With technology increasingly intertwined with all aspects of business, CNET@Work can help you -- prosumers to small businesses with fewer than five employees -- get started.
In 1999, Rob Cheng left a comfortable job heading up sales, marketing and support at Gateway, one of the biggest PC makers of the era, to open his own company. The idea -- a website offering an online diagnosis of your computer -- caught traction and some 17 years later, PC Pitstop had made it onto the Inc 5000 List of America's Fastest Growing Companies.
First came the actual nuts and bolts of creating something out of nothing, and many of the challenges that Cheng had to overcome starting out are the same as those contemporary fledgling companies face -- with one difference: You can buy or rent a lot of technology nowadays to help your small business appear to be a lot bigger than it really is.
Before hanging out a shingle, keep this checklist handy:
Scrimp where you can, but not when it comes to creating a top-notch website. A big company might have a crummy website, but a startup can't afford the same luxury. The website is the face of your business, and colors, typefaces and images count for a lot. So splurge a little because the payoff is worth the extra investment. Don't use anything less than high-quality stock images. Also, don't content yourself with just one or two pages on the website. That's a giveaway your company hasn't been around for very long.
Lastly, make sure that the site is mobile-friendly. The computing world is shifting and if your page fails to load properly, you're forcing mobile customers to hurdle unnecessary obstacles. You don't need prior programming skills with website builders such as Weebly, Wix or WordPress, which feature easy-to-use plug-in architecture and template systems. If you have more demanding e-commerce needs, consider something like Magento -- though you may need to hire a PhP developer.
Get yourself a great logo. You can always hire a designer, but you have other options. Any number of professional logo design sites online do great work and they fall within even a modest budget. "These things have dropped so dramatically in cost that it's easy to do," says Cheng, whose personal favorite is a site called Crowdspring. "You spend $200 and you gets hundreds of ideas that you can choose from. It's a better creative process than just hiring a design agency, where it's one person's ideas." Other options include GraphicSprings, Fiverr and 99Designs.com.
Many small businesses start as LLCs or S Corps. Each offers not only tax advantages but will also protect your personal assets from litigation. Consult with both an accountant and lawyer who can advise on the best choice as well as assist with the required registration and business filings.
Make your official documents... official
Startups who can't afford expensive in-house counsel can now turn to online legal service providers, such as LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer. These companies provide a range of services, including incorporation and legal document review. At the same time, there are any number of electronic signature providers, such as Docusign and Adobe, to help you manage the digital signature process and present your operation to the outside world as a completely digital company.
There are different schools of thought here. Some argue on behalf of a virtual private branch exchange (PBX), which requires dedicated operators. Cheng prefers a less expensive cloud-based Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system that provides multiple extensions for a workforce dispersed around the country. Whatever option makes best sense for you, make sure that it includes a 1-800 number.
If you want to project an image of solidity and credibility, customers are going to expect a toll-free number as standard. The list of VoIP entries include heavyweights such as Google, Verizon and AT&T, as well as more recent entrants like Vonage and MagicJack. (Here's a good PC Mag review that rates various VoIP providers.)
Again, this is a jump ball. Not everyone needs a virtual assistant to help take care of the business's routine administrative tasks. But it's hard to argue that you don't have better uses for your time than balancing the checkbook, or booking airline tickets. It also helps promote the public impression that there's a larger organization complete with an administrative staff behind you.
What should you outsource? My advice: Take a couple of months to track the repetitive tasks that you do and then decide what you need to offload. It's possible to find online providers such as Upwork, Zen Assistant and Workhoppers, who will provide fee-based services, either on a contract or per-project basis.
This is a core competency to master. But if you need help managing your books, you're in luck, because there's no shortage of products in the market that can help. The most popular with small businesses is Intuit's Quickbooks, which is easy to use and inexpensive. Other alternatives: Xero, Wave and ZoHo Books. And since we're talking about reinforcing a message to the marketplace, remember to use higher numbers when invoicing. Sending out an invoice marked No. 1 or 2 won't leave the customer feeling special. Rather, they'll wonder whether you just started business last week.
Email contact info
Whatever you do, don't publish a free webmail address as the company contact. That's a tell-tale sign that there's a home-based business on the other end of the transom.
Search engine optimization
We live in a Google-centric world and you need to make your business show up in the results when customers perform searches. Google can generate a lot of new business if you optimize your site for searches. Most people aren't conversant with the necessary tips and tricks, so unless you're ready to work on getting really good at this, it's a better idea to hire out a contractor with expertise who can help generate traffic.
The easiest way to raise your profile is through advertising. You'll need to track the metrics and make sure that the return is worth the investment. If you want to project an impression of bigness, this is it -- especially on television.
At the same time, do yourself a favor by establishing a presence in social media. It's easy and, best of all, only costs an investment in time. Promoting the company and its activities on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook can help raise your profile and build customer engagement -- and potentially, build sales.
One word of caution: Don't confuse a social strategy with advertising. This ought to be about sharing insights and engaging with your community to solve their problems, not sell them on how great you are. If your advice is sound, that will clinch the argument for you.