6 tips for home-based start-up businesses
For many of us, running our own business is the ultimate dream. We'll often start following that dream gradually: working in whatever hours we have available and looking forward to the day when we've built a business strong enough that we can quit our day jobs!
To increase your opportunities for success, you need to plan your business properly: do your homework and make sure your business idea is actually going to make money. By doing things properly at the start, you'll reduce the risk of heartache later on.
For those who are ready to take the step and start their own business, here are a few tips and hints to help you along the way.
1. Create a Business Plan
It doesn't matter what type of business you want to run, what size it will be, or whether or not you intend to borrow money or seek investors—every business needs a business plan.
The plan provides your business with goals, directions and time schedules for actions, progress, results and growth. A well-constructed business plan also identifies the strengths and weaknesses of a business. It helps you to determine whether your business idea is feasible and helps you map the company's future. And importantly, it gets you to thoroughly plan your finances and make sure you have sufficient cash flow to see you through until you start making a profit.
After putting your plan together, it's a good idea to run it past a few business people you respect and ask for their feedback: especially your accountant!
It's also important to keep your business plan up to date. As your business grows and becomes more successful, your plan needs to reflect your new situation and new challenges.
For tips and hints on how to get started, refer to Writing a Business Plan.
2. Protect your Privacy
Many new businesses start at home for both the cost savings and the convenience. That doesn't mean you have to compromise your privacy by handing out your personal contact details to customers though.
Some businesses pay for a second telephone line or mobile phone that they use for business calls. A more cost-effective solution is to use a "virtual" number (like a 1300 number). Virtual numbers aren't tied to a specific phone, and can direct incoming calls to your existing landline or mobile phones.
Not only do these numbers help to save you money (starting from just $14 a month instead of ~$30 for a landline rental), they also provide a number of benefits including being portable (so you can keep the same number as your business grows) and providing reports about incoming calls (to help measure the success of your marketing campaigns). If you want a national number, you can select either a 1300 number or 1800 number, or for a local presence, you can select a Local Connect virtual number.
For your mailing address, you should consider using a post office box. Not only does this keep your home address private, it is also a fraction of the cost of a serviced office or mail collection service.
3. Promote a Professional Image
When dealing with a business we've never used before, most of us are looking for a bit of reassurance that the business is professional and will do the right thing by us.
It doesn't take a lot of time or cost a lot of money to present a professional image to the world and to make your business appear to be larger than it is.
Nothing screams "sole trader" louder than offering only a mobile phone number, so you can start refining your image by getting a 1300 or 1800 number. These numbers are used by Australia's largest businesses, and with plans starting from just $14 a month, they're an affordable way to appear larger and more professional.
It's also important to provide a professional-looking email address. You should steer clear of the free addresses (e.g. Yahoo, GMail). It doesn't cost much to get your own domain and it looks a LOT more professional. You can also make your business look larger by assigning different email addresses to different functional areas (e.g. sales@, support@, info@).
4. Get the Word out There
There are a lot of affordable options available to help you promote your new business. The options you use will depend in many ways on the type of business you are running. The golden rule is to focus your efforts in the places where your customers are.
Whenever a new customer calls, it's a good idea to ask them where they heard about you. That helps you to measure the success of your different marketing and advertising efforts to work out which ones are the most effective.
The following list provides some low cost and free promotion options:
- Almost every type of business should have a web site. At the very least it should provide an overview of what you do and include your contact details. If you don't know how to create the site yourself, there are many web companies out there who offer professional-looking, quick and affordable template-based sites (you can go for something fancier once your business takes off).
- Add your web site to Google, including setting up a Google+ Local Places page, to make it easier for customers to find you. Google's Webmaster Tools provide instructions on how to do this, plus lots of useful tips and hints for getting your site included in Internet search results.
- Social media channels, including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn, cost you nothing but time. Again, it's important to put your effort into the channels that your customers use. There are many "how to" videos available that show you how to get started and explain the different audiences for each channel.
- Write some press releases and post them to the many free distribution channels available. Link these releases back to your web site and be sure to include your business phone number and email address. (A quick web search will provide you with a list of free sites on which you can post your press releases).
- Register for local directories and word-of-mouth/review web sites. The more places you can promote your business, the easier it will be for people to find you.
- Think of something interesting or unique that you do, and then contact your local paper to see whether they're interested in doing a story on your new business.
5. Make it Easy for Customers to Contact You
Once you've set up your business, established a professional image, and spread the word that you're out there, you need to be prepared for the growing number of customers who are going to be trying to contact you.
When you're running the show by yourself, there will always be times when it's difficult for customers to reach you, for example when you're in a meeting or already on the phone. You need to put processes in place to make sure that these situations don't cause you to miss out on any potential business.
Set up an auto-reply message for incoming emails that thanks customers for their message and sets an expectation as to when you'll get back to them. This helps to reassure customers that you've received their message, and lets them know that you'll be in touch with them soon.
Your phone needs a bit more than an auto-reply message though. Up to 75% of first-time callers hang up when their call is answered by a machine. That's a lot of potential business you could be losing! Consider using a live answering service, where an Australian-based operator answers your calls when you're not available, and then forwards a message to you via SMS and email. These services are very affordable (starting from just $29 a month), and can not only help to increase your sales, but also make your business look large enough that you have your own receptionist.
6. Keep an Eye on your Finances
With advances in technology, many traditional services are moving to the cloud. As your business grows, you'll likely find that many of the new services you want to add have cloud-based equivalents that are very affordable, powerful, and easy to manage.
For example, a Fax to Email service is a lot more affordable and flexible than a traditional fax machine. And a Hosted PBX service adds many capabilities to your phone system without requiring you to make a large up-front investment to purchase the PBX equipment.
Even things like switching your phones from traditional landlines to a business VoIP service can save you money on both line rental and call rates.
Many of the most successful big businesses of today started out as small, home-based businesses. With careful planning, good management, and a bit of good luck on your side, your business may well be on the road to joining them!