Starting your own business, even if you're following a passion or a lifelong dream, is no picnic. Along with having a baby and buying your first house, it might be the time in life when you're the most desperately in need of guidance. Advice is probably flying at you from all directions, but you're never sure who to listen to and who to tune out. Fortunately, you have the handy-dandy Internet at your disposal.
Of course, searching online for business advice could leave you even more confused and frustrated — but you obviously can't ignore this information gold mine. Within the depths of the Internet lie the answers to your every question, people around the world in similar professional predicaments, potential business partners, applications for loans, marketing tips ... the list goes on and on. It's no easy task to figure out which online sources to trust, so we've done some of the work for you. Here are 10 sites business owners can check out for advice, information and moral support.
A Facebook company page is a no-brainer for any business, so we hope you have that set up already. Without Facebook, the only time most of your customers will have contact with your business is when they decide to type in your URL and visit your website. But when they like you on Facebook, you can pop into their news feeds any time with a photo or an update. It's a perfect way to stay fresh in their minds without seeming pushy or intrusive. If they have questions, it might be more likely that they'd ask while they're on Facebook rather than email or the phone.
Besides having obvious marketing benefits, Facebook is also an invaluable networking tool. It allows for group discussion more than most other social media platforms do — with a quick search you could probably find dozens of groups related to your business. Figure out where your target market hangs out, and join those groups. Local groups are a great way to connect with other companies and potential customers in your area. And then there are also "support" groups for small business owners. Find them, join them and get active.
9: Departments of Economic Development
The website for your state's Department of Economic Development is a one-stop shop for everything you need to set up a business there. Some of what you'll find will be the broad information that's available on any number of other sites that provide advice for small businesses, but most of it is specific to your state. You could learn how to apply for a loan on a general small business site, but you won't have much luck trying to figure out how to get a business license in Missouri. So before you follow any advice you find on a national site — especially of the financial or tax variety — check with your Department of Economic Development first.
Besides financial guidance, you'll also find news about developments in your industry around the state, as well as information on business incubators, networking events and other ways to connect with small-business owners in your area. And if you're trying to relocate or expand, you might be able to find a new location through the Department of Economic Development's commercial real estate listings, whether you're looking to build your own space or rent in an existing building.
8: U.S. Small Business Administration
If you haven't been to SBA.gov yet, put that on top of your to-do list right now. The Small Business Administration is probably the ultimate resource for business owners in the United States. You can find official information on every aspect of running your company there, from writing a business plan and registering to getting funding and doing taxes. There are also online training courses, software downloads, live chats with counselors, and advice on business law and licensing.
The SBA's funding programs might be its biggest benefit. The administration doesn't provide financing directly, but if you're having trouble finding good terms on traditional loans, the SBA does guarantee loans made by partner organizations. It also offers a wealth of information on how to go about finding other sources of financial backing, like venture capital, research grants and government grants. Especially if you're just starting out, it's definitely a worthwhile place to spend a few hours.
LinkedIn's user interface is slick but no-nonsense, as befitting the most popular social media platform for professional networking. And professional it is: This is not Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, where you can be creative and let it all hang out. On LinkedIn you stick to the facts. You might already have a personal profile on the site, but you can take things to another level by adding a company page and promoting it. (Note: Incomplete pages don't show up in LinkedIn search!)
On a very basic level, your company page will create brand awareness among people who are already acquainted with you. But it can also be so much more: Company pages tend to rank high in search, so when people look up your business name on any search engine, they'll find your LinkedIn company page. If your employees join and add your company name, that creates more pathways to the company page. Encourage your page's followers to endorse and recommend your business. You can buy targeted ads through the LinkedIn network to reach even more people.
6: Small Business Trends
Small Business Trends is an online magazine that's been around since 2003. It's consistently named a top resource for entrepreneurs by business blogs and other industry publications. If you're new to online business, head straight to the "Startup" section or check out the site's substantial archives for help on just about any question or issue you might have: site optimization, building an online community, blogging, hiring, finances, you name it. Old hands can get breaking economic news, stay on top of trends in their specific markets and read refreshers on closing sales and promotional strategies. The company also presents two sets of reader-nominated awards every year: the Small Business Book Awards and the Small Business Influencer Awards.
The magazine's founder, Anita Campbell, being a small business owner herself, is also a valuable source of advice. She hosts a podcast, does speaking engagements and is pretty active on social media, so she's readily available and willing to connect. (Which is a pretty solid marketing tactic, by the way.) Advertising in Small Business Trends could be a good option if you think your business might have a similar audience. The site claims to reach 6 million readers a year, which isn't too shabby [source: Small Business Trends].