The Ultimate Guide to Starting and Growing an Online Business

Work from anywhere, choose your own hours, and live life on Your own terms.  Start an online business that pays you while you sleep, take vacations, or spend time with family and friends.

It might sound like a pipe dream, but its not.

This is the freedom online business provides.

You don't need to have a Doctorate or be a graduate of Harvard.

With just a little startup money and a validated business idea; you can create an online business that operates 24 hours a day on autopilot.

All you have to be able to do is solve people's problems or fulfill a need and you can be on your way to financial freedom.

You can be a personal trainer who wants to sell your fitness training course online, a Stay at Home Mom who wants to teach people how to be a better mother; the list goes on and on.

You can turn skills you already have into an online business, then grow it into so much more.

The most important thing is you don't have to be an expert.  You don't have to have a degree.  You just have to be able to communicate and follow a few important rules and the world is your oyster.

I know.

I've done it, am still doing it, and I have shown thousands of others how to do the same.


Who am I?

I'm Mike Johnson and I am the Owner of the Starter Academy.  I am the creator of online courses like the Auto Blog Blueprint and Profit Marketer (with over 50,000 students worldwide).  I have co-created over 40 WordPress Plugins and Themes as a part of my business and over 20 more as a part of (both businesses were grown and sold at a substantial profit).

For the last 10 years I've helped thousands of students start and grow their own online business.

Why Should You Start an Online Business?

I started my first blog in 2003.  It was called and I blogged about how I was able to make money online using automated blogs, Google Adsense advertising, and automated traffic tools.

It wasn't until 2009 when I created my first online product.  I was being begged by followers of my blog to create a course to show them how to do what I did.

I created and launched my course, the Auto Blog Blueprint, to my Blog Subscribers.  I sold it for a measly $17 and I sold over 500 copies.

My now closed Auto Blog Blueprint product sold almost 50,000 copies from 2010 to 2016.

In 2010, with better preparation, Affiliates, and a plan; I released the Auto Blog Blueprint 2.0 for just $27 and sold over 12,000 copies in the first 24 hours of release.  

After paying affiliates 50% Commissions, I still had made almost $200,000 in profit.

This business has grown into multiple online businesses over the years with over $2.4 Million in profits.

This all started from a small $17 online course.  I don't have a college degree.  I'm a Military Veteran who started all of this after I got out of the U.S. Army.

I just loved computers and tested, tried, and discovered.  

The point here is it doesn't take a lot of expertise or an expensive product to start an online business.  It just takes an idea, motivation, and a detailed plan of action.

I had to figure this all out on my own (read more about me here).

Luckily, you don't have to start the way I did.

What You Need to Know

Before you start, it's important to know what NOT to do.

It seems like there are 1000 blogs out there trying to tell you How to Start a Blog or How to Start an online business.

Most have nothing to show for it.

A Blog is NOT a business.

Blogging is not a business.

Can Your blog be the core of your business?

Yes, it definitely can be.  It can be the main conduit for your entire business.

But understand, just starting a blog, posting content, and promoting affiliate links is not a business and you will most likely find out the hard way if you travel that route.

Successful online businesses are built with well defined monetization systems, content plans, products, and highly targeted audiences.

Don't fall into the trap of get rich quick schemes.

Follow this guide and you will learn the right way to start and grow an online business, not just a blog.

Online Business Models You Can Start Now

There are a lot of Online Business models you can use. 

There are only a few I would recommend.

There are a lot of gimmicks out there and even those which might make you a few hundred dollars for minimal work won't last and don't qualify as "Online Businesses".

Quick money making schemes aren't sustainable and any loopholes found in social media or other marketplaces are soon filled and profits vanish as fast as they begin.

This is why with any business you start online you must look at its long term viability and not just what can it do for you today.

When you build your business the right way, you can guarantee long term profits.

I personally like to know that I'm going to get paid every month

It makes it much easier to pay the bills and do things with my family without worrying what's going to happen next month.

That's why I like to put all my systems on autopilot, but more on that later.

Let's check out the online business models I do recommend.

Online Business Model #1: Content Marketing

Content Marketing might just sound like Blogging.  I can tell you, its not.  

Content Marketing requires the development of a dedicated audience who comes to love your content and/ or rely on your expertise in a very specific niche.

You then need to provide that content on a consistent basis, constantly evolving and providing for the needs of your audience.

There are multiple ways you can go with this business model, but the important question is this:

How do you make money consistently, and more importantly, reliably?

With Content Marketing your two primary sources of profits are usually Advertising or Affiliate Marketing.  

Both require a lot of traffic to generate the kind of passive income you would call reliable.

This isn't as simple as just recommending products or placing Google Adsense banners on your site.

There needs to be a dedicated plan of action for it to work.  

Content Marketing is great for people who like to write and provide expertise in a specific niche without the need to create products or provide Customer Support.

Plus, with this business model you can run your business from anywhere in the world!

Here at the Starter Academy, one of the 2 main tracks we teach is the Content Blogger track.

Want to learn how to be a Content Blogger?

Keep reading.

Here are a few Examples of Great Content Marketing Sites:

  • Smart Passive Income - Pat Flynn's Blog (he's starting to develop his own products now too)
  • Buzzfeed - Pure Advertising based Content Marketing site
  • Grilled - One of my Content Marketing test sites


No products needed.  Just promote other people's products and product high quality content on a regular basis.  Create simple affiliate funnels and watch the cash roll in.


Income can fluctuate a lot based on promotions and the effectiveness of your content.  SEO and Social Media Advertising are required to get the amount of traffic required for high end profits.

Online Business Model #2: Ecommerce

Selling physical products online is a tried and true business model.  

Look at Amazon, they have definitely perfected it.

If you are just starting out, this can be quite a handful.

First you need to find the right niche market to jump into.

Trying to sell everything at once like Amazon is very tough and cost prohibitive.

First, you need to source your product inventory and this could cost thousands of dollars to setup unless you start with a Dropshipping model first.

You then need to setup an online storefront.

If you do, then I highly recommend using Shopify.

They have everything you need to get started.

I used to recommend using WooCommerce, but Shopify simply has everything and you don't need to be a technical expert to use it.

Of course, with selling physical products you also have to consider the impact of providing Customer Service; dealing with refunds, returns, and chargebacks.

Of all the online business models, this one is probably the most expensive to start and depending on what you sell, can take a lot of sales to make money.

Remember, you have to buy inventory and then you only make a percentage of each sale.

With all that goes into the Ecom business model (and we haven't even talked about marketing), it is not my first recommendation if you do not have any online business experience.

Here are a few Examples of Great Ecommerce Sites:

  • MTO Battery - Small, but profitable Shopify store selling high end batteries and battery rebuilds
  • Ugmonk - A Simple T-Shirt and clothing Shopify store.
  • KKW Beauty - Kim Kardashian West's hugely popular beauty store is powered by Shopify.


Can be run from your garage if needed.  Ecom stores can be scaled and grown easily from a small inventory to large based on customer growth.  Can be managed easily through SAAS tools like Shopify.


Can be tough to start depending on the market and inventory costs can make it hard to scale until you begin generating substantial revenue.  Ecom requires more technical and business knowledge to start than other models.

Online Business Model #3: Software

Selling software online can be extremely profitable.

It can come at a price though.

Selling software requires either personal programming and development expertise on your part or through someone you hire to provide this technical expertise for you.

Normally though, this requires a team unless your software projects are small.

Software, plugins, themes, etc., all require a lot of time to develop, but they also require a lot of maintenance and upkeep.

Upgrades, patches, and other fixes are always required for software projects and the Customer Service burden can be massive.

Whether it is a Software as a Service (SAAS) or something like WordPress Plugins and Themes; you will need to understand that the time required for the continual development of your products will likely never end.

I have a great deal of experience with this.

With my business partner Daniel Waser and our development team, we developed a business called (which we sold a few years ago).

In this business, we created over 40 WordPress plugins and themes.

This business was extremely profitable, but there is a reason I haven't gone back to development since.  

I worked 16-18 hour days and the Customer Support was never ending.

One of our biggest mistakes was having so many different products.

If I ever get back into software, it will focus solely on 1 product and will most likely be a SAAS offering.

Here are a few Examples of Great Software Sites:

  • WPSocial - My WordPress Plugin and Theme software business (We sold this in 2015)
  • SENukeTNG - An SEO Software business running online since 2010.
  • OptinMonster - One of the most popular Lead Generation SAAS products available online.


Can be extremely profitable.  Especially if ran as a monthly membership.  Allows for singular focus if directed at a specific target market. Provides for long term stability as customers will look for continued updates and new releases.


Can take a lot of time to develop and takes a large degree of technical expertise (or a team).  Software requires a large amount of Customer Service, updates, fixes, and upgrades.  The Pros of this can also be negatives if things go wrong.

Online Business Model #4: Information Products

Selling information (digital) products online might be the last online business model I recommend on this list, but it is the best of the bunch.

Information Products can be created easily.  

In fact, you can create an eBook with Microsoft Word in less than an hour and sell it online.

There's no inventory and the only development cost is the time you put into creating the product.

It can be Video, Audio, ebooks, Whitepapers, checklists,....

You name it.  

Information products can be sold for as little as $1 or for thousands of dollars.

The value depends on the information being provided and the demand for that information.

That is why I focus on Information Products for my business.

Once you create a product, you can sell it for years if the information is still relevant.

The value of the return you get can be incredible.

The biggest hassle you might have is delivering your information.

I like to use Membership sites where I can deliver multiple products, but there are tons of other options for delivery (see below).

As I said above, I sold my Auto Blog Blueprint information product for almost 7 years.  

Yes, I upgraded and updated the product, but that took minimal work on my part.

If you want to start an online business, creating and selling your own Information Product is the best and simplest option.

Here at the Starter Academy, we call this Track #2.  

We show you how to become a Product Blogger and our Product Blogger Funnel is a one of a kind.

Want the funnel?  

We will get to it soon.

Keep reading.

Here are a few Examples of Great Information Product Sites:

  • - Incredible Guitar Lesson site.  They make thousands each week!
  • BeachBodyonDemand - These guys have parlayed fitness instruction into a multi-million dollar business
  • Adobe InDesign Course - This great free course is used to get people to buy Adobe InDesign Templates.


Can be extremely profitable.  Especially if ran with a monthly membership.  Allows you to build a community of buyers who will buy from you over and over as you develop new products. Great for selling additional affiliate products for added revenue streams.


Can take a certain amount of expertise when creating the products.  Presentation and organizational skills are needed.  Understanding of product purchase and delivery systems needed to sell the products. Can require a lot of Customer Service time.

Are You Ready to start and grow your own online business?  Check out the 4 Online Business Models you should start with here now!

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Defining Business Success

The success or failure of any business venture, regardless of what type or what system is used, begins and ends with YOU.  

In most cases, you are starting your business by yourself.  

No one to tell you what to do, when to work or how hard you should work.  

It can be one of the most gratifying ventures of your entire life.  

It can also be one of the most stressful.

This is why with any business endeavor you embark on you must have passion for it.  

You don't have to be the world foremost authority or expert, but you do have to have the ability to make it happen and an internal motivation for your business to carry you through the good times and the bad.  

You won't work hard on your business if you don't have a true passion for it.  That is why it is important to make sure you follow the guidelines set here before getting started.

Establish a Plan:  Have Purpose and Direction

Success can turn into failure quickly if you do not plan effectively right from the beginning.  Floundering around, trying to create multiple businesses at once, changing direction on what you want to do over and over...this all can keep you from succeeding before you ever even get started​.

This is why you need a solid plan of action.  

By establishing a plan, even if it is just a series of simple goals at first, you will be able to maintain focus.  

If you do not focus on your business and follow a very defined series of business building steps, you are destined to never get anywhere.  

By following your plan and completing each Step (each Goal) you have established for yourself; you can double your chances of success right from the outset.

Ultimately, you need to establish a Plan of Action which focuses on achieving your Primary Business Objective (PBO)​.  

More time than not this objective is achieving sales.  

When you create a plan built around how to maximize your PBO you give your business the focus it requires right from the beginning and this is the crucial part of getting started with your business.

Defining Your Market & Demand

Once you have identified the business you want to create, it is crucial that your business has demand.  

  • Do people want it?  
  • Do people need it?  If yes, how much?  
  • Is it a small, medium, or large market?  

If there is little to no demand, then chances are you will not succeed.  

Demand creates traffic, leads, and sales and ultimately this is what every business requires for success.  

Most businesses on the web go into business without ever knowing their target market or if there is any demand for their niche product or service.  

This is a recipe for disaster.  

Just because you THINK its good idea, doesn't mean it is.  

Hoping something will work is not considered a solid business idea.  

Understand your Market and the Demand for whatever you want to bring to that market and if it meets the criteria you set for yourself, then your chances of success increase by 200%.

That's why we focus on developing our audience and market before we even think about starting a blog or website.

I have a system I use to do this.

We'll get to that soon, but first...

Establish Your Brand

When your business is easily relate-able to a specific niche or target and has identifiable focus, you also allow yourself to create a memorable Brand around it.  

Branding creates name recognition.  

When people recognize your Brand (Business Name) and relate it to your business, this will bring you more business then you would have otherwise.  

When you try to be everything to everyone this tends to be a lot harder.

That's why we want our brand to stand out by creating a USP.

A Unique Selling Proposition: Selling YOU!

Your Business Needs a USP (Unique Selling Proposition).  

When you establish your business it is always important to set yourself apart from the competition.  

Even if your business is identical to other businesses.  

When you make your business stand out, you also create interest, leads, and sales you might not have otherwise.  

When your business is instantly recognized by just its name or your name, you have created Brand recognition.  

A big part of that is having a effective and powerful USP.

A unique selling propositions is this:  a original way of offering or presenting your business or product which separates you from the competition.

There are tons of businesses who might not be that great, but their USP makes them stand out and drives buyers to them.

What can you do to make your business stand out and not just be another boring replica of acurrent business?

This is what you need to be thinking.

Think about that for awhile.

Then check out other sites in your niche and see what you can do to make your business stand out from the crowd.

I bet you have a couple great ideas already.

Confused?  Check out the links below for more information.

Now let's get into the meat of this.

The 5 Essential Elements of a Successful Online Business

It doesn't matter what kind of business model you choose from the list above, all of them require five (5) specific elements in order to be successful.

  • Product or Service
  • An Audience to Sell to (Market)
  • A Website or Blog to Sell Your Product or Service
  • An Automated Sales System (or Funnel) to put Sales on Autopilot
  • A Way to Deliver the Product Automatically

I'm going to go through each one of these and highlight what is required for each.

These are the key elements required if you want to start and grow an online business.

With each comes its own hurdles and with some, the technique or method you use can make or break your business.

We're going to start getting to the stuff you really need to know.

Are you ready?

Let's get started.

Step 1:  The Product (or Service)

Before you can start any business you need to have a Product.

The products you sell can come in multiple forms as we discussed with the Business Models in the previous section.

They can be a:

  • Physical Product
  • Digital Product
  • Blog Content (*Yes, this can be a Product)
  • Service You Provide (Advertising, Consulting, etc.)

Selecting what Product you want to sell can be one of the most difficult parts of starting any business.

Finding the right Business Idea is centered around the Product or Products you want to sell.

Finding the right Product Idea is the cornerstone of all businesses (not just Online Businesses).

Finding Your Profitable Product Idea

You can always start by simply doing a Google Search for "online business ideas" or "online product ideas".  

The problem is, these Google searches won't give you the most important metric you need.


There are thousands upon thousands of product and business "ideas" out there.

The problem is, they aren't all profitable.

There are 2 Key things every Product Idea requires:

  • Fit (does this product Fit You)
  • Validation (can this product be profitable?)


The most important part of an online business is You.

Without you there is no business.

So when you select a Product Idea, you have to be able to run that business.

You need 2 Things in order to do this:

  • Skills (some type of skill or expertise that allows you to excel in this business)
  • Passion (you have to be passionate about the Product)

More importantly, your skill and passion need to come together with the Product Idea.

Without those 2 things, you are simply wasting your time.


Without some type of skill you will not have the required expertise to run the business.

This can be as simple as basic business knowledge, fitness knowledge, Tax Knowledge, etc.

But you need to know how to do something which will affect your business in a positive way.

Especially if you are going to create online courses or run a blog in a specific niche.

Then, if you don't have a true passion for the business you are entering into, you will get tired or bored with it and it won't succeed because of your lost interest.

It happens every day.

This is why you need these 2 things to succeed.

But even more, you also need:


What is Product Validation?

Validation is the process where you go through a series of checks to see if there is an audience and market for what you want to sell.

This can be done in several ways.

  • Surveys (you can send out surveys to see what people want in a specific niche)
  • Data Mining (you can check for interest or demand in a niche where a similar product is already being sold)
  • Keyword Research (you can search using the Google Keyword tool to check for demand)
  • Amazon Research (you can search Amazon and check through products and product reviews to search for specific Customer complaints, needs, wants, etc.)
  • Facebook Audience Insights

Once you've used at least 2-3 of the methods above, you should have a good idea if the product idea you have has potential.

There is only one true to way to Validate a Product Idea 100%.

That is by running a test.

You can use Surveys to test for potential in a market, but the best test is to actually sell your idea.

You can run ads on Facebook or do some other type of small sample testing.

It needs to be highly targeted towards your market (which we will talk about in the Audience section below) or you won't get the test results you need.

By running a test where people actually buy, you will find out the true potential of your product.

When you can identify a Product Idea where you have both FIT and Validation, then you will have found a winner.

When you can identify a Product Idea where you have both FIT and Validation, then you will have found a winner. #productidea #fit #validation

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Finding Long Term Product Profitability

I said above that you need to have Fit and Validation to find a successful Product Idea (and that's true).

What you also have to consider is Product Profitability.

In the Online Business Models section, we talked a little about this.

The amount of profit that can be made is different from one product to the next.

Each business model has its pluses and minuses and products are no different.

Some products you create might be extremely profitable and some may not.

The other caveat to this is some products you sell might only be profitable for a short period of time, while others may sell for a long time.

These are the types of things you need to think about when building your online business.

Long Term Profits vs. Short Term Profits.

Both are ok, but they also need to be expected.

More importantly, you need to have a plan for each.

None of this matters if you don't have an Audience who wants or needs your product.

Without knowing that a market exists with a large amount of potential customers, all this work can be for nothing.

Let me show you.

Step 2:  The Audience

I know this says "Step 2", but as we already discussed above, you shouldn't develop a product unless you have product FIT and Validation.

And the validation part requires an Audience

I mean, let's face it, without people to sell to who actually want what you're selling; everything else is a waste of time.


By doing proper research before we ever even think about starting a blog or building a website, we can have a pretty good idea if our product will sell or not.

Sometimes identifying a market and an audience to sell to is easy.

You can find cracks in existing markets all the time simply by being involved in community sites, forums, Facebook Groups, etc.

We've all had that lightbulb moment when we say, holy shit, that would be a great idea!

Product A has this, and Product B has that, but neither have THAT!

When you find THAT, moving into a market can be really easy.

Unfortunately, that doesn't happen very often.

That's why I always use a 2 Step Process to find and develop my Audience before I start any new Product.

Step 1:  The Customer Avatar

A Customer Avatar is basically a customer profile.

By researching interest in a market, you can come up with some basic data which will tell you who the perfect customer is for your product.

I like to use Facebook Audience Insights, Google Trends, and to find the basic information I need to find my perfect Customer.

Here's my short list of criteria:

  • Is my perfect Customer Male, Female, or both?
  • What age is my perfect Customer?
  • What are their current needs and how will my product take care of them?
  • What is their pain and how will my product solve that pain?
  • What are their goals?
  • What current obstacles are keeping them from getting what they want and need now? 
  • What are the interests, hobbies, and websites my perfect customer has/ visits?

If you are developing a product, you should be able to answer at least some of these questions initially without any research.

You can run surveys in Facebook Ads to audience interests which meet the criteria you set here to fine tune your Customer Avatar, but in the beginning I am always concerned with one very important detail.

How many?

How many people meet the criteria which match my perfect Customer Avatar? 

Using Facebook Audience Insights, I use the 500K benchmark.

If there are at least 500,000 people who meet the basic criteria I've found, then the product has a potential market.

I then use the Google Adwords Keyword Tool to find highly defined interest in what my product provides.

If there are over 1000 searches each month in Google for my base product keyword, then it has potential.

If there are more keywords which add up to 10K or more, I get into product development mode.

This is a baseline.

It shows you potential.

Nothing is ever guaranteed.

Its a hell of a good way to start though.

Developing your Audience doesn't stop here though.

This is only Step 1.

Buyer Personas

Step 2:  The Buyer Persona

If you have been around this game, you might be saying, "but Mike, Buyer Personas are just another way of saying Customer Avatar."

In some circles yes.

Hear me out on this.

When you start out a new business and develop your perfect Customer Avatar, its unproven.

If you research it right you can get pretty close, but the first Customer Avatar you create tends to be general and it speaks like you, sounds like you...

But you want it to speak like your Customer. 

Preferably one of your actual Buyers.

NOTE:  This Guide is being built as you read this.  Updates could come as soon as the next time you refresh this page.  Bookmark this Page now and return often as new updates are forthcoming!  A PDF Version will be available soon.

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