In this day and age, your business card is a website. When people hear of your company or wish to seek further information on it, they want to do so on their own time, online. From there they can e-mail you with questions, or place an order if you offer products online as well. In fact, with the amount of trade that can be achieved through a website, it's no wonder that so many brick-&-mortar small businesses have made the jump to e-commerce.

The decision to launch a website for a business owner has gone from "if" to "when," in just a decade. However, the expectations of your average site visitor have also changed in that time. Cheap, homemade websites are no longer acceptable. The site you create for your business is a stamp on its credibility; therefore, the process of designing and launching one must be taken seriously and considered to be an earnest business investment.

If you were to invest in new equipment, new vehicles or even new employees for your business, you would take the time necessary to seek out the best, most cost-effective, most-qualified selection. You certainly wouldn't buy the first truck you saw at the dealership, or hire the first person who walked into your office. The same time and care must be taken when choosing a web designer. Here are some tips to finding the right designer, asking the right questions, and what to expect when launching a website for your business.

  • Don't race to find a web designer. What's the rush? Finding the right web designer is like finding the right architect to build a new business office. The time you spend looking at websites, asking friends and colleagues, and viewing portfolios is well worth it if you consider what it would cost to rebuild your site with someone else when the designer you hastily hired fails to meet your needs.
  • When you see a website you like, check out who designed it. This information is usually available in the bottom of the page. Or, contact the business and ask. If they're happy with the job done by the designer, they'll be more than willing to refer you!

    When you do narrow your decision down to a few designers, check out their websites for look and feel, and thoroughly examine their portfolios.

  • Bring samples. Surf the web and determine the kinds of things you like and don't like before ever walking into the office of a web-design firm. If you have an idea of what you want your site to look like, express it--even if it means providing an embarrassingly rough drawing on your own. Web designers are very creative people, but if you don't give them some direction, they'll create without your input.
  • You have to be specific. Don't tell your designer you want a "cool" site. While it's true that you may want a cool site, you should bring to the table the types of things you imagine to be cool. Your designer is there to help you determine the best style for your site, so don't be afraid to provide specific examples of how you'd like your site to look. To view some "cool" and award-winning sites for ideas, check out www.designfirms.org/awards/.

  • Get it in writing. As with any other business partnership, you must get everything in writing. This means going beyond the initial contract you and your designer sign. Keep notes during meetings and save every e-mail and written communication. There may be times when things are decided during "casual" meetings, such as when certain site elements will be completed, or something as simple as adding a graphic or two. By tracking these conversations, you'll have a record to return to if things go off track or off schedule.
  • Should I use a web-design firm or independent programmer? Web-design firms aren't your only option when it comes to launching a website. There are many independent programmers out there who can provide the same service as a design firm, and for less money. Most of these programmers worked for design firms before striking out on their own.
  • There are advantages and disadvantages, of course. Independent programmers may be less expensive, but you're limited to receiving only the service that particular programmer is skilled in. If you decide to add a component to your site that your programmer can't develop for you, you'll have to pay someone else to do it. Most design firms employ programmers of all capabilities in order to meet customer requests, and their services are part of the deal when you hire the firm.

    Independent programmers are harder to locate than design firms. Part of what makes an independent programmer less expensive is the fact that he or she doesn't have the same overhead as a design firm. Advertising is expensive.

    If you think you would rather use an independent programmer than a design firm, return to your friends and colleagues and ask around. If you resort to an online directory or your local telephone book, use the same process of selection as you would a design firm: ask to see samples and a portfolio. However, getting a programmer recommendation from someone you trust is best. Not all programmers are created equal, and an impressive portfolio doesn't convey an individual's customer service skills.

  • Making edits and changes: The waiting game. When you hire a web-design firm to create and launch your business's website, you're at the mercy of their busy schedule. You must request that edits and changes be made for you, and they may not be made as quickly as you'd like them to be.
  • Some web-design firms provide customers with site administration tools that allow you to make simple changes and updates as needed. This type of technology can be more expensive, but worth it if it gives you more control of your site.

  • Understand what you're paying for. Determining the look and feel of your website (the design) and actually building the site are two different processes of launching a site. Be sure to understand what's included in your contract and what'll cost extra. If you wish to add an e-newsletter sign-up, will it cost more? Will you be charged for every e-commerce transaction? What will it cost to accept credit-card payments on your site? These are the questions you need to ask when negotiating prices and deliverables because you may be responsible for handling some of this on your own.
  • You will likely be responsible for setting up your own business's merchant account, and will have to work with your programmer to incorporate it into your site. "E-commerce" means that a website takes credit-card payments, which means it must have a merchant account. A merchant account connects your bank to your site to the credit-card company, and finally to your customers.

    There are many, many merchant account providers, so do your homework. Expect to pay monthly fees to maintain the account, as well as a fee for every credit-card transaction on your site. Every provider is different. You'll also need to go through a reasonably lengthy registration process with your bank and the merchant account provider. Don't assume that this is being handled by your web programmer! The last thing you need to deal with before you open your site doors is discovering you can't accept payments online!

    Find out if your site is being built from scratch or from templates. Many designers use pre-made templates, which can bring down the cost of building the website. Designers who create your site from scratch may actually own the source code, which limits your ability to move the site later on, if you wish to. Be sure to ask your designer up front how he or she intends to build your site, and get written or legal documentation of the ownership source codes so you don't run into disputes down the road.

  • Be patient, but attentive. Designing a professional website isn't an overnight project. It takes time to create and construct the site you want. However, every day you and the designer spend tweaking the site is another day you're unable to advertise the site, attract visitors to the site, or sell products online. Be patient with your designer, but keep track of the agreed-upon schedule.
  • I also recommend hiring an attorney who's versed in e-commerce businesses. You'll need one to write the "Terms and Policies" for the website, as well as proofing the site for any legal complications that may come up.

  • Imagine your website as a storefront. If you were building a brick-&-mortar business on main street, you would: 1) find the right contractor; 2) have an idea of how you want your business to look and what you want it to contain; 3) expect the project to take time; and 4) be prepared for set-backs in scheduling. These are the same responsibilities and obstacles you'll encounter while designing your business's website.

Creating a website for your business is an exciting and worthy undertaking. Take the time to do it right the first time, because there is no fun or enjoyment in having to do it all over again if you don't.

Karen Torbett is founder of Venture Point, LLC. She spent almost a decade running someone else's company before she achieved her goal of owning her own business. Now, Karen helps entrepreneurs like herself who are seeking to buy or sell a business on their own.