Last Updated Feb 11, 2011 1:22 PM EST
Mind you, I am in no way suggesting misrepresenting yourself or your company, nor advocating flash over substance. And I'm certainly not suggesting that you behave like a big, impersonal corporation. What I am saying is that image does matter, and you should cast your business in the best possible light. To me, the more fitting chestnut is "dress for success."
Dressing up your small business sends a message of seriousness and credibility to customers, suppliers, prospective employees, and anyone else who interacts with the business. It also affects your own attitude, much like wearing nice clothing makes you stand a little taller. With so many cheap and easy tools available for the purpose, there's no excuse for not making your business look like a business, even if the company is just you and a laptop. Start here:
1. If you work from home, lose the bunny slippers. If you've chosen to (or must) work out of your house, then create an impenetrable "work bubble." That means a dedicated, quiet, professional, well-equipped and wired space that you, and anyone else in the house, treat no differently than an office across town. No exceptions. And I recommend you still get dressed for work in the morning, even though you don't have to. It affects your behavior. And I could tell you about some surprising Skype video calls I've had...
2. Your phone sets a tone. I can't tell you how many times someone has called me, representing a business, and I've heard kids or pets or TV in the background. Or I've called a "business" number and listened to a static-y answering message saying "you've reached the Jones family and Jones Industries, Incorporated..." Get a good phone on a dedicated line, and clear, professional voice mail, and record a professional-sounding message. If it starts with "hey there!" it's wrong.
Similar thinking for your mailing address. Though PO boxes don't always send the ideal signal, they're better than sending your invoices from Mockingbird Lane. I will confess to having google-mapped addresses of new business contacts, only to be surprised to see a satellite view of a house and yard.
3. Look good on paper. There is no excuse for inkjet-printed business cards or Microsoft WordArt logos. Proper cards and other printed materials are cheap and easy to get in small quantities from places like Overnight Prints. And if you're not a designer, don't try to be. Hire a freelancer to create logos and coordinating materials, or use a crowdsourcing site, which can provide fantastic results at very low cost.
4. Be the master of your domain. A good starter website is inexpensive and easy to build. It may not be the sophisticated enterprise-level site you will inevitably want or need, but a beautifully-designed company info or "brochureware" site is better than a crappy-looking anything else. It is probably the first point of entry for people doing business with you, and the best way to convey the image you want. Make it great.
5. Don't be a Yahoo. Few things stand out as credibility question marks more than a generic/free email account. I am always skeptical when I get a business email ending in yahoo.com, gmail.com, hotmail.com, or -- worst of all -- aol.com (which makes me envision a person sitting behind a faded beige computer with a dial-up connection). As part of your website project, set up proper mailboxes with the same domain name. And I suggest not using just your first name ("firstname.lastname@example.org"). Yes, many good-size businesses do it and it may be friendly and personal-sounding, but it is also very small-sounding if your business is not well known. Use first name/last initial or first initial/last name. It immediately sounds more substantial.
6. Get out as soon as you can. Unless your business is designed to be run from home, get yourself an office of some kind as soon as you can justify and afford it. Like many people who start businesses, I began mine from home, but my first goal was to move into some kind of "real" place. Not only so that I could have meetings somewhere other than a coffee shop, but because getting up, driving to work, and having a name on a glass door made me feel like I was really in business. It motivated me (to pay the rent, among other things). And, though my first office and stockroom was small, it was real, and people could come over and know that it was legit.
If you can't move into an office just yet, consider using a shared/serviced office. Again, not a perfect solution but better than Starbucks conferences, or having to dance around the home office issue.
I know quite a few tiny companies that look quite substantial to the outside world. And I know several multi-million dollar businesses that look like they are run by a guy in his pajamas out of his basement. You might say "Who cares? Millions are millions." But I'd argue that building the most impressive image you can from the start is a key step in getting visibility, being taken seriously, and getting people to want to do business with you.
Would love to hear from others who started in their bunny slippers... what were some of the ways you built up your image to help build up your business?
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