Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Websites II: Building the Business Website

October 1998

By Mike Gould

In last month's episode, we convinced you all that now is the time to get your feet wet in the surf of the World Wide Web; this month we discuss how to go about building your beachfront property.

Finding an Architect
"Hey, no problem; little Jeffy next door is studying computers in jr. high school, I'll pay him peanuts to put me on the web" I hear you say. Um, with all due respect to schoolkids everywhere (many of whom can probably out-mouse me with one serial cable tied behind their backs), this may not be a really great idea. Sure, writing the HTML that supports web pages is one of the easiest computer tasks there is (so easy that it barely qualifies as programming), but there is more to a successful website than just slapping up words and pictures.

Like any complicated business project, building a website involves a large number of factors, among them: properly-massaged graphics, engaging text, a clear and obvious navigation system, appropriate use of sound and other multimedia elements, and careful design of the overall look and feel. And the silly thing has to look good on all computers and all monitors and under all operating systems and browsers.

Who Ya Gonna Call?
I recommend finding a professional web designer (AKA web developer) to put you on the WWW. There are 2 pages full of developers in the Ann Arbor ­ Ypsilanti yellow pages. You can ask your friends with good sites who built theirs, you can look at the credits page of sites you admire, or you can contact me! (Heh, heh, heh). If your needs are very minimal, a VERY talented teen can do the job, or you can do it yourself.

There are now programs out there that enable the programming-challenged to build web pages. The code they produce is often sloppy, slow to load and generally sub optimal, but it does work most of the time. If your needs are simple and you are comfortable with your computer, this may be a good way to go. But if you have any ambitions at all about building a successful web business, do yourself a favor and get a pro involved from the git-go.

Before I get inundated with nastygrams from the generation-Z folk out there, let me say that, yes, there are some very talented dudes and dudettes out there who are doing great work; but the better of these will cost you the same as going to a commercial web design firm ­ or are probably already working with a commercial firm. Whomever you go to, make sure you ask to see some of the sites they've built for others. And as with any other business deal, find someone you are comfortable talking to and working with.

What do You Want?
Before you start your search for a developer, have a clear idea of what you want your site to accomplish. Do you want a full-tilt commercial site, capable of handling secure transactions? Or do you just want to advertise your 800 number, giving potential customers yet another way of finding you? Hopefully, the first question a prospective web developer will ask you is "What are you looking to get out of this?" Having an answer ready will help get things rolling.

Surf Before You Build
It is a good idea to get as much experience as possible on the WWW as a user before setting out to be a provider. Get online and get to know the culture; familiarize yourself with the customs and standards seen on existing sites. Take notes as to what features of other sites you like and dislike; a list of URLs (web addresses) with comments will help your designer build a site that best matches your likes and needs. See what the competition is doing; if your closest competitor has a lame site, plan a showcase that puts their site to shame. On the other hand, if the guy up the road has a killer site, you may have to rethink the size, scope and budget of your site-to-be.

Realistic Expectations Realize up front that building a business on the web is like building a business anywhere: overnight sensations usually happen after years of work. Very few businesses are getting rich off the web, but most businesses benefit from a presence. Sometimes it only takes one contract from that lady in Hong Kong who found you on the web to make it all worth while.

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