Do it yourself!

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Start your business by constructing a professional and well-researched plan. Your business plan should be a dynamic document that maps out your company’s ideas, goals, and processes.  In general, it will consist of the following sections:

1.  Executive Summary

2.  Company Description

3.  Marketing Plan

4.   General Operations

5.  Financial Projections

6.  Management Practices

Since your business will change as it grows, your business plan should change along with it. In addition to clearly outlining your company’s values and functionality, this document will capture important changes and guidelines on your path to profitability. Make a point of checking in with your business plan on a monthly basis.

Your business plan will be a valuable resource when you are searching for partners or seeking financial backing. A well-written and professionally designed business plan will help you, your team, and your investors know where you are, where you are going, and how you plan to get there.

Brightladder specializes in creating custom and professionally designed business plans that can showcase the poise and attention to detail your company is after. To get started with one of our consultants, click here.

Choosing your name

Great businesses start with a great name. The best business names provide a clear and concise image of what the business is about, while remaining unique. Although there are some exceptions, when naming your business, it is important to keep the following questions in mind:

1.  Is it easy to remember?

2.  Does it accurately portray my business?

3. Can it be branded effectively with a logo?

4. Is anyone else in my industry using the name or could it violate an existing trademark?

It is also crucial to consider how your business will work as a domain name. When naming your business, check if the domain name is available or if it can be purchased from its current owner. 

Protecting your name

Once you have chosen your business name and purchased the corresponding domain names, it is important to set up legal protection. Since your state filing agency won’t allow two entities to be registered under the same name, one of the easiest and fastest ways to ensure that another business can’t use your name is to register your company as an LLC or Corporation, which you can do quickly here: Incfile.com.

Another way to legally protect your business name is to register it as a trademark. Trademarking your business name can require more time and effort than simply registering a business name with your state. The benefit of having a registered trademark is that your business name will be legally protected in all 50 states. To register for a trademark, your business name must be distinct and cannot be confused with other registered trademarks. You can register for a trademark by clicking the following link: Trademark Registration.

Protecting your product

A patent is a type of intellectual property that gives an inventor the right to prevent competitors from reproducing or selling his/her invention for an extended period of time. If your business is oriented around the sale of a novel product, you will need to file for a patent according to the following steps:

  • Record every step of your invention. Describe what you have created, its modifications, how you developed the idea, and, if possible, build a prototype. Sign these documents alongside witnesses and date them.
 
  • Ensure that your invention can be protected by a patent. In order to qualify for a patent, you must have more than an idea and your product must be inherently novel. For more information, visit Qualifying for a Patent FAQ.
 
  • Make sure it’s worth it. Filing for a patent costs roughly $1,500. Before you apply, make sure this decision is necessary to the performance of your business.
 
  • Do a patent search. Search existing patents to make sure that your invention is novel. Visit a Patent & Trademark Depository Library, or hire a professional to help you with your search. If you find other inventions that are similar to your own, your application needs to outline how your product is different.
 
  • File an Application with the USPTO. It is possible to file with a provisional patent application (PPA) or a regular patent application (RPA). A PPA is not an actual application for the patent, but it will allow you to state “patent pending” on your invention. PPAs are a cheaper, easier source of protection. Within one year of filing your PPA, you must file an RPA. If accepted, a regular patent will protect your invention for the forseeable future.

New entrepreneurs are often tempted to use a cell phone as their main business contact number. While this may work for small service-based business with no plans of growth, we strongly advise purchasing a business number and setting up a virtual forwarding service from the start.

Cloud-based phone systems

A cloud-based phone system is a service that delivers phone calls through the Internet. A toll-free number with a virtual forwarding service, also known as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), can give your small business a professional feel, and help to keep your staff organized as you grow. We strongly recommend using Grasshopper, which will allow you to forward calls directly to your cell phone.

Owning your business number

Many VoIP companies will “give” you a number as part of their monthly fee. However, if you decide to change providers, you may not be able to take the number with you. Imagine all the business cards you will have handed out, the billboards, the online ads, and other ads that include a phone number that is no longer yours. To avoid this problem, purchase a toll-free number through a site such as RingBoost.com. After you purchase a number, you will be able to “port” that number to any VoIP company you choose; if you decide to move to a different provider, you can take the number with you.

When you first establish your business, you will be a Sole Proprietor. A Sole Proprietorship is NOT a legal entity and has no separate existence from its owner; thus, profits and losses are reported on the individual’s personal income tax return. As a Sole Proprietor, you will have unlimited personal liability for the debts and agreements of your business. To put it bluntly, this can negatively impact your personal financial security.

Therefore, we strongly recommend that you incorporate your business. By creating a Limited Liability Company (LLC) or Corporation, you will establish a separate legal identity for your business.

How to incorporate your business

It is possible to incorporate your business on your own, or with the help of an attorney. However, the cheapest, most efficient method is to use a service such as Incfile.com. This streamlined process ensures that your business will be incorporated and compliant with state and federal regulations.

Differences between business entities

A C-Corporation (C-Corp) is a separate legal entity that is owned by shareholders. This company structure limits a shareholder’s personal liability to the amount they’ve invested. C-Corps are ideal for successful and pre-existing companies that are seeking large venture capital investors to help take their company to the next level.

An S-Corporation (S-Corp) functions like a C-Corp except that, unlike a C-Corp where revenue is taxed at a corporate level and again at a personal level when dividends are paid to shareholders, the S-Corp’s special tax status eliminates such double taxation. An S-Corp can take advantage of pass-through taxation so that no corporate taxes are paid, and shareholders claim their dividends on their personal income tax returns. Although S-Corps function similarly to C-Corps, there are some strict guidelines set by the IRS that must be met and maintained. If you are considering incorporating as an S-Corp, it is best to seek the counsel of a business lawyer and your tax advisor to help complete the paperwork.

A Limited Liability Company (LLC) combines the limited liability of a C-Corp with the pass-through taxation of a Sole-Proprietorship. In other words, the owners of the LLC still report their profits or losses on their personal tax returns, but their personal assets are not at risk in the event of a lawsuit. This is a fairly common entity for start-ups.

An EIN is a 9-digit number that is used to identify employers for tax purposes—think of it as a Social Security Number for businesses. The IRS assigns an EIN to all organizations that are required to pay federal taxes. If you are uncertain whether you need an EIN, please view this IRS Guide.

There are a few simple ways to obtain an EIN. Companies like Incfile.com will do it for you as part of their incorporation service. It is also possible to obtain your own EIN on the IRS website by clicking on the following link: Apply Now. If you apply Monday-Friday between 7 A.M. and 10 P.M. and live in the United States, you will obtain your EIN almost immediately upon completion of the online application.

Most businesses will need a business license or permit(s) to operate legally. These will depend on the type of business and where it is located. For example, if you are selling products in the state of California, you will need a reseller permit for the purpose of collecting and reporting sales tax. IncFile.com can alleviate this stress by conducting research on your behalf, and keeping you informed of changing regulations. We strongly recommend working with this type of professional service to make sure your bases are covered.      

In addition, the Small Business Administration (SBA) has made it easy to determine what permits and licenses you need by providing links for each state. Click here for access.

Keep in mind that, although your personal assets are protected if you operate a corporation, your business assets are not. Without proper insurance, you can lose the business you have fought so hard to build with just one lawsuit or incident.

Tip: When you are determining what you to charge for a product or service, be sure to keep in mind the cost of insurance along with all other expenses, and price accordingly.

Mandatory types of business insurance      

There are optional and mandatory types of business insurance. Every state is different, but many states require specific types of insurance for specific business activities. If you are an employer, the following types of insurance are required to protect your employees:

1. Workers Compensation

2. Unemployment

3. Disability (Required by California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island)

To set up insurance for your business, we recommend starting with an established commercial carrier such as Hiscox.

Optional types of business insurance

Although not required by law, we strongly recommend that you carry General Liability insurance. This provides protection if you, your employee, or your product causes bodily injury or property damage. Similarly, property insurance covers your place of business from damage owed to fires, flood, earthquake, theft and other events. Finally, we recommend Business Interruption insurance, which can save your business in the event that operations are halted and profits are lost.

There are many other types of insurance to cover your business. Some of the more popular include: Professional Liability Insurance, Data Breach Insurance, Directors and Officers Liability Insurance, and Key Man Insurance. Consult with an insurance agent at Hiscox to be sure that you are covered for your specific business.1

It is essential that you set up a business bank account that is separate from your personal bank account. Here are a few reasons why creating a separate business bank account is crucial:

Paying Taxes

When it is time to file taxes, your personal and business expenses must be separated. If you use the same bank account for both, you will find yourself in a long and painstaking process of separating your business expenses from your personal expenses.

Business Expenses

Since businesses are the only entities that can deduct business expenses, it can be difficult to convince the government that you have a legitimate business if you are making deductions and running your business out of your personal bank account.

Auditing

In the event that you are audited, the IRS requires that you provide a clear trail of all of your business expenses. If your personal expenses and business expenses are being paid from the same account, it could be difficult to satisfy the IRS.

Missed Tax Deductions

If your personal and business transactions are tracked in the same account, odds are that your bank account isn’t as organized as it could be. With a messy bank account, it can be easy to overlook tax deductions.

Professionalism

If the bank account is in your name, companies that receive check payments from you may be confused as to whether the check is from you or your business.  This contributes to an unprofessional appearance.

What is a merchant account?

A merchant account (MA) is a business agreement with a credit card processor that allows businesses to accept credit cards as payment. For online businesses, the majority of point-of-sale purchases are paid for by credit card. An MA will ensure that you can receive payment from as many customers as possible.

How do they work?

Credit card companies such as Visa and MasterCard charge a small fee every time a credit card is used. The merchant processor charges you this fee (as the business) by assessing an additional surcharge. Generally, the total fee will be 2.9% of the charge plus 30 cents per transaction. Within 1-3 days of the transaction, you will receive the customer’s payment directly into your business bank account, minus this transaction fee.

 Which merchant account should you choose?

Choosing a merchant processing company can be tricky. A good rule of thumb is to avoid any agreement that requires a long-term contract. You will also need to read the terms and conditions, regardless of which company you choose.

For example, are there “Risk Assessment Fees”? These are fees that are charged if the merchant processing company determines that you are a liability for one reason or another, and thus can amount in hefty premiums. Will you be required to have a minimum number of transactions per month, or a minimum number of sales? Volume commitments can also create extra unplanned costs.

Our recommendations

It is important to ensure that you choose a merchant account that integrates seamlessly with your website. Authorize.net is one of the most common merchant gateways and will connect easily to almost all web platforms.

Another simple way to get an MA is through Stripe.com. Stripe won’t lock you into an agreement, has no monthly fees, and no hidden charges. While they integrate with many platforms, you’ll need to hire a third-party company or a programmer to install special features such as dunning, payment pages, etc.

What if I have recurring charges?

If you have a monthly fee, you will want to have a dunning program tied to your MA. Dunning is methodical communication with customers to remind them to send their payment. If you do not have a dunning program associated with your credit card processing, what will happen when your customer’s credit card expires, or becomes invalid?

To address this issue, we recommend Stunning.co, a program that connects with existing Stripe.com accounts. If a credit card is about to expire or has been cancelled, Stunning.co will automatically try to update the card with the new expiration date and/or automatically reach out to the customer.

Negotiate

If the MA company asks for 2.9% plus 30 cents per transaction, ask for a discount. If you are processing a large volume of sales, you may be able to dramatically reduce their fees, which could potentially save you tens of thousands of dollars a year!

Bookkeeping is an essential part of running a successful business; accurate books will allow you to both manage your finances and evaluate ongoing operations. Without them, it is easy to fall victim to problems with cash-flow, or even legal disputes.

The basics of bookkeeping are fairly simple. Your books must include all transactions made by your business. To assist you in the formation of diligent accounting practices, we recommend using simple, cloud-based accounting software such as Fresh Books. Their straightforward dashboard will allow you to track transactions, and keep your data secure.

Branding is much more than a logo and tagline; it is the “voice” and overall feel of your company. Powerful brands evoke an emotional response and inspire customer loyalty. What are you trying to communicate to your customer? What can they expect from you? What is your voice, and what do you want your customers to feel when they see or think of your company?

Spend some time visualizing the customer experience you want to offer, and work your way backwards to plan how you will get there. A great company name can make an enormous impact, and with a memorable logo, you will win the first battle for your potential customers’ attention: the initial impression. Don’t settle for a subpar logo as this is the visual representation of your company’s voice.

Logo Design

Unless you have extensive design experience, this is not a do-it-yourself task. Professional logo development with a powerful visual representation of your overall brand is vital, and trying to build a million-dollar business with a $5 logo is like trying to build a house without a hammer. You need the right tools with the right manpower to have a shot at building an empire.

Start-up companies with significant funding often hire top design firms when developing their brand. High-end design firms generally have a $100,000 minimum for branding work (and for most of us, this is not feasible). At the other extreme, some sites offer logos for a few bucks. One of the risks of using a company that is wildly inexpensive is that you have no way of knowing if the designer simply stole the icon from another company and then typed in your name with a different font. It might not look terrible, but someone earning $5 for a logo can’t spend days, or even hours, conceptualizing and designing, which is necessary to have a strong corporate identity. A good rule of thumb is that if something appears too good to be true, it probably is.

No matter who you work with on your logo, you need to perform a Google Image Search once you decide that you are happy with the design. You are responsible for ensuring that the designer didn’t steal another icon or logo, because this could end your business journey with a single lawsuit.

Examples of Great Brands

Great brands are subtle, and some of the most effective and memorable logos have elements that trigger an emotion or thought that you may not even be aware of. For example, have you noticed that the arrow in the Amazon logo doubles as a smile that travels from the letter “A” to the letter “Z”? Amazon provides everything from A to Z, making customers happy.

As another example, does anything stand out to you about the FedEx logo? Look closely and you will see a white arrow in the negative space between the “E” and the “X.” This subtle symbol gives the impression of motion and movement, letting you know that FedEx will get your packages to where you need them.

Our Recommendations

Brightladder has an in-house team of talented designers and consultants ready to walk you through the branding process. We offer a complete satisfaction guarantee; if you are not happy with your design, we will return your money. Click here to get started with Brightladder today.

Another good option for logo and branding design is 99designs.com. 99designs is a marketplace that connects designers with people who need designs. Set up a contest and fill out a questionnaire; designers will begin submitting design proposals. You can choose the design you like best and can ask for revisions for a reasonable rate.

A United States Trademark is a symbol or word(s) registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) that represents a company or product. Trademarking your name and logo will prevent competitors from infringing upon this form of intellectual property and interfering with your brand.

Before filing, always place “TM” symbol on your name or logo, informing the marketplace that it will be trademarked. Once you receive your certificate from the USPTO, you can change it out with an “R” (registered) symbol.

How to register a trademark without an attorney

It is possible to submit an application directly to the USPTO at uspto.gov. However, you will first need to perform a thorough search of the TESS Database (Trademark Electronic Search System) to make sure that your name or logo has not already been claimed. To do this, visit uspto.gov/trademark and click on the top-left link to access TESS. Know that this can be a daunting amount of information to slog through. If your budget allows, we recommend that you hire a professional to perform this search on your behalf.

The cost to submit a trademark request is between $275 and $325. If your application is rejected, you will not receive a refund. Do your due diligence with the application process and get it right on your first try. After submission, it generally takes up to six months to hear back regarding the status of your application. You will want to log in and check your application’s status at least every 3-4 months, in case the USPTO has requested more information or clarification. For more information on the process of registering your own trademark, please click here.

Hiring a legal service to register a trademark on your behalf

It is also possible to hire an attorney to register your trademark, but doing so can be prohibitively expensive. If you don’t have the budget to pay for an attorney, and don’t feel comfortable registering yourself, we recommend that you use an online service such as IncFile.com to walk you through this process. Click here to view their services and pricing for trademark registration.

Social media is more than just a passing fad. It is a proven tool for helping small businesses find new customers, engage with them, and turn those relationships into sales. Any company in search of an audience should have a presence on social media and frequently communicate with their customer base. There is a clear connection between social media followings and website traffic: for example, companies that get more than 1,000 daily likes on Facebook receive more than 1,400 visits per day to their websites.

Social media is a preferred channel of communication for modern consumers. As a result, modern consumers expect brands to be on social media. It is your responsibility to grow your network accordingly, building trust and relationships with potential customers by providing value through your updates.

 What do valuable updates look like?

Value is not consistently sharing the same information about a product or service again and again. Customers are picky about the messages they receive, and if yours feel like spam, they will be quick to unfollow you. Provide value to your customers by crafting how-to articles that will interest your audience, or a sneak peek into a forthcoming product.

Availability is another crucial component to valuable engagement. Customers can comment on a post you’ve shared at any point during the day. Replying in a timely fashion will show customers that you care and take a personal approach to running your social media account.

Which social media channels should I use?

Before setting up a slew of media accounts, you need to think about what you are trying to communicate about your business, and where your target customers are most likely to reside. For example, marketing a new accounting software would gain more traction on LinkedIn, a business networking tool, than it would Instagram, a social photo sharing platform.

Spend time thinking about what your goals are. Do you want to increase sales? Become a thought leader in your industry? Drive traffic to your site? Start with 2-3 platforms that are germane to your interests, build an audience, and then consider branching onto additional sites. In general, the top platforms to use are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Google+.

Who will manage your social?

If you do not have time to check in on each of your social profiles at least several times a week, consider the following options:

1.  You can assign the task to a team member with experience using social media for business.

2.  You can hire a freelancer to run your accounts.

3.  You can work with a social media agency with experience in your field.

One of Brightladder’s core offerings is social media set-up and education. We can help you to amass followers, engage customers, and manage accounts with the latest tools. To learn more about how we can help maximize your efforts on social media, click here.

No matter your industry, we recommend putting together a professional website to maximize visibility. Two terms you should become familiar with as you embark on designing a website are UX (User Experience) and UI (User Interface). UX and UI should work together to produce a site that your customers/clients understand and are able to use within ten seconds of visiting your site.

Building a functional business website without losing time and money can be a difficult task for entrepreneurs. Brightladder offers affordable website design and hosting services that can have you ready for sales within the week.

Leveraging design to minimize “Bounce Rate”

The term “bounce rate” refers to the number of visitors who visit a site and then leave without clicking on any links. A major determinant of bounce rate is “user anxiety.” Have you ever visited a website that confused you or made you feel uncomfortable due to the layout, colors, wording, etc.? That “anxiety” can push a potential customer to leave your site and seek out another company to meet their needs. A great UX/UI site will reduce your bounce rate and lower your customer-acquisition costs.

Spending time and/or money to direct visitors to a poorly designed site is a waste of money. If the cost of acquiring a new customer is too high due to your website’s poor performance, you won’t realize any profit even if you offer a great product. Business owners will often use a basic website until they make enough money to hire professionals to redesign it. However, this can be a costly mistake, since the basic site could slow your company’s growth.

A great way to understand how users are interacting with your website is to leverage mouse tracking programs such as Mouseflow. Mouseflow lets you track mouse movements of visitors to your site so that you can see where they got stuck, where they focused their energy, and what you can do to boost conversions.

Finding a domain name

First, it is important to acquire a domain name that matches your company name as closely as possible. You may have to be creative due to the ever-shrinking number of available .com’s. When searching for a suitable domain name, GoDaddy's bulk domain search is an excellent place to start: GoDaddy Bulk Domain Search.

If your domain name is not currently owned by another person, it will cost roughly $10 - $50 a year, depending on the TLD (Top Level Domain - .com, .org, net, .co, etc.). Sometimes your ideal domain name will be owned by someone else. It is possible to purchase your domain, although recognizable .com’s can range in price from $500 - $50,000.

When possible, it is always good idea to purchase your domain name in all common TLD’s; this will help you to avoid any future problems if someone purchases and uses your domain name with a different TLD. If you find a good .com but are not sure whether you will ever use it, we recommend buying it anyway, since the cost can be less than $1/month.

Renting versus owning your website

You will have the option to either rent or own your website. Renting a site means that you will pay a company a monthly or yearly fee for the rights to that site design. If you stop paying, the site will disappear because they own the code. An advantage of renting is that this can be an inexpensive and quick way to get your site online. The downside is that the monthly/yearly fees add up. In the long-term, it is possible that you will spend more on a rented site than you would in building a custom owned site. Furthermore, if the rental platform you choose does not offer a particular feature, you are either out of luck or will have to pay high development costs to have the feature added.

Some people decide to start out renting and then eventually pay designers to create a great site. The problem is that all of the SEO rankings you build in the interim will be tied to the rental, and, if you do not make the change extremely carefully alongside trained professionals, you may lose your rankings. We have seen this before - a website with a top 5 Google placement for major key terms in their industry changed the site design, and went from the 1st page to the 25th page, ultimately losing almost all of their traffic. There are countless horror stories of people changing domains, web hosts, or designs, and losing the rankings they spent years achieving.

DIY templating options

If you wish to own your site, you can either hire a web designer or purchase a pre-made template and customize it to your liking. If you do not have $10,000+ to spend, we recommend starting with a template at ThemeForest.net. They have over 20,000 themes with design and functionality starting at $2 each.

If your business is a simple e-commerce store and you don't foresee any extremely unique shopping cart needs, there are several great options that will allow you to quickly go live and start taking orders with limited investment. Shopify.com is a good hosting option that focuses solely on e-commerce. Click here to sign up for a 14-day trial.

If your business website requires special customization, we recommend starting with either WordPress (basic website) or Magento (e-commerce website). Both accept tens of thousands of plugins that are cheap yet powerful. We recommend that entrepreneurs without development experience hire a professional to help quickly install extensions.

Web Hosting

Just as if you would have to pay rent for a retail storefront, you will have to pay for space to keep your website online. There are numerous web hosting companies, so do your research to determine which will be best for you. The monthly cost of hosting may start at around $10/month, but as your site grows and offers more features, and as the traffic picks up, you will likely have to upgrade. If you are selling a product, you will want to have an SSL Certificate to keep your site secure. Contact your hosting provider for further details.

Many of our clients have reported that HostGator.com provides inexpensive hosting solutions and good customer service. Use the code “brightladder” during checkout to save some money on your first month.

Many small businesses make the mistake of using a personal mailbox or a standard free email service such as Hotmail for their business communication. This is something to be avoided. A personalized email address with your company’s domain name creates a professional image and boosts your credibility. Personalized email addresses will give you the flexibility of creating email addresses with aliases for various departments, such as support@yourdomain.com or sales@yourdomain.com. This provides clarity when communicating with customers.    

You can either host email functionality through your website hosting provider, pay for a server dedicated to your email, or use a third-party email service (recommended). Each option has advantages and disadvantages, as you’ll see below.

Email with a website hosting provider

Many small businesses host their emails through their website hosting provider. When you log in to your hosting control panel, there will be an option to manage the mailboxes of that domain. This allows you to create, edit and remove custom mailboxes for your domain name.

The downside to this option is that web hosting companies are focused on web hosting solutions, and email hosting often takes a back seat. Email servers and the traffic they generate require a certain amount of the server’s resources and if a mailbox sends and/or receives too many emails, the resource consumption can get out of hand and affect the web service. This is why web hosting providers place limits on the number of emails you can send and receive.

If you plan on using your business mailboxes for occasional emails, and you don't plan on using marketing campaigns that generate thousands of emails, creating your business mailboxes on your web server might be the easiest and most convenient option.

Email with a dedicated server

If you plan on using extensive email marketing campaigns with large numbers of recipients, consider getting a separate server dedicated to your emails alone. You might need to hire a professional system administrator who can configure and maintain the server for you.

The most significant advantages of hosting your emails on a dedicated server are security and privacy. Email addresses hosted by third-party companies can be spoofed, and people can receive SPAM emails that are made to look as if they had come from you. Furthermore, when using the email services of another company, you can never be sure about the privacy of the emails you send and receive. Somewhere along the route between your mailbox and the mailbox of the person you’re communicating with, emails can be read by unauthorized personnel.

Having a dedicated server for your emails can give you the peace of mind that your emails are secure and private, but it can be costly. If you are on a tight budget, you may want to use a different option and consider switching to a dedicated email server down the road.

Email with G-Suite

You can also use a third-party email service provider for your business. Google Apps is the most widely used and can provide your business with custom mailboxes and better security than web hosting companies and for much less than a dedicated server. This option provides greater flexibility and more options than a web hosting company’s email solution, but it can be more expensive ($5/month per email account). Sign up by clicking here and enter the following coupon code in your billing settings to save 20% for the first year: 9WF99HU4T3FPLW

Keep in mind that even though such companies are dedicated to email solutions, they have limits on the number of emails you can send and receive. If you plan on starting email marketing campaigns, check the terms of the email service provider you have chosen and make sure they can support the emails you plan on sending.

For mass marketing campaigns, it is best to use a service such as Infusionsoft.com, which will be discussed further under Marketing.

Intracompany Communication

To communicate efficiently with employees, we recommend using a service such as Slack. Slack is a messaging service for companies to effectively organize, delegate, and produce. It can also be quite fun. Sign up for a free trial and see how it works!

Climbing the ladder to success requires a solid marketing plan. The marketing plan lays out how and where you will implement and achieve the goals of your business plan. Taking a product or service to market can be very costly if you do not have the right insight into how advertising, branding, social media, retail stores and distribution houses all work together.

A basic marketing plan differs from a business plan in that a marketing plan supports ongoing sales efforts, and a business plan explains the overall business, potential customers and revenue goals. Most startups fail to recognize this important difference. When you consider creating a marketing plan, it is very helpful to ask yourself the following three questions:

1.  How and where would I find out about my idea if I was a consumer?

2.  How can I explain my idea in the least amount of time?

3.  How will I stay organized and follow-up on leads?

Learn to explain your idea quickly

For in person marketing, you should have an “elevator pitch” ready to go at any time. This is a 30- to 60-second explanation of your business that piques the interest of the listening party. It should include the following:

1.  Name

2.  Company

3.  Product

4.  Target Customers

5.  Unique selling proposition or distinction from the competition

6.  Call to action

Check this out for more helpful hints.

How to organize and follow up on leads

It is important to follow-up every single lead. It may take a few conversations or emails with a customer to get the sale. Then, after customers are landed, you need to have an organized way to keep track of them. It is less expensive to retain a customer than it is to acquire a new one.

The goal is to have more leads come through than you can track manually. We use Infusionsoft to manage both our leads and our clients, and strongly recommend it. Even as we sell our services to you, we are doing so in an organized manner to make sure we limit our mistakes and provide you with a product that urges you to use our services again in the future.

Infusionsoft allows you to automate your marketing and follow-up. It helps you stay organized and increase the conversion rate of the leads you acquire. It is like having an employee working 24-7, 365 days a year.1.

PPC, or pay-per-click, is advertising that can be purchased on search engine pages, social media, and other sites. What just a few years ago was relatively unpolished and unappealing is now a highly targeted and effective means of reaching your audience.

What makes PPC different from, say, banner ads is that instead of paying a flat rate for your ad to appear, you pay for every click that it gets. So, if your ad sits there and no one clicks on it, you pay nothing. It is a targeted method for promoting immediate results. If you can afford the rate it costs to get to the top of the PPC ads for a given keyword, you can reach millions of people. Where SEO can take years, PPC can yield overnight results.

If you are still testing out a product or a landing page, your PPC results can quickly tell you whether you’re on the right track. For example, if you run two versions of an ad, you can measure which converts more clicks into customers. You should always have an A/B test going with your advertisements.

Furthermore, PPC delivers simple ROI analysis. If people click on your site and then make a purchase, the cost of that click is your investment. Your return is whatever they paid for your product. In addition to measuring cost per click, you can also measure cost per action and other activities of note.  

Marketing is a crucial factor that will impact the success of your business. An important part of marketing online is Search Engine Optimization, also called SEO. SEO is the act of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic search engine results. It involves tools and strategies that help to make your company more “discoverable”.

All search engines have different algorithms and rules. We suggest focusing on Google, the largest online search engine. To put it bluntly, Google is smarter than you. What this means is that successful SEO is not about outwitting this major search engine or trying to manipulate your way to the top of its rankings. It is about understanding what Google’s goals are, then aligning your goals to match.

Just like any other company, Google wants to give its customers the best product. Their customers are the billion+ people who use their search engine to easily find results. Their product is page results, i.e., your website. Therefore, your mission is to make your website the best available result for a given search.

Why is SEO important for business?

Whether you sell products online through an ecommerce site or simply have a website to draw customers to your brick-and-mortar location, you need traffic on your site in order to make conversions.

When people search for your type of business on Google, Yahoo!, Bing, or any other search engine, they want to find a solution as quickly as possible. Most people will not click to the second or third page of search results, so you must work to ensure that your site ranks on the first page of relevant search results.

On average, the top organic search result for Google receives 33% of all traffic. The 10th result on the first page of a Google search return receives only 2.4% of traffic.

Where to focus your SEO efforts

The more marketing you do online, the more attention you will need to pay to SEO. We recommend three main tactics:

  • Web Copy: Each page of your website needs targeted keywords to attract the right customers.
 
  • Blogging: Blogs are fantastic tools for driving traffic to your website from all corners of the internet.
 
  • Social Media: Leveraging sites like Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and YouTube to create compelling posts can drive traffic back to your sites.

Human Resources, i.e., the leaders and workforce of your company, will arguably have the greatest impact on the success of your business. Although you may be the only employee at the start of the business, it is never too early to think about the people-power it will take to grow and achieve your vision. Here are some of the components of effective Human Resources strategies that are found in successful companies.

Strong, decisive leadership

Employees and customers alike will follow a strong and charismatic leader who shares the his/her vision and gives purpose to the day-to-day activities to achieve company goals. If these traits aren’t naturally part of your personality, you may need to complement your skills by hiring others to fill this crucial role. As the company grows, your leadership team will grow. It is imperative that all members consistently communicate the same vision through their actions and words.

A well-written, comprehensive employee handbook

A good employee handbook should include a description of the employment status, pay policies, standards of conduct, benefits, company history and vision/mission, and an Acknowledgment of Receipt form that each employee will sign annually. You must ensure that your facts and policies are accurate and up-to-date with the ever-changing legal requirements of employment laws. Wrongful termination, sexual harassment in the workplace, ADA compliance, safety and security, and equal opportunity in hiring are all potential hazards where making a mistake could significantly affect your bottom line, or even your solvency. A legal review with HR experts is an investment you should budget for each year to make sure you stay compliant and update your handbook as needed.

Consistent & methodical hiring practices

Matching your current or prospective employees’ skill sets to the positions in which they will be most productive is key to developing an effective workforce. You should have a defined process that evaluates skills, rates past performance, and is open to all qualified candidates. Hiring from within your company is a great way to develop your employees and show upward mobility. But don’t be afraid to bring in outside candidates who have the skill sets needed to improve your team.

Employment involvement & incentives

All employees need to know what you are trying to accomplish with your business to effectively produce results. Strong, repeated communication of your goals along with employee incentives will go a long way towards promoting worker satisfaction and efficiency. You can develop documents and practices that keep everyone informed of your vision. Some examples are a Company Philosophy, Mission Statement, Suggestion Box, Monthly Performance Meetings, Customer Service Ratings, Profit Incentive Goals and Company Celebration Events.

Customer Policies

As with your employees, your customers need to know what to expect from your company. You should always clearly communicate your policies to all potential customers so that they are aware of how you do business. You can portray this as a fair, win-win relationship to give the customer a secure feeling prior to making a purchase. Be consistent with all customers, and avoid excessive inquiries and complaints that will take up valuable time and money.

Your business will thrive when your customers are impressed to the point that they do your marketing for you. This kind of customer response takes true dedication to building a process that makes it easy and satisfying to do business with your company. Make information readily available to your customers so that they know how you operate, what to expect from you, and how it benefits them. You can accomplish this with a thorough FAQ list that shows customers clear and simple answers to potential questions.

You should thrive on customer feedback so that you can learn from it, adapting future products and processes to these insights. Customer comments and reviews are crucial to understanding your performance in the marketplace, as well as a key driver of your online reputation on various channels. Figure out a way to track customer service in your business using a Customer Relationship Manager (CRM) such as Infusionsoft. Speed, quality, customer satisfaction, and return levels are all worth tracking. Find a way to reward your employees for hitting benchmarks in customer feedback.

Responding to both positive and negative comments is very helpful for developing exceptional customer relations and reviews. Always try to turn a negative situation into a positive, loyal, long-term customer. Things will go wrong in any business relationship, but how the great companies respond is what sets them apart. Always take the high road with your customers. Sometimes you will need to take a short-term loss to ensure the long-term success of your business. Remember that other customers are watching how you handle sticky situations, and that you can increase their loyalty when you do it right.

Whether you are starting or expanding your business, you should know how to obtain financing. There are multiple ways to obtain business financing, which we will discuss below.

When you are applying for a loan, several factors are often considered. These may include your FICO score, how long you’ve been in business, your debt history, your past experience, and whether your business has survived any financially difficult times such as a recession. From the lender’s perspective, it all boils down to one question: “Will I get my money back?”

Family & Friends

Most new entrepreneurs in search of small loans start with friends and family. If you go this route, be sure to first develop a comprehensive business plan. Don’t show up empty-handed with only an idea. You will need to relay a clear marketing strategy and financial projections so that your friendly investor can understand how and when he/she will see a return on his/her investment.

Even though you are dealing with a friend, be sure to write down the terms of the loan or investment and have all parties sign to eliminate any potential confusion. Too often, close relationships are damaged because of a misunderstanding due to the absence of a formal agreement.

Bank Loans

After family and friends, a bank may be the next best source of financing. You may be able to qualify for a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan. The SBA has published instructions for obtaining a SBA loan, which you can read by clicking here.

Debt Lenders

A debt lender is a low-risk investor who offers cash upfront in exchange for payment over a set period of time, plus accrued interest. They typically try to mitigate their risks by spreading money across many ventures. They may also require you to put up personal assets, inventory, or some other resource as collateral, which they will take if you do not pay them back.

Angel Investors

If you are seeking capital and also lack business expertise, an angel investor may be your best option. Angel investors are usually successful entrepreneurs who are seeking to invest their own money. Since an angel investor is investing personal capital, he/she will be motivated, like you, to see the business succeed.

The downside of angel investors is that they may expect a large stake in your company as well as control in decision-making (if you are inexperienced, this may be a benefit). The angel investor will want to call some of the shots, so be sure to find someone with a proven track record of business success.

Equity Investors

Equity investors are looking for a “home run” investment and don’t require you to pay the money back like a debt lender. Instead, they will take an equity stake in your company through negotiation after determining your company’s worth. This might initially sound appealing because they are sharing a risk with you, but it can be much more expensive in the long run if you are successful.

Fundera.com

Fundera.com can be a great tool when you’re looking for a small business loan. On their website, you can fill out a form which is sent to partner investors and banks, who compete to give you a reasonable loan. The benefit of Fundera.com is that you’re given multiple loan options from multiple providers with a one-time application process.

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