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  • How Solopreneurs Can Look Professional on a Tight Budget

    When I started my first home business in the early 1990s, working from home was considered suspect and technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today
    . As a result, I spent a fortune on services to make it look like my business was run from a traditional office. I hired a service to answer my phone and take messages when I wasn’t available. I rented a box in a mail place to get a “professional” looking address.

    Today, running a business from home isn’t considered odd and technology makes working from anywhere a breeze. Even so, many free and low cost options for running a business from home can appear amateurish and unprofessional. Boosting your appearance doesn’t have to cost a fortune, but it should be an expense you’re willing to pay to attract top clients. Here are tips for looking professional on a budget.

    Invest online

    The Internet leveled the playing field between large and small businesses. Creating a presence online is affordable and easy, but that doesn’t mean you can throw together a website using free resources. Online service you need to pay for to look professional include:

    • Domain name: At $10 to $12 a year, it’s an expense every business can afford. Not only does owning the domain name of your business or given name make you look more professional, it makes marketing easier. ABCCompany.com is much easier to say and promote than ABCcompany.freewebhost.com.
    • Web hosting: My first web host charged $22 a month. Today, you can get webhosting for $4 to $8 per month. Just like the domain name, it looks professional and gives you more control over free hosting options, which will run ads that compete with your business.
    • Professional web design: You don’t necessarily need to hire a designer, although if you can afford it, it might be worth it. However, you should invest in a professional looking theme or template. There are free options, but similar to free webhosting, they’ll include an ad in exchange for using the theme or template. Themes and templates are affordable, usually $25 to $99 depending on the features provided.
    • Email: Domain and web hosting purchases offer the ability to have an email using your domain name. This is a must, as commercial and free accounts, such as Yahoo.com will make you appear unprofessional. Choose your name or business name for your email, as well. Prettykitty@yourdomain sounds unprofessional unless you’re a cat grooming service.

    Invest in marketing materials

    For a long time, I made my own business cards using a template and business card stock from the office store. Unfortunately, even the best template designs don’t quite meet professional standards compared to ordering business cards. Today, you can design your own card and get hundreds, even thousands printed at very little cost. This goes for brochures and other handouts as well. In fact, many business card companies offer a full range of marketing products so all your materials match.

    Invest in communications

    I struggled with whether or not I should include this because phone and fax services have changed. But if you have a business that requires use of phone and fax, you should consider investing in a separate phone line, 800# and fax number. A second phone line into your home is tax deductible and makes it easy to separate business from personal calls. Or you can add distinctive ring to your existing phone line for a few dollars a month, which gives you a second number on your line that rings differently from your personal line. Eight-hundred numbers are affordable and can forward to any phone line including your cell phone. You don’t necessarily need a fax machine to send and receive faxes if you have an all-in-one printer (that includes scanning and fax) or by using an online service.

    Invest in personal appearance

    It goes without saying that you should look nicely groomed when you’re out in the world, particularly if you’re working. That doesn’t mean you need designer clothes and a manicure. It means you should look clean and tidy. You can get a trim for $20 or pull your hair back if it’s unruly. For clothing, buy basics on sale such as khaki or black pants and white shirt. Buy work clothes that will mix and match so you have more outfit options with fewer clothing items.

    You are judged by your appearance and it’s true that you have one chance to make a good first impression. As a result, you need to make sure everything you put out in the world to represent you and your business is professional. Today, it doesn’t cost very much to create a professional image, and the expense is well worth it.

    Leslie Truex is a career design expert who has been helping people find or create work that fits their lifestyle goals since 1998 through her website Work-At-Home Success. She is the author of “The Work-At-Home Success Bible” and “Jobs Online: How To Find a Get Hired to a Work-At-Home Job”. She's appeared on CNN.com, Fox Business, Redbook and a host of other media outlets discussing telecommuting, home business and other flexible career option. She speaks regularly on career-related topics, including telecommuting, home business, marketing, personal development and authorship. Learn more about her at LeslieTruex.com.

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