- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

I run into people with small businesses who don’t have Web sites, or seem intimidated by the Internet, or don’t know how many business services can easily be found out there.

The two keys, I found out over years of running my own Web site, are contracting out and automation. Get someone else to handle the details of billing, shipping and accounting so you don’t have to think about it. For a lot of business services, this is now easy.

First, designing a Web site. Get someone else to do it. But be careful.

A friend who wanted to sell specialty dolls on the Net was quoted a price of $5,000 for site design by a professional designer. She couldn’t afford it. I run a Web site that initially I wrote myself. It worked, but it looked like a sofa cushion that mice had lived in.

By chance I ran into a young woman in the Virginia suburbs who does Web design (Emily Wolfer, [email protected]). She is an ace with Dreamweaver and has an eye for design. She took the job. In two weeks the site was up, running, debugged and pretty — for less than $1,000. You don’t have to pay a fortune for a site of moderate complexity.

Incidentally, you don’t need a designer on the same end of the continent. While Miss Wolfer was putting the site together, I was traveling in Mexico. She put sample pages on her server and sent me the link. I’d look at them, sometimes in a cyber-cafe, and say, yes, good, but it needs this or that.

I wanted to sell logo merchandise. There is an outfit called CafePress.com that has whatever equipment is needed to put the logo on coffee mugs, T-shirts and many other things.

The company also sets up a simple online store. You put a link to the store on your Web site. Customers go to the store, click on what they want, and type in their credit-card number. You set prices (whatever you want to ask above the company’s base price). The company handles shipping and billing, and sends you a check. You don’t need a merchant account. Once it’s set up, it’s automatic. And it’s free: CafePress makes its money on the base price of the merchandise.

You want to send messages to a mailing list of customers? Many Web-hosting services support mailing lists. I use MarkeTrends.com, which is excellent, but the mail interface can be daunting. Yahoo offers free mailing lists. You can set it up so that people can subscribe to and unsubscribe from your list easily.

Yahoo has a whole raft of services for small businesses and puts them together in one place. It’s worth looking at.

Want to sell books or manuals online, or in your store? A company called IUniverse.com(among others) does for books what CafePress does for beer steins. The basic idea is that you download a book template, which is just a Word document, and paste in your chapters. IUniverse formats it for publication, puts it on a hard drive somewhere, gives it an international standard book number and lists it with Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Your customer buys it like any other book from Amazon. IUniverse prints it in the form of a good-quality trade paperback, does everything else and pays you quarterly by electronic deposit. I’ve done it for years without the slightest glitch. The problem is that the setup fee used to be $99, but is now $459.

Again, contract out and automate. In my experience, most of this is effortless once it’s up and running.

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