Starting a business is expensive and entrepreneurs are always looking for ways to save money. Here are some free resources and services that will help you grow as a business and a businessperson.
Some of the best free resources for small business owners in the United States are actually offered by the government–the US Small Business Administration (SBA) has tips, articles, studies, and even granting opportunities. The agency’s business plan worksheets are fantastic for those just starting up or those seeking another round of funding. For those with more experience, the administration offers free business counseling for entrepreneurs at any stage. The granting and loans feature of the SBA should merit special consideration–it is likely your business is eligible for some sort of funding offered by the SBA.
Any entrepreneur will tell you that education never stops, even after you receive an MBA. We live in the age of the MOOC–that is, “massive open online course.” Institutions from MIT to Stanford offer free courses online, and they’re open to anyone. Of course, the classes aren’t typically credited, but the information is often from real professors. Thousands of business courses are available at Coursera, Udacity, edX, and other MOOC platforms. Most courses consist of video lectures and worksheets. Because of the online community aspect of the digital classrooms, you may also find yourself networking with other entrepreneurs across the globe.
No matter what your business, networking is critical. You should seek out gatherings of entrepreneurs–the SBA and your local Chamber of Commerce can be great resources to find out about small business owner happy hours and other get-togethers. An easy online resource for finding ways to meet other entrepreneurs in real life is Meetup–there is likely a whole group dedicated to entrepreneurship in your city. You can even set up your own gatherings through Meetup, Eventbrite, or Facebook.
Having a curated presence on Google Maps is crucial for any physical business. You can edit your business’s contact page through Google–you can insert images and update contact information. It is important that this contact information on your Google Maps page–your phone number, website, and address–is up-to-date. Google Maps also has a Click To Call tool that you want to ensure is accurate. This tool enables users taking advantage of the popular Near Me feature, and it is a way to drive customers to your door who didn’t even know of your existence before looking you up on Google Maps.
Similar to updating your information on Google Maps, you should complete a page on Google My Business. This page ensures that anyone searching for your company receives accurate information. Beyond addresses and phone numbers, you can input your hours and add information like menus. Having a complete Google My Business page can give you an SEO (search engine optimization) advantage–Google ranks websites with complete Google My Business profiles higher in web searches.
Love it or hate it, Yelp is a force in the small business universe pretty much no matter where you are. The company has options meant to allow participating small businesses to stand out, though. Yelp for Business Owners allows you to highlight good customer reviews, reach out to previous customers, engage new ones, and offer special deals to Yelp users.
Even if you don’t consider your business to be a web-based company, it is required to have an online presence. If you don’t have the budget for a web designer right now, a great option is WordPress. It is intuitive to use and the free templates are handsome–it is also a great way to nab a cheap domain name. You can build a simple website for free, and if you want to go a step further, e-commerce and other small business resources are available from WordPress for inexpensive annual fees.
If you already have an email account through Gmail, it might seem too obvious to mention that Gmail is one of the best free resources available for small business owners. It offers 15 gigabytes of free storage and is deeply ingrained with other business features from Google. You can easily label, filter, and prioritize your email inbox, and Gmail allows you to send out pre-written responses to commonly asked questions. For marketing and outreach, you can make lists of your contacts–such as “return customers” or “potential new clients”–and push out your messaging tailored specifically to these lists.
Once your Gmail account is set up, you should take a deep dive into Google’s G Suite options. Google’s Calendar is legendary for its ability to be shared, and Google Hangouts allow you to set up video calls easily. It may seem basic, but Google’s Docs, Sheets, and Slides features are some of the most powerful free business tools out there–they allow you to create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations and then share them with anyone you want. Again, it all comes with 15 gigabytes of free storage.
The name is childlike, but Doodle is a free and accessible tool for scheduling. This tool is especially useful if you have a team of, say, busy freelancers who barely have an hour to spare. You can request the availability of the entire team for a few weeks at a time. Even better, the respondents can fill out a Doodle within a few seconds–no sign-ups or logins are required.
Along with the SBA, your state government likely has a massive number of free resources for small business owners–your tax dollars at work. Each state has a small business development center, sort of like a miniature SBA. Along with letting business owners figure out what sort of permits or registrations are required, these departments often have educational information or funding opportunities. The SBA has links to these agencies in every state.
The nonprofit SCORE has a bunch of resources for small businesses across the country, from online workshops and podcasts to free mentorship opportunities. Especially if you’re a budding entrepreneur, gathering information from the trifecta of the SBA, your state small business agency, and SCORE should be one of your first steps.
Business planning documents are necessary for several reasons. Any bank or grant opportunity will want to see this paperwork. On a more fundamental level, business planning documents are good for you to see and work through what your company’s future looks like. BPlans.com has a server full of business plan templates, all for free, that span dozens of industries. The website also has other helpful features, like how to develop your elevator pitch.
Depending on the nature of your business, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo can be a great way to start raising capital. You can essentially start selling a product before your inventory is stocked. These platforms are free in the sense that it is free to set up–they will take a fee from the money raised. If your business is more content-based–if you are a blogger, artist, or subscription box creator, for instance–take a peek at Patreon, too.
Especially in this age of websites, graphic design is in high demand. If you don’t have much in your budget, Canva is a free option that is easy-to-use even for the technology-impaired. The service offers templates for digital graphics like Facebook cover images or email graphics, as well as printable options like flyers or posters. Other free graphic design programs include Spaces, which makes creating logos a snap, and Piktochart, fantastic software for creating fetching infographics or flowcharts.
Once you’ve created your graphics, you’ll want to send them out to your customers. Mailchimp has terrific free options for small businesses, making email marketing intuitive and beautiful. You can send up to 12,000 emails messages to 2,000 subscribers for free. Mailchimp even offers analytical help–you can check open rates and other data so you can get a handle on what sort of email campaigns work best.
Slack is now the gold standard for inter-team communications at firms big and small. It is far less unwieldy than group text messaging and allows you to create different channels with different users. You can easily send around pictures, links, and files. Slack is also a secure way to direct message individuals in the team.
When it comes to legal matters, you probably shouldn’t be solely focused on saving money. However, if you are just starting out, Docracy is a free resource full of sample contracts and other legal document templates. While you will still probably want to hire an attorney to review everything, it is a good starting place. Docracy allows you to digitally sign and share documents for free, too.