I’ve learned a lot starting up this online business and thought I’d use a few posts to share what I have learned. I am by no means an expert on starting a web based business, but I am happy to share what I know.
Starting an online business is no different than starting any other business. You need to have a business plan that lays out what your business will be, who your customers and suppliers are, how your customers will get their purchases, what your costs are and how you actually intend to make money. Don’t underestimate doing this! There are libraries full of documentation about why businesses fail. Two of the biggest reasons are that the owner didn’t understand the business well enough and the business was under capitalized. There are plenty of resources out there to help you create your business plan. These range from books (either printed on paper or eReader) to workshops, classes and mentoring organizations like SCORE. Take your time creating your plan. Get inputs from people you trust who have knowledge, information or experience that you don’t. Remember the most important thing to know is what you don’t know! What follows should help with the online part of your business plan.
In order to have a web business you need an address. You are probably familiar with many such addresses like Amazon.com, Google.com, etc. (mine is JohnFeistPhotography.com). Addresses are made up of two parts, your name and then your domain. Domains can be .com, .net, .biz, etc. Each name/domain pair (from here on I’ll call these pairs domains) can be owned separately. Large companies tend to own all the possible domains as well as permutations on the primary name to avoid consumer confusion and possible fraud or identity theft. Each domain has a cost associated with it, so you decide how many variations you want to pay for. You only need one. Try to get the name that matches your business name. You don’t have to, but it helps! I could have used JoesBarberShop.com if it was available to host JohnFeistPhotography, but that would just cost me visits when people couldn’t find me.
Internet names are managed and controlled globally by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (aka ICANN). There are many services out there to help you get your domain. These services are acting as vendors interfacing with ICANN for you. Don’t bother trying to work directly with ICANN, it’s not worth the trouble. I have worked with GoDaddy.com to get domains for several years and found them to be very good. Remember, you pay annually for your domains. Most services will give you multi-year options. You can Google Domain Registration to get a long list of services. Remember, if necessary, it is pretty easy to transfer a domain from one hosting/registration company to another.
Unless you are opening a web hosting/programming business, take advantage of existing services. I’ve been involved in programming and IT since before there was an internet. Could I have done all the work to build my site myself? Yes. Did I? No. There is a subtle trap to building your own…you have to do it and then maintain it. It’s the maintaining that turns into a black hole. Those tasks can eat up a lot of time better spent developing your actual business. How many brick and mortar startups do you know where the owner built the building or fitted out the store rather than hire someone to do it? There are a number of other reasons for not building your site from scratch, but I’ll deal with them in a later posting.
A few hints about services to acquire your domain and then host your site:
- Before committing to a service take a look at what types of sites they offer. Remember there is a big difference between a sales site and an information only (brochure ware) site. The service should have templates and options easily available. If you can’t find something you like, look elsewhere.
- Again, unless you are looking to build your site from scratch, be open to the templates that are offered. Good hosting companies have experience with a variety of sites and will likely offer templates (layouts, color schemes, etc.) that are known to work well for a particular type of business. In my case, it was very important to show the pictures looking their best. If I were opening a sporting goods site, I’d probably have some very different priorities. This ties back to know what you don’t know and listen to those with the experience and knowledge. Before I went with PhotoShelter, I built some prototype layouts and got input from family and friends. Then I saw what PhotoShelter offered and dropped them in favor of the PhotoShelter offerings. I could have used my own, but why spend the time when they had really good offering on the shelf.
- Look at the total cost for hosting. There are often hidden costs and benefits. I didn’t go with the cheapest hosting site possible when I set up my store. The hosting service I chose (PhotoShelter.com) is a service dedicated to photographers and has a good reputation. I actually went to look at how others have set up their sites and found most of the good ones hosted on PhotoShelter. Other items to look for are how much space do you get, how much volume is included in the price, what services are included. More on the last one in anohter posting.
- VERY IMPORTANT find out what support options are available. Most of the big hosters (Google, Yahoo, etc.) talk about their community, online support, etc. I prefer working with an outfit where I can call and talk to someone if I have a question or problem. Believe me it makes a difference. Both GoDaddy and PhotoShelter have very good support people available when I call.
One final word on custom built sites. True custom built sites are very expensive and can take a long time to build. The people who do this work tend to be highly skilled and very expensive. Designers and implementation are two different skill sets so you may have to pay for both. Many of these professionals also charge you whenever you want to make a change either during the initial build or after the site is up. Beware of the trap of having family or friends who will do it “for the experience” or because their mother told them to. I know many cases where the low cost turned into a web site that either never got finished, or lacked significant functionality, or looked like it was built by someone’s “teen age nephew”. If you really want a custom built web site, wait until your business can afford to pay for it, after the business is up and running.
You will also need an eMail address. Most hosting companies will give you an email box with your domain. If it is just you in the business, that’s all you need. Sure you can go with a free account from Google, Yahoo, etc., but remember you are also trying to project an image. How would you react to a business with an email address like XYZSupply@gmail.com? A sneaky hint… you get an option when setting up an email account to make it the default destination for a domain. That means that email sent to your domain but not to an existing mailbox will go there. When I set up JohnFeistPhotography’s email, I created info@JohnFeistPhotography.com as a real mailbox. I also set as the default. that way, any mail sent to john@JohnFeistPhotography.com or Sales@JohnFeistPhotography.com, etc. will come to my one mailbox!
If you are sure about your name and are able to get it (e.g. MyBusinessName.com) go ahead and get it. It should cost under $20. Most services will offer you options about privacy, certification and retention. Read what they are offering and decide if it is right for you. You can always change things later. Remember this will be your business, not the site for your daughter’s Girl Scout cookies. In most cases these costs are considered to be deductible business expenses. Don’t take my word for that, check with your tax professional.
Don’t start committing to hosting and related services until you have everything ready to go. Once you commit, there are typically monthly costs. Some hosts offer a free trial period. Use the free time to build and fine tune the site, once you are ready. Building the actual site via exiting templates on a hosted service is much faster than starting from scratch. The time consuming activities are typically:
- Loading products. I have about 800 images on my site. I had to select and load them, but more on such fun activities in a subsequent post.
- Fine tuning wording and layout of what goes where in your site
- Deciding on logos, images and other decoration for your site
It took me an afternoon to do the basic set up on JohnFeistPhotography.com. Uploading the images took several hours. I had selected the initial images before starting. It took me another week or so to get everything right about the images, their descriptions, prices, etc. Adding this blog to the site took about five minutes on PhotoShelter, plus the time to do some setup on WordPress which hosts the blog.
That’s enough for one topic. I’d love to hear back if you have questions, comments or suggestions. I’ll post the next increment in a week or so.