My uISV isn't even remotely an audience based business - we are on a narrow B2B segment - but since the very beginning, I have invested a lot of efforts to get a decent online presence. So far, every effort that I have pushed to strengthen the online presence was very significantly rewarded. Every week or so, excellent news just pop out of nowhere:
- A consulting group wants to add the product to its portfolio.
- A customer sends you a detailed spec of what you should be doing instead, and it happens to be really smart suggestions.
- A large company wants to know if your product scales up to 1 zillion users, because they are considering buying a zillion licenses.
Nearly one year ago, I had the chance to get my own uISV admitted at the Startup Incubator of Telecom ParisTech. An incubator is a nice place to meet other people that are facing roughly the same sort of problems that you have. To my great surprise, most startups have poor online presence, and even more surprising, most investors seem to have no clue about online presence either.
It's not clear how much it hurts the business; but in my opinion your online presence is the only tangible proof of your company existence for all people who do not happens to be within a 20km radius of your office.
Thus, here are my 9 steps to make sure the company has an online presence:
People tend to think too much good of their own ideas. Ideas matters little while execution is everything. Remember that Google was half-a-decade late in the search engine race; idem with Facebook for social networking websites. Stealth development is a game for big players who can sustain years of R&D expenses with no visible returns and then inject millions in marketing once the technology is ready.
2. Look & feel should be decent
Unless you happen to be a graphic designer, don't even try to skin your website yourself: it will look awfully amateurish and turn your customers away. For $100 or less you can get a nice website template. It might not be unique, but it does not matter. There are so many templates available anyway, that 99.99% of your visitors won't even notice that aspect. In 2009, there is no more excuse to have a half-backed website skin.
3. Customer benefits come first
If your visitors can't figure out the benefits of your technology / product / service, why should they actually care about the way it's designed? Many startup fails at actually explain the value of what they are offering, and strongly focus on random technical aspects that happened to be a challenge for the development team.
4. Happy talk has no place on your site
Happy talk is an easy way to fill your website. Ever considered putting a Welcome on our website sentence in your front page? Well, don't. Also, for B2B company, happy talk usually happens with (slightly) more subtle verbiage such as mindless mission statements: our mission is to serve our customer's interests. Make sure that every single word that you put on your website carry a valuable message. If it doesn't, delete the word.
5. Decent Google PageRank is required
Ever googled a company name to end up on the Facebook page of an employee? Well, that sort of things happens when your Google PageRank is just too low. More generally, a decent PageRank ensures that if somebody does a deep market research, your company will appears. I am not even talking about grabbing thousands of visitors through top SERP on strategic keywords; I am just considering the journalist / student / consultant / ... who is trying to figure out all the players of your business niche. If this person can't find you, then you don't exist.
6. English is required
If you happen to be a native English speaker, that one isn't going to be too hard for you. For the rest of us, well, we have to make the effort to get it done nonetheless. The harsh reality is that through English, you can reach roughly 10x more people than what you can through any other languages. It's doesn't mean that you can't do other languages, but English should be a primary focus.
7. Public pricing is required
It's always a bit puzzling to me to notice how people are usually reluctant to display any pricing on their website - especially on B2B websites. Yet, pricing is a vital information for your customers. Software or services can be priced from $1 / month to $10 million / month. Where do you stand? This concern stays valid even for beta products. Displaying a price is a very good signal for your customers: it tells them that you are a real company with a real product under way. Without pricing, you're simply not part of the economic circuit.
8. Blog is required
A company can be long dead while the website is still up and running. Providing some news - any news, anywhere on the website - as long the dates are visible, is the most simple way to prove to your visitors that the company is still up and running. Having a blog, and posting at least once a month is probably the easiest to complete this step. Blogs are dirty cheap and dead simple, no excuse will be considered for not having a blog.
9. Community feedback should be possible
I found that it's always very frustrating not being able to provide feedback about a product, a website, a service whatever. Granted, most web visitors are never giving any feedback, but some are doing it all the time. The feedback provided by those users is gold. Don't neglect your community when setting-up web forums is just a matter of hours. Your forums are likely to have a slow profile, but in my experience, the few early feedbacks that you get can actually make a difference in your business. You should not miss that sort of opportunity.
As a final word, I have already started to collect some data about the '07 and '08 classes of the incubator of Telecom ParisTech. Stay tuned.