This is the first of a series of posts about launching your online presence and branding.
- Selecting the right web environment for your needs
- Getting a free SSL certificate and accepting credit card payments on your website
- Social media prep
- Yes, you can still set up free business email accounts
- You can also get a free business phone number
- And you can send free newsletters
- Business cards are a worthwhile investment
- A summary of total costs
Creating an online presence has never been easier, and my goal here is to go over what you need to get started. This is not really intended to be a guide for startups as those types of businesses can incur substantial software development costs, usually require more than one founder, fundraising, and the establishment of a legal entity. Rather, this post is aimed at the more typical and often solo entrepreneur who may also have a day job.
If you have not already done so, it’s time for you to put your analysis paralysis aside and launch your website. Keep in mind that, no matter what your business is, if you do not have a strong web presence your potential customers may not be able to find you… but they will be able to find your online competition.
The list I have assembled below will help you find low cost services to help you get online faster and at a lower cost than you may expect. Please note that we are not affiliated with these service providers in any way and we do not make any money from any of the businesses listed in this post.
As this is a blog post and not a detailed how-to guide, I cannot go into too many details but I will be happy to answer any specific questions asked in the comments section to the best of my ability.
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the first step to getting online is finding an available domain name that you like that also fits your business. You can register with any number of domain registrars but it will be convenient if you are able to register it with the company which will be hosting your website. The minimum length you can register a domain for is one year but you may be able to take advantage of special pricing if you lock it up for additional years. You can generally buy hosting on a month-to-month (the most expensive option), an annual, or a multi-year basis (the cheapest option). If you are going to pay for multiple years of hosting, you may as well register your domain for the same length of time.
Which service provider you host your website with can, in some cases, depend on what technology you want to use to build your website. For instance, if you plan to use a site builder like Wix, Weebly or Squarespace, you would generally have to either purchase hosting with the particular company or sign up for their free offering if one is available.
However, if you plan to use a free, open source CMS (content management system) like WordPress or Drupal, you can purchase hosting through any number of service providers including, but not limited to, GoDaddy, Bluehost, and HostGator. You can also choose to use a programming language like Ruby, Python or PHP which are all also supported by multiple hosting platforms these days.
I will delve into why I don’t recommend website builders like Wix or Weebly, and why I recommend WordPress for even less technically-oriented people in my next post. If you must use a website builder platform, please, at the very least, get a premium account so you can remove the platform’s branding and use your own domain. I would also recommend uploading your own favicon (This is the little icon that is displayed on the browser tab when someone visits your website). When you take ongoing monthly costs into consideration, whether or not you prepay these fees, WordPress will often be a cheaper option than the premium versions of most website builders.
If you want to open an online store you may also want to take a look at Shopify. You can also build a really nice online store with WordPress using the WooCommerce plugin. There are other e-commerce solutions like Magento but these are typically not solutions that you can update and manage yourself without specialized knowledge.
Now that I have listed some of the available choices, I would like to mention that I develop websites using WordPress and, where e-commerce is needed, I use WooCommerce.
It will only take you a few minutes to sign up for a free Stripe account if you need to take online payments right on your website via credit or debit cards. Their fee structure is similar to that of PayPal (2.9% + 30 cents per transaction).
Braintree Payments (now owned by PayPal) is also a major player in this space but while you can set up a Stripe account within minutes, expect it to take some frustration and two to three days to be fully set up with Braintree.
Whether or not you are creating an online store, it is a good idea to get an SSL (secure sockets layer) certificate for your website so your browser’s connection to your web host’s server is encrypted. You can tell that a website uses encryption if you see a green padlock in the address bar when you visit it. It has been suggested that Google ranks encrypted websites higher in search results. Some premium hosting providers will give you a free SSL certificate. You can also get a free one from Cloudflare or LetsEncrypt.
As soon as you register your domain, you should claim matching social media accounts. You should sign up for accounts with all the major platforms, even those you may not use right away. If the social media accounts that are an exact match for your domain name have already been claimed by other businesses or people, you will have to get creative. For instance, you can drop all or some of the vowels in your business name, add some descriptive word after it, or add an article before it to create your own unique social media accounts. You should include links to our active accounts on your website so people can find them. On the flip side, your social media accounts should direct people to your website.
Wherever you have shareable content on your website, you should also include social share icons for all the major platforms.
It will take time to build up your social media following and without viral content it may never be very large, so don’t be discouraged. Even if you are wearing all the hats at your business, you should tweet and post updates to your Facebook page when you can. You can create a free account with HootSuite if you would like to manage all your social accounts through a single dashboard.
From a business perspective, social media helps you promote your services and/or products and helps you create brand awareness for free. Most, if not all, social media platforms also allows you to reach an even wider audience through targeted paid advertising.
If you want to appear truly professional, you also need at least one email address for your domain/website. I recommend having more than one address or, if your email provider permits it, using aliases so it appears that you have more than one email address. In my opinion, at a minimum, you need one business email address with your name and at least one that’s strictly business (inquiries/info/support).
Google no longer gives away free business email accounts. Now you have to pay approximately $5/month/user for a G Suite (formerly Google Apps) account. This is a rather good deal because you get all the features of a standard Gmail account plus some additional perks. You can also create aliases from within a G Suite account.
If you would rather have a free account, I recommend signing up with Zoho through whom you can get up to 50 free business email accounts. Zoho is very feature-rich but you should be aware that the free accounts only give you 5gb of storage each. Also, I have noticed that emails sent to certain types of addresses, for instance Craigslist’s anonymized addresses, will not be delivered.
To overcome delivery issues, and simplifying the management of your email accounts, with a little technical know-how, you can add your Zoho email account to a Gmail or G Suite account.
You can still get a Google Voice number with a multitude of features for free if you need a business phone number that you can publish on your website and print on your business cards. The only thing to keep in mind is that outgoing calls made from your phone would still use your personal phone number. Other low cost solutions include getting a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) number from NetTalk or magicJack. This type of service requires you to have a wired internet connection.
If you want to set up a newsletter subscription form on your website, forget Constant Contact and create a free account with MailChimp instead. If you have no more than 2,000 subscribers and don’t send out more than a total of 12,000 emails per month, your account will remain free.
To be in compliance with the Can Spam Act, you have to make sure that you have either the explicit or implicit permission of anyone you add to your mailing list and that you provide your newsletter recipients with a way to unsubscribe.
You can grow your mailing list by adding a MailChimp widget to your website and you can incentivize signups by offering discounts or freebies.
Even though there are smart phone technologies for sharing your contact information, there is still value in having business cards. Remember that your business card is offline and its content provides no SEO value. So, keep text describing your products or services to a minimum. Make sure you include your essential contact information and the address of your website (without the http:// part). Add your logo or other design elements that add visual appeal to your card. You can order quality, inexpensive business cards from GotPrint or Vistaprint. If you want to get a bit fancier (and pay more), there is always Moo.
Based on the above, the basic cost of launching your business online (including offline branding in the form of business cards) would be:
The following free services listed above have paid options that you can upgrade to as your business grows and your needs evolve: Zoho Mail, Cloudflare, Mailchimp, Hootsuite.
This post assumes that you will build your own website. We will soon be offering some great options for those who would rather not take on this responsibility. Feel free to contact us if you would like to learn more.