Rules for Starting a Business

A few weeks ago I had lunch with a woman who was just plain interest in coding. I answered a bunch of her questions and the conversation turned to running your own business. I’ve gotten a fair amount of email in the past from students asking about running their own business out of school. (You can see a few notes I’ve written about that on my FAQ page.) Now that I’m in my third year of business, I’ve learned two really solid rules to start a business, that I wish I’d known before I started.

Firstly, save a big nest egg. When I started my business, I was fresh out of technical school but had worked for five years as a designer before that. I have to say that I didn’t start my business with much of a nest egg and I regret it, you’ll find out why in a second. Most financial planners would say that you need six-months of expenses in a liquid form before starting a new business. I obviously don’t disagree with that, but I think that three-months could be good enough. (Again, this is just my opinion, so you should really do what you’re comfortable with.) That tricky thing here, might be the definition of expenses. This amount must include enough money to cover rent, groceries, bills (phone, electricity, heat, water, whatever), debt repayment (if you have debt) and a bit extra to make sure that you don’t go mad while you’re trying to get your business of the ground. It’s perfectly okay to boot-strap it and get on a tight budget when you’re starting a business (trust me, you won’t have much time to spend money anyway), but you MUST remember to budget for paying back your student loans and have at least a little bit to take yourself out for lunch once in a while, on a particularly rough day.

So, why is the nest egg so important? It gives you the freedom to choose your clients. When you first start your business, your tendancy will be to take any work that comes your way. There is nothing wrong with that, but having a nest egg means that you can listen to that occasional gut feeling you get from a potential new client who just doesn’t seem like the right fit for you. You’ll want to build up your name and your business at first but there will be the occasional client that you just shouldn’t take. Someone recently said to me that if someone gives you more than one red flag, you shouldn’t work with them. Great advice, if you ask me!

Client Case Study | StudyChur.ch Part One

study_church1Tanner Moushey hired me earlier this year to do some design work on a web app that he has been thinking about building called StudyChur.ch. Having never attended Bible study myself, I had to get up to speed pretty quickly! Tanner envisioned an app for people in their 20s and 30s that would be similar to more traditional Wednesday night Bible study groups. The idea is that users can form a group and then assign a Bible study to that group. Each Bible study would have particular assignments on any given day and the app users have the ability to write Bible studies themselves, too.

sc_new _study_wireframe23Tanner and I worked together to build wireframes from the information that he had given me as well as so mockups that he had done before he decided to hire me. The wireframing stage for this project was more important than any other stage, by far. Since the app has to do many things, we needed to use the wireframes to not only block out the design but make every step simple for the user to follow, and make sure that we didn’t miss any small function that could mean a lot to the users.

We talked about how much we both like an application to walk us through a process without distraction, a concept which I employed to the portion of the app used to create a study. We talked a lot about the process of creating a study and how a study should be broken down: by day, chapter, section, questions, week etc.

The result is a clean, easy-to-use interface that can adapt as StudyChur.ch has more users and grows. To go along with the web app, I created a clean brand, in keeping with the interface. More on that next week!

Must-have WordPress Plugins

I’ve written about plugins a couple of times on my blog. I’ve talked about my favourites, ones for backing up your site, how to pick a good one and even my serious love affair with Editorial Calendar. I haven’t talked much about the ones that I consider essential however. Here are a few plugins that will help keep your website secure, safe and running smoothly.

  • Akismet This plugin is built by the folks at Auttomatic (the guys who make and maintain WordPress). It is the best plugin for keeping spam off your website. It ships with all WordPress installs, but you have to make sure that you Activate it and sign up to get an API key. It’s run by donation, so if you love it, throw them a few dollars.
  • Backup Buddy I’ve written about other backup plugins, but I especially love this one! You can set it to automatically backup both your website and database (which is where all of the content is stored), which means that it is sort of a set it and forget it plugin. That said, it’s important to check with your hosting company to find out how regularly they back things up. It’s really smart to have two back up systems in place. If you want to be even more careful, use a plugin like Duplicator, to manually back everything up, every once in a while.
  • W3 Total Cache I don’t use this plugin on every site, but I could! It really helps keep the site moving quickly and things loading as they should. Install it and use this blog post to set it up properly.

Business Goals for Better Websites

I get a lot of inquiries about web design and development that start like this: “Well, I have this idea …” Ideas are great! The best, even. My problem with this statement is that often times, I am the first point of contact that budding business owners and entrepreneurs have about their business idea and their business goals just aren’t  there yet. A lot of people think of having a website super early on in their business development. Planning ahead is great, but a website should be a tool for your business, not the place where you figure your business out. So how does this idea translate into saving you time and money, working with your developer?

Business Goals Will Make or Break Your Website

Going to a designer or developer with a fully-fleshed out business idea will make your website (and your business, obviously) much more successful. Even if your business is going to be an online shop, blog* or way to capture more clients, you need some goals. Heck, even figuring out the purpose of your website from the three points I just listed is a solid start. There is a lot of fluffer-nutter on the web these days (a term my husband loves to use to describe a business selling something intangible). To cut through it all, you have to have a clear message and a clear idea of how you’re going to make money.

I believe that websites are business tools, not a business in-and-of themselves. It’s imperative that as a budding business owner, you have a clear vision on how you’re going to get a return on the investment that you put into your website. For example, if you run a heavy duty truck repair shop like my father did for a few decades, the return on investment on your website might be that it brings you five brand new clients per year. You spend $2000 on your website because all you need is a few well designed pages, with your contact information listed, the type of work you can do and for it to work well on mobile phones — most of your drop-in customers find you while they’re on the road, right? Pretty simple! The site brings in five new customers because it’s well-coded, SEO-friendly, mobile-friendly and your web developer suggests making sure that you’re on Google Maps properly. All five new customers spend an average of $4000 on truck repairs. At $20,000 that’s a damn good return on investment, right? Now as an owner of a heavy duty truck repair shop, you might not know what your site should do exactly, but you have a clear goal in mind: Have it bring in five more customers. If you bring that clear goal to your developer, the developer with make suggestions for how that can happen, such as making it mobile-friendly, SEO-friendly and putting you on Google maps.

It’s not your job to know how to meet your website’s goals, but it is your job to know what those goals are.

* Side note on blogging: Blogging is popular and fun, but the truth is, most people don’t make a living at blogging. Most people blog as a way to establish themselves as an expert (what do you think I’m doing right now?!). This, in turn, increases their ability to get paying speaking gigs, customers and buy in to the products they sell on their websites. Wanting to be a blogger is not a business. You can blog, but don’t expect it to turn into a paying job overnight, especially without a plan for how to execute that dream.

Basic SEO Tips

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a huge buzzword these days and important part of your website. SEO is the practice of optimizing your site to ensure that your natural traffic (or traffic from search engines) is as high as possible. [Definition paraphrased from Wikipedia.] A lot of peole put a lot of importance into SEO, as it will, in theory, result in more visitors to your website.

I am not an SEO expert but I do know a few things that can help your site rank a little bit higher. Here are some basic SEO tips:

  • Use the ‘Title’ and ‘Alt’ boxes when inputting content into your website. You know those boxes on your site that pop up when you’re putting a link or image into your site that you ignore? Use them! They’re not only good for SEO, they help your site be accessible to people with disabilities, and that’s a really good thing.
  • Use an SEO plugin. My favourite one is WordPress SEO Plugin by Yoast. Install it and use it, for every post and page you write.
  • Give your image files a descriptive name. Search engines look at everything on your site, including your file names. Don’t name your images DSC_1084.jpg (you know, the name your camera gives them), give them a name like golden_retriever.jpg. Obviously, the name should describe the subject of the image.
  • Write great content, regularly. Blogging is an excellent tool to help your SEO. Don’t get too caught up in trying to put keywords into your content. Just write great content, and do it regularly. I always tell people to blog at least twice a month, but weekly is even better. Every time you add new content to you blog, search engines have to come back and re-index your site, which is a very good thing.
  • Use WordPress as your blogging platform or content management system. WordPress is super SEO friendly, so you’ve already got a step up by using it.

If you want more help with SEO or want someone to do all this for you, consider hiring a pro to do it for you.