I recently got an e-mail from a man I’ll call Jim, a longtime ETR reader. His question is probably the most common one I get. If you are interested in breaking into the Internet, pay attention. What I have to say to Jim might give you the information you need to get started.

Jim writes:

“I have been struggling with the idea of starting my own Internet-based business. The question is, how and with what product or service?

“I have been a loyal fan of ETR for many years now, and you guys throw so many sound ideas and businesses at me that it gets a little confusing. I would like to start small with some proven methods and techniques and build from there. I do not have countless thousands of dollars to experiment with, nor do I have the luxury of being able so sit in front of my computer day in and day out. I need your help to get me started in the right direction with a system that will hopefully start generating some return fairly quickly.

“I believe in and trust your advice more than anyone else’s out there when it comes to building an Internet-based business — or any other type of business, for that matter. Please help me make this the year I finally took the plunge and started achieving success!”

Everybody knows what a great opportunity the Internet offers. It is the only medium where someone without a lot of money can start a multimillion-dollar company. There are lots of good programs available that teach the ins and outs of Internet marketing. But choosing the right product or service to market… there’s the rub!

Which product to choose is a big question. Not the kind that can be answered simply and quickly. It depends so much on you — who you are, who you want to be, what you know, what you don’t know, and so on.

That said, a few general suggestions apply.

First, and most important, it is always best to start a business in or around an industry/area that you understand. So many of the most expensive mistakes first-time entrepreneurs make are “outsider” mistakes — errors that someone with experience in the field would not have made.

Lots of first-time health publishers, for example, spend too much time explaining the disease or health problem they hope to cure. They do so both in the publications they create and the promotions they use to sell those publications. What these neophytes don’t understand is that the most active health buyers don’t need to know more about their problems. They can find out all they want to know on the Internet — for free. What they need are solutions.

So the first thing you must do is make a list of all the things you know about. Start with the business you are in (or employed by). But don’t stop there. Include all your hobbies and interests too. You don’t have to have any professional experience to know enough about a subject to start a business based on it.

I have a friend who started a successful business providing advice about astrology. She’d never taken a course in it or received certification. But she’d read about it for 30 years, and her knowledge was deep and wide. Because of that, she began her enterprise with a good idea of what kind of astrology she would practice and what kind of products and pricing would work.

Another friend started a successful Internet business selling martial arts information. He was a world-class black belt who had been competing for 20 years. He knew the industry inside and out. So he had some good ideas about new and exciting instructional videos he could produce that really caught fire.

This brings us to my second-most-important suggestion: If you are not an expert at direct marketing, you should become one before you spend a nickel on your new business.

I cannot overstate the importance of understanding the techniques of direct-response marketing. Direct marketing is the primary method for generating profits on the Internet. Other forms of advertising — from public relations to event marketing to social media and branding — are usually not nearly as effective.

Luckily, there are plenty of good information products and educational programs available that teach direct marketing for the Internet. On top of the list, I’d put ETR’s own Internet Money Club and our annual 5 Days in July Internet Business Building Conference. My third and final suggestion is this: In addition to focusing on an industry you are already familiar with and becoming an expert at direct marketing, you must learn the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. Starting a business can be a daunting task for the beginner. Most of those who try fail. And with good reason: They make some very basic mistakes.

The biggest mistake first-time entrepreneurs make is spending too much of their time and money on all sorts of secondary business concerns (getting business cards, setting up a website, finding a business location). But when you’re starting any new business, your priority has to be on making sales. In fact, at this stage of the game, at least 80 percent of your time should be devoted to selling.

To bring yourself up to speed, I recommend that you read Ready, Fire, Aim: Zero to $100 Million in No Time Flat. The book is based on my own experiences with building small businesses. It’s all about how to get your business off the ground and continue to grow it.

As for product creation, I suggest you do some quick research, then TEST your idea. One of the biggest problems I see is that people spend months analyzing which market to get into. But in my opinion, market research for a new online business should take no more than a week.

A week is plenty of time to decide what to sell. In fact, it’s a generous amount of time. At ETR’s 5 Days In July Internet Business Building Conference, attendees have to make this decision in a day.

To figure out which market to enter, you need to answer two questions:

1. Are people looking for this information?

2. Are people buying this information?

You can get the answers to these questions very quickly with a few keystrokes.

One of the best ways to find out who is looking for what is with a free tool like WordTracker, which shows you what words and terms people are searching for. You can also determine if people are buying what you want to sell by entering a few search phrases related to your product in Google. Then check the Web pages of the advertisers that come up. The fact that they’re paying for advertising is a good indicator that the market they’re selling to (your market) is buying.

Sign up for e-mail lists of potential competitors, study their marketing materials, and even purchase some of their products. After that, immediately begin working on your own offer so you can start testing it. That’s what students of our Internet marketing programs who become most successful do.

Will all the ideas you come up with work? No. But the only way you’ll find out which ones will work is by trying to sell to the market. If an idea does not work, simply try to re-work the offer or explore a new idea.

In his e-mail, Jim talked about wanting to generate some return “fairly quickly,” despite the fact that he does not “have the luxury of being able to sit in front of [his] computer day in and day out.” You need to have realistic expectations when you begin a new business. And one thing you must be prepared for is that — like any worthwhile venture — it takes time and effort.

One last piece of advice: Get started. Now. By no means is this all you need to know about starting an Internet business. But the best way to get it going is to begin. Ready, Fire, Aim. You can fine-tune your product or marketing later. What’s most important is taking that initial leap.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]

Mark Morgan Ford

Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Wealth Builders Club. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.