Hey! Before you jump in to this article, I’m going to warn you: This article is reeeeeealy long. It took a whole bunch of time to write, and it will take a while to read. I get specific in my explanations and tried really hard to tell you the truth without any “JUST TRUST ME” handwaving. So settle in, young Padawan, and learn the Jedi way.
This article was written to provide some detail to the recommended items listed in Step 2 of our “How to Start A Blog Series,” where we talked a little about budgeting.
My readers – being the engaged bunch of go-getters that they are – had a fair amount to say about an article I wrote on budgeting for your new blog. Specifically, they were interested to know why I’d recommended some of the items on my budget and if they really needed to spend money on them.
Well, no, you don’t have to spend money on anything. I mean, you could just sit there and do nothing, and let other people start amazing blogs that make a ton of revenue, but then who’s going to buy you a mega yacht or a ticket on Elon Musk’s neato spaceship? Nobody, that’s who.
I’m kidding, but only a little.
The truth is that you need good tools to produce quality work. Or maybe a better way to say it is that good tools help eliminate friction which could otherwise prevent you from doing your best work. Saying it that way uses a lot more words, and is more clunky than elegant, but it gets closer to the heart of what I mean.
When you start a business – and blogs that make money are serious business – there are a million tiny things that create friction between you and your goals. They’re a source of resistance that slows down your forward progress. Without realizing it, attending to each of these tiny things slowly saps away the time and energy you should be using to create and improve your product.
Fixing your hacked server (because you chose an unmanaged host to save $20), installing and uninstalling 10 different plugins (because you chose a mediocre free plugin that “almost” works instead of spending $40 to buy a good one), or trying to untangle a complex web of receipts (because you co-mingled your finances instead of keeping things separate with an LLC) are all going to throw friction into your business. Friction costs you money. The less friction you have, the more money you’ll make.
I know that not everyone spends gold doubloons down at the monocle store, but I’m not saying you need to mortgage your house, skip meals, or deny your kid medicine. It’s ok if you have to save up for a few months to get the $500 or $600 you’ll need to set your business up the right way. Use the intervening time to work on your product or meet other people in the blog space you want to enter.
As I’ve shown through personal experience, you don’t need a fancy host, an email service, or a bunch of WordPress plugins to sit down and write content. I wrote content for months using only the built in text editor on my laptop. I didn’t even have a host, just a keyboard and an empty page.
So that’s my long winded introduction and pep talk. Now, let’s get our Chakras aligned and look at each item on my recommended blog startup budget. I’ll explain the important role each item plays and why you need it when you’re setting up shop.
Maybe you could open the budget in a separate tab so you can refer to it as we discuss.
Hosting is not negotiable. Without hosting, you have no blog. But, I’ll admit, there’s a big price difference different tiers of hosts.
It’s easy to balk at the $30 a month you’ll spend on a good host when there are ads flying around offering hosting at $2 or $3 a month. But let’s be clear – to get a low price, you’re going to give up some important features. Every feature you give up is a little bit of potential friction that weasels its way back in to your workflow.
Exactly which features you’re giving up will vary a bit from host to host, but it’s probably some combination of speed, support, management, and extra services (CDN, number and frequency of backups, ability to host a staging environment, etc). The speed thing isn’t necessarily a huge deal – most decent hosts are pretty comparable – but the management, support, and extra services are a big deal.
With a top tier host managed host like Kinsta, you have 24/7 instant access to a support team that’s actually good at stuff. You have an automatic, frequent backup schedule. You can schedule your own manual backups and download them. You can use their crazy fast CDN for free (which can actually save you money over the long term). You get a server that’s fully managed by an actual team of people who manage servers for a living. And you get an awesome staging environment that lets you build, test, and change your site without affecting what visitors are actually seeing.
Remember, too, these top hosts are different than just getting a generic web host or VPS. These are hosts that only host WordPress, so they’ve already done all the security checks and optimizing specific to WordPress sites.
Ever try reading a how-to security manual for WordPress? Holy cow, forget about it. With a managed WordPress host, you can forget about it, because actual professionals take care of it for you. And WordPress security is no joke – there were hacking attempts and tons of spam coming at this blog when it was still in the staging area, and it only gets worse as you get more traffic. But I’ve never had any problems fending that garbage off, because Kinsta does it for me. There’s a reason that GE, The New York Times, Intuit, and other huge companies use hosts like this, rather than a generic web host or their own team of employees.
I talk about Kinsta all the time because it’s the host I know the best. It’s true that I’m an affiliate (Blog Reactor earns a little money if you sign up with them), but it’s also true that they’re the people I chose to host all of my own WordPress sites. To be fair, there are other very good WordPress hosts. WPEngine, Flywheel, and Pagely are all top tier. Those names are purposely not hyperlinked – I don’t want you to think I’m just hawking a bunch of affiliate links. I hawk Kinsta because I know first hand that it’s a great service. The Googleweb can point you in the right direction if you want to read more about the others.
Alright, so let’s say that you disregard all of this advice and decide to save a few bucks by going with budget host. It’s a free country, after all. Even if you manage to have a completely flawless experience managing your own server (which you won’t) and even if you never get hacked (which you will) or lose important data (it’ll happen), what happens when you start to get big, and just don’t have enough time to be your own IT person anymore? You’ll probably move to a top tier host!
Unfortunately, migrating can be a bit of a bumpy road – even with the expert migration assistance that top WordPress hosts offer. I mean, it’s doable, and the support teams at top hosts are good at it, but why do you want to deal with migrating at all? Does it make you money to worry about migrating your site? Nope.
But take it one step further – the more successful you get, the more money your website’s time will be worth. It is entirely plausible that taking your site offline for 24 hours to move everything over and update the DNS could cost you thousands of dollars in lost business.
Bottom line: The extra things you get with a top tier host are worth the cost. A little bit of extra money spent on hosting is going offer big returns in the amount of time and energy you save trying to both run a blog business and be a server administrator. If you can swing the $30 a month, go with Kinsta or WPEngine. If not, check out the intro plan from Flywheel.
2. Domain Registration
Guess what? You need a domain.
Who you use to register the domain isn’t that important, since any domain registrar will provide an interface that lets you configure your domain to actually do things – point to a website, properly direct email, verify Google services, etc.
I’ve always used Network Solutions and GoDaddy. Not because they’re better or cooler than anyone else, just because I started out that way and I’ve never heard a convincing argument for why I should change.
Just pick a registrar and be done.
When you register your domain, you’ll want to spend the couple of extra dollars on the “private registration” option. Registering with “private registration” will prevent your personal details from appearing whenever someone types your domain name into the whois database.
One little warning – if you do use GoDaddy, they’re really pushy about upselling you on other services. They’ll call and email you several times over the first few weeks, but then they’ll stop. Just ignore them until they go away.
As a guy who’s run a few businesses, filed some complicated taxes, and had to buy and sell things on behalf of a company, my opinion is that you should form an LLC when you’re starting up your blog business.
This is mainly for two big reasons:
- It’s safer, cleaner, and orders of magnitude easier to sign up for services, make purchases, deal with mail, and handle customers if the front facing part of your business is actually a business. A business can have a separate address, a separate tax ID number, and a whole separate existence that is not you. A powerful friction minimizer.
- It makes you more money. This isn’t a finance blog (a great niche, by the way), and I’m not even remotely interested in telling you how to do your taxes. But, having an LLC lets you exploit a tax loophole where you can pass a certain percentage of the LLC’s income directly to your personal income tax free. Plus, you magically gain the ability to deduct all kinds of expenses related to running your business – even portions of you rent/mortgage, heating bill, and car. You should definitely talk to an actual accountant to make sure you’re doing things right when it comes to deductions, but even for a small blog the tax advantages can easily add up to multiple thousands of dollars
I’m not going to say that incorporation is strictly required to start your blog business, but I will say that doing it in the beginning will make things easier and more profitable. I will also say that you’re going to end up doing it anyway once you start making revenue, so my recommendation is to just bite the bullet and get it done.
When you start growing, some bigger-money opportunities will start coming your way. Things like direct advertising and sponsorships. The companies behind those opportunities are going to expect things to be set up a certain way on your end. They’ll want to write checks to a business and keep records using your business’s EIN number and send mail to someplace that isn’t your personal house.
Plus, what if something crazy happens? What if you’re using your personal PayPal account as a place for business funds, and PayPal decides to randomly freeze your account because some idiot you sold something to on eBay files a bogus complaint? That could be a disaster. Much better to give your business it’s own PayPal account, it’s own bank account, and it’s own credit/debit cards.
The only way you can get those things is with a legally registered company, like an LLC.
If it seems complicated or hard or scary to create an LLC, it’s really not. You just have to fill out a couple of forms and pay a fee. The fee is different in each state, but you can check your state on this chart.
If you wanted, you could even do the paperwork yourself. Personally, I’ve always used Incfile. Mainly because I don’t want to risk making some dumb paperwork mistake that will come back to haunt me, and because it’s both easy and cheap. They do all the paperwork required to start the LLC and get an EIN from the IRS. Easy peasy.
I have no idea why, but I love this topic. Probably it’s my inner dorkiness, but it seems so cool to me than anyone can go to a service, a company, or even the good old post office and instantly create an entirely new mailing address. It seems so…freeing.
It’s also a really good idea.
I’m pretty comfortable offering the guarantee that you, personally, have Googled a lot of addresses over the years. Businesses, people who send you Christmas cards, your kid’s friends, maybe even an old girlfriend or two (Because, how dare she?).
If you – who are a totally normal and reasonable person – look up addresses on Google, you can count on it that other people look up addresses on Google, too. Do you want people typing your “business address” in to Google and getting pictures of your private residence? And not only pictures, but links to your real estate taxes, records of how much your house is worth, and directions on how to get there? I sure don’t.
You have to think of low-incidence, high-importance events, too. When you run even a moderately successful website, you’re going to have thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of strangers accessing your site every month. How common do you think crazy is? I don’t actually know, but I know it’s more common than zero.
Let’s pretend that you run a business that, oh, I don’t know, teaches other people how to build blogs and earn money. Because you’re super awesome, a nice lady in Iowa becomes a regular reader of your site. After a while, she decides to take the plunge, rounds up $500 (based on your budget recommendations) and starts up a website. But she took the $500 out of a savings account, and now her husband – who is not a nice dude – is super pissed off. Also, he’s a little bit crazy. For some reason that only crazy people understand, he decides he’s going to express his pissed-offness by showing up at your business and causing some trouble.
If your “business” address is your private residence, you could find yourself in a tough situation. But, if you’re smart, and you paid the $15 for a PO Box, good luck Mr. Crazy Man.
It used to be that a PO Box was kind of the only gig in town if you wanted to set up a new mailing address without buying or renting an actual physical space. But, since this is the 21st century, you now have more options than just a PO Box.
- The UPS Store offers mailboxes with a real street address for between $15 and $25 a month. For that money you get an address, 24/7 access to your mailbox, and a helpful staff that will accept packages and such on your behalf.
- A large number of “virtual” mailbox services now exist. They’re a little unique, because this is the only way you could get a mailing address that is practically anywhere you want it to be. If, for some reason, it was important to you to have an address in Beverly Hills, Seattle, or Silicon Valley, but you live in Ohio, virtual mailbox services can make that happen. When your mail arrives, they either scan it and email it to you (securely) or they physically forward each piece to whatever address you specify. Kind of neat, but these services can be pricey. They tend to charge both a monthly fee and a per-item fee for either scanning or forwarding the actual mail. Unless it’s important to you that your business address either be far away or in a specific place, these services probably aren’t your best option.
- Regus, Spaces and a host of other companies who offer “shared” workspaces also provide mailbox services. You get an address, staff who will accept packages, and even some receptionist services if telephone stuff is important to you. These are not a terrible option, but can be more expensive than either the UPS Store or USPS.
- The post office now offers a suite of “enhanced services” you can add to a standard PO Box. It used to be that the address you received when you opened a PO Box was just the number of the PO Box. But then they realized they were losing a lot of business to places like the UPS Store, so they decided to copy those places and also ofter a “real street address” service. So, now, instead of your address just being a PO Box, you can get a real street address to use. There’s no extra charge for this service, and PO Boxes are still a very economical option if you’re cost conscious.
All-in-all, creating a separate mailing address for your business a smart move. Like the other items on our list, it’s a friction reducer – it makes hard things into easy-things-you-don’t-have-to-think-about.
The plugin system for WordPress is terrific. You can use plugins for all kinds of cool stuff – tracking statistics, building member areas, integrating social media, and just tons and tons of things.
Depending on what kind of site you build, and how you and your users interact with your content, you’ll discover a package of plugins that fit your specific needs. Blog reactor is no different. We use plugins for stat tracking, form creation, email list building, and affiliate management.
I will admit that we use the free version of Monster Insights, which is a stat tracking plugin. I’m ok with it, because, though it’s a great plugin, it’s not mission critical in our setup. The functionality it provides is duplicated in other services we use, and it’s something I could uninstall and bid a fond sayonara if it ever caused any serious problems with the site.
Our recommended startup budget includes the paid versions of two plugins – ThirstyAffiliates and ThriveLeads. As you grow, there will be other plugins we talk about. But for now, in keeping with the general theme of recommending that you start out by only spending money only on things that will directly improve your ability to generate revenue, these two plugins make the list.
ThirstyAffiliates is a complete affiliate link management plugin. It’s pretty great. It keeps track of all your affiliate links, lets you manage them, keeps statistics on views and clicks, and can integrate with a bunch of other services you’re likely to use (Amazon, Analytics, Keyword Programs, etc). It’s also a kick butt cloaking engine.
Cloaking engine? Yes, it’s not just for Star Trek anymore. Affiliate links tend to be long, ugly, and not so great for user experience. ThirstyAffiliates lets you create short, pretty versions of these links instead. That’s what a cloaking engine does. But ThirstyAffiliates takes it one step further.
Because all of your link data is kept in a central location, if an affiliate link changes (which happens) you only have to update it in one place and the change will propagate across your entire site. I think it’s pretty obvious why changing one link in one place is way, way better than manually hunting through every post on your site trying to find and change every single link.
There is a free version of ThirstyAffiliates available. The paid version is recommended because that’s where you start to get good statistics tracking, integration with other services, and access to priority support. Just the statistics and tracking options are worth the purchase price – when you’re trying to run a business, data is king. The more reliable your data is, the better job you can do tweaking and refining your site. A site that’s just a tiny bit better at converting readers to customers can mean the difference between breaking even and making serious money. As you grow, you’re going to become very interested in gathering and understanding as much data as possible. The integration and tracking features that the paid version of ThirstyAffiliates provides is the best way to track your affiliate data.
See that box over on the right? In the sidebar? The one that makes it possible to provide your email address so we can send you exclusive content and updates? First, go put your email address there so we can sent you awesome stuff. Next, pull up a chair while I tell you how mindbendingly difficult it is to set up a box like that.
Of all the things that surprised and confused me when I started running blogs, that stupid box was near the top of the list. I mean, it seems so basic and easy, but it totally is not. At all.
Before I found Thrive Leads, it took me 3 plugins, two separate (paid) services, and some manual coding to make a box like that appear and function correctly. And every time I wanted to change something it was a huge pain. It took like an hour.
Think about what it takes to put that email box on the sidebar. You have to design a layout, you have to turn your layout design into a form that WordPress can display, you have to enable the form so that the information submitted gets stored somewhere, and you have to organize that information into some useful construct once it gets there. Oh, and you also need a way to actually send the information from the form to the storage place. Seriously, it’s freakishly complicated.
Thrive Leads took all of that friction away. You can do almost everything I just listed with only this one plugin (you still need a place to send the data, we use MailChimp). You can use Thrive Leads to design all kinds of forms and get them where you want on your site. Easy stuff, like the box I have over on the right, and complicated stuff like light boxes, floating ribbons, and multistep forms. If none of those words mean anything to you right now, don’t worry about it. They will soon, and when you know what each of those elements is, you’ll want to use them.
Alas grasshopper, there is no free version of Thrive Leads, so you’ll have to buy it.
Oh, and for the record, yes. Yes, I know that there are other plugins that do similar things. You know how I know? I tried a bunch of them. Bloom was also pretty good, but Thrive Leads was the best. Also, for the record, I’m not a Thrive Leads or a Bloom affiliate.
WordPress themes are like plugins. There’s a gazillion of them and most of them are terrible. I swear, everyone and their two best friend has put together a WordPress theme that they’ve then unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.
Which is really too bad, because themes are one of the best things about WordPress. With just a couple of clicks, you can have a site that looks completely different. That flows completely different. That’s optimized for a completely different reader experience. It’s a revolution in online publishing.
Sometimes you can tell a theme is terrible because it’s super obvious. It looks bad, or the color scheme is wonky, or the layout makes no sense. But sometimes, themes that look nice and seem good are still terrible. Either the code under the hood is crappy (which will load slowly and stress your server) or the way you interact with the theme is unintuitive and clunky, or they’re really hard to customize the way you want.
A great theme is one of the biggest friction eliminators you can buy. It’s probably second only to choosing a great host.
The tough part is that which theme you use depends a lot on what niche you’ve chosen. There are a lot of really beautiful gallery type themes that would work great for a blog in the fashion & beauty niche, but not work at all for a blog like this one. So, it’s hard for me to recommend a specific theme for you without knowing some specifics about your actual blog. What I can do is tell you where to look for great themes, who you can trust, and which specific themes may have broad applications appropriate for many types of blogs.
For specific themes, I can recommend the Genesis Framework, Newspaper, and Avada. I have personally used all three of these themes and they are well coded, extensible, and are pretty easy to modify to suit your specific needs. The composer that comes with Newspaper is a drag and drop editor that’s very easy to use. Each one of these themes has a good set of pre-made templates that can get you up and running quickly if that’s what you’re looking for. By the way, should you happen to choose WPEngine as your host, the Genesis Framework is included in the price, which will save you $50.
Newspaper is the theme that powers this site, and I’m happy with it. It lets me spend as much or as little time as I want tweaking and customizing. It’s a powerful theme and it’s well supported. I actually have a video post from a guy named Ferdy who unintentionally created like the best video walkthrough of the Newspaper you could ever hope for.
If you want to shop around a little, the market places at both themeforest and studiopress showcase high quality themes from respected developers. Both sites are trustworthy and well known in the marketplace.
7. Email Hosting
Email hosting is kind of like web hosting – there’s no way around it. There are many players to choose from, and we’ve written a whole article on how to evaluate and choose an email host. Blogreactor uses Gsuite, primarily because it’s a quality service that integrates well with some our other hosted Google services. Rackspace also has a good service that may cost a little less.
8. Mailing Service
Up above, I ramble on a little bit about hard hard it was to set up the email signup box you see on the right side of this page. You’re going to need a similar box, and to set it up you’ll need a warehouse that stores and organizes all of the email addresses that get submitted. That’s what MailChimp does. It does a whole lot more, too, but we’re not ready to talk about that yet.
It’s easy to set up MailChimp so it plays nice with WordPress, and managing the back end is pretty painless – you create as many sorting boxes as you want, and tie your email collection forms to those boxes, in whatever way you want.
MailChimp is actually a full fledged email marketing platform, and can do a bunch of neat stuff. But we’ll talk about that a little later down the road.
Lucky you, MailChimp is free until you reach 2,000 subscribers. That’s a lot of subscribers, and your blog will be generating revenue before you have spend a dime on this service.
Starting A Blog From Scratch?
Start With Step 1