When you first start your business, there is a laundry list of things to do…and most of these cost money. A lot of money, in some cases. Register your business name with the local government = money. Business cards = money. More minutes on your phone = money. Heck, a new tie, a decent desk chair, office supplies = money. You’re starting your business to make money, but you’re going to see a lot of red at first (and not Mackenzie King red $50 bills, for our Canadian readers).
By the way, you’re going to need a website. It’s 2016. Your website is likely going to be your single most important branding asset and source of leads, so treat it well and treasure it.
With a limited budget, you have to make a lot of tough decisions. What areas are worth spending on, and where can you save money by doing it yourself? In some instances you don’t have a choice – you’re going to have to pay your taxes, you can’t opt out! But there are a lot of things that you can do yourself, and building a website is one of them.
Free Website Builders
There are a lot of free website builders out there (though we caution about thinking of them as “free” – more on that later). Squarespace, Wix, and Weebly are some of the ones you might have heard about. These are not your Geocities and Angelfire from back in the day – these are legitimate content management systems (CMS) that perform an important role, allowing non-tech people to build a decent website without breaking the bank.
If you are just starting up and do not have the projected revenue to justify a multi-thousand dollar investment in professional web development upfront, there is no shame in using a free website builder such as Squarespace. This saves time, money, and assuming you have a clear vision and basic competency with the CMS you choose, you can customize the site to look however you’d like, as long as it is allowed by the confines of the builder.
It is also preferable for updates, as most web designers typically stop supporting your site once the initial development contract is over (unless you opt for on-going management and maintenance). You also don’t want to have to pay a high hourly rate with a slow turnaround time to add a new service or change a slider. Though you will have to train yourself, it can absolutely be worth it in the long run. Want to fix a typo? Add a new location page? Redesign the home page? Rebrand? It’s all in your control and costs you nothing but time.
How Do You Want to Spend Your Time?
Speaking of time, as a small business owner (SBO) your time is precious. You are pouring blood, sweat, and tears into your business, and anything that isn’t related to your core competencies is a distraction. Even a drag-and-drop website builder will take hours of time at minimum to get where it needs to be, hours that could have benefited your company in other ways. A fully functioning website by an amateur? That’s hundreds of hours invested, with no guarantee of results if you don’t know what you’re doing.
It should also be noted that “free” is never free. You will still have to pay for hosting and optional upgrades to improve speed (such as a Content Delivery Network – CDN). Depending on the CMS you choose and the functionality you’re looking for, you may have to pay for themes and/or plugins (either a one-time payment or recurring monthly fee). You will have to pay for the license to stock images and maybe even fonts. You may also decide to invest in a paid ads strategy (PPC) to drive traffic to your website. Gaining experience with social media networks and how to leverage their benefits (such as Facebook SEO). The list goes on and on. Don’t be distracted by the notion of free. It’s going to cost you money, so don’t view it as a battle between free and wallet-busting.
There are some instances in which I would never recommend free options.
Complex Website Elements
If your website requires a complex system such as a booking form, complicated registration, or uses a massive database and this is integral to the running of your company, I would not take the risk. Invest in a web developer who can customize a solution that matches your needs and budget. If budget is tight, they may be able to recommend a free or affordable plugin that fits the role.
If you have an ecommerce site, there is no reason not to be using Shopify at this point. Basic plans start at $29/month. While SBOs are right to be cautious with every expense, if you can’t justify $29/month to use the best, most foolproof, most user friendly, most comprehensive ecommerce platform on the market, perhaps you should re-evaluate your business plan.
If you are in an industry where you collect credit card information, personal information (SSN etc.), health information, and other sensitive data from clients, it is imperative that you have a secure website to comply with privacy laws and industry regulations. (NOTE: the exception is online retail on a platform like Shopify where they deal with the credit card security on your behalf). There are dozens of examples, but anything to do with healthcare, education, law, government, finance, and retail applies. If you are asking visitors to trust you with information, you have an obligation to protect it. Plus, it’s just good business to have a secure, trustworthy website.
If you have the slightest inkling that your business falls into such a category, don’t take the risk. Hire a professional web developer or web design agency.
Your website is the greatest marketing tool there is. Though free website builders have improved a lot of the years, they simply lack the functionality and customizability of a custom website. As a small business owner, you have to hustle and make sacrifices, but your website should not be on the list of items you could take or leave. Build it right from day one and entrust it to the pros and it will reward you heartily in return.
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