This post has been revised and updated from about three years ago (June 3, 2015).
A few years ago, I began culling items from my budget left over from old projects and considering what is actually needed for new projects in terms of potentially turning a hobby into a profitable business. I compiled a list of items that used to be almost mandatory for a start-up, but now may not be needed due to online and technological developments. As I know a lot of my readers are also entrepreneurs, I hope this list will be a good starting point in discussing what to keep and what to leave behind.
Do you really need an official “company name,” or can you just use your own name? You already own your own name, and can legally use it (even if a million other people have that same name) without completing any additional paperwork. Your birth certificate will suffice, even in a court of law.
Using your own name makes things simpler for networking purposes, and leaves you with more flexibility down the road if you want to change the direction of your business.
If you really do need or want to use a company name perhaps for diversification purposes, or just because too many other people already have your name, then yes, you will need to check your local laws for registering a “DBA” or “Fictitious Business Name”.
Domain and Web Hosting
Long, long ago, circa 2008, the common wisdom as soon as you decided on a business name (and actually as part of the research in choosing a business name) used to be to check to see if your domain was available as a .com, and hurry and snatch it up before someone else got it. If you really wanted to stake out your territory, you would also reserve the .net and .org domains so that no one would grab those and use them to horn in on your business, or use the domain to either defame or blackmail you later once you became internet-famous. There were even scalpers who would hoard domain names with the hopes of selling them to businesses at a premium.
Well, now, in addition to .com, .org, .net, and .gov, there are about 1500 more top-level domains, with more being created each day as the internet grows larger, so it’s virtually impossible to buy every version of your name available.
Previously, the other reason to have a .com name was to make it easier for people to find your business online. When people first started learning how to use the web, they would intuitively type “www.yourcompanyname.com” in the web browser, and hope for the best. The alternative was to use AOL keywords, or Ask Jeeves to find the site. If you don’t know what that means – consider yourself lucky.
Anyway, now we have this nifty service called “Google,” and thanks to services like Siri and Cortana and other voice services, many people don’t type anything into their browsers to search.
So, a top-level domain name matters less. This is good news, because you can have a (free) blog on a site like WordPress. These better-known, well-established sites are search engine friendly, and your readers will be able to find you even without one.
Now, there are times when you will want to pay for a domain name and/or web hosting:
- If you want the flexibility of eventually moving to a new platform (e.g. from WordPress to Squarespace) in a way that will be seamless to your readers, then yes, you’ll want to buy a domain name.
- If you need features that are not available on the free platforms (i.e. special widgets or shopping cart tools) then you’ll need web hosting.
- If the ads on the free hosting are conflicting with important graphics on your blog, you may want to consider a paid plan. WordPress.com now offers three levels of plans that combine a lot of the features of free and paid hosting, making this decision even easier. Many other blogging platforms are doing the same.
However, if you mainly want a website that will function as a contact point and/or as a blog…you may very well be able to use one of the many great free services that are out there. I’ve tried most of them, and I personally recommend WordPress.com….with the option to upgrade to a paid plan when you find you want a few extra features.
Lee Laughlin has a great personal-experience story from a few years ago about this over on Live to Write – Write to Live, titled From WordPress.org to WordPress.com. The content and comments are very informative.
SEO / SMO
Should you hire an “SEO Expert”?
Search engine optimization, or “SEO” has a long and storied history.
Getting one’s site to the first page of a search engine results page (SERP) was the ultimate goal, and there were all sorts of self-proclaimed experts claiming to be able to do this. It was a fiercely competitive game, and as with any game, there were winners and losers. Rhere were those who played fair using “white hat” techniques, and those who cheated, using “black hat” techniques. Again, if you don’t know what that means, you’re very lucky, and it doesn’t matter as much as it used to. This is largely because the size of the Internet, and the fact that the search engines, especially Google, have made most of the the old techniques obsolete anyway. The searches are much more personalized to the users’ browsing history, and if you are an individual or very small business, your readers and customers are more likely to find your website through a link on a social network or a real-life contact.
SEO is not dead, but it is no longer a separate function. Instead, it’s more a set of “best practices” that should be incorporated into all of the other functions – titling articles and posts, image titling and placement, web design, article writing, and blog posting.
Everyone involved in working on a website or blog can and should be able to use common-sense SEO techniques successfully. In a nutshell, constantly ask yourself what are your potential readers and clients going to put into a search to find this article, this blog post, this product, or this image? Then use those search terms in the titles and text. Tags are also important. Don’t overdo it, though – keep it natural. The search engines are programmed to pick up on repeat dialog and eliminate such posts from the top search engine results pages.
The search engines do monitor traffic and links to a site, so the more you can genuinely network, the better. Be sure to include links back to your website on your social networks as appropriate (don’t spam your network). This is usually called social media optimization (SMO).
Don’t rely on obsolete, artificial link tactics like “blog rolls.” Again, the search engines have become sophisticated enough to pretty much know what is an authentic, relevant link, and what is just an old “SEO tactic.” The search engines will red-flag the sites they think are “scams,” and it will be very hard to get your blog or website on the first page of a search result if they do this to you, so it is very important not to hire someone to do your SEO who is using these old out-of-date tactics.
If you study and perfect the art of tags, titles (of posts and images), and long-tail keyword placement in the text, you will be able to effectively manage your SEO in a way that is considered organic – which is appreciated by both the search engines, and, more importantly, your readers and customers. Be sure to link to other articles on your site when appropriate. Getting involved in social networks (such as Linked-In, Facebook, Twitter, and any niche-specific networks) in an authentic way will quickly gain you traffic and back-links which will also improve your SEO.
A good way to find out how well you are doing with SEO is to do the following on a periodic basis:
- Sign out of your Google account, and clear your browser’s cache. Remember, these results are personalized, so if you’re signed into your own account, the search engine is going to show you your own website or blog first. You don’t want that. You want to know what a complete stranger is going to see when they do the same search.
- Google your name, the name of your blog/website, and the title of a few of your posts. See how many of the top search engine results are relevant to you. The more the better!
- Search for your main topics online, and see if your blog/website appears in any of the results. If your blog is very new, be patient. In my experience it takes about three months to become organically fully established on the search engines. Although you’ll begin to see a few results right away.
- Watch your stats page on your website. This will show you where your visitors are coming from, and sometimes even what search terms they are using. This will give you a good idea of what is working most effectively, so that you might be able to improve your future results.
Toll Free Number
No. Just no. The toll-free phone numbers are usually only free within a certain region, and thanks to the fact that mobile carriers no longer charge for long-distance, roaming, or “peak hour” calling, the toll-free phone number is no longer needed. If you need a separate line for your business, consider Google Voice, or a similar service.
Nearly every blogging service and social network out there has premium features that are offered for an additional charge. Some of these are great features, and you may want to use them.
My goal when I started this “jennspoint” project was to see what I could accomplish without spending anything. That strategy worked well for the first few years. While I’m now paying for WordPress.com premium, I still use the free versions of nearly everything else. For example:
- LinkedIn: I use the free version of LinkedIn. The two advantages to paying for the premium service would be to see who has viewed my profile without them knowing I’ve viewed their profile (creepy, much?), and the ability to to mass searches for new contacts by company name instead of individual name. I’m not a recruiter, so I don’t really need to do that. The free version is fine.
- Fine Art America/Pixels.com: I am currently using the free version Fine Art America (aka Pixels.com) to offer prints of my digital artwork with server space allotted at that level for now. The main advantage to an upgrade would be the ability to post more photos, but I’m finding that limiting my current offering to 25 or less helps me stay more selective and disciplined about what I choose to post.
- Amazon: I tried Amazon Prime, and found that I just don’t order enough stuff to make it worth the annual fee. If I did more shopping on Amazon, I would probably pay for the Prime membership.
My point is – try the free version first, and see how that works before upgrading. There is a tendency when a project is new to become overzealous in buying every “extra” that is offered before really understanding what is needed. After all, spending money is easier than making money….no? Don’t fall into that trap.