Today’s entrepreneurs have more resources than ever for starting, sustaining and growing their ventures. And, thanks to the Internet, advice and support are never more than a mouse click away. The following is by no means a comprehensive list of helpful resources, but it will give you an idea of the vast number of websites that stand ready to meet the needs of the small—and often medium and large—business owner.
It used to be that teenagers gave their old school parents fashion and music advice. Well, now, they are teaching us how to grow our businesses. Online communities and social networks, once largely the purview of teenagers and college students, have grown up. These sites can help you find old colleagues and connect with new ones and tap into the experiences of a readymade community of business professionals. One of the best sites is LinkedIn, which lets you pose questions to the community. For example, rather than wondering if it’s worth attending a particular trade show, you can get the inside scoop directly from people who attended last year. Or you can conduct a virtual “focus group” to get feedback on a new product idea. You can also post job openings and join groups to discuss issues relevant to your business. Facebook offers many of the same features and can be a useful venue for entrepreneurs who want to reach a younger demographic.
And you don’t necessarily need to join the biggest online community. You only need the right community—the one that serves your specific business niche and/or connects you with people whose experience best informs your own venture. Lisa Levin-Cohen, founder of travel accessories company Pack Happy, has found tremendous value with www.nedandshell.com, a resource “for all things start-up and stylish.” In addition to online content and a shared community, this outfit sends weekly e-newsletters covering hot style trends, and Pack Happy has had great results advertising there. A niche website like this might not reach as many people an email blast from Bloomingdale’s, but it reaches the right ones for Pack Happy.
Your vertical industry probably has similar opportunities – you just need to find them. A good place to start is by visiting the online edition of the trade magazines serving your niche. You should also visit the sites where your prospective customers are hanging out and sharing their thoughts. Got a tech-related business? Get advice and support from your peers at SheBusiness, but you should also spend some time with the GirlGeeks to get inside the heads of those who might use your products. Running a business that sells scrapbooking supplies? Creating Keepsakes and Memory Makers magazines both have community areas on their websites, but you’ll find just as many creative ideas and inspiring conversations at Craftster, which boasts more than 100,000 members. Get involved in those discussions, and you’ll reap marketing and PR benefits along with networking and lead generation
Build Your Web Presence
Whether you sell directly from your website or not, your company needs an online presence. To secure domain names, visit Register.com and find out what URLs are available. Register.com will also host your website and offers search engine optimization (SEO) services to ensure your site turns up at the top of the list when someone does a Google search. In addition, you can advertise on large search engines, such as Google (Google AdWords) and Yahoo (Yahoo! Sponsored Search).
If you want to create buzz about your product or services, consider setting up a blog. WordPress and TypePad offer simple, free blogging tools, but they can also meet other website needs for a small business, such as letting you post video and podcasts, publish RSS feeds, monitor and analyze site traffic and more.
Looking to Hire
As your business grows, you’re going to need human resources. Countless online job boards allow you to search posted résumés or submit your own job openings (www.Monster.com, www.HotJobs.com, www.CareerBuilder.com). But if you’re a small business, you might not have the need – or ability – to add full-time staff to your payroll. That’s where websites like Elance.com, Guru.com, Rentacoder.com and MyBusinessAssistant.com come in. These are online marketplaces where freelancers advertise their services and companies find project-based contractors. Elance, for example, operates like an auction – freelancers “bid” on projects that interest them, and companies review bidders’ hourly rates, experience, work portfolio, etc., to narrow the field.
Of course, Craigslist is the granddaddy of all job boards. It’s cheap to post an ad, and virtually everyone in the market uses it. If you’re not looking to hire, you can utilize Craigslist to sublet or share office space—and then find affordable furnishings for it!
Want to sell direct? It’s not that hard to open a store—if you do it on the Internet. Destinations like Amazon.com and eBay both allow retailers to establish their own storefronts utilizing the sites’ shopping engines and back-end technology. If you build your own e-commerce site, check out the hosted shopping cart services from providers like www.GoECart.com, www.Securenetshop.com and www.GoMerchant.com, some of which also can handle credit card processing for you. Other companies that can act as the link between merchant businesses and credit card/electronic check payment processing networks include www.Authorizenet.com and www.CyberSource.com.
Inspiration and Support
Sometimes, all a hardworking entrepreneur really needs is a sympathetic ear. Countless organizations exist to offer advice, support and resources, and many also have online communities, discussion areas and information libraries that you can access 24/7. At the broad end of the spectrum are websites of government agencies like the Small Business Association, SCORE, the IRS and your local Chamber of Commerce; and general business trade groups like America’s Small Business Development Center Network, the Center for Women’s Business Research and the Women’s Venture Fund. Drilling down, there are likely to be websites of organizations dedicated to your particular geographic region, industry, demographic and so on. Many are geared specifically to women and minority entrepreneurs. One of the most comprehensive directories of women’s small business groups can be found on the Bankrate website.
Here are just a few examples:
Ladies Who Launch – http://www.ladieswholaunch.com
The Entrepreneurs’ Organization – http://www.eonetwork.org
Startup Nation – http://www.startupnation.com
Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center – http://www.rencenter.org
Women Owned – http://www.womanowned.com
United States Hispanic Chambers of Commerce – http://ushcc.com
U.S. Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce – http://uspaacc.com
National Black Chamber of Commerce – http://nationalbcc.org
Hispanic SMB – http://www.hispanicsmb.com
eSmall Business – http://www.esmalloffice.com
Proposal Writer – http://www.proposalwriter.com/small.html
Small Business Notes – http://www.smallbusinessnotes.com/interests/africanamerican.html
Being a small business owner can be a tough and lonely business, but, thanks to the wonderful world of the Web, you’re never alone. In addition to benefiting from the wisdom of other women entrepreneurs you’ll meet online, you’ll feel richly rewarded by giving back to the community and sharing your own lessons learned.