Web Awards: Sole Proprietors

Most of our soloist entries left much to be desired. But Limelight and Somerset Estate Sales demonstrated how one-person companies could positively excel online.

Judging this year's Inc Web Awards left Peter Kent with an unhappy conclusion about solo entrepreneurs' sites: most reek.

Kent, president of Top Floor Publishing, in Denver, and the author and publisher of the Poor Richard's do-it-yourself Web guides, said that most of the soloist sites he judged fell squarely into amateur territory: "They just cry out, 'This is a very small, low-budget company."

Kent is not alone in his opinion. All the judges of the one-person Web entries complained about major faults, including cheesy graphics, indecipherable text, illogical layouts, and other easily avoidable mistakes. The judges were also unanimous in their concern that most of the sites made visitors work too hard. "Almost everyone could have benefited from consulting a usability expert," said awards judge Beerud Sheth, cofounder and general manager of eLance Inc., a Sunnyvale, Calif., freelancers' marketplace.

The good news: soloist sites don't have to be rotten. In fact, as our winning soloist sites illustrate, some one-person companies positively excel on the Web. "It's encouraging to see how [some] solo practitioners are making the Web work for them," said awards judge Terri Lonier, president of Working Solo Inc., a consulting company in San Francisco. "It shows that it doesn't have to be a million-dollar site to be of value."

The better news: lone entrepreneurs can easily avoid or fix most of the gaffes that bothered our judges, without putting in a lot of extra hours, hiring a full-time Web wizard, or going deep into debt. "With minimal and, in many cases, relatively cheap changes, these sites could look much more professional," said Kent.

The best news: your Web site doesn't have to look -- or work -- like you built it on a shoestring. Even if you did.

Scraping bottom

The top sin of soloist sites was fuzziness. In many cases, a site's raison d'être was about as easy to identify as a single sandcastle in the Sahara. "After studying this site for a while, I still can't tell you what it sells," said one Inc judge about a solo retail site. "I couldn't figure out the business angle here, and it took me a while to even get to the point of the site," another judge groused about an aviation-related site, adding, "if there even is a point."

And remember, those comments were made by people who, because of their judging responsibilities, had to slog through page after page of soloist sites. Most visitors -- and potential customers -- won't work that hard. They'll simply go somewhere else.

To be absolved of Web-site fuzziness, soloists must spell out everything up front, preferably on their home page: who they are, what they do, how they do it, and -- with absolute and utter clarity, so there's no possibility of misunderstanding -- why anyone else should care.

Other sins of soloist sites -- and their easy fixes -- included:

Sloppy spelling. "I was very offended by the number of typos," said one judge of a site that encouraged customers to browse the company's catagories and cotact the owner with questions.
Easy fix: Run a spell checker. Ask a stellar speller to examine the site. Or pay a professional proofreader to scrutinize your text.

Difficult design. Many soloist sites suffer from cluttered home pages, confusing navigation, and indecipherable fonts. "The site probably does a reasonable job of explaining [the company's business], but it's so irritating to read, many people may not bother," a judge complained about one online effort.
Easy fix: Recruit a focus group and sic its members on your site. Solicit their detailed, brutally honest feedback. Based on what they experienced online, would they spend money on your products or services? If not, what would change their minds? Reward testers with cash, a free lunch, or gift certificates.

Invisible information. An astonishingly high proportion of soloists forgot such basics as telephone numbers; mailing addresses; driving directions (if appropriate); and instructions for ordering, asking questions, or getting service.
Easy fix: Send in the testers. What can't they find? How many times must they click to send you E-mail or place an order? Make any necessary adjustments.

Dated data. As late as Labor Day 2001, the site of one soloist travel agency advertised job openings and tours from last year. Another site, this one run by a gift company, continued to promote its "June Specials" well into September. Such gaffes make sites look neglected or forgotten -- not a good first impression.
Easy fix: Set a regular deadline, perhaps weekly or monthly, for updating the site. Group and link time-sensitive materials, making them easier to find, update, and, if necessary, delete. Buy software that time-stamps Web pages and then alerts you when information "expires" or needs refreshing.

World wide webless. Soloists sometimes seem to forget that their Web sites are on the Web, meaning they fail to use the medium to its full advantage. For example, one meditation instructor forgot to include prices, schedules, online enrollment capability, and even an E-mail link on his site. In fact, about the only thing his site did include was a telephone number. Other soloists provided order forms that couldn't be submitted online but instead had to be printed and then sent by fax. That certainly doesn't qualify as wise use of the Web.
Semi-easy fix: Review your site's forms and links -- can they all be used online? Then -- and this is the hard part -- think about how your site can make better use of the Web. Visit sites you admire. How do they use the Web in ways you can copy? Finally, once you've made your changes, ask potential customers or clients to visit your site. Can they now do what they want -- and what you want?

In the limelight

Having said all that, it's worth emphasizing that sole proprietors can, and do, create great Web sites. Several Inc judges praised soloist entries that looked good, worked well, served customers, added value, and maybe even generated revenues. E-Lance's Sheth, for one, was pleasantly surprised "that relative beginners with limited resources were able to create some fairly detailed, professional-looking sites."

Among the standout sites was Limelight (www.limelightart.com), which public-relations and marketing consultant Jean Clement runs from her Menifee, Calif., home. Clement specializes in representing artists who do commissioned works. Her site -- our judges' unanimous choice for this year's best soloist site -- showcases those artists' works. Lonier, of Working Solo, praised Limelight's "elegant, gallery-like feel." Panelist Kent agreed: "You may find yourself clicking through just to see the art samples, which of course is just what the owner wants."

Specifically, judges liked Limelight's high-quality, fast-loading graphics, particularly the thumbnail images of individual works, which viewers can enlarge for a better view. They also praised Clement's decision to organize content not by the artists' names but by "art disciplines" -- mosaics, sculptures, art glass, and so forth. The Web site's layout serves Clement's target audience: architects and interior designers looking for something -- rather than someone -- specific.

Okay, Limelight looks great and works well. But what about business value? Here, there's disagreement. Some judges said Limelight could more actively market the artists Clement represents. "It needs a call to action," said Kent. "I didn't get the impression that the owner of the site actually wanted me to do anything more than look at the images." Sheth agreed: "I didn't get a compelling urge to contact them, and I couldn't find any easy way to submit information to tell them what I as a buyer would be interested in."

But Clement says that's beside the point, because she's not selling anything. "The site is not intended to be an E-commerce site," she says, because all works are custom-designed for commissioned projects. Instead, it's for people seeking artists who might be able to deliver the type of artwork they need. In that regard, Limelight deserves a standing ovation. "[Limelight] is primarily intended to be a 24-7 marketing site, and it succeeds at that," said Lonier.

Limelight's high-level performance comes at a price. Clement spent $7,500 -- 10% of last year's revenues -- to outsource her site's design and development. She budgets another $7,000 annually to cover the costs of continually updating images and content, improving site performance, and registering Limelight on search engines. Those figures will undoubtedly discourage soloists whose idea of a big-time Web investment is something in the low three figures.

But then there's our second-place soloist winner, Somerset Estate Sales. Brian Meyer, CEO of the Chicago-based company, reported launch and maintenance costs that were so low, our judges asked him to confirm them before making their picks. No mistake, says Meyer: his out-of-pocket costs for the first year were less than $100, including telephone dial-up costs and an annual $35 fee to register his domain name (www.somerset-estate-sales.com). He then built the site himself, spending 40 hours in a single month, using templates provided by a free Web-hosting service.

Meyer's estate-sales site is nothing fancy, with its utilitarian fonts, plain backgrounds, text-heavy home page, and merely serviceable images. So it's no surprise our judges unanimously recommended a little design attention: "Literally just 30 minutes of a designer's time would help," Kent said. "Different fonts, different colors, and in some cases different layouts would turn this from a site that looks exactly like what it is -- a site put together by a small-business owner working in his spare time -- into something that looks attractive and professional."

Still, the Somerset site has provided an enviable return on Meyer's investment. Although the site was live for only the last seven months of 2000, it increased Meyer's revenues by 45% over the previous year, primarily by attracting new business. "I sold one piece [of furniture] for $1,700 to a lady who saw the picture on the Web site and saw the piece for the first time when she came to pay for it and pick it up," he says. "I also get better prices for some pieces because I'm reaching a larger audience than I could afford with newspaper ads."

What's more, our judges said, Somerset Estate Sales perfectly integrates its owner's off-line and online worlds. Said Lonier: "It really demonstrates the potential of the Web to support a traditional, small-scale, bricks-and-mortar business."

Anne Stuart is a senior writer at Inc.

The 2001 Inc Web Awards

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