Getting an online start

By Mary McCarthy

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Sunday Business Post, 01 August 2004

 

Every start-up should have a website, even if it’s just to introduce the business and give basic contact details. But what does a basic website really need to do? And how much should a small new company budget for?

As a rule of thumb, the cost of a functional website for a start-up will vary between a couple of hundred euro per year to several thousand.This ranges from entry-level brochure-ware (name, contact details, company information) to higher end e-commerce sites (payment processing, customer interactivity tools).

At the budget end of the price-scale is the DIY site.

There are, literally, thousands of these off-the-shelf packages available online. Everyone from Eircom to Yahoo! offers them. They offer a small amount of hosting space, a domain name (for example, SeanMurphy.com) and a few e-mail addresses. They allow basic interaction, such as inputting and changing text, designs and pictures. And they usually include a beginner’s-class web store builder with the package. If you don’t have a big marketing budget but do have in-house skills, or know a friend who can do your site, the DIY route is a good option.

A Google search will turn up buckets of these, most of them US-based. However, there are some Irish providers. Hosting365 (www.hosting365.ie), which is one of the bigger players, has a professional plan for ÿ300 a year, which gives an e-commerce site with 1000MB of disk space.

In layman’s terms, that’s about enough space to comfortably host several hundred pictures over several hundred pages. It’s also enough space to hold some basic database files. The big Irish telcos also offer website deals. Not surprisingly, these are marketed particularly heavily to new companies applying for broadband packages.

Eircom, for example, has a broadband business plus starter pack for ÿ89 a month (excluding Vat). This gives a 12GB download capacity – three times the basic consumer amount – and unlimited uploads at a speed of 1MB.

bear in mind that you will always get what you pay for

So far, so good. But what if you need something professional looking or a little more advanced, but aren’t confident of your development skills? Time to look at what a web development company can offer. These aren’t cheap, but they shouldn’t break the bank either.

Computers In Business rang six companies for a quote for a basic site with six or seven pages of information, ane-mail query form and an interface that will enable the site to be updated by the user. The quotes ranged from between €800 to €5,000 for building and hosting the site. The smaller companies and independent contractors gave the lower quotes; the bigger the web development company, the higher the quote.

Irene Gahan of the Irish Internet Association said that, on average, a start-up should expect to budget a minimum of €2,000 for a basic e-commerce site and that this will increase as more features are added.

According to Gahan, there are some excellent independent contractors out there who will do your site for a lower price. But, she said, if you feel you will need a lot of guidance it is worth it to employ a web development company recommended to you.

This way, she said, you may have more security if things go wrong in the future. Outside the web development industry, the view is that a start-up without a website is missing a key business element.

“You would pay someone to design your [offline] brochure and you should regard your website as equally important,” said Pat Delaney, director of the Small Firms Association. “Shop around for a good price. But bear in mind that you will always get what you pay for.”As for whether to go it alone or hire someone, Delaney said that setting up your own site is time consuming. “If you have in-house capability, use it,” he said. “But it is often better in the long run to get someone else to do it.”

This is exactly what Ruth Kennelly did. Kennelly is an interior designer who last year set up RK Designs. She decided to use a web marketing agency to get her website (www.rkdesigns.ie) high up on a decent search engine ranking. Luckily for her, a web developer friend set up her site (which is hosted with Hosting365). She then paid Bright Spark Consulting ÿ500 to look after search engine optimisation among other marketing techniques for her. The result? In the last three months Kennelly has won three major orders off the web.

Tony Ferns of Southside shop Lawnmovers Plus wanted something a little more interactive. His bricks-and-mortar business attracts a lot of people looking for spare parts, something that could obviously be done online. He approached Storm Technology with a brief in February and expects to see his site, www.lawnmover-plus.ie, go live in the next couple of weeks. He said that the only major delay in creating it was setting up the credit card payment system. Ferns said that the whole experience set him back around €1,500, but that he is optimistic for the website.

Common pitfalls

So what are the common pitfalls that a starter company dipping its toes in the website waters make?

Top of the list is not delivering on what is promised.

“Having a lovely site with lots of interactivity features is worthless if there is no-one responding to customers in a timely fashion,” said David McMahon, managing director of Labyrinth, one of the biggest web development companies in the country.

McMahon said that this is especially important for a start-up where there is not a reserve of past loyalty to make up the shortfall.

“Every company who has a website should have an in-house process where someone signs up to agree to address mails as they come in. “There should be a guaranteed turnaround time for requested information such as brochures or products. It is a people process and not a technology solution,” he said.

Another pitfall is underestimating the importance of search engines and not getting your listing highly placed on them. This is because, for a start-up company,the main challenge is getting people to your site.

You need your company’s website listing fairly close to the top of a search-engine (such as Google) list, so that when a potential customer does a search for products or services that you happen to sell, you are front and centre.McMahon said that most people do not trawl past the third page of search engine listings. “To improve your chances you need not only to register but re-register on an ongoing basis and constantly monitor your ranking. It’s like having a great advertisement in the North Pole,” he said.

How much and for what?

Computers In Business asked Brian Smyth of Digital Media for advice and quotes on the following starter website scenarios.

Website 1: a solicitors’ company with two partners wants a formal site with pictures, contact details, tools (such as general advice on legal issues) and a news service to be updated once a week.

Advice: Smyth advises that a web development company supply an out-of-the-box standard site with five or six pages of text and a news service built with a web interface that enables the partners to update it themselves.

This option may be more expensive, but it will quickly pay for itself. “It is crucial to have a fresh, lively site with new information added regularly, so people will revisit your site,” Smyth said.

Quotes: we received quotes for this site of €800 (Storm Technology), €5,000 (Strata3) and €3,000 (Continuum).

Website 2: a florist wants an online ordering and payment function with pictures updated regularly.

Advice: this option is more expensive due to the online payment facility. Smyth advises to get the user interface so the site can be updated easily.

This site needs simple navigation straight from the home-page to the flower ranges with as many pictures as possible. Because the e-commerce facility on this site makes it more complex, he suggests getting a written agreement detailing future potential maintenance costs.

 

Website: Sunday Business Post

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