When you’re starting a business, especially in your earliest days when it seems more like an idea than something real, you probably go out and grab a free email address to us, like JoeSmith@gmail.com, to get started.

Gmail is a solid and reliable email provider and integrates with everything, so this move makes a lot of sense-;at least until you realize what kind of message that might be sending to your potential customers and partners.

That goes double if you grabbed an email address even earlier via a service like AOL, Hotmail, or Yahoo. While some people might now take some kind of hipster old school pride in having an AOL or Hotmail email, it might not send the same message to someone looking to do business with your company.  Stodgy and behind the times could equally be used to describe these e-mail addresses.  Or even worse, “Hey, my grandma uses Hotmail too!”

Similarly, if you’re using the default email address your broadband or phone carrier assigned you, it can seem like you’ve missed the tech boat entirely-;or that you don’t represent a real company.

That’s why it can be critically important for you to set up a professional email address tied to your own website and URL as soon as you can. My assumption here is that if you have a business, then you also have a website: that’s just the ante to get in the game these days. And don’t say you can’t afford it - you can grab your URL for under $20 a year from a variety of providers.

If you have your website, then you should have an email that connects to it-;like JoeSmith@yourcompany.com-;that demonstrates a level of professionalism and sophistication to support the kind of brand and image you want to convey to your customers. It doesn’t matter that your company is you, a computer and a dog - this will help them take you more seriously.

Now I also understand that if you started with a free email address, it can be incredibly painful to get switch everyone over to emailing you at your new professional address. I’ve been through this myself.

To make the switch, you need to be patient: it will take much longer than you ever thought possible. You can kick the process off by emailing your contact list and explaining to them that you’re switching. But you will need to keep monitoring both email accounts for a while until everyone resets their own contact lists-;which might require reminding someone as much as three times. I’ve continued to get some e-mail at my original address for years after a switch.  Eventually, the only ones using it are the spammers.

While that can seem tedious, it’s worth your time as you begin to establish your long-term brand tied to your professional account. Everyone understands what you’re trying to do, so don’t let it be a barrier to change.

So, if you’re still stuck on using your old AOL, Hotmail or Yahoo account for business, it’s time to make the switch-; today!  You might be losing more business than you could imagine.