Basic business principles – tips for online startups

Having encountered an increasing number of startups operating more wildly than the most casual of chook raffles, it would seem basic business principles aren’t as commonsense as I’d presumed.

Just had another businessperson ring my landline, leave a message and say ‘ring me back on this number’ without leaving their phone number. The same business that wanted me to email credit card details to pay a bill recently (that they were then going to email on to another person. They need to read their merchant facility provider’s fine print, before they end up in hot water.)

Perhaps I’ve learned far more by being a mailorder customer than I realised (yes I was doing vital business research over many years, when looking through mailorder catalogues, in print and online.)

Standard business practices exist for sound reasons.  If you are starting up an online business or a niche business selling at markets, get to know these standard practices thoroughly and understand the reasons for their existence.

Then, and only then, you can tweak these standard practices to suit your particular business and your customers, and run a business that will have a chance of surviving in a competitive market.

You might get away with a bodgy business setup when your business is cutting-edge fashionable and new, but as soon as competitors appear – as they will – you’ll be eating their dust if you don’t install fundamental best practices.

Here’s a list of basic online business do’s & don’t’s:

If you’re asking people for money:

  • To stay in a service or retail business long-term you must offer a service or product that is believed to be at least one of these three: (1) genuinely unique; (2) better quality; or (3) cheaper than the competition. The middle attribute – quality – is the brick house. Number 1 & 3 are the straw houses in danger of being blown away any minute.
  • If you don’t give prospective customers confidence (that they’ll get what they expect, it’s reasonable value for money, and have no difficulty sorting out potential after-sale problems), they won’t give you their money.

How do you give prospective customers confidence?

  • Include a decent ‘about’ section on your website.  (And yes, a website will give prospective customers far more confidence than a Facebook page.)  Include names and faces.  Who are you? Why do you do what you do? What do you care about? Explain what you do now AND what you did in the past, if you’ve only been in business a short while.  If you’ve just popped up like a mushroom overnight, with no backstory online anywhere, prospective customers are likely to conclude that you may disappear just as quickly.  Expecting people to buy from a pig in a poke is disrespectful and unreasonable.
  • Include links to other social media platforms, media articles and other mentions of yourself and your business online.  If you don’t have a comprehensive & current LinkedIn profile, get busy and do it.
  • You MUST provide either a landline phone number and/or a street address (and a clear postal address is a must); and/or be findable in the white pages phone directory.  Or expect people to wonder if you’re operating out of the back of your car, with the engine running.  If you’re famous, you don’t need to provide contact details.
  • Research thoroughly before you start, and never stop keeping an eye on what else is on the market. Unless you want to entertain the masses, don’t claim originality or number one status without sound reason.  You’ll simply look like a snake oil seller or like you don’t know what you’re talking about. Hear that sound? That’s people putting their wallets back in their pockets. If I had a dollar for every small business I stumbled upon that was clearly unaware of what else is on the market, I could retire this afternoon. Research!  And keep at it!


  • DO NOT make a website public until it’s checked & complete. You often only get one crack at piquing the interest of internet roamers, and you have just seconds to do it in. ‘Coming soon’ messages are a very effective way to get viewers to leave – & few will have the time or enthusiasm to return.
  • If your spelling or language skills are below par pay someone to write the text. Your website doesn’t have to be a prize-winning novel and there are mistakes on every website, including this one. But a website does have to be interesting, clear and preferably entertaining as well.  It’s your shopfront. It must be good – competition is fierce.

Make it easy to buy from you!

  • You have potential for a viable business if you treat prospective customers with respect.  Remember; they’re doing you a favour, not the other way around. This means you make it as easy as possible for them, you don’t just set things up to suit your personal whims. Unless you’d like to condemn your business to failure, from the outset?

Mailorder business payment setup:

  • Accept debit and credit card payments. Preferably without a surcharge, for Visa & Mastercard (most common & lowest merchant fees).  The amount of times I haven’t bought from someone at a market, simply because they didn’t take credit cards! (Though you can bet your bottom dollar they use credit cards themselves. Hypocrisy is alive and thriving.) It doesn’t take many sales per month to cover the merchant fees, then the rest is profit you’d otherwise have missed out on.  It’s reasonable to conclude that if you aren’t selling enough to cover credit card fees then the only way your cash business will be viable is if you’re avoiding the tax man. (Not how to inspire customer confidence.)
  • Mailorder payments should be processed through a secure (encrypted) server online. DO NOT ASK CUSTOMERS TO EMAIL CREDIT CARD DETAILS TO YOU! Email systems are too easily hacked and your merchant facility provider will NOT approve of you asking customers to email credit card details. Accept credit card orders in person, by mail, and over the phone – unless you’re selling technology, fashion or travel-related services (targeted by fraudsters); in which case it’s wise to make extra checks to ensure cards weren’t stolen.
  • Do accept cheques and money orders – wait until they have cleared through the bank before sending the goods.  Not everybody uses fantastic plastic & you aren’t likely to get many paying this way, anyway.  They may be elderly or the victims of card fraud one too many times.

Communication methods for businesses:

  • Offer more than one means for prospective customers to contact you. Give them options! Never demand that they contact you only via means that some people really don’t like using. Eg by video link systems (eg Skype), uncommon social media apps, etc. We’re all busy. Mastering yet another platform, especially one we’ve deliberately avoided, isn’t how to win friends & influence people that you want to do business with.  (This isn’t to suggest that you use every social media app invented, but at least a couple of the most popular or relevant to your particular market.)
  • Don’t demand that people supply you with their mobile phone number. Give them the option of providing a landline phone number, email address or a common social media account name.


  • There’s around 170,000 words currently in use in the English language. Why so many? No two words have identical meanings. Context also influences meaning. CHOOSE YOUR WORDS CAREFULLY – according to who you’re speaking to (age, male/female, culture, demographics etc), the topic being discussed, and the medium (in person conversation? Phone? Email? Social media?  Formality and interpretation vary.)
  • Ban terms like ‘city slickers’, ‘urbanites’, ‘country bumpkins’ and anything remotely patronising or tainted, such as ‘acceptable’ and ‘entitled’, from your vocabularly. Some words and terms should NEVER be used.
  • If you aren’t confident with words or the exact audience you’re writing for, have someone with experience cast a beady eye over your drafts, to ensure your intention will be crystal clear and nothing can be misconstrued.

Recognise favours and loyalty:

  • If you’re asking customers for anything – eg feedback or referrals, then for goodness sake, thank them properly. I run prize draws as thank-you’s. Not to bribe people (I’m not giving away new cars or trips around the world), but because I very much appreciate the time people have spent telling me what they think, spending their money on what I produce, and referring my business to others. It’s amazing how many businesses ask customers for feedback, without stopping to think ‘what’s in it for them’.
  • Value your oldest and most frequent customers! Send them free stuff when they order next. Handwrite them notes. Thank them! As a customer, it never ceases to amaze me how few businesses make a song and dance about their longest-standing, most loyal customers. They are gold!  Too many businesses sink all their efforts into chasing new customers. RACQ gets a gold star in this department. They used to run fantastic competitions that only NEW members could enter. Thankfully, that stupidity appears to have ceased, and now their most loyal members – the long-term, dependable backbone of the organisation – can enter competitions as well.  Presumably member feedback caused this epiphany.

Customer details:

  • Only ask customers to supply information that there’s an acceptable reason for you to know.  Explain anything they may wonder about.  EG if it’s not an in-person credit card transaction yes you should have the purchaser’s address and phone number, to help guard against fraudulent credit card transactions.
  • An increasing number of retail businesses seem to think it’s acceptable to ask or even demand (via a compulsory data entry field) that customers provide personal details that have no relevance to the transaction underway. Such as the customer’s exact birthdate. Birthdates are details that help identity thieves. Mobile phone numbers are often demanded instead of landline numbers, for no good reason. As a customer, help make the world a better place by asking businesses requesting seemingly irrelevant personal details, why they need to know.  Don’t just roll over and provide details that there seems to be no plausible reason for. And treat your customers with the same respect.


  • Marketing is the relentless challenge of telling the world about what you provide, in an increasingly noisy market. Selling is the one step further – the essential end result – getting the cash in the bank so you can keep doing what you do. And afford to eat. I love the challenge of the former but detest the latter. The only way I can do ‘sales’ is by producing unique and top-quality products and services – because then I’m not even competing with anyone.  Yes there are always people who will start up in the same field (if you’re any good at what you do, copiers will appear), but originals always beat copiers, on quality and originality.  Copiers are always one step behind – they have to wait for you to come up with a new idea, before they can move ahead. Never compete just on price – because there will always be some numpty backyarder happy to provide goods and services at an unsustainable price.  Keep an eye on what tailcoaters are doing but also keep looking forward.  Always aim to produce the best, make sure it’s something that is wanted and the price is reasonable, and it will sell itself.  You can create the best widget in the world but you won’t be able to keep producing unless you master marketing and sales, or engage someone else to do it for you.


  • Running a small business requires a huge range of skills and it’s a fact that some things you just won’t be good at. Learn what you’re naturally good at. Constantly work on what needs improving and figure out what to ‘farm out’ to others – if for no other reason than lack of time.  I’ve been dealing with the same website designers since 2003, graphic designers since the mid 1990s and photographic printers since the early 1990s. Find good businesses who specialise in what you need and stick with them.

Mistakes & criticism:

  • When you make a mistake – as we all do – apologise, explain (if appropriate) and do what you can to fix it immediately (refund, replacement, etcetera). Simple.  Most Australian businesses are good at rectifying mistakes – but many do not offer an apology or explanation.
  • If a customer makes a negative comment, deal with it in an honest way.  Nobody enjoys criticism but try to listen with an open mind and avoid being defensive.  Sometimes it is just that a customer doesn’t understand some unavoidable aspect of the business so a clear explanation can provide them with insight and clear the air. Or their point may be completely unreasonable, or it may be a problem which you should address ASAP.  You won’t know unless you listen.
  • NEVER belittle a customer’s concerns by saying ‘you’re the only one who has had that problem/who thinks that’.  If someone mentions a problem to me, my first thought is – I wonder how many other people thought the same thing, but didn’t take the time to say anything to me?  I’m most likely to say, ‘you’re the only one who has mentioned that to me – others may have had the same problem and not said anything, so I very much appreciate you taking the time to bring it to my attention. I can’t fix what I don’t know about!’ I’ve had two businesses say to me recently ‘you’re the only one who has had that problem’ (in a tone meaning: the problem is with me, not them) – which is about as disrespectful as it gets. And I can guarantee that other people would have had similar problems, but voted with their feet, rather than providing them with valuable feedback.
  • Customers are not ‘always right’. There is a small percentage that it’s easier to steer clear of. Usually the signs of a probable headache are there from the outset. Develop strategies to avoid the kind of people who will never be pleased, no matter what happens – as they suck time & energy you’ll need for dealing with majority of people.

Responding to customer enquiries:

  • It’s better to use an answering machine to take messages, than let someone who isn’t good with the public, answer your phone while you’re away.
  • Don’t respond in writing when you’re feeling aggravated. The tone will sneak through into the words you write. Leave it overnight, or for a week if necessary. Not responding at all is the best option if there’s nothing to be gained from responding, other than a downward spiral. (It’s taken me a long time to accept that staying silent is sometimes the wisest option.) (Something I’ve had to learn.)


  1. As a business owner, it’s vital that you constantly think like a customer. What do you like and dislike about the businesses you deal with?  If you want to set up a mailorder business then become a mailorder customer, if you’re not already one.  If you want to sell at a market, then become a regular customer and visit a variety.  And keep learning! If you’re not learning you’re sliding to the back of the pack.
  2. You cannot please everyone and attempting to do so would often lead to operating at a loss.  But communication is often the simple key to smoothing the water. For example, I do accept direct debits for large book orders but not for orders for just a few books. I simply do not have the administrative resources to keep on top of this sort of admin – marrying a myriad of identical amounts up to specific purchasers, not all of whom would have remembered to include their name as a reference. I’d have to employ someone, and that would mean prices would rise, which would mean less sales –> unviable.  Another example – I don’t accept cheques from overseas banks, because the bank fees are huge and clearance can take 1 or 2 months. These points are clearly explained on the website, because most people would be unaware of these administrative aspects.  Communication is vital and it’s unreasonable to expect customers to understand everything about your business.

Bottom line: care about your customers and make it clear you’ve got their best interests at heart. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong line of work. I can sniff a business that doesn’t give a toss from 100 paces and I run away screaming, with my cash safely trapped in my fist.  Don’t forget to thank the good businesses that you deal with, and let them know you appreciate them.  Good business is based on good two-way relationships.  The world would be a better place if we were all more discerning and walked away from bodgy, and more appreciative of the great businesspeople we doencounter.

Information on How to set up a Drone Business.

Like to learn more – and hear first hand stories and share a laugh at the same time?

Via workshops, I pass on what I have learned over many years of running a unique business. Details of the topics covered and comments from previous workshop participants can be found in the Rural Workshops, Webinars and Presentations section of the website.  If you have any queries relating to workshops, don’t hesitate to contact me (details below).

Note: Written in June 2017; last updated October 2017.

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