When you host a national call-in radio show, you hear from all types of people.
There was the renowned photographer who asked me how to safely and privately store the racy photos he takes of his wife. Spoiler: Don’t just upload them to iCloud or Google Photos. Tap or click here for a secure way to store private pics.
I spoke to a woman whose daughter was being stalked and harassed. I’m proud to say I connected her with the right help, and the man responsible was brought to justice. Tap or click for the scary details. This nightmare could happen to anyone.
I'm proud to say that I built my own multimillion-dollar enterprise with no debt and no investors. It’s rewarding for me to help the many small business owners who call and need a hand getting their company off the ground or breaking past a big hurdle. I’ve been there myself.
Here’s my advice from the trenches:
1. Know your competition
Unless you're genuinely going rogue with an all-new product or service, your customers already exist and spend their money elsewhere. Competitor research is one of the best ways to get a feel for what works and doesn't work in your industry.
It’s also a smart way to get in touch with your customers' needs, including what they expect to pay and how much you can expect to earn.
Find a handful of companies doing what you hope to do and be a student. “How much can I learn here?”
• Study their websites. What stands out and what isn’t so great? You can monitor website changes over time with Visualping. This free tool allows you to enter a website you want to track, and you’ll get email alerts any time that site changes. You’ll know if your competitor created an excellent new landing page copy or swapped out photos. Tap or click for a direct link to try it out.
• Follow your competitors on social media and subscribe to their newsletters. Take note of any posts that generate a high number of comments or shares.
• Sign up for Google Alerts for your business name, your competitors, and an industry term or two that makes sense. Tap or click here for the steps to set up a Google Alert. I suggest you go with weekly alerts. Daily alerts can get overwhelming.
Get my trusted small business advice right to your inbox. It’s totally free. Try it here.
2. Brand yourself with a memorable domain
A strong web presence is essential; the first step is securing a great domain name. You want something easy to remember, clear, and concise. No one is going to remember a six-word-long URL.
Doctors, lawyers, or other professionals who use their names for their businesses have an advantage. Hey, my website is Komando.com.
How much will a domain cost you? Let’s use GoDaddy as an example. For a .com address, you’ll spend about $19.99 annually, paying just a penny for your first year. You can get a .me email address for $6.99 for the first year, then $21.99 annually. A .biz URL requires a two-year purchase for about $37 in total.
The best domain idea means nothing if it’s taken, of course. Namech_k shortcuts the process for you. Put in your idea and see if it is registered or open. We’re not talking just .com or .net, either. It checks for .us, .info, .biz and lots more.
It also scours social media sites to see if your preferred name is taken there too. Consistency is key because it helps people find you much more quickly. It's why I'm @kimkomando on every social media platform, and by all means, I invite you to follow me. Tap or click here for pro tips on using Namech_k.
3. Speaking of websites, make yours smart
Search engine optimization, or SEO, is about more than just keywords that get you to the top of Google’s search results. An optimized site is lightweight, loads quickly, and is tight enough to prevent a visitor from getting stuck in a glitchy dropdown menu.
When in doubt, you can hire a professional developer for a site audit, which may reveal frustrating flaws turning customers off. You can also run these free online tests to see your site's most significant issues.
A common issue is your website's design. Remember that mobile performance is just as important as your site's appearance on a desktop monitor. Today's website-building tools make it easy to create a site that looks good and performs well on every device.
It’s worth browsing what those monthly charges get you. Squarespace’s Business plan, for example, includes advanced site analytics and a year of professional email through Google. Wix gives you access to drop shipping inventory and 100 GB of storage space.
4. Don’t forget about email marketing
I’ve been in the email marketing game since 1995. Back then, I’d send out one email a week. These days, my team produces a dozen different emails with millions of monthly sends that have an average open rate of over 50%. Tap or click here to try my free tech and digital life newsletters.
I had to invent ways to make it work back in the day. Today, there are tools that make creating and sending beautiful, compelling emails a snap. Here are a few to consider:
• Mailchimp: Send up to 10,000 emails monthly (2,000 a day) for free. Paid plans start at $11 per month and include email templates and custom branding.
• Constant Contact: You’re charged by the number of email addresses you import, starting at $9.99 monthly for up to 500. Up to 2,500 email addresses will run you $35 a month.
• Emma: Starts at $99 a month for up to 10,000 contacts. You can add up to five users and set up an email automation campaign to woo your new customers.
• HubSpot: Ideal if you need a powerful marketing and contact hub. The free plan is robust, and you can add up to a million contacts. Paid plans with support, automation, and custom branding start at $45 a month for up to 1,000 contacts.
5. Make it easy to get paid
Traffic is increasing, but you’re not making more money. Your customers might be running into a wall.
Are they frustrated by an inconvenient payment method? Is there a technical bug preventing them from finalizing the sale? Go through the entire checkout process yourself, using a VPN or an Incognito window to see your site as a visitor does. Take note of anything that doesn’t go smoothly.
If your payment processing options aren’t up to snuff, consider these:
• Square: Pay a flat fee plus a percentage of the sale. The cost depends on the type of transaction. For example, a customer entering a card number online will cost you 3.5% of the sale plus 15 cents.
• PayPal: PayPal’s checkout works similarly. A standard credit card payment is 2.99% plus a 49-cent fee.
• Stripe: For card charges, pay 2.9% plus a 30-cent fee.
6. Only pay for what you need to
There’s no way around some expenses, but I bet I can save you a bit of money with this gem: There are free versions of most popular paid software that are just as good.
• Instead of Microsoft Office, check out LibreOffice or Google Docs and Sheets.
• For editing photos, I like GIMP, Pixlr X and Canva. Tap or click here to see the pros and cons of each option.
• DaVinci Resolve is excellent free video editing software.
• Audacity is a free audio editing program the pros use.
7. Get advice from other pros
The federal Small Business Administration has more resources than you may realize. Use this link to find free or low-cost training or business advice in your area. If you're starting out, you can also find guides for creating a business plan, registering your company, and getting a handle on day-to-day operations.
SCORE can also connect you with business mentors who can help you start or grow your company – and it's free. The nonprofit organization runs the nation's largest network of volunteer business experts. You can get help via email, phone, or video if there's no local chapter where you live.
I want to help you
You can also reach out to me. I get emails and calls from small business owners daily, and I love to help. Email me here. I read them all myself.
Listen to the podcast below if you'd like to know more about my business and life. I was interviewed about the ups and downs of my success, and there were a lot of tough questions.
I started my business more than two decades ago. I didn’t have investors, and I didn’t take on any debt. I’ll be honest – the first few years were a struggle. I embraced the struggle, though, and pushed through some of the hardest times of my life to find peace. In this podcast, I tell stories and talk about times in my life I don’t often share.
Listen to the podcast here or wherever you get your podcasts. Just search for my last name, “Komando.”
Learn about all the latest technology on the Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show. Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: From branding to marketing, 7 secrets that will help your business grow