By Karen E. Klein Q: I'm one of those behind-the-times folks who doesn't have a Web site for my business. Since summer is our slow time, I am determined to spend the next couple of months getting us up to speed. Do you have some advice on how I can get started? -- S.Z., Flagstaff, Ariz.
A: Good for you for deciding to take your outfit online! Before you take the plunge, spend a little time learning what's involved in the process and deciding what you want your Web site to say and do for your business. The research couldn't be easier: A wealth of articles and books on business technology is available, so browse through a few of them. Without doing a little homework, your site may cost you more than you might otherwise have paid. Also, it may prove unsuitable to your needs and lack a professional look, says Donna McGuire of Upper West Web, a Web-development outfit in New York City.
Once you understand how a Web site can enhance and market your business, think about how you want yours to do the job. What will it say? What image will it project? What do you want on the site in terms of content, graphics, links to other sites, online ordering technology, etc? Having a good idea of your goals will make it easier for a Web-site developer to give you an accurate quote, since he or she will know your exact needs. In order to give you a realistic appraisal of the costs involved, a good designer will ask how much content you plan to make available, how much text you'll be posting per page, and the number of visual elements, such as photos and logos.
ROUTINE CHECKS. Next, you'll want to get in touch with some Web designers and sound them out before assigning the job. Before picking up the phone, however, look at some samples of their work to make sure the designers you talk to are on your wavelength. Web designers usually have sample pages of their work on their own sites, and you can find developers in your area by scanning the talent on display atguru.com.
Another sound approach to moving online is to surf plenty of sites and decide what you like and dislike about the more memorable ones. After viewing a site that strikes your fancy, you may want to contact the owner and ask if he or she can recommend the developer. To get an idea of what you might or might not like to see on your own site, visit some of the top ones at coolhomepages.com. You also should pay special attention to your competitors' sites, which will be sources of hints and inspiration for making your own business stand out from the pack.
When you interview developers, ask yourself these questions: Does this person understand that you are an entrepreneur, not someone who enjoys a specialist's font or arcane knowledge and expertise? Can he or she translate computer jargon into plain English? Is the site-construction process being laid out in a coherent, comprehensible way? If the answer to one of those questions is no, you're going to have communication troubles during the job.
Tell the designer about your goals and ask for suggestions. You want someone creative who can think out of the box, but not be so far-out that your company's identity gets lost amidst the bells and whistles. Show the developer your logos, print ads, and other promotional materials as guides to the image you are trying to convey. Says McGuire: "The personality of your business should shine through, instead of being forced into a cookie-cutter Web-site mold."
HANDLING THE TRAFFIC. If you like what you see and hear during the interview, ask for a detailed proposal and a breakdown of the cost. Don't forget to find out about Web hosting, which is a separate issue. Not all designers offer hosting, but the person you ultimately select should be able to recommend one. Make sure you get a plan with your Web host to handle the storage requirements and traffic volume.
Also, ask your developer to get your site listed on the major search engines, which will bring traffic to your site. And make sure that the contract states that all logos, graphics, and content will become your intellectual property. After all, you're paying for it, so it should be your property, McGuire says.
Finally, talk about maintenance. "A good Web developer will not mind showing you how to maintain your own site, and will give you that option," McGuire says, adding: "Be leery of any developer who insists on maintaining the site -- you may be in for high maintenance costs." Good luck!
Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at email@example.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. 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. Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who specializes in covering covered entrepreneurship and small-business issues.