Level It Ain’t

I’m here to tell you that this whole “…the Internet levels the playing field, allowing small businesses to compete with big ones…” line you’ve been hearing is a load of crap.

Successful selling online is tightly tied to technical execution. And it is the kind of technology that requires experienced technologists to administer — people who are in short supply. And only the big companies can afford to hire those people full-time.

I can hear the Unix-heads out there in the audience start to chime in.

“Do it in PERL, PHP and MySQL, dude! It is free!”

Right, like Jeff Bezos sat down one weekend with “PERL for Dummies” and developed Amazon.com’s one-click buying technology. Even if that were possible, what small business owner has the time or inclination to learn how to write PERL programs?

I’m here to tell you, “dude,” that the choice of what technical solutions to use requires skills and knowledge outside the resources of a typical small business. And hiring consultants to do it for you is dangerous because if you don’t really understand what they are doing, you are pretty much screwed if what they built is mission-critical and it breaks (and programs break more often in this industry than anyone wants to publicly admit).

Furthermore, the financial margin of error for a small business is extremely narrow by comparison to a big business. If Jeff did decide to write his own PERL solutions, and blew $10,000 doing it only to learn that was the wrong answer, it is no big deal. $10,000 is probably the monthly paper clip budget at Amazon.com. But $10,000 is a huge hit for a small business — the kind of hit that can put them out of business.

No, the playing field is never really level for those reasons.

But small guys have some distinct advantages. Namely, they have lower overhead, are closer to the customer, and can turn their business models on a dime. And the ability for any small business to exploit these advantages in the online world hinges on their choices of technology to make it all go.

That is what my weekly ramblings are about. How small businesses with limited resources can take off-the-shelf stuff and put it together into a flexible solution so the playing field at least begins moving from vertical to horizontal.

So let’s set the stage for future articles by outlining what I think are essential systems any small business needs to get an e-commerce site up and running. And, to make things more interesting, I’m going to stay within a total budget of $6,500.

Essentials a Small Business Needs on the Web

  1. A web hosting company. Go through just one DNS change and you’ll quickly understand moving a site between ISPs can be an incredible pain. So find the right one from the start.

  2. A web site production environment. Using a text editor and clip art? Yikes! There are inexpensive and powerful tools to build and maintain your web pages and graphics that even design-challenged people like me can use.

  3. A merchant account and credit card authorization solution. Making technology from the 21st century talk with technology from the 1970s loads of fun for the whole family!

  4. A shopping cart. Shaping the experience your customers have, or don’t have, while buying on your site.

  5. Inbound email management tools. Ensuring your customers’ email reaches you through the right collection of PERL scripts, web forms, and back-end software.

  6. Outbound email management tools. Talking back to your customers through the right back-end software.

  7. Order management tools. Taking all that order data as it comes flying in off the web and not losing it.

  8. A traffic analysis tool. Measuring traffic with one of those cheesy page counters? You need real intelligence about how site visitors are interacting with your content.

  9. A promotional strategy. Promoting effectively with a thousand bucks (or less)? Yes, you can.

So stay tuned over the next nine weeks as I draw on my own smart, and sometimes not-so-smart, experiences (and hopefully yours too; I want to hear from you) as I try to put together a robust and flexible e-commerce solution for small business that is less than $6,500.

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