Launching a business online? Keep it simple
Spend more on marketing, less on custom development, pros say
Looking for advice on whether you have a business plan that actually has potential? That's a conversation for another day. Want some basic steps to taking your business plan online? Read on.
"The biggest mistake I see most start-ups and individuals make is spending way too much money on custom development of their Web site. They believe the site needs numerous features to support their product or service when in fact you can start with a basic few," said Bill Gerneglia, chief technology officer at CIOZone.com and the former chief technology officer at About.com. "Sophisticated features can get expensive, especially if there is custom development involved."
Gerneglia said he's seen too many entrepreneurs seeking funding for business plans who blow their initial cash reserve or seed money, and who then look for additional funding to "enhance their platform" and "bring it to market" -- before they've put their product in front of the public.
"The site has to be good, clean, simple, functional, and very responsive," Gerneglia said. "Best to launch initially with minimal functionality and continually improve along the way."
"You really want to launch with the smallest number of features" on your site, said Jonathan Lambert, chief executive at WorkHabit, a California company that helps startups get online using open source products, and grow their businesses using social networking tools. Your brand is important, but the best looking site in the world won't help you if your site's functionality causes potential customers to throw up their arms in frustration and walk away without buying what you're selling, he said.
Don't waste money on office space if you really do not need it. Set up a home office instead. If you are successful and can afford to bring on employees, ask them to do the same.
Your computer will need a generous amount of hard drive space (between 2-6 gigabytes, experts say) and memory (the Microsoft Vista operating system requires a minimum of 1 gigabyte of RAM; you should opt for at least 2 gigabytes), as well as fast and stable Internet connectivity.
In addition to office software for word processing, spreadsheets and e-mail/calendaring, you may need an editing tool for hypertext markup language and FTP software for uploading files to your Web site.
Will you be showing images or video of your products? Add a camera, image/file transfer hardware and software, editing software, and perhaps an external hard drive to archiving those big image and video files.
Are you going to sell products? At the minimum you'll need some way to securely and privately accept payments, and manage inventory and customers.
The key is staying focused on selling your product (and not someone else's product), and not on getting carried away with notions about being an award-winning Web site developer -- unless, of course, that's your product. But let's keep things general here.
Follow this basic process:
- Find a domain name that reflects your business. See if it's available at allwhois.com.
- Register your domain name with a reputable service such as networksolutions.com.
- Find an internet service provider to host your site. Try godaddy.com. It has reasonable rates.
- Install a content management system that can grow with your business, such as Joomla or Drupal.
Content management systems are the basic tool you need to publish and update your Web site. Joomla and Drupal are free and based on open-source development. That means that improvements to your site's functionality -- and its ability to be customized -- can be made with the help of a wide community online rather than a private company. And since it is free you have the benefit of accessing that community for assistance in improving your own site. Water and Stone offers a good overview of open-source systems.
If all that sounds like too much, Lambert advised checking into a variety of turnkey solutions, including Yahoo! Merchant Solutions and Monster Commerce at Network Solutions.
Whatever software you use, at its most basic it should support content presentation and templates for formatting and getting your message across; and a shopping cart with a secure payment method. Customer management and newsletter publishing would be added benefits.
Set up a merchant account through your bank, with an online security guarantee called an SSL certificate, that accepts credit cards as your primary form of online payment. Don't invoice for products or services if you do not have to.
"If you do not feel comfortable plugging all of the pieces together there is an abundance of help available," Gerneglia said.
So now you're the hub of your soon-to-be online business venture. The next step is putting something online for people to see and buy. That may first mean writing copy, taking pictures and video. Or, maybe you have a partner who can accomplish that for you.
You will want to organize these assets -- the products and their marketing materials -- and plan how you want potential customers to easily find them and spend money, and get them published with your new content management system.
The organization of content, design and functionality should be built around a simple balance: What do you want a visitor to your site to do, and what do they want to do? You can answer the first in your business plan; the answer to the second part will come from seeing whether they buy what you're selling. Want to know more? Read "The Elements Of User Experience," by Jesse James Garrett.
With your product online, it's time to help people find your Web site and begin the process of converting visitors to customers.
"Get out and press the flesh at conferences, trade shows, and your local industry organization events," Gerneglia said. "Exchange business cards. Some are better at this than others. If you are not good at networking and meeting others then find a partner that it is and ask to go along with him and learn to network."
Partner with other small companies similar to your own. When your e-mail list gets to a reasonable size, barter a space in your newsletter for space in someone else's list.
Blog about what is going on in your industry and plug your site at the bottom of the blog. Find similar blogs, and comment on the posts with a link back to your own site. Insert yourself into the conversation.
Use a social network such as Facebook to connect with others and network online. Start or join a group.
And, get found by search engines. How? There's a good overview at itbusinessnet.com.
Or, spend money on a Google Adwords campaign using keywords to drive visitors to your site. This can be expensive, however, so it probably should not be your primary source of traffic.
Once you submit your Web site to engines such as Google, "Expect it to take two to six months for them to notice you. Google will assign your Web site a page rank in this time frame. Most importantly, keep adding articles and content to keep the search engine spiders and crawlers coming back," Gerneglia said.
Build Your Business
Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and other social networking sites are easy to use and a great tool for driving Web traffic your way. However, "It's important not to confuse social networking with social commerce," Lambert said. The difference? Social networking can bring your site an audience, but it can't convert that visitor to a customer.
You need to base your Web site's design on what Lambert called "conversion points," features that persuade a visitor to spend money. "Build your model around that," he said.
Build loyalty to your site by developing an e-mail list from visitors who register. Once you have the e-mail address, use it to start your sales process. Craft a series of messages and send them out periodically as a newsletter.
"Visitors might not buy from you right away, but over time some percentage of those that do not opt out of your newsletter or messages convert to buyers," Gerneglia said. Work on your messages until you have a reasonable conversion rate of 3-5 percent.
"Remember, consumers want to be sold. It is your job to remind them of the solutions available and why they should do business with you," Gerneglia said. "Real customer testimonials, quotes on your Web site from satisfied customers, are important to the online sales process. If you rely solely on just hard sales from visitors without follow up marketing you will most likely fail."
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