Playing Big Even When You’re A Small Business
You may be a small business owner but that doesn’t mean you want to look like small potatoes. Especially when you’re going after potentially lucrative big clients, you want your company to give the best possible impression. Even if you’re operating your business from your garage or a shared office incubator, there are several strategies that you can employ to look more like a professional enterprise – without spending a boatload of money.
Enhance Your Professional Image
Handing out inkjet printed “business cards” produced on flimsy construction paper stock broadcasts amateur status from a mile away. Professional business cards are inexpensive and easy to order from sites like VistaPrint or PrintPlace. Have a friend or family member who’s good at graphic design create a logo to use on your business cards, letterhead and website (more on that below) if your own artistic talents are lacking.
You also won’t be taken seriously if you’re sending out or emails from addresses like PartyHard@yahoo.com. Ideally, your emails should be sent from You@yourcompany.com or a similar address. However, if funds are really tight and your domain package doesn’t include email addresses (more on that below), an email address like email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org will suffice. Avoid using Yahoo or Hotmail email addresses – they just seem unprofessional. AOL email addresses should also be avoided – they give the impression that you’re not tech savvy.
Establish a Separate Business Phone Number and Mailing Address
Just because you work from home doesn’t mean settling for using your home address for business mail and packages. Services like Mailboxes etc. provide a street address and package receiving services, along with 24-hour access in many cases. Even less expensive – obtain a USPS post office box. Many post offices provide street addresses (not just PO Box numbers) for receiving mail. However, services like FedEx and UPS don’t deliver to PO boxes.
You may also be squeamish about giving out your home or personal mobile telephone number to prospective customers, which is totally understandable. Having a separate phone number for your business is more professional anyway. Fortunately, services like Google Voice (free) or Skype (inexpensive) allow you to establish a business phone number that can be programmed to ring at your home or your mobile phone – or both.
Another major advantage to using services like Google Voice is that you can establish “local” phone numbers for nearly any location you choose. For instance, if you’re pursuing Chicago clients, a Google Voice number with a 312 area code allows customers in the Windy City to reach you without racking up long distance charges.
Separate Business from Personal Identities
Establishing a separate identity for your business makes it easier to qualify for business credit without providing a personal guarantee. That doesn’t mean incorporating your business, although that’s certainly an option. However, you can obtain an Employer Identification Number (EIN) through the IRS website instantly for no charge. You should also obtain a D-U-N-S number through the Dun and Bradstreet website if you plan to bid on government contracts. Obtaining a D-U-N-S number is also free and usually requires one business day or less.
You don’t have to have employees to obtain a D-U-N-S number or an EIN. However, you will almost certainly need an EIN to establish a business bank account. Look for an account that also includes business debit or credit cards. As a bonus, conducting your company’s financial affairs through separate business bank and credit card accounts makes it much easier to maintain your company’s finances – and prepare federal and state income tax returns.
Create an Online Presence
If you don’t have an online presence, many potential clients will bypass you. But purchasing a hosting package and creating a web page from the ground up can be time consuming, not to mention frustrating. Fortunately, platforms like WordPress.com (NOT WordPress.org) provide free hosting. In addition, much of the difficult work of designing a website is done for you, while allowing you to incorporate your company’s business card logo to create a custom look.
Enhance your professional image even further by purchasing and registering a professional sounding domain. If you prefer, using a .net or .biz or domain other than .com is fine – although you should purchase the top level .com domain anyway to prevent another company from using it. Do not use .org unless your company is a nonprofit organization or nonprofit corporation. Likewise .edu domains are reserved for educational institutions.
The next step is to “point” the content from your website to your domain. The process differs for each platform, but it’s much less complicated than it sounds. Step-by-step directions or technical support are also usually available if you get stuck.
Master Social Media
As a small business owner, you may not have a budget for TV or radio commercials or for display ads in local or national print publications. No worries. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter are all excellent vehicles for generating large audiences of potential clients or customers. Best of all, basic social media accounts are free, while social media advertising is often available very inexpensively.
You must post regularly and respond in a timely fashion to comments to get the most benefit from social media. Therefore, especially if you’re a sole proprietor, choose one or two rather than attempting to spread yourself across several platforms. Whichever platform(s) you choose for your business, maintain them separately from your accounts. This allows you to set them as “public” while maintaining tighter privacy controls for your personal social media accounts.
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