So you want to start a business.
You have a ton of motivation and excitement at first, but all of a sudden reality sets in.
There are so many tasks involved, the majority of which you’ve never tackled before. You’re way out of your comfort zone, overwhelmed by all the things that need to get done.
Where do you even begin?
When you’re first starting out, it can be difficult to see the forest through the trees.
When I first started Elle & Company, I found myself piecing together all that I thought needed to get done (forgetting a bunch of steps along the way).
I longed for a step-by-step list of what to conquer and when.
Now, three and a half years into running my online business, I’ve had time to reflect on what worked and what I could’ve done differently to save time (and stress).
So I’m paying it forward. I’ve created a step-by-step list of what to focus on when you’re trying to get your business off the ground.
If I were to go back and start Elle & Company from scratch, here’s what my game plan would look like.
1 | Create a preliminary business plan
Like many of you, I stumbled into starting a business.
I was working full-time as a graphic designer for a start-up company right out of college, and while I gained some good experience, my boss and my working environment were less than ideal.
So I did what any creative person who hates their day job would do: I started freelancing.
I took on all kinds of projects, from wedding invitation design to brands and websites. And before long, I realized that my little side project was turning into a full-fledged business.
I put time into figuring out my prices, my offerings, and my process (which are all very important details), but I never mapped out a plan.
Creating a preliminary business plan at the outset of your business will help you set goals and gain a sense of direction.
It’s helpful to come up with a business plan that includes a mission statement, ideal client profile, and both short-term and long-term goals.
Without one, you may find yourself piecing things together haphazardly, at a loss for what to do next.
But notice I called it a “preliminary” business plan rather than a “full-fledged” business plan.
You can spend tons of time mapping out a top-notch mission statement, creating an in-depth ideal client profile, setting some stellar long-term goals, and identifying your greatest strengths right at the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey.
But you’ll quickly run into a couple hangups:
Hangup #1 | Your business changes the most in the first few months. This is your experimental phase; a time to be open-minded. Take on several different projects and figure out what sticks, what your audience is actually interested in, what you enjoy doing, and what will truly bring in a realistic income. After months of “experimenting,” you may find that all the work you put into a full-fledged business plan is now irrelevant, because your mission statement, ideal client, and long-term goals have shifted based on your experience.
Hangup #2 | In an effort to make sure everything is perfect ahead of time, many new business owners have a tendency to get so caught up on planning things that they never dive in and get started. You’ll always be making tweaks and changes to your business; it will never be 100% the way you want it to. If you delay getting started in an effort to make everything perfect, you’ll never begin.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t plan at all, but hold your plans loosely.
Once you get more experience under your belt and have a good idea of exactly what you want to be doing and working toward, you can come back and write a more in-depth business plan in step 7.
2 | Set up a simple Squarespace site
Your website is your business’s home base.
It’s where people learn more about you, check out (and hopefully book) your services, view your portfolio, purchase your products, read your blog. It’s essentially where all the important action takes place.
So it’s important that you get your home base up and running sooner rather than later.
Like I mentioned a moment ago, many people get hung up on making everything look perfect right from the beginning. They spend a lot of time on the details instead of jumping in and getting started.
And this is especially true when it comes to getting their brand and website up and running.
That’s where Squarespace comes in handy.
Its templates are beautiful and professional, so you don’t have to have a bunch of design knowledge or creativity to create a great first impression through your site.
You also don’t have to spend a ton of time setting it up.
Not only do the templates come with a bunch of great layout options for home pages, portfolios, and service pages, but everything is drag and drop and extremely user-friendly.
And because you’ll be constantly updating the content on your site (remember, those first few months of business are experimental!), it’s important that you feel confident navigating the backend of it and making changes to it.
So once you layout a preliminary business plan, create a simple Squarespace site with a home page, about page, service page and portfolio (or a shop, if you’re a product-based business), a blog, and a contact page.
Remember that your site doesn’t need to be perfect; it’s more important that you get it up and start treating it like your business’s home base.
It doesn’t even need to be perfectly branded at this point.
Choose consistent colors and fonts to make everything look cohesive, but don’t worry about pouring a ton of time and effort into branding business and your website at this point.
I’ve seen many clients sink money into branding super early in their business.
And while I’m grateful that they understand the importance of a professional, one-of-a-kind brand, they haven’t had time to experiment and figure out exactly what they want their business to look like.
They often come back to me wanting to make changes to their brand or end up rebranding several months later because they didn’t truly understand their ideal client or their long-term goals.
So give yourself some room to experiment. Get a website up. And worry about branding later in step 8.
Do you need help getting your Squarespace site up and running? Check out these Elle & Company blog posts:
8 Reasons You Should Jump on the Squarespace Bandwagon
So You Jumped on the Squarespace Bandwagon...Now What?
8 of My Favorite Squarespace Templates for Creative Businesses
Setting Up Pages & Navigation in Squarespace
Using Squarespace Blocks
Using the Style Editor to Customize Your Squarespace Site
Setting Up Shop in Squarespace
Blogging with Squarespace
The Truth About Squarespace SEO
3 | Start blogging
The natural tendency of starting a business usually looks something like this:
1 | Come up with an idea for a product or a service
2 | Find people who would be interested in buying that product or service
But the smarter, more beneficial way to start a business looks something like this:
1 | Build an audience
2 | Come up with a product or service for that audience
By building an audience first, you’re able to get to know the people who are following along with you and discover what their needs are.
Then you can build a product or service that meets those needs, and you’ll already have an interested, engaged audience to launch it to.
Many times your followers will even ask you to create an offering that you may never have considered before (which is how I came up with the idea for my Adobe Illustrator Basics course).
Marketing and launching new offerings is so much easier if you focus on building an audience first.
And blogging is a fantastic way to build an audience.
Don’t believe me? Check out all of the benefits of blogging for business here: 12 Simple Reasons Businesses Desperately Need to Blog
People are always very skeptical when I tell them that I credit any success that Elle & Company has had to blogging.
I get a lot of crazy looks, and people usually end up asking, “How else did you grow your business so quickly?”
I’ll be the first to admit that blogging isn’t easy; it takes a lot of hard work and you won’t see success right away.
But if you commit to sharing high quality content on your blog on a consistent basis, you’ll build trust, drive website traffic, expand your reach, and bring in more clients and customers.
Your content doesn’t even have to be written (although it is helpful for SEO).
Share videos on your blog.
Host webinars and share the replays on your blog.
Start a podcast and share the audio and show notes on your blog.
The saying “build it and they will come” does not apply to business. You have to provide value and give people a reason to follow along with you.
Blogging and sharing valuable content gives people a reason to return time and time again.
Do you need help getting your blog up and running? Check back on Thursday! I’ll be sharing my complete guide to launching a successful blog.
4 | Choose 1-3 social media accounts and determine a strategy for each
As I mentioned earlier, your website is your business’s home base. It’s where all of the important action happens.
So the goal in marketing, whether it’s through your blog or social media, should be to drive traffic back to your website.
I placed blogging ahead of social media in this list because it’s incredibly effective for driving traffic. After all, your blog is on your website.
Social media is a little trickier; you have to be strategic and intentional with how you use it to funnel traffic back to your website.
I’ll be honest: I’m always a little hesitant to put too much emphasis on social media strategy because too many business owners treat social media as the end-all be-all.
Social media is a great free marketing tool, but if you’re primarily focusing on followers and you never point people back to your website, your business won’t fully benefit from it.
So keep this in mind as you develop a social media strategy for your business.
When you’re first getting started, you may be a little overwhelmed by all of the social media platforms that continue to make their way onto the scene.
Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, LinkedIn, YouTube… Do you have to be on every single one?
I have some good news for you: It isn’t necessary for your business to be active on every social media platform out there.
Not only does that approach to social media stretch you thin and take up a ton of precious time and energy, but your audience isn’t going to be active on each and every platform.
So instead, figure out where prospective clients and customers spend their time and meet them there.
Instead of guessing where they spend their time, collect data!
Look at the demographics of each social media platform (this article has some helpful statistics). Ask past clients or customers which platforms they use the most. Look at competitors or peers in your industry with a similar client base and see which platforms are the most effective for them.
Then, based on that information, choose 1-3 social media accounts and commit to actively participating on each.
Brainstorm ideas for content that will provide value to your audience and build trust with them.
Determine how often you’re going to post to each one and create a schedule.
And consider using a tool like Buffer or MeetEdgar to save time and batch your social media prep.
Do you need help coming up with strategies for the platforms you’ve chosen? Take a look at these Elle & Company posts:
How I Grew My Twitter Following by 476% in 3 Months
6 Simple Ways to Organically Grow Your Instagram Following
How to Create the Quintessential Instagram Feed
Put Pinterest on Auto Pilot with this Nifty Tool
The Best Times to Post to Social Media
5 | Determine your offerings
You may have already started out with some services or products, but you’ll be able to tweak them, refine them, get rid of them, or add onto them once you get to know your audience a little better through your blog and social media accounts.
I always recommend starting out with services before products.
Once you have a product or service, you have to tackle pricing it. Over time, I created a no-fuss formula for pricing my services.
But whatever you choose to offer, I encourage you to think outside the box and get creative! Don’t rely on or limit yourself to what’s already being done out there.
And because you’ve already focused on building your audience, you’ll have a much easier time launching your offerings!
I cover this topic in detail in my signature course, Freelance Academy, and it’s being offered again in September! To receive more details and first access, join the waiting list by entering your name and email address below:
6 | Refine your processes
As you’re already probably well aware, starting a business can be all-consuming.
You never run out of tasks to do, but you always find yourself running out of time. There doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day to get it all done.
But making refinements to your processes can help your business run smoother and allow you to maximize the limited number of hours in your day.
This may look like delegating tasks to a third-party, like hiring a bookkeeper, attorney, virtual assistant, graphic designer, etc.
This may look like automating your business through social media scheduling, coming up with an organization system in Google Drive, or using Asana to organize your tasks.
This may look like reevaluating the tasks on your plate to determine which ones are taking too much time and could be carried out differently.
Or, most likely, it may look like a combination of all three.
This is one area that I’m constantly tweaking and improving on, but I’ve written about streamlining and refining processes in these Elle & Company posts:
Effectively Scheduling Your Work Week
12 Google Doc Templates to Make Your Business More Efficient
Tracking Your Work Week with Toggl
How to Use Asana Boards to Plan Your Content Calendar
My Favorite Planning & Goal Setting Resources
Want to Consistently Keep Your Inbox at Zero? Here's My System
11 Crafty Ways to Repurpose Old Content
7 | Revisit your business plan
Many of you, myself included, probably stumbled into starting a business.
There’s so many things to do during the first couple of months that taking the time to write up a full business plan probably isn’t, and shouldn’t, be at the top of your list.
But now that you’ve got some of the basics under your belt, it’s time to start increasing your business strategy by documenting goals that will help you move your business forward.
Your full-fledged business plan should include a top-notch mission statement, an in-depth ideal client profile, long-term goals you set using the SMART goals formula, and a list of your greatest strengths.
At a loss for how to create a business plan? I’ve got you covered. Enter your name and email address below and I’ll send my Business Playbook workbook right to your inbox!
Elle & Company's Business Playbook
Craft a tailored business plan with the help of my Business Playbook
One of my favorite resources to help you identify your greatest strengths is Clifton StrengthsFinder. The StrengthsFinder assessment will identify your top strengths and teach you how to maximize your talents.
8 | Streamline your brand
You might be surprised that as a designer, I’ve left branding and design at the bottom of the list.
While I understand the importance of first impressions, especially for new businesses, it’s much easier to brand your business after you get started.
If you try to brand your business before you even get started, you could end up spending thousands of dollars for a designer, or hours of your own time, trying to brand a business for the wrong audience. You have a better idea of who you’re trying to reach and all the items you’ll need designed after you’ve been in business for a while.
Design can be intimidating. It can be the one item that keeps people from diving in and getting started, whether it’s for their brand, website, or both.
So instead of putting off your dreams of working for yourself because you can’t decide on a design, just hop into your business and let the design come later.
For those of you who are just starting your business, were you surprised by the order of steps? Which ones are you having trouble implementing?
And for those of you who got started awhile ago, what you go back and do differently? Did you follow an order similar to this one?