No Geeks Required
Suzanne Koch was confident she could make a success of Wow! Imports, her Cranford (N.J.) wholesaler of imported rugs and handicrafts made by artisans in Egypt, Turkey, Tanzania, and other countries. What daunted her was building the company's Web site. Three years ago, Koch turned to Register.com, a do-it-yourself Web design service that includes a domain name, hosting, and the design templates necessary to build a simple five-page site. All Koch had to do was add photos and text. Says Koch, the sole employee of her company, which brought in $100,000 in sales last year: "I stayed up all night cutting and pasting and did the whole thing in two days."
For time-pressed entrepreneurs who are still struggling to load their iPods, the thought of building a Web site can be pretty intimidating. That's a big reason 35% of small business owners with Internet access don't have a Web site for their company, says Sonal Gandhi, an analyst at researchers Jupitermedia. "Some traditional businesses feel like they don't have the technical expertise, but it's not really that complicated," says Gandhi. In fact, a variety of services make it easy for the tech-impaired and time-challenged to get a site up and running. Packages from Homestead Technologies, Register.com, Yahoo!, and Web.com, among others, include domain names, hosting, design templates, and tools—everything you need to get started. Another option, Microsoft Office Live Basics, launched in November, and although most of the other startup kits have been around for a while, many have added new templates and better design tools in the past two years.
We chose to concentrate on these particular services because their offerings are targeted explicitly at small businesses. Although there are plenty of other hosting services that also let you design your own site, these companies got high marks from industry analysts and small business owners for ease of use and their relatively advanced design tools.
Do-it-yourself services offer several advantages over hiring a Web designer. Saving money, of course, is the big one. A designer might charge $2,000 or more for a basic Web site that doesn't support e-commerce, not including fees to purchase a domain name and Web hosting services. But these do-it-yourself services top out at $170 a year, and Microsoft's new offering is free.
Still, the services aren't the best choice for everyone. They're typically geared to companies with fewer than 20 employees, and their templates may not be sophisticated enough for some. "If you're in a creative business or in a business targeting those looking for cool stuff, you may need to have a cool site," says Jupitermedia's Gandhi. If that means specialized fonts or flash animation, Gandhi says, you may want to hire a professional designer. Indeed, the technically adept who want to tinker under the hood and control the operating system or work with specific software, as well as entrepreneurs who need a lot of database functionality, also won't find these offerings robust enough. Plus, limits on storage space (which affect how much content you can put online) and caps on data transfer (which dictate the number of visitors that can view your site each month) vary. Yahoo, for example, says its 200-gigabyte limit will support up to 500,000 visitors a month, depending on a site's size, but others handle far fewer. And none of these starter packages support e-commerce, though all give companies the ability to add upgrades for e-commerce, additional storage, and other advanced features.
But companies that want a basic site, and want it fast, can hardly go wrong. "The important thing was to get online," says Koch. "The moment I hit 'submit' to pay for my site was the moment I felt my business was born."
The service you choose will depend on your budget, design preferences, and tech skills, as well as how much storage space you need and how many e-mail addresses you want for yourself and your business. When it comes to design, the services vary widely in the range of templates available and their attractiveness. Most of the templates are fairly generic, but Homestead has created 2,000 sites for specific industries that small businesses can tailor to their own needs. The Homestead site for real estate companies, for example, includes a template page for listings and makes it easy to add photos and descriptions of properties on the market. Microsoft offers only a small fraction of Homestead's designs, but its colors are coordinated for you, minimizing clashes.
Both Yahoo and Homestead score extra points for flexibility and the ability to easily customize designs. Each allows you to download special software to better manipulate the layout. Want to move text and pictures around a page? Just drag and drop various sections. In contrast, it's more difficult to get the right spacing between text and photos in the services from Microsoft, Register.com, and Web.com.
In 2003, when Kathryn Kalabokes opened Dream a Little Dream Events, an event and wedding planning business in San Francisco, she got estimates from Web designers ranging from $2,500 to $5,200 for a simple site. "When you're a new business, that kind of money sounds ridiculous," says the owner of the three-employee, $80,000 company. She used Register.com to build a site, but found the spacing awkward and had trouble sizing the photos correctly. "Everything looked weird," she says. After four months she switched to Homestead, which had downloadable software so she could more easily customize the look of the site. And she got an extra site for her photos, all for $19.95 a month. Putting photos up quickly herself, instead of waiting for a designer to do it for her, makes her site seem fresh and up-to-date. Says Kalabokes: "A lot of wedding planners ask me, 'How did you get your pictures up from that wedding that happened just a week ago? My designer takes a month and charges $150 per hour.' "
Paul Gryfakis, owner of Chicago-based Parking Padding Solutions, which has $30,000 in annual sales, had built a site with Yahoo but switched to Microsoft Office Live Basics, mostly because it was free. He built a new site in two days. "My last site wasn't as professional-looking. It was not as nice a color scheme or layout," says Gryfakis, whose business makes custom pads for parking garage columns. Gryfakis says Office Live Basics works well for someone who doesn't need bells and whistles but wants a distinctive look. "Yahoo has more flexibility if you want to customize it with your own html coding, but I have a basic business and just needed to promote what I have," he says.
All the services are easy to use, but they do have customer e-mail or phone support if questions arise. Homestead only offers phone support for the first 30 days, and Microsoft offers only e-mail support. Only Register.com, Yahoo, and Web.com offer 24/7 phone support. That's crucial if you work at night or on weekends. "It's really important for small business owners when you're sitting at home by yourself, all stressed out," says Koch. Of course, as Koch now knows, once your Web site is up and running, you'll have one less thing to stress about.
By Rachael King