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].
5. Your Bank
It’s not the most exciting aspect of running a business, but the way in which you deal with your bank can have a big effect on your efficiency. A disorganized banking relationship can really ruin your productivity, but a good one can help things run so much more smoothly. You’ll probably do a lot more banking for business purposes than you ever have for personal reasons, so it helps to know the ins and outs of your banking program.
Chances are you’ll do most of your banking online, so study that website and mobile app to get the most benefit out of them. You can set up direct payments, receive bills, wire money, manage lines of credit, check your balance and make deposits without ever having to set foot in a bank. Most banks offer direct connection to bookkeeping programs like QuickBooks, which can be an enormous time-saver and also ensures accuracy.
That said, it also can’t hurt to get to know the people at your local branch. If you ever have a problem or a question, having a conversation with a familiar face can be more effective (not to mention more pleasant) than dealing with an anonymous customer service representative on the phone.
4. Mastermind Groups
Starting a business — especially if you’re launching an online company by yourself — can be a lonely endeavor. When you’re working alone from your home office, it can be frighteningly easy to lose your sense of direction. Without a sounding board, you also might have a lot of unanswered questions about the state of your business. Sure, there are plenty of places you can go online for advice, but sometimes you need the reality check of an actual face-to-face conversation.
Mastermind groups have been around for a while but have recently been garnering attention in the business world. They’re small groups of like-minded people with similar goals and experiences who meet regularly to workshop ideas, answer questions and keep each other motivated. Mastermind groups don’t have to be business-related, but they’re a perfect fit for entrepreneurs. If you’re tired of toiling alone, a weekly powwow with a group of similarly driven folks who are sincerely interested in helping with your business could be just what you need.
3. Entrepreneur Magazine
If you Google any keyword in the general environs of “small online company” or “business advice,” you’ll soon realize that Entrepreneur magazine has cornered the market — its articles consistently pop up at the top of the search results page. Expert SEO and a well-known brand is part of the reason for this, but the best keyword placement and site-tweaking in the world won’t matter if the articles aren’t good. Entrepreneur pieces usually aren’t very long — in fact, they come with a handy read-time icon that rarely exceeds a few minutes. They’re custom-made for the quick searcher with a short attention span. But they’re informative and filled with buzzwords and exciting ideas, which is why people come back for more.
Entrepreneur articles might lack depth, but just consider them appetizers — springboards into new subjects, if you will. When you’ve found an interesting topic, you can continue your research elsewhere, or maybe you’ll want to read more by a certain author. Thanks to the helpful links scattered throughout the articles, you could easily go down an Entrepreneur rabbit hole and read everything on the site about any given subject.
Hanging out on the Internal Revenue Service’s website probably isn’t your idea of a good time. It would probably rank dead last on most people’s list of things that are a good time, but sometimes we have to do things we don’t like. And unless you’re a tax accountant who happens to be running an online business, chances are you might need a little help come tax time. Yes, even if you hire an accountant (which we do recommend), you should still familiarize yourself with the myriad wonders of the business tax world. The IRS’s Small Business and Self-Employed Tax Center is the place to do that.
Don’t know your Form 940 from your Form 944? Not sure if you should pay estimated taxes or not? Wondering about employment taxes? Need to get an Employer Identification Number or figure out what business structure to use? The IRS is there for you. You can also learn about record keeping and deducting expenses. The checklist for starting a business is helpful as well, but we hope you won’t have to use the “closing a business” section anytime soon.
1. National Federation of Independent Businesses
NFIB is an advocacy organization for small businesses that boasts 325,000 members in the United States [source: NFIB]. Its website is a treasure trove of information on how to run your business, with a specific focus on government. NFIB.com is your place for advice on how to navigate specific government programs (like the Affordable Care Act) and information on how new laws and policies could affect your business. Anyone can check out most of the info on the site, but NFIB members have more access to the site and can also get deals on insurance, credit-card processing systems, cell phone service and computer equipment, among other things.
NFIB is an active lobbyist in Washington and all the state capitals. It endorses business-friendly candidates and posts a steady stream of breaking political and economic news stories. And if you’re wondering about how your voting choices could affect your business, there’s also a section that grades lawmakers — including the 31 senators and representatives who are also NFIB members — on small business issues [source: NFIB].