Plan out your Web site to succeed in cyberspace

For 18 years, Suzanne Pease has run a graphics-design business in Monmouth County. For less than a year, she has had a company Web site. "I really was like one of the shoemakers who didn't have shoes for their children," says Pease, owner of Ampersand Graphics in Morganville. "I was late to it mainly because I didn't need it. I was getting all the business I needed other ways."

As the freshly installed president of the National Association of Women Business Owners, she figured it was time to launch a Web site. She may not need it to drum up more business, but it has freed her from going out on calls to clients who are unfamiliar with her work and her price structure.

"It saves me time," she says. "It's not a sales tool, but it is a portfolio I can point people to."

While some small businesses can get along fine without Web sites, many small-business owners have staked out some cyberspace. A 2002 Kelsey Group survey of businesses with 100 employees or less found 43 percent had a Web site, up from 36 percent during 1999. NAWBO members are going online in bigger numbers: 70 percent have business Web sites and one-third sell their products and services through their sites.

For owners who have established an online presence, the challenge is to design and maintain a Web site that helps the business without soaking up precious time and money.

How do you do that?

Start by deciding what you want your Web site to be. "Is it a touch place for your clients or are you creating something that makes you viable as a business? Do you want to sell from a Web site?" Pease asks. "It makes a big difference as far as what direction you go, and what it will cost you."

If you are selling a product, think of a site as one of the easiest ways to get your catalog seen. If you are selling a service, think of the money spent on the site as part of your advertising budget, says Liz Milio, co-owner of Innovative Computer Services in Freehold.

"The first step is to figure out what you're selling and get your marketing plan together," Milio says. "You need to carry the look and feel of your entire marketing campaign into your Web site."

Whether you do that yourself or go to a Web-site designer for help depends on basic business math: time vs. money. Do a cost-benefit analysis, suggests Paul Miller of eMountain Design in Millington. "If you spend between $1,000 and $2,000 on a Web site, then how many sales or how much business is that going to generate? And how long is it going to take to generate it?"

A Realtor could break even on a Web site with one home sale, while a barber probably wouldn't cut enough hair to justify the expense and time.

For the do-it-yourself-adventurous but technology-wary types, there is good news -- several products offering software, services and tools that don't require mastery of Hypertext Markup Language to put together a Web site. Here are a few that will get you started for a few hundred dollars: Microsoft's FrontPage, included in Microsoft Office; Macromedia's DreamWeaver; and CoffeeCup Software.

If you decide your Web site requires professional help, expect to pay $900 to $1,500 for Web site design, depending on how many pages and graphics you choose. Web site hosting and Internet access costs another $20 to $125 a month, and shopping-cart software that allows customers to buy products online using credit cards can cost $1,500 to $3,000, Milio says.

Many of John Mazurkiewicz's Mazmania Online Marketing clients who already have Web sites want to improve the marketing around it with better placement in search-engine results, e-mail marketing and sponsorship and partnership deals.

If you can afford to work with a good Web consultant, remember you won't be paying them forever. "At some point," Mazurkiewicz says, "either you or someone on your staff will need to take ownership of the process."

Dory Devlin writes about the small business. She can be reached at ddevlin@starledger.com or in care of The Star-Ledger, 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, N.J. 07102.

Reprinted by permission. Copyright© The Star-Ledger, Sunday, June 29, 2003