Friday, January 12, 2007

How to get a business up and running online

When 54-year-old public relations expert Joan Stewart launched in 1997, she paid a developer nearly $4,000 to build the Web site for her new online business, which enables her to sell publicity tips, advice and e-books that buyers download online. But a decade ago is ancient history in the hyper-paced online world.

Now, with new advances in technology, small business owners with little or no Web experience can develop and operate their own e-commerce Web sites for around $50 a month. These do-it-yourself (DIY) sites let new merchants:

Launch e-commerce sites that accept credit, debit, and PayPal purchases.

Purchase domain names and operate multiple e-mail addresses.

Create, manage, and update databases of products and photos.

Promote their Web sites on major search engines.

Yahoo Small Business, for example, provides all the tools you need to develop and run an online store, including a credit-card payment system and 24-hour technical support. Its merchant starter plan is $40 monthly.

EBay, which has 200 million shoppers worldwide, allows merchants to open virtual stores on its Web site, starting at $15.95 a month. It offers free advice, with e-brochures on bookkeeping, taxes, and other topics.

And these are just the big names. With more small businesses going online every day, local Internet hosting companies also are joining the DIY e-commerce game. If you have service with a local Web host, check to see if it offers an e-commerce plan for business startups.

"If you want a simple Web site that looks pretty good, there are so many services that can do a great job for you: Office Live, Homestead, and others,'' says Ramon Ray, editor of, which provides resources for online businesses.

DIY or customized site?
A starting point is the National Federation of Independent Business, which offers a directory of popular Web hosting companies that help e-merchants launch DIY sites. Web hosting companies are the landlords of the Internet; most not only rent out Web space but also offer easy-to-build business Web sites. Although some do not charge fees for these sites, be prepared to run banner ads in exchange for the service.

The free DIY sites are not for novices either, warns Ray. "I would shy away from free sites. You won't get the level of technical service you need; it comes down to you get what you pay for."

Instead, new e-commerce businesses should expect to pay at least $50 per month to cover fees for starting and running their own Web sites, Ray says. This covers renting Web space and fees for handling credit card transactions. Your costs may go up if you want to invest more in marketing the site and adding specialized features, such as audio/visual downloads.

Plus, if you want custom designs or add-ons, you will need to hire a professional Web developer. "If you want a unique Web site, with a very professional look -- that does not have a cookie-cutter design -- then have someone design it for you," Ray says.

Basic custom design costs have dropped to as low as $500 to $1,000, because site developers now use pre-built templates. However, sites with a lot of special features may run up to several thousand dollars. A clothing retailer, for example, may want to show images of a product in varying colors or sizes, at the click of a mouse. Or a real estate broker may want to take buyers on virtual tours of houses for sale.

Finding an Internet niche
When Stewart's site was built 10 years ago, there were no easy-to-use DIY programs online. Nothing was automated, so she had to call the developer every time she added pages or made changes. He charged by the hour.

In 2001, she invested in software that lets her manage the site herself. With Microsoft Front Page she can make changes in seconds, she says. "If I create a new product, I have the sales page up and running in a half-hour. I used to have to make an appointment and wait around for the Web developer to get the work done."

A former journalist, Stewart sells downloads for $10 apiece of e-reports she pens on such topics as "Damage Control: How to Keep the Media from Making a Mess of Your Story," and "Questions You Can Expect Reporters to Ask During an Interview." She still uses a site developer for special features, such as a "drop-down" box visitors see when they click on her home page, promoting a free subscription to her weekly newsletter.

But it takes more than a well-designed Web site to draw online customers, she adds. Merchants need to find their niche. "The key is to have an Internet presence," she says. "I post my newsletter online. I blog. I write free articles. I am all over the Internet, so customers can find me." These efforts have brought her a lot of repeat or "lifetime customers," says Stewart. "I logged onto my computer this morning, and I had a $350 order."

She also points to eBay as an example of a successful Web site that began by focusing on a highly specialized market. A Web developer who wanted to help his girlfriend market her collection of Pez dispensers created the initial site.

Getting started
To choose a Web hosting service, start with the comparisons at:

Also check out these popular Web hosting companies for small businesses:
Source: National Federation of Independent Business

Then, once you have chosen a hosting service, here are tips for making your e-commerce site a success:

Develop and stick to a business plan. Don't try to do too much too soon with a new Web site; you may not be able to follow through.

Set up credit-card payments. Internet marketers say many customers do not want to take the time to mail checks by US post.

Check out the competition. Before setting up shop online, search the Internet to discover what your competitors are offering and at what price.

Build a customer base. Consider writing a free weekly newsletter that will link users to your Web site and products. Allow visitors to subscribe to your newsletter from your Web site.

Use word of mouth. E-mail friends and associates to let them know about your Web site, and tell them to pass on the word. Contact your local media; perhaps a newspaper or TV station will run a story about your business.

Follow up now!
National Federation of Independent Business: Links, articles and tips for starting and running a Web-based business.
Small Business Administration: Information and tips on starting a Web-based business. Click on the technology link in the category titled Small Business Planner. Links, tools, articles, advice, resources for starting and running a business online.
Wilson Internet Services: Ralph Wilson is a veteran Internet marketing expert who offers seminars, newsletters and free advice on his Web site. Articles, resources, links to help Web-based business women.