Are you currently out of employment, or just tired of the office rat race? Do you an idea that you think would be good enough to start a business with? It's never been easier to start out on your own. Everything you need to run a productive office is available for you at home on your desktop - often for free.
Thanks to online tools and apps, it's now possible to set up and run a business for minimal cost. Developments like dedicated business advice sites, rented or free cloud storage, free document and spreadsheet software, free email and instant messaging services, and even free web domains and hosting mean that you don't always need the traditional office infrastructure behind you to start out.
There is very little stopping anyone from creating their own business online, and we're confident you could set up a small scale project for free if you follow our advice, at least for the first year. The only thing you need to worry about is having a great idea and the determination to see it through.
Never before has so much help been available to wannabe entrepreneurs. With only a few clicks, and generally free of charge, you can draw inspiration, find sources of finance, create an online home for, run, market and staff your business - all through a web browser.
You can even keep and back up all your resources to the cloud, meaning your 'office' can be anywhere in the world. Business start-ups have never had a freer time of it, both in terms of expense and location.
So whether you're out of work or just fancy trying something new, PC Plus is here to show you how to use your PC and the web to create a professional business from the comfort of your own home.
Let's make no bones about this - deciding to create a business from scratch is a big decision, and one that needs drive and true commitment to see it through to the end. You have to believe in yourself and your idea, because if you don't, no one else will. There will be struggles ahead, but if you have the endurance to see it through to completion, you'll find lots of online advice, services and apps to help you do so. Let's get started.
The big idea
The first step is to come up with your business idea. Sadly, this is the one area we can't help with. That said, it's wise to stay within an area where you have some expertise.
This isn't just because otherwise you'll need to get training or spend a long time researching your target market, but also because potential investors and customers will want to see a track record of experience before they trust you with their money or their business. Starting out in a new field with no support behind you, although possible, can be a time-consuming and tough way to begin a business.
On the internet it seems a lot of the major success stories come from exploiting a niche. Creating an innovative service or offering - or even just tweaking an idea that already exists - can be very profitable. Remember, if you can offer a better, more efficient or cheaper solution to a problem than your competitors, then half the battle is won. The other half of is letting people know about the service you're offering, but more on that later.
If you're struggling to come up with an idea, although it's usually better to think of something by yourself, there's nothing stopping you looking online for inspiration from others. There are websites that list various problems or needs to which you can offer solutions.
One such place is www.challengepost.com. It offers challenges from companies, charities and governments to see if the general public can help solve them, usually for a cash reward. Entry is free, so if your area of expertise can be used to answer one of these problems, you have nothing to lose by getting involved.
Test the water
What if you already have an idea, but aren't sure if a market exists for it? There are also places online where you can test out your ideas with the general public, and even pick up funding if people believe strongly enough in your concept. One example is KickStarter, a crowd-funding platform for creative ideas.
Whether you're an artist, designer, inventor, musician or explorer, KickStarter could provide you with the money to make your idea come true. All you have to do is describe your project, say how much you want to raise, and if enough people like the idea to fund it to that level, you get the money.
Project creators keep 100 per cent ownership and control over their work. It may sound too good to be true, but there have already been some high-profile success stories. For example, the people behind Diaspora, an open-source competitor to Facebook, used KickStarter to raise over $200,000 to get started, and TikTok and LunaTik raised $280,000 for their invention that turns an iPod Nano into a wrist watch.
So, what's the catch? Well, KickStarter keeps five per cent of the money raised, and if you don't hit your funding target you don't get anything. Still, it provides a no-win no-fee way to decide if you can make money with your idea, as well as possibly providing the funds to get it off the ground.
Make a plan
Once you've got your idea and are confident you can make it work, it's a very good idea to spend some time developing it into a full, workable business plan. This is a maxim trotted out by many a business advice site, and although it's a task most people find as welcome as having to write a CV or covering letter, there is little doubt that it's a very useful exercise. It helps concentrate the mind on how you can profit from your idea, and how the operation will work.
In your business plan, you need to outline exactly how you see yourself making money from your idea, demonstrate that there is a real need for your product or service, research your competition, and describe how you hope to build your business up over time. It also means that if you're looking for funding, you can use your business plan to demonstrate that you have thought about all the points a
potential investor will be worried about.
One of the first decisions you need to make is how you want your organisation to operate. You don't need to go straight into making a company - you can also trade under your own name as a sole trader, or form a partnership with someone else.
Remember though, if you operate as a partnership or sole trader, legally the person or people and the business are one and the same. All financial risks are taken by that person or people, and all your assets are included in that risk.
A limited company exists in its own right. This means the company's finances are separate from the personal finances of its owners. The members of the company (or its shareholders) are not responsible for the company's debts unless they have given guarantees - for example, a bank loan.
Companies also usually have the ability to attract more funding. As the name suggests, companies need to consist of more than just one person, so you need to consider if you can work with others for the lifetime of your project. You also need to register at Companies House, and provide it with your company's accounts once a year. If you think this might be right for you, see Business Link, the British government's online resource for businesses.
Choose a bank
One of the most important aspects of starting your own business is to set up a business bank account. Do this as soon as possible, as it lets you separate personal incomings and outgoings from those of your business. As long as you pay everything out of this account (after transferring whatever investment or savings you are willing to invest into it first), you will have a calmer, stress-free time when it comes to preparing your accounts. Just like personal banking, you can check your business account online 24/7, and pay your bills instantly from the comfort of you own home.
Most banks are very keen to get your banking business, with some offering interest-free overdrafts or totally free banking for a couple of years - or even for life. Business banking usually involves slightly higher fees than personal banking, so it's well worth seeking these deals out. To find out which bank will give you the best deal, check out places like Money Supermarket, MoneyFacts.co.uk, Money.co.uk or, of course, the individual bank's website.
New business is the lifeblood of banking, so most high street banks have a lot of advice and other benefits they are willing to share with start-ups for free, and often offer business guides on their websites. As well as introductory free banking periods, it's worth looking out for services like local business managers, 24-hour business support and free accounting software.
Remember, these people deal with organisations like yours every day, so it's likely they'll be able to help or point you in the right direction when you experience the usual teething problems that come with starting a new project. It's also likely that these business bank managers will be among the first people to see your completed business plan, so ask them for as much feedback as possible. Any constructive criticism will be essential at this stage, and you can get it for free.
The other thing to consider when choosing a bank is how readily it lends new businesses money. This can be in the form of overdrafts or loans, or by helping find grants or other funding. It's worth enquiring about what financial solutions each bank can offer you when you're choosing your account, even if you don't need any funds at the start. You may be solvent now, but it's important to prepare for all eventualities.