Web sites for small businesses

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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 advantage

The 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 outsourcing

Experts 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.”

Ideastox’s Becker puts it like this: “As a senior manager of your business, to learn about a wheel that is already rolling down the hill is not the best use of your time.”

Bertsch points out that if you want to start small, you can begin with a one-page Web site. “That can be done in 15 minutes at a very low cost, as cheap as $100,” he says. “There are plenty of freelancers doing this. If you go to CraigsList, you can find people and check to see if others like their services.”

If you want something a bit more extensive, “for starting level businesses there are sites like elance.com and 99designs.com where you can get everything you need, sometimes for less than $2,000, sometimes even for less than $500,” Ressi says.

Of course you will want technology support in case your Web site ever encounters problems. “For an extraordinarily low cost — as little as $10 a month — you can find a variety of providers that will carry the expense of 24-hour backup so your Web site doesn’t go down,” Gelburd says. Often it will be the same company that sets up your Web site. Ressi uses GoDaddy.com for his site’s Web maintenance.

An important point to keep in mind during this process: “If you do use a third party to build out your site, you want to get the schematics and codes from them, because if they go out of business, bringing someone in to figure it all out will be extremely difficult,” Bertsch says.

Six keys for success

Ressi has several recommendations for the actual structure of your Web site. In general, “You don’t need anything flashy or special, it just needs to be very clean and clear,” he says.

1. Skip the flash: “You should have a simple home page that clearly explains what you do. That’s probably the most important thing.” Some companies make the mistake of adding too many bells and whistles to the home page, Ressi says. “The problem with overloading the page is that visitors don’t know what you do.”

2. Detail your product: He says a page or series of pages should give a comprehensive explanation of your product. “The one thing that drives us crazy is that in some cases people don’t do that,” Ressi explains. “I recently went to a Web site to inquire about hosting an event. They gave the price but not the capacity of their space. It could have said they hold up to 50 people.”

3. List prices: Often prices aren’t listed on Web sites. Many businesses assume that by concealing information they will force potential customers to get in touch with them. “But in the modern world, the reverse is true,” Ressi says. “Instead, people will contact businesses that do give them the information.”

4. Talk about yourself: Providing background about your management team also is crucial. “If I’m going to do business with this firm, I want to know who’s running it,” Ressi says. “A four to five sentence outline is fine, but it’s critical to show who’s running the company.”

5. Give your contact information: He also suggests a thorough “contact us” page. “These pages generally have an e-mail address, a physical address and phone number,” Ressi says. “But few have simple Web forms to allow people to send e-mails back right on the site. Generally, readers are more comfortable filling out an online form than picking up the phone or sending a separate e-mail. When we didn’t have that form on our site, top CEOs from around the world asked why not.”

6. Use blogs: Putting a blog on your Web site also can prove beneficial. “If you are trying to innovate in your category, then you should have a blog and talk about the innovations you are trying,” Ressi says. “People will read it, learn what you’re doing, and then you have real shot in acquiring customers. Blogs are viral, especially if you link to other blogs.”

What business doesn’t need a Web presence? “I can’t think of any,” says Becker of Ideastox. “More and more people are relying on the Internet for their consumption needs. If you don’t have a presence there, you will almost certainly miss out on business — whether you’re a physician, an auto repair shop or a gardener.”