Taking Your Business Online

Smart tips for designing and launching a successful website for your offline business

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

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

If you were to invest in new equipment, new vehicles or even newemployees for your business, you would take the time necessary toseek out the best, most cost-effective, most-qualified selection.You certainly wouldn't buy the first truck you saw at thedealership, 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 rightquestions, and what to expect when launching a website for yourbusiness.

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

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

  • Bring samples. Surf the web and determinethe kinds of things you like and don't like before ever walkinginto the office of a web-design firm. If you have an idea of whatyou want your site to look like, express it--even if it meansproviding an embarrassingly rough drawing on your own. Webdesigners are very creative people, but if you don't give themsome 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 coolsite, you should bring to the table the types of things you imagineto be cool. Your designer is there to help you determine the beststyle for your site, so don't be afraid to provide specificexamples of how you'd like your site to look. To view some"cool" and award-winning sites for ideas, check outwww.designfirms.org/awards/.

  • Get it in writing. As with any otherbusiness partnership, you must get everything in writing. Thismeans going beyond the initial contract you and your designer sign.Keep notes during meetings and save every e-mail and writtencommunication. There may be times when things are decided during"casual" meetings, such as when certain site elementswill be completed, or something as simple as adding a graphic ortwo. By tracking these conversations, you'll have a record toreturn to if things go off track or off schedule.
  • Should I use a web-design firm or independentprogrammer? Web-design firms aren't your only option whenit comes to launching a website. There are many independentprogrammers out there who can provide the same service as a designfirm, and for less money. Most of these programmers worked fordesign firms before striking out on their own.
  • There are advantages and disadvantages, of course. Independentprogrammers may be less expensive, but you're limited toreceiving only the service that particular programmer is skilledin. If you decide to add a component to your site that yourprogrammer can't develop for you, you'll have to paysomeone else to do it. Most design firms employ programmers of allcapabilities in order to meet customer requests, and their servicesare 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 thefact that he or she doesn't have the same overhead as a designfirm. Advertising is expensive.

    If you think you would rather use an independent programmer thana design firm, return to your friends and colleagues and askaround. If you resort to an online directory or your localtelephone book, use the same process of selection as you would adesign firm: ask to see samples and a portfolio. However, getting aprogrammer recommendation from someone you trust is best. Not allprogrammers are created equal, and an impressive portfoliodoesn'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 yourbusiness's website, you're at the mercy of their busyschedule. You must request that edits and changes be madefor you, and they may not be made as quickly as you'dlike them to be.
  • Some web-design firms provide customers with site administrationtools that allow you to make simple changes and updates as needed.This type of technology can be more expensive, but worth it if itgives you more control of your site.

  • Understand what you're paying for.Determining the look and feel of your website (the design) andactually building the site are two different processes of launchinga site. Be sure to understand what's included in your contractand what'll cost extra. If you wish to add an e-newslettersign-up, will it cost more? Will you be charged for everye-commerce transaction? What will it cost to accept credit-cardpayments on your site? These are the questions you need to ask whennegotiating prices and deliverables because you may be responsiblefor handling some of this on your own.
  • You will likely be responsible for setting up your ownbusiness's merchant account, and will have to work with yourprogrammer to incorporate it into your site. "E-commerce"means that a website takes credit-card payments, which means itmust have a merchant account. A merchant account connects your bankto your site to the credit-card company, and finally to yourcustomers.

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

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

  • Be patient, but attentive. Designing aprofessional website isn't an overnight project. It takes timeto create and construct the site you want. However, every day youand the designer spend tweaking the site is another day you'reunable to advertise the site, attract visitors to the site, or sellproducts online. Be patient with your designer, but keep track ofthe agreed-upon schedule.
  • I also recommend hiring an attorney who's versed ine-commerce businesses. You'll need one to write the "Termsand Policies" for the website, as well as proofing the sitefor any legal complications that may come up.

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

Creating a website for your business is an exciting and worthyundertaking. Take the time to do it right the first time, becausethere is no fun or enjoyment in having to do it all over again ifyou don't.

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

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