Launching a successful site involves several steps, beginning with finding the right help.
By Roger Harris
Maintaining an Internet presence is practically a must for businesses in today's technology-driven economy. Whether the customers you are trying to reach are across town or on the other side of the globe, a Web site is an efficient and effective way to spread your message.
That's a relatively simple task for a multinational company with an internal army of programmers and Web designers, but what about the small-business owner who can't count on in-house Internet experience? How can a small business building its first Web site ensure that its money is well spent?
Dallas businessman Rolando Cordobes, who recently launched his consulting business's first Web site, says the first step is to find a developer willing to understand what you want from a Web site and what your business is about.
"The first Web developers I talked to quoted a price of $2,500 to $5,000 to start. The ultimate cost would depend on what they did, so they really couldn't tell me what the final cost would be," says Mr. Cordobes, who works with schools and other organizations to develop training programs to move the unemployed into the work force.
While some flexibility in price is understandable, Mr. Cordobes wasn't about to enter into an open-ended contract.
He ended up hiring a site builder whose price was reasonable and who – more importantly – took the time to understand what Mr. Cordobes needed.
"It seems that a lot of people in the business of creating Web sites are more interested in making money than they are in the customer," Mr. Cordobes says. "This company, I could tell, was interested in helping me as a businessman."
Pueblo Corp., an affinity-marketing firm based in Los Angeles that links producers of goods and services to the U.S. Hispanic market, also hired an outside Web developer when it went online. As the company grew, it encountered a new challenge – how to successfully bring its Web development operations in-house to better control its electronic commerce operations.
"Initially we hired the services of a Web consulting firm," says Mario Lozano, vice-president of information technology for Pueblo. "That worked fine for awhile because we were just getting into being on the Internet. But as our requirements changed, it grew more expensive to have an outside consulting firm."
To better control costs and day-to-day Web operations, Pueblo hired a Webmaster and began building its own Web development team.
"We needed something a little more dynamic to help the patrons get more familiar with what we were doing," Mr. Lozano says.
Regardless of what route a company takes in building its first Web site, there are basic rules to follow, says Steve Fox, an Internet consultant and principal of Internet Innovations, a Web development firm in Ventura, California.
"If it's a small business that just wants to dip its toe in the online world, it can be done pretty cheaply with do-it-yourself packages available from a number of places, such as Amazon.com or Internet Service Providers," Mr. Fox says.
Pre-packaged site-builder software will cost anywhere from $50 to $500. Companies looking for a little more sophistication would be better off hiring an experienced site builder, Mr. Fox says.
The most important step, as Mr. Cordobes discovered, is to find a Web designer "who understands what your business is and will take the time to find out exactly what your needs are," Mr. Fox says.
It's also advisable to ask for references, look at business sites the developer has designed, and get bids from at least two or three designers, he says. The cost of a professionally developed Web site will depend on the amount of work and the sophistication of the elements included in the finished product. Expect to pay several thousand dollars for a dynamic site with a strong merchant account, a good security system, and an easy-to-use shopping cart.
Building a Web site is only the beginning, however. Businesses must register their sites with search engines like Yahoo and Netscape and then market the site like any other part of the business, Mr. Fox says.
"One of the big misconceptions about e-commerce is [that you] put up a site and that's the end of it," he says. "But without aggressive marketing, it's like a billboard in the desert: No one will see it."
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