Starting a Business from Nothing
Updated: Sep 15
A mega-guide to ultra-low cost design options for anyone looking to start a business. Tips on all the design aspects you need to start your company off on the right foot, as well as how to avoid wasting money on useless things. If you have a question you don’t see answered, throw it in the comments or shoot me a message, I’m happy to help.
Picking a Name
Probably one of the most daunting aspects of starting a business is deciding what to call it. You’re essentially creating an extension of you, whether it’s a food truck, drywall company, or law firm.
This is the name that will be plastered on walls, business cards, stickers, coffee mugs, uniforms, promo items, letterheads, vehicles, hats, shopping bags, commercials, stamps, and whatever else you can think of. It’s kind of a luck thing if you figure out you name immediately. Some ideas, the name will come to you first, others, you may mull over options for months.
One of the most important things in the modern era is to check if a reasonable domain and/or social media handles are available. I check through Google’s domain service, https://domains.google.com/. This doesn’t list every single domain out there, but it’s reliable for the majority of users. Unless you’ve got money to throw away, at this stage you most likely will not get an "ideal" domain, like something super short or very common. But you can still get something that represents your brand and is distinct. I'd still recommend shooting for a .com if it's possible, as it's the most trustworthy to normal users. If you have a business that can use a .word top-level domain, and you have a youthful clientele, go for it! york.coffee could be a super cool domain for a York-based coffee shop.
Another thing to consider is SEO ranking. If there are twenty companies that share your name or it’s a really common word, unless you suddenly pop off overnight, it’ll be hard to organically find your page. SEO is hard, and SEO experts worth their salt will tell you that a lot of it really boils down to luck. Using website creators can make SEO easier for you, as explained below, but there’s only so much you can do. Search engine algorithms are insanely complex and change constantly. By the time you think you’ve figured it out, it’ll be different. Try not to stress too much about SEO, but do take it into consideration. Location based company names can really improve your SEO, especially if you’re the first to the market in the area.
Once you’ve settled on a name that you feel comfortable sharing, explaining, wearing, and displaying, you can snag your domain, Insta handle, and anything else on the internet that meshes with your brand. If you’re ready to start doing business, ensure that you register with your state as the appropriate business type. I’m not gonna dive into that because I’m not qualified enough to give advice on legal or financial matters, but from what I do know of years of being a financial advisor’s daughter, it’s important to make sure you abide by the IRS and state so it doesn’t come back to bite you. Most places it’s fairly inexpensive to register an LLC, sole proprietorship, or DBA, and it’s not an insanely complicated process. Just make sure that when registering, you go directly to your state’s website to avoid random fees. A teensy bit of googling and learning what type of business you should be will save you a lot of money.
Make sure you’re confident in your business. If you’re nervous or wishy-washy about describing the meanings behind your business, name, or any choices you’ve made regarding it, you should take a step back and re-evaluate the decisions you’ve made. It’s essentially defending a doctoral thesis, people suddenly become experts when you go into business. Try not to let yourself get beat down by people questioning your motives and decisions. If you’re nervous, fake confidence until you feel strongly about your decisions, and dig deep to figure out why you made the choices you did.
The Customer is Always Right
No, no, no, not like that. This phrase is misunderstood a lot. It really originates from old department stores, in a "give the lady what she wants" sort of way. Don’t let your customers walk all over you and treat you like dirt, but if your customers are drifting away from you and over to your competitor that offers online appointment scheduling and SMS reminders, consider adding that as an option. If you’re a food truck traveling to a heavily coastal California area for a festival, come up with a vegan or vegetarian option to add to your menu as a special so you don’t miss out on a huge part of that market. Don’t go to a vegan area and treat the customers poorly because no one wants to buy your pulled pork sandwich.
The customer is always right in the way that the customer dictates the market for your business. Too niche, and you fail from a lack of customers, too broad, and you fail because no one knows what makes you different.
"The customer is not a moron" — David Ogilvy. Don’t be condescending toward your customers, and don’t insult their intelligence. Imagine that you’re buying from yourself. What would make you buy it? Why would you choose you over a comparable service? Try to look at this objectively and determine without bias what makes your business special.
Remember that your business doesn’t exist without your customers. Know them inside and out. Create a profile of your ideal customer. Make them in a character creator in a video game if that helps. If you run a specialty coffee shop in a college town, think about that customer. Young adult. Attending higher education. What disposable income does your customer most likely have? As business owners, obviously you’d want them to have infinite money so they keep buying from you, but that’s not realistic. Incentivize customers to come back and have good reason to continue to spend money with you. Rewards programs, sales, specials.
What are the demographics of the town you’re in? Is it worth it to be open during the summer when students aren’t around, or is there sufficient tourist population to get you through the summer months? Are there religious or cultural festivals you can help your customers celebrate? For example, if your shop is in a heavily Muslim area, do you want to offer special hours during Ramadan so your Muslim patrons can still swing by when they’re not fasting? If you’re in a town with a lot of Christians who observe Lent, could you offer a way for them to participate in charitable acts revolving around ideals your company believes in, even if they’re abstaining from your coffee and treats for 40 days?
Consider staying open super late or opening super early during midterms and finals. Maybe offer a quiet outdoor space to study, read, or safely crash from utter exhaustion (okay, maybe not that last part). Consider offering healthy options that boost energy without the crash. Maybe offer barista classes in a sort of Masterclass way, where people can come in with friends and learn what goes into their favorite drinks, along with being able to craft and taste their own concoctions. Think about all the hobbies your customer has. How can those integrate with what you do? If you’re in an artsy part of town, can you offer local artists space on the walls to display and sell their art? If you own a building for your shop, can students help create a mural for the side of your shop? Involvement and engagement with the community around you will get you off on a fantastic start.
There’s so many things to consider with your customer base. Think about every avenue you can get engagement from and establish a strong community. How can you stand out?
Designing a Logo
A logo is the next most important part of your new business. If you can’t afford to hire someone to design a logo for you, trust me, I get it. Logo design and branding is a very expensive endeavor and can be way more than you can stomach when you’re just starting out, so I have some tips.
First tip: Canva. It’s a great brainstormer and an easy way for non-designers to make a professional looking logo. Using just the free version, you can get good design ideas for your type of business.
For example, here’s a search for the term "paint" under the logo templates, you get a ton of options for great, simple logos that could truly represent your brand, y’know, if you’re a commercial painter.
Second tip: simple and minimalist will always be the best option. The old adage K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) If you suck at design or know nothing about art, just a simple pre-made font combination with your business name should suit you fine for awhile. If you want color, limit yourself to just one or two.
Accessibility is a huge part of design and representing your business. Your text should be legible even when the logo is only 50 pixels wide, or for less techy terms, about half an inch in print. The colors should have high contrast against the background they’re placed on, for example, don’t use pale yellow if you’re placing it against white, people won’t be able to read it. A good rule of thumb is if it seems like it might be a problem, it probably is. You don’t know how many potential customers may use a screen reader, have partial to profound colorblindness, reading disabilities, or any other levels of disability that may impair their capability of viewing your logo. If this seems daunting, black and white is always a safe bet.
If you’re stuck on the design and feel unsure, walk away. It won’t go anywhere. Go to dinner, take a walk, step away from the computer, phone, or paper. The best way to decide on art is to get away from it and come back later. They say sleep on it for a reason.
Third tip: make it important. Your logo should mean something to you. Whether the color holds a strong meaning, the iconography was doodled by your grandmother decades before, or your wife hand wrote the name, there should be pride behind your business’ branding. For example, if you have a hot sauce company, you may want to make the logo the color of your favorite pepper. A lot of starting a business is explaining to people why you made the choices you did. Make sure you make choices that make you happy.
A logo should be an invitation for viewers to trust and have faith in your business. If you’re designing it yourself, make sure you write out some branding guidelines for yourself. If you chose a particular font, write down the font name, the font weight (regular, bold, italic, book, oblique, etc), and if you adjusted the horizontal width of the characters or spacing, and to what extent. For specific colors, list the hex code (six digit code that starts with a hashtag, like #3169a2), the RGB values (like rgb(49, 105, 162)), and the CMYK values (83%, 50%, 4%, 3%).
Let’s break this down more. RGB color formats are for web and digital usage, whereas CMYK formats are for print. RGB values tell you how much red, green, and blue are in your color, in that order. It’s an additive color model, meaning it tells you in numbers how much of each color to add together to produce your specific color. These values range from 0 to 255, meaning there are 256 possible values for red, 256 possible values for green, and 256 possible values for blue. 0 means none of that color, and 255 means the highest intensity of that color. This creates 16,777,216 possible colors.
The hex code, or hex triplet, is a six digit number used in computer applications, like HTML and CSS (the code behind your website). This is, for our purposes, a different way of listing the RGB values. For the color I listed above, the decimal values R=49, G=105, and B=162 would translate to 31, 69, and A2 in the hexadecimal notation system. So you concatenate, or smash together, those values to create the code 3169A2. Hexadecimal notation represents the color in a range from 00 to FF. Letters A to F represent the numbers 10-15 in our decimal system.
I’ve broken down the math here to explain why this works, if this doesn’t interest you skip to the next paragraph. Take our red value, 49, and divide by 16 to get the first hexadecimal digit. This is integer division, so ignore the remainder. We get a value of 3, which is our first digit. The remainder is the second digit, which in this case is 1, because 3x16=48, one less than our red value of 49. Repeat for the second value. 105/16=6 with a remainder of 9. And third, 162/16=10 with a remainder of 2. We can’t represent the decimal number 10 in the hexadecimal format because it takes up two value spaces, so our 10 is represented by A. Altogether we get 3169A2.
It’s a little bit more complicated to understand the process behind this, but it’s a much easier way for the human brain to read off a color. And if you’re someone like me who stares at color palettes all day, you might just get "lucky" enough to recognize colors as their respective hex code or vice versa. Values less than 10 hex (16 decimal), like 4 or 6, will have a leading zero, like 04 or 06, to ensure the value is always six digits. Hex codes grant you the ability to make sure your color is matched across all settings with very little difficulty.
CMYK, on the other hand, is subtractive. This is what printers use. It’s a four color model, and if you’ve ever purchased printer ink you’ll recognize it. It stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (black). Think about the way a printer works, you’re printing color on a traditionally white sheet of paper. This method works by masking colors, reducing the light that would be reflected by the white. White light minus red leaves cyan, white light minus green leaves magenta, and white light minus blue leaves yellow. Black is created by a full combination of the colored inks, however in practice, true black is created with black ink instead of the combination of colors. Black made with the color inks is typically called a composite black, which is something to avoid, as it’s significantly more expensive and doesn’t generate a nice, deep black. For extremely dark print areas, a CMY foundation is laid, and then a black ink layer on top, to create rich black.
This is why displays on a computer monitor may not match the look of printed items. You can’t truly convert between RGB and CMYK values without color profiles. The easiest thing you can do as a non-designer is to look up your hex colors on the internet and write down the CMYK values it gives you, so you could confirm any print files with those values.
If you can, save or export your logo as a .pdf. This will make it ready for print usage. Canva makes this easy to do. If you’re using small, non-vector graphics or photos, this will not automatically make it print ready! Try to avoid using these rasterized images in your logo, especially if you do not hold the copyright for those images.
If you are eventually working with a print shop to have, say, signs or flyers made, this .pdf will be what you send them. Save a color version (if you used color), an all-black version, and an all-white version. The black will be useful for a variety of uses, like single-color print formats, as will the all-white for dark backgrounds.
Save a decently sized transparent .png file of your logo in all color ways, around 1500x1500 pixels, so that you can use that for nearly all web use. Your logo should also be useable within a circular profile picture, because many social media, contact images, and other web usage will crop your logo into a circle. If your logo is not a circle, create a version of your logo with an appropriate white space border to allow it to fit inside a profile picture circle.
Also write out some simple guidelines, like: Should be legible at any size. Minimum digital size: 50px high. Do not stretch or distort. A minimum digital size can be really useful to protect your logo from being illegible or blurring the colors together. This can also guide you in creating a favicon for your website, which should be understandable from 16x16 pixels. This is the little image that shows next to the page title on your browser window, as well as in the bookmark list. You may choose to just show an icon from your logo in this instance.
If you decide to display your logo as just an icon, or just the word mark (the text-only typography of your name), you should give yourself guidelines on how this should be used so you can keep it consistent. If you use just the iconography for your profile picture on Instagram, consider using that format for all profile pictures, so your brand identity is kept consistent.
It’s 2022, so it’s really up to you whether you want cards or not. If you’re a plumber, yeah, get business cards. If you’re a TikTok influencer that makes nail polish, you’re probably fine with easy access to your QR codes on your phone. For heavily internet-based companies, I like to recommend a physical business card with a QR-code on it.
You can find QR code generators for free, I’ve used pretty much all of them for various uses. There are QR codes that can take users to your website, you could link to your Instagram or TikTok page, your best Youtube video, you could have it set up to send a text or an email to sign up for your mailing list, or even have your contact information added into their phone. The less information encoded into a QR code, the better, as they can get really busy and hard to scan for older phones if you include too many aspects. It’s possible to pay for a service to have a dynamic QR that you can change the information on, but really, most people are perfectly fine using the normal, static ones. Just don’t buy 5,000 business cards with your info on them if you’re expecting it to change. I mean, don’t buy 5,000 business cards when you’re just starting out anyway, but I hope you would already know that.
Obviously, printing business cards isn’t free, but you can get a pretty good deal for them on Vistaprint or directly through Canva. I’m not sponsored by them, but I think the print quality and paper quality is better through Canva, and it’s not much more expensive. You only get first impressions once, yada yada, so make them count. Also, let’s get back to K.I.S.S., a simple business card will get the information across. Over 80% of business cards are thrown away within days of receiving them. It’s something you can have handy to hand to leads, but don’t place all your hope into them. Think of them more as a cherry on top of a delicious lead sundae. Sure, it’s nice to have, but a lot of people don’t care for cherries.
If you do choose to make business cards or you’re in an industry that they’re a must-have, make sure that they’re interesting. Extend your logo design into the cards. Use the same colors, fonts, and aesthetic. Include any information relevant to your company. Typically, that’s company name, your name, a phone number and/or email address, your website’s URL, and potentially a social handle. Single or double sided are both fine, that’s really up to your personal preference. For a single sided, you have to include all the info on one page, but with the two sides, you can split it, such as logo on one side and contact information on the other.
Really, a business card is just a way of disseminating contact information. They’re not going to make or break your business relationship unless they’re really, really awful. Spend some time on them, but don’t get lost in the weeds trying to create the most perfect card on earth. Focus on your confidence in your business and use the business card as a reminder for you and the other person to close on the deal, not initiate first contact.
Building a Website
There are lots of easy to use website creators, really which one you choose is dependent on your personal preferences and the amount of time you want to spend on generating your website. For a lot of businesses, it can really be as simple as explaining your services in text and photos (videos if you have them!), linking to your social medias, having a contact form to collect leads, your address, phone number, email, whatever contact information you want.
No matter what creator you use, make sure to spend some time filling out all the SEO tasks associated and input as much back end information about your company as you can. The more information, the more things Google (or any other search engine) has to crawl and learn. On your landing page or home page, explain in a few words what your business does, in the form of Headline 1. There should be an option on your website editor to put in that headline format when you’re choosing the font. Below this headline, write up a little paragraph about what you do, sell, or offer. These pieces of information will help bump you up higher on search engine pages.
If you have good, high quality images of things relevant to your business, your website is a great place to show these off. You want to hit a fine line between high quality and fast loading times. If you don’t need the transparency on a photo, save it as a .jpg and upload it that way. You’ll lose a tiny bit of quality to the compression but the file size will be much smaller and therefore load way faster. A good rule of thumb for photo quality is to look at it on your phone. If it looks blurry or pixelated at full size on that screen, don’t use it.
The most important thing to is to check out how your website looks on mobile. The majority of users will view your page from a mobile device. For every second that page takes to load, and furthermore, display as useable, that’s customers clicking off your site and money flying out of your pockets. For the fastest loading times, make your home page static above the fold. Above the fold comes from the newspaper printing business, literally meaning above the half-page fold in the newspaper, the first thing the reader will see. For websites, above the fold means the webspace visible when the site initially loads, before the user would scroll, leading to the occasional terminology of "above the scroll." This area can be different on desktop and mobile, so make sure you look at both when finalizing your design. A static display within the viewport of your website will typically fall around 768 pixels, which is the height of a basic HD 16:9 display. This content should also grab your reader and implore them to scroll, click, and read on. If it’s not interesting, they’ll just click off.
The best way to view your website is to go to a place with horrible service, no Wi-Fi, and lots of potential dead zones, like underground (subway/metro stations) or around a lot of concrete. A lot of internet users do not have access to high quality service, and you should make sure your website withstands bad internet. The more users you can keep interested, the more conversions and leads you’ll get.
Get your friends and/or family to look at your website, and ask for honest reviews. Is it good enough to continue scrolling? Do they click around, or just look at one page? Are they gravitating toward the content you find most important? Remember that other people are not in your brain, and even though you may find it insanely interesting and important, other people may not even notice it. Think about what your design looks like to people who know nothing about your business. Does it tell a story? Is that story inviting enough to continue to learn more? What’s driving the user to trust you and your expertise?
Contact Forms & Lead Generation
A lot of design is reducing barriers to entry. The more pieces you require of a user, the smaller your conversion funnel will end up. Placing a contact form or price quote form in a very obvious place, with limited information to fill in, is the path of least resistance for your users. Your best option is to require a Name field, an Email Address field, and whatever sort of Message field you are interested in getting from people. Make your contact form easy to use and understand, as well as easy to understand when they’ll hear a response from you. This is how live chats can come into play, but unless you have staff for that, you’d be beholden to your live chat rather than the actual work you want completed.
Creating a repository of responses to the most common things like price quotes, etc, can make it easier for you to fill out your own template and get responses to people quicker. I personally don’t create templates for my own responses, but I’ve created them for others and they really appreciate them. It’s, again, down to your personal preference. Set it up to ensure there’s a response from the webpage when someone clicks submit, so they know their message actually got somewhere and will be answered in a reasonable amount of time.
Getting it Out
Once this is all prepared, share the hell out of it. This is where business cards can be useful, or stickers to ethically sticker bomb stuff (you can print these on a home printer or get them pretty cheap through Vistaprint, Canva, or Moo). If you can’t afford to advertise, be your own advertisement. Social media, IRL discussions, make your own t-shirt, tell everyone you know, et cetera. I’m not liable for any friendships or relationships you destroy if you go too far and become annoying to people. Keep it fun, light, and true to your demographic. You’ll fail the smell test if what you’re creating feels inauthentic.
If you’re just starting out, remember K.I.S.S., Keep It Simple, Stupid, and to follow your gut. Think about the design of your business as an appetizer, it needs to be palatable, inviting, and exciting, but not so crazy or confusing that your customer won’t get it. If they aren’t willing to eat your appetizer, they’re most likely not going to want the entree, and definitely won’t want a delicious dessert (the dessert in this metaphor is leaving you a glowing review and referrals). Focus on who you want as a customer and craft your brand around that person.