Web design software: free
Online marketing campaign: free
Long-Distance calling: free
Running your small business for next to nothing: priceless.
Over the decades--heck, even centuries--philosophers, politicians, tycoons and other leaders have insisted that you can't get something for nothing: "There's no such thing as a free ride," or "Nothing in life is free." Well-known economist Milton Friedman once said, "There's no such thing as a free lunch." Even Entrepreneur columnist Robert Kiyosaki's rich dad told him the same thing.
But in our evolving Web 2.0 world and with Google leading the way, the rules have changed: You can get something for nothing--and for entrepreneurs, that something can have a significant impact on their businesses. Today, the web is full of free tools to help entrepreneurs start, run and grow their businesses for next to nothing. It'll just cost you some time and an internet connection.Gary Vaynerchuk, co-founder of Wine Library, has been taking advantage of free business tools for nearly three years to grow his 11-year-old wine retail business. Using a combination of web-based tools, such as social networking, blogging and video, he's taken his company to annual sales of $50 million. His success with these tools has even landed him two book deals and regular speaking engagements across the country. "Building brand equity and connecting with your consumers through these social tools has a global impact on your business and your brand," says Vaynerchuk, 33, who launched Wine Library with his father, Sasha, 65.
Springfield, New Jersey-based Wine Library uses Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to notify its "friends" about daily specials, something it used to do solely through e-mail. Its Facebook presence includes a custom app called Ask Gary, where people can ask questions about wine. And the company keeps a regular video blog, Wine Library TV. "Viral aspects of your message explode once you use these tools," says Vaynerchuk. "When I think about how much brand equity I have with Wine Library TV and how quickly it happened for [so little cost], the fact that I spent millions of dollars building the brand prior to using these tools makes me want to throw up."
As Vaynerchuk has found, "customers appreciate the interaction," says Mike Whaling, president of 30 Lines, a social media marketing company that helps businesses expand their brands' online reach. "Traditionally, it was one way. It was shouting: brochures, white papers, advertisements. Now it's much more focused on multimedia and engagement." And whereas brochures and advertising of days past had a price tag, more and more of today's tools are free.
But aside from the obvious (duh, it's free), what does this surge of tools mean for small businesses? "It starts to level the playing field," says Whaling. "It gives small businesses the opportunity to put themselves out there and really compete with the larger companies."
"It allows a little guy to look like a big guy," says Drew McLellan, owner and CEO of McLellan Marketing Group. "It makes a small business look very sophisticated." For example, an entrepreneur can build a website easily with various blogging and web design options. A company can launch a targeted marketing campaign across numerous social networks. A business owner can manage calendars, clients and projects using different collaborative and project management software. All for free!
Alison Boris and Kathi Chandler, 38 and 31, respectively, have been capitalizing on free tools since nearly the inception of their Los Angeles-based online bag boutique, AllyKatStyle, in 2007. Like Vaynerchuk, they've created a MySpace page for their company. They also have profiles on Digg and StumbleUpon, which are community-centric content sharing sites, to drive traffic to allykatstyle.com. Outside of the popular social networking tools, they use QuantCast (embedded in the website) to monitor traffic, frequency, demographics, geographics and more, and Skype is their official business phone. Says Chandler, "They're great grass-roots tools to drive traffic to the site and provide free advertising through bloggers and word-of-mouth."