No Budget? No Excuse. A Practical Guide to Bootstrapping a WordPress Business

So you want to start a WordPress business. That’s exciting! If you have to work in a single platform all day long, I’d say WordPress is a great one to be “stuck” inside of.

Aside from the benefits of working in an intuitive platform that comes chock-full of integrations that make your job easy, you’re also about to make the leap into starting your own business. Kudos to you for making some bold life choices.

Wikipedia: Bootstrapping in business means starting a business without external help or capital. Such startups fund the development of their company through internal cash flow and are cautious with their expenses.

While all of this is very exciting to think about, I’d urge you to take a moment to look at the bigger picture. Yes, in starting a WordPress business, you now have the power to pick and choose your clients, set your own prices, and maintain a better work-life balance.

But no matter how “free” you feel after deciding to ditch the 9-to-5 to start your own business, there are some practical considerations to keep in mind when you want to bootstrap your own business, like initial startup costs, preparing taxes, finding clients, keeping yourself accountable, and so on.

None of this is meant to deter you from starting a WordPress business. On the contrary, I think we need more WordPress professionals dedicated to making the web a better place for us to live and work in. I just want to help prepare you for the obstacles you might encounter along the way.

A Practical Guide to Starting a WordPress Business

Starting a WordPress business is exciting stuff. But if you’re working without a budget or support, it’s going to be tough going at first. That’s just the nature of starting a new business.

So, in order to safely navigate these choppy waters until you’ve got a large, stable client base, you’ll need to be resourceful to start, using what you have (and not much more) to get your business up and running.

Here are some practical and cost-friendly tips to hold onto as you trudge forward:

Crunch the Numbers

Before you start thinking about the company name or internal processes you want to create, a cost assessment needs to be your primary focus. While it may seem like there isn’t much here to worry about, especially if you’re operating out of your home and with your own computer, there are other factors to consider.

Tip #1: Tally Up Likely Expenses

There are a number of not-so-hidden costs that can easily be missed if you’re caught up in the excitement of a new business venture. Don’t wait until a surprising business expense crops up that forces you to shell out your own money. Plan for the predictable costs ahead of time. Startup and ongoing business expenses include, but are not limited to:

  • Office rental fees
  • Health insurance
  • Business insurance
  • Job-related equipment (e.g. computers, phones, printers, software)
  • Business taxes
  • Marketing expenses
  • Payment processing fees

Tally up the costs you know you’re going to be responsible for, and then determine whether or not you’ll still have enough money left over to support yourself until a steady pipeline of clients or financial backing makes its way to you.

Tip #2: Work Out Timeframes

While the tangibles are easy enough to keep track of, you also need to think about ramp-up time, too. How much time will you reasonably need to get your business fully up and running? This isn’t something you can easily do overnight, especially if you’re running this ship alone, so you’ll need to know how that stretched-out launch will affect your ability to turn a profit.

Tip #3: Plan Your Business Launch

On a related note, consider what you’ll need to do to supplement your income in the meantime. Will you need to split time between a full-time job and the part-time work needed to build your business? At what point will it become too difficult to manage where you’ll have no choice but to break away from the steady paycheck? And, finally, will you be prepared to fully support your WordPress business at that point?

If you don’t have one already, create a reasonable timeline for your business launch.

Tip #4: Examine Your Savings

Most business owners don’t go into launching a new venture lightly, which means it’s very unlikely to find someone who’s totally unprepared to pay out of pocket for their expenses at first. That being said, you never know what might happen and if your savings can cover you in a worst-case scenario. If worse comes to worst, do you have friends, family, or colleagues who could lend you money or provide support until you’re up and running again?

Tip #5: Can You Scale Up?

Although scaling your WordPress business is probably a long way’s off, it’s still something that requires consideration now. Based on your business model as well as your ability to fill the roles needed to effectively run your business, you might need to hire outside assistance before your business is successful enough to scale. If that is the case, can you afford to pay for additional assistance or should you trim back your initial business concept so that it’s more manageable in the short-term?

Establish a Business Plan

This is the part where many first-time business owners get caught up because it’s the most fun. You’re shaping your business’s identity and putting together a plan of attack. What’s not to love? Just make sure you cover all your bases before moving on.

Tip #6: What is Your Value Proposition?

Every business needs to have a unique value proposition. Granted, if your business revolves around a WordPress service or solution, it’s obvious that the value you promise to deliver has to do with a better experience using WordPress. However, there are a lot of WordPress professionals you have to compete with. You need a solid business idea that’s going to help you stand apart from the rest.

Tip #7: Build Your Website

This one’s easy. Before you get too far into planning, build your own WordPress website. It should be reflective of the kind of work you plan to offer your clients.

Tip #8: Put Processes in Place

Starting with the process you used when building your website, develop a process you can adapt for your business’s workflows (be that in writing, development, SEO, whatever). The last thing you’ll want to do is “wing it” with your first few clients and to rely on inconsistent methods that tell you very little about what does or doesn’t work.

Tip #9: Establish Business Goals

Before you launch, establish goals for your business. These goals will not only help ease you into this new business but will also help you track how close you are to meeting your financial goals. Ask yourself the following:

  • How many clients can you reasonably handle to start?
  • How many clients do you want in six months? A year?
  • What is your revenue goal’s worst and best case scenario for your first year?

The most important thing to keep in mind is that once you set these goals, you shouldn’t allow yourself to compromise on them. The goals are here to keep your business on track and your profit in the black.

Tip #10: Set Your Pricing

All of the work you’ve done up until this point should make the process of setting pricing for services a breeze. By knowing what your ongoing business expenses are, when you’ll be in a position to hire help, and how much money you need to break even, you can set pricing accordingly. I’d also suggest you check competitor pricing too to ensure yours doesn’t ride too high above or below the mean.

Practice Makes Perfect

Alright, so with the cost analysis and business plan in place, you’re ready to launch, right? Well, maybe not just yet. If this is your first time doing any work like this in WordPress, you’ll want some relatively risk-free projects to play with. The more you practice, the more high-quality work you’ll have to include in your portfolio as well.

Tip #11: Practice on Family and Frieds

Offer your services for free to a friend or family member. Although they may not be as difficult to work with as a client, this’ll give you a chance to sort out kinks in your process and figure out the best way to merge clients’ preferences with web design best practices.

Tip #12: Build Out Your Portfolio

Build your church’s or some other non-profit’s website for free. Again, you need practice and sample websites to add to your portfolio, so take whatever opportunity you can now to get this right.

Tip #13: Do Open Source Work

Get involved in open source projects to practice your skills on, learn new ones, and have more work to show off.

Get Help

Even if you don’t have the money to splurge on new hires or premium software, you’re going to need help when starting a business. No matter how much you want to try and do this on your own, you’ll find it difficult to do that if you don’t at least have tools in place to lighten the load.

Tip #14: Get a Routine

One of the best things you can do for yourself as a business owner is to establish a routine for yourself. Checklists, schedules, and other productivity enhancing tools are necessary for ensuring that you stay on top of everything regardless of how much stress or chaos surrounds you.

Tip #15: Build in Automation

Automation is essential to increasing productivity and efficiency in any job. While it’s very unlikely you can automate and outsource your entire job, there are small pieces of it that can be allocated to software to ease your load. Think about things like prototyping software, writing tools, SEO checkers, mobile-friendliness tests, and so on.

Tip #16: Focus on “Free”

Considering you’re running a WordPress business, you should definitely take advantage of the tools and integrations available through the platform. WordPress themes and plugins are the first place you should start. Use the WordPress directory to find high-quality ones for free until you can reasonably afford to pay for premium memberships.

Tip #17: Take on an Intern

If you’re still worried about being strapped for time and can’t afford to hire anyone to help just yet, look into bringing on an intern. You can check with your local university or college and see if they have web design, development, or writing students who would benefit from getting first-hand experience working in WordPress.

Market Your Business

This last suggestion has been covered on the WPMU blog before, but it’s a good one worth reiterating.

Tip #18: Get Your Name Out There!

If you want to attract high-quality clients from the get-go, you must actively work on getting your name known in the WordPress community. Regardless of what your particular skill is or what your business offering will be, you should blog regularly, stay active on social, and get involved with other WordPress professionals. You can never do enough to showcase how reliable, knowledgeable, and professional you are to work with.

Wrapping Up

Once you get to a point where you’ve nailed down your process, have steady clients pouring in, and are ready to hire some good help or invest in premium tools, it’s important to revisit each of these steps. None of these are a one-and-done kind of thing. If you want to grow/scale, you’ll need to get your business running even leaner and meaner than before.

Brenda Barron
Over to you: For those of you who have already launched a successful business, please feel free to share any additional insights or tips that you think WordPress professionals might find helpful in their own launch.

4 Responses

  • I apologize that I originally wrote these notes thinking about building a business based on WordPress (which is my experience), rather than building a business targeting the WordPress audience. But I’ll still post them because the requirements are similar, though different, as I’ve noted below. I am a WP *user*, but also a tool *builder* for other platforms, so I understand the concerns on all sides.

    Tip #2 is probably the most under-considered factor. As yourself: How long will it take you to develop your business, and how will you survive until it starts returning revenue? You will probably under-estimate time to market and over-estimate revenue. Adjust expectations to match reality.

    Tip #7 on building the website and “This one’s easy”. No it’s not unless you’re an expert with the development stack : LAMP, WP, PHP!, JS, CSS… (Sure, if your business targets the WP audience then you *must* have expertise or at least competence with the stack.) Dove-tailing with Tip#16 to make use of Open Source, FOSS is only “free” if your time is worthless. You’re going to pay dearly for “free software” with your time, and that relates to my notes on Tip#2. Plugins and default/free themes will probably not get you exactly what you want so you will need to spend some time on customization, integration, and adjusting your vision of your ideal UI to align more with what’s available as FOSS. Compromise and adapt: Don’t try to fit the square peg of existing plugins into the round hole of your vision. (If you’re *offering* WP tools then that applies less than if you’re *using* WP tools to support your site. Still, dependencies on any FOSS presents the same challenges.)

    Tip #11 is good. Start small and widen the circle of exposure so that you already have all answers when paying clients come online. Offer free services for the initial Alpha group but do charge a small bit for the Beta group because you’ll need to work out the entire process of dealing with accounting issues, refunds, payment notifications, etc. (Since you’re offering WP tools, also be sure you work through clean updates as well as initial deployments. Failed updates from paying clients will kill your business.)

    On Tip #17, if you go to a local college you’re probably going to get someone who is just learning technology. I’d say there is about a 80% chance (let’s not quibble numbers, decide for yourself if 40% is reasonable but think about the concept) that people in school are not that familiar with WP or any other real world application, unless they’re at a higher level, in which case they probably won’t be interested in your sweat-equity start-up project. I’d recommend emailing the authors of plugins that you want to use, and ask them if they’d like to partner with you in some small way. You know they’re WP-qualified, and like anyone who writes plugins they’re probably starving for some kind of revenue using technology they already use. Form relationships, build a little team to help with your project. And don’t give too much work to any one person – they have their own projects and lives and they aren’t as vested in your project as you are. To keep the team in place, make sure you reward them soon and equitably, or you’re going to lose them as soon as they start feeling a lack of equity. No one wants to be used or abused. Will you lose profit by sharing with others? Of course! That’s the Expense side of business – get used to it. And once again this dove-tails with my notes on Tip #2 expectations and reality. (This still applies to WP tool developers. We see alliances everywhere. People may not want your products if they only see one developer because that’s an indication of vulnerability. With that in mind, the process of sharing revenue may actually increase your gross revenue, and thus net and profit. So think about your overall numbers, not just as “total revenue = profit” but as “higher revenue minus expenses = possibly higher profit”.)

    Finally, when you do work with a team, make sure you still understand all of the components. It’s your product and you must plan to support it if others are temporary unavailable or decide to bail from your project. Don’t burn bridges, and pay people what they’re due – not just because that’s appropriate, but because you never want to get a bad reputation in a community as tightly connected as we see with WP. Be the person that people want to partner with and it will be easier to build your team for any project.

    HTH

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