Have enough of your day job? Just got fired? Or you just want to do something else as your current situation doesn't fulfil you? You are in the right place. In 2013, I was working as PhD student in computer science, and whereas I could probably have a great career in the field, I knew if it was not the right path for me, especially because of the lack of freedom & potential for income. So I decided to start generating some online income, and never looked back since then :)
One question that I hear a lot when people want to start an online business is: what to actually do? How to get started? To help you out with those questions, I compiled in this article my 5 top ideas to start an online business in 2020. And those are not just random ideas - I am actually currently running (or used to run) at least one online business for each of those ideas, and with success. I sorted them from the fastest business idea to set (and therefore the quickest way to create some online income), to most complex ideas that have more of a long-term potential. You will see that some of those ideas sounds quite generic, but for each of those I also added some details about how to do them the right way, and not to get trapped into some 'hype' business. Let's dive in!
Do freelancing/consulting work
The first business idea that I always recommend for someone that want to start out & generate money immediately is to do freelancing. Indeed, not only you will get money from clients as soon as you work on some project, but it's also the best way to directly apply whatever skill you already have and generate online income from it. For example, I started my online activities with freelancing in electronics, which was my main field of expertise as an engineer. I quickly found some clients on Upwork, and started working on some projects for them, and quite quickly I was able to generate enough income to sustain myself as I didn't have any other income anymore.
The great advantage of such an online business is that you can get started right away and don't have to learn new skills to actually get started. The main drawback is of course that you need to exchange your time for money, which is not ideal. However, you can always grow this business idea into an agency, where you actually assign the work to other people, making it more passive.
To actually get started, you can easily get started with websites like Upwork or Fiverr, with the goal of working directly with clients in the future. There a lot of competition on those platforms, however you can (and need!) stand out from the crowd by doing two things: niching down, and focusing on the premium market. Niching down because you need to be perceived as an expert in your field to be different from all the other people that offer a broad range of services. Also, targeting the premium market means more bucks per hour worked, but also working with better clients that won't complain at every extra minute you spend on a project.
A warning however about all the 'experts' that want you to sell 'coaching' services: whereas this is similar in essence to consulting, usually those people selling the courses are making much more money than their students, whereas they didn't actually do any coaching themselves ever.
Create an honest affiliate site
Affiliate marketing usually has a bad connotation, which is why I really wanted to include the word 'honest' in the title. If done right, it can definitely be the base of a great online business. And by right, I mean by creating a site about some domain that you are passionate with, and by recommending products, services or software that you actually use or like. One example is my own website that you are reading at the moment: as an investor, I share my experience with some platforms that I invest on, and publish reviews about them with affiliate links. As it's all platforms where I invest in myself with my own money, I have no problems recommending them to other people. That's affiliate marketing done right. You can find more information on how to do affiliate marketing the right way in this article.
The counter example is an affiliate site which is created just to make money based on some Google search data, which content created by people that don't have a clue about what they write about and product they recommend. Don't do that. While you might see some temporary success, it's not a long-term play for an online business.
An affiliate site has the great advantage to be mostly passive - apart from updating your reviews over time and creating new content, those websites are basically generating money by themselves. One drawback is that you are mostly dependent on organic traffic at the start (traffic from Google for example), but that can be changed over time by developing an email list (which creates traffic that you can control).
Getting started with an affiliate site is actually quite easy - pick a niche (I will publish an article about that alone in a near future), and start writing content about the topic, recommending products or services that you use yourself and are happy with.
Especially for this business idea, don't stop here: having an affiliate site is a great base for creating other sources of income, like selling your own digital products, selling some physical product yourself, or building some software that solves a problem for your audience. And that's exactly my three next ideas :)
Create & sell your own online course
That's clearly one of my favourite, as this is still at the moment my #1 way to generate income online. This business simply consists in monetizing information in the form of a course, usually made of several videos along with other teaching material, and packaged in a way to teach some essential skill to students. The most important with running such a business is to find something that not only will be valuable to your students, but also a topic where you know what you are talking about. It can be a great addition to an affiliate site, once you identified some topic want to learn more about. For example, I made my affiliate website about DIY electronics evolve into a site teaching people how to build their own electronics projects via videos courses.
As for all business ideas in this list, you need to always focus on the premium market in your niche: you will have better margins, but also better students to work with. I also wrote another article in which I share the lessons I learned about selling online courses.
One thing that I really love about this business idea is that you can just create a course once, and then sell it over and over, of course by updating it as needed. One slight drawback is that you need to sell courses over and over every month to generate income, as one student only pays you once. This can also be solved by making your course evolve into a membership, with new content added regularly and access to a private community, where you can then charge your customers every month.
Creating your own online course business is actually not that complicated. The most important is to pick the right topic of for your first course (I am currently preparing an article on that), and then create your online courses website so you can sell it to students and allow them to watch the course. Shameless plug, I really recommend using SiteEngine for that (which is software I created, and that is running all my sites). It has everything you need into one software, like creating a website, accepting payment from students, and allowing them to follow your courses. And you can try it for free :)
Note that I didn't include eBooks here because based on my own experience, they don't have the required margins to actually grow the business using ads. However, I can be wrong - so feel free to experiment with books as well :)
Create a dropshipping store (the right way!)
Creating your own physical product can really be an interesting process, but also involves a lot of costs of product design, manufacturing and storage. One alternative to that is dropshipping: having the manufacturer of the product, or an intermediary, ship the product directly to your customers. However, as for affiliate marketing, dropshipping usually have a bad reputation, making many people say 'dropshipping doesn't work' or 'dropshipping is dead'. Well, the problem is that many people, following the advice of 'experts' in the field, create low-quality stores selling low-quality items from Aliexpress, usually at many times the price, and with crazy shipping times. Don't do that, it doesn't work.
What you should do instead, and that's true for all the ideas in this list, is to focus on a premium experience for the client. Great products, in a given niche, working with good suppliers in your market, with decent delivery times. Add to that a great store design and an excellent customer service, and you have the basics of a winning store.
Getting started with this idea is all about picking the right niche (I will publish another article about it), and also picking the right software to create your store. Shameless plug again, I really recommend using SiteEngine to create your store, as it has everything you need from building the store pages & products, creating funnels, and even dealing with support tickets. Plus you can also create your store in just one click using one of the eCommerce store templates.
Running a dropshipping store also has a great potential for mostly passive income. It does require more work that other business ideas on this page as you have to deal with actually shipping products, but all of it can be given to a virtual assistant or completely automated.
Build a software that solves a specific problem
That is my #1 favorite online business, but also one of the hardest to start & to run. But if done right, it can be the most interesting & profitable online business you can have. One of my favourite way to get an idea for a software is to actually 'scratch my own itch'. Meaning to solve a problem that I actually have, and therefore that probably many people in my audience have as well. For example, I always struggled to find a way to efficiently track my stock market & crowdlending platforms investments. This is what lead me to create TrackInvest, a software that do exactly that. It solved my own problem in the field, and is now also used by more than 500 people of my audience.
One great advantage of running a software business is that once you have it created, you can just sell access to it over and over, with people paying you every month to use it. The main drawback is you need to constantly maintain it, not only to add new features & improve existing ones to stay competitive, but also to make sure it runs correctly and still delivers the right services to your users.
Starting a software business is not the easiest thing to do - you need to have a good idea for a software that people will buy (I talk about that one earlier), and then actually build it. This second part is the trickiest, especially if you don't have any coding skills or money to fund a development team. In all cases, I recommend getting some basic coding skills as it will allow you to code it yourself if you choose to go this path, or to guide your coding team efficiently (and avoid getting billed for useless coding). One option to get started is also to use an existing platform to develop a plugin or app for - for example WordPress or Shopify. Not only those are usually easier to develop than a full-fledge software, but also you immediately get access to potential customers that are already using the platform.
That's already the end of this list - I really hope it will help you start your first online business. Of course if you have any questions or suggestions don't hesitate to leave them in the comments!