Essay #1 SEED stage
Web apps, Seeds and Time travel
Back in 2008, I had an idea to open an online store for toys, gifts and gadgets. Since then I had been engaged in multiple e-commerce projects, hired a bunch of web developers, built several web apps and made tons of amateur mistakes. There were frauds, lies, mysteries, failures and some victories along the way. In 2020, I am a professional web developer myself and a slightly more seasoned business person. I couldn’t help but notice how aspiring entrepreneurs, founders and CEOs of all ages keep stepping on the same rake that used to whack in my face over and over again. So, I have come to a conclusion that I have accumulated enough experience and it’s the right moment to share some valuable insights with you. My personal pilgrimage in a space-time continuum of my consciousness as well as our mutual journey along these lines will be worthwhile.
T minus zero and we have lift off… “Hey! What’s up, buddy?”
Businesses differ, says captain Obvious, but they all go through the same development stages during their life cycles. The way I see it, there are roughly four stages a business might go through in terms of growth: SEED, SPROUT, PLANT and GARDEN. SSPG — if you’re into that sort of thing. Of course, there is a larger variety of levels, but this amount of vegetation is enough to follow my trail of thought. Shout-out to #gardenersrule. You probably don’t have a slightest idea what a hashtag is in 2008. There, there, my cute clueless little caveman. You’ll find out soon enough.
SEED is a regular startup that is probing the market. It’s not a venture capital backed and full-o’-cash kind of startup. This might not even be a registered company yet. The focus here is on building a minimum viable product, minimizing expenses, being ready to pivot, finding the customer, solving the problem, getting paid for the first time.
SPROUT is a small business, a registered legal entity, with growing customer base and revenue. This could be a newly formed company that is entering a known market and is no longer testing the waters. The focus here is on iterating, fixing errors, polishing the product, making existing customers delighted.
PLANT would be an established business with regular customers and steady cash flow. When operating at this level, the focus should be on building a brand: brand strategy, brand identity, brand personality, brand messaging, voice and tone; scalability, efficiency, processes, sales and communication channels.
GARDEN is an expanding company, a growing brand that is recognized. The focus in web design and development here would be on security, anti-fraud, accountability, social responsibility, trends, rebranding, multi-branding and diversification.
I will split my internal discourse into four phases — one for each SSPG stage. Each phase will have themes or essays that I consider worth looking into. I will be formulating questions and going over them within the confines of the particular phase. My hypothesis is that as business develops, its goals evolve as well, thus the quality, functionality and scale of web applications and their costs should inevitably change to support the transformation. Therefore, there should be a different level of analysis involved in the website creation process at every stage the business entity goes through.
The composition of essays you are looking at right now is meant for the SEED stage bootstrapped startups and small businesses.
I am not trying to make a case that the marketing funnel or social media strategy, for instance, should be attended to exclusively at the PLANT level. These are important activities at every stage of business buildout. However, during the initial growth certain actions are not as significant and should have a lower priority, whereas as the company matures have to become a part of a daily routine.
You might argue that brand strategy and brand identity are crucial at the SEED stage; that if we nail it right at the start and invest heavily into creation of a perfect product, it will promote itself and we’re set for life. I would say — sure, it’s a really nice dream. If you have lots of cash, tons of time and a steady growing market you can hire professionals to help you with that. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have unobstructed access to a hefty gold sack of plenty or have little time to squeeze through the window of opportunity that might only seem to be open.
Truth be told, when you are barely scraping by, strategizing and branding should not take precedence. The most important part at the SEED stage is finding the customer who will pay you for your product and feel good about having done so. When you prioritize strategy over sales at the initial stage, you are consciously choosing to stop the development of your business for whatever made-up reasons you might have. I know what I’m talking about, because I had done exactly that and it was a mistake. Most of your time and effort should be spent on getting sales, but at the same time, that activity would not necessarily exclude strategy and some basic branding if you’re sure you can afford it, both money and time-wise.
Whenever there is a task at hand there are actions that are reasonable at one stage and make no sense whatsoever at another. Let me give you an example. If you had a SPROUT type construction company and you had one project that required you to have a forklift, it wouldn’t be rational to purchase it. You would rent one because beyond that single contract you wouldn’t need the machine. It might’ve been practical to obtain this tool if you were a PLANT or a GARDEN level business when you have multiple projects and paying year’s rent overwhelmingly exceeds the costs of having the apparatus in-house. But for a small operation large, resource-consuming purchases are pointless.
The same applies to websites. It’s great to have an e-commerce website like the one adidas has, but do you need to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars when you are a bootstrapped startup testing waters? First of all, I don’t think many of us have that much. Secondly, you wouldn’t have a clue what to spend it on anyway because you don’t know the market and how to find and approach your target audience at the SEED stage yet. You’d burn through cash faster than a dog-pursued scalded cat chasing scattering mice.
You know the primary law of time-travel, don’t you? If you ever meet your future self that tries to bore you to death with psalms of unwelcome moralizing advices and then you kill it — there is no future for you. So, I guess, there is no feasible way to make me shut up. And since that is the case… What are we waiting for? Let us look at what you’re getting yourself into and try to build us a simple website for you next SEED stage startup.
Essay #2 SEED stage
Simple websites, Car wash and Tsar
This essay will be useful to those entrepreneurs who don’t know what a website is made of. Why would you want to know this? Firstly, having at least some basic understanding of the technology behind websites wouldn’t hurt. Secondly, you will find yourself harder to be taken advantage of. By the end of this piece you will either learn something new about websites or will learn to look at the website creation process from a different perspective. “How much for a simple website?” I have encountered this type of inquiry on different platforms numerous times. It seems to me that we are increasingly casually expecting simple solutions to complex problems. It might have something to do with being spoiled by getting results super fast (in under a few seconds), or being overwhelmed with the amount of choices; maybe it’s both. Whenever we are faced with something complicated, our immediate reaction is — “I want nothing of that, get me a simple answer to my question.”
Solving complex problems is a tough mental endeavor that consumes a lot of energy and it is no wonder people choose not to act or are drawn towards the promise of a simple solution. We google for questions like: “How to make a simple website” and get “About 3,940,000,000 results” in 0.74 seconds1*. Seeing this ridiculously high number of possible answers inevitably lead us to an overwhelming urge to ‘get this over with’ and clicking on one of the top three links without going further than the first page of the results. Complex problems are hard, irritating and frustrating, and we would rather prefer avoiding them. They contain numerous variables — the backbone of most websites. In order to get to an easy answer, you’d have to break the complexity into smaller pieces and address each of the parts individually. The process is neither straightforward nor fast.
Firstly, you think you need something simple but here’s a problem — you don’t know the technology behind websites and therefore can’t fathom what constitutes simple. Does it have to look simple like the first page of Google or Craigslist or have some basic functionality? And what exactly is — simple? If you are making judgments over simplicity based on the looks, then Google’s website appears to be really simple, which in fact, it is — in terms of the layout design. However, the technology behind this website is so complicated and valuable that the company’s revenue is as big as Latvia’s GDP2 quadrupled. How much would you pay for a website that generates billions every quarter?
Secondly, you have no idea what features your business actually needs and (most importantly) can afford for your excuse of a budget because this is all new to you: you don’t know the vocabulary, the ropes, the prices, the difference between complex and basic stuff. You haven’t figured out who your customers are, how much you’re going to charge for your product and what your revenue would look like — all of it is a big mystery to you at the SEED stage.
Imagine you’re at the car wash. You have a few options: an automated soap wash, a hand wash, wax-‘n-seal and a full-service, inside-out, all-inclusive car wash. When you’re asking for the basic, simple car wash, you mean the cheapest option possible and you know exactly what you’re getting and how much it will cost. When it comes to building a simple website — you are not fully aware of what that entails. The point is: when trying to impetuously contemplate over complexity of a website as a whole, you shouldn’t view the looks and the inner works separately; you should also take some time to learn about the fundamentals of the technology.
To get a glimpse of what a basic website might be and have a shot at defining what is simple, we have to look at the basics. I will assume you know what a computer file is and what folders are. A website is basically a collection of files placed in folders that are organized into a structure. Files have different formats, e.g. *.php, *.html, *.css, *.js and so on. Each of the files contains information (code) that has to be interpreted by the machine (computer) that executes them in order for a website to work. A computer has to ‘speak’ or be able to understand the programming language the website had been written in.
In order for our website to be available to visitors, you have to place (deploy) all of the files and folders onto a server that supports the chosen language (PHP in our case). A server is a type of computer made for the purpose of storing data, running code and serving results of computations. Having your website files stored on someone else’s server will cost you money. If your website gets a lot of visitors (high traffic) you will be paying more money. Why? Because you would need to support a bigger infrastructure: more storage, more servers, increased electricity consumption. “So, how much would it cost me to make a simple website then?” From my experience both as an entrepreneur who had hired developers and a full-stack web developer who had worked with clients, I have discovered that there is no clear, indisputable answer to this question. It’s also the wrong question to ask. The problem of simplicity of a website is a subject of interpretation. On the one hand, every client has their own vision of what a basic website should look like based on their knowledge and, on the other hand, every developer has their own convictions based on experience. From what I’ve seen, these two rarely match.
From the clients’ perspective, a simple website is the most common site template they have encountered a thousand times on the web. Since so many companies use the same widespread solution, clients assume that it must be inexpensive and efficient. Couple that with the ubiquitous ads promising free websites that “you can build yourself” and you get a justified misconception of what a basic website should look like with an imagined cost expectancy based on false assumptions. Usually, from clients’ point of view, a three-to-five-page website with a contact form and a content management system is a perfect example of a simple website.
From the developers’ perspective, a simple website is anything that could be deployed and launched within a couple of hours. This means that there is no actual development or customization — just a manual, dull copy-pasting pattern. However, it’s rarely the case that clients are happy with the generic fit-for-all template, hence they request custom features and additional functionality. Whenever there’s a request for something out of the ordinary streamlined process, things get complicated and webdevs no longer consider a website to be simple.
During the dialogue (that should but doesn’t always take place) between the client and the web designer/developer the code words simple and basic manifest themselves quite frequently and it takes determination and patience on both ends to untangle what these words actually stand for. Once revealed, it isn’t such a rare case that for the client they represent the cheapest possible option while for the developer — the least time and effort they can commit. I think of this approach as being neither efficient nor beneficial to either party as it is akin to a race to the bottom. The less you want to pay me, the less work I’ll put in. The less work you’re going to put in, the less I’m willing to pay you. This spirals down and produces nothing but remorse, corruption and wasted resources.
“How much would a basic website cost?” is an amateurish, shallow and pointless question at the time of inception of your entrepreneurial adventure. That is why I consider this to be the wrong question to begin with. Nowadays when I hear someone say they need a basic, simple website I know exactly what they mean — they want to pay as little as possible for something they know nothing about. It reminds me of a famous Russian folk tale where tsar orders his guilty servant to “Go there — I don’t know where, fetch me that — I know not what.” And Ivan the Fool actually goes about this business venture.
1 - Results from Google search made by Sergei Nikolajev on 10 June 2020 from NYC, NY, USA.
2 - Latvian GDP approx. 34 billion USD, source: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD?locations=LV;
Google revenue in 2019 was approx. 160 billion USD, source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/266206/googles-annual-global-revenue/
Essay #3 SEED stage
Elephants, Targets and Beacons
The very first question you would want to answer is — why. Why do you think your SEED stage business needs a website? If the answer is something like: “Everyone has one. I got to have it too”, “My competitors have great websites, so I need one as well” or “You just have to have one these days” — then, while being true, these responses do not provide a comprehensive answer to the actual question.
Is it you who thinks you need a website or is it really your business that requires one? Is this an inevitable investment or a nice-to-have-one expense? If this is a business investment, then you should figure out who you are building this website for — yourself, your employees or your customers, and what is it that your business needs to achieve. If you can’t provide answers to these questions then you’ll have issues with setting the goals properly and usually not having specific targets is a bad idea.
So, let’s talk about the goal of your website first. The goal is the thing you will be aiming at — it will help you choose the direction, set the vector and orient yourself and your business along that axis. Your website’s goal could be something like this: getting followers, selling products online, accumulating subscribers, increasing the number of downloads, growing your readers’ or listeners’ base — whatever that is, the composition of your website will have to accommodate for it.
A website is a tool. It can help you get what you want and get you to where you want to be but it is your job to figure out what and where that is. If you want a digital business card, your website can be that. If you want a robust customer-centric adaptive online store, your can have that too.
Understanding your website’s primary goal helps selecting the right medium to use — a blog, an e-commerce store, an online magazine, a podcast, a landing page, a portfolio or a combination of those. You shouldn’t be dismissive about the existing technology either. Look into utilizing such platforms as YouTube, Instagram, Amazon or Twitter — they can be better in many ways and you won’t have to spend nearly as much time, effort and money on setting them up in comparison to the development of your own website.
I had hired developers to design and build my first online store back in 2008. We had everything done — beautiful images, layouts, type, copy, colors, admin panel with content management– everything except one tiny little thing called payment processing. We were unable to accept payments online. So, basically it was everything but an online store. It sounds ridiculous, right? But this is exactly what happens when you fail to set the goal properly and, unfortunately, this is how many of us approach problems in life — avoid dealing with the most obvious elephant in the room.
It should’ve been executed in reverse — payment processing first, everything else — secondary. Since my first e-commerce project I had opened several other online stores. Most of the projects were a total failure as I haven’t learned my lesson the first time — I haven’t answered the fundamental questions: why you’re making a website, who are you building it for and what’s the bloody goal.
Let’s say your plan is to sell products on your website. That means that the primary focus should always be on making sure this can actually happen. Is it important to have a thought-through, well-designed, easy-to-use admin panel to be able to add and alter products? Yes, of course. But will your customers care about your robust, state-of-the-art internal CMS so much that this feature will help you make the sale? You don’t have to answer this one — it’s a rhetorical question. In my experience, products sell even when images are not perfect, when the copy lacks the right words, when the layout looks amateurish. And I know for sure that the sale will not happen when you can’t accept the payment.
Setting a primary goal for a website is crucial. It has to be realistic and achievable as well. I know it’s tempting to say: “There is no limit to how much we can make selling this stuff, dude. So why bother spending time on research and analysis — all the boring stuff?” However, the reality is different. There are forces at play that you can’t control and foresee: objective limitations, timing, market size, competition, luck and acts of God, if you will. Set your goal — it will help you navigate the sea of constant storms. Like a dim beacon shining, shimmering in the distance among the ravaging waves and savage wind gusts, helping your shabby boat to stay on course. Sounds dramatic, I know.
All of this leads us to the next inevitable question — “What functionality do I need to build into my website for my SEED stage start-up and why?” It’s a hard and complicated question to provide an answer to right off the bat, because no one really knows what’s best for your startup. The answer will be manifesting itself partially during the lifecycles of your business. You would have to fine-tune your website’s functionality to aim at specific targets. And you might have a plethora of those, so you have to limit and constrain yourself. You don’t need to spend time and money on payment gateways, security and online carts if you’re not going to sell online. You don’t need to integrate social media if you’re not posting relevant content on a regular basis.
You will be making stupid mistakes and then, hopefully, you’ll learn what’s important for your business and what is not. You should be prepared for that and voluntarily accept it as one of the main prerequisites of being an entrepreneur. If you aren’t terrified of the idea of building a website yet and you have come to a conclusion that your business actually requires one, then you should return to the obvious question — “How much would it cost me to build a simple website?” The major difference is that now you know better than to anticipate a shallow answer. Instead, you’ll be looking for something else. Let’s look into the composition of a minimum viable website first.
Essay #4 SEED stage
Shoe epic, Ironman and J.K.Rowling
“How much would it cost me to make a simple website?”
When you are starting out with just one product or service, you should really consider having a one page website. No “About us” page. No contact page. No blog — nothing secondary. These pages are great for SEO purposes, I grant you that, but the downside is that you will have to fill these pages with some valuable content. Otherwise, the web crawlers wouldn’t bother indexing that page.
You don’t have a clue what the content should be or look like and creating a meaningful content is hard work. So, why don’t you save yourself from misery and get rid of the pages your business doesn’t need right now.