One of the most common questions I am asked is what tools I use to manage my successful online business.

Considering I am constantly giving advice on the ways that companies can improve their innovativeness, and people can come up with new business models and business ideas based on their creativity.

So, I wanted to provide a simple list of all the tools that I personally use on a day-to-day basis to run a successful online business.

Now one thing I want to make clear is this:

If you are looking for advice on how to get rich quick, this is NOT the advice that you are looking for.

And anyone who is promising you that it is easy to make multiple six or seven-figure sums every month is being dishonest. Nor am I suggesting that if you use the same tools that I do that you are guaranteed to make any money at all.

To succeed, it is all down to providing a product or service that the customer sees value in. This requires you actually spending the time figuring out what customers would find valuable enough to pay for, and then execute and develop, test and launch that. It will likely take time and several iterations before you find the perfect mix of innovations that your customers love, and your online business begins to make any significant amount of money. But with all types of innovations, it makes sense to start small, learn fast, and continue improving.

And I want to show you the tools I use and recommend to run a business in the innovation and creativity consulting field. I should also point out that in some cases, if you end up using these services I will get a referral from the company, but these are tools I use every day myself. Best of all, if you click on the links and look at the pricing for all of these tools, you will see that they are all extremely affordable. In fact, they are almost guaranteed to be significantly cheaper than it would be for you to hire someone else to set them up for you. So by using my links here, you will likely be saving a lot of money in the long run, as well as being able to get started today.

The tools are split into two sections:

Necessary tools:

Here are the necessary tools you will need to run an online business. There are many providers out there for each of them, and I have included a link to those I use and recommend.

Email automation

Best option: Activecampaign

If you want to grow an online business, nothing still beats email. This is because by asking for someone’s email address, you can slowly educate them on your offerings and build a relationship with them. However, the most important reason why email is still so important is that it is one of the only ways to ensure you own your own platform, meaning you can always send your contacts an email. Companies that build up lists of followers and customers on platforms like Facebook initially were able to contact them by posting messages, but because Facebook owned the access to the users on its platform, it could begin only showing messages to followers if the company began paying them to boost posts. Email is not owned by any specific company, meaning you own your platform.

The reason to use an email automation system like Activecampaign is that it handles the sending of professional-looking messages to thousands of customers at once. This can save you literally hours of work each day.

The other great thing about email automation is you can easily set up workflows to send specific emails to specific customers. For example, when a customer first comes to you and does not necessarily know a lot about you, you can send them a sequence of emails over several days to have them get to know you. Or if they purchase something from you, you can send them an automated follow-up message thanking them or offering them a discount on their next purchase. Email automation is the key for small businesses to be able to scale effectively.

Website Hosting

If you want an online business, you need a website. While there are many companies out there that offer services to host and build your website together, like Squarespace or Wix, these can trap you into their system, making it very hard to leave if you ever want to in the future. That is why I would always recommend a beginner website be built on an open platform like WordPress (which I use, and which also powers an astonishing 39% of all websites on the internet). It is open-source, free, fast, secure and infinitely customisable with new functionality using plug-ins. Plus, if you ever want to switch your provider, you can transfer a WordPress website from one host to another in minutes.

WordPress is the free software to power your website, but you will need to pay for a web hosting company, which handles all of the data storage, bandwidth and handling traffic for your users. A great deal can be found at a dedicated WordPress hosting company like Bluehost.

Website Design

WordPress is free, and has many free “themes” available, but if you are running an online business I would recommend paying for a premium theme. This not only makes your site look less like a blog, and more like a professional business, but it also often adds integrated functionality that you would otherwise need to install several different plug-ins for. The theme I have used for years is called “Avada“, and is one of the most popular professional themes on the internet.

Lead generation (and idea validation)

If you want to turn webpage visitors into customers, you first need to convince them to give you their email address. Not only that, have that system integrate with your Email Automation system to capture Leads. This is where lead-generation systems like Leadpages come in. They make it incredibly easy and fast to develop pages specifically designed to convince someone to give you their email address, or even high-converting sales pages. Sometimes, you just need to test a few ideas and want a very intuitive webpage builder where you can drag and drop images and text. I often use this system to build specific landing pages, sales pages or preview pages for new products I am developing.

Online payments & membership

If you want to actually make money from your website, you will eventually want to be able to sell your customers something. To do this, instead of learning how to manually set up payment APIs on specific pages and link them to PayPal or a credit-card processor, it makes much more sense to have a shopping cart and payment processor handle this for you. Trust me, when it comes to processing people’s money, you want a system that is rock-solid, always up to date, and respects industry-standard security.

I have been using a system called ThriveCart for years, and am extremely happy with its performance. It helps me quickly and securely set up products to sell online, and handles all of the processing of payment information. Not only that, but they recently also added new functionality to host the content which you sell. You need a system that can handle memberships and the accessing of content, allowing only people who have paid to see the content they purchased. Previously, I used a membership system called Membermouse to restrict access to my paid-only content. It worked ok, but recently ThriveCart added functionality to handle content protection as well. For my next set of eLearning, I will be using ThriveCart to handle everything, saving me time, money and stress.

Advanced tools:

Once you have set up the necessary tools, you are well on your way to having a successful online business. Start with those, get your head around the systems work together, and begin to build up an email list and figure out some products to potentially sell them.

To go to the next level, once you have begun scaling, I would recommend the following more advanced products to help you in your workflow and efficiency.

Video production

Eventually, you will want to begin using video to communicate. While it can be daunting to first get in front of the camera (I still get nervous every time I am about to start filming), video has a unique ability to help communicate with followers and potential customers. I would always suggest getting started with the video camera you already have, and nowadays your smartphone is probably able to shoot 4k video. So just get started.

But I would suggest you invest in two things. First, get a decent microphone. Either a USB microphone for your computer, or at a minimum and external wired lavalier microphone to connect to your smartphone (assuming it still has a headphone jack). The difference in audio quality that an external microphone will make takes your video quality to a much higher level than any improvement in image quality.

And once you want to begin producing video content, and especially selling content with video like online courses, you should get some video editing and capture software. This will make your videos look like they are actually worth paying for. The software I have used for years is called Techsmith Camtasia, and allows me to record my screen, edit podcast episodes, use a green screen or anything else I can think of. Check it out.

Video hosting

If you begin producing videos, you will then also need somewhere to host them. Do not, I repeat, do not host your business videos on a free system like Youtube. Why? Youtube will include adverts for other videos on top of your video, or at the end of it, making them look less professional or even untrustworthy.

Hosting them on your own domain or WordPress host is also something I would not recommend, as these sometimes have bandwidth caps and HD video can eat up bandwidth quickly. Instead, host your videos on a dedicated video hosting platform. I use Vimeo, which not only keeps my professional videos which people pay for clean from adverts, it allows me to restrict where they are played, which prevents pirates being able to steal my content by posting it on other sites for free.

Webinars

Trust me, if you want to go really advanced and automated, one of the most powerful ways of doing this is using Webinars. A webinar is a video which people can register for in advance, and which can go out to hundreds or thousands of people at the same time. They are often much longer than a normal video, and serve as a great way to educate people about your services and even sell them at the same time.

The majority of my revenue from my online business actually comes from sales through webinars.

And the best thing is that they can also be automated. While some people prefer to do each webinar live, this can have issues due to potentially bad internet connections, latency or registration errors. Worst of all, it means you need to prepare for and be online the entire time, every time you do a live webinar. But I use a tool called WebinarJam and Everwebinar, which can take a webinar you do live once, and then make it accessible 24/7 whenever a potential customer wants to see it. It means you have an automatic, autopilot sales engine once you have done it the first time. Check it out.

Scheduling

If instead of selling content online, you make your money by consulting or coaching directly with clients, you will need to find an efficient way of them booking time to meet with you. I have found email to be an absolutely terrible way to do this, with confusion around timezones and availablility, let alone the hassle of changing meeting invites when someone needs to reschedule. Instead, I use a system called ScheduleOnce which allows me to set times when other people can book meetings with me, including automatically setting up the required Zoom or MS Teams link. Then, I send a link to this booking page where they can book a time which suits both of us, and if they need to reschedule, all of our calendars are automatically updated.

eLearning

Finally, if you are indeed setting up content to be bought online, chances are that it might be in the format of an online course. I sell multiple online courses. And while you can try to set up your online course using a membership plug-in and WordPress pages, it is a lot more efficient and streamlined for the customer if you use a specialist eLearning system. I use one of the most popular systems, called WP Courseware, which is one of the most respected WordPress eLearning systems with lots of great functionality. [Disclaimer: as noted above, I will likely be experimenting with ThriveCart for some of my new upcoming courses, but this is mainly due to my desire to test the new system, and is nothing against WP Courseware]

Nick Skillicorn: I help teams and companies just like yours unleash the creativity and innovation potential that already exists in your people.

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.