More and more of my friends and family are starting their own businesses in the non-tech world. As they begin to set up their business, plans often screech to a halt when it is time to craft a professional image. Usually this happens because people don’t know where to start or because they are daunted by imagined complexity. In an effort to make the world a better place, I’m going to offer ways to bootstrap your web presence with a few essentials. Don’t worry, it is a fairly simple and inexpensive process. Here we go!
Do I need my own domain?
Yes. You need to find and register at least one domain name (yourcompany.com or somethingcool.net) for your website. The most important thing to remember is that the domain name should be easy to spell phonetically. At this point, missteps are common, so don’t worry too much about getting the name just right. After all, you can always add/change it later and forward everything from the first one to the new one.
So, should the domain name be YOUR name or the name of your business? This depends on your plans for the business. If you are starting a business that is 100% centered on YOU, using your name as a domain name is probably good. However, if you plan to grow the business past you, then it may make sense to use a company name.
Now that you have an idea about what kind of domain name you want to use, you need to make sure that you can actually use it. This process involves checking the domain’s availability and registering it for your own use. You can check availability and register a domain name by going to a registrar and searching for that domain. I used to use GoDaddy, but I have been moving to DNSimple because the user interface is much clearer and there are fewer attempts at upselling.
It’s a little harder to get started with DNSimple because you need to create an account in order to do it. However, this extra step is absolutely worth the trouble. Go ahead and create an account and follow the instructions for adding a domain. The site will ask you if you want to register a new domain. Yes. That is what you want. Do not enable WHOIS Privacy Protection unless you are doing something seedy. If the domain is available, DNSimple will let you register it. If it is not available, the site will ask if you want to transfer the domain. Since you are setting up a domain for the first time, you can’t transfer it. Time to search for another one!
This is the most important thing about your domains, so pay attention.No matter what happens, make sure that YOU own and have exclusive access to the account where the domain is registered. If you give access to a third party for some aspect of your project, make sure you change the password once they are done. Under no circumstances should you allow another company or individual to “manage" your account for you. I’ve seen way too many people have problems with a company holding their domain hostage to keep them from leaving and finding another company. You’ve been warned!
Also, make sure you have a current credit card on file with the registrar as well as a fallback email address. You don’t want to lose your domain because your credit card expired or they couldn’t reach you.
Do I need a website? Isn’t that complicated and expensive?
Setting up a website for your business used to involve getting a shared hosting account, finding a designer to design a website for you, and hiring a developer to make the site work. However, for many people, especially as they start out, that process is overkill. You DO need a web presence, but there is no need to spend a lot of money. Your site simply needs to sidestep two common pitfalls: ugly design and confusing information access. Most people can get away with a single page that lists who they are, what they do, roughly where they are located (if they offer services in the real world), how to contact them, and maybe a picture of them or their building.
Customers and clients only really care about the design of your website if it is ugly. If it is not ugly, then the design will fade into the background and they will be able to concentrate on what you can do for them.
The other key aspect of setting up your own website is making sure that you can update the information yourself. Having to pay or wait for a third party to make these changes can be frustrating and costly.
Thankfully, there are a few services out there that will let you set up a simple website and make changes yourself. These services offer a bunch of templates that will help keep your site from being unappealing and expensive.
Some friends of mine recently launched a hosted version of Apostrophe, which will let you use their content management system (Apostrophe) without having to worry about hosting. To be honest, I haven’t used it yet and they are fairly new, but it looks promising.
I recommend using Squarespace. I know quite a few people who have used them with great success, and yes, I am one of those people. Squarespace starts at $12/month, which is great because you don’t need to pay much money up-front. The default payment option is to pay for a year at a time, but I would recommend paying month-to-month instead. Who knows what your needs are going to be in a year? By paying month-to-month, you’ll have the most flexibility and can make changes quickly if you decide you are outgrowing what you have.
If you want to customize your design, I would find a design on Squarespace that you like, and then contact the designer directly. This way, you know that you like the basic design and you can rest assured that the designer already knows how to work with Squarespace.
Why can’t I just use my Comcast email address?
The last part of looking professional on the internet is setting up email addresses with your new domain(s). I think The Oatmeal says it best. You don’t want to give out email addresses with Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail, or AOL in them. At best, they don’t let you control your email, and at worst they make you look like an amateur.
The way I suggest that everybody customize their email is with Google Apps for Your Domain (GAFYD going forward). Basically, you can use Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Calendar, but with your very own domain. In other words, your email address would be email@example.com instead of firstname.lastname@example.org. If you need ten email addresses or less, you don’t have to spend any money to set up GAFYD. If you need more than ten email addresses, the setup costs fifty dollars per year per account. I haven’t had to pay for GAFYD yet and I have many accounts set up already.
You can also have multiple domain aliases. That way, if you change your domain going forward, you can add it to your account and still get email from all of your domains.
To get started, head to their groups page and sign up. If you purchased your domain through DNSimple (as I suggested above), you can configure your domain to work with GAFYD in just a few clicks.
Mr. Goofus decided to quit his 9-5 office job and do what he loves — climbing and pruning trees. People started asking him for his email address so he gave them his current email address, email@example.com and set up a simple web page at http://hostgator.com/~goofus. Six months later, he decides to change from Comcast to Verizon FiOS and starts giving out his new email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. Uh oh, he’s lost control of his email and will no longer receive email from anybody he’s worked with in the past! Also, nobody is going to remember his website because it contains a tilde!
Ms Gallant is a masseuse who went out on her own six weeks ago because she was tired of dealing with her boss. She purchased galegallant.com for personal use and gallantmassage.com for her company. Her personal email address is email@example.com and her business email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. She has set up a single-page website at gallantmassage.com using Squarespace that has a picture of her while she is working, her phone number, the types of massage she does, as well as where she typically works.
Really? That’s all I need to do?!
These are the essentials of setting up a new business and looking professional while you’re at it. If you are lucky, customers won’t think anything out of the ordinary because the details of the above fade away. People only really notice when something looks BAD.
In part two, I am going to list some of the online services my friends or I use to run businesses. There are helpful tools out there that can simplify your life with just a little up-front investment.
If you have any questions at all, feel free to email me and ask. I’m happy to help :)