When you look for information on how to build a business, you get a lot of advice that sounds like this:
“You need to be on social media!”
“You need to start a podcast!”
“Do you have a YouTube channel yet?”
“Don’t forget about SEO!”
There’s a name for the place entrepreneurs get stuck when they follow this kind of advice. It’s called Marketing Tactical Hell. You chase tactic after tactic, hoping this one is The One that will get you off the hamster wheel and move you closer to the business you see in your head.
But tactics come and go. What you need to build and grow a successful business goes deeper than this social media platform or that email marketing tool. What you need are answers to three basic questions:
- Who are my customers?
- What do they want from me?
- How do I know that my idea will work?
At GrowthLab, we’ve helped thousands of entrepreneurs find answers to these questions and build businesses of their own:
- Like Rachel Norman, who turned a parenting blog into an online business that let her quit her job and spend more time with her kids.
- And John Fawkes, who built an online coaching business that gives him the freedom to travel the world and run his business at the same time.
- And Matt Jager, who conquered his fear of selling and launched the wellness website he’d dreamed of building for years.
In this post, I’m going to give you an overview of the steps they followed to get there — and show you what you need to do next to start down the path of building a business yourself.
Step #1: Identify a meaningful problem you’re uniquely positioned to solve
Step #2: Get to know your would-be customers (and I mean really know them)
Step #3: Create content that solves a problem better than anything else out there
Step #4: Get your content in front of the people you’ve created it to help
Step #5: Build relationships and grow your audience
Step #6: Create and sell your product
Step #1: Find a meaningful problem you’re uniquely positioned to solve
It’s amazing how many different — and sometimes flat-out crazy — ways people find to make money online.
If they can make multiple figures with cute dog pictures and nimble opposable thumbs, you can definitely do it by building a business that genuinely helps people.
And that’s what the best businesses do: they solve problems and answer questions that are meaningful enough to people that they’re not just willing to pay money for the answers — they’re happy to.
(Yes, those are all real businesses. Want more examples? Here are a few dozen.)
We all have at least one business idea like this in us: something that we know how to do that other people wish they could do, and would be happy to pay for. It’s just a matter of figuring out what our “thing” is.
At GrowthLab, the exercise we have students complete to find their “thing” is called Idea Mapping. It’s an exercise designed to help answer two essential questions:
- What skills and knowledge do I already have?
- Which of those skills and pieces of knowledge would people be willing and able to pay for?
ACTION STEP: You can complete the first step of our Idea Mapping exercise right now. Take 20 minutes and come up with as many answers as you can to these four questions:
- What skills and knowledge do I have?
- What do my friends say I’m great at?
- What do I do on Saturday morning?
- What challenges have I overcome?
When you’re done, you might have four answers, you might have 15 answers. Somewhere among them is the answer to the real question:
What can I offer that customers would be willing and able to pay for?
Helpful link: What’s the best way to find a business idea?
Step #2: Get to know your would-be customers (and I mean really know them)
So you’ve found an idea. The next step is to create a product, throw up a quick website, and watch the sales roll in, right?
Jumping straight from “I have an idea” to “Here is a product, how do I sell it?” is a one-way ticket to the Marketing Tactical Hell we talked about up top.
Say it with us: Life’s too short to waste time building a business that no one cares about.
Fortunately, there’s a simple way to avoid this trap: before you create a single video or write a single line of copy, spend time actually getting to know your customers.
Here at the ‘Lab, the word we use to describe this process is Immersion, and it’s the burning hot sun around which our entire approach to business-building revolves.
Through the Immersion Strategy, we coach our students to dig as deep and learn as much as possible about the people they want to help — before they commit a single hour to building or writing anything.
Along the way, they answer questions like:
- Where do my customers hang out online? Where are they currently getting their information about the topic I want to cover?
- What answers are my customers looking for? What are their hopes, dreams, desires, and fears when it comes to this topic?
- How does my audience talk about this topic? What are the exact words they use when they’re talking to their closest friends?
Watch our CEO, Ramit Sethi, walk through the exact steps he uses to research new ideas.
Why do we put so much emphasis on immersion? Because taking the time to get to know your customers on this deeper level NOW — what they want, what they think, how they talk — is an investment that will pay off again and again once you are ready to move forward with building your business.
It’s how you write blog posts and emails that make readers feel like you’re reading their minds. It’s how you write sales copy that gets people to thank you for selling to them — even if they’re not ready to buy (yet). Most importantly, it’s how you create a product you know your customers actually want and need.
Which is how you get responses like this:
In short, it’s how you build a business that goes beyond selling products and makes a meaningful difference to your customers.
It’s how you create customers for life.
ACTION STEP: Take 20 minutes and poke around in a subreddit related to a topic you’re interested in and see what you notice. What questions are people asking? What language do they use to talk about it?
Helpful link: Check out our post on using Reddit to validate an online course idea for a step-by-step runthrough.
Step #3: Create content that solves your audience’s problem better than anyone else
Okay. You’ve done a Vulcan mind meld and become one with your audience: their hopes, their fears, their desires, their obstacles. NOW you’re ready to start selling to them … right?
People aren’t going to buy your online course or sign up for your coaching program because of an ad they saw on Facebook. Why should they trust you? They have no idea who you are!
Before you can start selling to your audience, you need to convince them that you’re worth listening to — and buying from — in the first place.
To do that, you need to create what we at GrowthLab call Remarkable Content.
Remarkable content is content that solves your audience’s problem better than anything else out there. It’s content that helps you stand out from a thousand other bloggers or vloggers who are talking about the same thing that you are.
Most importantly of all, remarkable content is how you build a relationship of trust with your audience.
Here’s how it works:
- You create a piece of content — could be a blog post, a YouTube video, a worksheet, anything — that’s specifically geared to help solve a problem your audience has.
- Someone takes the advice in your content, implements it in their lives — and gets the results they were looking for.
- That person thinks to themselves, “Hey — that was pretty great! I better follow this person and see what else they can help me with.”
You’ll repeat this three-step process — 1. Discovery, 2. Proof of value, 3. Continued engagement — again and again as you work toward growing your audience. Creating a few pieces of rock star content that you know your audience wants upfront will add some much-needed stability to the process.
ACTION STEP: Go find a piece of content that you got huge amounts of value out of recently. Could be a blog post you read about personal finance, or a video you watched on how to better organize your closet. Rewatch or reread that content, and take notes:
- What stands out to you about that content?
- What did you learn from it?
- How is the content structured to make that information make sense?
Paying this kind of attention to the content you consume, how it works and why, is an under-appreciated skill — but it’s one that will pay off big time once you’re ready to start creating content of your own.
Helpful link: The Ultimate Guide to Remarkable Content
Step #4: Get your content in front of the people you’ve created it for
It’s not enough to create remarkable content. You have to get it in front of the people you’ve created it to help. That’s right: I’m talking about self-promotion.
Authentic self-promotion is grounded in the relationship of trust that you’ve built with your audience. It never asks for value (money) without giving away more value first.
When you practice authentic self-promotion, you don’t have to worry about coming off as sleazy, or your customers yelling at you for “selling out.”
In fact, if you get really good at it, you may get to see something no sleazebag salesperson will see in a million years: customers who actually thank you for selling to them.
Helpful link: What to do if you’re afraid of “selling out”
As for where all of this non-scammy, non-sleazy authentic self-promotion should be happening?
Ideally, you’d be doing it all through your own channels — your website, your blog, whatever social media platforms you decide to invest in. But let’s be real: in the early days, when your site is getting barely a trickle of traffic, you’re going to need a little help getting the views you need.
Fortunately, there’s a solution: Look for places your customers already are, and find a way to be there, too.
Here’s an example: When our CEO, Ramit Sethi, was looking to increase traffic to this very website, he guest posted for Tim Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Workweek. Tim was a well-known figure in the online business space. Guest posting on his site gave Ramit the opportunity to flex his knowledge and insight, and let Tim’s built-in audience of aspiring entrepreneurs know, “Hey! I’ve had some experience with this, and I have some ideas that are worth checking out!”
Guest posting is our personal favorite strategy here, but there are some other strategies that could work just as well. Things like:
- Appearing as a guest on a podcast your audience listens to
- Posting on Instagram with a hashtag your audience follows
- Speaking at an event or a conference that your target customers attend
I know what you’re probably thinking: “Wait a second — podcasts and Instagram? I thought you said we didn’t need that stuff!”
The point is not that tactics like podcasting or Instagram can’t be useful. It’s just that starting there is putting the cart before the horse.
If you take the time to talk to your audience and ask them where they usually go for information on your topic, you won’t have to guess where your audience is — they’ll tell you.
ACTION STEP: Make a list of all of the people out there who are writing/talking/posting about the topic you want to talk about. Cast as wide of a net as possible, and hold on to this list: it’ll come in handy down the line!
- YouTube channels
- Instagram accounts
Helpful link: How to drive traffic to your website
Step #5: Build relationships and grow your audience
So you’ve created content. You’ve gotten it featured on a site, and it’s converting into nice traffic back to your website, thanks to a few handy links in your blog post plus a shoutout to your business in your byline.
You’ve got people’s attention. But getting their attention isn’t enough. Once you have it, you have to keep it.
Our favorite way to do that? With an email list.
You’re probably familiar with email lists. You may even belong to a few (dozens) of them yourself. Some of those emails you may like, some may annoy you. A few (a very few) may even make you excited to open them.
There’s a reason that email is the go-to strategy for so many entrepreneurs and brands looking to grow their audience. It’s because signing up for an email list takes commitment. It takes someone making a conscious decision that they find enough value in what you offer that they want to keep hearing from you — and they’re willing to let you control when and how often that happens.
Not only that: building an email list is how you grow beyond one-on-one encounters with customers and start working toward relationships that work at scale.
With consistency, discipline, and a little patience, you can build up your list to a point where you have relationships with dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of people who care what you have to say and want to hear from you.
And that’s good news, because once you have an audience that’s engaged and ready to hear from you, you’re ready for Step #6.
ACTION STEP: Make a list of email lists you subscribe to that you actually like. Ask yourself: “What do I like about these emails? What is it that makes me want to click and read what this person or this brand has to say?” Take notes.
Helpful link: The top 3 email list building strategies.
Step #6: Create & sell your product
Let’s recap. At this point you’ve:
- Found a meaningful problem that you can solve
- Spent time getting to deeply know your audience
- Created tons of remarkable content that your audience loves
- Gotten that content published in places your audience can find it
- Built an audience that trusts you and values your perspective
If that feels like you’ve done a ton of work already, and you haven’t even built a product yet, that’s intentional.
This is what we at GrowthLab call “frontloading the work.” When you do everything else we’ve talked about first, building and selling a product kind of becomes the easy part.
How do you build a product? Compile all of the most popular, useful content you’ve created together, and you have an e-book. Turn that content into video, and you have an online course.
How do you sell a product? Just send an email to the people on your list — who are already following you and have already proven that they’re interested in hearing what you have to say — and tell them: “I have this thing. It costs $50. Here’s a link to the sales page where you can buy it.”
And here’s the thing: if you’ve done the work, and followed the steps we outlined above, somebody will buy. Maybe not a ton of people, at least not at first. But someone out there will.
And when someone is willing to take out their wallet and pay you for something that you created for them, guess what?
You have built a business.
Put it all together
We’ve seen it firsthand: when you apply these steps and actually build the business that you’re thinking about building, the results can be life-changing.
“I paid of my student loans” life-changing.
“I quit a job I didn’t love” life-changing.
You don’t need a credential. You don’t need permission. You don’t even need an idea (we can help with that).
What you need is the steps we outlined above — and a framework that helps you put them into practice.
That’s what I want to offer you now.
Our free Ultimate Guide to Starting an Online Business has given thousands of students the foundation to launch and grow their own successful online businesses.
In the guide, you’ll get:
- Proof that you can have a successful online business
- Online business models to start a low-cost, high-profit business
- How to become the type of entrepreneur who makes 6 figures online
- How to get beyond “online business ideas” and find YOUR online business idea
- Simple tools to make your first $10,000
You can get your online business started using just the information in this guide. The only question is: will you?