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The Do's and Don'ts of Launching a Small Business Website
Launching a new small business website is often a long and painstaking process. And for most small businesses, the endeavor rarely ends in success. The terrain is mapped with freelancers, firms, and consultants that don't offer the same services and most certainly don't charge the same prices. Projects are often riddled with unclear expectations, missed deadlines, and ridiculous hourly rates. What's worse is that many developers have the audacity to ask for even more money halfway through the project. Even after all of the hard work is complete, most companies don't even see a return on investment.
If you haven't been there, you probably know someone who has. IT outsourcing and procurement is often times so traumatizing that many of us vow never to deal with it again. But the whole process need not be so difficult and fruitless. The purpose of this article is to aid you in launching a successful website with minimal pain and effort. Who knows, if you play your cards right, it may even be within budget and on time!
Don't spend too much on web hosting. If you are a small business that is just beginning to define your online presence, you don't need a whole lot! You most certainly don't need 10,000MB (10GB) of web space and 100,000MB (100GB) of bandwidth each month. So don't pay for it! You might be thinking, "Well, if it's relatively cheap and I may need it in the future, why don't I just spring for it now?" That kind of reasoning paves the road to overspending. Besides, web hosts making such offers are hoping that you won't really use the massive set of features. Expert web developers and power users will use that kind of space and bandwidth, however, and the end result is a bogged down and slow web host. Go with something economical and reliable; it's probably even faster.
Don't mold your website to a pre-defined package. Although your local newspaper advertisement for development of a "5-page website with logo design for only $995" may be tempting, don't fall for it. Any company that sells you pre-set web site packages (or charges based on the number of pages) has the wrong idea. Web development should be a custom-fitting job. Your website is a business tool, and should be developed to exact specifications that enable it to complement the rest of your business. If you compromise your website's functionality, you compromise its ability to help you make money.
Don't start the project until you are fully prepared. The easiest way to ruin a web development project is to get started before you are ready. Everything does not need to be in perfect order when you are shopping around for development; however, once you select a developer and begin work, being unprepared will only slow your project down greatly and drive up costs. Avoid this by purchasing your domain and web hosting, writing out all content, and deciding on the general layout you desire, all before the project begins.
Don't compare apples to oranges. Not all web developers are created equal, so it is unfruitful and unwise to compare them on a single benchmark (such as price). While some "full-service" firms will create your website, upload it to your domain, and maintain the site to make sure it's up-to-date, others will simply e-mail you a folder full of files and expect you to know what to do from there. Similarly, some firms will revise the finished product over and over until you're satisfied while others believe you are paying them for one draft of work and no more. Be mindful of these differences and understand what is built into the different prices of each provider.
Don't focus too much on eye-candy. Remember what your website is for. Unless you are the exception to the rule, the purpose of your site is either to a) give information about your product/service or company, b) allow users to buy directly from the site or c) both. In all cases, the site must be easy to understand, navigate, and operate. If your site is so new-age and graphic intensive that users have no idea how to get around it, or worse—it takes too long to load, you've defeated the purpose of its creation.
Do have a marketing budget for your website. Launching a website without a marketing plan usually always results in a zero return-on-investment. Why? Because there are millions of
sites on the internet, and if you don't market your site, no one will come. Unlike a typical brick-and-mortar establishment that benefits from exposure to passersby, your website will not be seen by anyone until you tell people that it exists. Take advantage of the fact that your website can reach more potential customers than a small storefront ever could. Set aside marketing funds at the onset of your project.
Do prepare a timeline for the project. Many developers work virtually, that is, directly through the internet such that you may never meet them in person. This style of work is very different than the conventional, and the lack of face-to-face contact makes it easy for both parties to simply forget about the project as time goes on. Ensure that your project won't stagnate. Prepare a solid timeline with clear milestones, expectations, and deadlines so that it is easy for both you and the developer to stay on target.
Do provide feedback in a timely and detailed manner. Although you are paying a design firm for its creativity, remember that ultimately what you say goes. You must be sensitive of the fact that development is a step-by-step, layer-by-layer process. If you don't respond with feedback immediately, developers will have already completed other layers of the site before your feedback reaches them. This means that they must not only re-work the layer in question, but also the following layers. Some developers have been "burned" so many times in this manner that they will wait patiently for your feedback before they go on to the next layer of work. This means that development comes to a screeching halt until they hear back from you. They may get so fed up that they take on another client while they wait, leaving you at 2nd priority.
Do research developers before setting a budget. There are two reasons to do your homework before you decide on a budget. First, setting a budget without understanding a particular industry is simply nonsensical. You must know the price ranges of development and also what type of service to expect within each range. Second, a small business website, unlike a typical personal expense, is an investment. The goal of launching the site should be to aid the company in making more money. If the site won't make money, don't create it! If you limit your budget at $1000 without understanding the investment or industry, you may get an excellent site in that price range that makes no money. You would be better off if you do your homework, however, and find that spending more will likely yield a return. For example, you might spend $4000 on a site that actually makes you and additional $20,000 annually.
Do plan to keep your site up-to-date. One of the biggest advantages to having a website is that you can quickly and easily update information. Nothing sends a more powerful message to a potential customer than a website that hasn't been updated for several months, or even years! You are telling people that the business is defunct or unpopular. Make it a point to update your site frequently, even if you don't have much to say. It will let your customers know that things are going well and that your company takes an active interest in keeping them informed.
Although the above Dos and Don'ts are definitely not comprehensive, they are a good set of guiding principles for any individual or small business owner looking to create an online presence. No set of rules if foolproof, however, and there are always exceptions. My suggestion would be to always err on the side of caution. Many of the cliché statements we've all heard will come in handy: there is no such thing as a free lunch, and, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Finally, don't be afraid to ask questions to people who know more than you. In fact, feel free to contact me if you ever get into a jam: firstname.lastname@example.org. Good luck!
About the Author
Adil Wali is Chief Operating Officer of SteeZo Media, a company founded in 1999 that focuses on consulting small and medium sized businesses in their efforts to create or revamp an on-line presence. Under Adil's leadership, the company shifted away from broad-based IT consulting to a more specific focus on matching clients with the most capable and cost effective developers. SteeZo Media also manages web development projects on behalf of clients.