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Recently, a client of mine bought a product that she didn’t need. She didn’t need it because she already had a similar product, one that did the same thing. But she didn’t understand that and I realized that she wasn’t clear on the building blocks of her online business — what each piece was for. In her case, she bought a page builder when she already had one.

What are the major Building Blocks of an online business?

Building blocks An online business has what I call Building Blocks. The major ones are:
  1. Your website, with an optional “page builder”
  2. Your email service provider
  3. Your shopping cart with a merchant account and gateway to process credit card payments
  4. Your social media accounts — I won’t cover these in this post

Secondary tools might be a webinar service, a pop-up form creator, an appointment calendar, and any number of other possibilities.

Just like toy building blocks, you fit the pieces together to make a strong infrastructure for your online business. For example, you…

  1. Use your website to create a page where people can sign up for your free offer
  2. Then you use your email service provider to send those subscribers emails
  3. When you make them an offer for a product, you create a sales page on your website and create a “Buy” button using your shopping cart, which then processes the sale
If you’re missing any of those building blocks, you don’t have an online business.
One reason things get complicated is that there are combination products that provide more than one of the building blocks in one service. But you still need to understand the separate blocks and how they fit together. More about those later.

1. Your websiteonline-business-tools-2

For an online business, you need web pages. Usually, you do that with a website although there are combination products that create pages for you.
You mainly use your website in these ways:
  • To attract subscribers and buyers
  • For your blog, to establish your expertise and attract information seekers
  • To create opt-in and sales pages
  • To help interested people contact you
For most people, I recommend a WordPress website (like this one) because it’s powerful, in your control, relatively low-cost, and fairly easy to use. A WordPress website needs a theme to determine how it will look. There are thousands of free themes, including some that come with WordPress but you can buy a theme if you want.
I have two cautions for you:
  1. Don’t use a theme that you don’t own. This happens when a web designer owns the theme and has the right to use it on his/her clients’ websites. Whenever the theme needs updating, you need to go back to your designer, which isn’t a good thing. Also, you can’t get support if you have a question. So, buy the theme if you want it.
  2. Don’t buy themes that are filled with content specifically for your niche. I know these are tempting, but you’ll always need to make so many changes that it will be harder than if you started from scratch.
Although you can create nice-looking pages with just WordPress, I recommend getting a “page builder.” This is a WordPress plug-in that gives you templates and lets you create much more beautiful pages. Here are some page builders:
In the case of my client, her website was created (by her web designer) in Divi and she bought OptimizePress on the recommendation of a friend because she didn’t realize she could create web pages with Divi.
You can enhance your website with a myriad of plug-ins, but I won’t go into those here.

2. Your email serviceonline-marketing-tools-1

Your email service keeps the list of your subscribers and customers. Beyond that, it does 3 main things:
  1. Creates opt-in forms: It gives you the code to create forms that people fill out to subscribe to your list. You put that code on your website. For more information on how to create an opt-in form, see “How to Create an Opt-in Form to Grow Your Subscriber List.”
  2. Sends broadcasts: Broadcasts are emails that you send to your subscribers whenever you want
  3. Sends autoresponders: These are a series of emails that are sent automatically after someone subscribes or buys
Some common email services are
I use BirdSend, which is a little newer.

3. Your shopping cartonline-business-tools-3

Your shopping cart lets you list your products and create a Buy button that people use to buy your products. You connect it to a merchant account/gateway. Common ones are PayPal, Stripe, and (a gateway that usually comes bundled with a merchant account)

Typical features of your shopping cart are discount codes and an affiliate program. Both are important, even if you aren’t ready for these features yet.

Here are some common shopping carts:

Some membership software includes shopping cart features. Examples are Digital Access Pass and Amember. Membership software lets you host online courses, drip content out over time, and control access to people who bought or are registered.

Combined building blocks

Combined products are online services that provide “everything” or multiple building blocks. Examples are:
  • Keap (used to be infusionsoft)
  • Kartra
  • Simplero
  • SamCart
  • ClickFunnels
  • Groove
Typically, you can build pages in these programs instead of on your website. They function as a website and a shopping cart. They may also let you send out emails. When you buy one of these, be sure you understand:
  • Exactly which building blocks are included — and which are not
  • Extra costs for features you need
  • How they integrate with other tools you have

What to do next

Download my free report of more than 30 tools for online entrepreneurs that explains them in more detail and will help you understand what they do and make decisions about which to buy.

Get it here.

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    5 replies to "Which tools do you need to build an online business?"

    • Allyn Valdez

      I’ve always wondered what it is like to build an online business from scratch. Thank you for sharing the building blocks and a copy of your freebie. Big help!

    • Mark Meyers

      Why do you use Zaxaa instead of the others?

    • Ellen Finkelstein

      I’ve used 1ShoppingCart, e-junkie (ages ago), and Digital Access Pass (DAP) with their SmartPayCart.
      I decided I wanted something online (not a plug-in like DAP)
      A colleague uses it and likes it and I checked it out based on her recommendation. They have a great discount if you pay annually.
      They also have excellent service.
      They’re missing a bundle feature and the ability to offer a product for free — or turn it into an opt-in, but mostly I’m happy.
      Here’s my affiliate link, if you’re interested:

    • Marie-Ange Gonzalez

      Hi Ellen,
      I am a newish subscriber to your email list. I have just read about the use of the search and category boxes on your website.
      Re. your blog about which tools do you need to build an online business, you listed Groove which was in fact a link to the Groove website. I have a lifetime membership to the platform but I have found it a bit difficult as it was and still is in the making. I went for the reduced membership at the time because I am not very technical and it promised it was an all-in-one platform. As I have the lifetime membership already, I would not be buying it again from your link so I am sorry to just pick your brains.
      I wonder whether you use or have used Groove yourself. If you do or have done, have you found that it was a stand-alone platform and whether it has its pros and cons?
      I am very much at the beginning of it all and am considering doing a bit of affiliate marketing whilst I am getting some courses ready. I wonder whether I need to invest more money in more technology to complement it to make it fully operational.
      I should be grateful if you had a little time to comment on this. Many thanks.

    • Ellen Finkelstein

      Marie-Ange, I don’t use Groove and others have told me it’s still a work in progress, but some people ARE using it. You need to know exactly what you need and then test it out. So you need a shopping cart, an email service provider, and a way to create pages (a page builder),
      The shopping cart will store your products/services, creating Buy buttons, process credit cards, and be able to create upsells.
      The email service provider will send emails (of course), send out autoresponders after people opt-in or buy, and create opt-in forms
      The page builder will create nice-looking pages and let you embed the opt-in forms and Buy buttons. (You don’t HAVE to use a page builder, but the pages they create look nicer than plain WordPress pages)
      There are inexpensive solutions to all of these individually and an all-in-one does put them together. It might have other options, too.
      I have a free PDF about tools that an online business needs here:
      It will help you understand all the pieces of the puzzle!

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