There are many options for small businesses when setting up online. You need to work out exactly what you want from your web presence. Will it be generating sales or selling products or will it be a point of reference for customers?
Knowing what you want out of being online will help you narrow down the many choices you can take. If you are creating a website to be your online store you could consider getting a web design company to build you an ecommerce website. However, this is the most expensive route and options such as www.shopify.com and www.etsy.com offer a much cheaper online option.
A great way to get the word out about your business online is via social networks. Twitter and Facebook are the most obvious choices, however, also look at Pinterest and Google’s social network G+. By offering your social networks advice and content around your services or products, you can quickly start to grow your brand online. It can be a great way to get other people recommending your products or services.
If you decide to set up a website rather than using an ecommerce platform, keep it updated with news and fresh content. Don’t build and forget. So many small businesses online spend lots of time (and money) setting up a website, but then just leave it to stagnate. If you keep your website active, you will have a website that users and search engines will love.
A blog must also be kept active and updated. Another great way to spread the word of your brand is having a popular blog attached to your website or social networks. If you don’t think you can keep an updated blog (posting once a week at least), don’t set one up.
Who are your customers? If you already have an offline presence and know what works, carry that over to your online ventures. Target your customer base and be as courteous to customers and people as you would be in your offline customer interactions.
As an optician I had a well-respected and secure job that paid the bills and gave me a very comfortable lifestyle, but it never quite gave me the fulfilment I was looking for.
I always wanted to run my own business and considered starting my own practice, but I didn’t think it was something I was passionate enough about to make a success of it. I had always been interested in technology and so it seemed fairly logical to do something online.
Both my business partner (a medical doctor) and I realised that there was a bit of an untapped market in the comparison website niche, because there was nothing offering anything related to health. This, in effect, was where the idea for TreatmentSaver.com was born, a website that allows people to book appointments online for laser eye surgery, cosmetic surgery and dental clinics.
Coming up with the idea for our online business was the easiest bit; taking the plunge to leave my job was always going to be trickier. I’m married and have a young daughter and trying to explain to my wife that I wanted to leave my perfectly good job was met with raised eyebrows, to say the least! My parents just couldn’t understand why I would spend all that time at university only to ‘throw my career away'. I explained to them that I would always have my career to fall back on should things not go as planned.
For me, the financial aspect was always the most difficult mountain to climb, because it’s hard to justify working long hours when you aren’t even getting paid for it. Initially, I worked two days per week as an optician, which gave me enough money to survive and this compromise worked well.
When we started our online business, my business partner and I each invested £25,000, which seemed like a heck of a lot of money at the time. As is probably true with many start-ups, a lot of the money ended up being wasted, as we figured out the best way to do things. We outsourced our web development and this was the single biggest drain on our finances. The first two companies promised the world, but were unable to deliver what we wanted, so we had to pull the plug on their work. This resulted in both a loss of time and money. It was at times like this that I felt like packing it in and returning back to my nine-five job, but with every failed website, we learnt a number of lessons about how better to assess potential web developers and understanding the mechanics of building a site.
It took about eight months to finally launch our website, which is a long time. Looking back, we realise we over-complicated things. We wanted an endless supply of cool features, but in reality we could have launched far sooner with a much simpler site.
The past 14 months has been about growing our traffic and signing up clinics, and we have now got to the point where we can pay ourselves a decent salary. The early days are definitely the toughest and having a strong family behind you is extremely important. I could not have done this without the support of my wife, so in that sense it was very much a joint decision. Hopefully, I can repay her support one day.
Here are my top ten software applications that can enable you to connect your home office to customers, contacts and partners in the world beyond.
Say ‘hello’ and talk business with contacts by using these online tools and services:
Stay on top of projects and in touch with partners via one of these project management tools:
There are also technologies you can adopt to ensure your business travels with you. These include: webmail systems that enable access to your emails from anywhere; a remote desktop offering files and folders on the go; or web-based office systems such as Google Apps or Open Office, so your entire business is stored online and in easy reach. I’ll cover these in detail in a future piece. Until then, happy homeworking and connecting with the globe.
Emma Jones is Founder of Enterprise Nation the home business website and author of ‘Spare Room Start Up – how to start a business from home’ and ‘Working 5 to 9 – how to start a business in your spare time’.
If you’ve set up a Facebook page, you’ll probably be wondering how to (a) attract fans and (b) keep the fans you already have interested. You need to focus on the fact that your fans are people like you and me, so this isn’t a ‘business to business’ transaction. You need to be fun and keep it light.
The idea behind a Facebook page is to create a public profile that enables you to share your business and products with Facebook users. They’re very easy to create by going to Facebook, clicking on “Advertising” at the bottom navigation, and then on “Pages”.
Here are some top tips on creating an interesting page with updates that people will want to read:
1. Make sure you add an eye-catching profile picture to your page that represents your business.
2. Add pictures, photographs or videos to your page as you would with your personal account. Images of your products, events, services, employees or even the office dog will add interest to your Facebook page and give it a personal feel. Remember to tag your friends!
3. Before you start inviting your friends or business leads to become fans of the page and recommend you to others, try to pre-populate it with relevant and interesting updates. You could even ask friends and colleagues to start up a discussion or wall post that fans can get drawn into.
4. And this is intrinsic to point 3: Make sure your updates appeal to your fans. Bear in mind that your fans could be teenagers, pensioners, builders, bankers or bakers so it’s essential that your updates are inclusive, and friendly with a distinct tone of voice.
Let’s use a chocolate shop as an example.
BAD status updates:
10am: “Buy our chocolates! They’re delicious!”
2pm: “Have you tried our chocolates yet? They’re delicious!”
4pm: “Check out our website!”
6pm: “We love chocolate.” and so on…..
GOOD status updates:
10am: “If you could invent your very own chocolate, what would it be? The most inventive answer will win a bag of our delicious Pecan Pralines!”
2pm: “Did you know a piece of dark chocolate a day is good for your heart?” (link to a news story)
4pm: “Stop press: New shipment of Willie’s Chocolate now in! Get yours before they’re snapped up!” (link to relevant page on your website)
6pm: “Order anything in our shop between 1pm and 2pm GMT tomorrow and we’ll give you 20% off! Quote ref: FB03” (link to your website)
Hopefully you get the idea. Put yourself in your fans’ shoes – if they get inundated with mundane, corporate sales messages they’ll soon switch off. But make your updates varied, interesting and interactive, and your updates will be shared, commented on, and recommended to others.
5. Check in to your page regularly and respond to comments from your fans. It’ll reinforce your brand and personality as well as proving that you’re not just logging in to make updates now and then.
6. Don’t neglect your Facebook page. It’s all too easy to forget about it when you’re busy and you could end up leaving it sad and lonely for a few weeks. In the meantime your fans will have forgotten you exist or they might even “cull” your page if they don’t deem it interesting enough. Like a pet, keep your page fed and watered!
7. On the other hand, don’t over-do it either. If your fans are getting 30 updates a day clogging up their news feed, they’re not going to be impressed. It’s all about quality rather than quantity.
8. Have a go at “hacking” your profile picture. You can make so much more of the space available if you have the time to learn to do it. A simple Google search will find plenty of websites that can teach you how to do this.
9. Upload pictures or videos that you can tag your fans in. Unfortunately you can only tag your Facebook friends, but if you’re inventive you’ll find a way.
For example if our chocolate shop awarded a bag of Pecan Pralines to a fan they were also Facebook friends with, they could post a picture of the bag and tag it with the fan’s name and a caption “Congratulations Joe Bloggs! You’ve won!” Joe Bloggs’ various Facebook friends would receive the news in their feed and it could tempt them to also become a fan of your page.
10. Although you’ll ideally grow your page and fan base organically, if you want to kick start your Facebook fan attraction campaign, advertise your page by using this link. Make sure your advertisement is eye catching and unique or your investment could be wasted, and above all do some research on your target demographic before you start your ad campaign.
Small Business 2.0 was held on Saturday 23 January. Now in its second year, it’s an event dedicated to helping small businesses profit from the web. Emma Jones went along and picked up some useful nuggets.
Business at the weekend
One of the reasons I like the Small Business 2.0 event is that it’s held on Saturday. Not only does this mean it’s accessible to 5 to 9ers (those holding down a day job and building the business at nights and weekends) it also means there’s a relaxed feeling about the place as attendees listen, learn, and meet new people in an informal setting.
These ingredients came together well on Saturday and were the recipe for an interesting and enjoyable day. Here are a few things I picked up:
(eBay report that even though sellers participating in eBay for charity give 10 per cent of the sales price to charity, their products are 20 per cent more likely to sell, at a better price. This resulted in $50 million being raised for charity in 2009).
Altogether, there was a great vibe and positive signs that 2010 will be another exciting year for anyone starting and growing an online business.
Emma Jones is the founder of Enterprise Nation and author of ‘Spare Room Start Up – how to start a business from home’. Her next book ‘Working 5 to 9 – how to start a business in your spare time’ will be published in May 2010.