The Best Place To Shoot And How


_DSC1554-5CCOu-LR

One thing I encounter very regularly is photographers lamenting that if they lived near <pick a famous scenic place> their work would look much better…WRONG! (I’d user more colorful language but this is not an adults only page!)  Yes, it would be wonderful if I could just walk out my door into the High Sierras, but just like having the most expensive camera available won’t make you a great photographer, living close by famous subjects won’t either.

Among the things that make iconic shots we get, subject, lighting, composition, you know them all too.  But the part that many people forget is that photography while an art is also a craft.  The only way to improve that craft is by practice.  Wherever you live, there are great shots to be taken.  The advantage that “locals” have is that they get to take those shots over and over again.  Doing that accomplishes several things.  It provides a body of work on a single subject, it allows the photographer to work with different angles and compositions and just as important it lets you discover the best light and other conditions.

I live in central New Jersey.  Some folks feel sorry for me for that.  We don’t have grand high peaks or iconic seashores here.  That’s okay.  We do have plenty of open spaces, farm land and lots of other scenery.  One of my favorite places to shoot is at Duke Farms.  That was the private estate of Doris Duke.  In her will, she left as an environmental learning center that is open to the public free of charge.  When I first went there camera in hand, let’s just say the results were less then spectacular.  Since then I’ve been there in all seasons and varying times of day.  Now, people come to me for advise on when and where to shoot at “Dukes”.  Earlier this year, two of my friends put together an exhibit of pictures of and about natural New Jersey.  The exhibit NJ 350 Elements was hosted at Duke Farms.  More spectacular, this was a juried show where the winning images were printed on satin 60″ x 40″ and displayed outdoors!  The picture at the top of this posting is my submission that was part of the exhibit.  Even more exciting, Duke Farms has commissioned prints of the three images in the show that depicted different parts of their facility (including mine).

I grew up in northern Manhattan.  I am in “the old neighborhood” quite often.  Yes the ethnicity has evolved and what types of stores are there has changed.  But beyond that, it’s remarkably like it was when I was a kid.  It was prowling around that neighborhood with y camera that I started taking urban and street shots.  Some folks tell me that I’m actually getting better at it!  The shot below is an example of how much change stays the same.

_DSC0773BWCOu-LR

The other side of where to shoot and when is all about being prepared.  Ask any top professional about what they do to prepare for a shoot somewhere away from home, and I’ll bet you get the same answer over and over.  DO YOUR HOMEWORK! If you are going to go on a special vacation to somewhere exotic, will you just go to a travel site and randomly pick a destination?  Probably not.  If you are planning a trip to somewhere that you don’t know and probably won’t get back to often, do your research.  In today’s environment, it’s a lot easier than it used to be.  Go online and find out about interesting places wherever you are going.  Check the blogs and online groups.  Most people are happy to share.  Look for photos of interesting places.  Pay special attention to not just the place, but also time of day, exposure, angles, etc. so that you have some idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Once you have that work done, plan where you want to be and when.  Remember to check for ideal shooting times where you are going.  Remember, just because evening golden light may start around 4 PM at home, doesn’t mean that’s when it will happen where you are going.

Something thing to keep in mind about iconic shots is that you are probably not going to be alone trying to take that shot.  I’ve heard countless tales of photographers who got up before dawn, hauled a ton of gear to be in the perfect spot for a shot, only to find that fifty or a hundred others were already there and filling every good vantage point.

Make sure that your plans are flexible!  If you want to get great outdoor shots, plan on some of the time having adverse weather.  That can be a blessing or a curse, you need to decide which and adjust your schedule accordingly.

Above all, be a realist!  The more practice you have shooting, the greater the likelihood that you will come home with pictures that make you proud.  Take plenty of pictures.  It may sound like common sense, but many people don’t.  If your camera has repeat modes for shooting, use it.  You’d be surprised at the differences you will find in three shots taken at five or six frames per second.

Earlier this year we spent a very nice day walking around Savanah, GA.  The trip to Savanah was pretty spur of the moment so I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare.  Instead I relied on what has worked for me in other cities.  I came away pleased with the results.  Following is an example.

DSC_4806-1BWCOu-LR

What it really comes down to is this.  Do you want to be a “me too” photographer?  If so, follow the crowd, take the same shots that everyone else does.  If you want to be a real photographer, someone who views photography as a means to document their view and present it as their art, go off the beaten path.  The first time the great scenes were photographed, they were new and novel and marvelous.  Go out and find your iconic scenes, discover your art and use them to tell your story.

So now, to answer the trick question about the title of this post…the best place to shoot and how is (drum roll please)…wherever you are!  The how is just as simple.  The rules of good photography don’t change, use them, apply them and you’ll get the shots that you want.

Advertisements

Getting Started In This Business – Getting Things Going, Keeping Things Going


Red otus Image

If you have been following this series of posts, you should be set to do business online.  Now comes the hardest part, doing business online!

One of the really hard parts about getting your business going is getting customers “in the door”.  With a traditional brick and mortar business your physical location will start attracting customers even before you open.  People will walk by, see the construction and your name so they know what is coming.  Opening online just doesn’t work that way.  You need to do a lot more work via your family, friends, social networks, professional organizations, etc.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a good networker.  Even so, I’ve made it a point to send email to family and friends letting them know about my new business (including a link to my site!).  I’ve also posted notices on my Facebook page and started a page for my business.  I’ve also promoted businesses that I work with.  In some cases they have reciprocated.  I’m not on Twitter.  Call me old fashioned, but I don’t get that whole idea.  If you use Twitter, or any other networking/communications tool, be sure to broadcast the news about your business through all of them.  If your business plan includes an advertising budget, be sure you get your ads going the day you launch.

When you talk to people you know, or meet at social events, the question will likely come up “what’s new” or “what do you do”.  Don’t be afraid to tell them.  One of the tips you get when conducting a job search is to develop an elevator speech.  An elevator speech is a short introduction to something, you, your business, etc, that can be delivered while riding the elevator in a commercial building.  Such speeches are usually no more than thirty seconds long.  Develop your elevator speech for your new business.  Practice it until you have it perfected.  Once delivered, if the other person is interested, they will lead it into more of a conversation.

Along the same lines, have business cards ready.  Even in this digital world, they come in handy.  If you are at a party and in the first half hour someone tells you about a website how likely are you to remember enough to find it the next day?  (Yes, I know you could go to the site on your phone while talking to the person, but most people won’t!).  Because I started a photo business I considered it to be important that my business card really show off that fact.  I used one of my images as the background on the card and then added the necessary text.  Remember, you don’t necessarily need to put your name on the card!  My business is John Feist Photography, so I would hope the recipient can figure out my name!  You do need to include your url (your website address e.g. JohnFeistPhotography.com)  You also need to provide an email address.  Do you include a physical address and phone number?  That’s up to you.  I think phone numbers are good.  They give your prospect another way of contacting you.  Strange as it may seem, we all have different communication preferences.  Do you really want to miss a potential sale because a customer couldn’t text you or get you on the phone?  Physical address is a different question.  Most eBusinesses don’t really need one unless you are doing fulfillment from your address.  If you are doing fulfillment you need to give people a way to return things, hence your address.  Also for now, many people expect to find an address on a business card.

Next you need to think about updates.  There’s a commercial running on TV lately that starts out saying in technology if you are not moving forward, you are moving backward.  Think about successful websites.  The basic layout may remain the same, a good thing as customers know how to find things easily.  The content and merchandise will change very regularly.  Develop a plan for how and when you will change your product mix or add/remove items.  If you are opening a clothing site aimed at North America, are you going to be selling many down parkas in July?  Don’t be in constant change either.  If I buy a new offering from a website and tell a friend about it a week later, we’d expect it to be there!  This also ties back to an earlier post about inventory management.  You should only display merchandise you have, or be very clear when you will be able to ship.

Part of updating your site is keeping your customers coming back.  Most hosted sites will give your customer the option of receiving email updates from you.  There are numerous ways you can get the email address of your customers and prospects.  Sending email updates is a tried and true mechanism for keeping visible to your customers.  Remember, getting a general purpose update once or twice a week from a website is fine, getting several a day is spam.

Another mechanism for getting customers back is via loyalty rewards.  Not all hosted sites will provide you with the capability to run a major loyalty program like the airlines and credit card companies do.  I don’t know too many small businesses that want that.  You should be able to offer coupons/discounts pretty easily.  A very good way to get repeat traffic is to send your customer a coupon for maybe ten per cent off their next purchase as part of your follow up on the initial purchase.  If you do that be sure that the offer has an expiry, otherwise someone may decide to use it in five years!

Another tried and true mechanism is having a sale.  Sales are held for a variety of reasons.  The two you should initially focus on are getting people to your site and moving inventory that you’d like to discontinue.  Functionally, running a sale on line is no different than doing it in a physical store.  Decide on the items, decide on the markdown and let people know about them.

Finally, find ways to be visible in the real world.  If you are located in a smaller community and offer a somewhat unique service or product, let your local media know.  You never know when the local newspaper, radio or TV station will need a filler piece.  Another good avenue can be teaching.  Most communities offer free adult education courses.  If you are opening a site that sells tools, offer some classes on using tools.  You can get some easy plugs in for your site, perhaps giving your students a discount.  Be creative and know your market.  A friend of mine recently launched a line of yoga clothing.  Her sales are via her website KiraGrace.com.  Kira knows the business.  As part of her launch, she got glowing reviews from fitness and yoga publications.  She also goes to yoga studios and conferences with trunk shows so that more people see her line.  All of her appearances are publicized via social media.  Take a look at the site and you’ll understand why I don’t use the product (hint it’s womens yoga clothing).  I do tell my friends who may not know about her when she’ll be in their area and not just my yoga friends.

This will be the last entry in this series for a while.  As I get more into this business, I’ll share my experiences and learnings.  Please check back as I will continue to blog on some other topics going forward.

Getting Started In This Business – Customer Service


Ducks In A RowThis is the fourth in a series of posts about my experiences in starting an online business.

I want to start this post with a thank you to everyone who has sent me positive feedback and comments.  It’s nice to know that someone has read a post(s) and found it useful.

That’s a good lead in to talking about customer service.  At a fundamental level, what defines good customer service hasn’t changed since well into the last century.  Your customers expects you to make their shopping experience pleasant and easy.  They also expect that the product you advertise on your site is what they will get.  Your customers also expect to get a quality product that will perform as advertised.  And finally, your customer expects that if s/he has questions or an issue with their purchase, you will be there to answer them and resolve the issue.

What has changed in the digital age is how we deliver customer service.  I’m going to assume that like me you are starting a small business with few employees other than yourself.  In that scenario, you have dozens of things to do each day, probably more than there are hours in which to do them.  Don’t fall into the trap of neglecting your customers in order to do other things.  Remember, just as you can become an overnight success on the web, a negative review of your site can turn that success into an overnight failure.

Because of those time limitations, I’ve structured my customer service to work via email.  The beauty of this model is that I can access my email any time,  any where.  Most customers do not necessarily expect to be able to call you on the phone.  Have you ever tried to call Amazon?  Not easy!  Customers are used to email and other electronic media.  That means that you need to keep tabs on your business in box.  Many businesses have set up an auto reply to their in boxes so that as soon as a message comes in, the “Thank you for contacting us we will get back to you shortly” mail goes out.  Setting this up is not hard, but it does take time.  If you want to assign a problem number or something like it, that takes more time and effort.  In most cases, getting back to your customer within two hours works fine.

Be wary of trying to use social networking and interactive tools to provide customer service.  Facebook, Twitter, etc. are not the place to do customer service.  They are there to be part of your marketing strategy as a mechanism for telling your fans, followers, et al what is new and exciting on your site.  That doesn’t mean you should ignore these networks.  If someone is unhappy and posts it on a social network, you need to respond to the problem, but not via the social network. Take it “off line”.  Beware of trying to implement online or real time chat.  Chat can be a very nice tool, but that too takes time and effort to implement and maintain.  More importantly, you need to have someone available to do the “chatting”  24 x 7 since you never know when someone will want to contact you.

Now let’s add a level of practicality.  While not listing a phone number sounds good, in practice it may not work.  Here are a couple of examples:

  • I do most of my interacting with PhotoShelter.com via email.  However, there are times when getting an answer to a simple question could take ten minutes on the phone or three days on email.  PhotoShelter.com hosts my site as well as those for about 70,000 other photographers.  They have a phone number listed.  Sometimes when I call I get voice mail, as in “all our operators are busy assisting other customers”.  When that happens I leave a message and normally get a call back within an acceptable time frame.  That works fine for me.  Could PhotoShelter.com augment their support staff so that I never get voice mail? Sure, but then I suspect I’d have to pay more for the service!
  • Last year I wanted to do a high quality coffee table book for my wife for Christmas.  I chose PhotoBookPress.com to do the book based on a recommendation in a photo magazine.  They are set up to do everything in the ordering process online.  As I was setting up the book I wanted, I wasn’t happy that what the software was showing me was the layout I had chosen.  Photo Book Press custom prints and hand binds each book, so there are lead times to consider.  I called them about my concern.  I get a fast response from one of their technical people.  He apologized and explained that they had done a software upgrade that hadn’t worked as expected.  He then walked me through a work around that allowed me to get everything in to them in time for Christmas.  As the production process takes several weeks, I got email updates so that I knew where my book was in the process.  The book arrived in time for Christmas and was a big success.

On the flip side, when I switched cell phone providers and went from a Blackberry to an Android phone, there were several features I was used to that were not on my new phone.  Searching the App Store (not necessarily a pleasant experience) I found an app that looked to be exactly what I wanted, Enhanced SMS and CallerID (eCid).  I bought the app, downloaded it and it didn’t work through my blue tooth headset.  After trying the remedies suggested on the vendor’s site, I sent an email.  Over the course of about two hours and several emails we concluded that the app would not work with my particular headset.  The vendor immediately offered me a refund.  I opted to keep the app and upgraded my headset to one that the vendor told me works well (and came from a company who’s headsets I like).  The new headset and app have been working well together for nearly a year.

The above three examples should give you a flavor of what it takes to provide really great customer service.  To wrap up, what you need to remember about customer service is:

  • Deliver what you promise.
  • Be sure you have told your customer how to contact you.
  • Be attentive to all your customer service channels.
  • Be honest with your customer.  If it will take two weeks to get them a replacement tell them that!
  • Be responsive to your customer.  Even if you don’t have any news, if it’s been a while since you updated them on an issue, send them a note repeating your last status saying that you are working on their issue and try to give a realistic completion date/time.
  • Remember what seems like a strange, unusual, weird or stupid question or problem to you is anything but to them.  If you know anyone who was doing IT type support work in the early days of windows, ask them how many times people called saying that the foot pedal didn’t work or the cup holder was broken.
  • And finally, while the old saying “the customer is always right” may not be true for you, DON’T TELL THEM THAT!

Getting Started In This Business – Fulfillment or Getting People Their Stuff


In the previous two posts I looked at creating your website or store and the back office you need in order to actually sell something.  Assuming that you have done them, the next question you need to answer is how will your customers get what they have purchased?

You have three possible choices for fulfillment: electronic, outsourced or self fulfillment.  Not all will apply in all cases.  Regardless of your fulfillment method(s) you must be sure that they can handle almost any volume.  We go into a business with the expectation that it will be successful.  In internet terms, that can happen literally overnight or faster.  Assume you get a customer who buys from you and is really happy with your product, the online experience, timely delivery, etc.  and that customer is very socially networked.  A very good review of your new business can end up in front of millions of eyeballs in hours!  While that isn’t likely to happen, what will you do if your original sales estimates are off by a factor of 10 or 100?

The best option is to have orders filled automatically and electronically.  If you have purchased music from iTunes or software from Microsoft you have used this model.  There is a major entry criteria to using this model…you must be selling something digital!  If you are selling something digital you have two choices as to how you will deliver: use your own infrastructure or use someone else’s.  There are a number of reasons to “outsource” this component.  As with hosting a website, the vendors who provide this service have the experience and business motivation to do it well.  If you are a small business, do you have the time to go through all the security concerns to assure that your “warehouse” is secure.  Do you have the time to do the maintenance that this infrastructure requires?  Do you understand how the automatic fulfillment process works to a level where you can implement and manage it?

The bottom line is that if you are outsourcing your hosting, your hosting company can likely provide fulfillment services or direct you to a partner of theirs who can.  Not only will such partners have what you need to deliver you products safely and efficiently, they will also have the ability to scale up or down to meet your needs very quickly and provide you with good data about your completed orders.  Will there be a cost? Yes.  Figure that into your pricing and get back to what actually makes money for you.

So much for digital fulfillment.  What if you need to actually deliver a physical product to your customer?  Here again you get the two options: do it yourself or let someone else do it.  This time the answer is not as cut and dry.  For my photo site, I have some sales that are fulfilled automatically through PhotoShelter.com.  These are the downloads of an actual image.  I also offer my images imprinted on a number of different surfaces and media.  PhotoShelter.com has arrangements with a number of photo labs who are ready and able to do the fulfillment that I need.  All I need to do is decide which of the lab’s I want to offer.  From there PhotoShelter.com lets me set the retail price for each offering.  When a customer orders a physical product the order is automatically sent to the lab for fulfillment.  The lab will complete the order and send it to my customer.  All labeling, return addresses, etc. will show John Feist Photography and not the lab.  For me that set up is ideal.

Not all fulfillment works that easily.  If your business manufactures or resells a product, you will need to decide if you want to work with a fulfillment house.  If you do, you will need to get your product to the fulfillment house, determine that your hosting company can route your orders to the fulfillment house and make sure that your fulfillment house has sufficient inventory.

The alternative to working with a fulfillment house is doing your own fulfillment.  A number of photographers who host on PhotoShelter.com self fulfill some or all of their offerings.  In some cases this is because they offer signed prints.  In other cases they want to have absolute control over the quality of what goes to the customer.  There is nothing wrong with doing that.  Doing your own fulfillment does place additional burdens on you:

  • First, what shipping options you will offer.  Can you turn orders around to do next day or two day shipping?
  • You need to establish a relationship with a shipping company (usually UPS or FedEx) and understand their pricing so that you can add that to the total cost to your customer.  Typically online vendors do NOT include shipping in the product price.  Recognize that you will probably not be able to get the same cost structure for shipping as the “big guys” get.  Big customers get big discounts.
  • Put a cost on what it takes to actually receive the order and convert that into a package ready to be shipped.  That is the handling component of Shipping and Handling.  You may consider that to be part of your markup when doing it all yourself.  Bad idea!  What is your time worth?  What if you have to pay someone else to do that work?  The only way you will know what it takes to do the handling is to dry run it until you are satisfied that the process works reliably and reasonably efficiently.  Be realistic!  Use a stopwatch to determine the time it takes to do the individual tasks, understand how you transition from task to task (e.g. print out orders, pick inventory, pack, etc.)  You’ll be amazed at the time and effort involved in those “connectors”.  Be realistic about doing these tasks for numerous orders and not just one.  Once you understand the time, effort and materials involved talk to your accountant about figuring out those costs.
  • Where will you keep your inventory, do your processing and how will you get your packages to the shipping company?  Remember, your inventory must now include all the supplies you need for shipping.

New age stuff aside, self fulfillment can be the right option for you.  Just make sure that you understand all that is involved before taking it on.

Another consideration when you are planning fulfillment, regardless of who is doing it, is real time inventory management.  Consider this scenario.  You go online to order something.  You place the order and pay the premium for next day shipping.  Six hours later you get an email from the vendor stating that they are very sorry, but your item is out of stock and they will let you know when they have more.  Odds are you will not be writing anything nice about the vendor or buying from them again.  You need to be sure that when the customer is looking at your offerings, you tell them if something is not available and if possible when you expect to have it in stock.

One final reminder that is not exactly part of fulfillment.  Don’t forget about sales tax!  I am not going to try and explain how it works, when it needs to be collected, etc.  Sales tax laws and requirements differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  Check with your accountant as to when you have to collect sales tax and at what rate.  Remember, when it comes to sales tax you are collecting it for one or more governmental agencies.  In the current economic climate, most state and local governments need every penny they can get, so don’t get yourself in trouble when it can be so easily avoided.

I do hope that you are finding these posts useful.  I appreciate feedback, questions, comments and constructive criticism.

Getting Started in this Business – Getting Paid


In my last post I talked about websites and what it takes to get them started.  Having a website is important, but if you are opening an online business, the website is just the start.

Your website must do a lot of jobs.  First it tells the online world that you are there and what your business is.  Don’t underestimate the information aspect of your site.  People want to get some idea of who they are dealing with before they will trust you enough to buy something from you.  In addition to splashing your name and product(s) all over your site, you need to let them know who you are and how they can contact you.  Be sure to check your business email very regularly.  Customers who send email expect quick replies. In today’s world, believe it or not, email is probably a more important customer service tool than the phone.

Let’s assume that a potential customer has come to your site/store and decided to buy.  Assuming you have a site set up with products, prices and some type of shopping cart, your customer can browse through your store and put their choices into their shopping cart.  Ultimately, there will come a time when they need to check out and pay for their purchases.  That’s where things can get a bit more complicated.

You typically have two mechanisms for accepting payment.  I’m going to be cavalier and assume that you will only be accepting online payments.  The simplest mechanism for accepting payments is PayPal.  You can set up an account with PayPal for free and most hosted sites will give you a mechanism that will let you link to PayPal payments.  The down side to this arrangement include:

  • You have no control over the look and feel of the PayPal payments site
  • Your customer actually goes away from your site into PayPal’s site to make their payment
  • PayPal will also post ads etc. to your customer

The other payment mechanism is for you to accept payment directly.  Again, it sounds simple.  In actuality, the mechanisms really are.  The “gotcha” has to do with how the process works.  Accepting payment by credit card directly involves three components:  a front end (in this case your website), an interface or gateway and finally a merchant bank that will actually handle the credit card transactions.  Most hosting services have existing arrangements with gateways and merchant banks.  The benefit to that is that all connections have been built and tested.

Getting set up with the gateway and merchant bank take time.  You have to go through an application process that includes credit checks and identity verification.  The other gotcha is that the banking industry has set up security standards for websites that accept credit card payments (PCI).  The standards are all documented, long and detailed.  One of the requirements for PCI compliance is for your merchant bank to go to your website and validate that you are in compliance.  Again, why go through all the trouble of building your own,which can take a lot of time, when your service provider should already be compliant.  Once you are approved, you need to do some simple setup so that the gateway knows your account information.

Either way, you need to get an approval for any transaction with a credit card.  The merchant bank or PayPal will handle that.  If you are using a service provider website, it should handle both accepted and rejected transactions.  At the end of the business day (as defined by the service provider),  all of the transactions are gathered (batched) and processed.  Once they are processed, you get paid, normally within a day or two.

The bottom line is that you need to have a payment received and approved.  Once you have that, you can give your customer their goods or services.  It’s no different than swiping a card at a brick and mortar retail establishment.

I opted for the gateway and merchant bank.  My hosting company had a relationship with several gateway providers who in turn hooked me up with the merchant bank.  The process was not difficult, it just took time.

How do you actually get your money?  The merchant bank will deposit your funds directly into your bank account via ACH.  (If you don’t know what ACH is, just accept that it is a direct deposit mechanism between banks).  Since I wasn’t interested in the PayPal option I didn’t research it in detail.  They pay to your PayPal account and then you get to transfer the funds to your bank or spend directly through PayPal.

In all cases, nothing comes for free.  PayPal, the gateway and merchant bank will all take something from your transactions for payment.  Most will also have monthly minimums, batch fees etc.  Payment is either taken before funds are delivered or directly from your bank or PayPal account if the fee is not transaction based.

Do your homework!  Get the full picture on what all the costs will be.  Do your best to come up with realistic estimates of what your business volume will be, both in terms of number of transactions and amount of money.  Once you have them, set up best, worst and most likely scenarios and see what you can expect, both gross and net.  Remember, you will need to track both as the charges you pay to the providers are normally deductible business expenses.  Check with your tax adviser to be sure.

And speaking of tax advisers… Most states charge sales tax.  The rules around if you need to charge sales tax on what and to whom can get complicated.  Talk to your tax adviser to understand if you have to pay sales tax, if so on what and what the tax amount is.  The distributed nature of this business can also confuse some of these questions especially when your fulfillment or distribution is in a different tax jurisdiction than you are.

I’ll talk more about these aspects in the next post, when I look at fulfillment.

Getting Started In This Business – An Online Identity


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.