Getting started with a website on the cheap.

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Note: If you already know a lot about your customers, your corporate design sense, your product and your broader marketplace this article is obviously not for you. If, on the other hand, you’re just starting a business and want to get going on the right foot but aren’t sure how to do it without spending all your startup capital on a website, please enjoy this post (and ask questions).

I often speak at small business groups or startup classes and I teach a beginning class on HTML/web design for continuing ed here in Burlington, VT. It’s awesome to see people get excited about starting something new and working on their thing.

Inevitably, after doing one of these events I get a few calls from people wondering what it costs for me to make a “starter” website. Usually my number is bit larger than they were hoping it would be.

Here’s what I say to people trying to make decisions about getting started with a website if you’re bootstrapping your business into existence.

Start at the beginning: why do you want a website anyway?

Make sure you know what your website is going to do for your business. If you can’t answer this question then you really shouldn’t be spending much money on it anyway. Here are some common reasons people want websites:

  • You have a product you can sell online (you’re considering doing some e-commerce).
  • You have a service and want people to call or contact you (you’re going to make a lead-generation site, like this one).
  • You’re going to sell advertising around your content.
  • You’re a non-profit or other organization looking to get donations.

If none of the above describes you, broadly, then you might be better off with just a single page that describes your business, hours of operation and contact info. Save your money and time for working on other aspects of your business for now.

Skip the web design and go with a nice template.

The argument for getting custom web design usually goes along the lines of “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” My reason for recommending that people just starting out go with a template is, oddly enough exactly that same phrase.

While you’re busy going back and forth with your designer and code vendor, the people you want to be making an impression with are going somewhere else–unaware that you even exist. You don’t get a second chance to work with people who are finding their solutions elsewhere as you spend time on your custom web design.

You see, making a custom web design takes time. It takes time for the designer to understand your vision. It takes time for the web designer to translate your vision into something visual. Then it takes time to go back and forth while you both iron out the details. Once that’s done, it takes time to implement the visual graphic design of the website into functioning web code.

Also, since a startup may not have a lot of data about their customers, that design process is happening in a vacuum. It’s a matter of personal preferences of the design team and the client without much input from the real target: potential customers.

A better strategy for a startup is to get up and running with a nice template for the purpose of gathering data about what your audience is doing on your website. Then, after you have that information, you can start talking about custom design. You’ll know more about your customers and your design choices can reflect that improved observation.

So how do you pick a template for your first website?

Start by settling on a content management system. I’m going to recommend WordPress and so is pretty much everyone else. It’s fairly easy to use, has a lot of plugins to add functionality, and there are lots of attractive free templates to choose from.

Here are some things to do when picking out a free template:

  • Run the demo version of the template through the W3C validator. If it passes or only has a few errors, then that’s a good sign that the code was well-written. You’ll want that for search engine optimization reasons.
  • Pick a design that you can live with. Since it isn’t custom, it probably won’t be exactly what you’re looking for. But pick something that doesn’t require a ton of customizations (otherwise you might as well go with a custom designed website).
  • Make sure the site architecture supports what you want to do with the site. Imagine your own headlines and navigation bar items. Will they fit? Will your business make use of lots of images or movies? Will they fit?
  • Where will the money-making thing go? Remember the reason why you’re making the site and know up-front how it will fit into the template theme design.

Once you’ve made it through all that, then you can contact a designer to maybe make a few nips and tucks to the theme to get it lightly customized for your needs. Remember you don’t want to totally re-hash the theme–you won’t save money by trying to do a custom design disguised as a theme makeover. Do small things like adding your logo into the header.

And remember, keep it simple. A few web pages, straightforward navigation, and a money-making thing on your website will serve you well to get started.

Start with the mission-critical plugins.

There are tons of WordPress plugins you’ll encounter as you get started. Here are the three to get started:

  • Backup. You can configure this to email you the content of your website on a regular basis. Do this so you can sleep at night knowing you have some ability to recover if something goes wrong.
  • Google Analytics. The point of getting started right away with a template is so that you can start learning about your customers. If you don’t get your web analytics installed then you’re not making the best use of this time.
  • Contact-Form-7. You’re going to want to have some sort of contact form on your website. This is a great tool for making forms.

You’ve launched your website. Now what?

The strategy of going ahead with a template design is best suited to achieve the objective of learning how to operate your website early on and to learn about your customers. It’s what I call the “launch early and launch often” web strategy. So start learning about your audience. Here are some things to make the most of your time.

  • Learn to use Google Analytics to make decisions about your business.
  • Learn to use Website Optimizer to make improvements to your website.
  • Discover other analytics tools like 4q and CrazyEgg to help you make improvements to your site.
  • Make content for your site and see what people tend to like.
  • Start promoting your website in print, online and in social media.
  • Learn about campaign-tagging to track the success of online initiatives.

The time you spend learning these things will be much more beneficial for the long-term health of your business than going back and forth with your designer about the background color or the size of the type on your custom website.

Also, when it’s time to get that custom designed website you’ve always wanted, you’ll be better prepared. Since you’ll have more experience operating a website you’ll know more about what features and functionality you need. Since you’ll have more experience understanding your audience via web analytics you’ll know more about what things they like on your website.

Here’s a small list of free WordPress themes that pass the W3C validator (or have very few errors), just to get you started:

Here’s a couple more free WordPress themes that have some W3C validation issues, but wouldn’t be too tough to fix up:

Good luck and get started!

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