With the plethora of publicly licensed, Open Source software available these days, it's a waste of your time and money to build a website from scratch. With the right information and a little research you can usually knock weeks off the launch date, and save thousands of dollars and the construction steps below can help you do it.
Know your business functions – Just as you would with a physical space, you need to think about how staff and customers will interact with the virtual space you're about to build. Your focus, in these early stages of construction should be on managing content, catalog and check-out process.
Because no matter how beautiful your site is, or how well the content is written, you don't want a poorly functioning shopping cart as a first impression.
If your business model is unique, you may have special requirements for customer interactions or on the admin side of things. Ask yourself if you need certain staff members to have access to some functions but not others? Do customers get paid for referrals? What about coupons, time sensitive deals, digital downloads, or the ability to print shipping labels?
This is also a good time to determine what the primary role of your site will be. Is it a shopping cart and you'd like to blog sometimes? Or is it a blog and you'd like to sell a few things or something else entirely.
With the discoveries you've made in step one, organize your needs by Must, Should and Can features. Technology, and the software that drives it, is a moving target. There will always be new features to add, and technologies to adapt to, so any site you build will never be done. However, by prioritizing functions into phases, the launch can happen earlier and development costs can be spread out over time.
As a definition, Musts are functions the new site will go live with and will include any features that you just can't run your business without.
Should are items that could wait for phase 2, or a certain level of growth. For instance, when the business is small, you might write shipping labels by hand and stamp each one since income and volume are both low. As the business grows, you could add shipping software and then integrate the software into your order processing as revenue and volume go up.
Can features can be described as features you'll get with your software suite, but don't necessarily need. Or you could look at Can as flexibility. How far can the system grow? Can it be upgraded?
With your list of Must, Should and Can, you can begin researching software suites. There's a lot of software out there, and not every package will have exactly what you're looking, so the goal in this phase is to get close enough, and you can do that by knowing what your priorities are.
One of my favorite sites for researching Open Source software for websites is at http://OpenSourceCMS.com because I can sort by ratings, see reviews and try the software before I commit to it.
Just keep an open mind in this phase since some frameworks are better suited for certain styles of websites, and it's alright to combine more than one suite into your site. For example, Wordpress and Drupal are both very flexible content management system, and you can get plug-ins that allow you to do an extraordinary number of things, but their main strength is the written word. OSCommerce on the other hand is a very functional shopping cart, but doesn't have a lot of blogging capacity. That doesn't mean you can't run a CMS and a Shopping cart on the same website to get what you want.
Another option is to combine functions or strip out everything you don't need and add on the parts you do. There's lots of flexibility, but it all starts with articulating what you like, don't like and how the components fit your needs.
After you've found software that is close enough, it's time to find a website developer to help you pull it all together.
When starting the search, it's helpful to know what programming language your software picks are using. Software developers do specialize in certain programs. While an expert in the language may be more expensive, they'll usually have a better grasp of the code. The efficiency gained in coding usually out weighs the extra hourly expense. A good developer can also knit various software components together when you're just not able to find exactly what you need, such as blogging and shopping functions mentioned above.
Going in with your list of Must, should and can also allows you to get more specific price quotes. When you have a blue print for what needs to be built you're also more likely to stick to your budget.
While the software functionality is coming together it's time to find a website designer to create the aesthetics of the site. In some cases the designer is the same as the developer, but never confuse the skill set of the 2 rolls.
The web developer is usually very analytical, has skills in server administration, various programming languages, can modify the database as needed and ensure payment process is integrated properly.
The designer is usually more artistic, is able to modify graphics, create color schemes, and wrangle the site's template so that you have a consistent look across the site.
That's not to say that the same person can't have all the above traits, but before you hire someone, know what strengths they bring to the project so that you won't have any surprises down the road.
Website development can start with the finishing touches, but only if you do your homework ahead of time. There are lots of considerations and an infinite number of ways to pull it all together. When you do the legwork yourself and get as close as you can to knowing how it's all suppose to work, the developers and designers can work their magic.
Just don't forget to stick with Free and Open Source, Publicly licensed, software because no matter how talented your team is, their hands will be tied when working with closed, copy written or otherwise encumbered code.
About the Author
Karlie Robinson is an award winning Small Business counselor and serial bootstrap entrepreneur who has been experimenting with websites and online businesses since 1998. She opened her first eCommerce mail order company in 2001 and bootstrapped a second (On-Disk.com) in 2003 and in year two, it grossed nearly $100k. Visit http://karlierobinson.com to learn more.
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