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Innovation

Building a Better Website

To create a great website, focus on user experience.

Monique Verduyn

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Imagine not having a telephone number that customers can call when they want to reach you. It’s unthinkable. Equally ridiculous in today’s information age is the fact that some small and medium size businesses still do not have a website, or at best they have a stale online presence that is never updated.

“Customers perceive a business to be more established and professional when it has an active website,” says Leigh-Ann O’Hagan, owner of website design company LIT Creations. “It’s a great way to market your business.”

Indeed, business owners who insist they do not need a website will soon find themselves going out of business, according to Rob Stokes, CEO of digital agency Quirk eMarketing. “Whether you provide investment advice or plumbing services, people must have the ability to find you on the web. If you’re not there, you will lose out to competitors who are online.”

Even cost-conscious SMEs have to acknowledge that times have changed. The Internet is now the fastest growing advertising medium and it has to be embraced by businesses of all sizes. An informative, well designed website enables a business to break through any local barriers and become accessible to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Think about that — your business is reachable to people 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The convenience factor is huge, and can help to boost customer satisfaction from the word go. Your customers and potential customers can visit your site from the privacy of their home or office to find out information about the products or services you offer, making it possible for your business to reach a wide audience with a relatively small investment. And because you can change the content on your website, you can keep it looking fresh and tailor it to what your visitors are looking for.

What does it cost to build a website?

What should you pay for a website? That’s a tough question to answer. For SMEs looking to develop an online presence, O’Hagan’s company, which focuses on SMEs, charges as little as R200 per web page. “A website with four pages — a home page, About Us, services and contact — will cost R800 including all design. We also offer additional functionality for an extra fee. B&Bs may want a gallery for instance, while another business may want a shopping cart or a content management system.”

For start-ups, web design company Media Etc offers logo, letterhead, business card, email signature, a four-page website and your own domain for R8 100.
Interexcel’s web design package costs R7 600, which you can also pay off monthly.

Jasper Consultants web developer Gideon Oelofse, says business owners should budget between about R1 500 and R5 000 per page depending on the programming needs.
“Artwork is fairly standard at R1 500 per hour, but it’s the programming element that’s key. A weighing system or a catalogue that sits on the web page runs in the background and has to be added on to a standard design.”

At the higher end, Stokes says websites which typically provide About Us information and list the products and services available can cost from R20 000, up to R100 000. This type of site is perfect for businesses seeking to have a presence on the Net, but which do not transact financially with customers.

“You can employ a freelance designer to create a website that will cost you in the region of R20 000 to R50 000,” says Stokes. “Where companies make a big mistake is that they will fork out R100 000 on a website when they should rather spend 70% of that budget on actually marketing the website, and only 30% on creating it. The point is to get people to your site.”

Paid search is key to achieving this. It’s an advertising strategy that involves the purchasing of web traffic from search engines. Your ad appears in the search engine’s ‘sponsored links’ section and clicking on the ad will redirect visitors to your landing page. Google’s version of paid search is called AdWords.

Cost per click is the amount your company pays for having that link clicked on within a search result page. Also important is the click through rate, the rate at which a keyword listing is displayed against how many times it was clicked. For example, if an ad is displayed 10 times, and clicked on twice, the click through rate is 20%.

It is easier to determine the return on investment in this type of search engine marketing, because the data reflecting activity around your ad is generated instantly. “The advantage of this type of marketing is that it’s very controllable,” he adds.

Conversion rates are key

Stokes points out, however, that the conversion rate for South African websites — a critical consideration — is as low as 10%. The conversion rate is the ratio of visitors who convert casual content views or website visits into desired actions based on subtle or direct requests from marketers, advertisers, and content creators.

It’s defined as follows:

Conversion rate =

number of goal achievements

visits

A successful conversion may be a membership registration, e-newsletter subscription, software download, or other activity that occurs due to a request on the site that directs the visitor to take action. To an online retailer, a successful conversion is usually the sale of a product to a consumer whose interest in the item was initially sparked by clicking a banner ad.

While paid search brings people to your site, you must ensure that the site is designed to achieve certain goals and makes use of the appropriate visual and textual cues.

Relevant content

When it comes to website development, a great amount of emphasis is placed on design. Equally important, however, is the content. Too often, copywriting is an afterthought in web development. No matter how attractive, clever or interactive a website is, its main purpose is to convey information. A great website is designed around the content. User experience is what it’s all about. When people visit your site, is it worth their while? This has nothing to do with size or impressiveness. It’s simply about relevance.

“The key consideration when it comes to content is what your user is looking for, not what you want to tell them,” Stokes says. “There are some really great looking sites out there that just don’t deliver on that. If you’re a fast food company, for example, make sure your website is optimised for use on a mobile phone. It’s when I’m driving home from work that I’ll want to call and place, so I must be able to find your contact details on my phone.”

Email marketing

Business owners must not underestimate the power of email marketing. It’s become the forgotten child, but it can be extremely effective in driving people to your site. Take a décor business as an example. People who visit your site are interested in decorating their homes.

That provides you with an ideal opportunity to send out a regular newsletter that gives them an update on the latest trends in décor and design, rather than merely sending out an email about your products. Maybe you can include a discount coupon in the newsletter. By providing information and value for your newsletter subscribers, you can convert them into active supporters and customers. n

Critical Considerations

Professional design or DIY? Paid or free hosting?

Make these choices based on the needs of your business.

Content management

The publishing platform WordPress is a full content management system (CMS) which comes with thousands of plug-ins, widgets, and themes. An open source CMS, it is the most popular one in use today. It simplifies the publication of web content to websites and mobile devices in particular, allowing content creators to submit content without requiring technical knowledge of HTML or how to upload files.

Free websites

There are also a number of free website options available. Among the most popular is Yola, which offers three levels of service. The most basic website is free, while a professionally designed site from Yola Premier will cost $349,95. You simply let the designers know what you want and they’ll make a custom five-page website for a one-time fee. You’ll have full control of the completed website, and you can make changes or updates at any time at no cost. The website is also hosted for free and comes with technical support.

The bespoke route

If you have R100 000 or more to spend, and you want more than an online brochure, you may opt to have a custom-built website. These are usually created with programming languages like ASP and PHP. Unlike static HTML web pages, websites built with ASP and PHP are more dynamic and can allow users to interact and exchange information using the website’s databases. This route is ideal if you want to build an e-commerce site, or any other site where there is a lot of interaction between the business and the website users.

When it comes to costing and expenses, ASP costs more, while open source PHP can run on a Linux server which you can get at no cost. PHP is also more flexible when it comes to database connectivity and it can connect to several. If you are particular about speed, then choose PHP. It runs much quicker than ASP.

Hosting options

Just as a free or low-cost website may be ideal for your business needs, both free and professional web hosting have their benefits and downsides. For a simple website, a free hosting service will provide what you need.

The biggest problem with a free service, however, is that the amount of traffic to your site may be limited, as may the size of the files. You also have to ensure that the hosting company does not experience downtime as this will impact the number of visitors to your site. Avoid sites covered in sponsors’ banner ads as these look very unprofessional.

Paid services provided by a good web hosting company should come with far better customer service. They will also offer ample web space and disk space. Often large amounts of uptime will be guaranteed. So yes, they cost more, but the service is far more advanced.

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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Innovation

The Art Of Pivoting: How To Know If The Time Is Right

Keep the vision, change the strategy to serve the market according to what they really need.

Jordan Stephanou

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The word “pivoting” has become as over-used as the phrase “disruptive innovation”, but much like innovation, businesses have been pivoting for many decades (if not centuries) before the word became an everyday verb. You only need to look at Twitter, which started as a podcasting business, or Nintendo, which started by selling vacuums, or even Youtube, which was supposed to be a dating site for some inspiration.

These businesses may have all changed their product, service, or even target market in a major way, but they survived and have been thriving ever since. They kept their vision of achieving successful sustainable businesses, despite a change in strategy. And that, my friends, is pivoting: Keep the vision, change the strategy to serve the market according to what they really need.

Ask the right questions to your market: Are you solving a problem?

If you haven’t done user testing, user interviews, focus groups, or called anywhere between 10 and 50 of your highest value possible clients, you might want to take a step back and get that done to define if you actually have a problem to solve.

Many founders start by speaking to a handful of family members, and a handful of friends about their business idea, and are met with unbridled excitement and encouragement that you would expect of people in your life who unconditionally love you.

The reality is, these people have to live with you everyday – they don’t want to risk offending you and shattering your dreams. They basically have to tell you that your idea is great. Get tangible proof from real-world customers or clients that they see the problem you see, and that the problem is as big as you think it is.

Set your vision

eric-ries-of-lean-startup

What are you really trying to achieve in your business? In other words, what is your “why”? If you set this in a very clear one liner, you will quickly realise that there are many ways to achieve that vision, if you are able to take emotion out of the equation.

This will take you away from the detail to the big picture. For example, a vision along the lines of “To save people time” could be achieved in hundreds of different ways, and your current offering could be tweaked to increase your market size and save people much more time than your current offering, even if it wasn’t that idea you initially got so excited to tell your dog and three cats about.

To paraphrase Eric Ries of Lean Startup, pivoting is simply a change in strategy, not a change in vision.

How do I know when to pivot?

If you’re going through difficult times in the business, I would recommend going back to the most important people in your business – your clients / customers. Get their thoughts and opinions on what’s working; what’s not working; is your offering solving their problem adequately; what would they like more of, etc.

Finding out how to improve your offering from your existing client base will almost certainly not only help you retain your existing client base, but also grow a new client base by helping you solve the problem more effectively. This process can also reveal if your clients see something in your product that you didn’t – ie.to help you pivot. You will find out what your target market really wants and what your product could be if you weren’t so attached.

This requires extreme open-mindedness, and willingness to implement your learnings, even if what your market wants isn’t as “sexy” as your initial offering. On the flip side, if you can keep improving your current offering without changing direction, and if you still have cashflow and clients in the pipeline, it may not be necessary to pivot yet.

Pivoting is often necessary when the current offering reaches a glass ceiling, it’s impossible to close sales, and when cashflow becomes a problem. However, if you realise that your offering is so far removed from what your customers want that you would have to change your strategy and your vision – that, my friends, could be the time to quit and apply the learnings to the next venture. The key lesson from that eventuality is to do more extensive product-market fit research in the beginning next time, and make sure your product is meeting an actual market need.

What if things were different?

I have an experiment for you to apply within your own business. Remember, open-mindedness is essential to break through the glass ceiling:

  • What if you kept the exact same product / service, but changed your target market? What would the new target market be?
  • What if you changed your product / service, but kept the same target market? What would your new offering be?
  • What if you kept the exact same product / service and the exact same target market, but pursued that market in other cities or countries? If your market were the whole of Africa / North America / Europe etc, would that make a difference? Is it feasible? What would have to happen for it to be feasible?
  • What if you changed your business to a social business? Would partnerships with NGOs open new opportunities in the market?
  • What about the impact you could have and the exposure this could bring to your business?

I highly recommend creating a “what if” business model canvas or pitch deck based on this alternate reality for each of the questions above. This could be a fun activity to do with the team on a weekend away over multiple cups of warm coffee. Good luck, and remember, there is no shame in adapting your business to provide people with what they really need.

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Innovation

An Innovative Culture Absolutely Requires This Unique Capability

What you need is a ‘chaos pilot’ on board at your company. If you don’t have one, think about adding one.

Peter Gasca

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Innovative Culture

In my line of work, I have the privilege of mentoring and working with start-up entrepreneurs who often offer unique and remarkable ideas that, in my opinion, have the potential for significant commercial impact.

Unfortunately, many of these ideas end up in the dust heap of forgotten businesses that never get traction.

Why do so many great ideas fail? The reality is that many promising new ideas are derived from products or services or systems that have yet to be considered. They are disruptive in nature and typically exist only in the abstract.

Dealing with these ideas therefore demands a unique set of skills that differ from general management capabilities typically associated with running a company.

In a recent article at Harvard.com, Nathan Furr, assistant professor of strategy at INSEAD and coauthor of Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future, explained that a critical, and often missing, element for innovative teams is the capacity to function in the abstract. Furr referred to this capacity as negative capability.

To understand the concept, consider what Robert French of the Bristol Business School has called “positive” capabilities. These skills, as they pertain to new ideas, have been connected with successful general managers, because they can:

  • Understand the complexities of new ideas
  • Understand and manage the process by which new ideas are executed
  • Understand and manage the necessary roles within an organisation or team needed to execute on new ideas.

Related: Rapelang Rabana’s Innovation Formula – 3 Key Ingredients To Innovate

These characteristics are typically technical skills that involve structure and discipline. They are valuable for managing any company, especially one operating in a business environment requiring constant innovation. Such innovation is needed to iterate new and bold ideas, but these skills alone are not enough.

The reason is that, to stay ahead and execute on a regular basis, new ideas, especially disruptive ones, often take a team and the entire organisation into unchartered territory where there exists no precedent, historical structure or “road map” to guide them. In these cases, positive capabilities based on structure fall short of execution.

As French explained, this type of change “always arouses anxiety and uncertainty,” and teams that are unprepared tend to move toward avoidance tactics – defaulting to known structures, which then lead to the collapse of the new project.

For that reason, it is critical to have members on the team who can handle uncertainty and unknown outcomes and also have the fortitude to pivot when necessary. These types of leaders are what Furr calls “chaos pilots.” To be an effective chaos pilot yourself, you need more than technical management skills. Here are the three other skill sets he lists:

1. Divergent thinking

To think divergently, Furr explains, individuals need to be able to synthesise a multitude of information and “uniquely connect new information, ideas, and concepts that are usually held far apart.” This skill requires the ability to stay constantly focused on a mission while constantly processing new information.

Leaders who operate as divergent thinkers often surround themselves with talented individuals who can handle the day-to-day operations; that capability frees up the leadership team to collaborate and collect valuable data.

2. Convergent action

According to Furr, great chaos pilots do more than just take in new information. They “execute on new ideas in order to create something tangible.” In other words, they synthesise all the information and leverage it to effectively execute on new ideas.

Far too often, entrepreneurs fall short here, getting consumed by FOMO (fear of missing out) and  failing to prioritise, or at least balance, output time with input time. Doing so creates an entrepreneur with a wealth of information, but ultimately provides very little value.

Related: AutoTrader South Africa’s George Mienie Knows Disruptive Innovation Is More Than Shifting Gears

3. Influential communication

Finally, thinking divergently and being able to “connect the dots” are great skills, but if a chaos pilot is unable to communicate new ideas effectively and, as Furr states, “inspire other leaders and decision-makers to believe, support, and act on a novel idea or opportunity,” the idea will stop short of execution, no matter how well synthesised.

Over the years, I have been a part of innovative teams (at times leading them) whose sole priority was developing new ideas for clients. I recall a few times leading those teams through a comprehensive mind-mapping process meant to spark new ideas. In these situations, we inevitably would stumble on a truly remarkable idea or two, but like our team, those ideas weren’t rooted in a stable and established process; sometimes they weren’t comparable to what we were already doing.

Our ideas would also sometimes get lost in the insecurities and anxiousness of the group and never even be presented.

Great management skills are clearly needed to lead a company and execute ongoing operations effectively, but to consistently generate and see great new ideas through to execution, it is critical to have an effective change manager – or chaos pilot – on your team. And while these skills cannot be taught, they can be learned and nurtured through experience and an environment that encourages and supports risk taking and failure.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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Innovation

How I Built A Company The Lean Way – By Using The Scientific Method

Starting a company is one of the most irrational acts you can do as a human being. That’s why employing hypotheses and experimentation is crucial.

Joe Kinsella

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In the past five years, the cloud management company I founded has grown from a one-person business into a global employer of over 300 people. Recently, VMware, the most important provider of infrastructure and technology in our industry, purchased us – an exciting milestone as we look to the future and continue to execute on our vision.

In spite of all the twists and turns I’ve experienced, there’s been one thing I did right in the early phases of building this business: Committing to continuous experimentation.

When I left my previous company, I had an idea of where I could bring the most value in the market, based on my previous experiences in cloud computing. But I’d also been inspired by Stephen Blank’s The Four Steps to the Epiphany and indirectly by the Lean Startup movement. As a result, I knew I would start my business from the top down: By devoting myself to a market (cloud management) and to the scientific method for entrepreneurship – dispassionately testing all assumptions and hypotheses, and following where they led.

So, where did I begin? And where do you begin? Here are the steps.

Develop your initial hypotheses

The process of entrepreneurship starts with a set of hypotheses to identify the product or service you will bring to your customers. A good hypothesis is that it answers critical questions regarding your initial business concept that can be proven only through experimentation.

I started my own journey by putting a poster on the wall and using sticky notes to capture the critical hypotheses I needed to test. Every two weeks, I selected a set of hypotheses and designed experiments to prove or disprove them.

En route, I thought about the ecommerce company Zappos – a supporter of the Lean Startup movement – and its initial hypothesis that people would buy shoes online. For the file-sharing company Dropbox, the hypothesis was that users needed a radically simplified way to share files. For the coffee retailer Starbucks, it was that Americans would embrace the Italian coffee culture.

Related: What You Need To Know About The Lean Start-up Model

design-an-experiment

Design an experiment

Next, choose a set of hypotheses to test, and design an experiment to test them. A good experiment should eliminate all ambiguity from the hypothesis to the answer. It should also prove or disprove the hypotheses with the least possible investment.

I was inspired at this stage by stories from entrepreneurs like Dropbox’s Drew Houston, Zappos founder Nick Swinmurn and Starbucks’s Howard Schultz. To prove his hypothesis, Houston didn’t invest in building yet another file-sharing app; he instead created a video that demonstrated the ease of use of his idea for Dropbox and how it could be a differentiator.

Similarly, Swinmurn didn’t choose to buy inventory for his new online shoe store, instead, he took pictures of shoes. He posted them on a website and purchased the shoes from the store only after receiving a customer order.

Schultz, meanwhile, chose to cram his early concept for delivering Italian coffee culture to American consumers into 300 square feet, inside another retail store.

Experiment and observe

My experiments ranged far and wide – from driving an advertising campaign, to creating an A/B test website, to performing customer interviews with large financial institutions, to delivering professional services.

For example, one of my sticky notes asserted simply that, “Cloud cost management is a feature and not a market.” The experiment I designed to prove or disprove this statement was built around helping five local businesses optimise their cloud costs.

As an early-stage entrepreneur, you have to be willing to conduct these sorts of tests to determine what works, what doesn’t and how you can identify real and durable problems in a market. You need to to take risks, to be willing to fail and understand that you’re always learning.

Dropbox’s own critical video experiment resulted in its beta user requests growing from 5,000 to 75,000 users, validating critical hypotheses without investing in a single line of code. Starbucks’s first store attracted 1,000 visitors per day to a location that had previously never seen more than 200. Zappos’s website resulted in actual sales of shoes, which were fulfilled with purchases – at list price – from a local store.

Related: Game-Changing Lessons From Lean Start-Up Founder Steve Blank

Discuss results with advisors

Before starting the company, I created my own informal board of advisors, who included a venture investor, two technology CEOs, a business development executive and a technology founder. All were dedicated to my success, with no strings attached.

I met with them for coffee throughout the experimentation process, and always discussed with them what I was learning. Having talented colleagues to provide feedback and advice frequently produced new insights.

Rinse and repeat

Once you secure answers to your first hypotheses, it’s time for you to go back to the drawing board and create new hypotheses, design another experiment and test it. A hypothesis without an experiment does no good. You gain the most knowledge when you’re testing the ideas you propose.

Start the business

I equate the start of my company to an experiment I called “the sale.” After several months of developing hypotheses and running experiments, I had a good sense of where I could add strong and durable value for customers in the market. But what I hadn’t tested was price.

I hypothesised that a prospective customer would need to be willing to spend $50,000 annually – roughly the average price required to sustain the business model – on my product, to support the inside sales-driven model I was projecting. So, I designed an experiment around cold calling a handful of prospective customers and trying to convince them to purchase my minimum viable product for $50,000 per year.

In the process of being rejected, I hoped to learn about the additional features these companies needed to justify purchasing a product at that price point.

As part of the exercise, I first spoke with the CFO of a fast-growing technology company. While the CFO understood the problem I was addressing, he had almost no input on features, and no interest in paying for a solution. But then he surprised me by asking for another call the next day with his vice president of engineering and members of his team.

The assembled team not only had deep knowledge in the area in which I had built my MVP, but had already built many of my features themselves.

By the end of the call, the vice president of engineering made the surprising statement: “Sure, we’ll buy.” When faced with the potential for a sale, the first instinct of every good engineer is to do exactly what you shouldn’t: keep talking. Instead, I proceeded to explain how the CFO was hadn’t been convinced the previous day, and that maybe the engineering VP should talk to him before agreeing to a purchase.

“Our CFO is in the room right now,” the VP said. “We’ll buy. Just send us the contract.”

As I hung up,  my excitement at having a first customer was tempered by the reality that I had no contract to send, nor a business entity under which to extend it. Since my experiment had been designed for failure, I hadn’t given much thought to what to do when confronted with success. Thus began my next challenge: Creating a business entity and onboarding a first customer – fast.

Reach a conclusion and communicate it with peers

Starting a company is one of the most irrational acts you can do as a human being. You are taking great personal and professional risk for an unknown outcome. While there is no foolproof way to manage this uncertainty, there is a way to minimise the risk: cContinuous experimentation in the presence of customers. My company exists as a direct result of a commitment to experimentation, a route you should seriously consider when you start down your own entrepreneurial path.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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