| Branding, Business, Design Basics, Startups

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Recently, I got an email from a long-time friend. He told me how he was thinking of starting his own business, but still trying to figure out if it would work. He couldn’t afford to invest in a professionally designed brand identity system now, so what advice did I have for him about working with low cost options for web sites, etc.

First of all, I have to say this is a bit like walking into the BMW dealership and asking them which Hyundai model they would recommend. I don’t study the free options out there for building web sites. I use and choose professional level tools. But, I am aware of these free and ultra-cheap options (and their pitfalls) from clients who have gone that route and then are ready to have a high quality web site.

Therefore, this post is not about specific recommendations for tools or services to use. It is a guide for the type of thinking that should guide your decision making.

When to invest in branding

It doesn’t make sense to invest in branding when your business idea is not fully formed. For example, in recent years many people have become accidental entrepreneurs after unsuccessfully looking for a job. In many of these cases, it doesn’t make sense to spend much money on designing a logo or web site because the business owner is actually hoping to close the business and get a job.

Only after you are committed to a new business idea, should you pay for a professionally designed logo or web site. You need to understand your market, your audience, your offering and your benefits before a skilled graphic designer can translate that into a strong visual identity. If you are still working out these details yourself, it does not make sense to hire a designer, yet.

I can’t afford branding yet

There are times when an entrepreneur is ready to take the plunge into business ownership, but they still don’t have the money to invest in branding. So what do I recommend?

There are some important things to keep in mind:

  1. Portability
  2. Simplicity
  3. Systems
  4. Ownership

1. Portability

Before you decide to start using anything as a central part of your brand identity make sure you have the complete right to use it, change it, and take it with you. If you use a template to develop your web site, make sure that you can take it with you when you outgrow the service. If you use a free graphic for a stand in for a logo, make sure you have the rights to be using and distributing it.

I had a business owner come to me who had built their web site using one of GoDaddy’s Web Site Tonight templates. They needed a more robust web presence and were looking to redesign their web site. However, they had built their entire brand identity around a template that GoDaddy had the copyright for. We couldn’t use any of the graphics that were part of her current web design.

So beware of using templates with a distinct design that you want to carry away from the initial service.

2. Simplicity

Instead of choosing templates that are graphic-heavy, choose simplicity. Choose a template where you can upload your own photography or graphics. Or choose something that is just basic and clean.

The same goes with logo and other brand identity elements. Rather than build a logo around a cheap piece of clipart that you will soon hate, just choose a font and typeset your name cleanly for your “logo”. By doing that you have not tied yourself to any brand image that looks cheap or unprofessional.

3. Systems

Think about building systems that will translate out of whatever free / cheap / low-cost system you start with. For example, choose one accent color and use it whenever possible: your logotype, the ink on your business cards, the pocket folders, etc. This can end up being a building block that a graphic designer can later work with.

4. Ownership

Make sure that everything you use to promote your business is yours. A critical element here is your domain name. Make sure you start building your web site on your own domain name. Don’t use .wordpress.com or blogger or anything else that doesn’t give you your own domain name. Any web traffic you get, you want to make sure it will stay with you, on your own domain.

Invest time and money into assets that can be transferred and built upon

I hate to hear about business owners who have spent a chunk of money on something that they outgrow quickly. For example, if you build your entire site using blogger or using a .wordpress.com domain and using template graphics that you can’t take with you then you have invested poorly. However, if you put your web site on your own domain and install WordPress and use the simplest of free templates, at least you can continue to use that database. You’ve already started to improve your SEO in a way that’s directly tied to your web site. You’ve made simple decisions that can be built upon later by a professional designer.

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