news / tech talk

Small Business Architecture

by Lee LeClair
As seen in Inside Tucson Business

Many small businesses are considering expanding their presence online. Many already have a “brochure” website which has some information about them but most have not made the plunge of putting their business functionality online. There are definitely hurdles for the non-technical. Putting your business online in a smart way requires thinking about a lot of things first. Consider the type of product or service you sell; is it suited for online sale? Can you describe and receive an order online in an efficient way? For example, if your business is highly customized and requires expert judgment to determine pricing, then it may not be well suited for online business. The more complex your business applications have to be, the more expensive they will be.

Next, consider your business geography and market. When you go online, you can appear to anyone anywhere in the world. Are you willing to ship anywhere? Do you know what it costs and what customs issues you might face? Are you willing to find out what shipping rates are to various parts of the US and Canada? These are things every merchant should consider, even if you end up simply stating that your site ships only to US customers.

Is your business geared for shipping? If you are considering a mail order type of business, are you setup to receive and process orders and payments quickly and ship quickly? You might consider a UPS, FED-EX, or USPS type shipping system so you can provide your customers with a tracking number. Are you setup to handle returns with RMA numbers, etc?

Online credit card processing is often an obstacle for many businesses. There are several options for processing credit cards. Most merchants already have a gray Verifone credit card swipe device and they know that there is a cost associated with processing credit card transactions. Usually there is a monthly flat fee plus a percentage fee for each transaction processed. But the physical presence of the card and a signature means a lower transaction rate than you typically pay when the credit card is not present as in an online transaction. Online, the credit card information is received and the transaction is processed without a signature or even the presence of the card. The risk of fraud is high and credit card companies and banks charge correspondingly higher rates to offset those risks. Processing credit card information online is typically not cheap for a merchant so the volume of transactions needs to more than offset the added costs to be worthwhile.

When all of the above have been considered, then a merchant has to consider the design and functionality needed to put the business online. Are there commercial packages available to simplify and speed the process? Are you familiar with a hosting company and/or designer for your graphics (or can you do it in-house)? Like any business, you should get quotes and interview candidates before making your final decisions. If the math all seems to add up, then you take the plunge.

If a merchant takes their business online, the merchant should be committed to it. If you ignore it or treat the online business as a second-class version of your traditional business, the merchant’s reputation will be damaged and could even affect the traditional business.

Finally, remember marketing. Many merchants believe that if they put their business online, they will automatically be visible to a huge tidal wave of customers. The Internet is vast, but people won’t see or find any particular merchant’s site without the site being distinctive enough to be found via a search engine or unless they are looking for the merchant site because they’ve heard about it. Getting a high search engine ranking is a difficult and arcane business. There are a lot of hucksters claiming they can get your site a high search engine ranking. Take that with a healthy dose of salt. Do research and do the best you can getting your business ranked high with search engines. Distinctive words help, so does interesting content about your products or their context. Don’t forget traditional advertising of your website either. Put your site on your business card, on your car, and use the traditional media outlets to advertise your business along with its online presence. It may sound daunting but expanding online can be a huge driver for business growth. Consider it intelligently and you’re much more likely to come to the right answer.

Lee Le Clair is the CTO at Ephibian. His Tech Talk column appears the third week of each month in Inside Tucson Business