Taking your business online

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You can't ignore the role of the Internet in business today. In a very short time, we've gone from mixers and meet-ups to e-mail and tweets. Not having a web site that represents your business today is as negligent as not having business cards.

You know how important taking your business online is, but maybe you, like many other business owners, don't have a clue about "this Internet thing" or where to even start.

Fear not. Taking your business online, while a project unto itself, is not much different from conducting your business any other way if you break it down into basic components.

Some good reasons for taking your business online
The best reason, believe it or not, is to legitimize your business. Business cards are a staple of business. Now, so is having a web presence.  In fact, it's become so important because studies show that most of the time, your web site is the first and primary place potential customers and partners go to learn more about you. So you can't ignore it these days--it's a kind of "keeping up with the Jones'." If you don't have a web presence, you can bet your competitors will.  Don't be left out.

Sometimes taking your business online is a way to expand and grow the business. A web presence affords you reach beyond your geography which works nicely for retail and other business models that don't depend on being on-site for the mainstay. However, web can even increase local and regional exposure and has worked well for service-type businesses from restaurants to landscaping. A good web presence will help get the word out and provide you exposure that even paid advertising can't match.

A well-planned web presence can help cut costs and create happier customers. Think about it: with the ability to provide customer service to some degree online, you are empowering your customers with access to information they need and to you directly 24/7/365. Under the tent, you can save on administration and employee costs to provide traditional customer service that's more time-consuming for both you and your customer.

You don't need to be a programmer to have a web presence
While having an understanding of processes and components involved in web can accelerate your project and boost its results greatly, remember you (unless your business is strictly "e") are responsible for making business decisions regarding both your physical and virtual business presence, not necessarily programming your web site or hooking up a payment gateway through code. There are people who are expert in development/programming that you will need to identify and work with. If you were building a new office, you wouldn't expect to pour the concrete for the foundation if that wasn't your gig but you'd have to identify and hire a contractor, set budgets and manage the process. Likewise, you shouldn't expect much difference in building a virtual presence, it's just that the contractors' roles are technically different but fundamentally similar.

At all costs--unless you are willing to bet your business on it--avoid using brother-in-laws who know a little bit about web, nephews who have a Facebook page, and any other amateur "web guys" who can save you money because you will get what you pay for.  You wouldn't let them perform surgery on you, don't let them fumble around building one of the most important components of your business.

Set aside a realistic budget and identify a qualified, proven and accountable web firm. Any reputable firm will help you understand budgets, time and capabilities just as would a concrete contractor coming to pour you a new driveway. Again, don't make web this special, confusing mess just because you don't understand code or how an e-mail gets from one place to another.  All things are fundamentally the same as with anything you contract out for your business and you need to manage your web initiative just like you would any other. Realistically, basic web sites start at $3,000 and go up from there depending on features and use cases. If you are not prepared to invest in your web presence, you may want to re-evaluate your priorities regarding business development and strategy.  It is that important, really.

Once you identify a firm and budget you are comfortable with, you can help move the process forward by having materials ready for your web firm.  This will help keep the project organized and on-budget (often developers are so taken aback by a prepared customer they will go above and beyond for you) and may even speed your time to market.  At a minimum, you should have the following things prepared and delivered to your web firm:

  1. Company logos, brand marks and any artwork provided as high-resolution ELECTRONIC files (remember, it's web)
  2. A list of objectives that the role of the web site is intended to fulfill, i.e., the ability to provide product information, the ability for customers to contact the company through online means, the ability to sell products from the web site, etc.
  3. An outline (even if rough) of content for the web site. Don't think of it necessarily in terms of how the site "works" at this point or "sections," just determine the things you absolutely must communicate and supply some base copy (you can refine later) for the topics that you can, provide placeholders for things you know you need but haven't drafted yet (often site content is a permutation of sales/marketing fodder but remember that web is a unique forum to engage customers and would be pointless if it were just the electronic version of your sales materials).
  4. Any current marketing/sales or materials that can be referenced for aligning the site with current efforts (again, providing them electronically will make it faster, less expensive and may net you in-kind favors from the firm)

Is your business suited for e-commerce?
Not every business is ideal for selling online. For example, services are difficult to sell online since they typically require some level of person-person contact. But many smaller and boutique retailers have found it extremely profitable to take their businesses online and open their markets up to the world rather than just their neighborhoods. In fact, eBay and other online marketplaces have enabled small businesses to compete with much larger retailers. So taking your business online can be strategic in leveling the playing field to some degree.

Selling online can also impact bottom line materially by allowing you to realize cost savings in reduced administration and manpower that a typical "bricks and mortar" model requires. Be forewarned that it's rare that a business can completely substitute online presence solely for the presence of their people and all of the most successful companies figure out sooner or later that customer service is a huge component of conducting business and driving sales no matter if the business is online or not. Many businesses have found success in virtualizing very specific portions of their business, keeping a majority of it traditional bricks and taking a niched portion of it online.

To determine if your business model is suited to sell online in some way, you should loop back to your original business plan. Remember that just because you find a need to go online, it is rare (and often fatal) that it would fundamentally change your business model in its entirety. Most businesses should be able to look at e-commerce as a modular portion of their overall business. In fact, many (recommended) even account for their online performance as a separate entity of sorts, kind of like a mini-business within the overall business. That way, over time, they can make better decisions based on performance whether to expand the online offering or to choke it back and focus even further until they find the optimal mix.