Define Your Niche and Brand
For starters, think about what your niche is and define a business plan. It doesn’t have to be perfect; just jot down some ideas on what your vision will be. You can’t imagine what writing down your thoughts will do to give breadth to your ideas. These recorded ideas will professionalize your venture (because what venture starts without a business plan?) and foment brand creation. Your brand should be a small subset slogan of your niche combined with an image. (Try to use an image that elevates your brand and is not copyrighted.)
There are a variety of free resources for writing a business plan on the internet:
- ScribD: Business Plan Template
- SBA: Write a Business Plan
- BPlans: 500 Sample Business Plans
- BPlans: How to Write a Business Plan
Blog, blog, blog
I would say the best way to start a website for free would be to blog. A website is always defined by its users, and a blog is a good way to identify your target user. There are many free blog sites – so just jump in. Creating a starting point will enable you to produce more content and help shape your vision beyond the blog phase.
As online blogging services go, I recommend WordPress for a variety of reasons. I work as a Microsoft consultant and have not seen better interfaces than WordPress. (When a Microsoft consultant recommends a PHP product, you know it has to pass muster.) WordPress offers many extensions out of the box (such as Twitter integration and other mini-application modules) and is ready for search engine optimization (SEO). It also offers the ability to link your branding URL to your site and gives good stats on your users. I am truly underestimating the power of WordPress here, and it deserves the attention it has received; just yesterday it processed its 200,000,000th comment.
Content, content, content
The next step is content generation. Start with one blog entry on your subject matter per week (or month), but stick to your plan. Plan your blog entries on a calendar; include a title and notes on your ideas. Create a series based on interesting topics that break up into three to four parts and explain ideas over time. Content is the single hardest part of developing a new site, but it’s one of the most important. In the end, why are you creating a site if not for users’ integration with your content?
Choose 25 of your friends and place their emails on a newsletter (you can use Google Groups for this). You can use this newsletter to broadcast about your updated blog posts. This also allows you to send to one email and not show all your friends’ emails within your newsletter. Help your blog grow through the power of word of mouth – and don’t be afraid of negative feedback, as this will help you refine your vision.
Create Your Social Image
After you have generated content with promotion, you should then create your social image. Take a look at your stats and make sure you are getting at least 25-50 readers with every blog post. You should then create a Facebook fan page and a Twitter account – and use your newsletter to share information other than just blog updates. Consider including this social image in all of your distributions (such as adding your Twitter handle to your email signature).
Analyze your results
Once your social image is created, the next step is to analyze your users. Profiling users can help you shape your vision (not to mention your site as a whole). You should look at your WordPress stats and also install Google Analytics on your site to really get reports on your user base. Grow your site by responding to what your users love and avoid what they ignore.
Finally, you should grow your site and expand when your traffic demands it. I would say having 1,000 users per month after a year would be a modest target for expansion. Ask your friends or use your social network to find other writers to add more content. Form partnerships with other sites that fit or expand your niche and allow them to link into your domain. Respond to comments on all your distributions (blog, email, Twitter) and build your credibility. You should think about applications on your site that build from your niche. You don’t have to be a software developer to come up with ideas, and your niche is most likely an application within itself.
I have recommended this strategy to many of my friends, and they have had quite a bit of success with it. Some of my friends have reached the 1,000-unique-visitors-a-month milestone and are on their way to expansion. A friend and I have started this site to promote the creation of micro-enterprises – so check back often for more tips!