---- N.A., Mechanicsburg, PA.
A: If you're really on a shoestring budget, you can buy off-the-shelf software for about $50 that will help you build a small-business shopping site yourself. Most of these software packages offer a Web server, including transaction processing, for a monthly fee ranging from around $25 to $120, depending on how much automation you want, says Tom Anderson, a small-business consultant based in Manhattan Beach, Calif.
If you can invest a little more money for a professional-looking site, there are as many options and price ranges as there are Web-design firms. You might contract with an individual working from a home office who will construct a very reasonably priced, clean, functional Web catalog. Or, if you can afford it, you might choose a larger company with Web-site specialists who can apply their expertise in areas such as content, design, coding, and system administration.
LOOKING OR BUYING? Start by making a list of what you want from your Web site. Will it be solely for browsing through your product catalog, or do you want e-commerce capability so customers can also place orders? Do you need Web-hosting services as well as the initial design? Will your company maintain the site in-house, or will you need ongoing site administration and maintenance?
Ask colleagues to refer you to any reliable, competent designers they may have used in the past, and do some Web surfing yourself. You should check out your competitors' sites and isolate those that are particularly appealing. Contact their Web masters, tell them what you want, then interview any designers they might suggest.
Always request references and check them out, asking about the designers' follow-up availability and technical expertise. When your site crashes, for example, will they get you back in business quickly? Do you like the existing sites they've designed? Does their work mesh with what you want in terms of style and functionality?
When talking with Web designers, make sure they understand your budget and needs. Determine whether the designer will be able to provide what you want at a price you are prepared to pay. For a site's initial design (not including Internet access, Web-site hosting, and maintenance), expect to pay $100 to $300 per Web page. Hourly Web-site design rates can range from $25 to $200, with a typical fee of around $85. For a basic e-brochure site, fees can range from $250 to $5,000, and average roughly $1,500. Expect to pay $1,000 to $5,000 for a basic e-commerce site, with $3,500-or-so representing the mean figure.
GET IT IN WRITING. If your expectations are unrealistic, a good designer will tell you so upfront. Better to know what you can afford now, rather than engage a designer who promises the moon but demands additional money when the job is in progress for the work you thought would be part of the package.
Because Web-site design is such a technical business, this kind of confusion is likely to arise unless you insist on a written contract -- including a budget, timeline, and specific due dates for completion of the job. The written timetable is particularly important if you hire a busy company with a lot of contracts in progress. Delays in putting your site on the Web will be costly in terms of lost revenue.
A good designer will want to spend time getting to know your business and understanding your corporate culture, your target market, and your likely Web audience. Along with being a product catalog, a Web site is a powerful marketing tool that will tell the world a lot about your company. So, whatever else you decide, make sure you're sending the right message.
For more information on Web site design and pricing, try visiting the B2B Web Price Index. To locate Web-site design firms, look at groups like Designer Domains, Design Shops, and Designer Index. Some free, do-it-yourself programs can be found at BigStep, Microsoft's bCentral, and ImageCafe. Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.