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Nov. 5, 1999, 5:12 p.m. EST

Small Business: Hiring out to build your Web site

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By CBS.MarketWatch.com

SAN FRANCISCO (Office.com) -- Small businesses are getting online in a big way.

"When we started out on the Web in '93 or '94, we didn't know anything about it."

Ron English, small business owner

While only 10 percent of small businesses have e-commerce sites, by 2002 more than 3.3 million will be marketing wares on the Web, according to Bigstep.com , a San Francisco-based Web storefront solution company. Bigstep and other storefront solution companies provide a turnkey operation, including the software, technical support and hand holding necessary to get your e-commerce business up and running.

It's catching on quickly. While nearly $9 billion will be generated from e-commerce sites this year, that figure is expected to grow to $328 billion by 2003.

Is it worth the cash?

Although the Web storefront providers deal mostly with small businesses, fees for a customized e-solution site can cost up to $1 million, according to Ad Age .

Still, companies like BigStep and Miami-based MerchandiZer charge a fraction of the cost of hiring a Web designer. Plus, storefront solutions can provide you a freedom not available with third party Web designers.

Bigstep CEO and co-founder Andrew Beebe explains that when you contract with a third party, every time you want to make a change to the site, you have to use the consultant who designed your site. That takes away the freedom, flexibility and control many entrepreneurs need.

"They just don't want to put someone in charge if they don't have to," Beebe says.

Storefront solution firms allow small businesses to take control of their site by providing step-by-step tutorials and technical support.

Web-based solutions

Smaller companies are increasingly turning to storefront solutions such as Bigstep, MerchandiZer, ICat or Yahoo to build business online. Before you leap, consider these factors:

What businesses really want is to reach a larger audience, says Kim Spence, director of marketing for Oregon Coast Aquarium , home of Kieko, the now-famous "Free Willy" whale.

Spence went looking for the "mall" connection in January. She was looking for security protection, ease of setup and a shopping cart system that makes it easy for the consumer to place an order. ICat met her requirements, and her sales have since doubled.

If you're starting from scratch, however, some storefront solution providers may not be able to help you.

"Our product best services those who have a product," advises a representative from ICat.

Of all storefront solutions, only Bigstep is solely dedicated to servicing smaller businesses. They enable small businesses to create an online presence whether they conduct transactions or not.

Before deciding whether a storefront solution is right for you, think about what they may offer. Here are a few typical extras that the storefront solution services offer:

A $20,000 mistake

Today, Fowler Products Inc. maintains $15 million in gross annual sales, but they had to learn from their own mistakes to manage their Web site effectively.

"I don't have the time or desire to learn HTML."

Lisa Maria Jacobs, Idiot Box Records

"When we started out on the Web in '93 or '94, we didn't know anything about it," says Ron English, founder of a 60-employee video/data projection company based in Norman, Okla.

Although Fowler Products launched a site, it was not performing to expectations. English hired a consultant to perform an upgrade, and $20,000 later he knew he had made a big mistake.

It is not enough to simply upgrade your site, says English. Know what the Web can do for your company first, he advises, and then expand.

"If you just want a Web presence, that's one thing," says English. "If you want to create business, that's another."

He gives much of the credit for the company's current revenues to his latest revamped site.

Reaching out

Storefront solutions are also good strategies for smaller enterprises wanting to augment existing forms of marketing, whether they initially sell products or not.

"I don't have the time or desire to learn HTML," says Lisa Maria Jacobs, owner of I Like To Watch Music/Idiot Box , a record label she created to market her San Francisco band.

"It takes a huge budget to market a record in the traditional marketplace, and (it) is really impossible to compete with large labels. The Internet is ideal for a business like ours where you want to reach as many people as possible and make it easy for them to get interested in you."

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