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!

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.

DIY Logo

Brand DIYYour logo is probably the most important part of your brand. If you have any budget at all, spend it on this. However, a lot of people just don’t have the money when they are first figuring out their business. If you absolutely must do a DIY option (ahem, until you’ve saved up enough to hire a pro to do this for you), here are some pointers:

  • Keep it simple. A nice sans-serif typeface, in black or one single colour, with clean lettering and maybe a second font weight? Always a classic choice.
  • Stay away from cutesy fonts. You know, the Papyrus-es and the Comic Sans-es of the world. Nothing will say “I’m not a professional” faster than a cutesy font.
  • Pick one or two colours and make sure they actually look good together. Use a resource like DesignSeeds, to find colours that are complementary and sophisticated looking.
  • Stick with a wordmark. A wordmark is your name or your company’s name written in a particular font (think: my wordmark, see the top of this page). A logo is more of an image-based representation of your name or company (think: the Nike swoosh). You don’t want to spend a bunch of time trying to figure out how to make an image that represents your company, because you won’t be able to. That’s when you call in the professionals.
  • Look at logos you like. Look at the companies’ whose branding you like. Like Apple’s brand? Use a sleek font and a minimal colour palette. If you can find a common thread amongst all of the logos you like, use that.

If you follow the few points above, you can get away without a “proper” logo for a little while. That said, I highly recommend that you hire a professional do make you a logo as soon as your business picks up steam. A professional logo will make you look like a professional, yourself! It will represent your business, should be timeless and will establish you as an expert in your field.

For more on DIY branding, read this post on How to Create Your Visual Identity.

The Best Design Feedback Tip

Best Design Feedback Tip | Kate Moore HermesSeveral weeks ago, I wrote a blog post entitled How to Give Great Design Feedback. I still think that post covered some gems: making sure that you don’t fire off your first impression, have adequate time to go through the site, write it all in one email and check all the links, but it the best thing that you can do to help your designer help you! That one thing is: explain why you want that change you’re asking for.

Why Do You Want That Change?

When you hire a designer or developer, you’re not hiring them to push the mouse around and use the keyboard in ways you don’t know about, right? You’ve hired them to solve a problem for you. So if you don’t like a colour choice, let your designer know why you don’t like that colour choice. For example, say you just hate the green that your designer picked for you. Your high school, which was not your favourite time of life, had weird mint green hallway tiles — not that I’m speaking from experience or anything … go Lords! — whatever it is.

You write your designer and say, “Love the design, but can we see what the site would look like with pink where all of the green bits are?” I know. You’re trying to be helpful and point the designer in the direction of a colour that you actually like. The problem is, the designer you hired probably picked the green for a reason. And chances are that reason is probably not one that you would consider, because you’re not a designer, right? Again, that’s why you hired one. Maybe the designer picked the green because you have a juice company. (I have juice on the mind. Vancouver just re-elected the juiceman as our mayor, but I digress.) Even though your new site is going to look way more unique than all the other juice companies out there, and you think the pink will help it stand out even more, your designer picked the green so that visitors to the site will have an immediate visual cue that they’ve arrived at a juice company’s website.

Notice how, in the example, there is no mention of what you actually like? That’s because the website isn’t being designed or developed for you. It’s being designed to help you make a living, to get you a return on the money you’ve invested in the designer and developer and to get your business more attention and customers.

It would be more helpful of the above fake client had written: “Hey! I don’t love the green. I feel like the site isn’t standing out enough amongst all of the other juice companies and I suspect the green is the issue. And also, I just don’t like green.” When the designer gets that feedback, they’re more likely to come back at you with a great change that makes the site more unique, such as fresh, amazing typography (in green). The site with the green positions you as a unique, hip, fresh juice company, that is clearly a juice company, instead of a company with pink on their website, and oh, got it, they sell juice! Get what I’m sayin’? It’s a bit of a dramatic example, but I think it illustrates my point.

Why Saying Why You Want That Change Helps Your Business

Great design, branding and web development mostly aren’t about what you like aesthetically, they’re about what will achieve your business goals. That probably sounds a bit weird and perhaps even a wee bit harsh, my bad. All I’m trying to say is that design, branding and web development are tools for your business, a business that is supposed to support you and your family, meaning that those tools should appeal to your ideal client base, which may, or may not, be you.

When I take on a new project, I send my clients questionnaires geared toward their project (branding, web design, web development or a combination of the three … whatever they’ve hired me for). These questionnaires help me drill down on what you really need and want to get out of your investment in working with me. Sometimes it’s brand clarity to create a more professional brand that gets you better clients whom you can charge what you’re worth. Other times it’s a website whose design helps you build a bigger email list and social media following. Whatever your goals are, your work with a designer and developer needs to be geared toward those goals. Telling your designer why you’d like a certain change, is the best thing you can do to help a quality designer get you a great return on your investment in them.

* Image by Miladus Edenensis used under Creative Commons.

How to Get Over Launch Paralysis

Get Over Website Launch ParalysisToday, I want to talk about something a little different: Launch paralysis. What is launch paralysis? Good question! Essentially, it’s a term (that I made up) to describe what happens right before launch day.

To explain further, I’ll tell you about when I relaunched my website, earlier this fall. I had a bit of downtime over the summer and wanted to rebuild and redesign my website. I was so excited! I was building a site that was more “me” and would show off my web skills much better than my previous site. It was even going to help me streamline my workflow, because my new-fangled contact form, would help me vet clients, right from the get-go. But in the two weeks after my site was done, but before my site was launched, I was totally paralyzed! I spent hours going through the site, certain that I would find a giant gaping hole in it.

Eventually, a huge and exciting request for proposal came across my desk and I knew that I had to get over my launch paralysis, pronto. I so did not want to send out my proposal with my old site as the link. I had to have a little chat with myself. Below are some points form that internal pep talk:

  1. Nobody’s perfect! Coming from a publishing background, taking a copyediting course early in my career and having a father who’s hobby was correcting his daughters’ grammar growing up, has set me up to be a bit of an editing tyrant. I’m trying to realize that it’s better to get imperfect stuff out there than to put out nothing at all. Great is the enemy of good, and all that. Not shockingly, this is a great life lesson too. But I digress …
  2. My website (and yours) is a living being. The beauty of WordPress, is that you can change and edit your content as much as your little heart desires. That means that if two weeks after launch, you suddenly MUST change the copy in your contact page, you can. Easy as pie! Just because it’s out there, doesn’t mean that it can’t change. Case in point, I originally listed all of the prices for my services. Recently I realized, that move was cutting down on the awesome potential clients that were emailing me. I always could make custom estimates and work in (most) budgets, but having my pricing up on my site, didn’t reflect that. So, presto, chango, gone.
  3. There’s no town-crier for website launches. As amazing as it would be to have a service that notifies everyone you’ve ever met, and the people you want to meet, that you’ve launched your website, that isn’t something that exists. (Well, actually we call it Facebook.) After most websites are newly launched or re-launched get a day or two of spiked traffic, but then it goes roughly back to normal. If your site’s design and (most importantly) content, are great, you’ll see an improvement in your viewership over time. You’re just not likely to suddenly find yourself with overwhelming traffic right after launch. Going viral happens, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the rule. Why am I telling you this? Well, it means you shouldn’t have any anxiety about who might see your site. Chances are, if you want Beyonce to look at your site, you’ll have to do more than tweet the link out with the message “Hey Beyonce! I’m a big fan, please take a look at my site.” Know what I’m sayin’?

All of this is to say, if you’re sitting on a website that is 95% done (the last 5% being writing an email to your developer to say “Let’s do this!”), just launch that sucker! It’s time and the world needs what you have to offer, so get out there. You’ll be so happy you did!

If you, or someone you love, suffers from launch paralysis, please write a comment below. Side effects may include: strong encouragement to launch your site, recommendations for proofreaders and less stress because you don’t have that mostly done site hanging over your head anymore.

Image credit: Jorgen Schyberg