Taking Your Business Online

bs.10In this day and age, your business card is a Web site. When people hear
of your company or wish to seek further information on it, they want to do
so on their own time, online. From there they can e-mail you with
questions, or place an order if you offer products online as well. In fact,
with the amount of trade that can be achieved through a Web site, it’s no
wonder that so many “brick and mortar” small businesses have made
the jump to E-commerce.

The decision to launch a Web site for a business owner has gone from
“if” to “when,” in just a decade. However, the expectations of your
average site visitor have also changed in that time. Cheap, home-made
Web sites are no longer acceptable. The site you create for your
business is a stamp on its credibility; therefore the process of designing
and launching one must be taken seriously and considered to be an
earnest business investment.

If you were to invest in new equipment, new vehicles, or even new
employees for your business, you would take the time necessary to seek
out the best, most cost-effective, most-qualified selection. You certainly
wouldn’t buy the first truck you saw at the dealership, 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 right questions, and what to expect when
launching a Web site for your business:

Do not race to find a Web designer. What’s the rush? Finding the right
Web designer is like finding the right architect to build a new business
office. The time you spend looking at Web sites, asking friends and
colleagues, and viewing portfolios is well worth it if you consider what it
would cost to rebuild your site with someone else when the designer
you hastily hired fails to meet your needs.

When you see a Web site you like, check out who designed it. This
information is usually available in the bottom of the page. Or, contact the
business and ask. If they are happy with the job done by the designer,
they’ll be more than willing to refer you!

When you do narrow your decision down to a few designers, check out
their Web sites for look and feel and thoroughly examine their portfolios.

Bring samples. Surf the Web and determine the kinds of things you like
and don’t like before ever walking into the office of a Web design firm. If
you have an idea of what you want your site to look like, express it –
even if it means providing an embarrassingly rough drawing on your
own. Web designers are very creative people, but if you don’t give them
some 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 cool site, you should bring to the
table the types of things you imagine to be cool. Your designer is there
to help you determine the best style for your site, so don’t be afraid to
provide specific examples of how you’d like your site to look.

Get it in writing. As with any other business partnership, you must get
everything in writing. This means going beyond the initial contract you
and your designer sign. Keep notes during meetings and save every e-
mail and written communication. There may be times when things are
decided during “casual” meetings, such as when certain site elements
will be completed, or something as simple as adding a graphic or two.
By tracking these conversations, you will have a record to return to if
things go off track or off schedule.

Web Design Firm or Independent Programmer? Web design firms are
not your only option when it comes to launching a Web site. There are
many independent programmers out there who can provide the same
service as a design firm, and for less money. Most of these programmers
worked for design firms before striking out on their own.

There are advantages and disadvantages, of course. Independent
programmers may be less expensive, but you are limited to receiving
only the service that particular programmer is skilled in. If you decide to
add a component to your site that your programmer cannot develop for
you, you’ll have to pay someone else to do it. Most design firms employ
programmers of all capabilities in order to meet customer requests, and
their services are 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 the fact that
he or she does not have the same overhead as a design firm.
Advertising is expensive.

If you think you would rather use an independent programmer than a
design firm, return to your friends and colleagues and ask around. If you
resort to an online directory or your local telephone book, use the same
process of selection as you would a design firm: ask to see samples and
a portfolio. However, getting a programmer recommendation from
someone you trust is best. Not all programmers are created equal and
an impressive portfolio does not 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 your business’s Web site, you are at
the mercy of their busy schedule. You must request edits and changes
be made for you, and they may not be made as quickly as you’d like
them to be.

Some Web design firms provide customers with site administration tools
that allow you to make simple changes and updates as needed. This
type of technology can be more expensive, but worth it if it gives you
more control of your site.

Understand what you’re paying for. Determining the look and feel of
your Web site (the design) and actually building the site are two different
processes of launching a Web site. Be sure to understand what is
included in your contract and what will cost extra. If you wish to add an
eNewsletter sign-up, will it cost more? Will you be charged for every E-
commerce transaction? What will it cost to accept credit card payments
on your site? These are the questions you need to ask when negotiating
prices and deliverables.

You may be responsible for setting up your own business’s and then
work with a programmer to incorporate it into your site. Web hosting fees
are an additional cost you must consider, as well.

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

Be patient, but attentive. Designing a professional Web site is not an
overnight project. It takes time to create and construct the Web site you
want. However, every day you and the designer spend tweaking the site
is another day you are unable to advertise the site, attract visitors to the
site, or sell products online. Be patient with your designer, but keep track
of the agreed schedule.

I also recommend hiring an attorney who is versed in E-commerce
businesses. You will need one to write the “Terms and Policies” for the
web site, as well as proofing the site for any legal complications that
may come up.

Imagine your Web site as a storefront. If you were building a brick and
mortar business on main street, you would: 1) find the right contractor; 2)
have an idea of how you want your business to look and what you want
it to contain; 3) expect the project to take time; and 4) be prepared for
set-backs in scheduling. These are the same responsibilities and
obstacles you will encounter while designing your business’s Web site.