Thursday March 28, 2002
Internet use might be booming among
Britain's smallest businesses, but the fear that even the simplest business
website should still cost hundreds, maybe even thousands, of pounds remains.In
fact, as long as you are willing to devote a little time to learning how
the internet works, it has never been easier - or cheaper - to create
your own web presence. From the domain name and webspace to equipment
and software, costs have slumped, and new devices and online services
have appeared to remove some of the most tedious parts of creating and
maintaining a website.
Cumbrian artist Sally Logue
is a small business owner who has learnt to do everything, so successfully
that her website www.portraits4pets.com
now generates 80% of her business. Yet four years ago, Sally could
not use a computer. Her first IT training was in a rural computer bus
which parked in a village near her home, followed up by two short courses
- including one in basic website design - at a local college. Using her
new-found knowledge she set up a simple website using nothing more than
Netscape Composer - a free website creation tool - and a cut-down copy
of Photoshop, which came free with her scanner. Her first internet order
rolled in, from Alaska. But last summer Logue was fearing the worst. Her
animal portrait business had been built up slowly, mainly through local
advertising and stands at shows; the website, although online since 1999,
still accounted for only a small part of her turnover. So when foot and
mouth struck the area, Logue, like so many in Cumbria, was hit hard.The
final blow came when the show where she won most of her orders was cancelled.
It was then she decided to turn to the internet. "A Business Link adviser
came to see me and offered a marketing grant to help push my website,"
she says. That grant paid for new equipment and some advertsing, the temporary
slump in orders gave her time to set about promoting her site online.
"I spent a lot of time submitting the site to search engines, setting
up links to other websites, joining relevant webrings and top sites
lists, all helping to raise the profile of the site."
The publicity drive was an unqualified
success. By becoming involved in online communities that might appeal
to people who want animal portraits, Logue has gained new customers around
the world. "I get quite a few orders from the US. I don't know if the
exchange rate is particularly good at the moment, but I'm no longer surprised
when I get orders from there." Sally Logue is now also taking payment
online, using the PayPal system, which has further boosted the number
of US orders, and made processing them much easier. "I used to insist
on payments in pounds, which complicated things no end: they got charged,
and I got charged," she says. "But now I use the PayPal payment system:
US customers pay me in dollars, so I have prices displayed in dollars
on the website too."I don't take payment until I've done the work: I display
a photograph of the portrait on the internet first, and I think that gives
them a guarantee it's a good likeness."
The DIY approach has saved Logue hundreds
of pounds, and means that she has far more control over her website. She
updates it regularly, using it to post digital photographs of her portraits
for her clients' approval before she packages the artwork up and sends
it off. All this is done using a digital camera, which Logue says has
sped things up. "Without that, I wouldn't be able to operate in the same
way," she says. "I can photograph a drawing, put it on the internet, and
in some cases have payment, all the same day."But the one big tip she
would pass on to others considering creating their own web presence is:
keep it simple."I tested the site on existing customers and friends before
it went live. It turned out to be a good idea to find out what they thought.
It has had all sorts of gimmicks in the past, such as animated dogs running
across the page, which have been taken off to speed things up. All pictures
have been optimised for the web making them fast loading.
"The problem with some websites is
that you have to click several times before getting the information you
want. Customers want to see the product, and get the information they
require as quickly as possible, not go round in circles."