Designing For The Web

How to start one of today's fastest-growing businesses.
Magazine Contributor
9 min read

This story appears in the August 1997 issue of . Subscribe »

Web-site design is fast becoming a hot multimillion-dollar niche industry. The numbers tell the story: Independent Web-site design companies will earn $10 billion in sales by the year 2000--up from $582 million last year--according to a 1997 survey by Forrester Research Inc., a market-research company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The survey predicts that the total number of Web pages will nearly double this year and triple in 1998. These figures represent a vast, exciting area of opportunity for those interested in designing Web sites.

But the best part is you don't need a lot of money to start a Web-site-design company. Brad Brewster, 30, started Bent Media Inc. in New Orleans in 1992 with only $5,000, which he used to buy a Macintosh computer and some multimedia software. And John McLain, 52, started McLain Web Design in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1996, with a mere $2,500, which bought him a PC, a printer and graphics software. Both men kept their costs down by working from home. When Brewster's business started to take off, he rented an office. McLain still works from home, but hopes to rent an office early next year.

"It doesn't take much money to start a Web-site-design company," McLain says. "A must is a high-speed computer, a fast modem (36.6 Kbps) and software that allows you to execute designs."

There are no credentials or legal requirements for breaking into this field. "At the moment, it's a totally unregulated business," McLain says. "As more entrepreneurs jump into the arena, it's safe to say that associations creating industrywide standards will be popping up."

But the big surprise is you don't have to be a computer wizard to design Web sites. All it takes is a love of and a familiarity with computers, a touch of creativity and a willingness to learn. "You'd be surprised how quickly you can pick up the technical skills," Brewster says.

There are many misconceptions about the Web-site-design business, according to Michael Stoner, a Princeton, New Jersey, Web-site-design consultant. "Most of the people starting Web-site-design companies are not techies," he says. Brewster, who has a bachelor's degree in art and sold multimedia-design work (such as CD-ROMs) before he began specializing in Web-site design. McLain was a journalist who worked for a communications firm before starting his company.

Learn the Language

Both Brewster and McLain invested time and energy in mastering software, especially HyperText Markup Language (HTML) coding, the Internet programming language. "All it takes is time," says Brewster, who learned basic HTML coding in just two weeks.

McLain says he had the coding down in three weeks. "But I went at it with a passion, putting in 15-hour days," he says. "I also bought design and illustration software and downloaded an animation package from the Internet." The shareware included information about learning HTML.

But mastering HTML doesn't mean you're going to make it as a Web-site designer, says Stoner. "A 16-year-old kid can master the coding fundamentals in a couple weeks," he says. "It's what you do with the knowledge that will determine your success or failure."

After mastering HTML and a few popular software packages--including a file-transfer-protocol (FTP) program called WS-FTP, which is used to transfer Web files from a computer to a remote server anywhere in the world--McLain spent a few days surfing the Net, checking out Web sites. "What better way to get a crash course in design basics than by looking at the thousands of existing sites?" asks McLain. "It's pretty fascinating, because the sites range from dismal to fantastic." More important, he came away with a clear idea of what a good Web site should look like.

"A good Web site ought to sell itself," Brewster says. "Its home page should have the same effect as a great magazine cover: It ought to hook you and make you want to know more."

McLain says simple, attractive, easy-to-navigate Web sites are ultimately the best sales tools. "The majority of sites are poorly designed, because the creators have overdone the splashy graphics and whirling animation," he says, "rather than concentrating on what the site ought to communicate."

The beauty of a great Web site is it allows you to promote a product or service inexpensively. Potential customers can look at it without having to pay a hefty access fee.

Keeping those guidelines in mind, both men designed their own Web sites, paying careful attention to their home pages. In each case, the Web sites offered a bird's-eye view of the company's services. Each man focused on his particular talents: Brewster stressed his artistic skills, while McLain sold his graphic and editorial talents, particularly his copywriting skills.

Market Your Site

While designing and launching your own Web site is certainly exciting, it's only the first step in getting a Web-site-design business off the ground.

The next step is marketing your Web site. If you don't get the word out, no one will find you. McLain put his Web address on his letterhead and business cards, and, when pitching accounts, he makes a point of telling people to check out the site.

After establishing links to other sites on the Web, McLain spent $300 mailing a promotional piece to 500 local businesses. The one-page mailer told prospective clients about his Web-site-design company and made compelling arguments about why a Web site is important and how it enhances a company's image. He invited the curious to check out his home page, and offered businesses a 20-percent discount on a site-design contract if they responded by a certain date. "It brought in 20 accounts, which led to other referrals," McLain says. "The mailing helped kick off my business, and once you've been personally recommended, you don't have to do handstands to convince someone to test your services. They've already been sold."

Working With Clients

When working with new clients, McLain applies the same principles he used to build his own business. "I tell them to announce their Web addresses in print and radio ads and in press releases," he says. "Even if someone doesn't intend to buy your product or service, there's a natural curiosity to look at a home page. It's like browsing through a magazine. It's fun."

"Clients often don't know what the Web site should do," Stoner says. "If the design firm is doing its job, it should start by asking a fundamental question: `How am I going to make the Web site work for my client?' It's not about what to communicate, but how to communicate."

Talented designers concentrate on creating an engaging environment that communicates something important to the viewer, according to Brewster. "It's not about ramming information down people's throats," he says. "Often, 200 carefully chosen words can say more than 2,000."

It takes time and thought to create an imaginative Web site. Depending on the complexity of the information and the client's goal, Brewster charges from $15,000 to $200,000, and has taken up to several months to launch a site. (His fees also include the updating of his clients' sites.) McLain confines himself to smaller projects, and charges between $300 and $2,100 to create a Web site. "I spend a lot of time coming up with good estimates," he says. "If I miscalculate my bid and the project runs appreciably over my estimate, I wind up losing money."

As for attracting new clients, both men emphasize the importance of selling value. "Just telling someone you can design a fantastic Web site doesn't demonstrate anything," McLain says. "A prospective client must see the value in doing it. They have to understand how it can fatten their bottom lines."

"New sites are being launched every day," McLain says. "Every site, good or bad, can be a lesson. Evaluate each one to find out if it's accomplishing anything. Ask yourself what you would do to improve it. That basic question will keep you razor-sharp."

McLain stresses the importance of frugality in the beginning. Monitor your expenses and try to get things done cheaply. "Don't make the mistake of expanding before you're ready," he says. "Don't make the assumption that business will get better. The only time to expand is when you have enough business to finance it. Even then, make sure you're able to keep up the momentum. The one thing you don't want to have to do is pull back."

As business improves, McLain recommends contracting work out until your business stabilizes. "It's a good way to handle more business," he says, "and is certainly cheaper than putting someone on your payroll." Both men agree that growth ought to be carefully planned and constantly evaluated.

The Commercialization Of The Internet

A decade ago, if you told someone you ran a Web-site-design company, they'd look at you as if you were from Mars. The average person didn't even know the Internet existed. Cyberspace was considered a mysterious void explored by scientists and academicians.

Today the Internet is the high-tech topic of the day. A poll published by Business Week in April found that 40 million people--twice as many as last year--use the Internet, the Web or both. It's no wonder the business world is aggressively taking advantage of the Internet. It represents a potential multibillion-dollar marketplace where companies can communicate and sell products and services.

The best part is the Internet has created incredible new business opportunities, including Web-site design. If you intend to do business in today's competitive marketplace, an Internet address is almost as important as a phone number. Your Web site can be considered your company's online brochure, telling visitors about your business. And its home page, the critical point of contact for the outside world, is the directory guiding visitors to the products, services, policies and other details of your company. The array of opportunities can be intimidating, but getting started on the right foot can make all the difference. Due out this month, The Geek's Guide to Internet Business Success (Van Nostrand Reinhold, $22.95, 800-842-3636), by Bob Schmidt, provides tips on everything from establishing your business and setting prices to finding and keeping customers.

Contact Sources

Bent Media Inc., (504) 522-0163,

McLain Web Design, (603) 357-7774,

Michael Stoner, (609) 497-0339,

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