How to have a business website for (almost) free

A friend of mine asked today how people who start a business get a website for that. I decided that it might interest other people too, hence this post.

You do the following:

1. Decide on a domain name. It must be short, sweet, easily recognizable and easy to remember. It must attract customers and be informative. For example, my website for tax credit consulting business has the domain name sred4you.com (SR&ED is one of the main technology-related tax credit programs in Canada). Another of my business sites is getyourmessageacross.com. Don’t call your website “mynews.com”, because no one is interested in your news. Call it “yournews.com”. It should be about your customer, not your own good self.
There are other considerations. A .com domain is more expensive but looks better. If you want a .ca domain, you will have to register with CIRA (it is free and very easy, you basically just need to confirm that you live or do business in Canada). .org domains are good for non-profit organizations. If your business is related to IT, you can get an .it domain which is cheaper than .com and you don’t have to live in Italy to register it.
2. Go to a website that sells domains (I went to godaddy.com but people tell me there are better ones) and check whether your domain name is already taken. It probably is – pretty much all the one-word domains already are. In this case you can either invent another domain name or try to buy your original one from whoever got there first. Some people buy domain names or even all the possible 4-letter acronyms hoping that one of these will be in high demand (like, for example, MSDN or AIDS) and they will make a profit. Your second-level domain name (this is the ABCD part in ABCD.com) may be available with another first-level domain, e.g. ABCD.org instead of ABCD.com. Sometimes, if your domain name is not available, the registrar site will offer you variations, like precisionABCD.com instead of ABCD.com. Don’t go for  that. Everybody knows this trick, and someone with the precisionXXXX.com domain name will appear a) cheap, b) lazy, c) devoid of imagination, and d) prone to choose the least resistance path. That is, unless your business really deals with precision machinery or something. What you can do is search the available domain names for your keywords right there on the registrar’s site: if you are going to be in patent research business, for example, you may search for “patent” and find out that “fastpatentsearch.com” or “thebestpatent.com” are not taken and can be yours.

3. Pay for the domain name. It will cost you somewhere between 10 and 20 dollars per year. While you are paying, the registrar site will probably offer you to buy their hosting (for just $20 a month) and their services for website development (just another $15-20 per month). Don’t do that. In a minute I am going to tell you how you can have free hosting and develop your site for free which will save you about $600 per year.

3a. Never ever be late with the annual payment for your domain name. Once you fail to pay, the name is up for grabs, even if it is your own brand name or something. Anyone can buy it and will have no obligations to return it. This happened to Microsoft when it forgot to renew hotmail.co.uk (I am not kidding!)

4. Go to a blogging platform (either blogger.com or wordpress.com) and start a blog. The URL for it will be something like mynewblog.blogspot (or wordpress, or whatever).com. Add a few pages and a few articles (the difference is that a page is pretty much like a page on any other site, while new articles are added from the top to one and the same page which looks like a blog we are all used to see). Honestly, it is not difficult at all. Anyone can blog. Now play with various “skins”/appearances. There are lots and lots of them available for free. You can select a serious theme or a frilly one, dark blue or magenta colour schema, a two-columns or three-columns layout, a header to which you can add any image you like, etc. The “blog” page is by default the main page of your site (yes, you almost have a site now!)  but if you like you can make another, stationary, page the main one.

5. Now go to your blog’s settings and set up redirection of your blog name to your domain name (johnsmith.blogspot.com must redirect to yourchosendomainname.com or whatever your newly bought domain name is). Blogspot allows you to do that for free, WordPress will charge a small amount of money per annum. Both of my sites, sred4you.com and getyourmessageacross.com, are on Blogspot. When setting up the redirection, if you are on Blogspot too, don’t forget to check the “add www in front of the URL” flag, otherwise the URL would not redirect to your website. (I.e. http://www.sred4you.com would work, but just sred4you.com would not.)

6. Wait a little (up to 24 hours) until all the domain name servers on the Internet get wind of your new domain name. Now you can type http://www.yourpreciousdomain.com in the browser address line and actually get to your website! Indeed, you have a website now!

7. To further customise the layout, you can add widgets (they are just building blocks of text, basically) with any text you like or content from other sites. For example, my blog that you see now has a widget that displays my tweets from Twitter and another that displays my books from Goodread. No programming was required – you just go to the Appearance/Layout view and drag and drop the widgets you like to the site layout.

8. You will see ads on both sides on this article in my blog. Don’t have ads in your business website. Your business website should advertise only one thing, and that’s your business.

9. If you are very serious about all that, you can buy hosting and create a standalone site using one of the platforms available for free, e.g. WordPress I already mentioned, or Drupal. WordPress is a fully fledged content management system (CMS, for short) by now. Drupal is also available for free and very easy to manage. This site (it belongs to our church parish) was made in Drupal.If you can program (even a little), you can do many wondrous and beautiful things with Drupal.

Now your website is ready, don’t forget to add its name to your business cards! Good luck!

Another of my  articles about media needs of a startup business with a small budget

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Kick the Fossil Fuel Habit – Tom Rand’s book and talk

Tom Rand of MaRS just published a book: Kick the Fossil Fuel Habit, 10 Clean Technologies to Save Our World.

It’s 240 pages (hard-cover) of accessible text and stunning photography. Great to flip through, but with solid, fleshed-out analysis. Out now in Canada (in Chapters on April 15th), in about a month in the US.

There’s also a short video “trailer”, both funny and hard-hitting. Designed to go viral!

This project is advocacy, pure and simple. It’s timely, important – and something Tom is very passionate about. His goal is to educate the public about our options and why it’s important to consider them carefully.

If you’re in the Toronto region on April 15th, Tom will be giving a “book launch” talk at MaRS at 6 pm in the main auditorium. It’s free, but space is limited and registration is required.

It would be wonderful if you could support this effort by:


Tom is also looking for corporate sponsors to distribute the book internally, or to sponsor a print run for schools/libraries. Got any suggestions or contacts?

You’ll find everything you need at www.kickthefossilfuelhabit.org (video, link to buy the book, publisher info, etc.).

My article for Blog Idol contest: Open Data and disclosures, or Beware of the leopard

With governments looking to do more with less, adopting open government strategies marks an ideal way to better deliver public services and foster increased confidence in government institutions through greater transparency.

Michael Geist

‘Crowdsourcing’ puts many extra hands to work

The move toward open government is now a fact. In Canada (and specifically in Toronto) many  groups such as Visible Government, ChangeCamp, etc. are working on a multitude of new sites and services. The one I want to tell you about is disclosed.ca, a site created by a Toronto developer, Ilia Lobsanov. The site performs web scraping to capture information from government sites about contracts awarded to various contractors. This is, officially, publicly reported information. It is, however,  displayed and stored on hundreds of disparate government sites in various forms, and this hinders the search and use of the information should anyone need it.

(Read more at BlogIdol website…)

ProductCamp Toronto Spring 2010

The time and date for the next ProductCamp Toronto  has been set.

The Date: Sunday May 30, 2010

The Location: Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management in downtown Toronto.

For those using Twitter, keep watching the  #pct3 hashtag.

Musings on education (and some boasting)

I never mentioned here that I finally completed both of my certificates from University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies: “Enterprise Risk Management” and “Financial Analysis and Investment Management”. It took about 3 years of intermittent study. (To achieve a certificate, one has to take 5 or 6 courses, core and elective, within 3 years; but I was clever and saw that the tracks for the two certifications overlap, so to get both I only had to take 8 courses instead of 11 if I chose wisely, which I did. Unfortunately, the track for ERM has been changed since then and this shortcut is no longer possible.) At the same time I was taking a 4-courses certificate program in Technical and Business Writing from York University / Glendon which I also completed. (It’s actually 6 courses but they honoured my degree and credited me 2 computer science courses that one also has to take to achieve the certificate.)

Each course was a semester long and took 3 hours once a week, plus home assignments. The time I invested in all three certificates is roughly equivalent to 36 credits which is roughly equivalent to one year of full-time studies. SCS courses are non-credit courses, though, for some reason, and that’s a shame because if they were, I probably might take some more to eventually turn them into another degree. (The one I hold now is in Math and Computer Science from Moscow State University and it’s been a while since I got it.)

Why did I do that? Wasted so much time (add the commuting) and money, especially considering that I am not going to work as a financial consultant? For several reasons.

1. I sometimes get texts on financial matters for translation. It is crucial to understand the subject matter in this case (as in all the other cases, of course).
2. It is good to have something that gets you out of home if you work from one.
3. I got a lot of information on accounting and corporate finance that may or may not be useful for me in my SR&ED work.
4. It is good to learn something new that gets you out of the old rut. Besides, I noticed that learning something unrelated triggers your imagination. I get a lot of business ideas while attending some totally unrelated events.
5. Learning new things is good for you, it is like a fitness program for your brain. My grandfather learned to play the piano when he retired. (He lived to be 99 and was lucid almost to the end.)
6. I always felt a slight awe towards risk management people, but now I know that risk management is really nothing special; it’s basically glorified Probability 101 plus some common sense. (Well, common sense is a rare thing, and it is definitely worth to spread some even through university education.)
6. I met some great people as classmates and teachers. I’ll list some: Donna Zathy, who managed to make accounting exciting; Saman Kiriwattuduwa whose 2 courses were the last I had to take, of the entire certificate thing, and also the hardest; Hussein Amad who read us Enterprise Risk Management proper and provided plenty of other related and interesting material to read, besides the textbook. By the way, the name of Hussein Amad may seem familiar: you saw him on the UofT SCS ads on TTC where he looks like a real star.

Actually, that’s one of the reasons I love Toronto: there is a good chance that the people you see on billboards are someone you know, and not just synthetic faces from TV.

Free seminars for small businesses that want to become suppliers for the federal government

OSME – Ontario Region offers the following supplier seminars to individuals and groups. Seminars include the fundamentals of selling goods and services to the Government of Canada.

  • How to do business with the federal government:
    This seminar provides information on how to market to the federal government, how the government does its buying, and how to keep track of opportunities to bid on Canadian government purchases.
  • Understanding the procurement process and responding to bids:
    This seminar provides advice and guidance in preparing a proposal. Gain a better knowledge and understanding of what is in a Request for Proposal (RFP), how bids are evaluated and how you should respond to a RFP.

A grant designed to help SMB take advantage of opportunities in foreign markets

Export Market Access (EMA) is a cost-sharing grant designed to help small to medium sized organizations take advantage of opportunities in foreign markets beyond the US.

If your company has 5 or more employees and annual sales of $500,000 or more, you may qualify for a grant covering up to 50% of eligible costs incurred to develop export sales.