7 Ways to Kickstart Your Online Business Without a Budget

Buying websites doesn’t need be expensive. Learn how to keep costs down with your new website!

Picture this: after thinking about buying a website for a while you’ve finally taken the plunge and bought respectable website maybe with some passive income but heaps of potential. So now you need to start running your newly acquired online business, and the best news is you only need a small budget to do this. Starting or relaunching an online business – any business – is a daunting, intimidating, borderline terrifying prospect. But declare you’re launching a new brand without a budget? Don’t be surprised if all you hear is “That’s crazy.”

And yet the idea is not actually crazy. It’s more than just possible to make your dreams a reality without a spending penny. Many have blazed the trail before you. There are heaps of free online tools and resources to support you in the journey. You may need to spend a bit more time in the planning stages to ensure you don’t waste your golden opportunity, but if you’ve got the hours to dedicate, you don’t necessarily need the cash. Looking for pointers on how to launch a successful brand with zero equity? Here are the essential steps:

1. Fully Define and Document Your Business Idea

If you’re going at this without some dollars to back you, it’s critical that you have a thorough understanding of the business you’re launching, and all the resources, tools, and assistance you’re going to need. Some company ideas need only you (consulting), others need tangible goods (online store), and others require additional people (marketing firm). If you are in need of any materials to support your launch, those need to be procured. You may have what you need already, if not, appeal to friends and family for donations of goods where appropriate. Start small. You can always grow and upgrade, but just make sure you start with exactly what you need, and nothing less.

2. Create a Financial Plan

Financial schemas are important to any new startup; they are doubly crucial for those launched without a budget. You need to start generating income within moments of your launch, for obvious reasons, and that will likely require some crafty advanced planning. If you’re looking to contract for clients, for example, consider offering a discount for early payment.

3. Draft a (Free) Marketing Plan

Just like it’s more than possible to launch a business without money in the bank, you can market your company on the same non-existent budget. Utilize bulletin boards and community forums revolving around your industry, and use social media wisely to reach your online audience. Start a newsletter, services like MailChimp are free for small email lists, if these services are daunting, consider Merge by MailChimp which is a Google Docs plug-in.  If you’re launching a local business, hand out fliers or have a launch party alerting your area to your arrival. Remember to make sure your social media presence is strong, accurate, and thorough.

4. Network Like a Pro

Entrepreneurs commonly work together to cross-promote, so find other professionals in your industry to join forces with. Search to see if your area has Meetup groups or related gatherings of industry experts looking to assist in helping everyone grow and succeed. Find charities to donate your services too, in return for advertising and promotion. Locate the folks that have similar agendas, and you can help each other create a win-win.

5. Collaboration and Cross-Promotion

In the same spirit as idea #4, find folks in your industry that offer complimentary services, and consider a temporary (or even permanent) partnership. For example, if you’re launching an online design business, find a developer with his/her own company that can refer you business from clients looking for your skillset. You, of course, will need to promise the same, but this is a great way for each company to find new clients and broaden their overall skill sets.

6. Become a Bona Fide Expert in Your Field

If you’re going at it without any money to spend, your expertise needs to speak volumes. In tandem, you’ll need every opportunity to prove your abilities tenfold. Launch a blog (and commit to very regular posts), integrate related social media campaigns, and even consider publishing articles on other sites professing your know-how. The more your audience learns of your intelligence and expertise, the more your client base will grow. Your newsletter will tie in with this.

7. Leverage Your Biggest Fans

Once you start receiving any positive feedback, make sure you showcase these testimonials for all to see. Actual customer experiences are often the single most important factor to scoring new business. Likewise, find the folks online that love to write about your industry. If you sell cosmetics, reach out to beauty bloggers, give them free samples of your goods, and ask them to write a review about your brand. Get others talking about you; without this word of mouth, your business will remain stagnant.

Wrapping Up

It should be obvious now that it doesn’t take a gigantic bank loan to launch a successful online business venture. What you do need is a fantastic idea, tremendous commitment and passion, and a boatload of time to devote to your endeavor. By planning your launch meticulously and leveraging free marketing channels, you stand a very real chance of making a splash. The best news: every penny you raise from day one is all yours, with no interest payments and no investors demanding creative control. So if you’re set on launching your company without a budget, take heart: it’s possible.

Now you just need to buy that website! 

Thanks to Nic for the photo!

How to build a business in 20 minutes

So you have a brilliant idea for a company. As fast as inspiration may have struck, you’re likely just as quickly deflated by the laundry list of to-do’s to get your baby launched. But what if launching a startup didn’t have to be so labor intensive? What if you could if you could literally go from conception to live in a month, a week, or even 20 lightning fast minutes? The key here is to reconstruct your idea of what it takes to get a business off the ground. Sure, you can raise funds, hire a team, code your vision from scratch, and do things the old-fashioned way. Or you can take a queue from some very innovative folks and utilize existing technologies to bring your vision to the world.

Need a little inspiration? Keep reading. In the time it takes you to finish this article, your next startup could be live.

Case Study: Product Hunt

Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover started with the first fundamental necessity for an uber fast startup; a simple idea. He wanted to create a community of product specialists to share information about new and exciting goods. Rather than build the community from the ground up, which require a ridiculous amount of code, Ryan opted to use existing tools instead.

In just 20 minutes time, he set up a group on link-sharing tool LinkyDink. He now has over 4,000 active users who voraciously consume his product suggestions each week. Understanding he had a hit on his hands, he has sinced pressed forward with a website, and expanded Product Hunt’s reach considerably.

Don’t Reinvent the Internet

The lesson here is also simple: utilize the myriad of sites, tools, and platforms that brilliant folks have already gone through the trouble of creating. It’s amazing how many companies spend scads of time and money building tools that already exist. Focus on what makes your idea unique, and vow to only spend time building and fine-tuning that specific attribute.

Efficiency Tools That Don’t Break the Bank

To further your inspiration, we’ve listed a few crucial tools that entrepreneurs without big budgets should definitely have in their arsenal. These may not be solely responsible for launching your new big idea, but they will help you get things off the ground without needing to raise a single penny.

1) Write a Wow-Worthy Business Plan in a Snap

Enloop is a snazzy tool that helps budding business owners create beautiful business plans. This program walks folks through the entire process, including financial forecasts and all the gory details. The “free and easy” model has limited features for a single business plan, and this is all you need to get things going.

2) Reach Your Audience with MailChimp

MailChimp, a well-known and much loved email sending tool, is free for folks who only send a handful of emails each month. This is essential for getting your newsletters off the ground – you don’t have to pay for their fabulous feature set until you’ve hit the big time and are sending up a storm. Email is still a crucial way to keep your audience engaged, and you can trigger lots of revenue generators through them too. There are other services like Campaign Monitor, but Mailchimp is free for users with lists under a certain number.

3) Find the Help you Need on Odesk

Sites like Odesk are essential for entrepreneurs who can’t afford to build permanent teams. Odesk is a community of freelancers around the world; you’ll find someone for just about any role you need to fill. You can hire folks by project or on an ongoing basis, and the community feedback system helps to minimize the interview process.

4) Make Things Pretty with Gimp

Photoshop is an expensive, feature-intensive design tool for artsy types. For the rest of us, there’s Gimp. Gimp has just the right amount of features you’ll need to polish up images for your design perfectly. Best of all, it’s free.

5) Visual Project Management

You likely don’t have time for intensive project management tools that require a full-time manager just to maintain. If this is the case, fall in love with Trello (we even use it here at Flippa.) Trello makes managing the details of a project easy-peasy, and it’s extremely intuitive and visual. It only has a handful of features, but that’s just perfect for a team moving at light speed.

Or You Could Just Go Shopping

Don’t forget that the fastest way to launch a new business could be a virtual stroll through Flippa’s marketplace. If you have a desire to launch an ecommerce store, as an example, it’s incredibly wise to see if there’s a store out there for sale that reflects your passion. By choosing this route, you’re live the moment you close the deal; or at least very close to it. All you need to do is fine tune and kick into marketing mode.

Regardless of which route you choose, the lesson is clear; startups don’t have to take years to launch anymore. Every idea has an expedited road to execution. If you have a shoestring budget and a penchant for impatience, let those factors work in your favor. You can always go big when the profits start rolling in. Just get your idea out there; your public is waiting.

Thanks to Craig for the photo

12 Smart SEO Tips for Your Ecommerce Website

If you own and operate an ecommerce site, smart SEO is all about increasing profits and giving your rankings a turbo boost.

Online businesses have a twofold priority when it comes to SEO: establish on-site tactics that Google and Bing applaud, and develop a loyal and reputable list of inbound and outbound links.

Ideally, ecommerce sites should carefully consider key SEO tactics like URL structure and usability long before they actually launch. If you do need to restructure an existing site, it’s trickier business for sure, but certainly not a lost cause. Regardless, the following tips can help your business vastly improve SEO results over time.

Remember: patience is needed as search engines don’t always pick up on changes right away.

Site Structure and Content

1) URLs

It’s beyond important that you choose a URL naming structure that is closely aligned with your keyword strategy. If you are targeting “discount shoes” as your primary keyword, and your URL lists something like “franksstore.com”, there is an immediate disconnect. The more concise and descriptive your URLs are, the better your SEO results. It’s still immensely important to land an appropriate domain.

2) Navigation

Just as your domain name is important, so too is the way you structure your navigation. Be very methodical about plotting out the most intuitive and descriptive site structure.

Categories need to be clear, with sub-categories equally descriptive when needed. If you don’t adapt naming structures and user-friendly navigation, your site pages will compete against each other and damage your rankings, rather than assist.

Remember that changing URL names and structures is incredibly difficult after you’ve launched, and the bots have crawled your site. It can take months to undo the damage inconsistent or poorly named URLs can cause, so the more you plan these out ahead of time, the happier you’ll be with your rankings.

On-Site Content

3) Keywords

These puppies are also hyper-critical to your SEO success! Don’t just go with your gut assumption, use resources like the Google Adwords Keyword Tool to validate the popularity of those you select. Then, use your keywords across your site’s content – in URLs, product descriptions, About Us pages, and meta-data galore.

Don’t go overboard on articles, descriptions, and blogs, but make sure you’ve committed to dispersing your keywords generously across your site.

4) Write Effective Product Text

Your products are the heart of your site’s success, so hire a writer to craft intelligent, concise, and highly polished descriptions for everything you sell. As mentioned above, you’ll also want to ensure keywords are used throughout!

5) Meta Data

Don’t forget to update your site’s meta data – components like your headline and title tag are still very applicable to a great ranking. Keywords are again necessary throughout, as is guaranteeing clarity, correct grammar, and descriptive text.

6) Duplicate Content

Content that’s duplicated anywhere on your site is considered a major no-no by search engines, and these mishaps will negatively affect your ranking. These occur when the site’s structure is confusing, and when no one is organizing the top-level architecture.

Big offenders include printer-friendly content versions, session IDs, and content published under multiple categories. If you absolutely need to include duplicate content, have your developer implement robot exclusions (i.e., tell search engine bots not to crawl these pages) for the less important duplicates.

7) Load Times

If you have a slow loading homepage or landing page, you may also feel your rankings sink. All your main pages should be well optimized, and that goes for mobile sites as well.

Off-Site SEO

8) Smart Link Building

As you amass your collection of link building partners, remember that who your partners link to is as critical as who you choose to link to as well. As an example, if you link to an otherwise reputable website or ecommerce destination that in turn links to sites Google has red-listed, you could very well be penalized. It’s therefore imperative you choose wisely when procuring inbound and outbound links.

9) Make Friends with the Media

Ecommerce site owners do well with smart content marketing strategies, and at the top of this list is befriending the best bloggers and news sites in your industry. Every niche has prominent authors, reviewers, and related experts. Reach out regularly to these folks with quality content and link requests. Make sure your correspondence is polite and polished, because these publications are worth their weight in SEO gold!

Fall in Love with Data

10) Analytics

Your Google Analytics account is another SEO gem. Understanding where your site is failing, and addressing those issues efficiently, can actually help you increase your ranking. For example, if a site has a monster bounce rate – meaning a high percentage of visitors that exit the site seconds after arriving – chances are SEO results are not optimal either. The better your analytics help you to convert customers, the more search engines will reward you too.

The data that’s most critical to monitor includes the aforementioned bounce rates, unique visitors, length of visits, page load times, and conversions.

Google Analytics also has special features specifically for ecommerce sites. Go here to make sure ecommerce tracking is triggered and correctly implemented. This can do wonders for helping you upgrade your site and adeptly track how well you are converting customers.

11) Respond to Trends Slowly

As you analyze your data, never be quick to make sweeping changes across your entire site, or you can easily do more harm than good. Test changes in sections of your site to confirm success rates whenever possible, and always publish changes in small batches. Never ever adopt a tactic sitewide unless you know it will be hugely advantageous.

12) Watch Your Competitors

If you don’t have your finger on the the pulse of your competitors’ SEO tactics, you’re missing out. They may very well be implementing some ideas better than you are currently, but that’s an easy fix if you’re watching their progress. Don’t let your competitors outdo you in SEO!

Over to You

Yes, it’s true that SEO is a comprehensive and challenging part of any ecommerce business, but it can literally be the awesome sauce that catapults you to ridiculous success.

Be methodical, analytical, and hyper-organized with your approach, and you can expect to see steadily higher rankings, and reap the related benefits. Good luck in your mission! And please let us you know your thoughts in the comments.

How to Verify an Online Identity

Without trust, businesses cannot function.

To enter into any business transaction or partnership, there has to be some level of trust and security, or there is no foundation to build upon. For the digital space, the process of establishing trust has been all the more complicated and challenging, as the internet has a wonderful reputation of bringing out the liar in many of us. Since web transactions are not face to face, they create a veil of secrecy that can be motivations for some to present themselves in various inauthentic ways.

So how can we walk the fine line of healthy skepticism and total paranoia? And what are the best and most reliable ways to verify an online identity?

Testimonials and Feedback

Without a doubt, the single greatest tool to gauge the reliability and talents of others is the feedback of former clients and customers. While just about every consumer website touts a stellar reputation, it’s hard to know who’s all talk and who actually has the happy customers to back up their claims.

So how do we know if the feedback is legitimate? On a regular website, there is no easy way to validate any claims, but making a transaction in an unbiased community or online selling platform provides various tools not controlled by either the seller or the buyer, and can therefore be relied upon.

Flippa, the world’s largest online website and domain marketplace, offers a number of standard and creative ways to help both parties validate the other’s identities. Each website listing includes phone numbers, email addresses, and other ways to connect and communicate. Flippa also incorporates a feedback system for all sales that allows both parties to share their experiences. The feedback system of any ecommerce site is absolutely your best gauge of trust and validity.

Feedback is so critical to online sales, it can easily be touted as the savior to digital transactions. There is so much distrust in the dotcom space, unbiased feedback systems at least provide verifiable, time and date stamped, sale-specific information. Such a feedback loop helps buyers and sellers take that critical first step in trusting each other. Without it, many would not even attempt a dialogue, let alone a transaction.

The History of Online Feedback

While the notion of feedback and testimonials is hardly new, the internet has definitely helped to develop the concepts. Auction giant eBay was in many ways the most visible pioneer to feedback during the early days of online sales. When eBay’s feedback system first launched, it was rudimentary at best, allowing any user to leave feedback to any other user, as long as an accurate username was provided.

Before long, feedback rightly became limited to actual transactions, ensuring individuals had actually done business together before they could comment on each other. Next up, the feedback system display improved, showcasing the percentage of positive feedback below all usernames. Then buyers and sellers were finally allowed to respond to negative comments, allowing the “two sides to every story” adage.

Although feedback systems continue to see minor tweaks to improve performance, their core structures are pretty solid. Giving feedback has evolved from a one-click five star rating system to Facebook’s simple “like” function. Since likes are so easy to obtain, with absolutely no parameters or boundaries, they aren’t necessarily trustworthy, but a company with a high number of likes still warrants some level of validation.

Full Scale Identity Verification

If you’re involved in a medium or large ticket transaction, it’s critical that you verify the identity of the buyer and seller before officially exchanging funds, goods, or services. Fortunately, you don’t have to rely solely on a website’s feedback system because there are other ways you can use to protect yourself online.

It’s not unwarranted to request references or photocopies of relevant documents. For example, if you’re buying a website, ask to see any related documentation, like marketing plans, site specifications, or financial spreadsheets. You may be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement to view these prior to a purchase, but as long as it’s a mutual contract, both parties are then protected.

Always use an escrow service to handle the financial transaction. Escrow services are often built into ecommerce systems like Flippa, and act as a middleman and mediator, first verifying funds, then releasing them after a specified time period to ensure the exchange was executed as planned.

Finally, there are many reputable and comprehensive identity verification companies that you can hire for peace of mind. Organizations like IDology provide cloud-based services that verify age, name, location, and other identifiers, helping to prevent fraud, and others like Identity Guard help to protect and monitor your own credit and online identity.

Over to You

Ultimately, it’s up to you to determine the level of support and services you require for any online transaction. You need to find where you fit in the spectrum of trust, skepticism, and all out paranoia. The rule of thumb is to be skeptical but not fearful, and when in doubt, trust your instincts. If something smells fishy, there’s probably something you need to look out for. In these cases, seek professional help or walk away. The good news is, you’ve always got options.

What do you do to verify identities online? Share your tips in the comments.

Photo credit: Sethoscope

5 Lessons from Bitcoin for Your Website

5 Lessons from Bitcoin for Your Website

Bitcoin is a virtual currency founded in 2009 by the mythic Satoshi Nakamoto.

It is a cryptocurrency, verifying transactions with the same state-of-the-art encryption used in military and government applications.

Recently featured in Forbes magazine as a sort of a wake-up call to the U.S. Government and Federal Reserve Bank, Bitcoin is now recognized as a legal form of private currency in Germany.

While accepting alternative currencies statistically increases the number of potential clients, Bitcoin in particular provides a number of additional advantages, making them a top choice for ecommerce websites. Alternative currencies bring alternative-minded, often tech-oriented clients who tend to be an impressively loyal group.

So, what can this virtual currency teach us about improving our own website? And is it worth adopting?

1. Involve Your Audience

Bitcoin is an open-source project, which has no official organization. Instead it is led by a vibrant and active Bitcoin community. Members exchange innovative ideas and discuss technical fixes in places like Bitcointalk and Reddit.

If you provide your customers with an outlet and serve them well, you will soon earn their friends, peers, and customers as clients of your own through word of mouth.

Bitcoin takeaway: How do you involve readers at your site? Is there a way you can get them more involved?

2. Leverage the Myth

Having a legend also helps. People are drawn to stories and love to solve a mystery.

The Bitcoin founder Satoshi Nakamoto has spurred a lot of discussion. With a name like Nakamoto, a Japanese auto magnate or female Muy Thai kickboxer might come to mind. But if you do a quick Google search, you’ll discover there are no photos of Satoshi, male or female.

Satoshi Nakamoto is more myth than mythical, but no one can seem to prove it one way or the other. There’s even a website featuring real gambling (SatoshiDice.com), supposedly founded by Nakamoto that sold for $11.5 million dollars (the sale itself is definitely verifiable).

With all this mystery and intrigue, it’s fair to ponder whether or not joining the Bitcoin brigade is financially viable.

Bitcoin takeaway: What’s the story behind your site? Is there a way you can add more mystery or intrigue to get more people talking about you?  

3. It’s All about the Exchange

A consideration when accepting alternative currencies is how that currency may be exchanged for standard national currencies such as the U.S. dollar and the Euro. A number of services exist and are being created that exchange Bitcoin for other centralized currencies, with Mt. Gox currently dominating the market with over 80% of the Bitcoin-U.S. dollar exchanges (as of April 2013).

Accepting over 70% of all global currencies, Mt. Gox opens the door to international exchange previously closed to many small businesses. Bitcoin’s fees are considerably lower than institutions processing US dollar transactions, shaving operating costs and enabling local and online businesses to compete with mega-distribution centers and foreign online sales. Mt. Gox has an app so you can do all of this on your smartphone which can be found at m.mtgox.com.

Bitcoin takeaway: Your website doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  Who could you partner or co-operate with to create new business opportunities? It’s all about the exchange!   

4. Remember the Value

The value of Bitcoins has been designed to always increase, through scarcity and other key economic factors. They are, however, prone to market fluctuations, too.

BitcoinCharts is one service that provides financial and technical data for the Bitcoin network. Exchange rates for the US Dollar, Euro, Chinese Yuan, and many other standard currencies are available with one Bitcoin worth $113 USD at the time of this writing.

“No chargebacks” would be music to any online merchant’s ears, and might seem impossible. But with Bitcoin, there are no chargebacks. Due to the decentralized design and their crypto-security system which includes components such as block chains, miners, and private keys, the system operates without the need for users to make transactions, and then renegotiate.

Because those that use the currency are in essence their own bank, there is no “middle man” to execute chargebacks. According to CoinBase, essentially the PayPal of the Bitcoin world, there is virtually no waiting for Bitcoin transactions, stating that transactions arrive at about the speed of an email.

Bitcoin takeaway:  What are the benefits of using your website? How can you add more value to your readers?  

5. Be Aware of the Risks

There’s clearly a myriad of benefits in accepting alternative currencies like Bitcoin, but are their risks?

The short answer is always yes, but there are inherent risks in running any form of business accepting any form of payment. These days, it’s excessively easy to add a currency like Bitcoin to your payment options, with very few drawbacks. The Bitcoin community is especially tightknit and loyal, so becoming an early adopter to this currency could engender sincere loyalty within that user base.

Diversification is also almost always a good business tactic, and since Bitcoin transaction and conversion fees are so ridiculously low, it makes loads of sense to give it a go and accept it as payment.

Bitcoin takeaway:  What risks do you ask from your readers on your website? How can you reduce that risk by offering more ways for your readers to take action?    

Over to You

How great is it that we live in such a virtually focused world these days, there’s a virtual currency to support our cultural evolution? If you’re a business owner that loves the web, in part because it does represent the cutting edge of future technological advances, it’s time to start accepting virtual currencies like Bitcoin.

Do you use Bitcoin in your business? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments!

P.S. If you’re not yet ready for Bitcoins, check out a few PayPal alternatives instead.

Photo credit: Zach Copley