Building an App or Online Business in 2017? Here’s a DIY Resource Kit of Free Tools & Tips!

by Babar Suleman

Last updated on July 24th, 2017

Last year, I started working on an idea for a platform, called Counsell, currently available as an app on iOS and Android devices, that lets all professionals give and get paid advice.

As a designer, I was fortunate to be working with an incredible developer from the very start so we knew we could turn the idea into a working product. However, it was only when I, bolstered by my marketing background, decided to build a business around the app that I realized how haphazard and unsystematic the realities of setting up a new online business could be.

Thanks to advancement in e-commerce, services like Shopify have made it all too easy to set up your store or create a landing page – but how do you actually go about setting up your business and reaching your target market?

With a shoestring budget and a dedication to keeping it lean, we wanted to make use of as many free and open source resources as we could. Here’s a handy list of the useful tips, tools and resources that helped us set up our business. Also included are a couple of insights from our experience and the marketing services we used.

Design with Invision and Adobe XD

XD is Adobe’s new standalone tool for user experience designers

Invision and Adobe Experience Design (XD) helped me do quick and dirty prototypes that I could easily share with my developer.

Both Invision and XD let you design for different screen devices, emulate gestures (tapping/swiping), create hotspots and linkages, and view your design on the intended device so you can have a really good idea about how your finished product should look, feel and work like.

While Invision requires a subscription if you go beyond the free level, Adobe Experience Design is a beta and currently free. Make the most of it while you can!

Communicate & Collaborate with Trello

Trello is a free collaboration tool that lets you create and manage to-do lists

Trello is an excellent (and very popular) tool we use every day to communicate within the team. It allows you to create different “boards” to host your task lists and manage your communication channels and team members.

We have a board for communication just between the founders, another one for communication with the advisory board and yet another one for the digital marketing team. This allows us to not only declutter information and manage to-do lists but also easily manage access. There is no longer a need to check in with team members via email or text and Trello lets you add deadlines to any task so you can keep up with what’s done and what’s still underway.

Grab Some Freebies, Courtesy Facebook Start

FbStart by Facebook gives any new business with an app the tools to grow

Any new business with an app can apply to the Facebook Start program. We were selected last fall and our membership gives us access to a host of benefits (including $500 in credits for Facebook Advertising and $5000 in Amazon Web Services). Depending on where you are in the business cycle, you can apply for the Bootstrap or Accelerate track.

FbStart often upgrades startups to the Accelerate track themselves so you could start out with the Bootstrap track and work your way up.

Hire Interns – and Train Them Through Google’s Digital Garage and More

Interns proved to be a great resource for us. There are two major considerations if you want to hire interns:

  • How do you provide them the requisite knowledge and training required to do their job?
  • How do you make it worth their while – especially if you’re not paying them much (or at all)?

Luckily, the answer for both of these questions for us was available for free online. We had our interns start by taking and completing the Google Digital Garage course that equips them with the fundamental understandings of digital marketing. They even get a certificate at the end if they complete all the modules; a nice built-in incentive.

Google’s Digital Garage course consists of a variety of modules that can train any novice on the basics of digital marketing

For the social media intern, I had them take the Hootsuite course on Social Media, for the email marketing intern Mailchimp’s online tutorials and for Facebook Advertising, there are really useful training resources available directly from the source.

Find Your Niche with Google Trends

As any marketing resource will tell you, identifying and understanding your target market is key to a successful digital marketing initiative. While you can always fine-tune, pivot and add audiences as you go along, it is still essential to start out from one or a couple of segments you can craft your marketing strategy for.

Google Trends gives you a quick and easy look at what people are searching for.

We had two potential audiences we wanted to reach out to. One, a more specific niche, is attorneys in the United States because “legal advice” was the top searched keyword relating to advice on Google Trends. We have a lot of flexibility at this point in our business to choose any other niche as well so we will be testing what specific audience our product resonates most with.

The other audience we are working on in parallel is a more general one that caters to all kinds of professionals who currently use LinkedIn.

Even if one of your audience selections is broad like ours, a user persona can also help better empathize with the kind of person your business is creating a solution for. One of our user personas is Sophie, a 29-year-old design researcher in New York who often has to meet and converse with different kinds of professionals to help create solutions for her clients. With Counsell, she can schedule and book these sessions easily and instantly.

We are working with the understanding that once we have the supply side (advice givers) onboard, the demand side (advice seekers) would follow. However, this is an assumption we will be testing as well down the line.

Research and Document Digital Marketing Strategy with Typeform and a Miles Herndon Template

To understand the needs of our “expert” users better, who may or may not already be working as consultants, we created a survey that asked them about their opinion on everything from the concept of our product to information they would like to see on other users and the transaction fee that we should be charging. This data helps us create the most lucrative onboarding pitches for our selected experts.

We created and distributed our surveys via Typeform, a handy little utility for creating and sharing beautiful forms that you can also easily analyze the results from.

We used Typeform to create surveys that help us understand our high valued users

While most of the time spent on a startup goes into actually doing things, learning from various kinds of experiments and pivoting constantly to the most optimum solution, there is always a need to document your marketing strategy so that you can share it easily with your team and any other stakeholders. This allows everyone to be on the same page.

I, nonetheless, did not want to get bogged down in the process of putting together a lengthy paper document that would change ever so often as we build our business. I wanted to start out with a simple document that we could revisit and refine as we learned from our activities and continued to form a way forward.

Digital Marketing template by Miles Herndon.

Miles Herndon has a great template that we used to outline our digital marketing strategy. It starts with an audit, so you can see where you are currently which, if you are a new business like us, starts from zero – before moving into the objectives section.

The channels you will use (example: the social media platforms you want to engage your audience on) and the resources you have (both in terms of team members and purchased software/subscriptions) are next and the template ends with space for outlining future growth opportunities.

Set Up Your Website With Squarespace

Squarespace lets you quickly set up a beautiful website – no design or development experience required!

While we plan to eventually have a web version of our platform, we currently only needed a landing page. We used Squarespace to quickly set up a website (the business plan comes at $144 per year) that has all the information we want to communicate to our users. This allows us to not worry about issues of responsiveness for different devices and frees me up to look after all the other aspects of a business.

Choose Your Social Media Channels Carefully and Manage Content with a Calendar

Since we are targeting a professional niche and, more particularly, a legal one, we chose our social media accounts carefully. Our brand personality is professional and formal (if friendly) so our social media presence has to reflect exactly that.

Tumblr, Snapchat, and Instagram are very good fits for a visually oriented youthful demographic but we found them to not be as relevant to us. They may be better choices for your business depending on your target market.

For us, LinkedIn was, of course, essential because that’s not only where our target audience resides but, also, using a LinkedIn account is required for signing up to our platform.

It’s not too wrong to say that pretty much everyone is on Facebook so that was a no-brainer pick and it also allows us to share the most media rich of our content. Facebook reaches more people than everyone else and if you only choose one network to be on, Facebook might be it.

We also decided to get on Twitter to share updates and quickly connect with and respond to our audiences. Twitter is also a great tool for interacting with influencers, as it is where most busy professionals get their daily news update and keep up with what’s happening in their industry.

One way we are using Twitter right now is for our carefully curated list of Quora specialists. Pretty much all of them have public Twitter profiles and I assigned another one of my interns to engage with them directly through our Twitter. This is still underway and we will find out if it was a worthwhile tactic down the line!

Editorial Calendar: How we keep track of the content we create and share.

Our content strategy for social currently includes an original post made every two weeks to our official blog and re-shared content from similar portals like LinkedIn. We have a social calendar to keep track of the content and you can download a template for your own use here.

Start eMail Marketing with Zoho and Mailchimp

Zoho gives you free business email- and more!

Zoho gives you free business email for up to 50 users and also provides access to a host of other business benefits – such as calendars and productivity apps. This allows you to communicate professionally with stakeholders, both internal and external, from the very start and make sure your business has the basic services it needs to function and grow.

Mailchimp is a newsletter delivery service that you can use if you have an existing subscriber list.

Mailchimp is a great service for newsletter delivery to your subscriber list. Bear in mind that this does not mean you can start cold-emailing anyone. Mailchimp has a very strict policy on spamming and will flag you down for any suspect activity!

What you can do, when you’re just starting out, is to have sign up forms on your website and socials so that potential customers can opt-in to your emails.

Try Paid Advertising with Social Media Coupon

This includes any money you spend on advertising, SEO campaigns, PR and promotions. Paid advertising is a great way to reach your target customers but, of course, the catch is that its paid and you could be spending a lot of money into something that might not ultimately work. We decided that the best strategy here would be experiment with smaller budgets before investing more.

We have so far experimented with one form of paid media:

LinkedIn Sponsored InMail

LinkedIn’s new advertising solution lets you send messages to your target audience on their platform.

LinkedIn Sponsored InMail delivers your messages straight into the inboxes of your target audience on LinkedIn. Using a coupon worth $50, we targeted our legal niche and, from 44 sends, received 18 opens and just 1 click. This quickly made this avenue of advertising (with this specific targeting) unattractive to us. These are very small spends in terms of digital marketing but we wanted to see the value for each dollar we were spending.

Results of Counsell’s Sponsored InMail initiative

In total we spent almost $65 on this experiment and considering we didn’t get any installs from it, it’s too costly for us to invest in this method with at least our current targeting and customer valuation. However, this is not to say that Sponsored InMail in itself is an ineffective marketing tool. Depending on your audience selection and product, you could really benefit from running a campaign through it. As we suggested above, start with a small experiment and see for yourself if you’re getting the results you want!

Let us know in the comments what you think about these resources and do share any recommendations of your own!

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Babar Suleman

Babar Suleman (MFA, Parsons School of Design; Fulbright Scholar) is a visual storyteller and an experience designer. He is interested in the interplay of words and visuals in the communication process and uses his diverse experience as a writer and designer to create meaningful user experiences and effective branding strategies. You can contact Babar at his official website.


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