If you’re like me, your nontechnical friends probably ask you a lot of stupid questions. Questions like, “Hey, do you think I should get a Web page?” And you have to go through the whole drill of explaining what the Web is all about, how much it costs to create a site, and what you can expect to get back in return for your investment.

The saddest stories come from those nontechnical friends who announce, “Hey, I’m on the Web!” You say, “Oh, really?” And then you find out they’ve spent over $1,000 to get a page designed and set up, and they’re paying a fat monthly bill for hosting and maintenance.

In November 1999, I wrote that we in IT have a duty to protect our friends and neighbors from “free computer” scams. I know I’m not going to win any friends in the Web design and hosting corner of the IT world with this column, but I’m writing to say that we should also help our friends and business associates resist the temptation to throw away good money on a Web site that isn’t going to do them a bit of good.

Lawnmowers on the Web? Puh-leeze
I was discussing this subject with my colleague Eddie Tolle, TechRepublic’s product manager for subscription services. Eddie has a good friend who four years ago bought an established lawnmower sales and service business. This friend asked Eddie to build a Web site for his business.

“Who are your customers? Who comes into your store?” Eddie asked. The answer was “mostly men in their 40s, 50s, or 60s.” So Eddie said, “You don’t need no stinkin’ Web site.” And I agree.

It’s nearly impossible to justify a Web site for this kind of business. You have to ask yourself:

  • How many of lawnmower-buying men in their 40s, 50s, or 60s have computers?
  • How many of them are going to surf the Web to help make a purchasing decision?
  • How many of them will actually find the Web site for this local small business?

Better places for business capital
Why was this small business owner even bothering to ask Eddie for help? Because he’d already been approached by several con men who were trying to sell him design and hosting services! He was feeling pressure to “keep up with the rest of the world” and get on the Web. Yet, the costs associated with keeping up were so high, this person sought out Eddie hoping for some cheap or even free help in getting a site up.

That’s the curse of being a “computer person.” Your nontechnical friends think you should be able to wave your magic wand and make them computer literate, deliver a perfectly debugged application, or create an e-commerce-enabled Web site.

Eddie actually came up with a pretty good idea. Since his friend was computer-literate enough to have an AOL account, Eddie suggested setting up a small brochure page on AOL, which offers drag-and-drop design tools for setting up the page and a modest amount of Web space—all included in the price of the monthly subscription.

That way, his friend could put a URL on his business card and feel good about having a “Web presence.” In addition, Eddie’s friend gets to save the setup and monthly maintenance fees and spend those funds on an advertising campaign that will actually help him sell lawnmowers and service—things like Yellow Pages, television, and print ads.

Do your nontechnical friends a favor. If their business would actually benefit from an e-commerce solution or a brochure page, help them. If not, teach them to avoid the con artists who promise the cyber-moon.
Each Tuesday, Jeff Davis tells it like he sees it from the trenches of the IT battle. And you can get his report from the frontlines delivered straight to your e-mail front door. Subscribe to Jeff’s View from Ground Zero TechMail, and you’ll get a bonus of Jeff’s picks for the best Web stuff—exclusively for our TechMail subscribers.