There's a wide divide – and a multitude of steps – between knowing you need a Web site for your business and actually making that happen. If you aren't technically inclined, or you lack a knack for design, the process can be painful, expensive and downright ugly.
If you're not the do-it-yourself type when it comes to technology, don't despair — companies out there are just waiting to either create or help you create the Web site of your dreams. We'll take a look at what one such company has to offer and how two if its customers use their sites to build their business.
Web Sites Made Easy
Small businesses with up to 20 employees – that's the target market for Homestead, a software company based out of Menlo Park, Calif. An all-in-one provider, it offers hosting, disk space, domain names and bandwidth, plus the software tools and professional design expertise necessary to get small businesses up on the Web.
"We're here for the non-techies, the people who can use PowerPoint, but don’t know HTML," said Homestead CEO, Justin Kitch. "Our services are easy enough to use yourself, or we can do it all for you — including the marketing," he said. The result, said Kitch, is "a great looking site that you can maintain yourself."
Through Homestead products you can build a Web site (Quicksites), build an e-commerce store (StoreFront) or promote your site through search engine advertising (SearchLight). You can also have Homestead build you a custom Web site (Design Services).
Here's a brief overview of what each product offers:
Each pre-designed, fully functional Web site includes copy, professional images, suggested navigation and pages that are specific to different types of businesses.
- Gallery of more than 2,000 professionally designed Websites
- More than 90 business categories
- Designs easily customizable using SiteBuilder Lite and SiteBuilder; inter-operable site creation and editing tools
- Anytime, anywhere access to make changes
- 250,000+ royalty free images
An ecommerce solution that lets you build, manage and host your own Web stores, from inventory management to merchandising.
- Searchable product catalogs
- Shopping cart system
- Real-time transaction processing
- Advanced inventory management
- Integration with eBay, Froogle, Shopzilla and more
- Custom shipping tables and support for instant PayPal payments
- Direct data import into QuickBooks accounting
Delivers search engine advertising to your Web sites, from over 30 search engines including Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask and more.
- SearchLight consultant reviews customer Web site, generates keywords and writes text ad
- Ad placed on more than 30 popular search engines
- Web site review session to improve conversion by Design Services
- Ongoing tracking and optimizing the campaign
Building a Community of Customers
Beyond selling a product and growing his company, Kitch seems genuinely passionate when it comes to helping small businesses achieve their goals. Last February, Kitch was scheduled to be a featured speaker at the Small Business Summit 2007 in New York City. He wrote about the upcoming event on his Homestead CEO blog, and offered to pay admissionfreight ($150) to the event for the first 10 small business customers who e-mailed him.
He asked them to e-mail a paragraph about their business and why they wanted to attend the Summit. "I was surprised and excited by the number of responses we received," said Kitch. "They were really passionate about their businesses and so enthusiastic to go." Ultimately he took 30 customers with him: 27 who were local to the NYC area and three who were not (Homestead also kicked in a $200 toward travel expenses for the three non-local people).
"Meeting with our customers was just thrilling," said Kitch. "We had a great time, and it was wonderful to hear their ideas and comments. I'm hoping to repeat the experience next year," he said.
What started as a hobby in 2001 soon turned into a full-time business for Shawanda and Malcolm Poree, owners of Poree's Embroidery, a business that specializes in screen printing, embroidery, team wear and promotional products. "The business covered the bills, and that was fine," said Shawanda Poree, a registered nurse who — in addition to helping with the family business — works full-time recruiting medical staff for Veteran's Administration hospitals.
Then came August 25, 2005 and with it, Hurricane Katrina.
The Poree's were fortunate; their home – out of which they ran the business -- wasn't damaged, but without electrical power or water they had to evacuate. They went first to Houston and then to Baton Rouge. In October 2005, Malcolm returned to New Orleans to pick up the pieces while Shawanda followed her job to Mississippi where she remained until June of 2006. Though separated geographically, they worked together to restore the business.
Uniforms for local schools, sports teams and the like form a large part of the Poree's customer base, and in the months following the hurricane, everything was shut down. It wasn't until December that customers started trickling in. "We realized we had to do something with the business or start to look for another job, she said.
They wrote a business plan focused on growing the business beyond New Orleans. Poree said that the easiest way for them to achieve that goal was through the Internet. "We had a Web site with Homestead from the beginning, but it was mainly a brochure site. We weren't using it in any significant way," she said.
The Poree's business plan takes a three-tiered approach to grow the business both locally and beyond:
- Build e-commerce into the site: Poree is working with Homestead to implement this feature
- Establish an aggressive marketing plan: E-mail newsletters that offer discounts on service, but that also spotlight community service opportunities and events
- Secure financing to open a retail store: a combination office, retail and storage space
Poree was on the Homestead site looking for extra features when she read Kitch's blog and the invitation to New York. She wrote five sentences outlining the challenges they faced and how a trip to the Small Business Summit could jump start the effort. "It was a great experience, and we learned a lot that will help us down the road," she said.
Business has picked up considerably — a combination of word-of-mouth that Poree's business was up and running again, the reopening of schools, the business plan and the improved Web site. "We're growing, and we've met our goal every year. This year's goal is to double last year's profits," said Poree.
The next step, Poree said, is to have Homestead merge their Web site with their Quickbooks application and to secure the financing for the retail space.
An enthusiastic Homestead customer, Michéal Castaldo is a one-man hive of entrepreneurial activity. The owner of four Homestead Web sites, Castaldo's businesses are as varied as his interests.
He's a property manager, renting out his family's villa in southern Italy, a performer, musician and producer, an olive oil importer and the founder of the La Dolce Vita Foundation. "What I like about Homestead is that I can design, maintain and update all four of my sites myself even though I don't know any HTML," said Castaldo. "I didn't have to buy expensive applications that take a year to learn."
Two of his businesses — the villa rental and the olive oil importing — are seasonal while the other two are year round. "The Web sites are great marketing tools. I have an image gallery with more than 150 photos on the villa site, and the site for my singing acts as an electronic press kit," he said.
Castaldo thoroughly enjoyed meeting Kitch at the Small Business Summit. "It was my first time at such an event, and I learned a lot about other technologies and networking. Got a lot of tips and ideas about how to manage four different entities. Reflecting on Homestead, he said, "They offer a 30-day free trial so you can see if it's your cup of tea. You don't have anything to lose."
Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of SmallBusinessComputing.com
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