the investor often doesn’t recoup their full investment.
Traditionally, businesses obtained investment financing through venture capital firms, angel investors, local business organizations, or individuals with access to sizable amounts of cash.
Today, companies like Mainvest offer an alternative investment model. These platforms take a crowdfunding approach to business investment by pooling a number of small individual investments into one fund.
11. Develop your business's brand
Be sure to finalize your business brand before launching any funding campaigns. Having a well-defined brand is helpful when winning over investors and crowdfunding supporters.
Even if you don’t plan to acquire funding for your business, you still need a brand identity. Your brand will help customers and clients remember who you are, what you do, and the value you bring.
When creating a brand for your business, you’ll want to think about the following elements:
Your logo is an important visual representation of your brand. Even if you’ll be operating under your own name, you’ll want a logo. (Remember when I said that I used my initials in my business name? I have a logo made of—you guessed it—my initials.) Place your logo design on your website, invoices, email signature, business cards, and more.
Your mission statement is a succinct explanation of why your business exists. It can include a summary of your purpose and direction.
A mission statement is different than, but complementary to, values and vision statements. A values statement outlines the principles that guide your company’s operations and culture. A vision statement lays out a roadmap for your growth and development.
If you need help developing this content, consider engaging a professional mission statement freelancer.
A tagline or slogan is a short phrase that might appear on your website, business cards, and other marketing materials. While it’s not essential to have a tagline for your business, a memorable one can be a catchy way to quickly convey your focus and value proposition.
If you’d like to create a business tagline but aren’t sure where to start, a professional business name and slogan creator can help.
Your brand should have a “voice” or style that is consistent across communications. If you serve a very corporate, B2B audience in need of financial products, you may opt for a formal brand voice. If your target market is made of private consumers interested in lifestyle products, a conversational, colloquial tone could be a better fit.
You might find that your brand voice evolves over time, too. This is understandable and normal. After all, you’re not the same person you were a few years ago, right? As you grow, so does your business. Working with a branding specialist can be very helpful as you develop and refine your brand.
12. Build a website
Once you have your business’s brand developed, you’ll be able to begin implementing it through the creation of marketing materials. A website is arguably one of the most important elements any business owner needs for their company.
You’ll use your business website to:
- Generate leads from potential customers
- Share details about your services
- Take orders for physical and digital products
- Showcase your work
- Highlight testimonials from clients
Creating an online presence for your business can be accomplished in several ways:
Work with a web designer or developer
The easiest way to get a website for your business is to work with a skilled web developer or web designer. These experts will take your business needs and personal preferences into consideration and develop the ideal solution for your company.
Use a website builder
Alternatively, you might opt to create a site yourself using a website builder like Squarespace or Shopify. These services allow you to design pages by dragging and dropping different elements onto templates. While you don’t need to know any code, you will have to be fairly tech savvy to create a website that performs well across both desktop and mobile devices.
Purchase a domain name
Regardless of whether you use a website builder or work with a web developer, you'll want to purchase a custom domain name.
Having a custom domain name gives your brand additional professional credibility and improves SEO performance. As a result, more potential customers will be able to find your website through search engine results pages.
It’s possible to purchase a domain name for as little as $1 per month using services like Google Domains and Namecheap. Some website builders also allow you to purchase and connect a domain directly through their interface.
13. Open a business bank account
Before you begin officially doing business, opening a business bank account is often a good idea. In fact, some business entities (like LLCs and S-corps) may be required to have a bank account separate from that of the owner.
While a sole proprietor could deposit their freelance or self-employment income into their personal bank account, this intermingling of funds sometimes makes bookkeeping confusing. Having a separate business account helps sole proprietors stay organized and plan ahead for expenses, including putting aside money for taxes.
Options available to you often vary based on location, but you can typically open a company bank account through local financial institutions and online services created specifically for small business owners. These services, such as Novo, Lance, and Bonsai Cash, often offer features like:
- Sub-accounts to help you allocate your revenue for taxes, expenses, and other bills
- Automatic expense tracking and categorization
- Low or no banking fees
- App-based account management
You can also connect your business bank account to different platforms that will help you get paid quickly (including Upwork).
14. Decide how to invoice your customers and collect payment
As a self-employed individual, you can be paid in many ways. Depending on your business model, you may:
- Send invoices and accept credit card payments or bank transfers
- Sell items in person and collect cash or process credit cards via a point of sale (POS) system
- Accept payments via Venmo, CashApp, or other digital payment system
If you’re sending invoices to clients, you may experience a delay between the time you actually do the work and the time you receive payment. This is normal—many businesses operate on Net 15 or Net 30 terms, which mean their customers have 15 or 30 days, respectively, to pay invoices.
Even though this is normal, waiting for payment may still be frustrating when you’re just starting out and don’t have a lot of business income. This situation also means you need to be very diligent about:
- Writing invoices with the correct terms
- Requesting payments from customers
- Reminding customers about overdue invoices
One way to avoid some of this back-and-forth is to use an escrow-based system like Upwork Direct Contracts. Here’s how it works:
- You log into Upwork and create a contract
- You send your client a link to the contract before the project begins
- Your client pays an agreed-upon amount via credit card, PayPal, or U.S. bank transfer. The client doesn’t need to create an Upwork account. (If they already have an account, you can create a regular Upwork contract!)
- Upwork places the funds into a secure escrow account
- You complete the project and deliver the work to the client
- The client approves the work and the escrowed funds are paid by Upwork to you
You’ll need to pay a standard processing fee to use Direct Contracts (3.4%, which is comparable to the fees levied by PayPal, Stripe, Square, and others).
By using Direct Contracts, though, you’ll get the benefit of Upwork Payment Protection and dispute resolution assistance—something you won’t find with other payment processors.
15. Get the right financial software
No matter how you invoice clients and collect payment, you’ll need a reliable way to categorize your expenses and keep track of your business finances.
Financial and accounting software allows you to connect multiple accounts, generate profit and loss statements (important for tax purposes!), and keep a handle on your business cash flow. Popular options include:
Each of these software programs has a different learning curve. Bonsai uses a single-entry accounting system that is somewhat similar to balancing a checkbook. QuickBooks, on the other hand, uses a double-entry system favored by many business finance professionals. The right program for you will depend on:
- Your business structure
- The accounting method your business uses
- Your specific business needs, including vendor payments and payroll
- The ways you process and collect payments
- Whether or not you have a business credit card
If you aren’t sure what financial software to use—or how to use it—an accountant or bookkeeper can help. You may decide to work with an accountant and a bookkeeper on a regular basis or handle this responsibility yourself after some initial training.
16. Promote and grow your business
Of course, to get paid and put that financial software to work, you’ll need to grow your client list. Small business owners often acquire new clients through a blend of networking and marketing.
You can market your business in many ways, including:
Digital marketing encompasses a wide array of techniques. You may wish to try any of the following when developing your marketing plan:
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
When you focus on SEO as a form of digital marketing, you’ll make strategic changes to your website based on what your target audience is searching for online. Content marketing is a big part of SEO.
Take this article for example—we didn’t randomly decide to publish it on our website. We know that our target audience is very interested in creating businesses and is searching for related content online. So, we created it! Yes, we’d love it if you signed up for Upwork after reading this article, but ultimately, you’re welcome to use the information here whether you’re an Upwork user or not.
Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
Search engine marketing and SEO are similar, with one big differentiator; SEM involves paying for ads, while SEO does not. When running an SEM campaign, you’ll typically use a pay-per-click (PPC) platform like Google Ads or Amazon Ads to run strategically placed ads online.
These ads might appear on specific websites, such as Amazon.com, or on a variety of third-party websites that are part of the platform’s display advertising network.
You may or may not have control over the websites that display your ads—this varies by platform. A PPC specialist can help you figure out the best mix of ads for your budget.
Social media marketing and advertising
Social media platforms like Facebook and TikTok typically have their own forms of PPC advertising. These ads often take the form of “boosted” posts that appear prominently in users’ feeds, sponsored stories that last longer than organic content, or small text ads that appear across a social media site.
In addition to this paid advertising, organic social media marketing content is an important part of many businesses’ digital marketing strategies. If you know your target audience uses a particular platform, a social media manager can help you keep them engaged with your brand.
This type of marketing blends elements of unpaid and paid digital marketing strategies. Brand partnerships often involve the exchange of money for promotion, but typically have a more “organic” feel. When establishing brand partnerships, you’ll often enter into one of these agreements:
In an affiliate marketing relationship, you provide the people promoting your brand with a unique link or coupon code. The affiliate will create content about your product or service and encourage their contacts, social media followers, newsletter subscribers, or website visitors to purchase from you.
When someone makes a purchase using the link or code, your affiliate gets a percentage of the sale as compensation.
Influencer marketing is often very similar to affiliate marketing, as many popular social media personalities and bloggers use affiliate links. However, some influencers take direct payment in exchange for creating posts and other content about your business.
For example, you may pay an influencer a set amount of money every time they post an Instagram story that features your company.
A cross-promotion partnership is typically unpaid and mutually beneficial. In this arrangement, you may recommend another business to your customers or offer the other business a guest posting spot on your blog. In exchange, they will do the same for you and your company.
Remember to have a contract in place for all brand partnerships. Even if they feel casual and friendly, it’s still a business partnership. An influencer marketing specialist can help you successfully navigate this marketing channel.
You can also market your business through traditional advertising methods like:
- Newspaper ads
- Promotional radio spots
- Television commercials
- Public transit signage
Given the cost and reach of traditional advertising methods, this option is typically best for businesses that have a physical storefront or geographic region they serve (such as a caf́é owner, plumber, or electrician). If you’re running an online business, you’ll reach more of your target audience through digital marketing or brand partnerships.
Here’s an example of a television commercial created by Upwork. Even though we’re very much an online company, we work with people all around the world. This makes television a useful medium through which we can connect to potential users of the platform:
If you aren’t sure what options are best for your business, an independent advertising consultant can help you figure out a plan.
17. Build your team
Once your business is up and running, you’ll need to focus on its day-to-day operations, take care of your customers, continue to build a pipeline, pay bills, and ensure all your finances are on schedule. It’s a lot of work! You might begin to consider expanding your team in order to keep up with changes and growth.
You can, of course, explore hiring full- and part-time employees to help you with work. There may be restrictions and requirements around growing your team this way, though, depending on your business structure and location. Plus, you’ll need to consider the additional costs required for:
- Providing employee benefits
- Running payroll
- Conducting compliance checks
- Taking out additional insurance policies
- Hiring human resources specialists to manage employee data
For some businesses, the added expense and complexity involved in hiring a permanent full-time team is worth it.
Other business owners, though, find this traditional way of growing a team to be too rigid or complex. Instead, they prefer to work with other self-employed individuals to carry out key business projects.
By contracting with other freelancers or small business owners, you can get help in just about any area you need. You may choose to work with some of these professionals on an ongoing basis or engage them as needed.
While working with independent contractors certainly has some legal and financial considerations, many business owners find this practice more affordable, flexible, and easier than hiring a full-time team the old-fashioned way.
Launch your new business
Upwork makes it even easier to get the help you need to grow your business. Our platform allows you to quickly connect with talented professionals able to help you with anything from accounting to videography. And if your business provides a professional service, you can find your own customers on the Upwork platform as well.
Take control of your new business by tapping into the world’s work marketplace. Develop your brand, grow your company, form rewarding relationships with other experts, and do more of the work that inspires you. Get started by creating an Upwork account today.
This article is intended for educational purposes and should not be viewed as legal or tax advice. Please consult a professional to find the solution that best fits your situation. Upwork is not affiliated with and does not sponsor or endorse any of the tools or services discussed in this section, and does not intend this to be a comprehensive review of all steps needed. These tools and services are provided only as potential options, and each reader and company should take the time needed to adequately analyze and determine the tools or services that would best fit their specific needs and situation.
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