You’ve got a small business and you’d love to have a great website to show off your products or services. However, you’ve got a small budget, little experience with website design, and not a lot of spare time on your hands.
Well, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll walk you through the steps necessary to set up a great looking, and fully functional, website for your small business for less than $200. No kidding.
“Wait… Why should I listen to you?”
Before launching TheMetropreneur.com in August, I spent eight years doing freelance web design and development, primarily for small businesses in Central Ohio. I worked with businesses that I felt good about helping, and attempted to fill the role of “affordable design consultant for small businesses.” Over the years, technology improved and became more user friendly, and I found my direct services were needed less and less.
So, I’m writing this guide to assist the small business owner who needs a bit of help, but is more than likely able to set up a website on their own (whether they know it yet or not).
“But I’ve already got Twitter and Facebook accounts. Do I really need a website for my small business?”
The short answer is “Yes.”
Social media outlets, such as Twitter and Facebook, provide an amazing opportunity for small businesses to interact in real time with existing customers, potential customers, and the rest of the general public. Those mediums are great for providing up-to-the-second information, breaking news about your business, and special promotions or deals for your tech-savvy customers. What social media doesn’t provide is a “home” for your brand.
Customers looking for your business’s phone number or address probably won’t find either in your latest Facebook status update. If your customers are looking for in-depth information on a specific product, they’re not going to be able to find what they need in a 140-character tweet.
Facebook and Twitter both have design limitations on how you can configure their services to fit your business model, whereas your website is 100 percent controlled by you. You have free range to portray your brand in the manner you feel is best for your business. You can utilize communication channels such as Twitter and Facebook and still drive customers toward your website for the full experience with your business.
Step One of Designing Your Business Website: Outline your Goals
This planning step is more of a prologue to the actual setup process, but one that is extremely important and often overlooked.
What is the purpose of your business website? Do you need something as simple as an “online brochure” that provides basic information about your business? Are you looking to sell products online by opening an e-commerce branch of your business? Do you want to provide your customers with video content, image galleries, or other forms of rich media?
Take a look at your competitors’ websites through the eyes of a customer and write down what you like and what you don’t like. Create a rough sketch on paper of how all your business information can be easily categorized and organized before you start pushing buttons and installing software. Even the tiniest bit of planning will go a long way.
Domain Registration and Hosting
When it comes to finding a home for your website, there are options located far and wide. GoDaddy.com is one of the most popular, but I’ve always found its administrative interface to be a bit clunky and confusing. If you want to buy local, there are several hosting companies to choose from in Central Ohio, including WebHostingSolutions.com, TekOrange.com and OneWorldHosting.com.
I personally recommend DreamHost for several reasons. One, I use it regularly for updating several websites, including The Metropreneur, so I’m very comfortable with the interface. Two, I’ve only had to use DreamHost tech support once or twice and I’ve always found its team very responsive and helpful. Three, it offers a very simple one-click WordPress installation (which we’ll get to later). Four, it’s easier to have everything managed all in one place and DreamHost offers a free domain registration when signing up for hosting. And five, DreamHost has an affiliate referral program, so if you sign up, we get a credit in our account. Win-win, right?
Anyway, the basic hosting package at DreamHost (which should be adequate for any small business needs) includes unlimited storage space, unlimited bandwidth, unlimited email address accounts, and unlimited domains for hosting. Essentially, you can set up two, three, four or more business websites with this account and it won’t cost you any extra money.
This package runs $8.95 per month for a total of $107.40 per year. Signing up up also includes a free two-week trial period.
Content Management Systems
A content management system (or CMS for short) is a type of website software that is installed on your server to help you manage, organize, and lay out your content in an easy-to-update manner. There are many popular open-source (i.e. free) CMS software packages, such as Joomla and Drupal, but my personal recommendation is WordPress.
Originally created for hosting blogs, WordPress has grown and expanded into a very robust CMS capable of powering just about any type of website. It has a very active user community that creates new plugins, widgets, and other types of tools that you can easily install to customize the functionality, layout, and configuration of your website.
And again, WordPress is free, so there’s no fee for installation or usage.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the great things about DreamHost is its very easy-to-use One-Click Installer. Once you’ve set up a hosting account and logged into your account at panel.dreamhost.com, you’ll find a section for One-Click Installs that provide several different types of software. Select WordPress and you’ll be given the option of a “Simple Installation” or “Custom Installation”:
A “Custom Installation,” which allows you to install any type of plugins, themes, and add-ons that you want for your business website, is preferred. Usually 10 minutes after installation, you’ll receive an email from DreamHost informing you that the process is complete.
From that email you’ll find a link to continue with the administrative setup. You’ll then choose a username and password for your account and get WordPress ready for action.
Once setup is complete, you can play around with the menus and settings in WordPress to get a feel for how to publish content, how to manage your data, and how to change other miscellaneous settings.
Standard Themes vs. Premium Themes
After you’ve installed WordPress, you’ll notice that your website itself looks a bit generic. The appearance of your website is called a “theme” and WordPress offers many different themes that will change its look.
There are a few built-in themes that are pretty standard. Several of them might look familiar to you, as many other blogs and websites don’t go far beyond utilizing the built-in templates with very minor modifications. This is the easiest option, but will not help your website stand out.
Instead, I highly recommend finding a quality “premium theme” developed by a third-party designer. These themes generally run between $40 and $90 for a single-use license and come in a variety of easy-to-use templates for specific business types.
If you’re a photographer, there are themes like Photoland, which will help showcase your portfolio. If you’re looking to sell your products online, there are themes like Emporium, which will help you create an online store. If you are a real estate agent, there are themes like Real Estate, which provides an easy-to-use format for property listings and agent profiles. There also are plenty of general “business” themes that look sleek, professional, and are easily customizable to match your business brand.
Other good places to start looking for premium themes include WooThemes.com, PremiumWP.com, WPZoom.com, ElegantThemes.com, Templatic.com and StudioPress.com. Each of these sites has an easy process for purchasing and downloading themes, which can then be uploaded and installed directly in your WordPress administration panel without much effort.
Suggested Plugins and Features
Once your theme is installed, you’ll probably want to consider adding a few plugins for additional features on your website. These can help connect your website to your social media accounts, help you publish video content to your website, or help search engines better navigate your site.
These are easily searchable from within the Plugins section of your WordPress administration panel.
Five plugins that I recommend every business install from day one include:
- Akismet – The industry standard application for keeping your website spam-free. Essential if you’re allowing any type of commenting or feedback on your website. Keep the spam at bay.
- All in One SEO Pack – This handy plugin will fine tune your website’s HTML code so that Google and other search engines know how to find your information.
- Contact Form 7 – Every business needs a contact form. Make sure your customers have a way to get in touch with you.
- WordPress.com Stats – A handy tool for taking a quick peek at some light analytics on your website. This is easy to install, but certainly no replacement for a more robust system like Google Analytics, which also is recommended for installation.
- WPTouch – WPTouch creates a mobile-friendly interface for your website so anyone on an iPhone, Droid or other mobile device can easily navigate your information.
Thousands of other handy plugins are out there, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide which ones are optimal for your business.
Ongoing Management and Maintenance
So, you’ve got your new website up and running, your theme is installed and tweaked with your company logo and images, you’ve got plenty of content and information for your customers, and now you can sit back and relax, right? Wrong. It helps to keep your website as fresh and interesting as possible. You’ll want to give your customers as many reasons as possible to return to your website often.
Do you offer products or services that change regularly? Keep that information updated on your website. Are you updating the talking points of your marketing plan? Make sure you change out that language on your website. Have a new press release to share with the world? There’s really no better place for news about your company than on your company website.
The Final Verdict
With your only costs being hosting, for around $110, and a premium WordPress theme, in the $40 to $90 range, you should find yourself on the other side of this process without exceeding a $200 budget. If you’ve found this entire process to sound too overwhelming, then I’d advise that you do as much as you feel comfortable with and hire a local design professional to assist with the more difficult tasks.
There are dozens of local resources here in Central Ohio that can assist with local website design, online branding, and other multimedia consulting. We’ve got a large (and growing) list of them in our Local Resource Database, here: