I don’t need to delve into the importance of a good marketing plan — it’s been said a thousand times by people far more talented than I. However, tactical implementation gets tough on a very limited budget. Folks in startups often believe that people (potential funders, customers, etc.) will look beyond design/collateral because the product/service is so superior, so they decide that creating a professional image is very low on the to-do list. However, the short-term cost savings can severely cost them in terms of funding and sales.

Having worked in a startup environment with very few resources, I was able to create some identity pieces and collateral that looked very professional for not a lot of money. I have incredibly high standards with respect to graphic design and print quality (true story: I will use a magnifying glass to look at how a piece is printed), so I have experimented with many solutions in order to maximize look on a dime (or penny, even). Here are my thoughts and some do’s and don’ts…

  • Business Cards
    • Don’t — Avery “do it yourself” cards from big box retailers or VistaPrint — Printing cards yourself (with their shaggy perforated edges) looks exactly like you did them yourself (read: not a good thing).  VistaPrint cards are equally bad, with their flimsy card stock, stock designs and, if you go the free route, the little ad on the back.
    • Do — Overnightprints.com — While not perfect, OP has incredibly good quality business cards that are printed on heavy stock with extensive options (rounded corners, UV coatings, double-sided printing). Recently, they’ve added a premium quality line, though I’ve recently used their standard quality cards, which met my needs. In addition, their online designer has some quality templates if you’d like to go that route. Cost: $9.95 for 100 single-sided cards.
  • Letterhead
    • Don’t — Print on an ink jet printer, use standard 20lb or 24lb paper in a laser printer if doing it yourself, or print in black and white if your logo is in color — Ink jet printers are simply not a quality enough print job to look professional for a business, so this is considered a universal rule. Paper weight has an effect on how a document feels. Finally, a black-and-white version of a logo on business letterhead isn’t acceptable.
    • Do — If doing it yourself, use a color laser printer (don’t print the letterhead first then put the document through again — the ink may smear and you could seriously damage your printer). Otherwise, Overnight Prints works as well. — Laser printers have gotten to the point where print quality is sufficient for a small business, though make sure you purchase a heaver stock or resume paper when printing letterhead-worthy documents. As for OP, again, similar experiences and the same online designer. Cost: For paper, $12 – $30 (150-500 sheets) at an office supply retailer; for OP, $39.95 for 100 sheets.
  • Collateral
    • Don’t — Use pre-templated paper stock from an office supply retailer, print on anything lower than 24lb paper, use an ink jet printer or design any graphical elements that are supposed to go to the edge of the page (known as a full-bleed). — Template stock looks very cheesy, and the print quality from a laser printer rarely matches the color (or alignment) of the stock. Lower weight paper simply feels cheap. Finally, printers can’t print to the edge of the paper (brochures that do this are printed on larger paper then cut to size to produce the effect), leaving a white border that looks unprofessional.
    • Do — If doing yourself, use a design that has a white background without a bleed to the edge and make sure to print on heavier paper using a laser printer. Again, Overnight Prints has some high quality brochure printing, but admittedly a bit higher-priced. If you’re using an online printer like OP, take a look at their other options (rack cards, postcard-sized pieces, etc.) and get creative — Collateral is expensive, though printing yourself in this situation might be your best/cheapest option. As for online printing, rack cards, greeting cards and postcards can are a great way to minimize costs (I once made an eight-page booklet using four double-sided postcards and spiral-bound them). This will take some ingenuity, but the results can be fantastic. Cost: Cost of paper and ink to $109.95 four double-sided printing at OP, with many options in-between.
  • Web
    • Don’t — Use a free site like Angelfire (yep, it’s still around) or fall for an online equivalent of an internet chop shop.
    • Do —  A couple of things…
      • Buy a domain name — Use a registrar (I use GoDaddy.com) and get your own domain name (yourcompany.com). If your company name isn’t available, do what you can to come up with something that works and is memorable. Also, keep it short. Cost: About $10/year
      • Put up a web site at the domain name — Several tools exist that allow you to put up a cheap web site without it looking cheap. GoDaddy has a service and there are many, many others. If you can’t afford a designer, do this. Cost: $40/year and up.
      • Add Google Analytics — It’s free and enables you to see what type of traffic you’re getting and who can see your site.
  • E-mail
    • Don’t — Use free email services such as Hotmail, Gmail,  or Yahoo, or use free email that you might get from your internet service provider (@verizon.net, for instance).
    • Do — Use Google Apps. This free service from Google allows you to create many email accounts at the domain name you purchased (see above). Instead of the cheesy @yahoo.com email, you can use @yourbusiness.com. This gives considerable credibility to your business. In addition, you get all of the suite of cloud computing services Google provides. Cost: Free.

Here are a few other tips and tricks:

  • Overnight Prints ALWAYS has coupon codes available for various print products, which can significantly reduce the cost of your printing (free business cards, free shipping, 50% off, etc.). Do a quick Google search to find these deals and make sure to opt-in to their emails, which feature very good deals.
  • GoDaddy also has coupon codes, usually knocking off a couple of bucks off the domain name. It’s not a major deal, but as entrepreneurs know, every dollar counts.
  • Avoid using print-and-stick labels — they really do not look very good.
  • Do NOT use Comic Sans — Many companies attempt to make their company look more “human” by using Comic Sans in their collateral. From a graphic design perspective, there is never a reason to use the font. Stick to the basics (Arial, Times New Roman, etc.) if you don’t have any specific design skills.
  • Hire a designer — This will put you over the $100 mark, but it would be worth it to you to have someone do the design for your company. Freelancers can sometimes be inexpensive. However, allow them to guide you through the process using your parameters — they’re doing the design and often understand the process better than you.

I’m not suggesting that the above bare bones scenario is ideal but, with some extra effort on your part, you’ll be able to create a presence that, at minimum, won’t hurt you. Nothing can replace hiring a talented designer at market rates to lead your identity development and printing, but these tips and tricks can get you through the launch of your company in the short term.