The Smarter Way to Build Your Website

Lee Clifford and Julie Schlosser |

Building a website may seem like a small part of your business development, but it shouldn’t be. It’s often the first thing people notice about your company.

Finding a Web designer was one of the easiest parts of starting Altruette. We posted an ad on Craigslist–which seemed like the most unprofessional thing to do at the time–but within days we had dozens of applicants for the job. We just happened to visit a company called Mars Design first, and it was mainly because it was conveniently located near another meeting we had that day. We were immediately impressed with their work, and they were willing to work with our budget.

We realize now that it could have been a serious disaster. Building a site is expensive, and for small businesses like ours, it requires a big percentage of your budget. But we lucked out. We’ve talked with countless entrepreneurs who have struggled to build their own site or have overpaid for a site that they’ve ended up hating.

And for a company without a brick-and-mortar storefront, the look, feel, and functionality of our website is extremely important. The site serves as our only window for the world to see in, and our content must serve as our sales team.

The easy part was finding Mars Design. Figuring out the next steps wasn’t as simple. Fortunately Marshall Cohen, Mars’s founder and creative director, guided us through the process. So we figured we’d team up with Mars–which we still work closely with–and create a plan of action that any start-up preparing to build a consumer site might find useful. Here’s what we learned along the way–and what any business that’s just starting out should consider before building its site.

Choose your team.

Not all studios are the same. Again, we lucked out on the Web developer front, but we haven’t always been so fortunate with vendors. Now we try to meet or interview three companies before we hire a new vendor. So do your homework. Studios come in all sizes and have different specialties. Check their portfolios and ask for references. Look for consistency among their work and a good sense of style. Do they have a specialty such as e-commerce or nonprofit? How big is the team that will be working on your project?

Figure out your budget.

First and foremost, refuse the urge to just find the cheapest quote. We went with a team approach–Mars Design has both designers and developers. We know one-person shops that can do both, but we liked the team at Mars. “The two–design and development–are separate specialties,” Cohen warns. “Because technology changes so rapidly, it’s nearly impossible for any one person to keep up and offer an all-around quality solution.”

And there are other things your studio should consider when designing and developing your site, such as ongoing search-engine optimization and online marketing. Make sure you know what you’re getting. It’s not uncommon to need a couple of revisions to your designs before you’re happy with them. Ask how many revisions are offered as part of the contract. Working with a small team has a lot of benefits. You’ll get the best of both worlds–individuals that specialize in different areas and at lower rates than the bigger studios offer–because it won’t have the overhead costs of a larger firm. And you’ll often get more personalized service, which is one of the things we love about Mars Design.

Brainstorm ideas.

This is the fun part and will impact your brand well beyond your site. Study other websites and take notes on what you like about them. “Pay attention to details like style, layout, navigation, functionality, color, logo, etc,” Cohen says. The sites you love might not be in the same industry, but don’t discount them. This exercise will also help you nail down your overall branding–things such as logo and colors–if you haven’t already done so. But be sure to review as many competitors as you can to make sure you differentiate your brand. “Also make sure you take time to navigate through these other websites to figure out what you like or dislike about the experience,” Marshall suggests. Do you find it confusing? Is it user friendly? Is the information clear and concise?

Define your goals.

You need short- and long-term goals so that a studio can build your site with your company’s growth in mind. Think about how things may change over time. Early on Cohen asked if we wanted PayPal or a seamless checkout. We hadn’t thought much about it until he pointed it out. Cohen suggested we use what’s called a merchant account instead of PayPal. He made it clear that PayPal is easier and less expensive but that we would be happier with a seamless merchant account instead. We decided we wanted our site to be as professional looking as possible from the moment we launched and followed Cohen’s advice.

Other questions he says you should ask yourself include: Who will manage the website content to keep it fresh? Will you be doing this yourself or having an employee handle it, or would you rather not get involved and have your design team handle it? We do a little of both. If the changes are significant, we hire Mars to do it. If it’s a simple edit to the site, we can usually handle it on our own. Who will manage shipping? Will your products be shipped through a fulfillment house? If so, your website will need to integrate with the fulfillment center’s system. For us, connecting our site to our fulfillment center was our biggest technical hurdle. It required a lot of back and forth, but it now operates seamlessly.

Build a site map with your Web team.

Building a site map is important. “It’s like a family tree–it shows the relation of pages and information within a website. Pages are typically organized in hierarchical fashion,” Cohen says. Your Web design team can help you build the site map and determine which pages are necessary. However, it’s very helpful to start looking at other websites to see how information is presented. Is it broken down into small, digestible pieces? Are those pieces on individual pages or separate pages?

Define your target.

The goal of your site is to reach your target demographic and communicate with them in a language they speak. You need to know your customers so well that your website answers any questions they might have and makes it easy to buy what you’re selling. To help you do that, here is a list of questions to ask yourself and your team:

  • Who is your target audience?
  • How old are they? Are they men, women, children, or a combination?
  • What key information does this audience need? What inspires them? What influences their decision-making process?
  • Where do they live? Will they be visiting your site during work or at home? (We always hate when we open up a site with annoying music. It’s fine if customers shop while at home, but it will drive them away fast if they’re visiting while at work.)
  • What do they expect when they visit a company site like yours?
  • How are they using the site? Are they Web savvy, or are they just beginning to use the Web for online business? What might scare them off?

Choose a memorable domain.

Finding a memorable domain that’s available is nearly impossible these days. We spent months trying to figure out what name best represented the brand we were building. We were obsessed with finding a single word that spoke for the brand, and we weren’t happy until we found it. It was such an unexpectedly tough process that we think it requires a future column of its own.

At the end of the day, working with your Web team will require a lot of give and take. But when it comes to anything technical, heed your Web developer’s warning. Cohen told us early on not to hit a certain button when we were on the back end of our site. A few days after we launched, we decided to post a new blog. It was Thanksgiving morning. When one of us (we won’t name names!) couldn’t get the blog to publish, we hit that button. The site disappeared from the Web instantly. Cohen was forced to get on his computer and get to work. He got the site back up, and we learned our lesson. And we had one more person to be thankful for that day.


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