My friend RP, a licensed building contractor, helped me build some shelves in my garage. Had I done it myself, I’d have fitted the shelves to the exact space of 16 feet, 9 inches. But RP said wood comes in 8-foot lengths. And by making the shelves 16 feet long, I would save money, eliminate waste, and cut down on the time it would take. “We’re not building a piano,” she said. “Just use standard sizes.”

This got me thinking. A majority (and I really do mean more than 90 percent) of people who start an Internet business believe that their idea is so unique that every aspect of it needs to be customized. That includes paying someone to create a website logo and design, and having a programmer write new software.

Programmers love this trend among Internet entrepreneurs, especially if the client has only a vague idea of what they want. Whether it be a website, content-management system, shopping cart, e-mailing system, or some whizz-bang application to send text messages to your customers… you can get it customized and programmed. But you’ll pay through the nose, to be sure.

Every week, I hear of people spending money on custom programming. And, for the most part, they don’t need to. If you are just starting out, you definitely don’t need to.

What can you use instead? Off-the-shelf solutions!

Are You a Custom Snob?

We’d all love to believe that our business idea is so special that it needs to be developed from scratch. But, basically, your online business is pretty much like everyone else’s. It boils down to winning and retaining customers.

ETR’s parent company, Agora Inc., got to $20+ million in online sales before they even thought about customizing their order system. And it was not until they got to $100+ million in online sales that they took the next step in their software evolution.

So focus on marketing, use what’s out there, and stop wasting time.

Custom software, by the way, suffers from a major weakness. It’s written for you. So only you and your people can test it. And with only a few people testing it, the chances of failure are greatly increased.

And keep in mind that most things that we think matter in business really don’t. A logo, for example, is something most Internet businesspeople deem a must. But (without looking) can you remember the Early to Rise logo? Do you like it? Does it factor into your purchasing decisions?

I can hear you scoffing at what I’m saying here, because your idea really is unique. It’s a new type of travel booking service aimed at CEOs who play golf in Scotland, then ski in Italy, and then go salmon fishing in Norway. There’s nothing else like it.

Yes, but… it’s your marketing that will differentiate your service from all the others out there and make it work, not your software.

I’ll bet the most widely used travel software platform out there has 90 percent of what you need. And 90 percent of what you need when you are starting out is very good. So use that, and focus on getting 100 percent of your marketing right.

$20 to Start Your Online Business

You can start your online business for almost nothing. Other than spending a few bucks for Web hosting (less than $10/month) and $10 a year for a domain name, you are good to go.

Most Web hosting companies allow you to install a free, powerful content-management system, like WordPress or Drupal. (You can do it with just a few clicks.) Then skip hiring a Web designer and go with one of the free or low-cost (less than $100) theme templates for WordPress or Drupal. It may take you a couple of days the first time you do it, but it can give you a kick-ass, custom look and feel website… for a fraction of the price. (Using these systems, I can now set up a great website in less then four hours.)

Setting up a shopping cart can be confusing, even for experienced e-commerce folk. But when you’re just starting out, you can “rent” one for $35 to $100 a month from companies like 1ShoppingCart.com, Volusion.com, or Yahoo Commerce. And you can use Paypal’s shopping cart for free — and start selling online immediately.

For $20 or less a month, you can have an e-mail autoresponder system (core to many online businesses) with a service like Get Response, AWeber, or Constant Contact. And if you wish to run list-management software on your own server, there are two great free programs: Subscribe Me or PHPList.

One reason people give for going with custom programming is that they want to be able to have a “membership” website, integrating usernames and passwords. But even that is something that can be automated inexpensively by using software such as AMember, Membergate, Visiongate, Memberstar, or EasyMemberPro.

Why Starting a Business on a Shoestring Is a Good Thing

Some years back, before the Internet was around, I consulted with a nonprofit organization that never had any money for marketing. So I had to use PR and other free and extremely low-cost techniques. What a fantastic learning experience that was — figuring out how to build a business with nothing!

When you’re starting out online, you don’t need to fork over a king’s ransom for software or programming — and you shouldn’t. For one thing, you’ve no idea whether your idea is going to work. If you spend money on custom features, only to discover that you have no customers, that money is down the drain. Second, I know of many websites that bring in upward of $500,000 a year, but almost to nothing to produce or maintain. And, finally, using prebuilt software will have you up and running in a fraction of the time.

Free and dirt-cheap software is out there. Start using it.

[Ed. Note: Using off-the-shelf software is just one of the many tips, strategies, and techniques David Cross shares each week in his Internet Rant newsletter.]

Although David hails from Blackpool, England – which is often referred to as the “Las Vegas of England” – he shunned a career in show business and instead followed a meandering career path overflowing with “life’s great experiences,” working or living in over 20 countries along the way. Chef, teacher of Transcendental Meditation, guest presenter on QVC, earthquake relief volunteer, CEO of a web hosting company, marketer at a radio station and all combined with years of direct marketing, PR and sales experience for clients as diverse as health food stores, small charities and right up to multinational public companies. David brought unique talent and experience to his role for six years as Senior Internet Consultant to Agora Publishing Group. Working closely with Agora’s publishers and marketers to test new ideas and marketing campaigns, Agora’s Internet revenues topped $200 million in 2007. David understands and can communicate fluently with creative “right-brain” marketers and analytical “left-brain” IT and software teams, all with equal ease. He has a proven track record for generating results and creative thinking and excels at making trouble to find new ways of making things happen! He lives on a small farm close to Mount Hood in Oregon with his wife Cinda, a veterinarian, and their four children and a menagerie of animals (no more, please!). When not marketing or brainstorming you’ll find David following a dream of self-sufficiency for food, power and water within 10 years, tending the land and caring for the farm and animals. Not surprisingly, David is an engaging and knowledgeable speaker with many amusing anecdotes from his work and travels over the years.

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