Starting from the Bottom
How to get any business up and running from square one
In my 26 years in business, I’ve been approached many times by people who wanted to start a business, but other than being good at doing something, they don’t have a clue where to start, or what is required. In this article I’m going to go over some of the advice I’ve given out over the years in a fairly organized format designed to be easily accessible and understandable.
So you want to start a business. Maybe you have been a lawyer for a while and want to start your own firm. Maybe you’re a great cook and want to start a restaurant. Maybe you’ve got a great idea for a website that you think will be a hit. Maybe you’ve got a pickup truck and want to start a hauling service. Whatever the specific situation, there are a great number of things that are in common with all business types. I’ll list some of the basics here.
* Decide how the business in going to be organized. This is usually a Sole Proprietorship or an LLC. If you’re like most people, a Sole Prop. is a much easier format to run if you’re starting up and have limited resources and not a lot of assets people could sue you for. LLC’s have limited liability, but that’s not relevant on a day to day basis in most cases and it’s a lot more complicated and expensive to set up. You can get a Business License for a Sole Proprietorship from your local City Hall, usually for $50 or less, and it’s a simple application process. Sometimes you have to get your business location inspected, but that depends on the city and their particular rules.
* Obtain a business location, no matter if it’s a back bedroom turned into an office or studio or a commercial rental or purchase. If you don’t physically have a location and travel to do your work or just work at coffeeshops with your laptop, then you should get a mail drop at a UPS Store or similar, where you will have an actual street address instead of a PO Box. Use care in choosing your location if where it’s located will impact your business prospects. Traffic, Visibility, Demographics, and lots of other factors come into play. Also, prestige can be important for certain kinds of businesses. Manhattan is more prestigious than East Rutherford, for example.
* Get a phone number. Usually this can be done by just getting a cell phone, but if your business is local you should make sure to get a local exchange so you won’t seem foreign. It’s always a good idea to try and get a “cool” number that’s easy to remember. I got 413.587.0011 when the business was located at Studio 11, for instance.
* Register a Domain Name. There are many services that do that, including my company. A good domain name is essential for branding no matter what kind of business you are in. Different businesses rely on the internet and online marketing more than others, but all legit businesses should have a website that’s at least a brochure about the company, and a good domain name is the first step in this process.
* Get a Business Bank Account. I encourage people to bank locally, because this keeps more money in your community, but whichever bank you choose you’ll need to have a business bank account in order to deposit checks people write you in your business name, and as a destination if you accept credit card payments. Most banks offer very inexpensive banking options for startup businesses, so shop around for the best deal.
* Set up a Business PayPal Account. PayPal is like the “5th major credit card”, after Master Card, Visa, American Express, and Discover. Many people use their PayPal accounts to pay for things every day, and if you don’t have a PayPal account you can’t accept payment this way. It’s free to set up and you can support our literary efforts by clicking here if you need to set up an account, and we’ll get a small commission. PayPal is a great source of extremely inexpensive and fairly powerful E-Commerce capability, because you can make shopping cart or buy now or subscription payment buttons and either install them on your website or send them in an email or instant message. This is a very useful way to get paid and I strongly encourage all new business owners to take full advantage of it. PayPal charges the same kind of processing fees that MasterCard and Visa charge, and less than American Express. AND you can accept all four types of credit cards if you have a PayPal merchant account. This is a lot easier than getting set up for a traditional merchant processing account, where you have to apply to Amex and Discover separately, and Amex charges significantly more than the 2.9% that you pay to PayPal, even if someone is using an Amex to pay you through it. If you do high volumes of charges, then PayPal can get you real savings. If you average over $5,000 a month of processing, you can apply to get your percentage down to 2.5%. If you average over $10,000 a month, you can get it as low as 2.1%. The savings on $10,000 of charges between 2.9% and 2.1% is $80/month.
Determine Physical Infrastructure Needs, and Satisfy Them. This includes if you need a computer, a copy machine, a color printer, desks, chairs, signage, telephones, fax machines, office supplies, etc. Whatever you figure out you’ll need, make a plan to budget for and obtain everything, then make it happen.
Figure Out How You’re Going to do Your Books. Quickbooks Online is one of the easiest solutions if you’re going to try to do them in-house, and there are both local accounting firms and internet bookkeeping services that can be used as well. Pick one and then make sure all your checks and receipts and invoices and payments are dutifully recorded, otherwise you’ll wind up having major problems, especially come tax time.
Build Yourself a Website. You can either hire a firm like mine to build it for you or do it yourself with WordPress or Wix or Weebly or Webs or some other free/cheap website self-service platform. You’ll need to secure a hosting platform as well, and secure hosting is the new standard, so make sure you’ve got that box checked. Figuring out what your website will say and coming up with the written and photo/graphical content is the biggest job of this task, and you need to dedicate enough resources, either time or money, to make sure it’s done correctly. Your website is your face to the world in a huge number of situations, so make sure it looks good, is mobile-friendly, and communicates your message clearly and effectively. Also make sure that it’s replete with “calls to action”, to inspire your website visitors to call you, fill out your form, subscribe to your newsletter, or purchase your goods or services.
Secure Your Social Media Presence. Make your self a personal Facebook account if you don’t already have one and then build a Facebook Business Page for your business. Send out invitations to all your Facebook friends and ask them to Like your business page. You need a personal account to make and manage a business page. Set up a LinkedIn profile and make a LinkedIn Business Page for your business. Poke around a bit and try to connect with as many people that you know through business that you can. Establish a YouTube channel and think about what kind of videos would further your business prospects. Make an introduction video at least and put it up on your channel. A few minute talking head video shot from your laptop will do if that’s your only option. There are other accounts to set up as well like Twitter, Instagram, SquareSpace, and more. Establish and maintain as many as you can. Just setting them up at least reserves the username, which is hopefully a good branded name.
Consider Joining Your Local Chamber of Commerce. Chambers are often a good place for local business people to meet their peers and network with and market their goods and services to them. They have events, usually monthly, where local business owners meet and greet over cocktails and snacks at a location that varies from month to month, and is usually a member business. Chambers often have business directories both online and in print that can be a good source of exposure at a low cost for new businesses. Chamber links are often very good for SEO as well.
Determine Your Online and Offline Marketing Plan. All businesses have to have a marketing plan, and almost every business nowadays needs to have an online marketing plan in addition to the traditional marketing efforts that are undertaken. Marketing includes:
Branding is what you do to promote your company’s name and/or your products’ name(s). Branding is a “top of mind” exercise which seeks to make knowledge of one’s brand associate strongly with the products or services it represents. Think Kleenex or Frisbee for the ultimate examples of such. Facial tissues and flying discs are forever associated with these particular brands.
Advertising takes many forms, especially nowadays. Old forms of advertising like the Yellow Pages have mostly disappeared, and these have been replaced with new forms like Pay Per Click advertising and Organic Search Engine Optimization. Many traditional advertising vehicles still exist though, even though the Yellow Pages have gone away, and these include Newspaper, Magazine, Network Television, Cable Television, Radio, Postering, Literature Distribution, and many other formats. In addition to this are all the new online forms of advertising, like the aforementioned PPC and Organic SEO, but also paid article placement, banner ads, site sponsorships, paid Tweets, Facebook Ads, Retargeting, and much more. The key is to figure out where your potential customers are likely to be found, and craft your Advertising strategy and budget around reaching the maximum number of these people at the minimum price. Once you’ve got that figured out, you’re all set (snort). This is of course very challenging and will keep any new business owner up late at night trying to figure it out. But figure it out you must, because bad advertising decisions can cripple a new business. I’ve seen it all too often.
Publishing is where you write and post on your blog or on other platforms articles (like this one) that attempt to solve or address some issue that’s of concern to your targeted demographic. By doing this you establish your expertise and bona fides on your chosen topic and get your name and business name in front of a lot of people that are interested in the subjects you’re writing about, which should include a healty swath of your target demographic. Publishing is very important to Organic SEO, so if you’re trying to do marketing via that channel you should put some real muscle into your publishing efforts.
Networking is the process where you keep track of your connections and try to maximize the leverage that they give you to meet and meaningfully connect with other people who would be interested in what you’re doing with your business. As I mentioned earlier, Chamber of Commerce events are a classic networking environment, and there are usually lots of other similar type events that are good places to network with other business folks and people who might become customers. Get out there and mix it up, because you never know the opportunities that can grow out of meeting people face to face. Sometimes it’s the very best opportunities that come this way.
Promotion is where you run your own events or specials or campaigns that promote your business and get people to either attend or buy or participate in an organized and deliberate way. My company holds semi-annual Rock and Roll Business Networking Keg Parties as promotional events, and they often generate business directly from attendees who had been thinking about getting a website built or whatever and now that they are coming to my party they’ve decided to hire me to do it. I love it when that happens. Events can also be lectures, presentations, coffee hours, book readings, art exhibits, or just about anything else that gets people together and connects to your business.
Strategy is where you try to look at things from 20,000 feet and figure out how everything is going to work together and how you’re going to be able to afford, in both time and money, the things you’re planning on doing. Take the time to write things down and bounce ideas off of people you trust before you start in on the list of things I’ve just discussed. Even though I’m mentioning this aspect of the process last, it’s really the first part you should do.