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Small Business

Three Steps to Put Your Business Online

How to buy a web-design package, hire a consultant or do it yourself.

ram Nguyen's web site looks a lot like her fashions: fresh, free-spirited and full of charm.

Launched last May, www.apparatchikdesign.com showcases Nguyen's Apparatchik line of exquisitely wrought dresses, priced at up to $550. The site sticks to the basics: home page, images of her collections, reviews and contact information. Start-up cost? Practically nothing, says Nguyen, 24. Her boyfriend, Romeo Oros, and his business partner, Brent Lewis, of Future Perfekt, a Web-design firm, designed the site. "I'm repaying Brent with a case of Perrier," says Nguyen. "Romeo will continue to receive my love and adoration."

If you don't have friends (or lovers) in the Web-design business, you could pay as little as $12 a month for an online presence or as much as $10,000 for a professionally designed Web site with enough sizzle to set the server on fire. Whatever route you choose, you'll come out ahead. In fact, you can't afford not to go online if you plan to attract clients or set up a storefront. E-commerce retail sales in the second quarter of 2007 increased 21% over the same quarter in 2006, according to the Census Bureau. For all of 2006, e-sales topped $100 billion.

Strut your stuff. Nguyen mostly uses her site to showcase her fashions and cultivate store buyers. "For a small design shop, fashion shows are expensive and not very effective," she says. "A Web site is a far more efficient way for me to reach out to retailers." Promotional Web sites "sell your capability of offering a product or serv-ice," says Jeff Williams, of BizStarters, a consulting company that focuses on entrepreneurs who are older than 50. "They hammer home the big benefit of what you're doing." At minimum, a site that presents your business to the world requires a home page, a description of your products or services, a business e-mail address, an online moniker (called a domain name) and an Internet service provider, which puts the site online and serves it up to whoever seeks it out.

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Even those elements may seem daunting to a beginner. For a low-cost, one-stop shop, check out one of the off-the-shelf packages sold by Yahoo Small Business, Web.com or GoDaddy.com. Often called turnkey solutions, they are "definitely the easiest way of getting your online business up and running quickly and inexpensively," writes Jason R. Rich, in his Unofficial Guide to Starting a Business Online (Wiley, $19).

Yahoo's starter plan, for instance, provides a menu of templates, with which you can design a home page, an "about us" page and a page that lists recent projects. Even Luddites can create a decent-looking site in about an hour, says Yahoo spokesman Ed Bryson. The plan secures your domain name (such as www.greatbiz.com), supplies you with business e-mail accounts, registers your site with the big search engines, such as Yahoo and Google, and gets you up and running on the Yahoo server.

It also includes 24-hour site maintenance, which protects you from server crashes (think "error message" where your site should appear) that can mean death for an online enterprise. The whole package, called the Yahoo Web Hosting service, is a relative bargain at $12 a month.

Set up a storefront. Although all Web sites start out equal, businesses that sell on the Net require two other elements: a product catalog that displays images, features and prices, and a convenient, secure way for customers to pay online. E-commerce packages, such as Yahoo's Merchant Solutions package, which start at $40 a month, let you list products and update your inventory either directly on the site or by uploading a spreadsheet.

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As for payment systems, sites with just a few items for sale can get away with a third-party payment serv-ice, such as PayPal or Google. Buyers click on a button or icon and get bumped to the third-party payer's site, where they use a credit card to complete the transaction. The seller, not the buyer, sets up an account and pays for the service. PayPal's basic plan charges 1.9% to 2.9% of the purchase price, plus 30 cents for each sale.

Sites that conduct frequent transactions, however, are better off using their own checkout system. Essential equipment includes a shopping cart, which lets customers pay for several items all at once; a merchant account, which processes credit-card information and deposits the money into a bank account; and a gateway to connect the two. You'll also need software that establishes a secure connection -- the Secure Sockets Layer, or SSL -- to protect customers' credit-card data.

Not too long ago, you would have had to assemble those shopping tools separately and pay big bucks. Now, the tools are available together for about $40 to $50 a month, plus transaction fees, through one of the myriad e-commerce packages, including ShoppingCart.com, Yahoo's Merchant Solutions package and GoDaddy's Business Solutions. Most e-commerce packages throw in green-eyeshade features to help you conduct your business, such as calculators for figuring out shipping costs and sales tax.

Go outside the box. Do-it-yourselfers who know their way around a computer and have a knack for design can take a stab at creating their own site using design software, such as Adobe GoLive or Dreamweaver (each is $399). Once your site looks sufficiently spiffy, you'll still have to register your domain name, secure e-mail addresses, get on a server and keep the whole show running smoothly. A Web host -- the service that stores your site and makes it available online -- covers those bases for you, for fees ranging from a few dollars a month to $100 or more, depending on which services you get. You can compare costs and features at www.findmyhosting.com.

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Lately, a cottage industry has sprung up among consultants who create or tweak Yahoo or other turnkey packages to clients' specifications. "The basic template store is pretty good to get started, but customers are sophis-ticated, and they expect a unique look to the site," says Williams. For instance, Fast-Pivot.com, in Asheville, N.C., uses Yahoo tools to design a new store, freshen up an existing one or add new functions, such as a gift registry. It charges $3,000 and up for its services.

You don't have to be wedded to Yahoo, however, to get help with your site. Plenty of consultants design home pages, write copy, make sure product images are up to snuff, register domain names and get all functions up and running. WebAdvance, a design company in Orange County, Cal., charges $3,000 for a basic, brochure-style Web site and up to $10,000 for a site that includes shopping features and links to bookkeeping software. You can find other design companies and consultants at www.elance.com. For a low-cost solution, call a local college and ask for the names of Web-design students.

Be sure to ask for features that let you update your site periodically; most off-the-shelf packages come with such features. Otherwise, you'll have to pay consulting fees every time you want to change your product line or update your prices. Oros set up Nguyen's site to be refreshed easily -- which allowed her to post the great reviews of her most recent fashion line.

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