Startup Websites That Work

I am continually amazed by the lack of attention many startup founders and management teams give to their startup websites.  Too often, it's treated as a necessary evil (they’ll spend some time on it initially and then forget about it).
Disclaimer:  For my latest startup venture I’m working on a web software platform to make it easier for very small businesses (less than 25 employees) to do meaningful things on the web.  So, I have a bit of a bias here – but I’m not trying to sell you anything (yet), other than my opinions.
If you are delivering web-based software then you should already know that your website is critical (it's your business!).  But, even if you’re selling non-web software your website is very important and worthy of you spending some time thinking it through.
The following are my tips for creating a website that will actually work for you.  Think of your website as a relatively important employee (like a sales person). You need to spend some money, get them trained and keep them engaged.  Your website is no different – and will likely be cheaper and more productive.
Tips For Startup Websites That Work
  1. What will you do for me?  What does the product do?  Why should I care?  Answering this is much more important than sharing with me your philosophy of the world and how you’re all about “connecting individuals on the Internet through an intelligent and collaborative engine that is scalable, AJAX-powered and cool”.  Honestly, I don’t care.  Tell me how my life is going to be at least marginally better if I use your product.

Example:  Our MailMinder product will make sure that you don’t forget to respond to important messages that you receive in Outlook.  Just press a single key (1-9) and MailMinder will automatically remind you if you haven’t responded to that message within the specified number of days.  So, if you press “2” on a message and haven’t replied to it in a couple of days, you’ll get a friendly reminder.  (Note:  This is a completely made up product idea and any resemblance to an actual product, living or dead, is purely coincidental).
  1. Who is it for?  This one is subtle.  A great way to really grab my attention is to tell me who you’ve built the product for.  The reason so many companies don’t disclose this is because they think they’re going to “lose opportunities” by being too narrow in describing their ideal customers.  Its simply not true.  Do your potential customers and yourselves a favor and be focused in your message and offering – ultimately, the right kinds of people will wind up at your site and your sales will go up not down.  

Example:  Our software is specially built for technical book authors that would like to start a blog as an online extension to their book and build a community for their readers.
  1. How does it work?  Here, a picture (or a short video) is worth a thousand words.  In a minute or less, give me a general sense of how the product works.  Examples could include screenshots, video captures, or sample results produced.

  1. Why your product and not something else?  Chances are, I didn’t happen upon your site randomly.  I was probably looking for something or was led to your site from somewhere else.  And, despite how unique you think you might be, chances are that I’ve already considered other alternatives (and may even have tried a few).  Tell me what makes your product different.  You can be even more clever if you know what other products I’m likely to have tried that are similar to yours.

Example:  Tired of the limitations of XYZPro?  So were we.  So we did it better.  Hundreds of XYZPro customers have already switched. Here’s why…
  1. What does it cost?  Throw out complicated pricing formulas and don’t believe the marketing professionals that tell you that you should sell a customer on your “value proposition” before telling them what it costs.  In today’s world, with so many options, if I can’t figure out what your price is in the first 5 minutes, I’m probably gone.  Don’t make me email to get a “price quote that is tailored for my needs”.  Worse, don’t make me contact my regional sales rep.  (In fact, if you have regional sales reps, you’re probably reading the wrong blog – its meant for startups).

  1. How can I try it?  Its software.  There’s no reason (at least that I’d understand) that there shouldn’t be a way for me to “try before I buy”.  Offering a trial version reduces the customer’s risk and puts the burden on you to deliver something of value. 

  1. Who’s behind it?  I don’t need to read your life story or see a “board of advisors” list that reads like the who’s who of the business world.  But, based on how much I expect to spend (in time and/or money), I’m likely going to want to know that there are actual humans working for the company.  You don’t need to misdirect and create the illusion of size (being small or even a one-person company is perfectly fine), so be honest. 

  1. Where are you?  Call me old-fashioned and traditional (which I’m not), but I tend to want to know where the company is that I’m about to do business with.  A physical location disclosed on the website signals to me that the company is not “hiding” out in the virtual world.  If all I can learn about you is that you have an email address that is and that support is going to be provided by, then I get a little concerned. 

  1. Keep me posted:  Sometimes, customers may be interested in your product, but just not now.  Either it's too early (they’ll only use products that have 10,000 users), doesn’t support some critical feature or operating system, doesn’t have the right license (example: no source code), or isn’t at the right price point.  Provide an easy way to let customers know when you hit major milestones.  This can be done via RSS, email subscriptions or other means.

Extra Credit:  If you can provide an easy way for customers to tell you why they’re not interested now (example:  Let me know when you support add support for X), you win even more points.  The prospective customer becomes aware that you’ve considered this limitation and you have a way of gauging which limitations are keeping customers away.  So, if 4 out of 10 customers say they want to be notified when you support Outlook integration, it may not be a bad idea to consider that feature.
  1. Look Alive!  I like to see that a company is “alive”.  This can be done by the management team maintaining a blog, having product support forums (that are monitored), issuing press releases, posting release notes, etc.   Somehow, signal to me that the company isn’t already dead and that there are signs of life somewhere.  This is the Internet equivalent of walking by a store and not seeing anybody there through the window.  The immediate question most people wonder:  “Is anyone home?”

Though all of the above take some thought and effort, it is likely that this investment will pay off very well.  Today’s customers have short attention spans and a generally cynical nature.  There are simply too many things competing for their time and money for them to cut you any slack.  If you doubt this, monitor your own behavior when it comes to browsing the web and evaluating products.  If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll learn lots of interesting things about how/why customers buy.  Just put yourself in the shoes of the customer.  The power of empathy is amazing and will teach you a lot.  If you were a random visitor to your own website, what would you think?  And, if a website did all or most of the things above – would you be more likely to try or buy?  

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