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How to Write a Winning Online Business Startup Plan in Under 20 Minutes

Man about to start a race (or start an online business!)

“There’s so much to do. Where do I start?”

Whether you’re running a race or starting an online business, the first step is always daunting.

You look ahead and see nothing but the work that needs to be done, and the progress you’ll have to make.

You can’t see the finish line at all. You might not even see the starting block.

This post is about the starting block exclusively.

If you get your online business off to the right start, the whole race will be easier, and you’ll increase your chances of winning it.Click To Tweet

Wondering how to plan your online business? Ask the right questions.

The best online business startup plans are easy to write and remember. And they all start with asking and answering five simple questions.

We’ll spend the rest of this article detailing what you need to consider when you answer them, but for now, these are the questions:

  1. What is the universal category my business fits in?
  2. What will I offer?
  3. Who will I offer it to?
  4. What is my “unique take?”
  5. How will I communicate that unique take?

Grab a sheet of paper, fire up a word processor, or download my 20-Minute Online Business Planner. You’re about to make a plan you can stick to!

A screen shot of a person starting a race — or a business

Need an online business startup plan to guide your day-by-day efforts?

Let’s start with the first question …

1. What is the universal category my business fits in?

According to Russell Brunson’s book, Expert Secrets: The Underground Playbook for Creating a Mass Movement of People Who Will Pay for Your Adviceir?t=zurekdesignll 20&l=am2&o=1&a=1683504585 (affiliate link: highly recommended), there are three major categories of information which tend to sell consistently on the internet:

  • Wealth/Money
  • Health/Wellness
  • Relationships/Love

If your online business can fit into one of these broad categories, you’ll find it easier to earn revenues from your offers.

But we don’t stop there. Let’s get a bit more specific …

2. What do I offer?

Within those very broad categories, what do you offer? Let’s look at some examples:

Wealth/Money: My online business fits into this category because I teach people how to take their hard-earned expertise and create a business that earns money.

How about yours? If you help people:

  • Manage their money
  • Plan their retirement
  • Create a working budget
  • Earn more on their investments
  • Build a business that earns revenue
  • Save more when they shop
  • Become a speaker, author, freelancer, etc.

… or anything along any of these lines, your business falls into this category.

What specifically do you offer? Make a note.

Health/Wellness: These businesses help people live a richer life not through abundant wealth, but abundant health. If you help people:

  • Have more energy by doing yoga, hiking, swimming, walking, or any form of exercise
  • Feel better with special diets or improved nutrition
  • Live a balanced life by making easy changes to their habits
  • Manage their time more effectively
  • Reduce stress with lifestyle changes
  • Get more from their careers and lives

… or anything along any of these lines, your business falls into this category.

What specifically do you offer? Make a note.

Relationships/Love: These businesses show people how to get along with those around them, form connections, or build families. If you help people:

  • Find the love of their life … the first or second time around 😉
  • Have healthy, nurturing relationships with their children
  • Make friends with ease
  • Enjoy a healthy sex life
  • Raise balanced babies, toddlers, or teens
  • Have a richer relationship with their partner

… or anything along any of these lines, your business falls into this category.

What specifically do you offer? Make a note.

If you’re unsure which category you fit into, think about the reason why.

You may help professionals network effectively, which may feel like a “Relationships” business. But if the reason why people want to improve their networking skills is to build wealth through better business relationships, then what you do fits into the “Wealth/Money” category.

Once you’re sure about the category you fit into and what exactly you’ll offer in that category, let’s talk about who you want to work with.

3. Who do I offer it to?

Let’s get a firm understanding of who you want to help.

I can hear the collective groan right now. Yes, we’re going to talk about your ideal customer.

Stick with me here!

For some reason, many business owners don’t want to do the work of thinking through who their target market or ideal customer really is.

I think it’s because deciding who to aim your marketing efforts at means you’ve got to determine who you don’t want as a customer. You may be afraid to leave anyone out. You’d like to think your product or service is ideal for everyone.

But …

Something magical happens when you become very clear about the kind of person you’re aiming to serve.Click To Tweet

Your marketing messages are more compelling because you’re not trying to please everyone.

Your marketing materials are consistent because you know who you want to appeal to, and you let that knowledge guide your decisions about copy and design.

And the most amazing thing is that …

You attract people who will be best served by what you offer. They’re interested in your service or product, and you don’t have to try so hard to sell it to them. It solves one of their problems, so they want to hear about it.

Why determining your target market is important:

  • When you know who your ideal customer is, you can craft your marketing to attract them.
  • It’s much easier to sell something to an audience who wants and needs what you offer.
  • Your marketing language will be tailored to how your target market speaks about their problem. They’ll recognize themselves in your marketing, and know they’re in the right place.
  • Your colors, fonts, and overall graphic style will work together to attract people who want to buy from you.

Related: Create an Eye-opening Ideal Customer Profile [Free Worksheet]

Afraid of commitment? Read this.

What if you get it wrong?

Once you’re out there marketing your specific offer within a specific category and to a specific ideal customer, you may find that you attract a different group of customers than the one you originally anticipated.

You may even find they want something different!

That’s OK: it’s a natural part of the process. Just commit to observing the customers who show up on your doorstep to see if you need to revise what you offer and who you offer it to.

One of the most beautiful things about online business is how it naturally evolves and changes as it grows.Click To Tweet

Don’t resist this! Embrace it by getting your initial idea out into the world and then watching carefully, making course corrections as you go along.

Related: Business Focus: It’s Why Some People Triumph Online and Others Never Make It

You’ll know you’ve identified your ideal customer correctly when you start seeing people who meet your description interacting with your business and becoming your customers.

4. What is my “unique take?”

Once you know all of the above, it’s time to figure out how your “unique take” on things. This is called “positioning” in marketing terms.

Positioning refers to how your prospects perceive your business in relation to your competitors’ businesses.

Ask yourself, how is your offer different than what’s already on the market?

This is where you can bring your own personality and your hard-earned professional expertise to bear.

What do people always say about your work?

When you’ve received positively glowing feedback about what you offer, what do people mention? What do they think makes your business stand out?

Look at the comments of your current customers. They are likely already telling you what makes you unique (and valuable).

5. How will I communicate that unique take?

Finally, think about what marketing tactics will best communicate your unique take.


Your business is unique because your information is easy to understand. Emphasize that with online video tutorials or simple checklists and resources.

Your business is unique because your training is backed by data. Emphasize that with information-packed infographics and slide decks.

Your business is unique because it’s friendly and approachable. Emphasize that with live video, customer interviews, and more.

Your business is unique because you show people how small changes make a big difference. Emphasize that with “tips of the day” or a simple email autoresponder course that delivers transformation one small action at a time.

The idea here is to take what makes your business unique within the target market it belongs to and emphasize that with the marketing tactics you use to get it out into the world.

The final step in our online business plan? Decide how to use your marketing to pump up the volume on what makes your business unique!Click To Tweet

Take 20 to make a winning online business startup plan

Download my 20-Minute Online Business Planner to make this easy. It will give you a space to think through how you’ll answer these questions.

When you’re done, you’ll have an overview that will help you run your online business with ease.

Every step you take will be guided by your target market’s needs and desires — and how you’ll serve them in a unique and memorable way!

Grab the planner here:

A screen shot of a person starting a race — or a business

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on January 11, 2012 and has been updated with several hundred words of new information and additional resources. Enjoy! 

How to Write a Winning Online Business Startup Plan in Under 20 Minutes

Pamela Wilson

Pamela Wilson is the Chief Marketing Officer at DCS. She’s the creator of the Offer Accelerator Program. Learn more about Pamela’s content marketing books, and read reviews of the tools used to run this site.
Pamela Wilson coaches people in midlife to build profitable online businesses
I’m Pamela Wilson

In 2010, at the age of 45, I started this site and grew it into a business that offers freedom, flexibility — and consistent revenue.


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31 thoughts on “How to Write a Winning Online Business Startup Plan in Under 20 Minutes”

  1. Great post Pamela. It’s important to identify your niche, where you want your business to sit in the market and who ultimately you want to work with. It’s even more important to stick to your guns as your new business develops, to ensure you stay true to those ideals. If nothing else, it will ensure your marketing message is strong rather than being diluted by trying to appeal to everybody! Alyssa.

    p.s. can I please have the abs from your lead image 😉

  2. Oh, Pam, here you go again with a great post.
    If one is to believe in serendipity (and I tend to do), the last seven days have been pushing me to work on this neglected part of my business.
    I woke up today with the goal of aggressively tacking this, and, what do you know? This shows up in my inbox.
    Thanks for the good that you do.

    • I’m glad the timing worked out, Nando! Jon’s exercise is priceless, and it’s not easy. I highly recommend making time for it in the process of thinking through your target market.

  3. Hi Pamela,

    Thanks for the post! Even if you think you know already, it is great to get a reminder. You both are so right, stick to your niche, it is ok to not appeal to everybody, and find your target group. Sounds very easy, but can be a huge challenge! But I love a challenge, so I am stubornly not giving up. Thanks again for the post, I am learning a lot:)

    Those abs, sigh, a girl can dream, right?


    • You’re right, Maartje: it sounds easy, but it’s not. That’s why people avoid it.

      It makes such a difference to your marketing when you do this work, though. Getting the abs in that photo probably wasn’t much fun, either, right? The results are worth the effort!

  4. Pamela, this is one of the most comprehensive articles on finding a “target market” that I’ve ever read! I think the “excluding” part is most important to think about and also the hardest part of the equation – for me at least. But excluding gives clarity and allows you to do your best work for the customers that remain.

    • That excluding part is really tough, and seems so counter intuitive. I mean, who wants to walk away from a slice of their prospects? But you know it works, because you’ve done it!

      Thanks for your comment, Marlene.

      • You are right Pamela it is tough to decide which customers you AREN’T going to serve. It can feel like you are missing out on something. That is until you consider what you are REALLY walking away from. Those excluded clients are cut out for many reasons: They can be harder to work with because they don’t quite resonate with what you are about at your core. They can be resistant to your offer, which means they don’t get the results they desire because they don’t follow the program. That means they didn’t fully receive the value they could have from you. Less perceived value means price resistance, less referrals, and generally less happy customers. We often end up feel drained and demotivated after working with a less than ideal client. Bottom line is choosing to work with the wrong customer can COST you. Big time.
        Great post!

        • Great points, Charles, especially about how less-than-ideal clients are harder to work with. We don’t often think about the non-financial aspects of the transactions we do in business, but they may be more important than the money we exchange. Who wants to work with a resistant customer? It’s no fun.

  5. Pamela – thank you very much for including a section for new people starting out who don’t have any customers yet. I have lost count of how many people write about this but base the information on the assumption you have some historical information on which to basis your analysis on.
    What I find curious is that so many people go on about how important defining your market is, but very few give practical steps on how to do so. So, I thank you again, for including some very practical advice on how to start.


  6. “I” am my target market. By that I mean, someone just like me. I have been on the user end of the service I am now providing so I am intimately acquainted with my target market. So, I have begun to keep a lengthy list of the things I enjoy, places I go, sites I visit, comments that grab me, tags I search for etc…
    Thanks the the very helpful information.

    • What do you know about them, Birdy?

      You might want to try Jon’s exercise. Rather than try to describe them, try to get inside their heads and think about their fears and desires. That may give you enough information to start speaking in a way that helps them realize you’re one of them, and they can trust you.

  7. Hi Pam,

    Great post on a great topic. I’ve gotten so much out of thinking about my ideal customer.

    A big thing to look at is attitudes, and what polarizes people. Knowing this can help you know what to avoid and what really fires them up in a good way. I also love to think about “who would I really like to work with”, in the way that Michael Port teaches in “Book Yourself Solid”.

    I find myself preferring the word “client” or “customer” more than “market”. After all, we never speak to markets, we speak to people. This makes a mental shift that helps me communicate more freely.

    Thanks again!


  8. Pamela, thanks for the sound advice. I am trying to narrow down my business writing offerings, and trying to specify what an ideal customer for me might be, but it’s difficult, because I like variety in my writing assignments, so I write web content, press releases, occasional tech stuff, all kinds of marketing collateral, and offer editing services as well in those areas. (I also write journalistic pieces and fiction, but we can ignore those for the moment.)

    A big trouble for me is that I don’t want to specialize in something—say, white papers—because I know that I become bored with sameness in writing and writing assignments. But there is strong logic in what you say regarding focus and audience. Thoughts?

    • Tom, focus on who you help, not what you do to help them, first off. Your versatility doesn’t need to be hampered by clarity about your target market.

      It’s great you can do all those things, and you obviously have existing clients. Take a good look at the people you work with now, especially the ones you enjoy working with. What traits do they have in common? What attitudes/philosophies/approaches to they share?

      If you can figure that out, you’ll be well on your way to painting a clear picture of who they are. Good luck.

      • Pamela, I appreciate the reply. That does help me begin to refine the picture of the “right” client. And emphasizing how they should be someone I enjoy working with is key, because work that’s pleasurable keeps both parties coming back, and I believe it positively colors the quality of the labor.

  9. G’Day Pamela,
    Back in the early 90s “Positioning, The Battle For The Mind” by Al Ries and Jack Trout was recommended to me. I’d already been in business for 13 years. It was an absolute revelation. That’s where I first found out about the absolute necessity for a crystal clear business focus and a narrow specific target market.

    Almost 20 years later, I still see these two things as the essential basis for any successful business.

    In their second book, “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing,” Al and Jack also discussed the Law of Sacrifice……what are going to give up to concentrate on focus and target market.

    Every day in the blogosphere I read people going on endlessly about branding and niches and other trendy marketing buzzwords without a mention of the crucial importance of focus and target market.

    Incidentally, did you know that last year, in 2011, the readers of “Advertising Age” voted “Positioning” the “Most Important Marketing Book Ever.”

    Thanks for emphasising such an important issue.

    Have great 2012.
    Best Wishes

    • Hi Leon – thank you very much for posting your book suggestions.

      As I previously mentioned here, everyone states how important getting clear who your target market is, but I have failed to find practical guidance on this, to a new business.
      I’ve just ordered the ‘Positioning’ book from Amazon and look forward to reading it. Thanks again.

    • Thanks for this recommendation, Leon.

      I agree: focusing your efforts and determining your target market isn’t “sexy.” People would rather forge ahead and start marketing their businesses without doing this thinking. It’s like shooting in the dark, though: you can’t hit what you’re not aiming for.

    • Fancy meeting you here Leon! 🙂 (And touting Ries + Trout, yet :D)

      Anyway, I’d like to second your “focus on focus” 🙂

      It changes everything.

      It’s a world-shaking stance. Focus helps everything, especially target markets + business success 🙂 (Though Johnny B. Truant, who actually chats with John Morrow all the time lol… might disagree :D)

  10. Awesome post, Pamela 🙂 One of the best I’ve read on target markets (bringing back John’s exercise is fantastic!)

    Everything you said is spot on, and I know that I was afraid to Repel Customers. I changed tho, and now I … well… kinda love it 😀 Everything I create auto-filters my clientele.

    My materials have some swearing in them because a) It’s authentically how I talk sometimes, for emphasis, it’s my ‘voice’ and b) I’m really not interested in attracting people who have issues with other people’s speech patterns.

    I teach success, and NOT nit-picking over words is a pre-requisite. Anyway, I hear ya, and looks like everyone else does too 😀

    I’d like to add the flipside, which, is not the majority at all, and not necessarily recommended (I teach people to find their target market too :D), but there do exist successful people (mainly celebrity artists) who put relatively little thought into their target market.

    They simply, ‘get in the zone’ and ‘sing from the heart’ and somehow resonate strongly with a particular group (usually a group ‘like them’)

    Anyway, just a minor 2cents of fresh perspective.

  11. Pamela hi,

    The niche you find yourself in will determine who your target market will be.

    I am assuming that before you start a business, you are aware of what you have to offer potential clients. I think it is more a question of developing a client-base than of determining a target market.

    If you have developed a solution, through experience, for problems within your niche, even better. You then operate from a position of strength; you have something that someone else in the same niche may not have.

    Be yourself, and your market will be drawn to you. And be patient!

    A client-base takes time to develop.

    Just remember not to be so rigid in your thinking that potential clients may have difficulty in working with you.

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