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Website Design for start-ups. Keys to Success.

startup-bookI have been involved with the development and consulting of several startups over the last 15 years. Some of them failed, others managed to stay afloat over time. At one point I even had under my command the biggest Portal in Greece, and few of the most traffic generating websites in the gaming industry worldwide.

While that’s not totally relevant I just wanted to back up my claims with some real achievements and experience. Either way, we got the introduction to this article underway – we will try to figure out the good and the bad startup ideas.What this article will not be is another list of things you need to have to create your own startup. You probably can get tons of those from uncle Google, so let’s not be repetitive and try to dig deeper.

This article is going to be more about the factors you need to take into consideration. Launching a startup is actually not that hard, the tricky part is not letting it die.So let’s begin with a clear -and at the same time hard- question:

Why might you fail?

You really need to be realistic with your own project. Otherwise you may end up wasting not only your time, but the time of others and that hurts your reputation for future cases. Ask yourself what are the weak points of your projects and try to patch them up as well as you can. The issues will vary depending on individual projects, but let’s try to look at some general ones. You might think that you don’t really need to do it and that you will somehow manage everything on your own. That may be true sometimes, but in the majority of cases, if you have not planned out everything beforehand, you might as well not even start.

Inman_innovator_award_2008_0Same ideas

When we began having talks with some investors involved in one of our startups, they were very keen on asking if our project brings something new to table. The “new” factor (or unique, or mixed-up) is a very important element in today’s web industry.

Don’t get the wrong idea though. Copies of different, successful sites are a common practice and most of the time succesful. If yours is one of them, ask yourself - does it have elements in it that will make it better than the rest? It’s very important that you have something different, new, or better to offer. Even with a great and innovative idea you will still have problems generating website traffic, with a bad idea it will be even harder.

idiotsI'm using a phrase many years:"In the web there are three types of "I" (letter i). The Innovators - the people that start-up something brand new, an absolutely unique idea, never been in the market before. Most of these ideas usually fail for many reasons that i will discuss in another article. Then we have the Imitators. These are the businesses that get the money and the success. And YES facebook,twitter,zenga etc. are imitators, none of them build something new or create something from scratch, there were tries before them that just failed because they were lacking a few important things or consulting. Finally there are the Idiots. People and business that try to succeed in a field that is already too overcrowded and where the profits and results will never come. You don't wanna be one of them.

Either with a new or existing idea you still face the same follow-up problem:

Do we really need it?

If you copy somebody else’s idea then make sure there is still a need for another website of its kind. Take a look at your future competitors and find out why they are successful and why some of them failed. You will need to learn from both if you want to have a shot. If you don't know the competitor's past ask a consultant. We are many in the market, and we can help you save a lot of money before you start a new project. Sometimes patent issues may become a problem as well. Facebook has sued some of its local ripoffs like StudiVZ in Germany. Wizards of the Coast who have extensive patents on Trading Card Games, which resulted in many lawsuits over the years, recently Nintendo has settled on undisclosed terms with Wizards regarding their Pokemon Card Game. Keep that in mind if you’re trying to copy ideas from different sites. If you have a new, brilliant idea you can try to get a patent on it yourself.

So what if your idea is a new one out there? In that case you need to do some research or let The Web Empire LLC do it for you. Pitch your idea to some people and ask them if they would be interested in your service. Try to ask a variety of people, people that are different ages, gender, race etc., you want to get as much info as possible. You’re not only looking for the amount of interest, but also specifying your target audience. Going after the wrong type of folks with your project may very well be the difference between it being successful and dying a quick death.

The demands of the market leads unavoidably to looking at the market itself.

Know your industry You may choose to have a startup targeted at a local area, to one country, a few countries, or even the whole world. Whichever it is, you need to know not only the audience in it, but gather knowledge about the market itself. For example, if you want to create a portal about online gaming, you will want to find out as much about the market for these type of games as possible. How many people playing these games, what figures do the units sell in, where are the best buyers etc. but the most important factor you might want to look at is: is the market going up or down and what are the future predictions in that regard. If you manage to step in during the early stages of the market developing then all the profits later will be yours to take. On the other hand if the market is going down better forget any investment on this option.

Another important factor we should look at closely is – how many people are there in your target audience. Try to come up with an estimate. It doesn’t have to be very accurate, anything close to 30% correctness is alright. Then take this number and find what percent of this audience your competitors attract. Low numbers means there’s still a lot of space for improvement and your business to join in. High percentages mean the contrary, but they also mean, that lot’s of the target audience is already aware that the Internet can expand their experience of their hobbies etc., which is a good thing as well.

ms_welcomepic_startupWould you be interested?

That’s a question you have to ask yourself and answer it as honestly as you can. Actually not even that, answer it as skeptically as you can. Write down thoughts why you hate your own project, your fears with it etc. Negativity is many times the first step to success.
When you have them down, you know what you still need to work on. Nothing can be too perfect and nothing really is. The flaws which you miss now will come out eventually at which point it maybe hard to counter them.

Innovation & Imitation

Finally we come to what we started with. You just absolutely have to check this. If your product/service will not be superior ‘on paper’ to the ones already out there, then your just wasting your time. While you work on your project, your competition is already working on making theirs better, so by the time you launch, they will be already way ahead.

Your only advantage is that your project is still flexible and you can take care of some core problems. Functioning projects don’t have that flexibility and the bigger they are, the longer and harder it is to make decisions about changing them.

That’s how you get ahead, or at least how you try.

What to take into consideration?

So now that we’ve got your start-up working on paper, let’s figure out if it will work in real life… or at least the web based life.

The lazy crew factor

If you’re working alone, than you can skip this one all together, as only your motivation to work will impact the project. But chances are, you have a crew or partners to work with you. In any project I’ve led/been a part of there always was a problem with some people being less motivated to work than others. You would imagine that this problem is non-existent if you choose to pay the crew to do their work. It’s not the case though. Even if their wages depend on it, some people will just not work at 100% or anything close to that and some will not work at all.

The problem is quite hard to tackle and will probably be one of your main issues. We can read coaching books, threaten, torture (in some countries at least) and so on, but the problem will remain. What you want to do, is minimize it as much, as possible. Demanding work reports from everyone including yourself at specific intervals of time (maybe once a week for example) seems to work quite well. Remember though to keep the balance between fighting laziness and becoming a despotic boss or partner. If you push your crew or partners too much, they will start to push back. You can’t expect too much from folks who don’t enjoy doing what they (suppose to) do. Startups are about vision and passion. Not only yours, but your teams as well.

Necessary skill set

So what do you really need to get the project up and running? There are some essential skills and some optional ones. In a perfect world you want all of them at the highest level possible, but in the real world that’s not likely, unless you have enough money to hire the very best (at which point you probably wouldn’t need to create a startup in the first place).

Architecture Designer - Project Manager. Yes that's me. And many others. It's the person that with his/her experience and the many years in field action will coordinate all the team that involves you, your budget, your vision, and the real market out there. The person that will "make things happen" the way that you had imagine from the begin and at the same time will follow all the required rules and knowledge for a user friendly, smart, visionary and succesfull start-up. Architecture designers (formally known as Project Developers), is the 40% of your website success. Pick the one that you feel trust with him and having experience. The last is very important. You'll have also to spend time with him/her, and always explain the best you can your idea and plans. You got to have the time to do this. Do not expect anyone to be in your mind and understand your idea with few words, especially if you haven't done a multi-page business plan that explains everything step by step.
social-media-successWeb Graphics Designing team – somebody has to prepare the mock ups of what the site will look like and programming it after. Without Web Graphic Designers, who works under a serious company you'll probably will not only end up with a site that looks non-professional, but you run the risk of your project being very hard to use. Web Graphic Designer are much more closely to programmers than to Graphic Designers. Web Design is a science that have to do more with coding and rules, and less to pick up a pencil and draw. Reading three design books per day is one thing, but you won’t get anywhere without experience. Knowledge is another thing. The ability to adapt to various situations people gain by doing, not seeing. And of course you can pick someone that is only graphic designer to make your site for $2,000 or less or pick some of the already made templates out there. But this not an option in today's market.
The first impression of your start-up is usually the design. In that crucial few seconds your visitors will decide if they want to stay for a bit or move on. If your landing page can’t catch their interest, then it doesn’t really matter if you have the most brilliant coders on the clock. The opposite ofcourse have happened many times.

Development team – making it look nice is one thing, making it work is another. There are many programming languages out there and many ways to get you to your goal. All of them depends on your budget, not only for the start, but for the maintenance and the support after. You really need to be able to trust your programmer(s). Whatever solution they will pick for you, ask to be sure that is future proof and compatible with all industry's standards. Don't get confused with fancy flash designs, no-one uses them anymore cause apple systems (among others) can't play them. There are hundreds solutions out there, that just needs the right programming to come alive. You don't want to end up with a website, that half of your clients can't use it.

network-marketing-successPublic Relations & Social Marketing – most people think they can do that by themselves, 90% of them can’t or do a poor job. You need a diplomatic skill set and an open mind. When on the phone or other “live” chats, you need to be quick on your feet and come up with the best answers and solutions on the spot. Too many pauses, too much “I have to consult with a colleague about that” and you’re going to lose your client or partner. At some point you will need someone who can speak with other people. There are many valuable assets that can make a big difference, the art of persuasion is high on that list. Same goes for the Social Marketing. You can't put your friend because he's having many friends on facebook, as an expert to do your company's web marketing. It's mistake. It's prohibited even as a though today.

Copywriters – you probably think I mean people who write articles for your website etc. While this is true, there’s more to it than that. If you need people to write articles or not depends really on the project you undertake. But you will need someone to write official documents, letters, summaries etc. It’s beneficial if your PR person can do that, it helps to keep things running more smoothly and coordinated.
If you’re thinking of pitching your idea to investors at some point, creating documents one after another will be demanded of you and you want to have those made correctly.

Accountant – when the money starts flowing you might want to keep track of it. Make some mistakes and your IRS counterpart will find them. Not only that, a good accountant will help you to actually get more money with the knowledge of various laws and workarounds.

Language -If you’re natively an English speaker, then the problem is non-existent for you. But if you’re starting in a country with a different language, then you have to decide which people are your primary concern.

The home field advantage of your own country is a big help. You know the culture and customs of your own nation, which can be very helpful. It puts you in front of any “outside” projects trying to make it in your region. But of course, you’re restricting yourself to a smaller audience. English is pretty much the basic language of the Internet now and if you choose to use it, you can get exposed to a much broader audience. But with a bigger field comes more players, so your competition will be much more fierce.

Another downside to choosing English, is that it may prove hard for you to find team members which will be able to contribute any written content to your website. Understanding the language and writing it correctly are two separate things.

Project Profile - This comes back a bit to the Target Audience factor. We’re going to build on it a bit more. Depending on your primary audience you should build and design your start-up accordingly. Like, you won’t put cars on a site selling beauty accessories (though it’s probably coming…). But that’s just the most simple example, the implications are really very vast. The idea is that you have to find a way to get to your audience whenever possible. Attention to the smallest details separate the wolves from the sheep.

Do you need funds? Depends on who you know. Theoretically, you can get away with creating a start-up without putting any money into it, but you need to convince some people to do it with you for the promise of future gains.

Your chance at doing that depends on what you have achieved so far and who you already know. If you have friends you can ask directly, do so. Nothing really to lose, is there? If you’re short-handed though and don’t want to spend money you might try advertising your idea on various forums or places which allow you to search for specialized people for a project.

I have tried all of the above and all of the above actually work. The problem is (obviously), that you don’t really know anything about the people you get from the Internet. Nothing really stops them from walking away after a month and leaving you on ice. You don’t know how reliable or fast they are. So it’s a bit of a crap shoot.

On the other hand, if you’re willing to put up some money for the work, you have a better chance of more serious people coming forward. Don’t take it for granted though. Trial periods and work history checks are your friends. Contracts are another thing that keeps you safe.

You need a server and a domain. Although nowadays there’s so many hosting companies fighting for clients, that if you look around enough you might get a year or two of both for as little as a few dollars. It may not be something you want for the long run since you want to have a fast website and secure at the same time, but it’s definitely going to be enough to get you started and see if it goes anywhere.

Good luck - Be patient
Yes, you are going to need this also. It's the last but no least in any project. Due to many - up to thousands - different reasons a project can succeed luck is very important. Patience is also. Many times things are not coming the way we want. You'll have to be patient and to find solutions through many minor and major difficulties you may face. At the end you'll going to have a great - results driven - website for your startup and at the same time you'll have earned a lot of experience how the web industry works. 
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