How to build your online empire for free

In yesterday’s post, I told you it’s OK to stick with, a free web-based blogging platform, if you weren’t ready to do the whole design-and-manage-your-own-online-empire thing.

Today I want to talk about the money part of the equation. Or really, the how-can-I-avoid-spending-money part.

I get asked questions about cost a lot. Mostly, “What will my online business cost to build?”

And I hate to tell you this, but… it depends.

Yeah, I know. The most UNhelpful response in the universe.

So I’m going to try to be a teeny bit more helpful and give a few figures based on my experience. Your figures, it should go without saying but I’m going to say it anyway, may be completely different.

But first, just to reassure the bootstrappers, the downsized, the laid-off, and the otherwise economy-stricken among us:

Yes, you can do it for free

You can totally build a complete online empire (yes, even one where you can sell stuff) for free. You don’t have to pay for anything, not even a domain name.

The tradeoff is that you are going to spend your own time and energy (since free means you’re not going to pay for help) setting everything up. This is a fine tradeoff for many people. And it may be fine for you. But you should know about the tradeoff before you plunge ahead thinking that free means easy.

My tools of choice for this path are:

  • Blogger to build your website. I mentioned this yesterday. Reliable, powerful, and free.
  • Feedburner (another Google-owned service) for managing a full-featured RSS feed, including email subscriptions.
  • Google Analytics for fancy-schmancy site statistics.
  • MailChimp if you want to have a mailing list with more features and more control (say, for a newsletter, an email list for your buyers, or an advance discount list). This almost obnoxiously friendly service is free as long as you have fewer than 500 subscribers.
  • PayPal for all your e-commerce needs. Technically PayPal does have a monetary cost, since they take a percentage of your sales, but there is no up-front cost since they only get paid when you do.
  • CoolText for creating buttons and snazzy doodads for your site. You don’t have to be limited to the standard yellow PayPal button anymore!
  • for recording conference calls, client sessions, or just yourself talking (an instructional audio, say).
  • TalkShoe for backup recording (use 3-way calling to dial into and TalkShoe, so you have two recordings of the same audio — this can save your skin) or to set up a live webcasted conference call (otherwise known as an Internet radio show).
  • for screen-sharing, webinars, and collaborative editing.
  • Jing for recording short (less than 5 minutes) screencasts.
  • YouTube for hosting and publishing those short videos

Oh my goodness, that’s a long list. Longer than I planned. And I’m sure there are more tools out there — leave a comment to contribute your favorite!

The costs of “free”

Two important points before I hit the publish button:

  1. Please don’t fool yourself into thinking that free in monetary terms means there is no cost. There is always a cost. Time, energy, perhaps frustration, and limited choices are all real costs. And only you can determine what costs you are willing and able to pay. When someone else tells you what you should outsource and what’s worth paying for, that’s true for them. Is it true for you? You may adore doing the DIY thing and building “sweat equity.” Or you may not. And no one else can decide for you.
  2. This whole “building a website” thing is not a one-time project, so it’s not a one-time cost either. You may think that if you could “just get your website done” your business would be Ready for Prime Time. But I’ve worked with enough clients and built enough sites to say Trust Me: You will eventually want to make changes to your site. That’s why I like to emphasize the DIY aspect of website management, because I want my clients to be empowered to make changes to their own sites. But if you’re not a DIYer, you’ll need to have the resources to pay to have these inevitable changes made.

And that leads us to the paid path. The technology-budgeting stuff I started out with. That’ll come in the next installment because this post is quite long already and it’s time to go start making burritos.


  1. Wendy –

    Thank you for a great post. I learned about three sites I have never used before that will help me grow my business. Awesome.

    Here are some other sites I use that are free: – It is free file hosting service for small audio files and pdf worksheets. It is speedy and can be set to send you an e-mail when people are downloading your files. – A CRM that is free for individual users. It is good for managing customer contacts, leads, and campgains. – Another Google tool that is useful for sharing worksheets and other documents with clients and collaborators
    .-= Chris Elliott´s last blog ..What You Should Be Doing With Business Cards After a Conference or Networking Event =-.

    • Hey Chris, I’m so glad you found my list useful! And thanks heaps for your contributions. is one I’ve used, liked, and would recommend. It must have slipped my mind yesterday (I knew it would pay off big time to ask people to leave their own recommendations).

      How could I have left off Google Docs?!? One thing I really like about it is that you can do real-time collaborative editing of a document or spreadsheet. It’s really fun to brainstorm and watch the other person typing at the same time you are.

      And thanks for the pointer to Zoho — I will definitely be checking that out, because I need a contact management system! I’ve been considering the free version of Highrise, but haven’t committed. So another free option is WAY welcome.

  2. Ooh! Ooh! Good ones!

    I’ll play too: for recording sole proprietor income and expenses–populates everything into a standard scedule C (which is your friend when you’re self employed)…can’t believe this one is free. for beautiful forms (and playing with the data submitted)…they have a somewhat limited free version.

    (also–can I say I didn’t realize Mailchimp was FREE for less than 500, looks like I might be moving soon, thanks 🙂 ~ E.

    • Wow, thanks mucho for telling me (us) about This is definitely worth checking out.

      Glad you found the MailChimp tip useful. I’ll be writing about pros and cons of MailChimp vs. AWeber soon, too.

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