Minimum Viable Systems
It’s the first week of a new year. This is it. This is the year you are finally going to start your own business. You’ve been thinking about it forever and putting it off too long. The time has come and you want to get down to business (no pun intended). You grab a pen and paper and start to list out all the systems that you’ll need to get going. A website. A blog. Perhaps an accounting system, marketing software, something to process payroll, and a payment gateway. Hm, this is all starting to sound very expensive (not to mention the time required to set all of this up). There are a lot of systems out there and knowing what you’ll need or where to start can be intimidating. Perhaps you should take a step back and really think about the minimum amount of systems you’ll need to get going.
On of the biggest struggles that new business owners face is trying to take on the world. They are trying to setup and configure new systems, find customers, and develop new products or services. It’s a ton of work for sure, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Humans have a really bad habit of over complicating things and because of this they become their own blockers to getting things done. Let’s take a look at the world of product development for a minute. When designing a new product, people tend to think about all the features that their product should have. Then they go out and start building it, not wanting to launch their product to the world until it is complete and has everything they can think of. The problem with this approach is that you delay launching your product, and in turn bringing in revenue, because you think the product needs more features when it fact you don’t know that for sure because you have no data points or customer feedback!
Instead of going down this long road of endless feature development, product managers leverage a concept called minimum viable product (MVP). The idea behind this is to build just enough of a product to validate your idea and win over early customers who will then help you shape the direction and future features of your product. This principle can also be applied when you are starting a new business. Instead of buying, configuring, and using every system you can think of; you should start small and only invest in the systems that are critical to getting you started. These systems, that will make up the core of your business, are your minimum viable systems (MVS).
Alright, I’m sold. What exactly are my core systems then? Glad you asked! At an absolute bare minimum there are five systems that you’ll need to get started:
- A domain name
- A hosting provider (for your website)
- A website
- Productivity suite (think Microsoft Office)
TIP - It is entirely possible that you might need a few more systems on day one, however the point is to go with the bare minimum you need to get your name out there and start booking clients or selling products.
Before we dive into each of these a little more, a quick note on pricing/purchasing. When setting up your core systems, you might notice that many applications today are cloud based which are sometimes referred to as Software as a Service, or SaaS. SaaS systems offer end users the ability to swipe their card and go which can be very helpful for when you want to get up and running quickly. However, many first time business owners will get stuck on which plan to choose; month to month or annual commitment for a monthly discount. For your core systems you can go with the annual commitment since these systems aren’t likely to change. For everything else, you should go for the slightly more expensive month to month (for a period of time) in order to gain increased flexibility in case you find yourself not using the service or wanting to switch.
TIP - As a general rule of thumb you should make sure that you are actively using a system for three months before you sign up for the annual commitment. This will help protect your cash flow in the long term by ensuring that you are only signing up for systems that you really need.
The key point to remember here is that you are just starting out and nothing should be permanent. Make some decisions and move on.
Have your credit card in hand? Let’s do this.
Ok, so domain names aren’t really systems per se, but they are a part of the wider systems needed to get your website up and running. When choosing a domain name for your new business venture you want to pick something that is catchy, creative, and easy to remember. Why these three things in particular? There are over one billion websites in the world today. That means you need to be able to stand out from the crowd, but also have something that people will remember. Using a super long or complex domain name will surely cause users to forget it in no time. Similarly, if you use a domain name that is too simple or too common to another well-known brands, your website will be drowned out in google results.
TIP - While you can pivot from your original domain name down the road, also keep in mind that it can be painful depending on the maturity level of your business (from both a brand and an SEO perspective). A good domain name is important, but it’s more important not to get hung up on choosing a domain name because it will hold you back!
TIP - Aside from finding an available domain name, you might also want to consider running a trademark search against your domain name. This can save you from legal challenges/issues while also allowing you to file a trademark for your name down the road.
TIP - It isn’t critical that you secure a .com for your domain name, but try to stick with a common top level domain (TLD) like .com, .net, or .io. Having a fancy TLD can increase the price for your domain name and you want to keep things cost effective when starting out.
In addition to your domain name being the way in which people will find your website, it is also the way that they will contact you when sending you emails. For example, if your domain name is example.com, then your email will be something like firstname.lastname@example.org. This is also an important concept to keep in mind when choosing a domain name. If you can’t come up with anything for a domain name, try being uniquely you. It’s pretty rare that people have the exact same name as you so if all else fails you can just use:
- <first name><last name>.com
Once you have a few ideas listed out you can search availability and purchase your domain name through any of the following providers:
- Google Domains
This is not an exhaustive list of providers by any means, however from personal experience these providers make buying and setting up a domain name for the first time dead simple.
As a quick definition for those that aren’t familiar with hosting providers, they are the companies that will host your website, applications, etc. That being said, you are not a system admin or an operations person…don’t spend your time acting like one. Even if you have IT Ops experience or are a developer by trade, you have to keep your focus on building your business and not running it. When choosing a hosting provider there are a multitude of factors to consider, such as:
- Customer Service
- Ease of Use
- Website Templates
In addition to the criteria above, some hosting providers allow you to purchase a domain name through them, so that is also something you should consider. Some options for hosting providers include:
TIP - If you do enough research on hosting providers you will eventually come across many providers that offer cheap hosting (e.g. $5 per month or less). It is almost never worth it to consider these providers because they offer very little in terms of value and options. Additionally, their interfaces are often clunky and outdated.
Just like domain names, websites aren’t really a system but part of the larger whole. Websites are called out as a separate component because while the hosting provider will take care of the hosting part, you still need to setup and customize your website for your needs. As you are just starting out you’ll want to keep it simple, however it should still reflect you (e.g. color schemes, layout, design, etc).
TIP - There is ample amount of research to support that humans visit, interact with, and buy from websites that are more aesthetically pleasing to them. Just something to keep in mind when choosing a theme / design for your website.
Once you’ve chosen a template, make sure you have the following pages on your site at a minimum:
- Landing Page - this is the first thing people will see when they visit your site. What do you want to tell them?
- Products or Services - what do you offer/sell?
- About - who are you and where are you?
- Contact - how can people get in touch with you (e.g. contact method, business hours, etc.)?
Remember, your website is your digital gateway to the world. It tells them who you are and what you do. This is one of the most important elements of your business as online interactions are quickly out pacing physical stores. As your business grows you can update, optimize, and build your site into a digital platform that can support your business anywhere in the world. For now, keep things simple.
As I mentioned earlier, your email will really come from the domain name that you select. Just the domain name alone though won’t provide you with access to email…it still needs to be delivered somewhere. Hosted email servers are almost always included in your hosting plan or through a productivity suite (see next section) so you should be all set aside from a few considerations.
A common practice when you are first starting out or doing a side hustle is to use your personal email address. However, you should take the time to setup a professional looking address. It shows that you take your business seriously and people tend to be more trusting of business email addresses vs email@example.com. Think about it, who would you rather do business with?
The most important part about email is that you don’t want to mix business and personal. At some point you should incorporate your business to make things legit. One of the principal components of legal protections is reliant on your ability to keep your business and personal life separate. If you were ever sued and issued a subpoena for your email and you “accidently” used your personal email for business transactions you can then have your entire inbox pulled into the scope. I’m sure you don’t want your personal life on trial, ever.
TIP - Just like you shouldn’t use your personal email address for business, you also shouldn’t forward emails from your business email address to your personal email address.
Once you know what domain you are using for email, you’ll need to think about the number of email addresses that you want for your business. For example, there should be one main account that you will use to sign in and conduct daily email activities. Do you want another email address for new clients? What about one for your website? You can either make multiple email inboxes or create an email alias (preferred method) which will allow you to appear like you have multiple email accounts. Once you gain access to your email account make sure you take the time to setup your email aliases and test out each one.
As a business owner you have a lot to do. There are proposals to write, financials to track, and reports to deliver. Without even thinking about it you will inevitably reach for software commonly found in a productivity suite. While you may not realize it, you’ve probably been using a productivity suite for years (Microsoft Office anyone?). The question just becomes which product is the right tool for the job. If you already have a license for Microsoft Office then you can certainly use that to get started (however it won’t contain hosted email so you’ll need to ensure your hosting provider offers this). You might, however, also want to also consider G-Suite from Google given that it includes hosted email and tends to be offered for a better price point.
We’ve touched on quite a few areas in this post, but hopefully you can see how these core systems are critical to getting your business off the ground in the most minimal manner possible. Remember that you don’t want to get bogged down in deciding which systems are the best to use. Make rapid decisions based on what is available and you can always pivot later on. Consider the following sample combination:
- Google Domains ($12 / yr)
- G-Suite ($60 / year)
- Squarespace ($216 / year)
That’s a total of $288 per year for your core systems and covers everything on our list. Not bad! Additionally, because there are only three vendors in total, your core systems should take you less than a day to setup completely (even if you’ve never done this before).
If you are feeling stuck or have any questions about core systems just drop a comment below.