Website builders to launch your startup's minimally viable product

As a self-taught, lifelong developer, I'd never used website builders before. I'd be much more comfortable staring at a blank notepad doc and write my own HTML, CSS, JS and code.

But you know what? As a developer, my websites never looked polished. They lacked a flow. They lacked a feel. They lacked a brand.

I took the plunge and tried some of the off-the-shelf website builders -- the ones you see advertised online. And I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of care that went into the tools and just how far your could manipulate the designs. Best of all, the designs were responsive to work on mobile devices and passed every HTML and CSS validation check I threw at them.

Building a site yourself vs. using website builders

When you build a website yourself, you don't need to worry about a budget, because you're building everything. But let's be realistic: are you truly going to build a beautiful, seamless website? Are you, as one person, going to be able to determine the best UX flow, the most simple CSS designs, the most stunning images and icons, the best font typography combinations, all while writing perfectly debugged code and CSS, fighting with htaccess files, setting up XML/RSS scripts, managing the database, and handling ongoing backups?

It's a lot to take on, and your final output will unlikely look better than what website builders are able to deliver.

Hiring a professional vs. using website builders

When I sought out professionals to design a website, I rarely saw good providers charge below $8,000 for a fully function website. I think that price is fair too. With the amount of work that goes into design, development and debugging, I wouldn't expect a pro to charge any less.

What it comes down to is this: do you need an expensive website on Day 1? Would you be able to launch with an minimally viable product or a prototype and build from there, even before you've perfected your user acquisition strategy? For the large majority of startups, starting with a professionally built website would be a mistake.

Website builders are the perfect solution for entrepreneurial individuals and small teams who say, "Yes, I have an idea, but I'm not going to sink a ton of money into it until I can prove it would work."

Getting started with a website builder

Before you choose a service, put together a list of what features you need to test your offering. Is it an email sign-up? Is it a product page? Is it a list of articles? Whatever you need, spend time of this step to avoid you wasting time starting over later.

When you are ready to begin building, pick any website builder. Most allow you to try services without first creating an account. So get creative. You'll likely try a few before you truly find the right one for you.

After creating your first page, test to ensure it's responsive by resizing the size of your browser window. With the large majority of web traffic now starting on a mobile device, the mobile experience will be the first impression most of your visitors will see.

After you've landed on a service that could work, take a look at the pricing plans. Some builders require additional monthly fees for more premium themes, embedding a contact form or setting up an eCommerce website. These fees will unlikely be high, but you'll want to understand your fixed and variable monthly costs before committing to a provider.

By the end of the process, you'll probably be paying between $10 and $20 a month for your website, and it will look significantly better than anything I could design myself in under an hour. Not a bad way to get started with your startup.

Why Website Builders Are So Important

Social media has become such a major part of the business landscape that you seldom see a company without a presence on Facebook or Twitter. LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, and Tumbler are also major players. While a social media presence is great, having a website is also important for your company's success. One of the biggest advantages of a complete website is full control over the look and features. Customers are also more likely to see your business as legitimate with a well-designed site. In addition to a greater sense of legitimacy, having a unique platform in the form of a website will help you brand your company more effectively.

A welcome bit of good news for many company owners with limited resources is that free or affordable options are within easy reach. Website builders that make it easy to set up professional-looking sites improve their features regularly. New website builders arriving on the market often offer a range of features new to the scene.

Why Not Just a Social Media Page?

Even though social media is vitally important today, having a website is even more important. A Facebook page has a more informal feel to it, even when used for a company. Websites have a greater range of design choices that you can use for an ultra-professional look. There is a lot more flexibility in how you sell products or services from a website than from a social media profile. Setting your company up as an expert in its respective industry is a lot easier to do with a website.

Even if you lack the website design experience, you'll want to remember that web designers usually charge $1500 to $2000 at the lowest to create a basic website. These costs could easily become a problem for businesses that have yet to return a profit. A solution that avoids both these high costs and the hassle of learning to code is just what you need in these circumstances.

Thankfully, the days of having to have a lot of technical knowledge or spend a lot of money to start a website are in the past. Online site builders in use today are very easy to use. These builders are designed with mobile and user-friendliness in mind. Some even offer features suitable for business, like:

  • Online store templates
  • Buy buttons and payment processing
  • Mailing list features

With features like this, you can have an attractive, professional site without a lot of technical knowledge or having a full IT staff. Some website builders are free, allowing you to get used to using the builder before upgrading or allowing you to keep using a free option. Most features are easy to drag and drop into place for a faster building experience, and updates on an existing site are easy to do in just a few minutes.

Selecting a Domain Name

Your domain name is an important part of establishing your brand. Free website builders will be able to have you a unique web address that incorporates a name of your choosing, with the option of registering a domain name (also known as a .com name). Domain names aren't free, but the registration fees are reasonable and only need yearly payment.

Give the domain name for your site careful consideration, because customers will closely identify it with your company. You can also consider the possibility of using the free address available with the site builder. Keep in mind the fact that you can register a domain even after you've set up the site.

What Types of Tools Come With These Builders?

Website builders have templates that make it easier to start creating a website you'll love. Template options allow you to customize the design according to your site's purpose, so a site for a writing services company doesn't have to have the same look like a site for a school football team. Some free website builder options automatically format sites, so they are easily viewable on phones and other mobile devices.

A template will usually include pages customized for special purposes, including:

  • About Us: Providing information about your team, founders and company, plus any press mentions and your media kit
  • FAQ: Answering common questions your customers have
  • Products/Services: Highlighting your product and service offerings
  • Contact Us: Forms, maps and instructions for how your customers can contact you

Photo gallery options are important for product-based businesses, and seeing pictures of your products is one reason customers will visit your site. You can customize your gallery's general appearance and functionality, as well as have access to photo editing options with some builders. Depending on the site builder you choose, you might also have access to a selection of stock photos and images.

Besides being able to customize the template content, you can also add additional items such as forms, chat features or social feeds using widgets. You'll want to see which options possible with your website builder. These extras are usually easy to add, but you need to make sure they will fit in with your template's design.

Advanced Website Options

A few of the more advanced options that some of these builders offer include:

  • Video and other media players to offer presentations
  • Blogging platforms for faster updates
  • Photo, video and slide galleries
  • Social share buttons to share your site with others more effectively
  • SEO Tools - To optimize your site so more visitors find it
  • Optional password protection to restrict visitors

Social share buttons are in use often enough that most website builders include them as standard features. Built-in social network feeds, and options for building and editing a Facebook page are also features you'll find with many builders.

If visitors can easily share your site, you'll want to be able to evaluate how much traffic your site is getting. This information might be somewhat limited without a paid account but will help give you a snapshot of how many visitors you're getting. Should you decide to upgrade, you may want to consider how much access you want to your traffic stats.

When you're planning to sell products on your website, instead of through a third party like Etsy or eBay, you'll want to consider whether you need a paid option. Selling products on your site requires a secure way of processing payments. Consider all of your options, including any third-party features that you already use to sell products.

What About Mobile Customers?

Website builders make it possible to create mobile-friendly sites, a necessity for any company with an Internet presence. Being mobile-friendly is as important as ranking high in search results for today's customers. Some builders use features that allow the site to convert to a mobile-friendly version automatically when accessed on a mobile device.

Some of the builders available allow further customizations that only apply to mobile features. You could eliminate elements that don't display well on phones or use up too much data to download, as one example. Another option is offering a splash screen that only shows up on a mobile browser.

If You Decide to Upgrade

If there's a chance you may want to upgrade to another host, you'll need to consider that not all website builders make their sites easy to transfer. A major reason for this issue is because many of these builders use specialized code that does not work on other hosts' sites. When choosing a website builder, you will want to consider whether the builder you want to use allows you to download your site for easier transfer.

Using a website builder will save you a lot of time and money. Even though you'll need to take the time to look for the right option, it will pay off for you in the long run. A great website that people will love is within easy reach with a site builder that uses features designed to maximize your site's usefulness.