7 Crucial Lessons I’ve Learned in My First 2 Years in Online Business

It has been almost two years since we have started to work online. From building a travel blog to building a Tumbler like platform for bloggers and our new platform SpreadWALL. In this post, I would like to share with you our experiences and lessons we gathered during that time.

How it all started:

I actually started to build my first online business back in 2013. Even though the business never went online, we did learn a lot. It was during that time, that we had to pay our first fee for a patent dispute. But let’s start from the beginning. After brainstorming and designing many different business ideas we finally decided to create an online platform were students could review their schools.

It looked like a foursquare and Twitter hybrid, targeting universities and colleges. We designed all the pages, wrote a business plan, designed a logo, bought a domain, and registered the name (Snuum) as a trademark. That was our first big mistake. Maybe it was because we were paranoid that someone would want to steal our “brilliant” idea or we just wanted to be able to say: “I got a patent.” Which brings me to the first lesson.

Lesson 1: Don’t be paranoid

I know you all saw the social network and now you believe someone will eventually steal your patent pending, ultra-innovative, world changing idea. But let me tell you one thing, it won’t happen. I am aware that there are examples of people whose business ideas were stolen. Nonetheless, the odds are very low and if you find people with the same idea, changes are high that they came up with that idea themselves. It is much more important that you tell everyone about your idea. By doing this, you are not only getting valuable feedback, but you may also find people who are just as enthusiastic as you, which can help you to make your idea successful.

Back to the story, so we submitted our name to the patent agency and for only 500 US-Dollar we got a 10 year patent for that name. You can check it out here. The big surprise came two weeks later when we got a letter from another firm, who had also a patent on their name. It was not the exact same name, but they argued that it could mislead their customers and asked us to remove a category from our patent. We thought that it was a joke, so we did not respond. A week passed and we got another letter, but this time from a lawyer. Long story short, it was no fake and because we did not react the first time, we had to pay the legal costs of the other firm.

After that we were a bit depressed and had some doubts about our idea. We still kept going and searched for an IT-firm to build the platform. After a few weeks of discussing the project, we finally got an offer. Sadly the prize was too high and we already had lost the motivation to keep working on that project. This led me to the realization of the second lesson I learned.

Lesson 2: Don’t overestimate the early enthusiasm

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At the time we stopped pursuing this idea, we had only worked for about 6 months. Building a business requires much more time and a lot more dedication. So don’t jump into a business or idea, if you don’t have the patience and enthusiasm to work for at least 5 to 10 years on the same idea. Because this is actually the time most businesses need to succeed. It’s easy to motivate yourself in the beginning, but you have to be sure that you can keep yourself motivated over the long run.

After we had quit working on the idea, I took a job at a car dealership, but I felt the urge to create a new online business. So together with a new partner I started a viral blog. You know, something like BuzzFeed but in German. It started off very well and within a few weeks we had more than 1000 daily visitors and also made some money with AdSense (43 US-Dollar). But this soon turned out to work not as well as planned. Because the copyright laws in Europe are very strict and after about a month, we got again a letter from a lawyer. This time it was because of a copyright infringement.

We had hyperlinked two pictures which belonged to a huge media company. Again we had to pay for our mistakes and this time it was even more than before. 600 US-Dollars for two pictures. After this incident we changed our concept and concentrated on articles about traveling. This worked actually quite well, even though we never had the same amount of traffic. This also taught me a valuable lesson.

Lesson 3: Be sure that what you are doing is legal

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Using pictures from google is by far the most common copyright infringement. It sounds like a newbie mistake, but you would be surprised how many people still just use pictures from Google. The law various among countries but I still urge you to use only pictures when you have the permission from the owner. I use Pixabay.com as my primary source for pictures, but you can also use pictures within the creative commons license. I will include a summary of all the tools and websites we use at the end of this post.

I should be common sense that you should not create your business around an illegal activity. But with so many laws nowadays, there is a good chance that you might do something that is illegal without you knowing it. In Switzerland for example, you can get a jail sentence for not having an Impressum, so check the laws in your country, before you start your online business.

Back to our story, we kept producing articles, but we noticed how hard it was to get your content seen online. So we came up with the idea to build a blogging platform, were people could submit lists, blogs, articles and links. If this sounds familiar to you, you are not wrong. Playbuzz is doing something quite similar and they are very successful with it. So we set out to build this platform, but since neither of us had the necessary programming skills, we outsourced the development and this again taught me a useful lesson.

Lesson 4:  You have to find good partners

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This is by far one of the most important lessons I’ve learned. You need to work with excellent people. It doesn’t matter if you outsource or build a local team. Having reliable and hardworking partners is crucial to success. If you decide to outsource your project, I would highly recommend that you carefully check the referrals and type of work they have done in the past. This can save you a lot of time and money. In addition, don’t go for the cheapest offer possible. Believe me, we been there and you will never get a Ferrari for the budget of a Fiat. Even if you pay more, make sure you get the quality of work you expect. Have regular meetings about the progress and make sure that both sides have the same understanding of the task at hand. Managing a team is not easy and it is even harder if you work with a remote team.

After we decided to outsource the development, we did some research and found a few platforms where we posted our job description. Within minutes we had dozens of offers from various countries. We compared the prizes and decided to go with a very cheap solution and that was the mistake. For weeks he would just write us e-mails claiming that he was working on the project, when in reality, he was doing nearly nothing. On top of that he wrote my partner “hey sweetie” on Facebook. At this point I was furious. So I wrote a huge email with biting arguments criticizing his work and his laziness. I demanded the money back and luckily he refunded all of it. To be fair, he offered to do this project at a really low price. Therefore, I should have saw it coming.

We tried it again, this time with a much bigger budget. We got approached by a very friendly and professional company, so we thought let’s give them a shot. We started to build the platform, but we soon realized, that you can’t have everything, especially with a low budget. They did a good job, but we demanded too many different functions which resulted in a lot of bugs. We also started to have doubts, thus we decided to pivot.

Lesson 5: Be the best at one thing

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It is easy to brainstorm many ideas and to assume that they will solve the problems of your costumers, but not only do you have to validate your ideas with customer interviews first, you have also make sure that you keep it as simple as possible. The more features you want to add to your product, the more money it will cost you. If you want to compete, you need to put your resources into one feature and make it great, better than everyone else. Otherwise, you will have a lot of mediocre functions, which no one wants to use.

Consequently this is exactly what we did. We removed all the features except for one and built a platform were you could submit links and have it shared from a certain amount of people at the same time. Something like Thunderclap, but it was missing one thing, why should people want to share a link from a platform they never heard of? So we made some polls and posted our idea online and after getting some initial feedback, we decided to offer people discounts in exchange for social shares.

That brings us to what we are doing now. Our business SpreadWALL.com empowers online shops, marketers, membership sites and brands to easily create social media campaigns that are optimized for social sharing and engagement. We achieve this by providing the best publishing tool for interactive discount campaigns.

A seller creates a discount campaign which people with Facebook and Twitter can support. A campaign has a message (which can be edited) and a link that all the supporters agree to share on their Facebook or Twitter accounts. They in return get a discount code if the supporter goal is reached. Once a successful campaign ends, the message and link are automatically shared simultaneously and the supporters get the discount codes via email.

For that service, we receive a small provision. You can learn more about our pricing here. While building this product we learned another very important lesson.

Lesson 6: You will probably ship your product late

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There are many things that come into play when creating a new product. From marketing to accounting and from development to creating legal documents. If you are a small team, it is nearly impossible to estimate exactly how long it will take you to build and launch. As a result, if you want to ship your product in 3 months, tell your costumer you’ll ship it in 9. This way you don’t disappoint your costumers, because you should have enough time to deal with all the issues and problems that you will face along the way. Furthermore, if you are able to ship before that date, your costumers will be positively surprised.

Luckily we are finally ready to launch and to create the first real campaigns. We are very excited to get some data from the field to create an even better product for our customers. But that doesn’t mean that we will stop learning. It is actually just the beginning and I am sure that we will learn many more lessons in the future.

There is in fact another great lesson we have learned during that time.

Lesson 7: Never give up

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If you want to succeed, you have to keep trying. There will always be stones in your way, but when you follow your vision and never give up, you will succeed. Everyone has days were he or she is frustrated and feels like having no strength. This is totally normal, but don’t get caught up in a downward spiral. Because at the end of the day, you get what you are willing to sacrifice and if you keep working hard in a spirit of kindness and harmony, than I am sure that whoever you may be, you will succeed.

I hope this blog post was helpful and that you will learn from the mistakes and lessons we experienced.

For those how wonder which products and websites we used to build and market our platform, I have included a summary of links below.

WordPress: Blog Tool, Publishing Platform, and CMS

Hootsuite: Schedule Posts for Twitter, Instagram and more.

Buffer: Buffer makes it super easy to share any page you’re reading.

Pixabay: Over 630000 high quality photos, illustrations, and vector graphics. Free for commercial use.

Right Relevance: Discover fresh relevant content to your interests, save interesting articles, follow influential experts.

Skype: We use it mostly to communicate with clients and our remote team.

MailChimp: Easily manage email campaigns.

Canva: Canva makes design simple for everyone. Create designs for Web or print: blog graphics etc.

Mittwald: Our hosting provider. The best we ever worked with.

Thank you so much for reading. I am sure that you have also learned some lessons on your path. Share them in the comment section below.

Have a wonderful day!

Jerome Branny

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