From the May 2000 issue of Entrepreneur

When Maura White, CEO and founder of GoBabies.com Inc., planned the launch of her e-commerce Web site in 1997, she decided not to do it all on her own. Instead, she called on another company to host, maintain and design the site.

For White, getting help from an Internet expert to design and maintain her site was a top priority--that way, she could concentrate her efforts on manufacturing and marketing her GoBabies-branded changing kits, small changing bags and disposable bibs designed to make traveling with infants easier. But instead of hiring an in-house, full-time Web designer, she decided to turn to outside help for the design and technical expertise she required.

"When you get expertise, it saves you time and it saves you money," says White, 42. "Moreover, design-which is what impacts a viewer first-ends up being a very small cost on a percentage basis to your overall cost."

White chose a hosting and design company in Chicago called I° Works Inc., which was advertising at the time in a small-business magazine. Initially, the ad stood out to her because it depicted the flow chart of a catalog business. That caught her eye, White explains, because "it said to me that it was set up to address this type of business, which I knew was going to be a key component of my business." After communicating with I Works and researching the company more thoroughly, White made things official and signed up.

A Host of Choices

White isn't alone. Countless small businesses rely on Web consultants every day to design and build their Web sites, enhance existing sites, and put together the pieces of each company's distinctive e-commerce strategy. In fact, studies show that some companies are spending much more money than ever before on Web consultants. For instance, a study recently released by IDC revealed that companies spent $7.8 billion on Internet consultants in 1998. That number is expected to grow to $78 billion by 2003.

With so many Internet consultants out there, it's not surprising they come in a multitude of shapes and sizes: You can choose among independent site developers, Web design shops, technology consulting firms, system integrators, traditional advertising and public relations firms, and interactive agencies. Some outsource the Web site hosting and site promotion functions, while others keep these functions in-house. In addition, Web design and strategic consulting are often provided by Web hosting companies.

One major Web hosting player, Verio Inc. in Englewood, Colorado, has a complete Web design division called Verio Interactive. The division's graphic designers, developers, project managers and programmers help design sites that offer such features as database interactivity, e-commerce, multimedia or threaded discussion groups. The company can also tailor an Internet presence to meet the needs of a specific marketing and business strategy.

And like the Web consultants themselves, there's a wide variety of prices that consultants charge for their services: They can cost several hundred dollars for a simple site consisting of a few pages to $1 million or more for a more sophisticated e-commerce site with such features as product databases that can be easily updated, search engines, animated product demonstrations, secure online transactions, and audio and video enhancements. In addition, Web consultants vary in how they price their services: Some consultants, typically individual designers, charge by the hour; others, usually Web design firms, charge by the project.

In general, however, experts say that consultants or Web hosting companies can put together a basic, professional-looking Web site for a small business for $1,500 to $5,000 (not including monthly Web hosting service charges), and an e-commerce site for about $10,000 to $50,000. I¡Works charged White a one-time fee of $1,600 to set up her Web site; the Web hosting agreement includes 12 months of hosting services at $3 per page per month. Currently, White's Web site totals 50 pages.

The Right Fit

A word of caution: Finding a Web site consultant can be tricky. Although the Web continues to grow at a rapid pace and has become a useful tool for both buyers and sellers, it's also quite unwieldy. As a result, very few organized associations or Web sites exist to help find reputable Web design firms. Fortunately, there are some needles in the haystack. CNET Inc.'s Ultimate Web Design List, for example, provides contact and other information about designers near you. Simply click on the "Find a Designer" feature and specify your state and the areas of expertise required.

Another innovative search tool is available at www.whobuiltit.com. After you locate a particularly compelling site, simply type in its address at whobuiltit.com and the service checks to see if the site is among the 10,000 included in its database. If so, you can find the information for the company that built it. Before choosing a partner, however, make sure the company you want to work with is reputable. Check out a list of sites the company's worked on and look closely at its own site. Ask about arrangements for maintaining the site, and make sure your new designer is interested in your company and its goals. White played on the safe side: She checked to ensure her hosting company had tight security and also took a close look at its largest customers.

"I knew that I'd be growing at a quick rate, and I wanted to know what I¡Works' capacity was," says White. When she found I¡Works had corporations like Xerox as clients, she decided to sign on the dotted line.

What You Need?

Some pundits insist the software and services available today are so easy for small-business owners to use, that you really don't need to pay for the design services of a Web consultant or a Web hosting company. Jason Kelly, author of The Neatest Little Guide to Making Money Online (Plume), says you can use a Web hosting company's basic monthly hosting fees and a $300 Web site design program such as Macromedia's Dreamweaver, Adobe's GoLive or NetObjects' Fusion to set up a professional Web site. It's also possible to sell products through an online store such as icat.com or store.yahoo.com with minimal set-up.

"It's not that hard to put together a Web site today," Kelly says. "Basically, if you can write in a word processor, you can create a Web page." To clarify, Kelly is referring to very small companies, selling a few items each month. If you're building the next Amazon.com, however, Kelly says you probably will need the help of a consultant.

So what's the consensus of most experts? That the best and most professional Web sites are the ones that have been built, designed and maintained by professionals. These same probfessionals will also provide you with the best benefits. According to Meredith Whalen, a program manager at IDC, "Outsourcing allows for rapid deployment, the ability to focus on what is core to a small-business owner's business, and the ability to have a flexible cash flow."


Melissa Campanelli is a technology writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered technology for Mobile Computing & Communications and Sales & Marketing Management magazines.