10 Ways to Bootstrap an Online Business

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The Bootstrap Creative Manifesto

Before we begin talking about how to bootstrap your creative business lets first define what bootstrapping is. Bootstrapping is relying on your own resources (time and money) to start and run your business instead of getting a loan or outside investment. This allows you to start a business with lower risks and retain full ownership of your business. It will also ensure you know a lot about the details of your business because you are not hiring employees or outsourcing core business functions like marketing.

I am writing these tips as someone who has bootstrapped a web design business selling services and digital products online. When I started I did not have any family members who I could ask questions about business… let alone online business. So I read a lot blogs as I was working in my full time job. I hope the information below helps to guide you in the right direction and encourage you as you bootstrap your business. There will be some information below that is interchangeable if you are selling services or products online.

1. Learn how the web works

Selling online requires a different skill-set that naturally becomes a bit geeky. The internet and the web was first created by academic professors and then expanded by really smart computer programmers. This means you are going to need to become familiar with things like HTML, CSS, tags, hashtags, urls, and more. It can seem overwhelming to learn everything but you do not need to worry because you will learn a lot as you go.

The main thing is just to know this upfront. You are going to encounter times where you might need to learn more about HTML tags in order to fix something. This will prevent you from automatically dismissing your ability to learn the technology that runs your business.

The top two things you should be familiar with are the basic HTML tags and how search engine works. Below are two great resources to learn more about them.

HTML tags

How search engines work

2. Do not outsource your marketing

Terms like digital marketing, inbound marketing, content marketing, internet marketing, social media marketing are all just “Marketing”. It is simply the “how to” market a product or service online. Marketing is 100% art and not a science. What that means is that you duplicate another companies marketing strategy and have dissimilar results. There are no quick ways to go viral, rank #1 on google, make $1,000 in a month, or have 50 likes on a post.

There are no quick ways to go viral, rank #1 on google, make $1,000 in a month, or have 50 likes on a post.

Digital marketing requires you to think about people… your target customer.

You might be wondering:

How do I know who my target customer is? Here is a persona development worksheet to help you define a customer persona for your business.

How can you help them with your product or service? Can you still help them if they do not buy something? What are they most interested in? How can I use analytic data to learn more about my customer?

Marketing to your customer is a systematic trial and error in hopes of finding something that works. It may take a long time to figure this out. The best way to make progress is to set aside a monthly budget that you can afford to lose and not hurt your business. If it is just $20, what can you do with $20 to talk to some potential customers? It could be simply writing letters, or spending $20 on buying someone lunch.

photo credit: Condell’s Great Western Boot Mart (Clarke Street, Hill End, N.S.W), 1871-1875 / American & Australasian Photographic Company

3. Create minimum viable products – experiments

The minimum viable product has been talked a lot recently due to a book by Eric Reis titled The Lean Startup. It is essentially creating a product that solves your customer’s problem in the simplest form. Another way you can think of this is running a product experiment. When you start out, every marketing effort is an experiment. If the product does not sell or get a lot of traction you can either change it or move on to something else.

The reason for doing this is to prevent spending your valuable time creating something that your customer does not want to buy. Wouldn’t your time be better spent creating something you think your customer wants and then receive user feedback saying they like it but would love it if it had certain features. Now your target customer is telling you exactly what they need vs you guessing or making assumptions.

4. Learn about branding and use graphic design templates

Online business is becoming more and more competitive and thus expensive because every business wants to rank on the first page of Google search results for their business keyword. The best way to carve out search traffic your competition cannot steal is by having a strong and memorable brand name and domain. If you need a domain name I highly recommend Namecheap to purchase one. If someone can go to Google and type in your business name and find you in the #1 spot you now have a stronger connection with your customer. This is why branding is so important. Your goal is to make connections in your customers minds when I want X I go to “your company name”.

The best way to carve out search traffic your competition cannot steal is by having a strong and memorable brand name.

As a graphic designer, I always thought templates were the underbelly of the design world. They were de-valuing the work I was doing as a freelance designer and making it hard for me to sell my services. As a small business owner I could understand the confusion as to why a website template costs $150 and a custom site I built cost $1000+. However, design templates are perfect fit for a bootstrapper because you can have professional branding at 1/10 of the cost for custom design work. Sure the branding isn’t 100% unique but it will get you 80% there and you can always re-brand once your business is off the ground and you can afford the investment.

An additional step would be for you to learn how to edit the templates you buy. The Adobe Creative software designers use was really expensive but now can be purchased as a monthly service. This makes this professional design software extremely accessible to entrepreneurs. If you learn the creative software you can purchase the templates and change fonts and colors to fit your brand. If you are making major edits to a template I would still suggest hiring a graphic designer but for small tweaks it is something you could do yourself.

Pay what you want design templates

Crafted Ecommerce Theme

5. Know when to ask for help

Bootstrappers are naturally do-it-yourselfers. There is nothing you will not at least try doing or learning to get the job done. Sometimes to your downfall. If you find yourself spinning your wheels and hitting a roadblock make sure you invest in hiring a professional for consulting help.

One thing I did with my web design business was email the owner of a similar company in a different state for advice. I was having difficulty finding clients and was able to get some great strategies from someone who was further along than I was. You will find other business owners are willing to help you because they have been in your shoes. All you have to do is ask.

Another great place to network with entrepreneurs are local Meetup groups. You can find groups for Etsy sellers or people learning WordPress.

6. Set realistic expectations for sales and traffic

You can save yourself from the self-defeating feelings of disappointment by setting realistic expectations up front. The best way to do this is to treat everything as an experiment. If something doesn’t work out as planned ask yourself “Is there anything I could have done better?” Or “What did I learn from this?”. Your efforts are never waisted as you always learn something through your action.

When I was working late hours as a graphic designer for other businesses I often craved something else. I wanted to work on something I believed in and enjoyed. This began my journey of reading books and blogs on online business, digital marketing, and SEO. All of this information began to frustrate me because I did not have the time to apply what I was learning. Once I began to follow the steps of others I soon realized you cannot replicate someone else’s success. You have do what makes sense based on your skills and abilities not those of the author. I learned a lot of things to try and test but beware of expecting to match their results.

Once I began to follow the steps of others I soon realized you cannot replicate someone else’s success.

Getting a consistent and inexpensive source of traffic to your website is not impossible but extremely difficult. It takes tons of experiments to figure out the best combination to your business. Beware of anyone who says they can help you rank #1 on Google or get you tons of traffic. The best traffic comes through word of mouth and referrals from past customers. Blogging is another way for others to learn more about you but don’t expect to get any traffic from writing a few blog posts.

If you want consistent traffic sources you will need pay for it through online advertising and via your email subscriber list. These sources you can utilize and optimize

7. Partner with others serving the same customer

If you are a freelance photographer, who else works with engaged couples you can pass referrals to? Maybe you could offer a package deal with bundled services from one of your partners. As a web designer-developer I partnered with social media consultants, writers, and photographers I referred out the work I did not specialize in. This network worked well for building trust with cold prospects because they trusted your partner already. Obviously you need to protect these relationships because you could tarnish the reputation of your partner if you do not deliver.

8. Persistence and reality checks

If an entrepreneur in the woods makes a difference and nobody is around to see it… does it matter? It is our human nature that drives us to want some validation for hard work. We crave approval and applause (sales). But sometimes after spending weeks developing a new product we receive no views, likes, or response.

If an entrepreneur in the woods makes a difference and nobody is around to see it… does it matter?

You then begin to question the value of the work you just produced. Let me be the first to tell you that if you created something in the effort to help someone else, you have made a profound difference. And it matters. It may take some time for others to see the value but your value is not defined by the things you do or produce. If you receive a few sales and no negative feedback or returns this could be a sign your marketing is flat.

9. Learn how to use Google Analytics and Google Search Console

It is obvious but every online business needs a website or home base to send traffic to. This home-base acts as a conversation between you and your customer. Online marketing has a strong advantage over tradition marketing because it is a lot easier to track results. You can monitor user behavior, sales, and traffic sources.

Google Search Console is your way of telling Google about your website and how you would like them to see it. In return Google crawls your site and shows you the keywords you are ranking for in the search engine. Google Analytics however, shows you what people do once they visit your website. How they got there, what pages they visited, and what links they clicked on. As you do more marketing you will refer back to these sites to check your results and see what things you should continue doing and what you should stop doing.

How to add Google Analytics tracking code to your site

Search analytics report guide for Google Search Console

10. Leverage online marketplaces, social networks, forums, and groups

If you are planning on selling a physical or digital product you will have the best results if you start on a marketplace like Etsy, Amazon, or Ebay. These established marketplaces already have a consistent stream of people visiting with their wallets out ready to buy. Also, they have tools to help you list products fast and test the market. If you are unable to sell something here you will most likely have difficulty selling it outside one of these marketplaces. Once your store grows and you want to minimize competition, offer discounts, and define a brand; you can open an online store on a shopping cart provider like Bigcommerce.

Social networks, forums, and groups are one the best ways to find a large group of people you are trying to help. Join one of these groups and genuinely contribute to the conversation. My advice would be to pick one or two you already use. Make sure you monitor your Google Analytics for referral traffic. If your posts are not generating traffic you may want to seek out another source. You may be wasting time.

Summary

Bootstrapping your online creative business will protect you from compounding the stress of having outstanding loans and outside control of an investor. Things may go slower than you would like, but you will be in total control of the three main branches of a business: 1. marketing, 2.sales, and 3. finance.

For more information on how to bootstrap, read the Bootstrappers Manifesto written by Seth Godin.

 

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Written by: Jacob Lett - Web designer and BootstrapCreative instructor
Category: Articles
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