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Ready for a DIY for Online Forms?

Formstack is a great Web-based tool for beefing up your online presence, but make sure it meets your specific needs.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Selling online is a great way for your to boost sales -- provided you don't poison the relationship with all the steps and questions your site demands of potential customers. It sounds simple, but if an address form is too complex, a customer's online question doesn't get answered or the ordering process is too complex, you can lose customers before you even have them.

In the past, there was only one way to smooth this ever-critical path to sales on the Web: Hire a pricey computer coder, collect as much data as you could on your site's usage and pay dearly for big fat buckets of upgrades as you needed them.

Indianapolis, Ind.-based Formstack aims to change that by removing the coding middleman. The company's internet-based form tool attempts to make it quick, easy and inexpensive for your to create your own online forms, sign up customers, hold a contest or even sell goods -- all in a way you can control.

Interest in Formstack, which is free to start but will run about $30 a month for most businesses, is understandably high. The basic, free version has more than 100,000 users; paid versions with more capacity and flexibility have nearly 10,000 users.

"What we tried to build here is a solution to a business problem: How do I provide an answer to the question the user has?" says Chris Byers, CEO of Formstack.

What's to Love

Compared with paying a coder, Formstack is a serious bargain.
Formstack gives you a lot for your money. The free version let me create three forms, each with up to 10 fields and 50 saved entries. That's great for a small club, but a legit business probably needs to pony up for a paid version. The least expensive option, at $14 per month, is enough to run a simple e-mail newsletter. The most expensive, at $160 a month, lets you operate a good-sized online store, run a complex contest with hundreds of entries or collect massive amounts of data about the people who visit your website. My pick is the $30-per-month version, which includes 20 forms -- each with up to 200 fields and 2,000 saved entries -- along with five style templates, five users and 1 gigabyte of storage. All that for the price of about 90 minutes of a coder's time. Your own time is another issue, but still, it's a deal.

Surprising power and flexiblility
Formstack makes complex, Web-based form development relatively accessible. All the basic info an average business would want is here: You can collect data, host a local event, administer event registrations, or get customers to sign up for newsletter or coupon, among many other functions. You can work from existing forms or develop your own. And Formstack has good security, a nice iPhone app and integrates well with, MailChimp, Highrise, Google Apps and most blogging platforms. Responses, inbound data and other info is available in real time, and most important, you can tweak as you learn what sells and what doesn't. You might test lowering prices, try a tie-in or promotion, or even offer incentives literally as you dream them up.

What's Not to Love

It's not as easy as it looks
Formstack could be a good option for a business that wants to do simply interact with customers. But getting to actual profits will take a real investment in time and resources. You are entering the tricky world of Web sales logic. Be warned that while Formstack is a great source of data about your customers, interpreting that data is a minefield of time-consuming trial and error. The $360 per year most businesses will pay for the tool could easily be wasted unless your firm commits to making your website really work with the information you get.

It competes with the big guys -- and doesn't always win
Formstack does so many things that it inadvertently goes goes toe-to-toe with sophisticated products. And many of those products, particularly those that specialize in one service, are superior. Formstack's survey tool, which often requires you to write your own questions, is far inferior to a dedicated product like SurveyMonkey, which helps you ask the right questions, get the answers you want, manage the responses and otherwise get real yield from the information.

Bottom Line
Formstack deserves credit for bringing powerful coding to the form-creating masses. If your small business has a Web presence -- whether it's an e-commerce play or a lead-qualifying tool -- you should definitely have a look.

But before you sign up, be sure you have the time to make it work for you and check the market for dedicated, off-the-shelf tools that address your specific, individual online interactive needs. If you find them, they'll probably work better than this one-size-fits-all product.

As is so often the case online, do-it-yourself Web development isn't as simple as Formstack would like you to believe.

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