With all the doom and gloom in the retail sector and a tectonic shift occurring in the way consumers interact with business it’s no wonder that having an online presence for your business is now a high priority.
When I talk about an online presence I’m not just referring to the way you interact with your customers. I’m referring to the way you also set up and run your business from getting online all the way through to choosing an email provider and web host, and even considering cloud-based solutions for many of the daily chores required to run a successful business.
Obviously it’s much easier to adopt new technologies if you’re setting up a new business and you don’t need to deal with the legacy of existing technology or systems, but my advice and recommendations can also apply to those who are in existing businesses. Much of it also applies to individuals just looking to get themselves an online presence.
Before we get into specifics, a word of warning. Moving a business online shouldn’t happen all at once, especially if your business is a going concern.
Your first priority needs to be actually making sales or servicing customers – whatever brings in money. For instance, if you do decide to make the move into the cloud do it in stages. Start by setting up a website, then think about backing up to the cloud and, lastly, when you’ve got your head around it all, you can think about the more complex stuff like migrating your email to the cloud.
In this article I have documented, from my first-hand experiences, how to use the latest and greatest technologies to make your business life easier and less troublesome. After all, if that’s not the end goal then why bother?
Choosing an ISP
Before you consider anything else you’ll need to get online. Depending on your business situation you may or may not have access to terrestrial internet. A few years back that would have been a show stopper but now all major telcos provide wireless 3G internet via laptop USB or wireless dongles that provide speeds and downloads approaching what you can get on regular internet packages.
Still, if you can get terrestrial internet you should. It’s often cheaper and is more flexible. For instance if you opt for an ADSL or Cable connection you’ll be able to share
it among many computers; wireless internet often only enables one computer to get online.
Crowded market: Working in the Croydon, Victoria, exchange area, Telstra Infrastructure Service’s Chris Koukounaras confirms copper paths against existing records to meet increased customer demand for ADSL in the area.
The two main choices you have for terrestrial internet are ADSL or cable. Thanks to competition, ADSL is cheaper but often slower than its cable rival. Slow but not too slow. If you choose ADSL make sure it’s ADSL2+, a good compromise between price and performance.
The market for ADSL providers is crowded. Before you choose one make sure you understand your requirements. Are they basic surfing and email or will you need lots of data each month? If the latter, opt for an unlimited plan that won’t throttle your speed if you download too much.
Popular providers of ADSL are TPG, iiNet, Internode, Optus and Telstra. Their offers change all the time so you’ll need to do some research on your own to work out what suits you best. If you have access to Telstra or Optus cable these are good options if speed is important to you. Telstra’s Extreme cable package offers 100Mbit speeds – nearly five times faster than peak ADSL2+ connections offer.
DNS, domain and website hosting
If you want to have your own website or personalised email address you’ll need a domain name. There are many providers all offering domain name services. Prices vary widely between them, and so do service levels.
The more services that a domain registry provides the more you’ll pay it to register your domain. Also worth noting is that many domain registers will offer to provide additional services like email and hosting, and some will even offer to build you a website.
Domain registration can be a complex process, so if you’re unsure about how to proceed my recommendation would be to spend a little more and go with a domain registrar that can provide you with a high level of customer support. For example, a provider like Melbourne IT (www.melbourneit.com.au) has an option where they provide a 24/7 customer support line.
In terms of costs, Melbourne IT charges $140 to register a .com.au domain name for two years. For cheaper Australian domain names check out Crazy Domains, which offers .com.au domains for as little as $12 per year.
What’s in a name?: The first step in registering a domain name is to check if your preferred name is available at a registry site such as Melbourne IT.
You’ll find a lot more competition if you’re registering a US domain name. I have had experience using Go Daddy (www.godaddy.com) where the cost of registering a US .com domain name is about $11.50 for a year.
The Go Daddy site can be tricky to navigate and before you get to the checkout you’ll have to click ‘No’ to many extra offers it’ll throw at you.
I have also heard good things about Hover (www.hover.com), which charges a little more, from US$15 per year, but the interface is cleaner and simpler to navigate. Just remember, time is money!
Once you’ve decided on your host you will also need to get DNS hosting. DNS hosting maps IP addresses – the physical address of each computer on the internet – tomhuman-readable domain names. Think about it like adding your domain name to a big directory so that people can find your website and email you.
It’s common to use the company you register your domain name with to also do the DNS hosting.
Once you have chosen your domain name registrar and registered for DNS hosting you’ll need to find a web host – somewhere that will actually give you space to set up your website and also provide email services. Commonly, this might be the same business you register the domain with.
For instance, Crazy Domains (www.crazydomains.com.au) provides web hosting for $2.25 per month. This gives you locally hosted web space (for your website) and a personal email address at your domain.
You can also decouple the web hosting from your domain registrar and choose a dedicated host.
I have had a good experience with Crucial Paradigm (www.crucial.com.au), which is a professional outfit that offers a huge variety of different hosting packages, but there are many other providers.
The cheapest plan that Crucial offers is the SOHO, which costs $119.50 per year. It includes 5GB of space, 50GB of bandwidth (that’s the traffic coming in and out of your server), FTP access, 15 email accounts and business-hour phone support.
There are many popular free email services available for personal use. Gmail, Hotmail (Windows Live Mail) and Yahoo! mail are among the most popular. All of the these services give you enormous amounts of free storage, flexibility in terms of the way you access your email (via web, local mail client or your iPhone). Some personal users, however, will want to use their domain for their email. Many hosts provide this but most hosted solutions (via an ISP or a domain registrar) provide limited number of mailboxes and small mailbox size.
That’s why Google Apps has been a very popular product for Google and continues to gain traction at a rapid rate.
At its most basic level Google Apps provides free email hosting with your own domain name in a Gmail-style environment with the familiar Gmail web experience and legendary storage limits (currently at 8GB).
Configuring Google Apps to work with your domain can be a bit tricky. You’ll need to log into your DNS host and configure MX records to point to Google’s servers.
Once that’s set up you log into your control panel on Google Apps and configure all the different email address and groups you need.
Google offers two basic products – a free product that provides up to 10 email addresses with 8GB of storage, and a business product that costs US$5 per user per month (US$60 per year) for up to 25GB of storage.
Both products also offer other great features like access to Google Calendars, Google Docs and Google Sites. For businesses this means you get great tools that make online collaboration easy.
Site inspection: Google Sites is one of the many tools included with the very popular Google Apps for Business.
In particular, Google Docs lets you share documents, spreadsheets and presentations with collaborators and work on them in real time. No more tracking changes or saving hundreds of versions of files.
All Google accounts also offer seamless integration with your iOS device. You can choose to sync your mail via the regular IMAP protocol or even use the Microsoft ActiveSync setup that enables push email.
Lastly, Google offers a marketplace of third party add- ons for your Google Apps account that extend the core functionality in various different ways. For instance, the ZohoCRM provide a Google Docs plugin that let you use the popular Zoho CRM solution with your Google Apps username and password.
Building and hosting a website
When you’re ready to get your business online you’ll need to think about building a website and then hosting it.
One of the most popular sites that people use is Squarespace (www.squarespace.com) – a fully hosted and completely managed environment that you can use for creating and maintaining a website.
Squarespace provide great templates to start building your site and offers very powerful customisations that let your website look like it’s been professionally designed.
It starts at US$12 per month (less if you pay annually) for a hosted site with 10 pages. If you need more you can opt for the Advanced plan at US$20 per month or the Business plan for US$36 per month for unlimited pages and priority support.
There are many alternatives to Squarespace, including webs.com, weebly.com and snappages.com. All offer similar features but prices vary. My suggestion is to have a look at some of the example websites that each has produced, and also have a look at the online creation tools you’ll need to get familiar with.
Of course, if you’ve got the time and knowhow, you can also build your own website and then choose to host it manually. There are many powerful website creation apps for the Mac – including iWeb, which is part of the $69 iLife application suite.
I have used iWeb in the past and find it very easy to use but unfortunately it has only limited customisation options but it is an easy to use drag-and-drop solution.
There are more powerful apps that also provide an easy- to-use user interface but are more powerful under the hood, such as RapidWeaver (www.realmacsoftware.com; $84.99 from the Mac App Store).
RapidWeaver comes with 47 different themes that are easy to set up and customise. Once you’ve set up your theme you can choose from 11 different built-in page types. For instance, you might need a home page, product information page, gallery page and a contact form.
RapidWeaver also makes publishing your website easy. Simply enter your FTP details, upload your new site and you’ve finished.
CMS & blogs
Instead of building your own website using an app or online tool you can opt for a standard installation of popular Content Management Systems (CMS) called WordPress, TextPattern or Moveable Type.
WordPress (wordpress.org) is very popular and has over 25 million installations around the world – including the macworld.com.au website. It’s an easy to use CMS that simplifies the creation and ongoing maintenance of many websites and blogs.
Free and easy: The WordPress Content Management System has over 25 million installations around the world
According to WordPress, “The core software is built by hundreds of community volunteers, and there are thousands of plugins and themes available to transform your site into almost anything you can imagine.”
You can download the WordPress software free and install it on any server, or choose a host that supports WordPress.
Google also provides a popular and easy-to-use blogging service called Blogger. Setting up an account is free.
Google provides many different templates for your blog and makes it easy to add various components, called Gadgets, to your website. These include videos, Google Ads (so you can try to earn some money from your blog), Polls and Labels.
Online collaboration tools
Instead of running your business with desktop applications you can opt to use web apps that are equally powerful and much more accessible.
Two of my favourites come from 37Signals, whose slogan is: “Frustration-free web-based apps for collaboration, sharing information, and making decisions.”
The first, Highrise (highrisehq.com), is a competent CRM solution that is like having an easy to use business address book in the cloud. You can add contacts manually or just BCC a special address that Highrise provides to add contacts and correspondence. Contacts can be individuals or a company, with many contacts.
Highrise also provides space to mark down to-dos, and if you’re working in a team you can assign other members in your team to-dos too. There’s also space to record deals by tracking the value of proposals you send out and marking whether you’ve won or lost them. They’re a great reminder for working out who to stay in touch with.
Highrise also provides a free iOS app that can sync with your Highrise account to provide access to your business contacts while out of the office.
Like many web apps Highrise has a free plan that lets you experience the product. Once you’re hooked you’ll be up for $24 per month for six users and up to 10,000 contacts.
Basecamp (basecamphq.com), 37Signals’ other offering, is a web-based project management tool that makes it easy to collaborate with other staff and other people involved in a project. For instance, I use Basecamp to keep track of all the milestones I have for each project I do, and as a space to communicate with contractors and staff who are working on the same project. As with Highrise, Basecamp provides a free 30-day trial and a basic free plan that provides access to a single project. Paid accounts start at US$24 per month.
While 37Signals doesn’t offer a native Basecamp mobile app, it has built a mobile site based on HTML5 that provides similar functionality to the full website.
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
Wikipedia says “search engine optimisation is the process of improving the visibility of a website or a web page in search engines via the ‘natural’ or un-paid search results”.
The idea is the higher your site appears in a search results list the more likely it is to be clicked on. Different types of SEO may target different kinds of search. For instance some SEO targets images and videos as well as regular text-based pages.
SEO providers consider how search engines work and what consumers are searching for, and then optimise your website based on these elements. Normally, this means the SEO provider will edit the contents of your website to increase its relevance to the specific keywords you are targeting.
SEO providers normally charge a setup fee and then an ongoing monthly fee to ensure the content on your website is kept up to date and current so that when Google comes to check out your site it is optimised for whichever keywords you are targeting.
Backing up online
If you’ve ever been in a position where you’ve lost some of your important computer files to a faulty computer, you’ll know how important it is to have a good backup system.
At the most basic level you should ensure that you use Time Machine to backup your Mac regularly. If you’re using a laptop then you can also consider a Time Capsule for wireless backups.
Traditionally, the most popular form of backup is to an external hard drive or optical disk (CD or DVD), but with many new computers, like the MacBook Air, now coming without DVD drives you should consider moving to online backup solution.
The advantage of backing up online isn’t just limited to not having to worry about physical media, though. Choose any online backup solution and you’ll be able to access your information from any computer with an internet connection, or even an iPhone. But, a word of warning; before you sign up, ensure your broadband data quote is appropriate because online backup can use gigabytes of data.
Dropbox, one of the most popular online solutions, gives every customer up to 2GB of free online storage. If you need more, you can buy 50GB for US$10 per month. Dropbox installs a little application on your Mac and creates a folder called Dropbox. Anything you copy into this folder is automatically backed up, and accessible via the web or mobile phone.
You can also install Dropbox across a number of computers, and use it to keep all your files in sync. I use Dropbox, and love it.
Carbonite provides an unlimited backup solution and uses a small helper application on your Mac to quietly back up any new or changed files. The software springs into action when you’re not using your computer, which means your computer and internet connection stay responsive when you’re using them.
Like Dropbox, Carbonite automatically encrypts your files before they leave your computer, ensuring that your data is safely and securely backed up.
Unlike Dropbox, Carbonite doesn’t offer any free storage, but at US$59 per year per computer, it’s about half the price of Dropbox, and gets you an unlimited data allowance.
Mozy provides 2GB of free storage, 50GB of backup for US$72 per year or 125GB for US$120 per year. Like the other backup solutions, you’ll need to download and install helper software, but unlike Dropbox and Carbonite, you’ll need to tell Mozy which files to backup, and when you want the backup occur.
Additionally, Mozy provides a variety or data recovery options including the ability to order a DVD restore – Mozy will take your files, copy them onto DVDs and send them to you. When talking about many gigabytes of data this, ironically, can sometimes be the fastest solution.