It is said that the growth engine of the 21st Century would be The Internet. This new medium has completely changed the dynamics of modern day economics and how business is being done. Even old economy businesses are beginning to find new ways to expand their opportunities. The www or a web site seems to be omnipresent yet , the task of setting up a web site is often not as simple as it seems. The Internet is proving to be the great equalizer, allowing the smallest of businesses to access markets and present a presence that allows them to compete against the giants in the industry. But in the end its not the size which matters, it's the fool proof business model with right kind of net strategies which would prove decisive.
Do you really need a web site?
This should be the first question asked. Before jumping on the dot.com bandwagon, business organizations must think about "What they intend to accomplish by establishing a web site?"
Once answered, this will also guide the organizations through some of the options available.
There are three main reasons why businesses establish web sites:
Sales: B2B or B2C
Most current sites on the web are for merely a marketing presence( Me-too) and this model under utilizes the potential Internet has as a powerful Medium.
Some companies have found that the Internet is a wonderful resource to offer customer service, provide product specifications and furnish on-line answers to the numerous questions they receive and deal with every day. This makes it easy for customers to find the information they are looking for on the net and facilitates customer-company interaction on the virtual front.
Now doing business through Internet is a different ball game all together. Its much more than putting up a web site or adding up a DOT-COM as a suffix to your business. e-commerce sites go beyond general marketing and to actually generate an order, often unassisted by any human interface. The simplest version of this might include instructions to print a page, fill in order details and fax it to a given number. More sophisticated sites have an easy to maneuver ordering process with proper order calculations done including shipping and sales tax. The most advanced sites allow an option of accepting and approving the credit card information while the customer is on-line.
Setting up and running a business web site will cost money. Having determined your reasons for creating your site, one should be better able to consider the costs. The difficulty here is that the costs can vary substantially. This is new technology, with numerous options available. It would be prudent for a business owner to do a little research in each area where his money is to be spent. The main questions to ask in starting this process are:
Will I own/run my own server? Do I need to?
How will my site/server be connected to the Internet?
Who will design my site?
Who will maintain my site, and how extensive of a process is this?
Do I want to accept orders on-line?
Will I need to or want to interface my web page with existing databases, order systems or accounting systems.
With these simple questions, one can move ahead to prepare a business plan and then a business model for doing E-Commerce.
Set up and Design
There is no shortage of experts who are available for designing and putting up a site. Site size and complexity can vary immensely. Many computer literate individuals have chosen not to go to consultants at all. With the excellent web design development tools available today, such as Microsoft FrontPage, many are able to get a web site designed with only a few days work. Adding large graphics, animation and music may be impressive to the designer, but most users don't have the plugin to hear the sound and won't wait for your fancy graphics to load on their 28,800 (or worse) Internet connection.
Remember, the web site should be a functional one rather then high on graphics or multimedia, which not only slows the opening up of the site but also consumes expensive Internet time of the user.
Creating your own Domain:
One must consider establishing own domain name if one is serious about the site. One can apply directly to InterNIC (http://www.internic.net) to get an address such as www."your_company".com which will be perceived as more credible than an obviously hosted site. The fee to InterNIC ($70 for two years) is well worth it (Liable to change). Then find out an ISP (Internet Service Provider) at the local level, and make arrangements to either host the site or server or provide appropriate connections.
There is an endless stream of information available on the Internet about how best to market the site. Suffice it to say that registering the site with a few search engines is the minimum. Because this information is so plentiful, users intentionally skip over it here. However, it should be noted that the net is an ever-changing environment and marketing should be considered more than a one time effort.
Selling On The NET
Now this is a tricky business with online fraud catching up and users increasingly apprehensive to divulge their credit card details on the net. And before one starts asking users to key down those numbers one has to have a back hand system ready to handle such paying modes.
You need a "merchant account"
Merchant Account is an industry term meaning a banking relationship, which allows a business to accept credit cards. Most existing businesses will already have established such a relationship and you certainly need this capability to accept credit card orders on the net. This goes without saying, but many small businesses have not yet established the banking relationships necessary to accept credit cards. This is really a first step. There are many consultants advertising on the web who can assist a business, even a new startup, to get setup for accepting credit cards.
To accept credit card orders on the net, you will need a "secure server"
There is a lot of concern about security on the net. Most of this concern is due to misinformation and the Internet continues to prove itself as a safe medium for transactions. It is important to follow established conventions in Internet security however, which means utilizing a secure server for credit card transactions. A secure server is one running software capable of establishing a "secure" connection with your customer's Internet browser using SSL (secure socket layers) technology which encrypts all transmitted information. Most net buyers insist on this connection before entering credit card information.
Online Order form
This sounds simple enough. However this can be a very complicated piece of software. One has to be able to present all products, prices and options (sizes, colors etc.). Before one can request credit card information one needs to be able to automatically subtotal the order, add shipping and handling and calculate sales tax if appropriate, based on the buyer's location. Writing this capability into the web pages requires a lot more than some HTML knowledge.
There is one option of considering clearing (or authorization) of the credit card, while the customer is on-line. This feature may be imperative if e-teller is delivering information or allowing a download of purchased software from his site. If the business is solely Internet based, this option would allow organization to avoid the expense of purchasing processing equipment or software which can be quite expensive. Unfortunately, designing on-line clearing capability is extremely complex and thus, this option is best undertaken through an outsourcing solution. Unlike general web site design, there are not many consultants available with expertise in this area.
E-teller needs a methodology of tracking customer orders too. These can include, email notification, electronic receipts, on-line reports, internal database tracking, on-line query search capability, conversion programs, etc. It is easy to go overboard on some of these things and a lot of money can be spent trying to integrate online ordering with existing business functions. The businesses starting on the web should not try to be too sophisticated in this area up front.
A functional site contemplating online ordering requires expertise in four different areas.
HTML (hypertext markup language - standard for the Internet) basic page design
CGI scripting (or programming equivalent) for order form functionality
ODBC (Open database connectivity) interface commands for data tracking
Special programs for online clearing option
Outsourcing - a cost effective alternative
Outsourcing is the utilization of a third party service company to provide you with those pieces of the puzzle that complete the total functionality of the business process. In E-Commerce, the most cost-effective way to meet organizational goals is often to outsource that portion in which one does not have the in-house expertise.
Though nothing is easy, getting a web site up and running is well within the capabilities of a determined entrepreneur of small business.