Adventures in E-commerce

So, you want to be an e-commerce entrepreneur? The first thing you need is a Web site — right? Well, not exactly.

The advice I got 18 months ago was to start first on eBay, learn how to do the ad listings right and get the inventory control, customer service and shipping procedures down … And then think about a opening storefront on the great big World Wide Web.

In other words, first learn how to be a small fish in a medium-sized pond. I took that advice and now my fledgling little orchid business has a well established presence on eBay with a lot of great feedback.

I did launch a one-page, billboard type Web site back then. It’s basically just a link to our eBay operation in case someone typed in our corporate name followed by a dot-com. Even that was a hassle. I built the site myself using the templates provided by Network Solutions, and the process was about as pleasant as a root canal.

Like a lot of small business owners, I’m a merchant, not a code jockey. The site builder tool at Network Solutions was such a mess that I eventually had to pay a commercial developer to sort out some of the problems after customer service proved unable to resolve my problems.

But that was then, and recently I decided that the time was right for a real e-commerce-enabled Web site.

I scoped out E-Commerce Guide’s resources and reviews. I looked at several potential hosts for my site, and after watching the demo at Interland and getting a recommendation for it from a friend, I decided to give it a try.

Interland’s template Web building system looked really easy, yet sophisticated enough to develop an attractive, functioning, professional-looking e-commerce site. It even offered easy integration of all my eBay listings. So I signed up for the $49.95 a month plan (plus a start-up fee of another $49.95 a month).

The Online Marketing Suite plan at Interland offers the online basics: site usage statistics, a catalog function, PayPal integration, e-mail marketing, search engine submission, Amazon and eBay store “connectors” in case you are already doing business there, as well as a $50 credit for your first keyword advertising campaign on Google.

Since the small in the phrase “small business” often means “not a lot of capital,” I had to eschew the option of paying $400 or more to work with one of Interland’s professional designers. If you can afford it, I certainly recommend using a professional Web site designer. A pro can resolve those little problems that drive you crazy when you’re on the do-it-yourself plan and save you time as well as headaches.

I signed up — and immediately ran into some confusion and had to call customer service with a question. I got through right away, but was put on hold and then told that someone would call me back. They did — the next day, by which time I had already resolved my problem, although I wasn’t exactly sure whether I had signed up three times or one! (It turned out I was only billed once.)

Interland says on its site that the “Online Marketing Suite is designed for small businesses interested in creating a Web site, either for the first time or starting over, using our easy Site Builder tool.”

One thing to beware of, if you are starting over like I was, is that no hosting company wants to make it easy for you to leave. Although Interland offered explicit instructions to get the DNS pointers changed, I actually had to go through the process twice with Network Solutions, and all told it took about 10 days to get the change accomplished.

Fortunately, I wasn’t losing sales. I was spending that time building my new Web site with Interland’s site builder tool — cleverly called Site Builder.

One thing that adds to your confidence is a page with links to other e-commerce sites designed and built at Interland.

You begin, of course, by selecting a template — at least that’s what the HTML-challenged do. There was a nice variety from which to choose, but not too many. I’ve found that wading through hundreds of design and color templates makes your eyes go buggy after a while.

The Interland templates are very customizable through the Control Panel, although not everything can be changed. I picked one that looked basically right and set about the process of changing it to my liking — altering colors, background designs and type faces, etc.

The Site Builder has a tool bar that lets you add text, add a picture, a link, a table, additional pages, copy and delete items, get help, preview your site and publish it. There are easy ways to change the overall look of the site, too.

I did find that adding photos to the site’s basic template was a little complicated, and I still haven’t quite been able to fit all my photos exactly the way I would like. This is where more basic Web site building skills or a professional designer would come in handy.

The package I bought offers what Interland calls “site add-ons,” and these include the eBay and Amazon connectors. I could not get the eBay connector to work smoothly — the images from my auctions never loaded — and so I gave up on that and just used an ordinary HTML link to my eBay stores.

There were other add-ons that I haven’t yet tried, including a sign-up box to let customers subscribe to a newsletter (we don’t have one yet), a business forms builder, counters, a “recommend this site” button so visitors can alert their friends to your presence via e-mail, a map function to provide driving directions to our real-world location, a guestbook, and a catalog function, which we will be trying out very soon. The catalog function is included in the base price for the site, making it very attractive.

There are other functions, too, including some I haven’t even had a chance to look into, such as adding sound and video, Flash animations and file download functions.

But even without a shopping cart/catalog technology, I was able to list items for sale on our new site, including a special of the month and some of our cattleya orchids, by going to PayPal and designing “buy it now” buttons. PayPal makes it incredibly easy to do this, and you just cut and paste the HTML coding into your text or picture boxes using the Site Builder tool.

This is the second time I’ve tried to build a Web site using somebody’s template, and I have to say this time around it was much easier. Interland’s Site Builder is relatively intuitive and I was impressed with the selection of e-commerce enabling tools. All of your work is saved at every step of the way, too.

I did have a moment of near-heart-failure during that recent VeriSign Site Finder episode when both my existing Web site and the new one I was building became unavailable.

But it reappeared after one agonizing day and finally I published a small, e-commerce enabled Web site that isn’t too embarrassing and actually seems to work. All told, I think it took about 24 hours of my time. Now, we get to spend the next few months tweaking

Overall, I would say that if you know next to nothing about HTML, and want to build your own site, Interland is a very good way to do it. Perfect, no. But relatively pain-free. If anything there are almost too many bells and whistles that you can add. However, I suspect that down the road, as our business grows in sophistication, I may be glad they are there.

Adapted from E-Commerce

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