A BUSINESS WITHOUT a great Web presence might as well have its front door boarded up. But where do you go for advice, should you want to start from scratch? Web site building, after all, is like doing home renovations—you can get wildly different quotes from different contractors for the same marble sink. For perspective, we talked to two distinctly different entrepreneurs with Web sites that serve each of them well. One site is homegrown and inexpensively created; the other needed big guns and a big budget to fulfill its great ambitions.
Katrina Garnett, 48, is an Australian-born Silicon Valley entrepreneur whose Crossworlds Software sold to IBM in 2001. Garnett has invested $2 million of her money to create My Little Swans, an adventure-travel business catering to wealthy families. A key part of her plan was a highly interactive, sleek and sophisticated Web site to woo similarly sleek and sophisticated travelers. MyLittleSwans.com went fully live this January, at a cost of $250,000. At first glance, the spending seems worth it: The site is quick to load, enabled for easy picture-sharing with Facebook and iPhone-compatible. The site’s paying members can click on content about travel destinations that interest them and drag it into their own personalized folders. “I like to start with a big idea,” Garnett explains.
Getting it online, however, was hardly smooth sailing. Garnett knew from experience that she’d be best off hiring a full-service Web-building partner. Countless specialist firms do just Web design or only programming and operations, but Garnett recommends finding one that can walk and chew gum at the same time. Too many times, she has witnessed design firms “that haven’t got a clue about ‘the back-end’” and operations firms that can’t spell user interface, which virtually guarantees a hailstorm of finger-pointing once something goes wrong. The San Francisco–based Garnett spent two months looking and eventually went all the way to the East Coast for a firm she felt had adequate strengths, front and back.
The next tricky issue: brand identity. Tens of thousands of dollars can get sucked down the drain in the name of branding, or how a business is graphically presented to the world. But most entrepreneurs instinctively know what they want here, and it’s best if you, like Garnett, have a design concept in mind before walking in the door. Garnett, a mother of three, thought the image of little swans evoked both a certain grace and a family image. But many design teams she talked to wished to change her mind, with a steep price tag attached, of course. Her advice: Stand firm. “I already know I want a swan,” she recalls saying, and then when she realized they had trouble hearing this, insisted: “No, it’s gonna be a swan!”
Once you find a partner, remember that complications can continue after a Web site launches. It’s common practice for technology firms to state that they will fix glitches for only the first 30 days after a site goes public. But it can take several months before certain problems show, particularly when there are multiple moving parts and a building group of users. When Garnett found out that fixing or adapting her site after one month being live “wasn’t in the contract,” she dealt with the account manager the same way an angry mother swan would react—going over his head and complaining loudly. Garnett says she went straight to the company’s CEO and got what she wanted: access to the gearhead who worked directly on MyLittleSwans’s code. “They made the bug, they fix the bug,” she says, adding, “You have to micromanage.”