Websites don’t just build themselves. The conundrum for the small business owner is that there is a host of choices as you establish an online presence. The decisions are important: They’ll determine the online business activity that comes with the new sales channel and, of course, the additional profit from the online endeavor.
Choices abound. A few of the critical early questions a business owner needs to settle include: “What kind of website do I want for my business?” “Do I need outside help building my site?” “If I need help, how do I go about selecting a website developer?”
We’ve provided four steps to help you through the process.
Step 1: Before taking the first step toward creating a website, ask yourself three questions:
- Does my website need to have a one-of-a-kind design, or would a neat, clean, pre-made template work just as well?
Novices can locate various templates available for purchase on the Internet that allow a person to create a well-designed site without knowing how to create HTML pages. Sites like Templatemonster.com, Perfectory.com and others allow merchants to purchase predesigned pages. Some technical knowledge is required in order to set up the pages, to add content in a way that meets your aesthetic needs and to maintain the site on a regular basis.
There are many other options that don’t require a designer. In recent years, all-in-one solutions (often referred to as “hosted solutions”) have made it easy for ecommerce novices to quickly launch a website without detailed knowledge of ecommerce or the aid of a website developer. An all-in-one solution charges a monthly fee for everything you’ll need to operate a site, including various design templates — you don’t have to assemble and integrate all the pieces to make the online store work.
“The whole power of hosted software solutions is that you don’t have to be an IT (information technology) expert,” said Julian Green, director of all-in-one solution ProStores. “You just basically have to be able to use a browser. You basically outsource the IT expertise to the hosted solution provider. At the simplest level, if you can do your email or browse the Internet, you can do a store online. It’s designed to be easy.”
In addition, many hosting companies like Web.com, GoDaddy and others provide complete packages that also include design templates.
How do you choose between investing in a templated, but possibly generic, design or spending more money for a custom look? Michelle Burton, president of CoreTech Web Solutions, a firm offering custom and templated options, says that decision is best made after evaluating present and future goals.
“For those people who are just starting to sell or who have only one or two products, a templated option might be better because it is going to allow them to keep funds down initially and then grow with their business over time,” she said. “However, if somebody has something like an eBay store, they want to convert that over and they are already selling hundreds of products, it probably does not make a lot of sense for them to go into a templated option. It probably makes more sense for them to invest their funds up front for something more customizable that is going to be able to continue to grow with them over time.”
- How complex will my online business be? Is it merely a website to promote my company, serving as a marketing appendage to my brick-and-mortar business? Or, will my website need to have an online store or be integrated with third-party tools such as auctions or blogs?
- Do I have the technical capability to do any of this?
For most businesses, the answer to No. 3 trumps the preceding questions.
Step 2: Do your homework.
Small companies and larger corporations alike frequently look for guidance from staffing firms like Aquent, a company that matches proven, creative web talent with businesses needing help. Two of the company’s top recruiters offered pointers to help independent businesses choose a web developer.
First and foremost, says recruiter Eloise Priest, decide how in-depth the website will be.
Rich Baker, Aquent’s marketing IT recruiting manager, says business owners need to consider the following as they make that assessment:
Will information need to be stored in a database? If your business offers products and your website will be a means to sell and distribute these products, the answer is almost certainly “yes.”
How many pages will comprise your website?
What kind of functionality do you intend to feature on your website? In addition to an ecommerce store, a business could offer features like email newsletter sign-ups, product demos, blogs, calendars, product photo galleries, etc.
Priest suggests that once Baker’s questions are answered, the businessperson do some web surfing. Check out your competitors’ websites or other ecommerce sites featuring a design or functionality you like. Don’t hesitate to contact people at the company to ask questions about their experiences.
At some point, however, you’ll have to decide whether you’re up to creating this website by yourself.
“If the business has somebody on its team who is web savvy, the more likely they are to do it themselves,” Baker said.
If you don’t have a technophile within your reach, and if your site will be more complex than a couple pages of content, then hiring a web developer is probably in your future.
Priest recommends setting a budget upfront for the entire project so you’ll know how much you can allot for a developer’s time. Consider costs for hosting, SSL certificates, hosted or licensed shopping cart solutions, blogs and photo royalties.
Step 3: Begin the search for talent.
You can look locally for web developers, surf the online search engines or post a job description at an online resource like Guru.com or Getafreelancer.com for regional or national candidates.
Whether you’re looking for a temporary freelance developer or a full-time resource person to join your staff, don’t trust your online business to the words on a candidate’s resume. Chuck Bankoff, director of web services for design consultant WSIeworks.com, says there are three main things to consider when evaluating potential designers for your ebusiness:
Visit the developers’ sites. Do they look good? Do they load properly in multiple browser types? Do they function in a way you’d expect your website to function? “Ecommerce, in particular, can require a high degree of technical knowledge and experience to set it up and, in some cases, to maintain it,” he said. “A good programmer can go a long way towards simplifying the process for the end user.”
How long have they been in business? “This is the type of the industry where underperformers gets sorted out very quickly,” Bankoff said. “The longer a design firm has been in business, the more likely that they have a track record of satisfied clients.”
Check references. It seems like an obvious hiring step, however, the best predictor of a developer’s success for your business is past success. “I would, of course, want to know about the overall satisfaction, but I would also want to know if the designers merely took orders, or if they made suggestions and explained how the process works,” he said.
Step 4: Learn from the mistakes of other businesses.
Because Aquent specializes in matching web professionals with businesses, they have heard some horror stories. Those tales from web development hell can work to your benefit.
For example, Baker says opting to hire the lowest project bidder merely because he/she is the least expensive is possibly the most serious selection faux pas possible.
“You really get what you pay for,” he said.
Presuming you’ve budgeted for a developer, consider these rules-of-thumb:
- Knowing what functionality you want from your site up front will help you get a more accurate quote from a web designer. Bankoff said to be skeptical if a designer has a set price for site design. “I would be wary about anyone who had a preestablished price for anything because that means they do not necessarily know what your needs are,” he said.
- Establish project milestones and deadlines with reasonable bonuses for compliance. One of the common risks in hiring even the most talented developer is that he or she doesn’t have the time to dedicate to your work. Choosing a developer with demonstrated project management experience can help to alleviate that concern. “Otherwise,” Burton said, “You will find your web project can drag on and on forever.”
- You can work with someone who does not live in your town, state or country, but it’s important that there is clear, constant communication. “This is a medium that lends itself to long-range relationships,” Bankoff said. “Ultimately, the fruit of the relationship will be seen online.”
- Look for a long-term partner because it’s likely you’ll need tweaks to your site or tech support. “I would want to know that the designer will be around later if I have questions or problems, or if I need to upgrade my web solution at a later date,” Bankoff said. “There are just too many variables to contend with if you are left on your own.”
Choosing a web developer to build your ecommerce presence is equivalent to taking on a partner. If you make sure the bullet points on a candidate’s resume actually convert to real-world ability, you’ve taken a key step in making your hiring decision a smart one.