I wondered the same thing. I was completely lost and pretty put-off by the game. I did some more research (youtube, reddit, etc) and figured out quite a bit. I'd say the first thing to do is to just look for random bounty's to collect. Start 'Super Cruising' at a relatively low speed and search your navigation menu for 'Unidentified Signal Source.' These are basically random events (could be stolen cargo to be picked up, a wedding escort, or a fire fight going down between police and wanted criminals.) Target ships and see if they're 'WANTED'--if they are, kill 'em and collect the bounty. Just warp out when you're done and look for another Unidentified Signal Source. This will get you some starting cash. From there there's basically four 'professions' you can pursue: bounty hunting, trading, mining, and exploration.
Keep in mind that I believe you get a 100% sell back value on weapons/modules and a 90% sell back value on ships. I'm still very new to the game but I already have a fair share of fantastic stories to tell. The goal is make more money to buy better stuff; however you do it is up to you. How you get there, is kind of the narrative / fun of the game. I was pretty skeptical of the game from the Quick Look, but the amount of nostalgia it made me feel was enough to make me pick up a Saitek X52 and buy the game!