This is the fifth post in the HostGator Home Business Guide, and this time we’re talking about setting up your business website. It only takes a few minutes to register your domain name and sign up for a web hosting plan. The real work this week is the planning, designing and testing that goes into making sure your new site works the way you want it to so you can start reaching customers with it. Let’s dig in.
1. Choose your domain nameNot sure exactly what that a domain name is? It’s the part of your URL visitors will use to go to your website. Here’s the URL (the internet address, so to speak) for HostGator: https://www.hostgator.com/ Within that URL, hostgator.com is the domain name. There are many domain suffixes (technically known as top-level domains or TLDs) that you can choose from besides .com, like .net and .biz, but .com is the most common. Ideally, your domain name will be short, easy to remember, and not confusing when users type it in a navigation bar. More importantly, though, your domain name should be part of your company brand. Take your time to come up with as many ideas as you can, narrow the field a bit, and then check to see if those names are available.
- Check out our post: Choosing the Best Domain Name for Your Website
2. Check your privacy settingsWhen you register your domain name or names, you’ll have the option to buy inexpensive domain privacy protection that keeps your personal information off WHOIS. WHOIS is a directory run by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which anyone can use to look up the contact information you used to register your domains. Companies like HostGator that offer privacy shield services use their address in your domain name registration instead of your personal details.
3. Pick a hosting planNext, you need a place to store whatever you put on your site so visitors can see it. Creating, offering, and maintaining that data storage space is what web hosting companies like HostGator do. Don’t get too overwhelmed by the monthly plan options you’ll see. For almost all new home-based businesses, an inexpensive shared business hosting plan will have everything you need. Whatever host and plan you choose, you should consider:
- The number of domains you can register on a single plan
- Available bandwidth, which will affect how fast your site loads and how many people can view your site at one time
- Email account tools, which you’ll use to create branded email addresses
- What templates or site-building tools the host provides and how easy they are to use
- What e-commerce tools the host supports, if you’re planning to have an online shop on your site
- Downtime, which is how often and how long the web host’s servers—and therefore your website--are typically unavailable
- Customer support availability and quality
4. Build your siteOnce you register your domain and have a hosting plan, you’re ready to set up your site. There are a few housekeeping tasks to do before you start designing. Adjust your site’s control panel so the site is not live while you’re putting it together. While you’re at it, close comments for now. You can reopen them later if you add a blog to your site, and in the meantime, you won’t have to worry about random spam comments or visitors seeing your site while it’s ‘under construction.’ Pick a site template or use a website builder tool to start creating your home page. You can set it up however you like. Just keep in mind that a good business website must have these elements:
- A responsive design, so your site will be easy to read and use on smartphones
- Your business name and a short, descriptive tagline in the page header
- A clear, brief explanation of what your business is and what you do
- A bit about you, your business, your accomplishments, and testimonials from customers
- Contact information (phone number and email address) on every page of your site
- A product list, shopping cart, and checkout if you’re selling products online
5. Test and updateOnce you get your basic site set up, view it on as many devices and browsers as you can. Ask family and friends to help you by checking it out and reporting any problems with page display, load times, and navigation. Fix any problems and then view it again. When you’re satisfied, go back to your host’s control panel and make your site visible to the rest of the world. Your site is live, but that’s just the beginning. Schedule regular site-maintenance time to add features, make changes, and keep your template and plugins up to date. Regular maintenance makes the site more secure and helps it look its best. You may also want to subscribe to a site backup service to maintain the most recent version of your site and spare you the trouble of rebuilding your site if there’s ever a problem during a template or plug-in upgrade. After you’ve done all these steps, you have a basic home business website that you’re ready to promote. We’ll talk about the promotional tools you’ll need to get started in the next HostGator Home Business Guide post.
Things are about to get real. We’re up to chapter 4 of the HostGator Home Business Guide, and this is the stage when we go over the permits, licenses, tax documents, and other financial must-haves you need to set up your new business. Speaking from experience, it can be tempting to stall at this point, because dealing with paperwork can be tedious and time-consuming and because taking these steps makes your business a real entity. But this is also the exciting part, because once you have these ducks lined up and marching in order, you’re free to focus on your website, marketing, and sales. Here are the seven steps to get there.
1. Choose your business structureThis sounds complicated but most of the time it’s really easy. Sole proprietorship is the form most new businesses take, and it can be the best choice if you’re the only one running your business, you’re not selling something that costs a fortune to produce, and your business doesn’t involve a lot of financial risk or liability exposure. The SBA has a great summary of the pros and cons of sole proprietor status. For example, you don’t have to file a separate federal tax return for your business, and you won’t need a lawyer to file startup documents. On the other hand, you’re fully liable for any debts your business racks up and for any actions by your employees that incur costs. Other business structure options include: partnerships, limited liability companies, corporations, and cooperatives.
2. Get your business permit, tax permit, and any necessary licensesYour city or county will require you to get a permit to operate your business, and your state may require a license, too. If your business will collect sales tax, you’ll need a permit for this that you’ll be required to display where you make sales (including at your vendor table if you sell at various events). Depending on where you live, you may have to go to city hall or your county courthouse to get your local permit, but you should be able to get your state paperwork done online. Some businesses require extra certification. For example, home childcare operators typically have a long list of state licensing requirements to make sure their homes are safe for the kids in their care. Home chefs and cooks may have to comply with food safety regulations. Find out what’s required for your business now so you don’t have to pay costly fines for noncompliance later.
3. Get your IRS Employer Identification NumberYes, you’re an employer, even if you’re a solopreneur and your only employee is yourself. You’ll need an EIN to open your business bank account, and you can use your EIN instead of your Social Security Number on some forms (like W-9 forms for independent contractors) to safeguard your identity against hackers and loss. Small business owners can apply for an EIN online.
4. Open a business bank accountAt the very least, you’ll need a business checking account with your local bank or credit union to avoid a tax-time nightmare of commingled personal and business funds. Shop around for account options that won’t cost you a fortune in fees each month, and make sure you’ll be able to download your transactions into QuickBooks or other accounting software. To keep more of your money for your new business, you may not need to buy paper checks for your new account, at least not right away. You can probably do just fine with a debit card, online bill pay, and a counter check when something absolutely has to be in paper check form.
5. Figure out your budgetYou can set money aside in your business account for your startup costs and to cover ongoing expenses until your business is self-sustaining. We’ve put together a free budget template, based on the IRS Schedule C sole proprietorship profit and loss form, to help you plan for the most common expenses. Remember that every business is different, so you may need to remove some categories or add your own custom categories. Your expenses won’t be the same each month, of course, so it’s important to plan month by month to see when you can expect to earn and spend more (or less). Fixed costs, like insurance, your business phone plan, and any rental fees, are unlikely to change much. Variable costs, as Inc. explains in its detailed business-budget breakdown, change depending on your volume of sales. Expenses like postage, packing supplies, raw materials, and wholesale purchases usually rise when sales are strong and drop when sales are slow. On the other hand, you may spend more on ads and marketing campaigns when sales drop. Knowing what to expect over the course of several months or a year can help your business avoid running out of cash when high variable expenses coincide with slow sales. If you can afford to consult with a CPA at this point, he or she can give you tips on how to organize your record keeping, point out any expenses you may have overlooked, maximize your potential deductions, and stay on the right side of IRS rules.
6. Protect your businessIt’s a good idea to talk with the agent who handles your homeowners or renters insurance about your new business. You’ll want to learn if your business equipment, inventory stored at home, and anything else related to your new gig is covered under your current policy. If it’s not, find out what your coverage options are. If you offer services (such as web design, bookkeeping, or writing) you may want to look into professional liability insurance.
7. Choose your contractsThis step is for you if you’re a service provider or sell products to other businesses. Do some online research and talk to others in your field to learn what kind of client contract is standard in your industry. Find some templates and use them to customize a version for your business. (It’s always a good idea to have your standard contract reviewed by a lawyer before you start using it, and to stick very closely to a lawyer-approved document.) There’s more, of course. For now, though, working through these steps will have you officially in business and ready to take the next step in the HostGator Home Business Guide – setting up your business website.
We’re up to Part 3 in the HostGator Home Business Guide already. We’ve gone over the skills and habits you need to be your own boss, talked about how to set up your home for business, and now it’s time to write your business plan. You might think you can skip this step, especially if your image of a business plan is a long, wordy document packed with financial graphs and data tables. For most new business owners, though, writing a business plan is less about recruiting investors and more about clarifying what your business will do, who your customers are, what it will cost to operate, and how much money you can reasonably expect to make. To give you an idea of how to write your plan, we’ll start with the basics and then cover elements that will make your plan more useful and suggest other ways to use your plan.
A basic home business planThe simplest and least intimidating business plan guide I’ve seen comes from entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau, author of The $100 Startup. It includes a 1-page fill-in-the-blanks business plan that covers the basics, including:
- What you’ll sell, who will buy it, and why they’ll buy it
- How you’ll price your products and get paid
- How you’ll reach customers and win referrals
- How you plan to measure success
Beyond the basics: Your USPOne of the questions on Guillebeau’s one-page plan is “How will your business idea help people?” This relates to the most important part of your planning stage, which is figuring out your Unique Selling Proposition, or USP. Your business idea doesn’t have to be brand-new, just different enough in a way that customers will value. For example, if you’re planning to open a kebab stand in a town that doesn’t have one, the fact that you’re bringing delicious kebabs to town is your USP. On the other hand, if your market is crowded with kebab vendors, you’re going to need to stand out. Maybe you lease a prime location near a major office building, so your USP is that you’re the most convenient lunch option for the hundreds of workers nearby. Maybe you’re the only kebab stand that offers unlimited free drink refills. Whatever your USP is, it has to benefit your customers in some way.
Beyond the basics: Buyer personasBefore you know how to reach your customers and win referrals, you need to know who your ideal customers will be. In marketing terms, these ideal customers are called buyer personas. Building one or more buyer personas can help you focus your product offerings, your marketing, and even your physical location. For example, let’s say you plan to sell custom nail decals online. Your main customer is probably a woman under the age of 50 who enjoys beauty and fashion but doesn’t have the time or money for a weekly salon manicure. Another persona may be teen girls who enjoy changing their look often. Next you can find out which social media platforms these personas use, build connections with them there, and skip posting on platforms where your personas don’t hang out. On the other hand, our kebab vendor is about to sign the lease on his office-complex site when he learns that most of the workers there are with a major vegan/vegetarian lifestyle brand – definitely outside his persona of meat-eating lunch customers. He’ll need to find a location closer to his persona or expand his products to include veggie kebabs for a new persona – hungry vegetarians on their lunch break.
More ways your business plan can help you succeedA good business plan, even a very simple one, can help you long after the startup stage of your business. In fact, a plan can sometimes steer you away from starting a business that, once you really sit down and plan it, isn’t likely to make you any money. (For example, trying to compete on price with a national chain, or selling to a customer base that’s too small to scale up.) You can also use your plan to guide business decisions like whether and when to expand your product offerings, target market, or service area. Will these decisions support and enhance your plan, or will they pull your focus away from your core business? If you’re a creative thinker who’s always coming up with new ideas, referring to your business plan can help you decide which ones to run with and which to set aside for now. Later on, if you want to raise funds for expansion or equipment upgrades, a good business plan is crucial. Your plan will demonstrate your idea to potential lenders and investors and show you can effectively communicate the value of your business – a skill that transfers to reaching customers as well as bankers and investors. Entrepreneur points out that suppliers may ask to see your business plan before they commit to serving your business, because they want to make sure they don’t go unpaid if your business goes under. Likewise, if you want to vend to other businesses, they may want to look over your plan to get a sense of how reliable and durable your operation is.
Keep your plan up to dateAt a minimum, you should review and update your business plan every year. It’s also a good idea to look it over whenever there’s a big change, positive or negative, in how your business is performing, such as a change in your customer base, sales, demand, or costs. Finally, before you make major changes to your website and other marketing materials, check in with your business plan to make sure your updates support your plan and long-term business goals. Now that you have a plan for your business plan, it’s time to start setting up the accounts and paperwork you’ll need to make your new business official. The next installment in the HostGator Home Business Guide covers the banking and legal chores you’ll need to tackle.
If you’re planning to start your own business, you’re in the right place. This is the second of 11 posts in the HostGator Home Business Guide series. Last time we covered questions to ask yourself about running a business. Now, we’ll talk about getting your home ready for your new business.
1. Make room to work at homeAt the very least, you’ll need a place to use your computer for website updates, marketing, billing, and other tasks. If you make products, you’ll need space to do that, too. If you can set aside a room in your home just for work, you may be able to deduct some household expenses on your federal income taxes. (Talk to your CPA about this; we’ll talk in future posts about choosing service professionals.) Ideally, your workspace has a door you can close so family members, roommates, and pets know when you’re working. A solid-core interior door is a splurge (or investment) that can cut down on noise from the rest of your home.
2. Find storage space for your small businessIf you sell physical goods, you’ll need room to store them, space to package them for shipping, and room for shipping supplies and a postage scale. As tempting as it may be to use your garage for storage, proceed carefully. Bugs, dust, humidity, and temperature fluctuations can damage your stored items. If your water heater is in the garage and it leaks or bursts, anything stored on the floor will be water-damaged. If you must use the garage, keep your stored items in airtight containers and off the floor. For small business owners who plan to see clients at home, you’ll need a professional looking space to host them. The ideal is a separate entrance to your home office or a detached office in a separate building like a converted shed or garage. (You can get inspired—and lose several hours of your life—browsing through the home office ideas on Houzz.) You’ll also want to make sure visiting clients have a convenient place to park.
3. Plan your mini-infrastructure and some backupsThere’s nothing like the freedom of working for yourself—until there’s a tech problem and no one from IT comes to fix it for you. For website issues, HostGator’s support team can help you sort things out quickly. For internet access issues, it’s very important that you have reliable service and a reliable backup plan in case of an outage. For example, I almost never use the mobile hotspot option or the rolled-over data on my smartphone, but they were priceless on the day when a neighbor accidentally took down internet service to half of my subdivision with a poorly placed fencepost hole. I was able to connect my laptop to my phone, burn through some of that rollover data, and meet my deadlines until service was restored. It’s also wise to think now about other places where you can work if there’s a utility outage, noisy construction, or another major interruption at home. Your local library, coffee shops, rent-by-the-day co-working spaces, or work-at-home friends’ houses may all be options.
4. Find family supportUnless you live alone, you’ll have to prevent and deal with interruptions from housemates or family members. You can establish regular times when you’re “not available” even if you’re at home, or you may simply decide that when your workspace door is shut, you need to be left alone. This is very important if you have phone or video chats with your clients. Nothing casts doubt on your professionalism quite like seeing your housemate stroll by in pajamas or hearing kids arguing in the background. In my experience, it’s easier to carefully plan the timing and location of your calls than it is to corral people who are used to doing their thing at home.
5. Look into child and elder careIt’s possible to build a viable business from home while caring for your children or parents, but doing it all yourself makes everything much harder than it has to be. The consensus among experienced work at home parents is to get childcare help on a regular basis so you always have some time when you can concentrate fully on your work. Mother’s day out programs for kids and adult day programs for seniors give your family members time out of the house while you work. If money’s very tight, consider hiring a teen with babysitting experience and Red Cross first aid training to work as a mother’s helper in your home a few hours a week.
6. Plan for pet antics“Let sleeping dogs lie” is great advice unless you’re about to be on a call or in a meeting. Then you should wake them up, give them some special chew toys, and move them outside or to another room. I learned this the hard way when my three napping dogs heard a squirrel outside my home-office window, jolted awake, and made a loud off-topic contribution to a six-person conference call I was leading for a client. Keyboard-perching cats, hollering parrots, and DSL-cable-gnawing bunnies need corralling while you work, too.
7. Figure out how much money you’ll need to beginYou may be reading these tips while mentally tallying the cost of implementing them, which is smart. Starting a small business doesn’t have to cost a lot, but it’s not free. Here are some basics you may need funds for:
- computer equipment
- internet connections (main and backup)
- web site hosting
- office furniture
- packaging and shipping supplies
- raw materials or wholesale goods
- care for your kids, parents, and/or pets