The explosion of the Internet over the last 15 years makes a strong Web site essential for almost any small business to attain success, experts say.
"If you're a small business that doesn't have a Web site, I would say today is the day to get started," says Adeo Ressi, co-founder of TheFunded.com, an online community for entrepreneurs.
"If you're doing anything innovative -- from a family doctor to something bigger -- you would gain more benefits from it than if you're running a drycleaner or something like that," he says. "But people are using the Internet more and more even to find things like their local drycleaner. So the benefits are there for any business."
The rewards of a Web site extend to nearly every element of running a business. "We haven't yet created a list of comprehensive business functions that says here's what you can do better online," says Adrienne Becker, chief executive of Ideastox, a Web site where people can exchange business ideas. "That's happening every day -- on both sides of the (profit and loss) statement."
Marketing advantageThe most obvious area where the Internet enhances your business is marketing, she says. "You can send a single message to millions of people without additional cost. It's an economy of scale."
An Internet presence provides a stamp of legitimacy. "A well executed Web site can cover up that you're just one dude (trying to start up a company),” says Lawrence Gelburd, an entrepreneur, who also teaches at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.
"It's speaks to the aggregate," he notes. "That's a fantastic way to hook up with them. Instead of starting an e-mail list from scratch, you can work with a company that has lists of clients' e-mail addresses. They may not be willing to share or sell the list, but they may be willing to do e-mail blasts. You'll have a Web site and can say to an investor, customer or supplier that you have e-mail blasts going out to 30,000 people per month."
A Web site also serves as a high-technology version of a business card. "It's often the first form of introduction that you have to people," says Robert Bertsch, a founder of RaiseCapital.com, an Internet site that matches small businesses and investors.
"For investors using our site, if a business they're interested in has a Web site, that's the first place they go. For a startup or an existing business, a Web site is a way to communicate at a broad level to everyone. It lets them know who you are and where you are."
The Internet also gives your business a permanence that is unavailable through other means. "When you have a Web site, you can put the address on all your business cards, pamphlets, billboards etc.," Gelburd says. "Since you own the domain and Web site name, you don't have to ditch it even if you move or change your name. It's an electronic version of a catalogue that you can send to just those whom you want, and any typographical errors are a lot easier to change."
Before setting up your firm's Web presence, Becker advises that you dissect every element of the business to figure out how it can work online. "It's a lot more than marketing," she says. "There's customer service, account management. It just depends on the nature of your business."
Advantages of outsourcingExperts recommend that you seek professional assistance in constructing the Web site. "You can set up your own site, but it will require fairly technical understanding," says Ressi of TheFunded.com. "There are no flick-a-switch solutions."