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By Neil Anuskiewicz

The first dot-com boom was a period when the normal laws of business were temporarily suspended. But the laws of business cannot be suspended for long. They eventually re-assert themselves. They came back vigorously much like the law of gravity suddenly re-asserting themselves.

The Schumpeter creative destruction at the end of the last dot-com boom had some good effects. It created the technical and market infrastructure needed to support this second, more sustainable dot-com boom. This has created tremendous opportunity for entrepreneurs.

Like a brick-and-mortar firm, the new dot-com will rise or fall on the fundamentals. In addition to a solid business plan, a new dot-com needs additional elements to succeed. This article provides a survey of the basics you need to get started.

The first steps are to choose a domain name (yourcompany.com) and a hosting company at which to host it. Your choice of hosting company is important because their reliability and ability to increase your capacity smoothly as needed are crucially important. Your e-commerce hosting account is likely to start out as a “shared” hosting (less expensive option) and later may grow to a “dedicated” server (more capacity but higher price) later, if needed.

However, the good thing about hosting is that if your host turns out to be unreliable or is unable to scale up to meet your needs, you can always switch hosting companies. Just make sure that you register the domain name under your name and not theirs from the beginning.

Decide if the goal of your website will be to capture leads (which can be done through simple contact forms), which you will then follow-up on later by phone and/or email. Alternatively, is your goal to make direct sales from your website, in which case you will need a shopping cart system. Regardless of your goal, you should also provide good quality content on your website that will capture your prospective customer’s interest.

Most hosting companies offer a shopping cart (such as Miva Merchant) with their e-commerce hosting accounts. Find out which cart they offer, and do some research to make sure it is a reputable system. Find out how user friendly the system is for non-technical people to setup and maintain an online store.

In addition to the hosting and shopping cart system, you will need a merchant account that will enable your business to accept electronic payments (e.g., credit cards). You may already have a merchant account, especially if you now run a brick-and-mortar business. For online transactions, you will also need a Payment Gateway (such as authorize.net or Verisign). The Payment Gateway authorizes payments for online businesses. Generally, these services will interact automatically with both your shopping cart system and your merchant account. Once setup, all this happens behind the scenes so your website is selling your products or services day-and-night, without you having to be directly involved. Someone from Australia could buy something from your site while you sleep.

It is imperative that you have the ability to update your shopping cart easily. It is crucial that you have control of this process, as it is likely you are going to want to make changes over time.
Website

It is a given that you need a professional looking, well-organized website to sell online. This does not mean fancy. In fact, fancy can work against you, as it can confuse your visitors. Your designer can integrate your new website with your shopping cart system. Make sure you retain a designer who has specific experience in the shopping cart system you wish to use.

While you will likely hire a design firm to do the initial website design, it is important that you have the ability to update the website. This means the design firm needs to put some sort of content management system (CMS) in place or learn to use one of the Web design/maintenance software packages (such as Dreamweaver or MS FrontPage), if you do not already know how to use one. You do not want to have to call your website designer every time you want to make some minor change or addition to your site.

While the designer will develop your site initially, it is important to give some thought to this process so you can provide plans and guidance to your designer. What are the goals of your site? Do you want leads captured with a contact form? Do you primarily want direct sales captured through a shopping cart system? If you have more than a few items, your database design becomes very important.

Make sure your design consultant has solid database design experience (ask for examples and references). How do you organize the products so people can quickly find what they are looking for? What market segments will be visiting your site and how do you appeal to each? Both site and product navigation are key components of a useable site.

The next step is to determine the various pages that will comprise your site, what content will go on each page, and how it will all fit together. While you map this out, always keep your goals in mind—direct sales, sales leads, etc.

A good way to start this process is to go out on the website and carefully analyze what similar businesses have done. You can probably get a decent e-commerce website starting at about $500 for the design.

Once you have done the research, draw up plans for the various pages of your site to provide to your designer. In addition, since you have been surfing the web, you may be able to provide your designer with examples of sites as models of how you want your site to look. This will be helpful to your designer in thinking through what you want.
Achieving Your Independence

During the early stages while you are getting a shopping cart and a website setup, it is important to spend some time learning the basics of how to maintain them. You could discuss this with your designer ahead of time, to make sure that you can get some initial training on updating both your site and your shopping cart. You absolutely do not want to have to call someone every time you want to change something on your website or in your shopping cart system. The truth is that once you learn how to do it, making changes to your website and shopping cart system is simple.

Now What?

You now have a website giving you an online presence and the ability to capture leads or make sales directly. Now, how are you going to get people to people to visit to your site?

While clearly a survey article like this cannot answer these questions definitively, it can at least serve as a starting point. It is important to do some research and find some articles on each of these topics.

Search Engine Marketing: At some point—if your business experiences enough growth to pay for it—you will likely consider hiring a professional search engine marketing consultant to help you. Until then, you need to make some solid progress on your own.

Search Engine Optimization: To increase your site’s ranking in Google and other search engines, it is crucial to have quality content on your website that includes reference to the keywords that you want to optimize. The place to start optimizing your site is during the planning and design phase. This is definitely something you will want to read about further, and discuss with your designer from the beginning.

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Neil Anuskiewicz is the Director of Business Development for EZ Publishing.
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