Mind Map Your Online Business Toolkit:
One of the questions that I get asked almost immediately after I answer “what on earth were you thinking leaving a 6-figure cushy corporate job?”, is the how-to part to starting my own online business after being an employee all my life!
Click on the image to enlarge:
In particular, the questions are:
What do you use to run your online business?
What are the best tools and applications?
I used to spend hours, weeks and even months researching every tool and technique for running an online business. I used to experiment with every app, system, plugin or program that I could get my hands on. After two years, I found the few that work seamlessly together for my business. If you want to skip that search process, this blog post is for you, babe!
Oh and I did not have a fancy MBA to draw upon, only an engineering mind with an undeterred heart to make entrepreneurship into a beautiful reality. If you are an entrepreneur and not know it, you will have a better idea after this post. Persistence and high spirits are some of your best friends on this road, but today, we are talking more techie and practical stuff in this ultimate survival kit for the new entrepreneur in you.
10 Tools for Your Online Business Toolkit
If you are starting your business today, you want to build one with a strong online presence and a solid unique brand as well as a great reputation in the online world, which is actually a real world with real people and companies behind it! These are my top recommendations for you as a basic survival kit as you foray into the fabulous world of entrepreneurship and self-employment:
1. A Professional Website and Blog:
You Need a Website, if you want to do business beyond the local market. I will admit I had a very successful interior designer who attracts top clientele and does 100% of her business from referrals. She doesn’t believe in “websites”. If that’s you, you might want to stop reading my opinion now!
Referrals are fabulous and if you only want to make money, which is equally fabulous, it might not behoove you to bother with a website. If, however, you want to build a brand, share knowledge on a platform, position yourself as an authority in your field, and deliver value to all your potential customers – the ones who can and will pay top dollar as well as the ones who just want free information – then you need a website. A great one.
Since this is no longer the 1990s, a website is your platform. It is not a static page to spit out information that used to be on some stale brochure. Your website is ALIVE and it’s your center for connecting with people whom you can serve. These are your readers, followers, fans, potential customers or clients, or even passers-by browsing the internet. Make your website a good one.
Tools of the trade:
Publishing Platform: WordPress, which is the single best publishing platform online.
Blog Theme: First, I used and loved Thesis, a theme which served me well from 2009 until late 2013. Now we proudly run and LOVE Genesis by Studio Press.
Hosting: Used to use Bluehost and recommend them for the starting entrepreneur.
Website design: Bruce Rodgers of Studio 139 Software is your go-to man for the most caring service and top website design at affordable cost.
Scrivener: Writing your first book or e-book? Use Scrivener, the ultimate writing & organizing tool for serious writers and authors.
2. Email Marketing Strategy:
I love email, but I’m not the only one! Email is one of the oldest tools for electronic communication (back when we had such a term!) and it remains one of the most intimate forms of communication online. It is one of the most powerful ways to communicate with your readers and fans IF you know how to use it and if you look at it as a way to build a relationship first, then and only if appropriate, move to transaction.
Email marketing is a great opportunity to explore your story-telling and writing skills. It gives you great practice with learning these necessary skills:
How do you create an email that readers yearn to read?
How do you connect with your readers as you express your passion for your business and give them something that makes a positive difference in their lives, all with an email?
And most of all, how do you build trust?
Tools of the trade:
I have been using Aweber now since November 2010, and even though I’ve had a few complaints with them, they are by far one of the best services out in the market for what you pay. The first month of your service is free, and you can export existing list from Feedburner over to Aweber. Or just start your new list. Over the last 2 years, they have added new features, and improved their interface. Get started with your email list on Day 1 of your business.
3. Communication Powerhouse Tools:
While email combined with blogging is a great foundation and way to communicate, you will want to have tools to go beyond that. At its simplest, you want to use one of the most commonly used communication platforms for business owners, Skype. (Stay far away from Oovoo!) Skype is free and brilliant and with Call Recorder, which was a $20 plugin for Skype, you can record all your video and audio calls.
If you want to have a more professional conferencing tool, my absolute favorite is GoToMeeting. I’ve been using it now well over a year. I use GoToMeeting to do all my client calls where we can interact, share screen – Skype can get unreliable with screen sharing – and record the entire exchange. In addition, GoToWebinar is a service also offered by the same company for larger webinars and programs you may want to offer as a training or information sharing medium.
My word of warning against the free conferencing tools: every time I have been on one as a participant, the quality and reliability has been beyond disappointing. As a professional entrepreneur, your reputation is important so don’t be cheap when it comes to your communication services.
4. A Real or Virtual Assistant:
I wish I had started getting help sooner. Today, my husband is my full-time business partner and he does everything that I specifically did not wish to do in my business, including scheduling all my appointments, handling all the tech support, doing all the financials for the business, being the videographer for the business, and doing all the video and audio post-processing, among other things.
Who is helping you? And what makes you think you must do it alone? Remember, this is not about proving a point. Get an assistant. You can go to a real company to hire virtual assistants or check out oDesk or eLance for their services.
Also, be honest with yourself. If your VA doesn’t work out, then part ways before you invest too much time in a relationship that does not seem likely to work.
5. Robust System for Content Creation and Backup:
If you want to create a brand, leave a mark and have an online business, you need to create content. Great content. Regularly. The medium – text, audio, video – is up to you but content you must create, my dear!
Tools of the trade:
My indispensable tools for content creation are Evernote as well as Dropbox, for storing and saving your data in the cloud, baby!
I also use a mind mapping software to brainstorm for my own projects – see the image above as an example – as well as to work with my clients on solving problems and exploring options through the power of mind maps. I use Mind Manager by Mindjet and it’s worth every penny, but there is also FreeMind which is a free tool and seems to do the job.
6. An Audio Podcast or Video Blog:
I started podcasting The Daily Interaction show in 2011 and the more time passes, the more I realize the power of podcasting. In 2013, podcasting was one of the biggest topics at the New Media Expo conference, and all the hot players in the online business now have a podcast.
I also have a video blog that focuses on helping aspiring corporate employees to rise up the corporate ladder the right way.
I generally don’t care to do something just to “follow the crowd” – if you do, that’s reason enough to podcast! – but I do believe that you reach a massive audience with your podcast that you would not otherwise be able to reach with your blog or website. The audio medium also builds an intimate relationship with your listeners more so than blogging and today, I absolutely recommend podcasting as a survival kit for the new entrepreneur.
And don’t just create an audio podcast. Also listen to inspiring podcasts.
Tools of the trade:
I record into my Edirol with my Heil microphone. You don’t need a fancy Heil microphone but you need a good one because audio quality matters more than you think. I post-process using Audacity, which is a free software, and I load my podcast onto both iTunes and Stitcher.
7. A List of Your Services and Packages with Pricing:
You need to decide if your business will offer products or services or both. The quickest way to cash is the transaction of your services in exchange for money.
If you decide to do this, just create a page with all of your services in detail as well as your pricing. Create packages rather than charging per hour. And communicate your prices openly and proudly without ever apologizing for them. Just make sure you are clear in what you deliver and how you collect payment.
8. Your Own Product Suite:
I believe that if you want to build wealth, rather than just make money, you need to create your own product suite. This is an amazing road to explore and you will learn so much about yourself and your creativity and skills you did not even think you had. You will also create a means to passive or less active income streams and this can build your business alongside whatever else you offer. Plus, it will position you as a voice of authority in the marketplace and set you apart from others.
Tools of the trade:
I use the tools above to create the content in addition to using Screenflow to create presentations and one of my most favorite tools at the moment, Scrivner, to write books. You can also use Microsoft Office Suite just fine. These are just my favorite tools. The idea is to create those products.
9. Reliable Invoicing and Expensing Tool:
You have got to stay organized from the very beginning when it comes to doing the money side of the business. The best way to start is by using a reliable system for invoicing and project tracking (as applicable). The more time you spend setting up a smart system up front, the less time you waste later. You take your pick!
Tools of the trade:
I have been in love with Freshbooks for years now. I have the highest level of service with them and keep track of all my clients and expenses. I also use PayPal, and while I can’t say that I love PayPal, I am grateful that this service exists. You can certainly get a merchant account but at a minimum, use Paypal and Freshbooks and set up a nice workflow for collecting payment from your customers.
10. A Strong Social Media Presence:
This dynamic medium changes daily if not more often but at a 30,000 foot level, you need to have a social media presence. You can decide the extent of it, and you need to feel your way through this one but go into it with a determination that whatever platform you choose to use, use it well and give it a fair shake. I am in all the major social media places because each has shown me its power and its benefits, and no two are the same. I suggest you start with just two and then expand beyond that.
Tools of the trade:
LinkedIn: Your profile on LinkedIn is no longer a resume. It is a way for potential business partners, clients, customers, and sponsors to find your business. Spend time on building this out because LinkedIn is a professional powerhouse!
Twitter: Use Twitter if only to follow role models and key influencers and be in the loop. I love Tweetbot but this one is a personal choice.
Facebook: Yes, yes I know. I hate Facebook too. I hate the schemes and the dictatorship they run but I also love that my friends and fans use it. I go where they are.
Instagram: Love the power of Instagram communities, tagging and following challenges, especially around yoga in my case.
Google+: With the addition of communities on Google+ and the way you can connect without worrying about “friending” or boundaries of that nature, I love using G+ (follow me) to connect with like-minded people.
Pinterest: I’ve started to see the subtle powers of Pinterest and apply it selectively to where it fits my business. The best application: My Greenterest board where I curate the best juicing photos on the inter-webs in one place.
So there you have it! These are the bare minimum of tools and systems in your ultimate survival guide as a new entrepreneur. You will come across thousands of other tools, widgets, plugins, programs and applications and new ones are coming out every day. Choose wisely and stick to the ones that work well and then focus on running your business!
And if you are a new entrepreneur reading this, take heart, it’s a great journey and with beautiful ups and downs. Once you are in it, you can never go back to being an employee. So use your smarts, your relentless heart to make it work and your persistence to keep going and to stop only after you have tasted the sweet success of work and play on your own terms.
What tools and applications would you recommend to a new entrepreneur today? Share your thoughts in the comments. Remember, the recommendations here may apply to you in its entirety or you make take away bits and pieces that fit your business model.
Disclaimer: I use affiliate links in this post for products that I absolutely love and heartily recommend.