Even small business can make it big on the Web

The Baltimore Sun – By Doug Beizer

Mark Tyrol is a lot of things: an engineer, an inventor and a businessman.

He is not a computer programmer. But that didn’t stop him from building a website where he markets and sells a product he developed.

“I have absolutely no formal training as far as programming or computer languages,” said Tyrol, who developed an attic-door insulating device called the Battic Door. “Even now that I’ve been playing with my website for two years now, I still don’t know anything about the actual computer language.”

Using just the templates and the point-and-click tools at Bigstep, a Web-based site builder, Tyrol built his e-commerce site. The Web-based tools and assistance needed to build a site have been around for years, but the variety and sophistication of these offerings has never been better. Anyone, especially small business owners, can build a site without buying software like FrontPage or knowing any programming language. If you can drag, cut, copy and paste with a mouse, you can build a site.

Besides Bigstep, other services such as Homestead and Interland exist that allow anyone to build a site — everything from a simple photo album to a business site with databases and e-commerce. The services host the site, provide or help register the Web address, and give you building and maintenance tools.

Bigstep’s entry-level offering for $9.95 a month includes the point-and-click builder, 25 megabytes of disk space and a Web-traffic analyzing tool, said Peter Chambers, CEO of Affinity, which hosts Bigstep and similar sites.

“Bigstep is designed to be an easy way to create a Web presence, no matter which package you choose,” he said.

Bigstep’s more costly packages include features such as more storage space for bigger sites, the ability to create custom pages and the ability to build and maintain a customer database.

“All our packages include phone support, which can be highly valuable for those new to this,” Chambers said.

Bigstep starts out with templates. To customize from there, it has “building blocks” to add headlines, customize text blocks or customize the layout.

Tyrol’s site, for example, is a basic two-column design with a number of pages. He’s added photos of his products, several links and animated banners advertising his wares.

Like Bigstep, Homestead has a range of services starting with it newest offering, PhotoSite, a digital photo-sharing service that starts at $4.99 a month.

“We wanted to address what about 80 percent of individuals want a website for, and that’s sharing photos,” said Justin Kitch, Homestead’s CEO. “It’s the lowest-end offering we have, but in some ways it’s the most powerful and fastest because it builds a website totally optimized for photos.”

PhotoSite comes with digital photo software, the ability to share online photos and an easy-to-remember URL (yourname.photosite.com).

Moving up from PhotoSite, Homestead offers a Silver package that provides the basics for one Web site with up to 10 pages, and a Web address generated by Homestead.

“Silver is for people who are either passionate hobbyists, or clubs and teams that want to have a real basic website,” Kitch said about the $9.99-a-month package.

“A very common one would be for a PTA or a university volleyball team.”

Homestead’s Gold package is intended for small-business users. It provides a personalized Web address, e-mail accounts and an unlimited number of pages.

The real power of Homestead is its click-and-drag page-design tools. Need a shape or border? Just click on one of the hundreds of buttons to choose one.

Adding text is just as simple. Choose the font and color. Customize the size by clicking and dragging. There are even effects such as text bounce, dissolve or fade.

“We kind of equate it to PowerPoint usage; people who know how to use that application can easily use Homestead,” Kitch said. Even though the technology behind a simple rectangle element and Homestead’s weather-information block are quite different, adding and customizing the features is an identical process.

“Just click on the rectangle to change the color, or click on the weather element to change the ZIP Code, it’s treated the exact same way,” Kitch said.

Another Web site building site, Interland, offers a service to help those who believe that starting from templates or a blank slate is too daunting.

“Our platinum version gives you a real professional Web designer who will actually craft a custom Web site for you,” said Dan Bricklin, chief technology officer of Interland.

“You end up with a powerful Web site that you can add to and fill in with content,” he said about the $95-a-month service. “And you get our easy-to-use tool to modify your site.”

The service also includes coaching and support from Interland’s designers.

Most of these services let users start with an inexpensive basic plan, and then scale up to more sophisticated ones as needed. For small-business owners, Tyrol says a Web site is indispensable.

“Having a Web site is wonderful, it makes a little company able to compete with the big companies,” Tyrol said. “And it makes you look much more established, everybody should have one.” LA Times-Washington Post News Service

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