Eric Kranz – Regardless of the business you run, the industry you are in or the customers you target the simple fact is that you need a web presence. Hiring a web design firm to create and maintain a professional web site can be a daunting expense for entrepreneurs and often falls by the wayside. Instead, these budget conscious individuals claim their Google Places page, set up a Facebook page and fire up a Twitter account. These are excellent first steps to helping your audience find and interact with you when you can’t afford to hire the professional, however there is an intermediate step that many entrepreneurs are finding both viable and easier than it may seem.
Today, there are a number of excellent options for the person looking to design their own web site to give a presence above and beyond the social media space. Creating your own site is a cost-effective (time consuming) means to carving out a personal, professional and presentable space on the web. These sites forego the daunting need to understand coding and HTML in favor of what is known as WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editing. As you make changes to your site, those changes are visible in preview form to you.
Start a blog
Within this DIY web design environment, there are multiple layers of customization and ease of use. The standard, easy entry point is via a blog. Sites like tumblr.com, blogger.com and WordPress.com are excellent, free/cheap options that are simple and fairly straightforward. Sign up for the service, create a catchy title, and start posting. It’s as easy as sending an email and provides a personalized space for your business to provide information and update customers on your business. Generally these sites are a bit restrictive and meant to provide a “stream” of information that is constantly updated. While a nice component for any site, you can do so much more with just a little bit more effort.
Create your own presence
Two of the larger and easier to use players offering DIY services are Intuit and SquareSpace. Choose a template as a starting point and generally go wild from there. These sites offer a myriad of tools and options that allow you to design your web site in any way you choose to make it your own. Unlike most blogs, these make it easy for you to add a number of pages so that you can smartly break up information making it easy to find and organize. Both companies offer in-depth tutorials and free trials that allow you to see if this “easy” service is right for you. There are various and tiered pricing structures for all of these services which offer different features at certain monthly fee levels. Make sure to shop around and find the right service at the right price for your business. Generally there is a middle package for about $20/month that will make sense for smaller, single location businesses. Add-on’s like web stores, credit card processing and domain hosting will raise that fee slightly depending on the provider.
Like all things, there is a trade-off for deciding to not shell out hundreds (or thousands) of dollars to a pro. In this case, it’s time. Learning the tools, understanding the options and maximizing the utility of these services will take some time. Since many of these sites do offer a free month trial, play with a number of them. Find the one you like the most or is the easiest for you to use or has the best customer support and go from there. In order to create a site that you are happy with and you are proud to show your customers will take significant sweat equity. If you do decide to go this route, make sure to take advantage of all the customer support options available to you. Watch the how-to videos, visit the support forums and contact the service people via phone and/or email. In addition to the company produced tutorials, there are also a number of great how-to videos on YouTube for just about every site listed in this post. Remember, your web site is an important (and increasingly the first) tool for contacting and interacting with your customers.
In the past few years, a number of competitors offering easy to use do-it-yourself web site design have started popping up. Services provided by sites like webs.com, jimbo.com, and yola.com cater their services to special niches and offer various levels of customization and customer service. One to highlight is Moonfruit. In somewhat brief testing with all of these sites, Moonfruit had the simplest implementation of a web based retail store. If that is something you are looking for, definitely check out Moonfruit.
This is not an option that will be right for everyone. No matter how “easy” WYSIWYG web editing makes things it still requires some level of knowledge and skill with computers. If you can afford it, a web design pro is still the best option. However, if you’re operating on a shoe string budget and willing to spend some time to make it look and feel right, doing it yourself is a perfectly viable option.
Last little tip, search the web for coupon codes for these site. Google “squarespace coupon code” (try it with whatever service you find most useful) and you’ll get a number of deal options that will provide discounts.
Eric Kranz is a Business Advisor for the Southeast Indiana Small Business Development Center, an organization with the mission of having a positive and measurable impact on the formation, growth, and sustainability of small businesses in Indiana, and to develop a strong entrepreneurial community. Eric can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.