Updated and edited February 19, 2019.
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In my downtime, I check out pretty office space on Pinterest. I guess I have what you call office-envy because I don't have a decked out home office like this:
Instead, the place where I create + coach looks like this:
During the day, this is where I work as a volunteer coordinator at a ministry, a job I absolutely love. After hours and on the weekends, you'll find me here blogging, billing, listening to podcasts and planning.
It may not be glamorous but hey -- I don't mind. Because you know what? I still get done what I need to get done in this space. Light a candle, turn on my favorite podcast and it's off to the races!
My office is quiet. It's easily accessible -- like right-across-the-street-from-my-house accessible. It doesn't get much more accessible than that.
I could get all wrapped up in, "Oh, I don't have a dedicated office in my home so I can't run a business. So-and-so has this fantastic office and look where they are in their business."
There's not a right way or a wrong way to launch or run your online business. It's where you want to end up that makes all the difference in the world.
Maybe I'll have my own office some day. But the three-bedroom house I'm in right now doesn't afford me that luxury.
Same thing when it comes to launching your business and you get bit by the Shiny Object bug. You know what I'm talking about -- that one magic tool that will make your business run like butter and it costs an arm and a leg when in reality, there's a perfectly good and acceptable alternative that's a fraction of the cost - or even free.
But because so-and-so looks like they are rockin' their business out, signing all the clients and doing all the things is using it - you want it too.
Can I get an amen?
Hey, not judging here. I've done it, too.
It pains me when I talk to a coaching client and they are almost in tears because they think they can't launch their business until they've bought all the shiny things. I ask them, "Will the shiny things get you closer to your goal of launching your business? Or is there something else that's equally as good for free that will get you there?"
Folks, it's time to start working with what you've got until you get to where you want to go. OK? Because the more you long after something that you just can't make happen right now, the more distance you'll put between yourself and your goal. That new shiny thing won't make you feel more legit as a business person.
Understand this: not everything is for you. And that's cool. Understand it. Believe it.
Having said all that, let's talk about where you are right this minute.
➡️ Do you truly want to launch an online business but you're struggling to pay your regular bills?
➡️ Are you tired of wasting money, buying shiny tools that have nothing to do with your end goal?
➡️ Have you spent hours researching tools, only to get confuzzled and then you don't take any action at all?
It's okay. We all start somewhere.
The biggest thing you can bring to the table is the desire to launch your own online business. Your desire will take you far when money can't or won't.
What is bootstrapping?
Simply put, bootstrapping is building a business with little or nothing. Business owners who bootstrap rely on their own personal investment, their own sweat, and labor. Foks either bootstrap because they have no choice but to do so or because they don't want to depend on others for help.
One well-known bootstrapped company is Spanx, founded by Sara Blakely in 1998 with her $5,000 savings. Two years later when Oprah named Spanx as one of her favorite things, that was it - business took off. 'Cause you know when Oprah proclaims something one of her faves, that's gold!
Bootstrappers focus on the bottom line, keep their operating costs low and then invest their profits back into their business. They're passionate about what they're doing. They know their worth and charge clients accordingly so they can see a profit.
That's bootstrapping and that's how I launched my business. I was the Queen of Google, piecing together resources that fit the stage of my business. Whew, it was exhausting! But when you're just launching and not seeing money come in, you do what you gotta do.
Ten years later, here I am.
The funny thing is I'm still pretty frugal in my business. I still scope out tools and test out free versions before I plunk down money each month to use it. Whatever tool I use has to pass my test of functionality and will it make my business run smoother.
If you're truly ready to launch your online business and you're not in a position to spend a lot of money, keep reading for some of my favorite free tools that will help you get over the hump while your business is growing. Free doesn't necessarily mean cheap or sub-par: these tools are pretty advanced and you might even decide to stick with them even after your business turns a profit.
There are a few key areas you'll want to focus on in your business: organization/time management, communication and billing. Again, start off free where you can, price your services accordingly and invest back into your business. This is why it's so important to not undercut your rates. If you do, you won't have anything to put back into your business, you won't be able to upgrade your tools and your business won't be able to grow.
So, here we go - let's talk about some free tools to get your business off the ground:
Trello - Ooh, baby! Trello is a blessing because it keeps me super organized. A long time ago, I used to write everything down on a Post-it and put it on a board. Can anyone relate? That is no way to run a business. Well, Trello is kind of like having a Post-it but an electronic version. I track blogging topics I want to write about, onboard new clients, store website information, even spring break ideas - oh my goodness, I love Trello!
Oh, I also have Trello on my iPhone and iPad so I can access boards on the fly. Free! Free! Free!
If you need help with your onboarding process, make sure to sign up for my free Trello onboarding board.
LastPass - Everything requires a password these days and trying to remember all of them can seem impossible. If you can remember the one password to access LastPass, then you can access all of your websites that require a password. LastPass has a Google Chrome extension and everytime you type in your password, you can add that website to your vault. If you have a new client and they need to share their social media accounts with you, suggest they use LastPass to share with you. That way they won't have to give you their password.
Google Mail, Drive and Calendar - Google isn't just for searching random questions on the Internet. Google has a whole suite of free tools you can use in your business, like the Calendar, Mail and Google Drive, where you can store documents and images, freeing up space on your computer's hard drive.
Start by creating an email account and then access the entire suite of products. Can't afford Microsoft Office? Use Google Docs, Sheets and Slides to create documents, spreadsheets and presentations.
Do you need a website in the beginning?
Not necessarily. If you're not in a position to create your own website or pay someone to design one for you, you can get around the no-website thing for a bit. But again - as your business grows, take some of that profit and invest in one. Or learn how to design one yourself. I highly recommend Squarespace because of its simplicity. If you can drag and drop, you can design your own Squarespace site. Seriously. I learned how to design in a weekend. Megan Minns has a free Squarespace design course that's truly awesome. Check it out here.
You'll want to be visible on social media and it costs nothing to create a social media business account.
Figure out where your ideal clients hang out and start there. I suggest focusing your time on one social media platform and not all of them. My website receives almost 90% of its traffic from Pinterest so that's where I invest my time and resources. But you can't go wrong with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram if that's where your potential clients are. Make sure to use the same headshot or profile picture on each social media account.
It's free publicity so get the word out about your business!
Need a way to schedule your social media posts? I use Buffer to schedule my Tweets. Because I'm not too active on Twitter, the free version works just fine for me. I can schedule up to 10 posts at a time on the free plan. Buffer's nifty little Chrome extension is helpful when I find something online worth sharing. Just click and schedule. Buffer recently announced they are pretty close to being able to automatically post to Instagram.
For my Facebook business page, I just use Facebook's scheduler. It's free and easy.
For Pinterest, where I spend most of my marketing time, I use Tailwind to schedule my pins. What a timesaver! Pinterest can be a time-suck if you allow it to be one so using Tailwind is a no-brainer for me. You definitely have to approach Pinterest with a strategy and a goal. Pinterest is a slow burn and you won't see results immediately. Otherwise, you'll waste a lot of time scoping out party ideas.
➡️ Try Tailwind free for one month, on me, to schedule your pins.
➡️Check out this Pinterest case study to see how effective Pinterest can be.
If you want to learn enough about Pinterest to be dangerous, Summer Tannhauser has an awesome free course . Although not free, Gina Horkey and Kirsten Larsen's Pinterest Presence course is a winner and will teach you everything you need to know to use Pinterest effectively.
Can you tell I love Pinterest?
While you're out there promoting yourself, you want to make sure your grammar is in check. Check out Grammarly to correct your grammatical mistakes while you type. It's like having your high school English teacher over your shoulder. Did I mention there's a free version?
Need to connect with your clients? Here are a few free options:
Slack is a cool messenger-type platform where you can not only send messages, you can also have video chats and it integrates with Trello - and that's in the free version!
Loom comes in handy when you want to show a client how to use a new tool and you need to record a quick tutorial.
Record a quick tutorial using Loom - a lot easier than typing a long, complicated email.
Fireshot is awesome if you need to take screenshots. It works with just a few clicks and you can save as a PDF or an image.
Have you ever sent a proposal to a potential client and wanted to know if they even opened it? Or you sent an email to a client and you want to make sure they read it? Install Mailtrack to your Gmail and you’ll never have to wonder again if your emails have been opened. You’ll get a notification when the recipient opens the email - cool!
Need to do a video call but can't afford the pricey options? Try Appear.in. The free option allows up to 4 participants and you don't need to login to use it. Plus you can screen share!
You don't have to break the bank when it comes to signing and invoicing clients. Nope! Here are a few that I recommend in your startup phase:
HelloSign - Want to sign your first client contract quickly and easily? HelloSign is the solution. Create your contract, save it as a PDF, upload into HelloSign and email it to your client. Easy peasy. Once the client signs it (the client should ALWAYS sign first!), you'll sign it and then have a PDF version for your records.
Wave - Not a free trial version but free period - you can't beat that! Wave is an easy-to-use invoicing tool. You can track your income and expenses, send invoices, accept credit card payments and even process payroll when you get to that point.
Paypal Business - I don't use Paypal too much anymore because I'm hooked on Wave but you can't go wrong with a Paypal account in the beginning stages of your business. Lots of clients are familiar with Paypal and have no problem paying that way. It's easy to set up a Paypal business account - and it's free. You can also request a business debit card so you can withdraw payments using your card.
Those are just a few tools you can use to jumpstart your business for free. I hope you found this helpful. Feel free to drop a comment and let me know if this helps. Take care!
Ready to launch a new virtual assistant business but don't know where to start? Sign up for my free training course. Totally free, baby!