Once upon a time, she had excited, hopeful entrepreneurial spirit. She had worked hard for several years at a job she didn’t really like, saving up money so that she could eventually launch out and start her own business. She would offer a service or product that she knew would change the world.
There was only one problem…
Okay, Make That Two
Considering most small business owners have been in this position, you’ve probably already guessed what that problem was. As we all know, the two most valuable resources for building your small business are almost always the ones that are in shortest supply: Time and Money.
Yes, you have the same number of hours in a day as everyone else, but when you’re just getting started, you lack the ability to leverage other hours. That means, even though you have your 24 hours, you have to divide that time between several very pressing priorities, including sleep and family relationships.
It will come as no surprise to you that I’m going to suggest that we apply some strategy to the situation. After all, our company is based on implementing and teaching Strategic Marketing Solutions.
We know there are dozens, if not hundreds, of ‘voices’ in your head, reminding you that you need to do this or that right away. But to really manage things, it would behoove you to take a few days to a week and map out how to best tackle all of those concerns.
After all, what good are free resources if you never have time to use or even look at them?
Think of it this way – time and money should be working FOR you, not the other way around. By strategizing and prioritizing, you’re able to eliminate to-do lists and focus on what is really important. You’ll also have a clear justification for ignoring (temporarily) minor problems that arise, instead of rushing to put out fires that may die down on their own.
Remember to schedule time for family, for critical tasks that must be completed each day, and for researching & learning new skills. Leave a little flexibility, but the more detailed and specific you make your schedule, the clearer and more focused you will be and the faster you can start to see your goals come to fruition.
This list, while extensive, is by no means comprehensive. There are countless other resources you’ll likely be able to find online for the various areas I’ve outlined, but I’ve tried to stick with the ones that we have used here at Grow the Dream and can recommend, and those I’ve seen clients use to some success.
Pre-Launch Business Planning
Typically, most small business owners will have already done this work prior to finding this article, but for those of you still in the planning stages, or looking to find financing for your business’s expansion, this will help to get you started.
- SBA.gov – The Small Business Administration is an invaluable government resource to get your business journey started and continued. They provide everything from loans, to free classes and training, to finding mentors to help you and your business succeed, and so much more. It’s the first stop I recommend all new business owners make, even when they’re still at their survival job.
- Bplans.com – This wonderful site provides sample business plans, representing nearly every industry—from caterers to construction companies and beyond. I recommend taking advantage of their examples to tailor the advice and pre-planning work you’ll do with the SBA.
- Enloop – Taking your cue from the above resources, Enloop allows you to easily create a professional looking business plan complete with 3-year financial forecast reporting. And they’ll score that plan for free as you work and develop it. Your first business plan is free, with affordable subscription rates for additional plans and added features.
Content Blog Publishing & Web Design:
One of the most powerful tools you can have in this day and age is a business website – one with a regularly updated content blog. And while there are lots of different ‘free’ (often ad supported) website builders out there, few are as powerful, optimized and easy to use as…
- WordPress.org – An open source blogging tool and so much more. 31% of all websites across the world utilize WordPress for their primary website design. It’s so popular that many hosting companies have it as an easy install in their back office infrastructure. It’s fast, easy to use and get started with and has an incredibly powerful behind the scenes algorithm that will literally launch your site into the top search engine results. If you download and install it yourself, make sure you’re using the .org version Yes, the .com doesn’t require you to provide hosting, but it lacks the bells and whistles you’re going to want to use. Which brings us to…
- WP Engine – Our top choice for your managed WordPress hosting. WP Engine’s basic plan starts at $35 a month, but it’s super fast, incredibly secure – with CDN and SSL included – and can handle up to 25,000 visits and 50 GB bandwidth use per month. It’s also easy to upgrade as you grow and expand and offers additional tools for marketing optimization. And there is a crucial benefit of WP Engine – DAILY website backups. And you can force an additional backup at any time. No more lost data!
- Namecheap Shared Hosting – This is a great solution if you’re on a tight budget or extremely risk averse when getting started. Namecheap can get you a domain name, WhoIs Guard, and hosting for as low as $3/month. Their top end is less than $10. They aren’t as integrated as WP Engine, and they only backup your site twice a week, but it’s a great deal for the beginner. And you can always port your site over to WP Engine or another hosting service with minor effort.
Once you have WordPress installed, you’ll see that there are literally thousands of plug-ins and add-ons you can take advantage of – many of them free – to customize your users experience. But there are three free ones right off the bat that you should activate as soon as you log in to your Admin page.
- Askimet – One thing you’ll run into as soon as you launch your blog are countless comments from hacker sites, trying to use your blog to propagate their spam and viruses. You likely won’t have time to deal with them, and this is the solution. Akismet is a comment spam filtering service. Akismet utilizes a learning algorithm to spot and isolate blog comment and pingback spam. Even though Akismet comes pre-installed, it is not activated by default. Once you activate it, though, all those spam comments and pseudo-links will be shuttled off your site into a virtual ‘holding area’ where you never have to look at them again.
- Jetpack – While Jetpack doesn’t come automatically installed, I highly recommend it. Jetpack is the ultimate toolkit for WordPress. It gives you everything you need to design, secure, and grow your site in one bundle. Jetpack adds secure logins and protection from brute force attacks, automatic social sharing, and can increase your site’s load times. It also comes with free themes, image tools, and rich content.
- Yoast SEO – Even though WordPress is already well-built for Search Engine Ranking, there is always room to improve, especially when humans are involved. The Yoast SEO plugin helps you to optimize your website for search engines in two ways.
- If you insist on keyword SEO (we recommend long tail and strategically targeted blog posts), Yoast can make sure your posts have those keywords.
- Yoast also evaluates and recommends tips to improve the readability of your posts and pages, such as making sure your page is broken up into readable chunks, you’re not using too much passive voice, utilizing transition words and writing at your users’ typical reading level.
- ConvertPlug – It used to be rather difficult to build an offer or “don’t go” pop-up within your WordPress install. You had to know a bit about coding and languages, etc., and it was frustrating for many business owners. That all changed with ConvertPlug. Now for only $21, you can build a fully functional popup for your website, all within WordPress. This isn’t as critical as the above plugins, but it is a good one to have.
- Grammarly – Grammarly automatically detects grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, and style mistakes in your writing. And not just your blog posts. Grammarly can be installed in most web browsers and works within Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN, WordPress and Microsoft Office. No more spelling errors, typos or misused grammar.
- Co Schedule’s Headline Analyzer – This site does exactly what it promises, evaluating your headline to see what works or doesn’t. For example, this post has one of our more generic headlines. It earned a 58. Why is this important? Because the headline is the first thing everyone sees. When my sister worked in advertising, she would generate no less than 100 headlines for every ad she generated. It’s estimated that five times as many people read the headline as click through to the article. If you want people to read your article and visit your site, you need a great headline
- Hemingway App – The Hemingway App is similar to the readability score you’ll find in Yoast. But it goes a little further – identifying superfluous words (yes, I see the irony), hard-to-read sentences, and passive voice.
Once you start getting customers – or even visitors – coming to your site, you’ll need a way to keep in contact with them. Of course, we recommend you use a laser-targeted Lead Magnet to offer in trade for their email, but even if they just sign up for your mailing list, that’s an important contact to keep track of and communicate with.
- MailChimp – MailChimp started as an email marketing service, and that’s still its best feature. Build custom emails from scratch or using a variety of pre-built templates to keep in contact with your clients, and potential clients. It’s free until you top 2000 subscribers or 12000 emails sent in a month. You can upload a CSV customer list, or import from a bunch of other platforms to build your list. MailChimp tracks each email, how many opens it got as well as click-throughs, invaluable information for evaluating your strategies. And you can also use MailChimp for remarketing. One client I worked for would periodically send special deals to their most active customers to bolster responses. Send an email right away, or schedule it for later. With a paid account, you can sync the email to the users’ time zone, send in batches, and reach out to customers who clicked away from your site with unbought stuff in their cart.
- Aweber – Aweber provides many of the same tools as MailChimp, for a small cost. But it also specializes in e-mail autoresponders. You can automatically send follow up messages to your subscribers after a set amount of days and at whatever day of the week and time you choose, and build and integrate signup forms as well. The sign up forms can also be coded into your website. And you can test drive it all for just $1.
Just because you’re going it alone, or with a small team, you don’t have to settle. These apps and tools will help you appear larger and function more efficiently, providing lots of leverage for growth.
- Grasshopper – There’s not much more offputting for a client than trying to call your office and getting your cell phone or just a generic message – or worse, some random number comes up that they can’t call back. The Grasshopper Virtual Phone System fixes that. It can provide a local or toll free number, unlimited extensions, live call forwarding, on hold music, and name directory. And it shows your business name on caller ID when you’re calling out. Need to receive a fax? Give them the Grasshopper number and you’ll get an email with the document. You may be a solopreneur, but you’ll give off the impression of being a Fortune 500 company. Prices run from $30 to $90 a month. And they might even waive the $25 setup fee.
- Evernote – Evernote is a cloud-based software service designed for creating, organizing and storing various media files. Whether it’s a text document, a photo, a video, an audio file or even a web page, Evernote keeps all of your stuff stored up in the cloud – so you can add to your notes and access them from your computer, your tablet, or your phone, all synchronized.
- Slack – Slack is an all-in-one collaboration hub that allows you to connect your team(s), unify systems, and drive business forward through extensive communication tools. Slack stands for “Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge,” and it’s search feature is one of the best benefits, especially if your email inbox is as full and old as mine. While I personally prefer BaseCamp, it’s a little pricier for small business owners just starting out, and this is an article about free low-cost tools. Slack, on the other hand, provides ample tools for most small to medium sized businesses for free.
- Due – Due focuses on a complete payment solution that includes time tracking, online invoicing, digital wallet and credit card processing. It’s great for freelancers as well as small business, allowing them to track time spent on projects and port it into an integrated invoice and billing system.
- Google Tools – I could do a whole post (and I might someday!) just on the wide variety of tools that Google offers, mostly free of charge, to help you organize your life and business, grow your client base, utilize better advertising, etc., etc. If you haven’t already, check out Google Calendar, Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Ad Words, Google Analytics, Google My Business, and of course, Gmail. For even more powerful tools, at a reasonable price, check out G Suite.
- Trello – Trello is basically the Pinterest for Business Planning and work tracking. Trello organizes your projects into boards for easier collaboration. This is great if you have a virtual office team, because everyone can see what’s being worked on at what stage on the ‘white boards’
- Airtable – Airtable is a spreadsheet-database hybrid, with the features of a database but applied to a spreadsheet. This tool helps you organize information in truly elegant ways. While it does boast a paid service, the free version is plenty powerful enough to be valuable.
- Dropbox – Before Google Drive, we all relied on Dropbox. It’s a cloud-based, virtual file cabinet for all sorts of media files that can be accessed, edited and shared, based on the permissions you set.
Social Media Management
There’s almost no cheaper way to spread the word about your business and build a following than through the popular social media platforms. But that can easily get overwhelming without help and, again, you only have so much time in your day. These tools can help:
- Buffer – Buffer allows you to schedule social media posts across a variety of social media platforms, without having to pay a penny – although there are more features if you upgrade. You can add one profile from each social media channel, and schedule posts across all of them at once. If you’re only managing a few social profiles and want to stick to a small budget, Buffer might be right for you. Once you’ve really started to expand, you can upgrade to…
- Hootsuite – If you’re working with a large team or multiple client companies and websites, HootSuite is probably your best option. While it started primarily as a Twitter scheduling app, it has expanded far beyond that now. Just like Buffer, you can schedule posts across many social media platforms, as well as many profiles. Hootsuite also provides analytical tools so you can see how your posts are being received and spread – an essential metric to track. It also starts free with options to upgrade for as low as $19/month.
Images are what makes your content and website stand out among the crowd. But if you can’t afford to have a graphic designer on retainer or absorb the cost and learning curve of the Adobe Creative Suite, these tools can definitely assist.
- Canva – Canva is a tool that makes it possible to design anything and publish anywhere. It utilizes a user-friendly drag and drop tool and thousands of customizable templates to create everything from blog graphics to business card, resume and letterhead designs. And you can even get feedback and collaboration from other Canva users.
- Pablo – Pablo was built by Buffer to help people create and share more dynamic, visual social media posts. You pick an image, a font, type in your post and voila! In under 30 seconds, you’ve got a pretty post that you can download or connect right into Buffer to schedule or post.
- GIMP – GIMP is an open source, open access graphics manipulation program that’s free and purports to be similar in style and scope to Adobe’s Photoshop. Honestly, as a long-term Photoshop user, I’ve found GIMP to be much less intuitive and a lot more of a learning tool to use. To be honest, neither one is easy to use, so tread carefully before jumping into this particular rabbit hole. Also, Adobe now offers limited access on their Creative Cloud subscription service, starting at $13/month.
- HongKiat.com – In addition to providing several free vectors and templates to build infographics, HongKiat also has lots of inspiration, tutorials and guides. If you want to use these valuable visual information slides, this is the place to start.
- Visme.co – For $20/month, Visme gives you tools to build and download infographics, more detailed PowerPoint or Keynote presentation slides, web banners, demos and even animations.
- Visual.ly – Their service is not free, but their portfolio is – if you can’t afford to have them build your graphics and infographics, they’re still a great source of inspiration for the ones you’ll build yourself.
So where do you get all the wonderful pictures for blog posts, quote backgrounds and banners? You may be tempted to just do a Google Image Search, but that’s a good way to ‘accidentally’ use someone’s image without permission and find yourself on the wrong end of a cease and desist case. Try these instead:
- FreeImages – Once known as Stock.XCHNG, Free Images is the free site that runs parallel to GettyImages – the largest provider of official images in the world. Free Images boasts over 2-million users that contribute their images for free use with permission and/or attribution. Just pay attention to the details on any photo you’re interested in.
- Scx.hu – Now in partnership with Adobe, this is the other side of Stock Exchange. This site specializes in more stock photography while Free Images is more broad.
- Wikimedia Commons – with proper attribution, you can download and use any of the 48-Million images made available through Wikipedia’s creative commons use license.
- Flickr – This user generated photo sharing site has a huge array of images available for free with or without attribution. Check out the creative commons section of Flickr and read the usage terms to make sure your photo usage is on the up and up.
- Pixabay – If you’re feeling bored by the typical line up of free stock images online, Pixabay is a great resource to shake things up. The images here have a slightly more more indie feel compared to the more generic vibe of traditional stock images.
- Unsplash – Unsplash boasts stock images that don’t feel like stock images. They’re updated every 10 days. Their collection of free to use, no attribution images may establish a personal connection with your audience that typical stock images can’t quite reach.
Video Editing Tools
Video used to cost a considerable amount of money and needed to be planned out well in advance. Not so anymore. Check out our series of Best Practices for Shooting Video, then use these resources to edit and shape.
- Blender – The Blender Project is a free, open source 3D and video editing creation suite. Be warned, this one comes with a bit of a learning curve. But if you want to create 3D images or even experiment with simple CGI, it has all the toys – modeling, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering, compositing and motion tracking.
- Wideo – This online video creation tool enables you to create, edit, and share compelling videos at no cost. Create animated videos with images, objects, movement, shapes, text, and audio.Perfect for simple and short video clips.
- Wirewax – For a simpler approach to video editing, check out Wirewax. The free version allows you to work on videos up to 10 minutes in length.
Marketing & Analysis
In addition to GoogleAnalytics and Facebook Audience Insights, there are a few stand alone tools that can help you analyze your marketing efforts as well as hone your ideal customer profile.
- SurveyMonkey – SurveyMonkey provides free, customizable surveys to help you drill down on anything. Plus, you can upgrade to get more extensive data analysis, sample selection, bias elimination, and data representation tools. It’s a great way to not only see if you’re on track with your content, but if there are aspects of your perfect client you’ve missed.
- BuzzSumo – Among its many uses, BuzzSumo can help you find blogging or social media influencers in your niche. You can use it to expand your list of content blog post topics. But you can also find potential guest bloggers or marketing partners you can work with to expand both of your businesses.
While you may be the only person working at your small business at the moment, there’s no need for despair or panic. Utilize these tools to look and act like a bigger fish in your pond. There are always creative ways to expand your business and reach. Take these suggestions and create your own success, on your terms.