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    Frequently, one of the first tasks a startup undertakes is a website build. Good idea, because it’s the marketing foundation for most businesses. However, don’t blow your entire marketing budget on it—just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither is a typical startup website. A website is a continually evolving business tool, and you should anticipate that it will grow along with your business.


    Baja Fresh circa 1997


    Baja Fresh today

    The first step in any startup website project is to make sure you’re ready for it; otherwise you could end up making a huge website design mistake. Once you have your business and marketing basics in hand, there are several reasonably-priced ways to launch your first website. The one that’s right for you depends on your resources in terms of time, money, and technical skill.

    Website Basics: Domain Name & Hosting

    Regardless of how you build it, two mandatory expenses will span the life of your website: domain name registration and website hosting. Domain name registration secures a unique website name and permission to use it. There are hundreds of domain name registrars online and the fee is usually nominal—the typical U.S. small business can expect to pay $8 to $10 per year.

    Even if you opt to hire a website company, you should still take charge of domain name registration because it is an annual fee to be renewed in perpetuity– you don’t want to lose your domain name a few years down the road because, come renewal time, you can’t find your web designer.

    Web hosting is a service that makes your website available for use on the Internet; it is usually another nominal fee and typically a monthly charge. Many web design companies offer hosting services, or you can arrange for hosting on your own.

    GoDaddy and DreamHost are a couple of popular providers of both domain registration and website hosting services.

    Fast & Easy Do-it-Yourself Website Builders

    If you have very little technical skill, then pre-designed and developed websites are a good bet. A service like Yola is a popular option. Companies like this usually charge a monthly fee that allows you to select from a variety of website designs and add your own information. The downside is that you have less design variety and less ability to customize your site, and further, you don’t own your website—if you stop paying the monthly fee, the website shuts down and you cannot access the files.

    Theme Websites

    For those who have a little bit of technical skill or are willing to learn, theme websites designed with content management systems can be a great option. With this approach, you’ll have a broader selection of designs than with the website builders, plus you’ll own all of your website files. With these services you select, purchase and download website files, then set them up in your own hosting environment. You’ll be able to add your own copy and images using the content management system (WordPress and Drupal are the most common ones). ThemeForest, StudioPress and WooThemes are good options–ElegantThemes is another favorite because, although they offer fewer themes, they have great technical support.

    Website Options for the Technically Challenged

    If you really aren’t up for doing any of the technical part but still need a cost-effective solution, there are companies like HomeSpun Websites with DIY website builders that also provide a real, live support person to help you with the tricky parts.

    Custom Designed Website Options

    So far, all the options discussed are pre-designed and developed websites. With a custom-designed website, you start with a blank page and have free range to design anything you like, which improves your chances of getting exactly what you want. The challenge with custom website design is that there are so many different vendors it can be hard to find the right fit for your startup.

    There are three main components to consider when creating a website: design, development, and SEO. To understand the difference between them, it’s a little like building a custom home:  the architect draws up the blueprints, the contractor builds it, and the realtor finds buyers. Each is a critical part of the process, but they require very different skill sets—you probably wouldn’t hire one person to design, build, and attract potential buyers.

    Likewise, when evaluating potential website companies, no one person is going to be good at design and development and seo. Be wary of a single freelancer who says he or she can do it all. Probably the best way to find a reputable website company is to ask for referrals from businesses with websites you admire. Check their online portfolio (make sure you like it!) and do your due diligence by contacting references.

    Avoid making a decision based solely on price—a website isn’t a commodity, and you won’t be comparing apples to apples. Sometimes, the company with the higher price tag offers the better value. In addition to price tag, timeline is another factor to consider. A custom website usually takes time to do well—expect it to take at least three months for the entire process, from kickoff to launch. The most frequent cause for website project delays are content (the words and images for the website). Most website companies do not write website copy for you—clients are expected to provide web-ready copy. Ideally, you will have your website copy drafted before you get started on your project.

    While this article barely scratches the surface of the topic, it should help you get a better sense of what you’ll be taking on when starting a website project.