Small e-business recommendations, or how to create an e-business web site
Thursday, February 08, 2007
I receive emails from time to time asking for advice on how to actually start or create a web site. Some are small businesses and some are for personal sites.
I don't have all the answer, but the best advice I can give for small business and personal sites always goes along the lines of using free tools, make your site about the content, and build a community around it.
This is easier said than done, but I think that sticking to these three tenets will make the experience actually enjoyable and it will be a great learning experience.
There are a few reasons why small businesses need to build a web presence or web site (or get someone like me to help them build it). However, most are probably not for e-commerce purposes. They should be created for e-business.
The main distinction is in the "commerce" part: when you are building an e-commerce site you are developing an application to interchange money directly between your customer and your business using the internet. And not every site is created for this purpose. Yes, it is true that you can use your web site as a new channel for sales, however, all products cannot be put into an electronic cart, specially if your product is a service. Though, your e-business site will help to make the sale, as it is helping to build relationships with your customers.
E-business is about integrating your web presence into your existing business strategy. Your business strategy encompasses your company's goals, product and market focus, value proposition, and core activities. Every business has a strategy even if it is not explicitly written down. So your web site has to complement your ongoing strategy, or make it part of your new strategy. Understanding the difference between creating a site because everyone has one and integrating the web into your business strategy is the key to a successful e-business web site.
So knowing the difference and understanding your needs, how do you go about building an e-business site?
Let me expand on the three tenets I mentioned above: use free tools, make your site about the content, and build a community around it. Content
Web surfing has always been about finding information and user driven interaction. The user has always had the ability to click on links and keep or stop using any web application. Obviously, a customer (or potential customer) visits a web site to find information, however, it will become very clear if the visit is adding any value to the experience. Hence, the more relevant content your web site has, the more valuable the visit will be.Community
In a business setting, you have a captive audience as soon as someone arrives to your site. And your company is the main content. So depending on how much value you are adding to your customers, they will create a community around your site. This is tied into the content aspect above: if users find useful information, they are likely to become repeat visitors and if a web site is set up to build a community of customers, the users themselves will start providing content.Free Tools
There are too many open source tools available for free for small companies to lock themselves into proprietary technologies, or pay for expensive tools.
This is hard to explain, but let me give you an example: josesandoval.com is my business and personal web site. The main reason for the site to exist is to post my resume
and to reach possible clients.
josesandoval.com is a combination of different technologies put together to work as one. For example: I register my domain name in company X; I host all my files in company Y; I use blogger to publish my blog; I use FeedBurner to publish my RSS feed; I coded a small guestbook application using ASP and MS Access to serve as my message board; I use google's AdSense to generate revenue (very little revenue); and I use google's Analytics to keep track of who is visiting my site and from what geographical locations.
I could create everything myself, but this would take me a long time and my choices of technology would be limited. josesandoval.com would, in other words, be a vertical integrated
Small businesses' web sites cannot afford to be vertically integrated, and, most importantly, there is no need for it. At this point in the evolution of the internet the components and services available for free are quite robust and seem to work most of the time for any small business to create (or pay to have created) everything from scratch.
Most small business web sites require simple content management systems (you can find many out there; exponent
seems to be popular now a days); simple blogging solutions; simple message board system (phpBB
is very good for this); easy to use and set up web analysis tools (I recommend google's analytics).
Using different, readily available components gives you certain flexibility that proprietary tools don't. For example, if I don't like blogger, I can choose a different blogging technology and I only need to change one component in my web application. Obviously, there will be a cost to the change, however, it will be mostly my time.
In this model of using free components to build up a web site for business purposes, consulting firms (or smart high-school nephews serving the small business market) are left to be business advisors (identify the business strategy and effectively integrate it into the web presence) and technology integrators.
Anyone can create a web site (HTML is part of high school CS teaching now), but integrating all those HTML tags into your business is a bit more tricky: it requires a bit more understanding of how things work and what your business objectives are. So query your nephew throughly before you pay him :)Final notes
Why would any company decide to be vertically integrated? The reasons vary, but the main one is control.
Vertical integration matters when control of the product or performance is the key to the success of a company. In other words, it is inadvisable or plain bad judgment to outsource your competitive advantage to someone else. However, if your clients' performance needs do not require you to control all construction of your product, using standard and readily available components is the way to go and, actually, the best way to serve your clients: you can concentrate on running your business and only use new technologies to complement your operation.
Even though I said at the beginning that the advice I give is for personal and small business sites, this doesn't mean that it cannot be applied to larger enterprises. In fact, these three tenets apply to larger corporations and have been able to successfully implement them, for example, Amazon has a great visitor-repeat ratio, google is able to create almost religious followings for their developer-centric tools, slashdot created a brand worth millions of dollars because of the community that gravitates around the site.
Obviously, the more money there is available the greater and more complex the application that can be created and the more competent the technology integrator needs to be. However, my whole argument in this entry is that small businesses can in fact create similar results by using existing, freely available technologies. The key is to know how to use them, where to find them, and why they need to be part of your small business strategy.