My name is Mikael and I’m a designer-developer hybrid at Evermade. I have been working with websites for 18 years. I’ve guided several startups at the beginning of their journey. In most cases, my biggest input is on their website and overall online presence.
Usually, startups have access to basic HTML/CSS knowledge, and that is enough to get started. In this article, I want to point out some of the things you should be focusing on to make the most of your website in the very beginning.
1) Let’s start with the obvious: Content is king
A well-written article will be enough to get started. Don’t worry about technical implementation or layout design. The bold message on your headlines and beautiful images are the ones that catch the audience. Using online ads pointing towards an article has always proven to work and there is no design trend or technical gimmick that will change this fact.
Now the big question is how do we present that article on the web and how do we make it shine?
2) Technical simplicity will get you far
Just go with HTML/CSS. If you have PHP knowledge, then including headers and footers in all your templates will make your life easier.
- Kickstart with an HTML/CSS boilerplate
If you are not 100% fluent with HTML/CSS, these boilerplates will give you a set of layouts and components to get you started. With GetBootStrap (difficulty: easy) and Zurb Foundation (difficulty: medium) you can accomplish most basic websites not having to know everything about the code languages.
Most often HTML/CSS boilerplates don’t have a specific theme to them so they look very generic. If HTML/CSS turns out difficult, I would not concentrate too much on changing all the styles to make the site into something extreme. Focus rather on your content, copy and image quality.
- Kickstart with an HTML/CSS template
Templates are 100% finalized HTML/CSS pages that often look very nice but lack customizability compared to boilerplates. Further developing these might also be slightly harder because they often include custom code that is not always scalable.
If you find a template that really seems like something you could use, it’s probably the best way to get you started. The styling of these templates is ready-made out of the box which means they are not that generic. They might not help you accomplish all your pages but they will get you to a point where you can promote your company and it might look a lot better than with the HTML/CSS boilerplates.
You can search for templates on Google. There are numerous websites providing free templates, such as html5up.net.
3) Do not use a Content Management System (CMS)
CMS does have its advantages but it can also make your life a living hell. In the very beginning of your startup’s life, your vision or marketing direction might change drastically. Reconfiguring your CMS to fit those changes will cost a lot of resources — resources that most startups don’t have. Being agile and having the ability to make changes based on analytics is key.
A CMS will only come in handy at a later phase when there are many people creating content and your business develops a requirement for presenting bigger amounts of content and data.
If you decide to go with a more article-based design, then a CMS might actually be suitable for you. Still, in most cases, a self-hosted CMS is not the right way to kickstart but rather use an online service provider for the ease of getting started.
- Online Providers (easy)
Online providers will help you with all the server mumbo-jumbo. They even handle domains for you. Backend further development is often not supported. Consider Wix and Squarespace as alternatives for an online provider.
- Content Management Systems (difficult)
You handle the server. You handle the domain. You handle everything. Backend further development is not an issue. I suggest starting with WordPress or GetGrav.
4) Focus your design correctly
My advice is to focus on picking a beautiful font, great colors and designing great images rather than working too much on the layout. Text and imagery are what makes the web beautiful and your startup look good.
Often I see people focusing too much on the layouts and trying to differentiate with some unique solutions. It will never make you stand out so much that people would be willing to use your services just because of the layout. This also has a high possibility of making your website look rather shitty if the technical execution isn’t absolutely top notch.
5) Leave some budget for marketing
A lot of people feel that once I put my website online people will just start pouring in — I have never seen this happen. Once your website is live and if nobody visits it then search engines such as Google won’t think too highly of it. Therefore, they will not rank you high for your preferred keywords and your target audience won’t find you.
In order to really start gaining traffic, I suggest you put efforts either on social media or paid online advertising.
- Social Media Presence
This is the cheapest way to get your friends and other random people to visit your website, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are in your target audience. Finding your real target audience in social media is actually really hard and can be thought as more of a marathon rather than a 100m run.
- Paid Online Advertising
This one is more expensive but also a lot more effective for finding your target audience quickly. It is a lot easier to find your target audience when they are making a decision or a purchase. Where social media presence is a marathon and takes a long time to build up, online advertising can take you from 0 to 100 in a jiffy.
Overall, marketing requires iteration. Don’t spend all your budget on your first idea but rather keep trying out different methods. For example, with a marketing budget of 2000€, instead of using it all in one big push I would much rather spend 500€ in four different iterations. This way the risk of total loss is lower.
Between iterations, you need to look at what can be improved and learn from mistakes. The more iterations you make the smarter you will become. The downside of a small budget for each iteration is that it makes your data slightly less correct — keep this in mind.
Each of these areas of building a website has enough depth for someone to build a service company around it and study it for half of their lifetime. As a company starting up, you don’t have the luxury to do so. You need to get something out for the public to see.
Once you make the site public, do not just leave it there. Improve and see how it can be made better. Some people don’t publish because they are trying to make it perfect before going live, but this could put you in a bit of a limbo and prevent the website from being published. Ever.
We can’t create a website and forget marketing. We also can’t only think about technical things and leave content as something that nobody cares about. Balance is really the key here. You need to divide efforts equally between all aspects.
I really hope this article helps you find a good balance, where you should focus and how to get started with this stuff.