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Hats off to your own web business

After I moved back from the States in early 2005, I started a web design and development business in Mumbai, India. At that time everyone was doing it. Outsourcing was a buzzword and getting paid in dollars was the new mantra. And with the relationships my wife and I had built staying in Chapel Hill, NC we were able to get off the ground quickly with a service business.

But after a few months and a dozen projects I knew there was something lacking in running a service business. I wanted to head a web business that was scalable and system-driven, rather than 100% dependent on people. Late last year DeskAway, our simple, powerful, and affordable project collaboration app, went live with great buzz (especially in Indian online publications). I have learned a great deal in the last 2 years or so — more than any MBA or graduate school could have ever taught me.

So, what can you expect when starting your own web business? There are different skills, or hats, that you will need to wear initially while bootstrapping (assuming there are only a couple of people in your team). Being aware of what you are going to get into will help absorb the mini-shocks you will get when you’re initially getting off the ground.

Hat #1 — Risk taker … believe in your gut instinct

The best part about the web is that you can run with your idea, turn corners and completely ditch the idea if it doesn’t work. When we started work with DeskAway, people — especially in our country — thought we were stupid. Questions like "there is so much money in services, why the hell are you guys spending time and money on building a product?" kept getting thrown at us. We were one of the few small product companies in the middle of a booming service ecomomy. In hindsight, I am glad we did it. We were willing to walk the “product” path even if it meant shutting shop a year later. There is one life to live and you might as well do the things you want to do rather than have someone else dictate it for you. My advice — just run with the idea and have as many people as you can run with you. The rest will follow.

Hat #2 — Maverick

VC’s and other people tell you about creating thorough business plans and exhaustive spreadsheets before you begin your business. It might work in the brick and mortar business where the capital involved is large, but building a business on the web is so much cheaper and faster, and if you make a mistake it’s easily and quickly fixable. That’s exactly what we did. We started developing DeskAway with a few developers and corrected course several times. Even today we are doing a lot of trial and error before we are sure that something really works. Once your business is off the ground and you know what works and what doesn’t, you can spend more of your time on numbers and plans. Until then, trial and error is the best way to learn about your new business.

Hat #3 — A techie, in a techie world

Ahh. Here is our favorite. Don’t we just want to fire up our laptops and dive right into developing the software? It’s like turning your dream into a reality in no time. Head’s up — don’t try doing everything yourself just because you can unless you are seriously bootstrapping. In my experience, if you can delegate the entire development, it’s the best way to go. Spend your time getting to know who will be using your app, what they will like, what your competitors are doing, etc. You will be surprised that development is just a small percentage of building a successful web business. Today literally anyone can develop an app. I’ve heard of companies here that just build web apps for clients abroad. It’s becoming a commodity. To differentiate oneself, it is important to look beyond development. All said and done, it’s cool to be a hacker, but if I had let that consume me we would still be in development stage. Get out of the comfort zone and think about “how do I get more people to the site and convert them?”

Hat #4 — Marketing to the market

Getting your app up and running is one thing, getting the word out is much harder. Participating in blogs, review sites, directories and other sites that are complementary to your business will help in garnering some initial traction. You can delegate this to an outside agency but it will cost you. See if any of your friends are in the PR business and ask them to give you some good tips or assistance in search engine optimization and marketing. Convince them to join you. I have seen instances where two people team up — one is the marketing wiz and the other the developer.

Online marketing has become an integral part of our business today. There are so many things to try out, so many questions to answer — is SEO better than SEM, should I blog about my product, how can I increase my subscriber base? I bet there is someone, somewhere that knows the answers to these questions and more — tap into any and every online resource. My favorite is LinkedIn Answers.

Hat #5 — Service before you sell

Remember, Harry Beckwith’s The Invisible Touch’ and What Clients Love — service is all-important and paramount in the success of any business. Once your app is live, be ready to be pounded with questions, feature requests, bugs reports and more. Create an auto-responder that will email the customer and let them know that you have received their email and will get back to them within 24 hours. Then stick to this time frame. It’s imperative to respond in a timely manner, and this can be especially tough if it’s only 1-2 people running the show. Next, keep a log of who has contacted you, and the details of the question or feature request. We have someone in the office who takes care of managing client requests for new features. She collects all feature requests and charts them on the spreadsheet so we know which is the most popular.

Hat #6 — Time management

Whew! As if this isn’t enough, one more thing that you need to balance is time. Being on the web, reading articles, replying to emails, posting blogs — you will soon notice that time is just not enough. Every new addition to your feed reader opens up a new can of worms. More sites to surf, more articles to read and more things to reply and comment to. Sift the important from the urgent, multi-task, and try to keep things to the minimum.

So, go ahead and give this a shot. In no time you will be on your way to owning your own web business, with a live product, and with paying customers. All you have to do now is don your tenacity hat and start the ball rolling…

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