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Setting up a virtual shop

If you are preparing to launch a business Web site, good for you! Now here’s the rub: Money, speed (or lack thereof), glitz, accuracy, promotion, maintenance . . .

[Times art: Erin Schoepke]

The good news is that, as a small business owner, you’re more likely to build a better Web site than your larger competitors.

First in a series


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 3, 1998

QThere’s a very thin line between “need” and “want.” At least there is in my world. I need more disk space, I want more disk space. You understand, I’m sure.

Trying to weigh the differences between needing a Web site for your small business and wanting one is a moot point. If you’ve decided you’re going to put one up regardless of need/want, congratulations! You’re probably the boss. If you do this right, it could be a turning point for your business.

But if you get it wrong and fail to correct your mistakes, you might as well make paper airplanes out of your crispy spendy stuff and throw it off the roof.

There seems to be a lot of curiosity among small businesses about the Web and what, if anything, they should be doing. Today, we will start exploring some of the questions and issues you need to consider and, based on my experience as a Web master, try to guide you through the answers.

As with our other Tech Times features, we invite you to send in questions and suggestions as we go.

Let’s get started.

Small is good

A colleague used to work for one of the shrink-wrap software companies – the ones whose wares appear on the shelves of the local office superstores. Its research consistently showed that small businesses were more likely to try innovative things to further their cause and their own cutting-edge technology.

The good news is that, as a small business owner, you’re more likely to build a better Web site than your larger competitors. There’s a good chance you already “get it” and won’t have to form an in-house task force to decide what color the background is going to be.

And making mistakes when putting up a Web site is actually okay.

At least not ethical and legal mistakes. If you claim you’ve got the cure for baldness for $5 a pop and it turns out not to be true, that’s not a mistake. That’s fraud, and places like the Federal Trade Commission have no sense of humor about things like this.

When you build your Web site, there’s only one of it. It’s not set in stone. Changing it, if you build it yourself, is usually as simple as opening up the software you used to create it and adjusting the content. No running to a print shop for new ones or recalling anything.

The thought behind this approach isn’t meant to make you into some kind of streaming, sloppy Web artist (the world has more than enough of these) but to get you into the idea that releasing early and often is a Good Thing. Of course, checking for typos, checking for broken Web links and trying to do it right the first time are worthy goals.

Roll your own or farm it out?

You can have two of the following: cheap, fast and high quality.

If you want a Web site built quickly and you want it to be very accurate and good looking, it’s going to cost you, either to pay somebody else (his time) or doing it yourself (your time). And if you want an inexpensive site, yet need it to look wonderful, it's going to take awhile.

Back in the Web's dark ages (say, two years ago), bleeding-edge corporations that required a Web presence were paying an ungodly amount of money for very simple things. After all, few people had done this before, and ignorance is often expensive. Thankfully, things are a little more sane today. A site that has been custom-built for your company's needs can be had for as little as $2,000-$3,000.

Sites with tons of flashing animations and garish colors are usually sparse on content. My Mom used to tell me that empty kettles made the most noise.

If you choose to splash animation all over the place, you'll probably ignore the warning against background music. Most people who visit your site are probably doing so from work. If they're doing it on the sly, your blaring rendition of the theme from Happy Days will blow their cover. It's an easy way to turn a customer into an ex-customer and a prospect into a lost sale.

One of the biggest misconceptions people have when they put together a Web site is that people will instantly find it and change the way they do business with the owner overnight.

It takes time to build up traffic. Unless you actively promote your site to your customers and prospects, the chances of them stumbling across it by accident are almost nil. Put your address on your business card and letterhead.

When you speak to prospects on the phone, get their e-mail address. Should you have information relevant to your conversation on your site, e-mail them a Web address as well as follow-ups via fax or regular mail.

If your audience is particularly high-tech, try and collect information from direct mail via your Web site: You'll get the prospect information in less time and your turnaround will be quicker. Good for both sides.

Can you handle it?

Imagine your wildest fantasies come true and your site brings you a wad of customer and prospect traffic. Can you handle it in addition to your regular non-Web traffic? Are you prepared to check and react to your e-mail at least once a day?

Want to really look like a fool? Then keep outdated information on your Web site. If you promote your attendance at trade shows on your site, take it off as soon as the show has ended. Or at least refer to it in the past tense.

Should you regularly publish a volume of time-sensitive information, it may be worth looking into a data-driven solution. A simple query to a data base hosted by you can show up-to-the-hour information. Building something like this can sometimes be mildly expensive, but the long-term savings in maintenance can make it worthwhile.

Ready to go?

Not so fast. A poorly planned site is worse than no site at all. In the next installment, we'll look at tools that will help you plan, then build, a Web site you can be proud of.

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