If you've ever had an idea for a product or service that you think could net you a fortune, you may well have considered setting up an internet business with the aim of sitting back and watching the money roll in.
After all, in 2006, consumers spent £30.2bn on online goods and services, according to IMRG, the industry body for global e-retailing. Over the past 10 years, the growth of the internet has resulted in the high-profile successes of many internet-related businesses. Just a few weeks ago, for example, price comparison service Moneysupermarket.com became the second-biggest internet float in the world since the dot.com implosion, after that industry behemoth, Google.
The internet has certainly revolutionized the way we live our lives, and offers a place where individuals can compete with global organisations. But just how easy is it to get started?
Your business plan
The starting point for any new venture is to create a business plan, says Tony Cohen, the head of entrepreneurial business at Deloitte.
"You need to know your target market, know your competition, attract funding, secure good resources, build consumer loyalty – especially blogger coverage – and forge alliances with strategic partners," he says. "Preparation and research are key."
Jeffrey Macklin from FDUK, a company that provides part-time finance directors to start-up businesses, says the objective of the business plan is to tell a simple yet compelling story that leaves the reader wanting to meet the management team and find out more about the proposition. "It should be as succinct and accessible as possible, and around 20 pages at most," he says.
Finding a market
One of the most important elements of setting up an online business is finding out if there is a market for your idea.
"It's all about finding a niche," says William Berry, a self-made internet millionaire. "Hampers, for example, are a niche of food retailing, but there are already market leaders in this area, so you either need to aim for a niche which doesn't already have a market leader, or attempt to become even more niche – by offering Christmas hampers, say. "
There are many different financing options available to aspiring entrepreneurs. For many businesses, raising funds may involve several sources.
Bank finance in the form of a loan or overdraft is usually cheaper than selling shares or equity in your business, says Macklin. But he adds that equity investment is ideal for those businesses that do not want to increase their level of borrowing, or are unable to provide the necessary security.
If you're considering equity investment, two options are so-called " business angels" and venture capitalists. Business angels are wealthy individuals who look to invest in growing companies wanting to raise between £10,000 and £250,00. They will also offer contacts and advice. Venture capitalists will only invest – usually a minimum of £2m – if they can see a significant return in three years, say.
For internet start-ups with a sound business proposition but without the necessary security to obtain conventional lending, the Small Firms Loan Guarantee is another option, according to Steve Jennings, director of business banking at Alliance & Leicester Commercial Bank. He says cash-flow analysis is vital.
"A common error businesses make is to ask for too little financial support in the hope of getting at least some of the funding they need," he says. "But this is potentially a recipe for disaster."
Websites will set you back varying amounts. "The cost is relative," says Berry. "While a basic one could cost as little as £500, a really good one that dominates the market could cost up to £20,000."
If building your own website is not an option, try searching for web designers online, or ask friends and colleagues for recommendations, says Nick James, a small-business consultant and the founder of Nick-James.com, an online club for entrepreneurs. Keep the site clean and simple: people will buy from you if they trust the site and can find what they want.
"Make sure you update your website's content constantly, as innovation, imagination and invention are essential if you are going to succeed in the longer term," he says. "Also make it easy for people to get in touch: your business needs to present a human face."
One area where internet businesses often fail is marketing, according to Lisa Richards, a partner at accountants Smith Cooper.
"Too many people fall into the trap of developing their product or service and then expecting orders to come racing in," Richards says. "But with no 'shop window' through which to promote yourself, how are potential customers going to find you?"
Sites such as Google AdWords can be a cost-effective way of advertising, she says. These operate on a "pay per click" basis, so you only pay when someone clicks through to your website.
James also recommends emailing your friends and family with details of your site. "Look out for chatrooms and discussion forums, and let people know you're there," he adds. "Network with others and get referrals."
You may want to get a company to do search engine optimization (SEO) for you to ensure that you catch any potential customers searching for your type of product on the likes of Yahoo! and Google. "But try to get them to work on the results," says Berry. "SEO isn't that important if you have spent money effectively on online ads. A lot of people try to get to the top of search engines – and there can only be one."
Make it fast and easy for customers to order, as a site with a difficult sales process is likely to lose customers, says James. "Fulfil every order as fast as you possibly can," he adds.
Websites should be easy to navigate so users don't get frustrated and leave without making a purchase. Security should also be a priority, and potential customers should be assured their details will be kept safe.
"How you treat customers matters," says James. "Talk to them as often as possible and help them to get to know you and build confidence in you and the services you provide. Ask them what they want from you and react to what they tell you."
Start small and have patience
Don't give up your day job too soon, as it will take time for your internet venture to grow – and in the meantime there may not be much incoming revenue. As a budding online entrepreneur, you'll need lots of energy, enthusiasm, determination and passion; but you also need to be realistic. "Success on the web is rare," warns Cohen. "While many businesses are launched, few make a profit, and most will never see a return on investment. That said, while starting up an internet business can be one of the toughest things you ever do, it can also be the most rewarding."
From baby steps to big success - A matter of development
Julie White, 38, of Milton Keynes, set up her own internet business, Truly Madly Baby, in 2005 after she had given birth to her son, Samuel.
The business has been a great success, and Julie can now boast a six-figure turnover.
It was after starting out working for Ann Summers as a party planner for home events that Julie identified a gap in the market for a "buy in your own home" service for baby products and accessories.
"I looked at what else was out there, and the types of products I might be able to sell, and then I got started designing my own online model," Julie says.
A few weeks after she started the company, she appeared on Dragons' Den, the popular BBC reality TV programme for budding entrepreneurs.
After making a strong pitch, she received two offers from the dragons. But in the end, she decided to turn both of them down.
Instead, Julie opted to go with a different backer, who offered her a £75,000 investment. After that, the business took off.
"I had experience of accounting and customer service from my previous career," she says. "But it was a very steep learning curve – and I made some mistakes along the way, but nothing too detrimental to the business. Overall, it's been a very positive experience."
Julie now has four employees on the payrole and some 260 consultants who co-ordinate the parties.
"There are now plans to extend into Europe," she says. "My advice to anyone thinking of setting up their own business is that if you believe it's good enough then you have to go for it."
Graham Hobson is the founder of the online digital printing website PhotoBox, which now has 2 million members.
He started it in 2000 after he noticed the lack of online storing and printing websites in the UK, compared to the vast number of similar sites in the US.
"I'd always worked in technology but I'm an accidental entrepreneur," he says. "I wrote a business plan, got financial backing and a partner to join me in the business."
Graham gave up his day job in 1999. The first three years, he admits, were "painfully slow."
"We expected it all to happen quickly, but in reality, it was about steady growth," he says. "We were naive about marketing in the beginning and had to learn a lot of lessons."
Viral marketing has helped PhotoBox, and last year it merged with Photoways, a French firm.
"If you want to set up an internet business, you have to convince all the people around you it's a good idea," Graham says. "Put in your own time and energy, but other people's money – and take as much advice from other people as you can."