Website Building 101 for New & DIY Solopreneurs

Man in hard hat eating chicken

In the last post, we laid out a broad-strokes overview of digital marketing for the solopreneur, covering the hub and spoke model and its main components: your website and your feeder channels.

Today’s post is all about the central part of that hub and spoke: your business website – specifically, what your options are for getting this crucial biz asset up & running.

What You Need For a Functioning Business Website

To construct and publish any website, you’ll need the following:

  1. A URL (uniform resource locator) – the domain which a user will type into a browser’s address bar to instruct the browser to navigate to that site’s “address.”
  2. A computer that serves up your site files – a server. We call the act of serving up those file hosting.
  3. A platform on which the site is built. Sites can be straight HTML (as the earliest sites were) or built on a content management system (CMS), or a combination of HTML plus other languages (PHP, Java, etc.) but not using a CMS.
  4. The actual site files which in turn include the code and the content you publish on the site (e.g., the copy, articles, images and other files found on the site).

Those are the basic building blocks of any website. You can add bells and whistles to your site, of course, but those mostly result from coding that’s either custom-created (i.e., by your web developer) or pre-packaged (i.e., “plugins” or “hooks” – code that’s written and distributed by the developer to a wide audience, either for sale or for free, built to achieve a particular purpose or function).

For each of those building blocks, you’ll find a number of options available to you. The rest of this article will discuss the most commonly used options, as well as the solution that, in my considered opinion, is best for the DIY solopreneur seeking to build a new business website.

Hosting Options

You have three options when it comes to how you serve up your website files – i.e., hosting:

  1. Host it yourself on a dedicated server – a computer that’s (usually) set aside just for this purpose. (Note: when you read “self-hosted WordPress,” it’s generally not referring to this option, but to option #3. Go figure.)
  2. Use a free or low-cost hosting service that also provides the platform for your website (i.e., WordPress.com, Blogger, Typepad, Tumblr).
  3. Acquire a hosting account with a hosting company such as Hostgator or Dreamhost (or one of a kazillion other similar companies).

The first option – investing in a server computer yourself – is generally not a feasible option for a new solopreneur.

The risk of downtime or access problems is too significant, and you need to reserve your time for actually running and growing your business, not acting as your IT department to fix server issues. It’s also quite expensive initially.

BOX: Clarification: We talk about “self-hosted WordPress,” but that refers to serving up WordPress on a server – including hosting accounts with companies like Hostgator – not just to having a dedicated server for your site in your own office. Don’t get confused! ENDBOX

The second option is one a lot of overwhelmed new solopreneurs take, but it’s not the best choice for a number of reasons.

It’s easy to see the appeal of free or low-cost, but your website is one area in which you get more when you pay (a little bit) more.

Consider what you really get when you rely on one of these free blog hosting packages for your business website:

  • Unless you also go ahead and register your own top-level domain (i.e., www.mybizsite.com), you’re going to end up with a second-tier URL (i.e., mybizsite.blogspot.com). That just looks unprofessional these days, given how easy it is to set up your own site on a shared hosting server.
  • When you sign up for a freebie blog host package like this, you don’t own your site’s files. You may not even be able to make any changes to those files.
  • Sites offering these kinds of deals often restrict member sites’ content.  If the site you sign up with decides your site violates its terms of service, or for whatever reason your site goes down, getting it back up won’t be easy and may be impossible. With a self-hosted site this just isn’t a factor for the most part, and when it is, you’ll have had the ability to make backups all along, so at least you don’t lose all your hard work.
  • Most crucially for many solopreneurs, you’re limited as to the looks of your site. You might get a handful of site templates to choose from – or, if you’re lucky, you might get hundreds. But your site will look like every other site that chooses that template or theme. Compare that to the thousands of themes available to self-hosted WordPress users, as well as the customizability of frameworks such as Thesis and Headway.

The cost of self-hosting is often mentioned as a primary reason for sticking with freebie platforms. But when you consider a solid hosting plan can cost as little as $5 a month, it’s not really a valid objection. It’s your business we’re talking about here – isn’t it worth it to make sure you’re the one in control of your site?

Platform Options

As far as the platform your site is built on, you’ve got many options here. For most business owners, coding the site by hand isn’t an option – unless your business is web development, in which case, go for it.

That leaves hiring a designer or developer to do it for you, using a template-based site-building program (either a standalone application or one offered by your hosting company), relying on a CMS, or some combination of the above.

As far as CMS options are concerned, WordPress is still the most often relied-upon platform around for DIY solos. There are other options, of course – Drupal and Joomla being just two.  In my experience training new entrepreneurs on WordPress, though, most folks find WordPress substantially more intuitive than other CMSs.

BOX: It’s crucial to understand the distinction between WordPress and WordPress.com. WordPress is a CMS – software that allows you to build out a website with lots of content. WordPress.com is a free blog hosting-and-building website that uses a simplified version of the WordPress software. When you see “WordPress” in this article, I’m referring to the CMS software; when I use “WordPress.com,” I’m talking about the free blogging site. ENDBOX

Why not use the site-builder options from your hosting company? For one thing, one size does not fit all on the web. Yes, you’ll have a website – but that’s just the bar to entry. Is it a website you can easily make changes to?

And what if something goes wrong and the fix is beyond your skills? Or the template builder’s help files don’t give you the answer?

For reasons I’ll spell out in the next section, WordPress avoids these problems and is still, I believe, the best solution for new DIY solopreneurs.

Why Self-Hosted WordPress Is (Still) Best for Business

Putting all these factors together – all the hosting options, all the website-building options – I still conclude after all these years that self-hosted WordPress is the best overall solution for DIY newbie solopreneurs and creative workers.

First of all, WordPress is open source. What this means for you is that there’s a crap-ton of folks out there – very smart folks, such as web developers, coders, and designers – who can and do dig around in the code to make it stronger, more secure, more functional, and just plain better.

Who benefits from all this openness? You – the site owner – do.

Second, WordPress has a huge community of users. Many of those users are just like you – new solos, without any technical expertise or coding know-how. And a lot of them are folks like me – developers and coders who spend a lot of time elbow-deep in WordPress, its themes and plugins.

And here’s the thing: Both groups are vitally important to you, as the end user of WordPress. You can find just about anyone, at any level, to help you with just about any issue you encounter with your site. Whatever’s going wrong for you, chances are someone’s encountered it before, written about it on the WordPress forums, and gotten help for it.

If it’s a new issue, folks in the techno-geek camp can help you sort things out and find a solution. If it’s a known issue or a matter of “How do I _____?” then folks in the non-coder user group can give you simple 1-2-3 how-to’s.

Third: WordPress is a seriously useful CMS straight out of the box, but it’s also highly extendible and customizable.

All those WP developers out there spend a considerable amount of time coming up with plugins to add function to your website and themes to make it look awesome.

I’m sure there are some purposes for which WordPress isn’t the best solution, but I haven’t found many. Whether you want a shopping cart function, email list sign-up function, message board and membership group support, lightbox and slider displays … WordPress can most likely handle it, either out of the box, or through the addition of themes or plugins.

Finally, there’s the matter of the learning curve. If you’ve never blogged before or worked on any kind of website, then there is going to be some basic knowledge you’ll need to master. That’s true no matter what platform you’re using.

In training clients to use WordPress, I’ve seen over and over people with zero experience quickly master the art of creating pages and publishing posts, thanks to a basic similarity between the visual editor controls and the user interface of Word, one of the most common word processing programs.

From there, it’s usually a matter of a few months at most before clients get comfortable installing and updating their own plugins and WP installations. Next stop: playing around with the code.

BOX: I don’t advocate actually playing around in the code editor in the WP Dashboard, unless you’re an experienced coder. There’s a simple way to experiment without putting your business website at risk: installing a local version on your hard drive. ENDBOX

For all these reasons, I think self-hosted WordPress is the better solution for the vast majority of solopreneurs.

Business Website Construction Can Be a DIY Project

So, now that the process has been somewhat demystified, and your options explained, the next step will be selecting your business URL. That’s the next post.

Do you agree with the WordPress opinion? Or do you prefer a different platform? Have any questions? Hit me up in the comments.

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