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How to put your small business on the Web.

Establishing an online presence for your business (or starting an online business from scratch) doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, if you’re smart about it, it can be one of the most rewarding things you could do to help your business grow and prosper. And you don’t have to go into it blindly; there are a plethora of invaluable resources on the Web to help you, both in terms of advice and actual assistance in choosing the best software, hosting service, and hardware to get you up and running in no time flat.

A rose by any other name…

Starting an online business can be as simple as setting up a store on eBay to hiring a staff, buying a server and an office to house it in, and laying a T3 line. For the sake of this feature, however, we’re going to concentrate on the small business and assume you have tangible goods to sell as opposed to consulting services, though we will touch on that as well.

One of the first things you need to do is come up with a name for your Web site. If you already have a brick and mortar business, that’s an easy enough task to accomplish; just come up with a variation on your already-established name. If you’re starting an online business from scratch, however, you have a little more freedom in terms of what you want to call it. Try to come up with something memorable but succinct. My own online store, does this nicely. I sell reproduction Mego (a 1970s toy line) action figures and related accessories, hence the name. It’s short, easy to remember, and gets the point across–and you can’t ask for anything more from a Web site URL than that.

How to get started

Once you’ve come up with a name, you need to decide just how you want to run your business. If you’re selling, say, DVDs, do you want to store stock yourself or sell as an affiliate through someone else? There are advantages and disadvantages to both. If you’re an affiliate, you are pretty much bound to a greater or lesser degree by how your supplier runs their business. If they raise their prices, you’ll probably have to raise yours, and so on. Conversely, they’re the ones responsible for stock, not you. And that means that you don’t have to worry about storage space for your items, nor do you have to worry about shipping.

On the other hand, if you stock your own items or, better yet, are the sole distributor and manufacturer for the items your store carries, you have total control over how much you charge and what percentage of the price is profit. Of course, that’s a double-edged sword, as you may end up stuck with a lot of items that nobody wants.

A means to an end

There are literally hundreds of storefront software suites and web hosts out there, ranging from build-it-yourself electronic shops and mom-and-pop hosting companies to businesses that do everything for you. For the sake of this article, we’ll assume that you’re a do-it-yourselfer, and focus on what each storefront offers the proprietor as well as the customer.

One of the most popular (and expensive) storefronts is Miva Merchant. Miva is a full-fledged out-of-the-box storefront with optional web hosting. Everything you should need to get your store up and running comes pre-installed with Miva, including the ability to calculate sales tax worldwide, full inventory control, unlimited products, categories, and subcategories, batch reports, choice of currency, automatic shipping calculation, and much more. The program also supports many different payment gateways and offers add-on modules to help you expand your story once you have it up and running.

Miva costs between $500 and upwards of $10,000, depending on how many stores you’re running, if you want them to host your site, and what modules you need.

By contrast, osCommerce is completely and totally free. This open-source shopping cart gives you a working store inside of an hour of downloading (providing you have your own server) but it’s the add-ons (most of them also free) that make the software so powerful. Called “contributions,” the add-ons range from various payment gateways, a wish list, a shipping module that allows you to obtain live shipping quotes from the post office, detailed visitor statistics, various templates, stock controls add-ons, and a myriad of others.

Because osCommerce is free, there is no support; however, there is a hugely populated message board filled with users more than happy to provide extensive support as long as you’re willing to do the same after you’ve learned the system. The osCommerce community is truly that–a community–and, in addition to help with the software, you’ll often find folks willing to dole out advice on marketing, adding your list of wares to Froogle, or whatever else you have questions about.

Free advice

Microsoft’s small business section offers a great deal of assistance to small business owners wanting to go online through its collection of useful and informative guides and articles. One such article on tax advice–“When a Home PC Isn’t a Home PC”–offers up very detailed information on just how and when you can take deductions for PCs you purchase for your home office. Another article entitled “Selling Online: 8 Rules to Live By,” by Joanna L. Krotz, boasts eight excellent tips on how to create and run a successful online business.

Maintain design discipline, says number four, and it’s true. Too many bells and whistles can distract from what you’re trying to do, which is to sell a product–be that product action figures, cell phone accessories, or your programming services. “When you’re designing an online shop, it’s easy to want to throw in everything, including the kitchen sink,” says Karen Frishman, director of marketing at San Francisco-based Ruby Lane, an e-commerce mall for antiques, collectibles and crafts small-business sellers. “But we’ve found that less is more. All the moving graphics for the holidays or adding more stuff to the site just makes it slow to load. It’s better to be straightforward.”

The intangibles

Just as choosing the right software, having a solid business plan, and providing visitors with something they want is part of succeeding in business, so is good customer service, a willingness to go that extra mile, and being genuinely excited about your work. Brad Cameron, of Cameron Collectibles seems to have all three. “I think the key to running a successful online business is to find a niche,” said Cameron. “It’s obvious that a customer is not going to pay shipping and handling charges for something they can go pick up at their local Wal-mart. You need to find product that is not easily found locally and it helps to have a personal passion for that product. For me it was nostalgic toys and designer vinyl toys.”

Cameron, who sells Wacky Wobblers (bobble-headed figurines) added, “One of the things I pride myself on is excellent customer service and well-packed orders shipped quickly. Owning an online business is rewarding but without good customer support you’re just another place on the Internet.”

And he’s right. If you build it, they may or may not come–but once they do, if your prices are competitive, you offer great customer service, and a product they (think they) can’t live without, they’ll keep coming back for more. And that, more than anything else, is the key to running a successful business, online or otherwise.

Joe DeRouen writes Windows Advisor every month in ComputerUser.

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