Over the last couple of years, there have been a number of changes that have culminated in creating a new wave of opportunity for starting online businesses. At one time, it was incredibly hard to scale a website as you would need to provision actual hardware servers to handle the influx of traffic. Setting up services like e-commerce, distribution of software, handling customer service or marketing were expensive and time-consuming tasks. Managing access to productivity software, project management, or handling email were areas where you needed an expert level of competence just to get off the ground.
However many of the above problems can now be outsourced to “Software as a Service” or “Infrastructure as a Service” companies. SaaS and IaaS companies specialise in a core competency and allow you to get up and running in minutes. Once your company is starting to get traction, you can then scale up your subscription as and when you need it. This is usually far cheaper than actually handling these services yourself, so you save time and money. By outsourcing all of the headaches of starting up a company, you can concentrate on what makes your company special.
So if you are thinking about starting your own web tech startup, here is an overview of enabling services that can help you along the way.
Amazon Web Services - AWS
Amazon Web Services is a collection of “Cloud” computing services and applications that offer functionality and resources to allow you to build your website, web app or web service without the headache of dealing with scaling hardware and software. At one time, to scale a website you would need to set up physical boxes to handle the traffic and resources needed to serve the website to the Internet. However, with the move to virtualisation, you can now provision extra hardware housed in a data centre whenever you need it.
Amazon Web Services allows you to “pay-as-you-go” so you only ever pay for the resources you use. If you suddenly need to scale up your website, AWS’s instant elasticity allows you to scale up or down whenever you need to. If you are looking to run a particular set up or software, you will more than likely find it in the AWS Marketplace.
Amazon Web Services is one of the largest cloud service providers, but it is not the only one.
SendGrid is a cloud-based email infrastructure that allows you to outsource the demands of email delivery. If your web application relies heavily on sending emails to your users, particularly transactional email, SendGrid can take the headache away from managing custom email systems.
SendGrid is an excellent example of a company that specialises in one core-competency to allow other companies to get on with what they are supposed to be doing. SendGrid will reliably manage your email whilst providing you with real-time analytics.
I’ve personally used SendGrid and found that integrating their service through their various APIs was really easy. SendGrid provides good documentation and clear examples to get you off the ground as quick as possible.
MailChimp is another email service provider, but unlike SendGrid, it is more focussed on Email Marketing and managing Email lists. I’ve written previously on the value of email lists, but it’s worth making the point again. Email is one of the best ways of generating leads, engagement and referrals and is far more valuable than an active Facebook or Twitter presence. With a good opt-in email list, you can build loyalty and a strong awareness of your content marketing and your company. This is because people are far more likely to engage with an email than a Facebook update or Tweet.
MailChimp makes it easy to create and manage an email marketing list. Their API allows you to integrate MailChimp into your blog or web application, and then from there you can start sending sophisticated email campaigns.
One of the best things about MailChimp is you can send 12,000 emails a month free of charge without entering your credit card details. This is a fantastic way of testing the complete service for a while when your email list is small. Once you start getting some traction, you should be more than happy to start paying for MailChimp now that you can see the benefit of the service.
For a long time, every new company had to negotiate enterprise licenses for Microsoft Office and set up an Exchange email server just to allow employees to create documents or send email. This was not only costly, it was also time-consuming.
Google Apps for business allows you to manage your email through GMail, Calendar through Google Calendar and documents through Google Docs. This means you can set up everything your company needs extremely quickly and if you have less than 10 employees, it’s free!
By moving everything from a physical server in your office to the cloud, you not only save time and money, but you also lose the headache of managing it. Just like the previous services I’ve mentioned, once your company scales past 10 users you can upgrade your account with just a credit card.
WordPress was first released back in 2003 and quickly established itself as a fantastic piece of blogging software. However over the years, WordPress has slowing evolved into much more than blogging software. First it established itself as a Content Management System (CMS). WordPress powers 16% of the Internet, but for many it is much more than a blog. WordPress is now the sole CMS of their website, with the blog just being part of it.
WordPress is also evolving into a platform to power websites that don’t look like a blog at all. Groupon got it’s start in life as a WordPress site because it is so easy to set up quickly. WordPress is now being used more and more as a platform for e-commerce, membership sites or gallery sites that do not resemble a blog at all.
What this means is, WordPress is now a viable platform for you to build your web site or web application on. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, you can quickly have your dream e-commerce website set up. WordPress has a huge community and marketplace that provides every possible plugin you would ever need. With access to these resources, WordPress can be a platform to quickly and cheaply test and prove your idea for your web tech start without investing any additional time or resources.
If you decide to build your website on WordPress, you are going to have to find somewhere to host it. Traditionally you could go down one of two paths.
Firstly, for small websites, you could purchase space on a shared hosting platform. This would normally set you back around £20 a month and usually comes with an easy to use control panel that allows you to install WordPress and manage your hosting with ease. However, if your website starts to get traction you will quickly outgrow a shared hosting plan.
The other option is a VPS, a dedicated server or something like AWS. This is by far more of a technical operation and requires expert knowledge to set up and manage.
However a third option is WP Engine. WP Engine specialise in hosting only WordPress sites. It is a shared hosting plan, but it is geared towards scaling as your website grows. WP Engine have expert knowledge in optimising WordPress and getting the most out of your site. Their expert advice is almost worth the price alone as they will find ways you can save resources and dramatically speed up your page loads.
If you are looking to host a WordPress site, I would recommend going with WP Engine. WP Engine is slightly more expensive than your average shared hosting plan, but you will save yourself from hitting problems further down the line when your website scales.
At one time, the only way to distribute software was on a physical disk or through a service like download.com. But starting with Apple’s iOS App Store, then the Google Market place and the Mac App Store, there is now a much better way to distribute your software straight to users.
Application Marketplaces like the above offer a unprecendented opportunity for software makers.
Firstly they allow the end-user to easily and reliably download safe and legitimate software straight to their device. Only providing downloads from your company website might increase margin, but you won’t have the implicit trust that you would have within a controlled marketplace.
Secondly, the entire payment backend is provided for you. This means you don’t have to set up merchant accounts or handle payments from different countries. Everything is handled for you and you are just paid what you earn without any hassle.
Thirdly, marketplaces offer an incredibly opportunity for distribution. It levels the playing field for independent software makers and global corporations like Adobe. This means that as an independent company, you have an opportunity of the same global reach as a company with millions to spend.
The downsides of Market Places is that the service provider will take a slice of your income. Whilst you might not be too happy to give away some of your profits, you have to remember that this is an opportunity to make much more. Whenever you have a digital product like a piece of software, you want to get it out to as many end-users as possible because adding additional end users does not increase your operating costs. By piggybacking on the marketplaces, you will be making less per user, but you will have a much better chance of increasing the number of your users in total and therefore creating more revenue.
Squarespace is a platform that allows you to quickly set up a highly customised website with very little technical knowledge. Being a web developer, I don’t usually advise people to use WYSIWYG type platforms, as I don’t think the overall end product is in any way near as good as a professional web developer could create. However, if you just want to test an idea, Squarespace offers a quick and easy platform for doing that.
The beauty with a platform like Squarespace is, everything is managed for you. This means that if you are looking to start a web tech startup as a non-technical founder, you can test your idea before you need to find a technical co-founder to really get your idea off the ground. This can be extremely important as you need to prove the viability of your idea if you want to attract the best co-founders to work with you.
Squarespace allows you to set up a website in minutes and you won’t need to worry about hosting, uploading files or configuring a server.
The Internet has created a potential marketplace of millions. Selling your products online has opened up a huge new potential audience, but for non-technical people it can be quite daunting. Shopify is a hosted e-commerce platform that allows you to set up your online shop quickly and easily. You can use one of the ready to go templates or you can hire someone to create your dream shop from scratch. With Shopify you don’t need to worry about taking secure payments, hosting your site or marketing and SEO because it’s all part of the service. You are provided with a content management system to add or edit your products and there’s even an App Store to further extend your website.
If you are looking to set up your first e-commerce website, but you don’t want the hassle of managing a bespoke website from scratch, Shopify can make the whole experience easy. Shopify will also scale as your company scales as they offer unlimited bandwidth so you won’t ever have a nasty surprise bill for over usage.
A world of opportunity
There are many more Software and Infrastructure as a Service companies out there that can take the pain out of any number of specific tasks. This is not only usually better than setting something up yourself, it is also usually cheaper, and you won’t have the headache of scaling when the time comes. Back 1998 when Google was founded, scaling a website and finding the resources to build a web tech startup was incredibly hard. These days it is incredibly easy and cost-effective. It has never been cheaper or easier to take an idea, test it, develop it and create a billion pound idea from just a laptop.
What other services have you found useful for setting up your online startup?