- “Affordable” is a relative thing. Some of the services, plugins or themes may seem quite expensive. But for any such paid items listed here, if it’s a legitimate expense, you can likely write it off as a business expense. If in doubt, check with an accountant. Just remember to save any business purchase receipts.
- None of the categories below are exhaustive. There may be additional resources, and there are often new resources in most of the following categories. Be sure to research alternatives before deciding. This is merely a good starting point.
Online Presence Services – Web Site Content Management Systems
Web Site Content Management System (CMS) is the type of software that allows you to render Web sites in a Web browser.
- WordPress has long been one of the most popular CMSes, with a large user/ developer community, countless themes and plugins. If you’re running your own business you want this self-hosted version rather than the WordPress.com hosted-for-you version.
- Joomla! is apparently the second most popular open source CMS worldwide, with about 2.5M installs, compared to WordPress (#1, 18M) and Drupal (#3, 722K). These estimates are from 1&1 and may actually be short of the mark, especially for WP. See their CMS comparison article for 2018 for more information.
- Drupal is arguably technically superior in certain ways to WordPress, but the learning curve is much higher, the support community smaller, and the theme and plugin choices historically smaller. Word is that Drupal was actually developed as a CMS solution for creating student communities.
- Wix and Squarespace (below) are the new breed of CMS, designed for people who feel that tools like WordPress and Drupal are not for them, and/or do not want to spend the time obtaining the skills need for a reasonably attractive and functional ecommerce site.
- Squarespace, like Wix, makes it easier to setup an attractive site with functional ecommerce features — great for selling things and services. Like Wix, however, Squarespace makes it harder to migrate your site later to another platform such as WordPress.
Online Presence Services – Domain Names and Web Hosting
Even for those online businesses with the least startup cost, you’re going to need to spend some money on domain names and web hosting. A domain name and Web hosting are the minimum that you need before you can install your choice of CMS (above) so that you can build your Web site. That is, unless you use a hosted-for-you platform such as Wix or Squarespace.
A few domain registrars offer a free hosting plan, if you’re willing to have their choice of ads on your site — something you should avoid if you are building an online business, at least on a long-term basis. All of the following companies are both domain registrars and Web hosting providers.
- GoDaddy has probably been around the longest of those listed here, and even has race car driver Danica Patrick as a paid celebrity endorser.
- Site5 may be suitable if you want to run a hosting reseller business, either solely or as a service to your clients in another endeavor.
- Namecheap typically lives up to their name, with affordable plans that beat most of the others listed here, with a knowledge support staff that is available to help through their Web-based online chat system.
- WPEngine has taken a unique approach to Web hosting, building on the popularity of WordPress CMS (see above) and offering WP hosting exclusively. The caveat is that WP is based on the PHP programming language, and WPEngine only supports that — no other options, no ability to add options yourself.
- Domainr is a handy tool for checking whether a certain domain name is available (or possibly for sale), provides whois info, and gives you links to registrar sites where you can buy available domains.
- IWantMyName has an overlapping set of tools to Domainr, plus additional features for exploring alternate TLDs (e.g., .com, .co, .org, country TLDs and more) including filters for unavailable domains, as well as links to registrars for domain purchasing.
So you have your domain name, a hosting plan, and you’ve picked a CMS for rendering your Web site. What’s left? Well, you need a site theme. Themes are template for rendering your site, and you can often customize themes further for uniqueness. (Do it yourself or get a friend with Web design skills to help. Now, as WordPress is still the most popular self-hosted CMS worldwide, the following resources lean towards WordPress themes.
- ElegantThemes has many free and paid WP themes, but they might be best known for their powerful Divi Framework and its alternative, the Extra theme for WordPress.
- StudioPress, founded by Brian Gardner, is the developer of the popular Genesis theme framework used by numerous influential bloggers.
- ThemeForest is a Web site theme marketplace with nearly 44,000 WordPress themes for sale.
Alright, now you have most of what you need to run a Web site. If you use a hosted-for-you platform (e.g., Wix, Squarespace), they’ll typically have what you need for e-commerce — possibly at an extra cost. However, if you’re using a self-hosted CMS such as WordPress (WP), you will need some plugins.
If you opt for ElegantThemes (see section above), your paid license gives you access to a few WP plugins, including: Monarch for social media sharing; Bloom for lead generation/ email opt-in campaigns.
Communication, Collaboration and Cloud Storage
In you’re in college, you have a typical student workload, and you may not have the time to run even an online business on your own. So why not team up with one or more of your fellow students? If you do, you’ll need not only online communication and collaboration tools, but possibly an online place to save files that your startup’s cofounders can access. Cloud Storage to the rescue. Note: most of the Google services below are free, though the company has recently started offering premium options, including more cloud storage space, at a relatively inexpensive rate.
- Google Docs provides a free alternative to Microsoft’s Word word processing software, and throws in collaboration features, since it’s Web-based.
- Google Sheets is Google’s answer to browser-based spreadsheets, and with Cloud-based collaborative features./li>
- Google Slides offers the features you need to do presentations. Whether you’re growing your business or need to do a college presentation for a course, check out Slides.
- Google MyMaps lets you customize a Google Map, to add points of interest, polygons to mark off areas of interest, etc. Use a custom MyMap to plan deliveries, marketing campaigns, manage geographically-based to-do lists, run demographic analysis, etc.
- Google Drive — gives you a dashboard and folders, to manage all the cloud-based files you have created from various Google Web apps — including photos, email messages, Docs, Sheets, etc. And you can upgrade from the free default plan (15 GB storage) to Google One to get extra cloud storage at a reasonable rate.
- Google Forms lets you create Web-based forms for collecting survey or other information from clients and Web visitors.
- Google Calendar is one of many digital calendar options, and is well-integrated into 3rd-party Web sites and mobile apps.
- Google Hangouts gives messaging, voice and video calls — useful for collaborating with business partners and communicating with clients/ customers.
- Google Meet is the company’s upscale videoconferencing app, which is enterprise-friendly, so for those who need more than Google Hangouts. While you might not need this for your online business while you’re in college, it may be useful if you continue your business after graduation, and have cofounders, assistants, employees in other cities. Meetings are secure and you can dial in with a phone.
- Google Drawings is an option for your basic diagramming and flowcharting needs. Useful for planning your business, and potentially useful for college courses, too.
- Dropbox is a more professional alternative to cloud storage options such as Google Drive (above), with Basic and Business/ Enterprise options. Dropbox is integrated to many apps — include those ideal for note-taking, illustrating, etc.
- Box is yet another cloud storage option, designed for businesses from the get go, and a free trial offer — which you can accept with either a Google free account or business email address.
- Skype is likely the grandfather of the following bunch of communication and collaboration tools, offering free voice and video calling to other Skype users worldwide, as well as file sharing, screen sharing, etc. If you have remote collaborators, this is a potentially valuable tool for your business.
- Cisco WebEx gives you screen sharing, videoconferencing, online meetings or webinars. Free 30-day trial.
- GoToMeeting is a popular choice for online meetings, with features such as Web audio, screen sharing, dial in conference line, and business messaging for a Starter plan, and more for advanced plans. Has a 14-day free trial.
- Zoom is another web video conferencing option, with online meetings/ training, video webinars, file sharing and many other features. Businesses offering services can offer online training. A free option allows up to 100 participants for up to 40 minutes, and unlimited minutes for a 1-on-1 meeting.
- GroupMe offers basic text messaging features for groups and one-on-one chat, and image and video sharing in-stream — without the cost of a dataplan. Easily view multiple chat threads.
- Slack goes further than most online collaboration tools, combining group and subgroup chat/ messaging, notifications, file upload, etc. Slack has free plans for small teams, and advanced features for larger businesses.
Web Services – Email
While having an email address that uses your Web domain name is best for conducting business, free email services are great for signing up for various Web services, social media accounts, etc. Usually, sign up for such a service requires using an email address, for a whole host of reasons, it may be better to use a freebie account associated with your business. A few choices are: GMail/ Google Mail; Rocketmail/ Yahoo Mail; Outlook/ Live.com.
Social Media, Social Video, Social Ad Platforms
If you’re running an online business and are not that familiar with social media (SM) and general social sharing platforms, you should learn about their immense potential value to your business growth. In a nutshell, social media and social video sites give you the opportunity for visibility to those sites’ users. If users enjoy your content, they will “like,” “follow,” “subscribe,” etc., your Page, Group, Channel, etc. These people, over time, are most likely to become your customers/ clients. (Social ads are another option — see section below). Each of the following has its own approach to social sharing, and a good marketing campaign should two or three in combination. What you use depends on your business and your following on a given SM platform.
- Twitter is one of the early players, originally limited to 140 characters of text, and now offering 280. With the more recent ability to embed an image or video, and with conversation threads, Twitter is somewhat closer now to being a Facebook competitor.
- Facebook (FB) is not so barebones as Twitter, but it’s rumored original intent was as a college hookup site. Now, FB is at center of many online marketer’s campaigns.
- Instagram (IG) is ideal for lifestyle photoblogging campaigns, and it’s already possible to sell products and services with IG as a “catalog,” with links to product pages elsewhere. (Instagram Ads are also available.)
- Pinterest pushes the visual sharing metaphor even further, offering the creation, management and following of topical “boards.” Combined with Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, you have a powerful set of social marketing tools for your online business.
- YouTube is one of the earliest video sharing platforms, and probably the largest in viewership. It’s yet another option for building your online business’ presence, Web traffic and revenue streams.
- Vimeo has recently changed their model and is focusing on business needs rather than the social video aspects. If you want to offer paid access to video to your customers, Vimeo is one option.
- WooComerce isn’t so much an e-shop but a platform (Web services and plugins) that integrates with WordPress to build your own e-shop on your site
- Shopify gives you nine ways to sell, including integration with Amazon, Ebay, or as a Facebook Shop. You do not even need your own Web site.
- Amazon reputedly has a fairly lengthy wait period, but the fact is that you can sell your products on their site as a third-party seller, and even have Amazon do the order fulfillment/ shipping for you.
- Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing is more specifically for selling your ebooks, and some people have turned it into a lucrative full- or part-time business — one which could help you pay your way through college.
- Barnes and Noble, like Amazon, also has both a Marketplace for physical goods and a digital bookstore, Nook, where you can publish and sell your ebooks. You can also sell your used textbooks in the Marketplace.
- Etsy is the site you want to sell on if you have one-of-kind or low-volume handmade craft and printed items.
- Ebay is suited to both intentional and impulse buying — of pretty much anything — through controlled bidding or buy-it-now prices. You can sell your own items, or resell products you’ve sourced elsewhere.
Online Education is a huge and steadily growing market. Whether you want to take a course to beef up your skills, or offer courses to add a revenue stream to your online business, you have many options to choose from. Here are just a few. Also check out our resource list of 60 additional sources of free online courses, lessons, tutorials.
- Udemy offers a wide range of practical skills courses, as well as a place to offer your courses.
- Skillshare has courses in business, creative, technology and lifestyle categories. While they invite potential instructors to develop their own courses, you can also apply to be an instructor.
- LearnDash is a WordPress plugin and service (yearly subscription) that lets you build your own online LMS (Learning Management System) over your WordPress-based Web site. LearnDash is used by Fortune 500 companies for professional training, by universities for delivering online coursework, and integrated into sites for various smaller organizations.
- LearnWorlds provides the tools to create and sell online courses, with the features to establish your own online school, with social learning and more.
- Teachable is similar to LearnWorlds in that you can setup your own online school, but it’s hosted on Teachable’s Web servers. It boasts over 7M students, and 22+K instructors who have collectively earned more than $100M with their courses (of which there are 34+K at time of writing).
- Masterclass is an online learning platform with an unique offering — practical courses taught by three dozen celebrity instructors in niches such as music and music production, cooking, photography, sports, fashion design, directing and filmmaking, writing and screenwriting, acting, comedy and more. The instructor list is growing and includes: Samuel L. Jackson; Steve Martin; Herbie Hancock; Spike Lee; Frank Gehry; Diane von Furstenberg; Wolfgang Puck; Reba McEntire; Christina Aguilera and dozens more.
- Treehouse is a tech niche-specific learning platform, designed for those who want to learn computer coding and related skills.
- Bluprint‘s courses fall into the craft, creative, family and a few other niches, and include baking and cooking, sewing and needlecraft, jewelry-making, paper crafts, woodworking, yoga and fitness, and more.