A reader of Starting an Online Business for Dummies asks this question, which is one everyone wonders when they’re thinking of starting an online storefront:

“In other words, how much can I expect to make and how quickly? Obviously, there are a huge number of variables to this, but from what I’ve read, there are virtually no examples given or case studies cited that offer any clue as to the bottom line. It would be helpful to know, for example, about an actual case that described someone who opened an online store, what they did, and how much they were making in how much time.”

There is no perfect answer to this, of course. No magic wand. But I would suggest that she is asking the wrong question. Here’s what she (and you, the budding businessperson) should be asking:

“What do I feel so passionate about that I will work my butt off night and day to make as many connections as I can with other people to spread the word about it?”

Note that I said CONNECTIONS rather than sales. Connections lead to sales. To be successful online these days, you need to connect with potential customers (or readers, or subscribers) through a process of triangulation. You need to combine three things:

1. Social marketing
2. One or more marketplaces
3. Your website

Everyone wants to know how much money they can make online. You need to have some rough idea if you are creating a business plan. But I’m saying that’s not the best place to start. If you make unrealistic projections and fall short, you’ll get discouraged. Look at your business from a different perspective: your talents, your interest, and your message. Find your passion and work to tell people about it every day, on Facebook, on Twitter, on your blog, and on your website.

Just so you don’t think I have nothing to say to the question directly, I’ll say this. When I opened a store on eBay, I set two goals for myself: I wanted to make $300-$400 extra spending/bill paying money per month as a short-term goal. Long-term, I wanted to become a PowerSeller. Pretty modest goals, but I made them both (though I wasn’t a PowerSeller very long). A reasonable goal, then, would to make some extra “gravy” money for fun, to pay a few bills, or to keep afloat rather than sinking into debt.

Dean Pettit, whom I have written about elsewhere in this blog as the owner of Space Coast Outdoors, is doing pretty well with his site. But he told me the following when I asked how he is doing financially:

“For the time it is helping with expenses, I hope it will grow to be a primary income with time and with what I have learned I think it will.”

There is a reasonable goal: start out wanting to make enough money to help with your day to day bills. Dean wants to make this his full-time business, to be sure. But he also started his company because he loves the outdoors in his part of Florida, he knows a lot about it, and he sees that there aren’t other sites around marketing tourism on the space coast.

On NPR recently, I heard another story about the young author Amanda Hocking. She started out selling e-books of her novels and marketing them herself because no agents or publishers would accept them. She turned out to be a marketing genius, selling through her blog, through online interviews, and by doing anything she could to make connections, to spread the word about her books. Building a platform and making connections with customers and readers leads to sales–remember? Eventually, a publisher came to Amanda, hat in hand, offering to publish her book. The story said she is now a multimillionaire. There’s a success story for you. Here’s another, about a woman named Cynthia Lizana who started a one-woman business on eBay, expanded to Amazon.com, and has hired two employees.

There are lots of inspiring success stories out there. Don’t depend on them to get you going. Look inside yourself, at what you love to do, and let the desire to connect and build up a fan base or customer base drive you. Set modest, realistic goals that you can meet, and you’ll be way more likely to meet with success than imitating someone else.

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