Helen Beckett navigates a sailing site that cost less than £1,500
There was a time when seafarers visiting foreign ports carried a letter of introduction from their commodore in order to be assured a safe haven. Thanks to the Internet, yachtsmen and women today are better connected and can plan ahead to ensure a warm welcome wherever they drop anchor.
The Sussex Yacht Club is hoping to be a beacon for all international crews visiting their waters. The launch of a new website is, among other things, intended to transform the club into a "communications hub on the yachting map" explains Richard Jackson, vice commodore. The club expects the website to be pivotal in achieving a number of such aspirations - among them increasing membership from 1,500 to 2,000. But like any other small to medium-sized organisation budgets are tight and it has to be canny about the way it utilises resources in order to maximise benefits.
Sussex avoided a big-ticket solution by using an out-of-the-box package called Access Web from Colchester-based Access Accounting. And by leveraging expertise of IT professionals and hobbyists within the club, it has configured its site and e-commerce capability for under £1,500.
As Peter Jenkins, club member and project manager at E-advantage Solutions - the reseller that carried out the implementation - explains, "Right now, Internet software has advanced to the point where anyone who is IT-literate can develop it". Chris Jenkins, managing director of E-Advantage concurs; "We're doing implementations for £1,500 that include transactions, emails and full shopping trolley".
The club started from the vantage point of having acquired some knowledge of how the Internet could serve its purposes. It had established a Web presence three years ago to post basic information about club services, contacts and membership details. As Jackson explains, "In my day job as a reader of chemistry at the University of Sussex, I had email and my own website. It seemed a good idea for the yacht club to have the same". Although the website was rudimentary, without its own domain name or email, it attracted a number of visitors.
One of the early lessons was the importance of integrating all online communications: "It was a real nuisance not to be able to forward an email to the club secretary but to have to respond to queries by fax," recalls Jackson. But the upside was that it attracted immediate international interest: a couple of sailors from the Eastern seaboard of the US got in touch to arrange visits.
Jackson was so enthused with the results that he asked club member and IT consultant Chris Jenkins to draw up a spec for a more robust and permanent site. The result of this was a "deafening silence". The chief problem was that the available technology tended to be bespoke and, therefore, expensive. The quoted figures of £8,000-plus were roundly rejected by a committee that, at the time, was unfamiliar with technology.
But last August Jenkins saw Access Accounting's new Web package in action and was impressed - so much so that he signed up as a reseller for the product and the yachting club became the second implementation that he installed.
AA's suite of products spans ledger sales, costing, sales order processing, purchase orders and bill of materials. The supplier wanted to fully automate all of these transactions, beginning with the customer order, and so it made sense to add a Web front-end.
According to Jenkins points, once an order has been placed, this kick starts all subsequent processes. "Once an order comes through the system, it will create a picking list, dispatch dates and even carrier labels" he explains.
In order to match the rest of its software suite, Access Accounting built the website component to be easily usable, even without any modification. The fact that no programmer was required for installation was the feature that appealed most to Jenkins and suited it to the club. The website toolkit is basically a series of tick boxes for selecting templates, background colour and fonts.
It took E-advantage two days to pull the components together and to organise Web hosting with Step One, an Internet Service Provider that also hosts the email services.
However, Jenkins admits that even with Web-building made simple, there are lessons to be learned. One of the trickiest problems to deal with is displaying images of products online in a format that is visually enticing, yet practical to download. "One customer had dozens of stainless steel kitchenware components that it wanted to display. All the images were between 3Mb and 20Mb and probably would have taken a normal modem a week to download".
A problem that cropped up with another customer was that the font they had chosen for all their hard-copy marketing literature was not an industry standard offered in the Access Web package. "It's vital to control how the font looks to visitors - it mustn't switch between Ariel and Times New Roman" advises Jenkins.
Another tip for hard-pressed SMEs is to ensure the right people are involved in the planning and training stages. Jenkins worked with a firm of chartered accountants where virtually everyone was involved, namely, the managing director, the marketeer and the receptionist who would eventually handle all updates.
"The key people to work alongside are the boss - so he or she knows they can change the site if they want to - and the person who is going to be responsible for doing the updates," recommends Jenkins.
Using a package like Access Web means that maintenance - often the most costly item on the IT ticket - does not eat up funds. The club was able to call on the services and skills of a member who was a former programmer; "Our Web master used to code in Assembler and Basic - the ease of maintenance has been a complete eye-opener for him," says Jenkins.
However click-and-go the update procedures are, installing a website will still require an organisation to review its processes. The yacht club produces a magazine bi-annually and so is used to assembling material for race reports. Weekly, online updates demand a more rigorous approach, however, and so the club has set up groups to manage content and presentation so the Web master only has to deal with pure uploads.
Members can now pay for mooring licences and buy tickets to events online, read and contribute race reports and communicate with other yachting clubs around the world. Sussex yacht club also hopes to become more closely integrated both with the local business community and the social community.
By offering special deals on useful nautical items such as propellers and sacrificial anodes through site sponsors, the Sussex yacht club hopes to nurture a buying community which more local businesses can plug into. And some of the profits are expected to flow into the yacht's charitable project, Sailability, which provides sailing facilities for disabled people. A hyperlink to Wired Sussex website also ensures the connection to the broader cultural and commercial Sussex community.
Meanwhile, Jenkins is thinking like a portal and has a 'killer app' up his sleeve. By offering the most precious information available to any seafarer - weather reports - Sussex yacht club may well attain the status of global hub quicker than it thinks.
Are you an SME with a limited budget - and a successful Web project under your belt? Email your experiences and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
At sea: web statistics
Source Sage Software July 2000
Source: KPMG and Microsoft
Source: UPS E-business Monitor January 2001
On course: Building an e-presence on a £1,500 budget
All consultants, no matter how strategic their take on e-business, will concede that it is possible to get something for a £1,500. But what?
As Nick Maxwell, partner with online consultancy Quidnunc says " You can spend anything you like on building a website - it's working out the return that's important."
Any small business starting out with a budget of £1,500 should take heart from the knowledge that the sum will certainly procure them a Web presence and some standard functions. A shop-in-a-box might consist of two or three pages of brochureware and basic functionality such as a shopping cart. Fees for owning and hosting a domain name come in at around the £100-a-year mark. This kind of shop-in-a-box is available from sites such as:
Eqology.com, for example, charges £199 for a basic site template, and an extra £19-a-month for hosting. Robust shopping cart operations, such as is available from www.EPDQ.com, can be purchased for a further monthly rental fee of £25 plus a one percent cut on all transactions.
This format would be very suitable for a small company such as a flower shop, that might wish to sell five basic flower arrangements online. While the approach would fit the aims of a small company making its first foray onto the Web and wishing to learn from the experience, it is not a template that can be easily scaled up warns Jenico Preston, head of marketing at incubator XWorks. "It is a long way from being a functioning Web site or business solution," he says.
A £1,500 budget does not allow for any bespoke development, and would only buy a few days of any decent programmer's time. Preston thinks £8,000 is a more suitable benchmark for building an e-business with any degree of customisation, while Maxwell sums up: "For a very small company, you can do a lot with the money, but it helps to be a tinkerer."