You can start a business with absolutely no money. You can start making money before you invest a cent in platform, design, or technology.

If you got the itch, you could start a business – right now – by setting up a free blog, emailing 10 friends, or announcing on Facebook that you’re for hire… all whilst leaving your credit card in the other room. The barrier to starting a business has never been lower.

This is well documented. And… at this point… boring.

Starting a business for free is great. But starting is just one step – albeit an important one – on the way to truly leveraging your time, energy, and expertise into a world-changing, money-making venture.

You simply can’t afford to stay in the beginner stage of business very long.

It’s not good for morale or for your bank account. But where to go? What to do?

Take a look at the businesses that are where you’d like to be. No need to look at multi-million dollar corporations, take stock of other solopreneurs and passion-driven business owners. How does your business stack up? Do you look like a beginner? Do you sound like someone “faking it til she makes it?” These are difficult questions to pose to yourself, let alone answer.

People are making judgement calls about your business every day. And it affects where their money goes when it’s time to make a purchase.

While there are many levels of this question to consider, here’s some direction on what your business needs in order to be taken seriously online. Again, you don’t need all these items in place to begin hocking your wares or offering your services but you should be checking more & more items off this list the longer you are in business.

To give you an idea of what to budget, I’ve included approximate costs for each item on the list!

  • Website at a domain name that’s all your own. This small cost makes a huge difference in how others perceive your business. You can still run a free platform and trick it out with a domain or you can invest in web hosting and build a more professional site using WordPress. $10 per year for domain, $90 per year for web hosting.
  • Email address at your own domain name. For the love of money, stop using that AOL address and take 10 minutes to create your own email address! There are plenty of services that allow you to do this without web hosting but, since you really should have web hosting anyhow, take a break from Twitter today to figure out how to set up your own email account through your provider. Hint: my email addresses all forward to my Gmail account – where you can also send from private email – so I can maintain my easy peasy email integration. Free with web hosting.
  • Website that is custom looking. No really, custom looking is fine. You can achieve this with a little help from limited edition graphics, like a header from By Reese, and a WordPress theme like Headway or StudioPress that don’t require code skills to customize them. $90-500 depending on needs.

    Michelle nails this one (via Google+):

    The design doesn’t have to make me go “Oh wow, who designed this website?!” but, if I land on the page and my first thought is “Ouch, they shouldn’t have done this themselves,” then there’s a problem.

  • Great photo of you. This is one I fought for a long time. When I finally put up a pro head shot on my website, I really felt like I was being taken more seriously – and that was after my first 6-figure year. It’s really, really worth it. Don’t forget to put your full name – unless you have some good reason to have a business under an alias – under that pretty pic! Don’t laugh: I have a hard time figuring out who some business owners really are. $175 for a session with a pro photographer. Check with photography students for a discounted rate.
  • Nothing on your website that you didn’t deliberately put there. Several website platforms include ads – either for themselves or others – or other text that have nothing to do with your business. Often times, you can get rid of them by paying a small fee. If you love that platform, it’s well worth the small expense. $15 per year.
  • Smart email signature. I get a lot of business question emails from people with no email signatures! Don’t miss this crucial marketing opportunity – include your website, a brief explanation of what you do, and another spot to connect with you. Any more than that and it starts to get annoying – any less than that and you’re wasting your time. Free!
  • Well-written copy. Let’s face it: we’re not all great writers. And even good writers need help with their website copy. This isn’t just avoiding typos or bad grammar – it’s about clearly communicating who you are, what you do, and how you do it. With style. $250 per page.
  • Elegant way to handle payments. There are lots of ways to jimmy your payment gateway & invoicing. Sadly, when you choose to jimmy instead of choosing elegance, your business doesn’t look as serious or trust-worthy. The easiest & cheapest way to improve your checkout process is with e-Junkie. Use it with a digital product to guarantee immediate downloads. Use it with a service to provide extra instruction via URL redirect. Or go to the next level and try out a service like 1shoppingcart. $5-100 per month.

This is not a comprehensive list. These are the items that most often catch my eye as disappointing mistakes in businesses that are struggling for attention and trying desperately to get ahead.

If you’re wondering where to invest your time & money now that you’ve been at this for a bit, these are the things that need to get taken care of as soon as possible. If you’re only getting started, don’t let this list hold you back but keep it in mind when you’re making decisions.

What’s missing from this list? What do you need to see to really take a business seriously?


By the by, if you’re in need of some help in the website department… Check out Website Kick Start – it’s my not-so-crash course in creating a website you’re proud of.