I work with a lot of solo business owners (and I am one myself), so I understand the reality of branding your small business on a budget. Here are the things you need to create a cohesive and effective brand identity without breaking the bank.
- 1. Selfie Headshots
- 2. Use Proven Copywriting Formulas
- 3. DIY Your Website Using The Right Tools
- 4. Bootstrap Your Logo Design
- 5. Create A Color Palette Using Free Online Tools
- 6. Choose Brand Fonts & Stick To Them
- 7. Use Pre-Designed Business Cards
- 8. Use MailerLite To Build Your List
- 9. Use Canva Templates to Design Graphics & Documents
- 10. Skip Expensive Stock and Use Public Domain Images
1. Selfie Headshots
For solo professionals, your headshot is–for all intents and purposes–your “logo” on your online profiles. You’ll need a great one, but not everyone can afford to splurge on a professional photographer.
In my case, I live in a rural community and it’s very hard for me to engage a pro photographer, so I make do with selfies I take with my iPhone. Then, I make adjustments and clean up the background in photoshop.
If you don’t know how to use photoshop, you can get basic retouching done on the cheap over at Fiverr. Or, you can download a photo editing app like Snapseed on to your smartphone to achieve different effects. There are also tons of photo editing websites you can experiment with like BeFunky or PicMonkey.
The key to getting a great selfie headshot:
- Make sure you’re groomed and dressed appropriately
- Stand in natural light
- Experiment facing in different directions to see how the light hits your face–you want to minimize shadows as much as possible (the right lighting gives you a more vibrant, youthful appearance!)
- Experiment with different angles (we all have a “good side”)
- Take multiple shots, they’re free!
- Then, choose the one you feel best captures a warm, friendly, natural and approachable expression
People have told me that I’m photogenic and ask me how I take such great selfies. The reality is, I’m not at all photogenic, and 99.999% of the selfies I take are completely awkward. That’s why I just snap as many as I can–even if it’s 100!–and usually, there’s one in the bunch that works. (You only need one!) The secret? ANGLES AND LIGHTING. I’m no pro, but I keep at it until I get lucky.
The headshot I currently use (see below) was taken while I was standing in front of a window in my living room (great natural lighting) waiting for my sister to pick me up to go to a Jane’s Addiction concert. Because I’m in creative services, it’s perfectly appropriate that I’m wearing a jean jacket and black t-shirt (the pink lipstick and sparkly necklace dress it up a little). Use your best judgment–if you wouldn’t wear it to work or while grabbing a coffee with a client, it’s probably not a good idea to wear it for your headshot.
While it’s not perfect, it works for now. The most important part for me is that the expression is natural and warm, which is how I want to greet “internet strangers” who don’t know me yet.
2. Use Proven Copywriting Formulas
If you don’t have the means to work with a great copywriter, use copywriting formulas for key brand copy. No need to re-invent the wheel (secret: even professional copywriters use formulas!).
You’ll want to hone in on your “first impression” copy and pay particular attention to a few strategic areas:
👉Your social media bio & your blog’s “about me” widget
👉Your home page “before the scroll” copy
👉Any landing pages you’re sending people to
What you want to do is make it clear:
1. Who you are and what you do
2. Who it’s for
3. Why it’s going to be useful for them
4. What action they should take next
Within 5 seconds. Five. Seconds.
Which is no small feat, and that’s why first impression copy–even though it’s short–is something you’ll want to spend quite a lot of time and effort on. If it takes longer than 5 seconds for them to understand what you’re about and why it’s relevant to them, they’ll scroll on by and click away and you may not get a second chance. This is why using copywriting formulas is a brilliant approach because they’ve been tested.
If you Google “copywriting formula for a great ____” you’ll get a treasure-trove of examples!
Your One-Sentence Formula For Social Media Bios
A great place to start is your Twitter bio because it’s such a tiny space that you have no choice to get right to the point.
A formula you can use is: I HELP [AUDIENCE] + [ACHIEVE THIS OUTCOME] + [HOW I DO IT]
I might say: I help service-based business owners attract their dream clients by using the power of branding.
You can also use this as your tagline — a summary statement of what your company is all about — and carry that phrase through to your website, other marketing materials, and all your social profiles.
Your High-Converting Homepage & Landing Page Formula
A value proposition should go on your homepage and any important landing pages you’re sending people to, and it’s the #1 reason why a site visitor will continue reading and take the actions you want them to, so you don’t want to wing it.
Creating a value proposition with the help of a strategist or a conversion copywriter can be very expensive, and when I work with clients to create theirs, they do a lot of homework and then we sometimes spend a week or more working through multiple drafts and fine-tuning.
So if it takes you some time to think through this and create multiple rough drafts you can run past people in your target audience for feedback, it’s perfectly normal and okay. This is copy that’s going to help you capture the attention of the right people and turn them into customers, so it’s worth your time investment.
Some ground rules. Your value proposition must:
- Be relevant
How is your service relevant to them? How does it solve a problem they have?
- Articulate value
What benefits can they expect?
- Differentiate you from the competition
What’s the main reason they should choose you?
- Be clear and easy to read
Written in your customer’s language and how they’re thinking about their problem
- Not use cheesy hype
“The most amazing product ever, you won’t believe your massive results!”
- Not use industry-speak and business jargon
“Leveraging resources for integrated business solutions.”
Right then, on to the copywriting formula for your value proposition…
STEP 1: Write an attention-getting headline
Use one of these formulas for your headline so your site visitors see themselves in the message and why it’s going to be useful for them to continue learning more:
👉The [adjective] way to [do something] for [benefit/outcome]
👉I help X do Y by Z
👉[My dream customer] + [has this problem] + [the outcome they got using my solution]
STEP 2: Write a 1-2 sentence descriptive paragraph
This is where you can elaborate, but keep it clear and brief. Describe what you do, for whom, how it solves a problem for them, and how you make it an experience that’s different from your competition.
STEP 3: Create a few bullet points (optional)
List the key benefits or features of your service.
Nervous about writing your value proposition? Read You Don’t Need To Be A Unicorn
3. DIY Your Website Using The Right Tools
You don’t need to spend a fortune on your website until your business is bringing in enough cash to have it professionally designed. With all of the DIY website builders out there, it’s totally within your power to set up our own website if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and apply a bit of sweat equity.
But, what you want to do is make certain you choose the right tools that will allow you to scale, iterate and grow. If you skimp too much on this, it’ll cost you in the long run. Not all website templates are created (or coded) equally, so be careful of “free” options (there’s usually a tradeoff).
I recommend the Divi theme for WordPress. It’s the most popular WordPress theme for a reason! It’s easy to use and there’s a huge online community if you ever need support or have a question. The sky is really the limit on what you can do with it design-wise.
For web hosting, hands down my recommendation is SiteGround. Most web hosts offer pretty much the same features, but the support and customer service is what really counts. I recommend SIteGround to all my clients and everyone’s pleased as punch with them.
For more recommendations, check out: Tools For An Empowered Website
4. Bootstrap Your Logo Design
Professionally designed logos can run you hundreds or even thousands, but if you can’t afford that right now, there are a couple of things you can do. What you definitely do NOT want to do is use generic clip art.
Option #1: Use A Distinctive Font That Expresses Your Brand Personality
Purchasing a distinctive font for your logo can give you a huge bang for your buck design-wise. One thing to keep in mind if you’re scouring free font sites is that MANY of them are not free for commercial use, and a lot of them are not professional quality.
If you’re going to forego spending money on a professionally-designed logo, splurge on a premium font–you can usually find great ones in the $10-$30 range. Check out sites like FontBundles.net and The Hungry JPEG for great deals, or if you have a few more coins to spare, there are some beautiful options on Creative Market.
What you want to look for is not-so-much fonts that you like, but fonts that express the personality of your brand. In the examples below, I’ve chosen fonts that match the vibe of the adjectives.
A word of caution: make absolutely certain that the font you choose is readable. A lot of display fonts are too stylized for logo use.
Option #2: Use Crowdsourcing
Crowdsourcing is a great option for getting a professional logo designed on a budget, but the quality of the results largely depend on how prepared you are and how well you communicate.
Logo formats & files you’ll need:
- A horizontal logo for your website header
- A square version of your logo for social media avatars
- A one-color version for things like overlays, embroidery, stamps, etc.
- A full-color CMYK version in vector format (.eps, .pdf, .ai) for print for things like business cards
- RGB versions in image format (.png, .jpg) for web
- Web versions with a transparent background
- Versions with and without your tagline
What to watch out for if you’re going the DIY logo route
Make sure–especially if you’re planning to design it yourself–that your logo is not designed in Photoshop. It won’t be scalable or functional. Photoshop is for photos and image editing and exports “raster” graphics only.
This is in contrast to “vector” graphics — which are what’s used to create illustrations. Vector graphics are completely scalable–which means you can put your logo on a pen or a billboard and the resolution and quality will be the same. Professional logo designers almost universally use Adobe Illustrator to create logo designs. Vector graphics can also be exported as raster graphics (for use on the web).
5. Create A Color Palette Using Free Online Tools
You’ll want to create a color palette for your website, social media profiles, logo, business cards–everything. Everything should stick to a consistent color palette. Color is what captures people’s attention at an emotional level, and can set you apart from your competitors.
You can absolutely create one for yourself, but here are a few things to keep in mind:
- You’ll want your color palette to reflect your brand’s personality and it should be appropriate for your audience and what you sell. (It’s not just about picking colors you like.)
- You’ll want to make sure your color palette is functional. The biggest mistake I see people making with their color palettes is choosing way too many colors without neutrals to balance them out and enough contrast to create readable designs.
- Don’t go too crazy–the more hues you have in your palette, the harder it can be to work with them
For my own branding I use lots of bright hues — because around here, my brand is all about being BOLD and BRAVE and FUN — but I won’t lie, it took a HUGE amount of effort to get that right and I rarely use this many hues for clients.
A lot of the color palettes I see that use tons and tons of different hues won’t work like in practice because there’s just not enough contrast between the colors, and certain combinations don’t look harmonious. If you want a super colorful palette (I feel you!), make sure you “test drive” them and see how they’ll work with real examples.
Now, on to the tools!
A couple of ground rules:
Choose plenty of neutrals to round out your palette
The funny thing is if you use plenty of neutrals and then add “pops” of color sparingly, the color actually stands out more.
Make sure you have an “action color” that’s in contrast to your primary brand color(s).
This is especially important for your calls to action on your website, you don’t want those blending in (people will miss them=no bueno.)
Don’t feel obligated to pick 5 or more hues for your brand
It’s perfectly okay to limit yourself to ONE primary brand color, one complementary accent color, and the rest neutral tones. I’ve even done palettes with one “power color” and the rest black & white.
STEP 1: Research colors & choose a primary brand color
The easiest way to start is to choose one main color that will represent your brand and then round out a palette to coordinate with that color.
I recommend using a Pinterest board to save images to as you gather inspiration for your palette. (You can set the board to “secret” if you’re a current Pinterest user and don’t want your followers to see your pins.)
I use Pinterest and Google Images when I’m researching color and use search queries like, “examples of bright and cheery logo designs” or “examples of bold and masculine branding.” You can use anything for your inspiration really–nature photos, street art, packaging design and so on. Just add images that inspire you to your board, you’ll narrow it down later.
You’ll also want to research what competitors in your industry are using for color–the idea is to be industry-appropriate, but you don’t want to blend in. If everyone is using corporate blue, consider alternatives to blue. (If you’re wondering about those “psychology of color” charts, here’s my take on those.)
STEP 2: Get your Hex code using Colr.org
Once you have a good collection of inspiration images, narrow down the ones you like best because now you’re going to start grabbing the color codes from those photos to build your palette. Either copy the image address or download the image to upload to Colr.org — which will analyze the image and translate it into color codes you can copy.
In this image, I really liked the color of the tiger’s eye… it’s as easy as uploading the photo and then clicking on the square it generates to get the hex code (see below).
STEP 3: Create a coordinating palette using Coolors.co
Copy the hex code from step #1 and load up Coolors.co – once you start the generator, paste that color into one of the slots, “lock” it, and begin pressing your spacebar.
When you see another color you like, you can lock it and it’ll continue giving you color options in the remaining slots.
You can experiment with shades (adding black to the color) and tints (adding white) by clicking on the menu icon:
When you’re happy with your palette, click “export” from the top menu and save as PDF.
Now you can download your color palette with your CMKY, RGB and Hex codes.
6. Choose Brand Fonts & Stick To Them
I wrote a huge tutorial on choosing and using fonts for your brand so I won’t repeat myself here, but the bottom line is, again, you want to use fonts that are appropriate for your audience and reflect your brand’s personality. Then, stick to using the same ones in everything you do–your graphics, your website, your business card, your collateral materials, and all of your documents (that clients will see).
Google Fonts are free–you can use them on your website or download them to use in your internal documents. You’ll want to choose one that are available in multiple weights (light, regular, bold. etc.). Here are a few I recommend:
You can also check out my Font Personality Swipe File to do a brand personality exercise and find an appropriate Google fonts combination to use for your branding. (That link will give you 50% off so it’s just $7.)
7. Use Pre-Designed Business Cards
I’ve been using Moo.com for printing custom-designed cards for years and I use them for clients too — the quality is outstanding, they’re fast, and the service is awesome. But the great news for bootstrappers is, you can place a small order (you don’t have to print thousands to get the cost per card down) and they have gorgeous pre-designed options (check them out here).
8. Use MailerLite To Build Your List
I’m a huge fan of ConvertKit, but at $29/month for 0-1k subscribers, it’s a cost I was not willing to incur when I was just getting started with email marketing. Instead, I went with MailerLite, which has many of the same features but completely free for up to 1,000 subscribers.
With MailerLite, you have the option of creating multiple opt-in forms, setting up email sequences, and even segmenting your list. When your email list grow to 1k+, then you can make a decision about whether it makes sense to move to a different service provider.
9. Use Canva Templates to Design Graphics & Documents
I’m an Adobe Creative Suite gal, but at $50/month (not to mention a steep learning curve if you’re not a Photoshop/Illustrator/InDesign wiz already), it’s a bit pricey for bootstrappers, Canva is a great alternative for creating:
There’s a free option available, or you can upgrade to premium at $12.95/mo., allowing you to upload and store your own logo, brand fonts, color palettes, and images to easily create branded templates.
Canva can’t do everything Adobe products can, but it is a huge step up from trying to create your branded documents in Microsoft Word or Pages and it’s very intuitive and easy to learn (mostly drag-and-drop!).
If you’re not confident in your graphic design skills, check out the template packs for Canva over on ConversionMinded for affordable template bundles for social media, creating digital products, lead magnets and more.
10. Skip Expensive Stock and Use Public Domain Images
As a designer, there are times when I need to spend gobs of money on stock images for client projects, but most of the time budget won’t allow. And if you’re creating a lot of graphics to share on social media, those expenses can really add up.
Google images is fine for doing research, but NEVER grab a Google image and use it in your business–chances are, it’s protected by copyright and besides the potential legal ramifications, it’s just not classy to steal intellectual property from others.
“Public domain” images means they’re safe to use for commercial purposes, but you always want to do your research to be sure. Sometimes I use Google images to find public domain imagery by typing “Images of ____ public domain” and that can yield helpful results, but it doesn’t guarantee those images are in the public domain. You definitely want to follow those links to see what licensing options are available before you grab them.
My favorite free stock site is Unsplash.
INCREDIBLE photos here and a huge library. I particularly love the nature photos on this site. If your brand has anything to do with nature, this site will be your new best friend. I recently designed a site using images found entirely on Unsplash.
And it’s not just for nature photography, there are lots of good “business themed” photos there as well.
Further Reading: For more information about where you can get FREE stock images, check out Stock Photo Secret’s comprehensive review: The 27+ Best Free Stock Photo Sites in 2019. They provide a verdict and a score on the usability of each resource so it’s easy to choose the one best one for you.
Did I leave anything out? Have questions? Hit me up in comments below!
Have fun bootstrapping your brand!
Taughnee Stone is an award-winning designer, brand strategist, and location-independent business owner for over 15 years. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she now lives in Croatia with her husband, energetic Samoyed, and three bossy cats.