From the May 1999 issue of Startups

Looking for a way to combine creativity with technical skills? Web site design and its related services do just that. This kind of business calls for creative pizzazz--with just the right amount of programming knowledge thrown in.

Web site designers are hired by companies or organizations to develop a presence for them on the Web and ensure the client's target audience will continue to visit the site in the future. Though the environment for Web site design is constantly changing, one thing is certain: There will be continuing demand for it. Start-up businesses usually gross upwards of $25,000 in their first year and can eventually become multimillion-dollar enterprises.

Market research firm Forrester Research (http://www.forrester.com) estimates that approximately 40,000 companies and individuals worldwide currently design Web sites. That figure is expected to grow, as changes within the industry create more opportunities for newcomers.

The term "Web site design" can be misleading. Success in this field is no longer merely about designing a Web site: Companies are looking for people to develop e-commerce solutions, manage online databases and deal with Web security concerns. Web design firms are also involved in developing the internal sites and networks used within a corporation (intranets) and between a corporation and its vendors. "Internet professional services" is perhaps a more accurate name for what is now a $3 billion industry. International Data Corp. predicts that by 2002, it will grow to $20 billion.

Ramping Up

Starting a Web site design business doesn't have to empty your bank account. Depending on the range and scope of services you want to offer, start-up costs begin at $2,000, but average between $3,000 and $8,000. The equipment needed to get started is fairly simple: a good-quality computer (Mac or IBM-compatible) with a fast processor (minimum 266 MHz) and fast cache. Hard-drive space is also important (6GB is an absolute minimum), as is RAM. (Some Web site designers recommend as much as 256MB.) A minimum modem speed of 36.6 Kbps is recommended. A good scanner and Zip drive are also useful.

A degree is not required, but knowledge of HTML is. "WYSIWYG editors can be useful tools, but if there's a problem, if something doesn't display the way you expected it to, that's when a solid knowledge of HTML scripting language pays off," says Jennifer Youree, whose Cartersville, Georgia, company, Three Cats and a Dog Design, is involved in all aspects of Web site design, as well as site hosting and e-commerce.

Youree, 29, founded the business in 1997 with an initial investment of just $10,000 and grossed $20,000 her first year. "[You] don't need a technical degree to do this," she says, "just the technical knowledge."

Trade Secrets

Clients may expect you to be more than a Web site designer--so make sure you also have skills in site development. "In some cases, corporations look for that Web marketing specialist who will come in and tell them what they should be doing on the Internet and how it can be done," says James Cholke, 25-year-old owner of JADA Productions in Kansas City, Kansas. "But in other cases, corporations tell you what they want, and as a design company, [your job is] just to get their requirements done, with little input on the business side."

Cholke spent $3,000 to launch JADA in 1996. His clients have included everything from a dog training forum to a major corporation's intranet health-care database and survey applications. "I went into Web site design for the excitement of a new medium," says Cholke. "I was a Webmaster full time and heavily involved with Web design and development for three years. The opportunities were tremendous, not to mention that it was possible to [run the business] from home or anywhere." Cholke, who runs JADA part time, plans to go full time later this year and projects sales of $100,000 for 1999. Having grossed more than $15,000 in January 1999 alone, he's well on his way.

A philosophy of partnership is key to getting clients, says Chris Maier, co-founder of Lucid Designs in Los Angeles. "Corporations are looking for a partner to help them achieve their Internet goals," says Maier, 24, who projects 1999 sales of $150,000. "They're looking for [companies] that can help them problem-solve and create a site that is uniquely effective for their business needs. Corporations are realizing that if approached properly, Web sites can generate real returns. It's our job as designers to educate the client."

Maier and partner Chris Lea, 23, started Lucid Designs after graduating from their respective colleges--Maier from American University in Washington, DC, and Lea from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "Most of my Web design [skills] have been self-taught," says Maier, although he did have two related internships during college--one at a multimedia company and one at a graphic-design firm.

On The Market

One of the hardest parts of starting a design business is finding customers. Marketing is as important to your success as technical expertise.

"I think word-of-mouth is the most powerful marketing tool," says Youree. "In the year I've been in business, I've only advertised in one place, and that was just last month. I've averaged three new clients per month based on word-of-mouth and involvement with my local chamber of commerce."

A marketing method that works for JADA is offering design and programming assistance to prospective clients through online newsgroups and mailing lists. Cholke explains, "From there, the relationship gets started, and as that prospect learns more about [us] and becomes comfortable, most of the time we end up doing work for them."

Differentiating yourself from the pack is important when getting your marketing message across. "Don't follow everyone else's lead," urges Cholke. "Take a new path and make it known to your clients why you've taken that path and what the benefit of your service is." When JADA created a cooking Web site, MyCookbook, Cholke added functionality to make the site stand out. "Other cooking-related Web sites were focused on providing recipes or tips but had no way for the user to manage those recipes," he explains. "[On MyCookbook,] members can actually maintain their personal cookbooks online, share recipes with other users and participate in the community."

Finally, Maier suggests that one of the smartest marketing strategies for a Web site design company is to partner with other businesses. "Firms or freelancers [with] certain specialties can form alliances with other firms to augment their services and thereby increase their own business," he says. "I think we'll see a lot of smaller firms banding together this year in order to combat larger firms."

Best Bookmarks

Visit these sites for help getting started:

  • http://www.webreference.com : The Webmaster's Reference Library has the latest news and views on the Web design industry.
  • http://www.developer.com : This site offers resources for programmers and developers in an easy-to-use, intelligent interface. It includes a training center and job bank that lists contract opportunities--perfect for newcomers to Web design.
  • http://www.webmonster.net/lists : This Web design mailing list features a slew of job postings (including numerous freelance gigs) and various discussion groups.
  • http://www.searchenginewatch.com : Want to know where you stand? This site lets you trace your site's ranking on various search engines.
  • http://www.internet.com : The E-Business and Internet Technology Network is a mega-store of useful links, important news, shareware/freeware and advice for Web developers of all kinds.
  • http://www.webmonkey.com : This Web site features a comprehensive, how-to guide for Web developers, with expert articles and tutorials.
  • http://www.builder.com : This is another source for useful information on Web site design, with information on trends, tutorials and useful downloads.

Gotta Have It

Because software is as important as hardware, you've got to choose the best you can afford. Here are the basic requirements:

  • An HTML editor to write your pages; the WYSIWYG editor Dreamweaver 2.0 (Macromedia, $299, http://www.macromedia.com , 800-457-1774) or a text editor like Allaire's HomeSite 4.0 (Allaire Corp., $99, http://www.allaire.com, 888-939-2545) are your best bets.
  • A vector program like Adobe Illustrator 8.0 (Adobe Systems, $412, http://www.adobe.com, 800-649-3875) is recommended.
  • Get a bitmap program such as Adobe PhotoShop 5.0 (Adobe Systems, $995).
  • One of the new Web image composers is a prerequisite.
  • You also need e-mail, FTP and Telnet facilities.

Bianca Thomas (bmt@icon.co.za) is a freelance journalist and editor specializing in computing and the Internet.

Contact Sources

JADA Productions, info@jadaproductions.com, http://www.jadaproductions.com

Lucid Designs, (310) 470-5126, http://www.luciddesigns.com

Three Cats and a Dog Design, Jyouree@3cats1dog.com, http://www.3cats1dog.com