By FRANK NELSON
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
Businesses feeling pressure to keep up
with the virtual
Jonesesby having a Web presence
To the usual checklist involved in starting any business - good idea, market research, financing, business plan, budget, hard work, etc. - it has now become almost obligatory to add "establish a Web site."
No matter if the business is large or small, or even just one person wanting to sell his or her special cookies or soaps, or a book he or she has written, or to attract more people to a church or sports team or social club . . . everybody seems to have a Web site.
The Internet has become such a pervasive and influential part of people's lives that many ventures want to keep up with the virtual Joneses to avoid missing out on business or inviting some sort of stigma for not having a Web presence.
Melike Bitlis-Bush, who runs a one-woman Web design and development company in Santa Barbara called MBB Design, estimates that as many as 80 percent of local businesses have Web sites.
Nationally, she puts the figure at around 50 percent, with Santa Barbara's greater wealth, combined with a better-educated, more tech-savvy population, accounting for the difference.
This rapacious demand has given birth to a virtual cottage industry of Web site designers and developers, many, like Ms. Bitlis-Bush, working away in their own homes. Santa Barbara's Yellow Pages lists more than three dozen Web site designers, and that's just the tip of the search-engine iceberg.
Many of these people are survivors from the dot-com era who once worked for large, rapidly growing companies; after the crash, they found themselves out of work but are now back, plying their Web and tech skills as independent contractors.
According to some designers, there can be a downside to having a Web site - the cost, for starters - and establishing an online presence may not always be the smartest move, especially in the early days of a new business when precious cash may be better spent on other things.
But generally they agree that the pros far outnumber the cons and the list of benefits is a very long one.
"I think we're at the point where everyone who's serious about business needs a Web site," says Matt Anderson, co-founder of Santa Barbara-based Boomtown Studios.
However, Mr. Anderson, who started his multimedia business with Shawn Miller in 2001, is not always impressed by what he sees on the Web and describes much of it as garbage. "It looks like it was created over the weekend by someone new to it," he says.
He and Ms. Miller are Boomtown's only two full-time employees, though they have ready access to another half-dozen contract specialists. Between them, this team aims to add some creative "pop" to the Web sites they work on.
"We can make a three-person business seem as good as Microsoft," says Mr. Anderson, adding that a small company's Web site can be "every bit as beautiful and functional" as that of a large company.
One way they help achieve this is through the use of the Flash animation program. "Flash can add a lot of eye candy to a site and can deliver dynamic information," he says.
However, he also cautions about using Flash in the right context: "Flash is a good spice, but it's not the meal."
JudyAnn Dutcher came to Santa Barbara a decade ago as a licensed marriage and family therapist. She honed her skills at adult education classes and through UCSB Web master and graphic design certificate programs before launching Dutcher Design in 1998.
"It's always an advantage to have a Web site," says Ms. Dutcher, who builds and maintains sites for nonprofits, small businesses, schools, individuals and special events. "If you're selling or want to get information out to anyone, the Web is a convenient way to go."
Doug Anderson and Gina Fiedel bring 30 years of combined experience in fine arts and design in New York and Boston to Fat Eyes, the Web development company they run from their home in Mission Canyon.
Mr. Anderson says he believes this background enables them to deliver much more than just a Web site. "We aim to give clients a deep presence online," he says. "An online identity that really speaks to who they are. We can express the heart of the organization as well as what it does."
He says a good site has to achieve two opposites. It has just a few seconds to capture the attention of the browsing reader; then it has to deliver a real emotional tone. "It breaks down to successful marketing -- how to convey very deep things about a company, very quickly."
Mr. Anderson sees many advantages for his clients, who include local wineries, health organizations and the charity Direct Relief International. "Everybody uses the Web, it's a great tool. It's an absolute essential in certain fields and becoming an essential in others."
At MBB Design, Ms. Bitlis-Bush is a great advertisement for why companies should have Web sites. "If I want to buy anything, the first thing I do is search online," says the Turkish native.
While working on her house recently, she bought some mosaic tiles through the eBay auction site and some door knobs that, with free shipping and no sales tax, were cheaper to have sent from Illinois than to buy locally. "Everyone needs a Web site to reach clients and serve clients," she says.
For many small businesses, a Web site means immediacy, flexibility and the opportunity to showcase their products to the world. It also means saving all those costs associated with brick-and-mortar premises. But even so, launching a Web site is not necessarily a cheap option.
Ms. Bitlis-Bush says that when people ask her how much their Web site will cost, she feels like asking them how much a car costs. In both cases, the price can depend on many variables.
She estimates a simple four- or five-page Web site, with text and images -- basically the equivalent of a virtual brochure -- might cost around $1,000. Generally, though, her sites run at least twice that size and cost about $1,800, while hourly rates for small-scale Web designers hover around $60.
But costs can rise considerably if clients want e-commerce connections, Flash or other sophisticated features. Matt Anderson, of Boomtown Studios, says most of his projects fall into the $5,000 to $30,000 range.
He encourages clients to consider their Web presence as part of a total media package. Often, he says, the Web component seems to be lagging behind how the company portrays its image in magazines or on television.
Mr. Anderson says another potential drawback is that the more high-tech the Web site, the more computer processing power it requires to run. "It's easy to forget that a lot of people are running older computers. There's a potential to make presentations that are beyond the average user."
Ms. Bitlis-Bush also points out another pitfall: Everything on a Web site, including images and ideas, can be easily stolen, even though it's possible to install copyright software to track down offenders. Similarly, every site is a potential target for hackers, who can cause serious problems if they break in.
Other potential disadvantages are that a poorly designed site may reflect badly on a company and make it appear unprofessional (or worse); an online company may be suddenly swamped with orders it can't meet; and while an online brochure can be easily updated, it cannot be physically dropped off where customers gather.
Perhaps the most subtle disadvantage of all is that once a Web site is up and running, the owner comes to rely on it and suffers major trauma when it crashes. "It's like when e-mail goes down," says Ms. Bitlis-Bush. "Life stops!"
Many businesses can't wait to set up a Web site. But while being online has many advantages, there are also some drawbacks.
- Saves cost of running a brick-and-mortar business
- Provides worldwide reach
- Flexible and convenient
- Easy to change and update
- Immediacy: Your message is out there in minutes
- Easy to run business from home
- Ideas and images may be stolen
- Can be expensive to set up and maintain
- May lose business if site crashes
- Not all sites display well on all computers
- Vulnerable to hackers
- May be overwhelmed with orders or replies
MINMYO KIM / NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS