A few years back, a Web site was just a trendy add-on for a business. It could be likened to a gimmicky business card that glowed in the dark. Web sites were little more than electronic brochures that had no effect on the bottom line, according to Mike Krell, an Austin, TX-based portal site design consultant.

Like any hot new toy, everybody had to have one—and early entrants into the emerging field of Web design had more business than they could handle. Entrepreneurial high school students were funding their college education by knocking out Web sites. But those were the primitive years of Web design, during which anyone with basic business smarts could teach themselves the technical fundamentals they needed in order to call themselves “Web designers.”

Brad Brewster, president of the New Orleans-based interactive agency Bent Media, Inc., is a Web site design pioneer. But unlike the thousands of Web site designers whose businesses fell by the wayside as e-commerce ascended to a business paradigm, Brewster prospered. Initially, he was as much a multimedia developer creating CD-ROMs as he was a Web site designer. Parting company with early dabblers, Brewster grew, learned, adapted, and most importantly, took the business seriously. Like all the survivors, he enjoyed the rush of watching e-business bolt from infancy to adulthood in a few short years. His shop jumped from a one-person operation to a 14-person firm. This year, he’s projecting dramatic growth.

Brewster is a success story, but he’s the first to admit he’s only a small fish in a big pond populated by giant companies like New York-based Razorfish, which employs more than 400 people. Razorfish personifies the New Age design company, calling itself a “provider of digital communications.”
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E-commerce numbers tell the whole story. The worldwide Internet economy will exceed the $1 trillion mark in 2001, and by 2003, it’s expected to catapult to an astounding $3 trillion, according to International Data Corporation.

Today, the hot buzzwords are “interactivity” and “branding.” A site must have a clear identity and drive home a unique message. Above all, it must be easily navigable, so impatient visitors don’t click off.

The Web site has ascended from business tool to business weapon. “For the first time, companies are tying profit to their sites,” Brewster observes.

Versatile designers used to churn out a site in a couple of days. Today, it can take several months to build a mammoth site at a cost of more than $1 million. Brewster says the cost of a decent corporate site starts at around $50,000.

“Internet folks are rattling cages, and the brick-and-mortar businesses are fighting back,” Brewster observed. But through it all, it’s business as usual—just played on a different battlefield.

From a career perspective, carving a niche is more difficult. A few years ago, companies were more likely to hire smart people with technical backgrounds and groom them. Today, e-commerce companies are demanding people with experience.

Typically, large companies are looking for specialists, whereas small companies like Bent Media are more likely to hire talented jacks-of-all-trades. But virtually all the players demand experience and passion. Brewster hires experienced programmers with an understanding of PERL, ASP (Active Server Pages), and databases. There is no shortage of talented people knocking on his door (some even boast Master’s degrees in e-commerce).

Remember the job of Webmaster? Way back in the Neanderthal days of Web design, it was a technical job. Today, “Webmaster” has been replaced by “Web producer,” “content wizard,” and a host of other creative names that candidates coin themselves. Uppermost, it has ascended to a complex job bridging technology and end users.

Has the Web creation business grown too sophisticated for talented newbies to break in? Absolutely not, according to Brewster.

In fact, Brewster and other small Web shops are constantly looking for hungry techies who don’t mind rolling up their sleeves and working around the clock. But you had better bring some experience to the table. “It’s never too late to jump in if you can ramp up quickly,” says Brewster.

If you’re short on experience, Brewster advises immersing yourself in Web culture. Subscribe to online newsletters like Iconocast, Internet World Online, and Internet.com . And religiously read magazines like Industry Standard and Business 2.0. It couldn’t hurt to hang out with people who live and breathe dot coms 24 hours a day.

Bob Weinstein’s weekly syndicated column, Tech Watch, is the first career column covering the exploding technology marketplace. The column appears in major daily newspapers throughout the U.S.