If I Had A Cyberhammer

New tools let entrepreneurs create their own E-stores

After five layoffs from Internet-related jobs, Chris Gwynn wanted to control his future on the Internet. So, while still employed in the spring of 1997, he resolved to test the waters as a part-time Web entrepreneur, selling refrigerator magnets online. Problem was, as a marketer and industry analyst, Gwynn knew virtually nothing about the technical intricacies of creating a Web site. And at the time, setting up even simple sites required considerable programming skills--an online store that could process complex orders and credit-card purchases was out of the question.

That was then. By the time Gwynn was ready to get the site going just a few months later, new tools had arrived that let technical neophytes create Web storefronts on their own. Gwynn used ViaWeb, an early entry since acquired by Yahoo! Inc. Over the next year, as the number of households making Web purchases doubled, to 20 million, Gwynn updated, modified, and managed his own site. Last December, he quit his job to devote himself to fridgedoor.com

The do-it-yourself options are expanding even faster for entrepreneurs starting out today, putting E-commerce within reach of virtually anyone. The products break down into three broad categories. Newest is off-the-shelf software such as QuickSite Gold, which a computer novice can use to create basic E-commerce sites for less than $100. The next class of boxed products, such as BIT Software's $2,000 Maestro Commerce Suite or IBM's $5,000 Net.Commerce Start, handle more complex tasks such as inventory management. Anyone comfortable with, say, the details of Microsoft Word should have no problem using them.

Less technically demanding, but most expensive over the long haul, are online services that provide software over the Net, host the site, and let you track customers' activities, too--all for a single monthly fee. Gwynn still uses ViaWeb, now called Yahoo! Store, the market-share leader in this group. Similar services are provided by iCat, recently purchased by Intel Corp., and Internet service provider MindSpring Enterprises Inc.'s E-Commerce (business.mindspring.com/commerce).

The basic site setup is the same with all three types. First, you select a template, which is a prebuilt site. Each template has different background colors, fonts, and other style elements. They can be altered by an experienced Web- site developer, but in most cases, the template will do the job as-is. Then you can add graphic images from a scanner or digital camera and replace the template's dummy text with your own.

For sticking a toe in E-commerce, the low-end software can be a cheap and simple way to start. Some Internet services offer versions that let you set the whole thing up online. But Bill Grabscheid, the co-owner of The Outdoorsman, a 15-employee clothing store in Lake Forest, Ill., chose the $89.95 QuickSite Gold, released last fall. At the time, it was the only product under $100. (Early this year, the competing product Versacheck Web Commerce was introduced at $39.99.)

POINT, CLICK, SELL. QuickSite loads a template into FrontPage Express, a Web site creation tool that's included with Windows 98. The idea is that you run QuickSite's step-by-step video tutorial in your Web browser while you work in FrontPage Express, adding text and images according to its directions. When your store is done, you upload it to any Internet service provider, which hosts the site on the Web for you.

Grabscheid chose QuickSite's developer, Primecom Interactive Inc., as his host, for a typical $39.95 monthly hosting fee. For an extra $20 a month (and 3% of sales), Primecom will send transactions to Octagon Technologies for credit-card processing. QuickSite users receive customer orders by E-mail. When a customer makes a purchase online, a message is sent automatically. If you don't use Octagon, the message will include credit-card information, and you'll have to submit it by hand.

Grabscheid's son, Billy Jr., 27, created his site, new-outdoorsman.com, in just a few days between other activities. "I'm barely computer-literate, a real point-and-clicker, but it was easy," he says.

For Elyse Berns, owner of The Cigar Lady in Buffalo Grove, Ill., simplicity wasn't enough. She bought Maestro Commerce Suite last fall to expand her successful business of discounting premium cigars via a catalog and a toll-free number. Berns needed to track inventory and wanted a search engine to help customers sort through the 750 products in her store. She got a break on setting up the site from BIT Software, which did the job as part of the purchase. But she says Maestro is so simple she can maintain the site herself. Maestro's built-in database alerts her when a product runs low, automatically removes out-of-stock products from the online catalog, and calculates state and local taxes.

At BUSINESS WEEK, we created a basic Maestro site in about an hour without programming, following a series of 20 on-screen dialog boxes for guidance. Our site included sophisticated functions such as cross-selling and upselling--in which buyers of one product are automatically offered a related one. (By comparison, the IBM product can create only basic sites without programming.)

"FOUND MONEY." Yahoo! Store, which Gwynn uses, is more of a one-stop affair. It offers tools right on the Web for creating a store and hosts the site as part of the deal. It's simpler to set up, using a series of on-screen forms to build your site, and the results are comparable to Maestro. True, the Yahoo! version can't manage inventory. But it does provide valuable marketing data about site visitors, letting you see which Web links are producing the best traffic and sales. For instance, Gwynn learned that his link on a Superman fan site was generating a steady stream of orders for fridgedoor.com's superhero magnets. The other big difference is the fee structure; Yahoo! Store's costs vary according to the size of your online inventory. (Gwynn pays almost $5,000 a year for his 1,400 items).

We also looked at MindSpring's service and found that, for nonprogrammers, it isn't quite as flexible as Yahoo! Store. If you want to customize your site with a logo, for example, or have an unlimited number of products, you must use their INTERSHOP 3 option, which costs $159.95 per month, not including hosting fees. Plus, you must know how to do HTML coding.

And how has E-business panned out for these entrepreneurs? Gwynn, who spends the most, also sells the most--about $1,000 of fridge magnets a day, he says. Since starting last October, Berns says she has only sold about $4,000 of cigars at thecigarlady.com, while the company's overall 1998 sales were $175,000. Grabscheid says that during the cold winter months, he has sold about $400 of clothing a day over the Web, mostly to customers outside of his region. "It's found money," he says.

Which of the three types of software is best for you? Obviously, that depends on whether you need maximum control over the site (high-end software), minimum cost and functions (low-end software), or simple, but pricier, full service (online). Whichever it is, E-commerce is now open for small business.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.