Collaboration

Configure IT Quick: Develop an Internet infrastructure for online sales

Discover what you need to make online sales effective


I recently entered the online publishing business and created a second revenue stream for my consulting practice. I identified a need and built a product based on the knowledge I’ve gained as an IT consultant. Here’s the process—and a few time-savers—I used to create Internet-order capability for my series of publications, the IT Manager Development Series. My approach was to find a reliable solution that works with features that I need.

I’ve included approximate costs and links to the sources that I’ve used to build my infrastructure to provide you with comparison data. My only endorsement is that these services work well for me; you must evaluate applicability for your own needs. The approach that I took is ideal for a sole proprietorship or small consulting business. The following steps outline what you need to do. Certain steps—marked with an asterisk—may be eliminated if you already have a company Web site.

Second in a series
Mike’s previous article discussed his strategy for developing a second source of income from online publishing. Future articles in this series will discuss publishing your material and marketing your information.

*Purchase an Internet domain name
Obviously, you’ll need an Internet domain name so that people can find you on the Web. While the more common names have long been taken, you can find tools to help you find one that fits your business. You’ll also need to beware of copyright issues.

To get your own unique domain name, you must register the name with a domain registration service. You typically pay the first two years upon sign-up. Most domain registration Web sites have tools to help you search the availability of a new domain name.

I use a registration service provided by  BuyDomains.com. It charges $16 annually to register a domain, and its site has a nice lookup tool to determine if your domain is available. Select a name that describes what you do or use your company name if it is available. Get a .com name, if possible; some search engines find them more appealing.

I selected my domain name, MDE.net, because I wanted to use my company name and to keep it short. The .com name was already taken by another company.

*Select an Internet host
An Internet host maintains system servers to host your Web site software and provides connectivity to the Internet. You can set up your own Internet server if you like, but I prefer to let others take care of it.

You want a stable host that is profitable. The stability will be worth the extra cost. Services that you want include:
  • Control panel capability allowing 24/7 file transfer protocol (FTP) access to maintain your Web site. (FTP is the technology used to upload your Web page files to the host server.)
  • Guaranteed uptime of 99.9 percent. Web site hosting is a very competitive business. If you experience poor performance, many other players can deliver high levels of uptime. Migrating to another host is a nuisance but easy to do.
  • 24/7 technical support with “real support people” available.
  • A minimum of 100 MB of disk storage space for storing your Web site software, images, and download files.
  • A minimum of 5-GB to 10-GB file transfer capability. This is the block of file transfer capacity sold to you that is allowed to be transferred from your Web site every month before you’ll be charged more (sort of like buying a block of minutes on your cell phone).
  • A POP3 e-mail account that allows you to set up individual e-mail accounts tied to your new domain name.

Most hosting companies offer a month-to-month payment plan with easy cancellation. Discounts for annual payment are also common.

Fees range from around $19.95 to $99.95 per month for the features mentioned above. Shop around: It’s like finding the best cell phone package.

I pay $49.95 per month to host a dozen Web sites through  XO Communications in Reston, VA. Do a little research to find a host that will survive because this business niche is going through a shake-up. Two Web sites that can help you in researching hosting companies are Web Hosting Ratings.com and HostIndex.com.

*Set up your domain on your Internet Web site host
Once you have chosen your host and have registered your domain name, you need to set up the domain on the host server. Technical support from your host company will assist you. (Many Web hosting companies have Web site support information to answer most of your questions.)

If you’re new to this process, seek the help of someone that knows how to go about setting up your new Web site. It’s not that difficult but can be a bit confusing in the beginning. Base your decision on your level of comfort with Web design tools and the amount of time you have to learn them.

Often, you’ll be charged a fee for setting up a new domain onto a host server, even if you do all the work yourself. Fees range from $25 to $75 per new domain.

Select shopping cart software
I looked at more than 50 different shopping cart applications before settling on  GoEmerchant.com . For this application, I wanted:
  • A simple plug-in to my Web site giving me capability for a shopping cart order process.
  • Credit card merchant account capability.
  • The ability to use the shopping cart and credit card processing engine on multiple Web sites. This was the most difficult feature to find.
  • My company name shown on the shopping cart pages.
  • The ability to set up each item differently for sales tax and shipping options.

The service I selected lets me create unique items for sale and to create a link to the item from any Web page that I want to place it on for sale. Once an item is selected from my Web site, GoEmerchant’s secure shopping cart engine kicks in and handles the order process and credit card information gathering.

The merchant account I used is Novus, one of the largest credit card merchant accounts in the world. Setup was free. I pay a monthly base fee for the service plus a small merchant account fee for each sale.

Select a credit card merchant account
If you do as I did, you can get your shopping cart capability and merchant account in the same package or service. If you select a shopping cart without merchant account capability, you must obtain a service. GoEmerchant.com also provides Web site hosting and domain registration services, although I haven’t used it for hosting.

The key features that I wanted the account to provide were:
  • Handling of the four major credit cards (American Express, Visa, MasterCard, and Discover).
  • Credit card validation and approval.
  • Automatic invoice notification to the buyer and to myself upon completion of an order.
  • Automatic deposit of the funds into my bank account.
  • Transaction history for at least one year.
  • Ability to enter manual credit card charges.

My monthly costs for both shopping cart and merchant account capability are $64.95 in fees plus 2.39 percent of sales plus 30 cents per transaction. Many merchant accounts have setup charges for American Express and Discover, but these are usually negotiable.

Develop your Web site
Develop the Web pages that describe your product’s benefits. Include information that a buyer needs to see, such as product features, benefits, and testimonials that sell your product. You’ll need to set up a hyperlink for your “buy-me graphic” or text used on the page that initiates the shopping cart engine when selected.

Development costs vary based on the complexity of your Web site and whether you can do the work yourself. Web developers will build Web sites for as little as $50 per page. Many can host your site as well. I developed MDE’s Web site using Microsoft Publisher 2000, so I have no extra development costs. You can use Microsoft Word, Frontpage, or a host of other products to develop Web pages.

If you really want to simplify your online initiative, a one-page Web site that tells visitors what you have to offer and why it will benefit them is all that’s required. I helped someone create this ability on his Web site last week. He added the shopping cart link for his product and a new page to describe his new publication in about two hours. Actually, I’ve found it takes more time to develop the copy of your message than it takes to build Web pages.

To download or not to download
Decide whether you will allow a buyer to download your product as a PDF or some other electronic format. If you do, you should invest in a programmer to write a security script that forces unique passwords for every user so your new buyer can’t give your products away by telling everyone about your download URL. Anticipate a cost between $800 and $1,200, depending on what you want.

I process my orders manually by sending e-mail attachments of my products. I plan to automate the product delivery process as purchase volume increases. You can always fulfill orders manually or by uploading your publication file to your host server with no security precautions. I will probably tap into my network and get this automatic download with security script written for free.

Test
After you have everything in place, test every page and every function on the Internet to ensure that it all works properly. Read the text several times to eliminate misspellings and to keep the message as focused as possible. Test the order process to be sure that it works easily for your future buyers. You should also test your site using a standard 28K modem to ensure your pages load at a reasonable pace.

Final comments
Start small and add to your capabilities over time. Anyone can do what I have done with just a little guidance. It was Greek to me initially, but the upside potential of additional revenue to complement my consulting business was well worth the effort.

Mike Sisco is the CEO of MDE Enterprises, an IT management training and consulting company in Atlanta. For more of Mike’s management insight, take a look at MDE’s IT Manager Development Series.

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