Many of us dream of breaking free of the nine-to-five grind and setting up our own businesses, but few of us actually get round to doing so.
Given the bleak economic climate, becoming your own boss may sound like a foolhardy undertaking. But with belt-tightening affecting more and more of us, it’s a good time to start considering your options and working out what you’d do should the security of a monthly pay cheque be whipped from underneath you.
Setting up a business no longer has to involve a nerve-racking interview with your bank manager. A good idea, some careful financial and strategic planning and a website to show off your wares are enough to get you started.
This is just as well, since there’s almost certainly a huge queue of jittery homeowners keen to offload their negative equity woes and hope that nice Mr Pritchard at the building society understands.
You don’t necessarily need to lease offices or take on full-time staff. This means your overheads can be kept under control – you can always rent secretarial services or office space as and when you need it. What you can’t do without, however, is somewhere that your customers can find you. You will also need a memorable company name and, preferably, a distinctive logo or means of creating a brand identity.
This is where the internet comes in. The web is where it’s at when it comes to establishing a name for yourself. Having decided what you intend to offer, assembling a means of showcasing it is a good next step.
In line with the difficult economic times, we gave ourselves the tongue-in-cheek business name of Easy Street Business Books. We hope to be able to help customers through these tough times with our well-chosen line of get-ahead-in-business books.
As you’ll see from the following walkthrough, we haven’t had to use any of our professional design and layout skills to come up with a convincing business website.
We got ourselves started using Microsoft’s free Office Live Small Business tools. All we needed was an hour or so to come up with a good business model and name and a credit card to buy our own domain. After that, almost everything was suggested by the online template.
1. To get started with Office Live you first need a Windows Live ID. This can be generated from an existing email account. You’ll need to create a secure password to protect your login and supply a secondary email address in case you can’t access the primary one.
2. You need to provide some basic details about yourself and the type of business your website is going to promote. It pays to run a Google search on the name you’ve chosen, to check you won’t be competing with several similarly named companies. It’s illegal to pass yourself off as another firm, so choose the name with care.
3. Once you’ve received your signup confirmation email and have activated your account, you’re ready to get started. You can use a website address the service provides or use one you already own. However, if you don’t create your own, all traffic will go to yourcompanyname.shopping.officelive.com.
4. The Business Information page lets you refine the description of your company so that potential customers have a clearer idea of what you offer. For example, our business offers several different services, from writing and selling business books to more general typesetting, page layout and proofreading.
5. Designing your site is straightforward. Simply replace the existing text with something appropriate to the sort of site you’re creating. The Page Editor is used to enter basic details such as your company name and a description of what you offer. The dummy text gives prompts to help you decide what to write.
6. Click the Contact Us and About Us buttons and fill in your contact and company description on these pages. Having an email feedback form, as well as a prominently displayed contact number, will maximise the chances of potential customers getting in touch with you.
7. As well as a memorable company name, you need a strong image. This could be a logo, a photo of your products – anything you wish. Swap the template image for one of your own by clicking Image on the top toolbar and browsing to a more appropriate one. As before, it pays to check out the competition.
8. You can’t upload an image larger than 10MB, so you may need to resize your image before uploading it. A smaller image, saved at 72 dots per inch (dpi), offers the best combination of fast loading times and good onscreen resolution. You can also resize an image by clicking on the picture and dragging to resize it.
9. If you don’t have an image you want to use, look for something suitable in Office Live’s templates. The default image we were given was for clothing and fashion, but pictures under other categories were more suitable. Choose a template you like from the Theme menu on the Site Designer tab.
10. To add extra pages to your site, click the Web Page menu at the top left. This brings up a list of page types. We’ve added pages for our online seminar business, since we hope this will be a big money-spinner for us, as well as separate pages for our bookshop and bespoke publishing and design services.
11. You can preview your site at any time by clicking Save and then hitting View. This shows what the live site looks like. Having done this, we decided to change our colour scheme via the Color drop-down menu. We also fiddled with the text size and layout until we were happy with the overall effect.
12. Now you need to start getting noticed. Begin by adding metatags to your site so visitors and search engines know what your business is about. Click Page Properties to the top right, then the Search Engine Optimization tab. Enter a short description of your business and its scope, then add memorable keywords.
13. In the section of the Office Live site related to getting your website noticed, there’s also a section on search marketing. You can sign up for the trial of the adManager advertising service for free, but be aware that you’ll be encouraged to sign up for paid-for services – be careful what you agree to.
14. Email-marketing campaigns are another good way of keeping customers informed and expanding your reach. Office Live has a beta service that lets you mail 200 recipients – it’s on the Promote Your Business pages. Read the fine print regulating data retention before adding customers to your mailing list.