So you've decided you need a Web site. Perhaps your competitors are already online and making you nervous. Maybe a large customer has asked for Web interaction capability. Or maybe you're getting ready to speak at an industry trade show and want to be able to mention your online strategy ("online strategy...right.") Whatever the reason, a Web designer can get a basic site up and running faster than you can.

For instance, when Haithem Sarafa wanted a Web site for his $6 million financial services company Zaske, Sarafa and Associates in late 1995, he found a designer at a place called the Internet Factory. Price and location were the deciding factors--the designer, P.J. Stafford, provided the lowest quote (quotes ranged from $3,000 to $10,000) and was only two blocks away from Sarafa's Birmingham, Mich., office. Plus, Stafford's work samples showed that he grasped not only the Web, but each of his other clients' businesses. "He understood them enough to suggest what types of links may be important," says Sarafa. "And he had done a lot of marketing for clients, announcing the sites."

The first step was a preliminary proposal, which Sarafa commissioned for $500. Stafford developed a sample site, with two full pages and an idea of what topics several more pages would cover. Liking what he saw, Sarafa committed to a full site. He set up checkpoints during the project to make sure the design didn't veer off in the wrong direction. In just more than a month, the project was done. Sarafa ended up paying $2,800 for a six-page site, plus $15 per month for storage and minor text changes.

This was a cheap deal; Stafford now charges twice what he did. Sarafa was able to work out the bargain because Stafford had been looking for an entry into the financial services market. "We were his 20th customer, but his first financial-industry customer," Sarafa says.

How do you find the right designer for you? It seems like everyone is doing Web development work these days, many with no prior experience. The best way to start looking is to cruise the Web and see who designs and maintains sites that you like. Most Web sites have the name of the designer somewhere on the site. Frequently, it's also a hypertext link that takes you to the designer's home page. From there it's easy to send E-mail or write down a phone number for a quick call. Another way to find designers is to ask your company's ISP (the company that sells your E-mail or Internet access) for referrals. Most ISPs, if they don't have designers on staff, have a few who they refer work to.

What do you like?

Get started with Web design by surveying other sites. Pinpoint what's attractive--are they easy to navigate? Colorful and attention-getting? Useful sources of information? Designers can copy the software programming codes used by others by grabbing the "source code" using a command in the Web browser software. Many designers work this way, even professional ones.

Obviously, though, you can't copy any one site too faithfully or you'll be violating copyright law. In the fall of 1994, Bob Lilienfeld created a Web site for White Rabbit Toys, his wife's retail shop in Ann Arbor, Mich. A year later, he was checking competitors' sites and found one that had downloaded his entire source code and simply put its name up top. After Lilienfeld sent a letter from a copyright lawyer, the competitor changed its design and paid White Rabbit's legal fees. "I suspect their designer thought it would make his job a lot easier to copy us," says Lilienfeld. "I doubt the store owner knew that his site had been copied word for word from ours."

Also remember that you can't use copyrighted material. If you want to use any previously published graphics, text, or design elements, secure the rights from whoever created it. When in doubt, ask.

After locating a few designers, here are some questions that can help narrow the field:

Can you meet our deadline?
The best design team in the world is of no use if it can't meet a deadline. If your company's site must be up and running by a fixed date (in time for a trade show or a budget period, for example) that should be the first question to the designers. If they say they can meet it, make sure timing is addressed in the contract. Each day the project is late should be reflected by a discount in price. It's not unreasonable to expect a design team to have a working site ready to go within a month. Set up mini-deadlines along the way, to make sure everyone understands how the site should progress.

Can I see some samples of your work?
Ask for samples even from designers whose work you've already seen on the Web. A savvy design team will show you work they've done for companies in your industry, or companies that are similar to your company's size, or companies that sell similar products. Look for variety. Is the designer using different solutions for different sites, or just repeating one standard design trick? You don't need to see specific designs that would work for your company's site; look instead for design solutions that work for the site they're on. Designers who are able to show one business to its best advantage are likely to do the same for yours.

Who will do the actual work?
Some busy design firms farm out projects to another designer--sometimes a freelancer who's not even on staff. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but just as you would with a law firm or accounting firm, be sure to meet the people who will actually be doing the grunt work for your business. You'll be in many meetings with them as the site develops, so make sure there's good communication.

What do you want?

If your Web site will be more of a "here is who we are" promotional area, you won't need to make that many monthly changes to it. Catalog sites and most that offer products or services for sale, however, require frequent updates on listings and prices. The fewer changes you will be making, the easier it will be to have an outsider handle the ongoing maintenance.
What other services do you provide?

Can you work with our in-house technical people?
If someone at your company will be helping design the site, establish up front how involved that person will be with the outside designers. If your person can write in HTML, ask the designers if they're available just to organize the site, with the in-house person doing the actual creation.

When can we see a mock-up?
If there are several designers you like, consider paying each of them to create mock-ups for comparison. These mock-ups should look like little flow charts, showing how visitors would progress from one page to the next, and where links to outside pages might be. Don't expect fancy graphics and meaningful text--the samples should mostly illustrate how users would navigate your Web site.

What will you spend?

Before making any decision, it's useful to compare expenses. According to interviews with 65 small companies--companies ranging from manufacturers to retailers and covering both high and low-tech industries--the average site took 2.6 months to create from inception to debut on the Web. Outside design teams cost an average of $13,000, plus $300 a month for ongoing work. Using an internal employee for Web site construction cost an estimated $15,000, on average.

How much will this cost?
Designers price themselves many different ways. Some charge by the project, some by the hour, and some by the page. Hourly rates range from $30 to 100, usually depending on the experience level of the designer, but not necessarily. Because it's a new industry, there's no pricing standardization yet. The cheapest designers are those without much experience, willing to take on their first clients at a discount rate in return for finished products to list on their resumes. Many small companies gamble on untried designers. It's risky--stories of missed deadlines and disappearing designers abound. But some get lucky. The site for Hot Hot Hot, a food store with a flashy online presence, was first designed by a firm called Profound, in Palo Alto, California. It was Profound's first Web job, so Hot Hot Hot got a discount. The colorful, eye-catching area got a lot of attention from consumers and the media.

Can you design a fast-loading site?
One of the most important things to remember about design is that most visitors will be reaching your site using modems, not leased lines. Modems can be slow and the people using them are impatient; they don't like to wait for anything to load. Even if you have the most exciting interactive graphic on the entire Web, if it takes too long to load, nobody will look at it a second time. The classic mistake many small companies make is to include a large company logo or scanned photograph of employees on their homepage. Color graphics take up the most storage space on the computer and are much slower to load than text. By the time customers complain, it's too late to recapture those visitors who left without complaining. Try to look at the sites the designers have already made using a slow modem connection--14,400 baud or less.

How much of my own time will the design take?
Many companies that launch a Web site soon realize that it takes a lot of time and effort to keep it current and interesting. At some point, most companies appoint or hire a Webmaster to take over this project. At the beginning, though, it may fall on you. Ask the designer about the experiences of their other clients, and consider calling these clients directly to hear about their adventures.

Phaedra Hise is the author of Growing Your Business Online: Small-Business Strategies for Working the World Wide Web (Henry Holt, 1996) from which this article is excerpted.