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Getting your business online (part one): Simple and low-cost tools for creating a website

Startups' editor Steph Welstead went on air for BBC London as part of the 'Give an hour' campaign to help entrepreneurs aged over 55 get online

This week I was invited onto BBC London’s (94.9FM) Robert Elms show, to discuss ways to help people over 55 start an online business – or create a website for an existing business – and why this is so important.

The discussion was part of the BBC’s support for the ’Give an Hour’ campaign, launched by the government’s digital champion Martha Lane-Fox (co-founder of Lastminute.com) earlier this week. Give an Hour is encouraging the 30 million people who use the internet each day in the UK to spend the extra hour they will gain when the clocks go back transforming someone’s life by helping them get online. This was prompted by the startling revelation that 43% of Londoners over 55 still do not use the internet.

On the show, we talked about how older entrepreneurs (or indeed any business currently not online) can gain an online presence, and why this can be much easier, and cheaper, than you may think.

I mentioned a number of easy-to-use website building tools within the 20-minute slot, as well as places to go for help and advice, but there were countless other useful resources and tips I wanted to share.

The fact that you’re reading this means you’re in a position to help someone you know who may benefit from making the leap. Or perhaps you’re new to the web and wondering if it could help your business or other enterprise.

So I thought I’d dedicate the rest of my hour to writing this blog, to summarise some of the key things we talked about, link out to some of the useful resources available to help you set up your own website, and offer some tips to help you promote your business online.

Why do you need a web presence?

One of the first things that DJ Dotun Adebayo (sitting in for Robert Elms this week) said when introducing me was: ‘Apparently even a sweet shop needs a website these days!’

So why is this, you might ask? Well, like it or not, consumers increasingly expect an online presence these days. This is backed up by much research, both statistical and anecdotal. Even if you’re not an online business (such as a gardening business) consumers are becoming increasingly web-savvy and like to research companies and products on the web before they buy – even if they don’t ultimately make their purchase online.

And for the average sweet shop a shopper may be happy to purchase on the spot, but if the shop sells the kind of sweets you can no longer get on every high street, a website could potentially open that shop’s reach way beyond its town or village to people looking to buy for an event or order in bulk.

On top of this you’ve got the rise of the ‘smartphone’, such as Apple’s iPhone. Recent research by digital marketing agency Latitude revealed that 15% of internet searches are now made on a mobile device, and this figure looks set to increase significantly over the next few years.

People can now use their phones to search for local businesses, such as restaurants, hairdressers etc, which are near to their current location. If you don’t appear in these search results (or those of someone performing a traditional web search for your type of business on a computer, using a search engine such as Google, Bing, Yahoo or Safari) you will be at a commercial disadvantage.

Word-of-mouth recommendations are still crucial, and especially critical for generating repeat business, but the fact is if you don’t show up in web searches you will lose business to rivals who do – regardless of whether or not your product or service is superior.

How do you get online?

One of the first questions Dotun asked me was: ‘Computers and laptops are expensive, what if someone is on a low income and can’t afford one’? Mobile technology hasn’t quite advanced to the stage where you can set up and manage your own website on a phone just yet, so you will need to invest in a laptop or computer to get online. But how do you do this if you’re on a tight budget?

There are a number of ways. For a start, the government’s Race Online 2012 campaign (behind the Give an Hour initiative), which launched in 2009 to reach out to the 10 million people in the UK who had never used the internet (that figure is now 8.7 million, so it’s doing a good job), is a good place to start. Race Online 2012 is currently recruiting one million ‘digital champions’ who can help get you online or even get hold of a computer.

You should also check out local grant funding options, or the recently launched Enterprise Allowance Scheme, a government initiative aimed at helping unemployed people start a business. There are also schemes that work to provide people with recycled computers and the Race Online campaign works with partners offering a range of products or services, including computer training, to help people set themselves up online.

Once you have a computer, the good news is it’s nowhere near as expensive or complex as it used to be to get your business online. There are loads of tools out there – many of them free, or at least starting off free – to help you to create a simple online presence – which is a great starting point and all many small businesses need.

First things first, an online presence does not have to mean your own website. You could start by dipping your toe in the water by posting news and information about your business on a social media site, or writing a blog (a ‘web log’), such as this one. And then, once you do have your own website, you can integrate these tools, and use them to drive traffic to your site (more on this in part two of this blog next week).

Here are some free social media sites and blogging tools

Facebook - You can set up a page for your business, which you can use to post updates, links, photos and videos

Twitter - A micro-blogging platform (posts have to be 140 characters or less)

YouTube – You can use this to post videos which you can link to from other social media sites / blogs / your own website

Tumblr - A blogging platform, where you can write posts and upload pictures and videos

These all enable you to post news and updates about your business or areas of expertise, keeping your customers informed about what you’re doing and enabling them to connect with you online.

When it comes to blogging, while there is no word limit on Tumblr, the ‘unwritten rule’ is that posts are short and snappy, and often visual, using images or video. For longer posts, a blogging site such as WordPress can work just as well, which also gives you scope to add pictures and videos. (If you’re new to the web you may need assistance with uploading photos – see part two of this guide for info on where to go for help and advice.) WordPress is free to use, but you will need a company to host your blog. Web hosts can cost from around £4 a month. WordPress recommends ones to use.

How to set up your own website

However, these days it is also possible to set up your own basic website for free, using a number of easy-to-use online tools.

Here are some simple website building tools 

Moonfruit

Basekit

Mr Site

Web Eden

Meanwhile, major global companies are increasingly reaching out to UK small businesses to enable them to create free websites too, including Google, through its Getting British Business Online campaign, and Microsoft 365.

All of these tools enable you to set up a basic public-facing website with a few webpages, to let users know your business exists and talk a bit about the products and services you offer. It’s then a good idea to add more useful content for your visitors regularly (for more on this, read part two of this blog next week).

Don’t have a clue how to build a website? Don’t panic. These tools are made for people with no prior web design experience. Most enable you to build your own website using templates or ‘drag-and-drop’ techniques, meaning you can create a good-looking website, which you can update and add to yourself, which is usually then hosted and supported.

As with anything, the offerings vary, so shop around and see what’s on offer and which one best suits your needs. Check whether the package includes your domain name (ie the name of your website, eg www.startups.co.uk), web hosting, etc, and what the free package includes. Usually, these sites work on a tiered pricing structure – you can have a basic site for free, but if you want more complicated functions or if your site starts to attract thousands of visitors, you will have to upgrade (this is because web hosting is expensive, and the more people visit your site, the more it costs to support this). But the idea is that by this stage your business will have grown and you will be able to afford it.

You may want to consider other options, such as commissioning a web developer to create a site specific to your needs. Costs for this can vary dramatically, so it’s definitely worth shopping around. However, this doesn’t have to cost the earth either. If your budget is low, why not try finding a student or graduate to build you a site? They may well do you a great deal in exchange for being able to put this on their CV.

If you choose this option you will have to pay for your website to be hosted online, but you could look at ‘cloud’ tools such as Amazon Web Services, which enables you to pay for this on a ‘pay-as-you-go’ model (rather than having to fork out for your own web server or pay a set fee each month to a web hosting company, which has traditionally been the case). While it’s hard to say definitively whether this works out cheaper in the long run, it can help you to manage your business’ cashflow.

How do you sell online?

Traditionally, actually selling goods on your own website has been a lot more complicated, and you typically need a specific bank account (a merchant account) to do this. You also need to conform to strict security standards to take customers’ credit card details. However, earlier this month Startups attended the launch of a new product from Moonfruit which enables you to set up a free ecommerce site in minutes, linked to a PayPal account. Mr Site’s Storefront, which you can try for free for 14 days, is also worth checking out.

Another option if you’re a retailer is to advertise your products on ‘online marketplaces’, which are essentially the equivalent of online shopping centres, allowing small businesses to create their own ‘virtual shops’ within them to promote their products, in return for a slice of the revenue.

Here are some online marketplaces

eBay

Amazon

Etsy

Folksy

Notonthehighstreet.

[We have step-by-step guides to setting up an eBay business and an Amazon marketplace business on Startups].

Some, such as Etsy and Folksy, are specifically designed for arts and crafts businesses. So for instance, say you’re running a craft business selling jewellery from home or a market stall, these websites enable you to set up a ‘virtual shop’ to showcase your products to a national – or even global - audience, without having to fork out for the overheads associated with a physical shop. Or perhaps you’ve already got a small shop but can’t afford the rent associated with a prominent high-street presence. Either way, online marketplaces can be a fantastic way to boost sales, as well as testing out demand for your product and learning what sells and what doesn’t.

There are downsides to selling through an online marketplace rather your own website – the main one being that these sites will generally take a commission for each sale. There may be other fees involved (as always, shop around and see which is best for you). But they generally only make money when you do, so it’s a ‘risk-free’ form of marketing compared to, say, advertising on a billboard, where it’s hard to know whether your investment will be worthwhile; and the disadvantages can often be outweighed by the increase in sales and awareness of your brand.

So, once you’ve created your web presence, you then need to think about promoting it. Stay tuned to Startups for part two of this guide next week, for tips on how to promote your new website (and get people to visit it) as well as where to go for more help and advice about getting your business online.

In the meantime, for more information you can read our guide on how to start an online business or visit our sections on online marketing and managing your website

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