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Sites simplify do-it-yourself Web design
You don't need a creative flare or a lot of cash to get up and running.

By Jan Norman
February 27, 2006

Last fall, Dan Safkow needed a Web site fast.

The owner of Promo Ideation, an Aliso Viejo promotional products firm, got the inspiration to sell custom-logo MP3 players at the Portable Media Expo in Ontario that was a few days away.

If he hired a professional Web site designer, it might costs thousands of dollars. More important, it could take weeks and his sales opportunity would pass.

So Safkow designed and published www.logoyouraudio.com himself at Homestead.com, a do-it-yourself Web site design and hosting service for folks who have no technical knowledge.

"I completed the Web site the evening before the expo and received an order for 400 units a few days after the expo," Safkow says. "By building the site with a do-it-yourself tool, I went from launch to profit in under a week. My cost was under $100, plus my time."

Enter the term "do-it-yourself Web site design" in a Google search and you'll get 13,800 results. This burgeoning market is aiming at people like Safkow seeking a fast, inexpensive, yet professional-looking site.

A wide range of companies offer advice, including: Homestead, which specializes in Web design; domain name seller GoDaddy.com; search directory Yahoo; and Internet service provider Earthlink.

While professional Web designers stress their greater design skill and Web marketing abilities, it is clear that anyone who can use Microsoft Word can create a Web site without knowing HTML code or CGI scripts. However, small-business owners should weigh their needs, tolerance for tinkering, eye for design and budget when deciding whether to do it themselves.

If you opt for DIY route, Safkow recommends that you test it first.

"There were a lot of free trials out there; I tried a half-dozen before I settled on Homestead," Safkow said of his first Web site, www.promoideation.com, for his core business. "I use a lot of online tools. If I don't get it in five minutes, I move on. With other Web-site builders, I might hit a problem in 10 minutes or in a couple of days. I haven't had a problem with Homestead."

DIY Web site design services tend to have several features in common, such as free trials, toll-free phone help and pricing as low as $3.99 a month.

Watch out for those who retain ownership of your domain name or have unreliable servers.

Homestead Inc. in Menlo Park started in 1998 as free Web sites, making its money from companies offering add-ons like stock tickers and news, says co-founder Justin Kitch. Some 12million Web sites have been built with Homestead tools.

After the dot-com crash, it started charging ($9.99 a month and up). The teen-agers and nonprofits left and the core business was small business.

One of the early users of the free service was Yorba Linda resident Cindy Lieber, who wanted to test the market for her decorative wedding tennis shoes.

"I was very conservative; I didn't know if this business would work, so I didn't want to put money into it," she says.

Even though she worked as a technical support provider, Lieber didn't know programming language.

Homestead was the only nontechnical Web site builder she could find in 2000.

Selling wedding tennis shoes, flip-flops and other shoes online is now a full-time business. "I could make more in technical support, but I like this more," she says.

As her business grew, Lieber added more features to her site (www.weddingtennies.com) and pays Homestead several hundred dollars a year.

"They have a good product, but at this point, I have so much time invested in the site I wouldn't want to switch" to another service, Lieber says.

That reluctance to change is another reason for a small-business owner to research and test a service now that many more choices are available.

"Small businesses are so dynamic. If you deliver a great product at a great price, they are very loyal," Kitch says.

Homestead now focuses on adding features that business customers want, says co-founder and technology chief Thai Bui, who grew up in Orange County.

Many customers don't trust their design skills, so Homestead and many of the other DIY sites offer pre-designed templates. Many sites also offer easy-to-add PayPal and merchant card accounts for those who want to try e-commerce.

Homestead is adding tools to help Web sites rank higher in search-engine results and to analyze online business.

"We're not just selling Web sites; we're helping businesses succeed on the Web," Kitch says.

Fast track
Some build-your-own Web site services:

Homestead Inc. - www.homestead.com, starts at $9.99 a month, 2,000 Web-site templates, domain names and e-mail addresses, eBay and PayPal integration, shopping carts, inventory management, search-engine optimization

Yahoo - sbs.smallbusiness.yahoo.com, starts at $11.95 a month, 380 Web-site templates, domain names and e-mail, hosts the most Web sites, PayPal and merchant accounts, Web marketing services, traffic tracking

Register.com - www.register.com, domain registration and e-mail, starts at $5.95 a month, 65 Web-site templates, personalized domain names and e-mail, accept online payment through another company at $34.95 a month level, Web traffic reports

Earthlink - www.earthlink.net, site building using third-party (Trellis Site Builder or NetObjects Fusion) software, starts at $9.98 a month, 75 templates, personalized domain names and e-mail, merchant account payments through another company, Internet marketing tools