Once you decide that you’re going to start a business and you know what you are going to sell, there are still a lot of questions left on the table.
Your first thoughts should be centered around saving as much time as possible for your core business and attaining customers. Since our days of being paid to fix ancient computers and set up IKEA furniture, we have learned a thing or two about being efficient in business and creating a brand that makes people say things like, “You guys just seem really cool.”
LOCALLY PRODUCED OUTSOURCING
At this point in the business life cycle you have already studied the basics, written your business plan, and pitched to potential investors. You may have even have some extra funds from those generous investors. Now what? YOU NEED A GOOD LAWYER. No, seriously, we’re not kidding! The best business advice we ever received was to get a good lawyer and a good accountant. What we have come to realize is that you should also add a good IT consultant to that list. Nothing is worse than landing your first big customer and having your entire network shut down. We know this because we have worked several of our customers out of that bind. You can’t afford NOT to have these three things.
One of the keys to running a successful business is to focus on what you do best and push away the distractions and obstacles. Unless your business is very large, it’s unlikely that you will need to have legal counsel, an accountant, AND an IT guy on the payroll. You’re much better off outsourcing all of these tasks to specialists and saving the payroll budget for hires that are relevant to your core business. We know we rock in IT, but there is no way we could do what lawyers and accountants do. We hired a local lawyer and accountant to handle all the messy financials and contracts we don’t want to deal with. When you’re looking for these folks for your business, it’s best to consult your network of friends to find someone you can trust and research them thoroughly. For IT, well, we might just know a guy. Most first time business owners neglect to put systems in place that support their technology until they realize that they’re practically throwing away time and money trying to do it themselves. Sure, the 25 year old genius engineer you just hired is smart enough to help out with the IT, but why waste his or her time and expensive payroll dollars showing Jimmy how to reload his Outlook?
HAVE A BEAUTIFUL WEBSITE
We all know how a sexy website can get us excited about a company and their story. On the other hand, we also know how a crappy website can turn you off from a business. It is now critical to have a home on the web for you to showcase your business and what you do best. There is no reason not to have a website and luckily there are now many tools which make it a much more simple task to accomplish.
You no longer need a lot of time, money, and programming knowledge to make a decent looking website. If you just need something simple we recommend using a content management system, or CMS, like Squarespace or Wordpress. Once you figure out the basics of these systems you can easily update your website without having to call a web developer. Squarespace utilizes templates and a drag-and-drop layout to help build beautiful websites that don’t require you to write a single line of code. If you’re a bit more tech savvy and you need more customization than Squarespace can offer, look no further than Wordpress. Wordpress is one of the most widely used systems because it allows the greatest degree of flexibility. It’s a very modular system that allows you to go simple with a pre-made theme, code an almost completely custom website, or do something in between. Wordpress can have a higher learning curve since it’s definitely geared toward users with programming knowledge, but there is also a lot you can do with pre-made templates and plugins. Keep in mind, however, that any CMS you choose will have some drawbacks and most high performing websites with many customizations were made by a design agency or someone well versed in front end web development. There is simply no replacement for darn good code!
Our in-house web wizards, Marina and Jason, currently manage www.itjones.com using Squarespace. Squarespace allows them to implement updates quickly, whether it’s a change to text, new employee photos, or our latest blog. Squarespace handles maintenance such as updates that would need to be done manually with another CMS. The trade off, however, is that you lose a lot of functionality and design choices with a system like Squarespace that handles everything for you. We chose Squarespace initially because we needed something simple that looked good, and we needed to just get ourselves out there without a huge investment of time. However, we’re starting to grow out of Squarespace because it lacks some of what we need. While we’re not yet ready to go live with our recommendation of the best CMS for our needs as a growing company, we’re considering both Wordpress and The Grid, which uses artificial intelligence to automatically shape content into a custom website.
Having a beautiful website that never gets visitors is like having no guests at your first house party. You have to drive traffic to that beautiful website you made, otherwise there is no point. Google Adwords enables your business to display ads on Google and its advertising network by choosing keywords related to your business. You are able to set a budget for advertising and only pay when people click the ads. In addition, you can use Google Analytics to track traffic to your site and understand which campaigns are most effective. There are tons of how-to videos on youtube and some excellent online courses offered by Coursera or General Assembly to help get things started. Google even put together this excellent How To resource and I highly recommend it as a great place to start.
To be successful, it’s always nice to have a couple friends in high places. It can be even more powerful, however, to have many friends on social media talking about your amazing product or service. There are many platforms to engage your customers out there. Different platforms are more effective than others, depending on your target audience and industry. We use Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and Instagram, but I have also seen Pinterest, Foursquare, and Snapchat used by businesses with great success. Don’t forget to like and follow us… just not in a creepy way. I will be a little worried if I see you at my Bart station.
When it comes to content, we typically share useful or interesting stories related to technology with the goal of educating our social media followers. We take it upon ourselves to keep people in the loop about the latest and greatest in IT. Facebook & Twitter are our workhorses that appeal to a more casual audience. We use it for everything from articles to memes. Linkedin is a more professional platform that we generally reserve for only our own original content. We just started using Instagram a few weeks ago, but we plan on using it to give a more behind the scenes look at the Jones IT life so our customers can better understand our culture & personality.
We recommend using a system to manage your social media accounts, like Hootsuite, which lets you centralize all your social accounts under one roof. Hootsuite allows us to post to all social platforms at once, schedule posts in the future, see who is mentioning us, and analyze the best times to engage our audience.
If you’re getting social and you have employees that don’t live under a rock, you’re also going to need a solid Social Media Policy for your company. You don’t want one of your employees to be the latest news story in the long list of embarrassing social media mishaps. We happen to provide a Social Media Policy template and several other types of IT Policy templates as a service to our customers so if you are in need of one, send us a message.
Sites like Yelp are a great place to engage with potential customers and it’s usually the first place people look to learn about us. However, Yelp is far from perfect and you should consider having a presence on other sites that could be better related to your industry, such as Angie’s List.
It can feel scary to put yourself out there in case you get a bad review, but you should view even negative reviews as both a learning opportunity and feedback. We know there is no better feeling than getting positive reviews to validate your hard work and show off on your website, so you should get out there as soon as you can. Reviews are one of the best ways clients can show appreciation to our technicians and we have been lucky enough to receive a lot of Yelp love from our customers. If you happen to be one of our beloved reviewers, you should know that you made our day!
DON'T BE AFRAID OF FREELANCERS
At Jones IT we are lucky to have a team of folks who have experience in design and marketing, as well as tons of other skills like project management, corporate technical training, business consulting, and even barbecuing… yes, that’s right… BBQ. More importantly, our team members love to work on side projects, like this blog! However, there are some tasks which are simply a huge challenge within our organization due to lack of time or knowledge on certain subjects. In this case, we partner with freelancers that are experts in the project we want to get off the ground. In addition to the local talent we work with, we also collaborate with freelancers all over the world through Upwork, a marketplace for freelancers.
If you’re running a business in San Francisco I’m sure you’re painfully aware of the high rent, but what you may not have thought of is that the high rent also has a significant effect on the bill you get at the end of the month. There is nothing wrong in partnering with a freelancer that lives in a cheaper part of the country, or even the world, especially when you’re just starting out on a shoestring budget. Although my SF native heart likes to believe The City is the center of the universe, we must remember great talent is available around the globe online.
That being said, there are some important things to keep in mind when finding the right freelancer:
- Cheaper is not better… you pay for what you get sometimes
- Read the freelancer’s reviews and make sure the skills match what you are looking for
- Start with a small test project to make sure you can build a healthy working relationship
ENGAGE YOUR CUSTOMERS
If you’re reading this blog, there is a good chance you learned about it from our monthly blog emails that we send to our clients. We use Mailchimp to manage our subscriber lists and create beautiful scheduled emails. We have found that the most important feature of Mailchimp is the ability to keep track of how many people are opening our messages and what they’re clicking on. This gives us crucial insights to understand our success metrics - or in other words, what our clients actually care about knowing. We don’t want to waste anyone’s time so it is important to provide the most relevant and necessary information. There is a slight learning curve to navigating all the features in Mailchimp, but once you understand the system it will reward you with countless hours of saved time. We make use of templates, copy and reuse successful emails, and utilize automation triggers, such as auto-welcome emails for new customers, to save time and improve efficiency in the long run.
Build A Brand
When you start a business you’re not just creating a business, you’re also creating a brand. A brand is given many different definitions, but to us it is the way we communicate what our customers can expect from us. If you want to take a hands-on role in building your brand you should familiarize yourself with the basics of branding and create a mood board, or collection of images, text, and samples of objects that inspire your style or concept. Some tools and methods for creating your mood board include a physical cork board collage with magazine cuttings, an image filled slideshow on Prezi, or my personal favorite: Pinterest. The point of this is to collect inspiration that will inform your choices while creating all of the things you use to represent yourself: your logo, the reading material on your website, the typeface on your business card, and everything in between.
Sometimes, it pays to bring in the big guns. A few years back, we hired Butchershop to help us redo our branding and design. At the time we had a logo, but we had never sat down and solidified our brand. We had never put much time into the persona we were presenting the world, so we decided that it was time to meet with a professional agency to help us show our company in the best light. Butchershop was our first choice because they’re a leading Bay Area agency and they have also done great work for Levis, SAP, Vodaphone, and Nest, to name a few. They started by asking us questions like “If Jones IT were a car, what kind of car would be be?” By getting to know what we were all about and the story we wanted to tell, a new branding strategy was born!
Our old logo was initially a shield, to represent security, but as we grew we knew that our company did so much more.
The new power-button J logo represents how we want to keep our customers always on... in so many ways. In addition to this, our agency helped us pick typefaces, colors, and some marketing copy to get us started with a killer branding strategy. Since then we have used their guidance and consistently built upon it to make the brand we have today.
What we have found in our thirteen years of work is that a good business needs to have a perfect equilibrium between consistency and constant improvement. In plain English, this means consistently delivering on what you promise to your customers, focusing on what you do best, and constantly striving to get better at what you do. We hope that this post helps point you in the right direction. Stay tuned for upcoming blogs in this series that will include discussions on recruiting, business operations, communication, task & project management, information technology (IT), and a few extras. Good luck out there!