Undoubtedly, an engaging and effective website is an effective way to build your business.

Unfortunately, unless your business is building websites, you probably feel it is too complicated, too expensive, too time-consuming to do it all by yourself.

That’s why small business owners as well as home-office based entrepreneurs should take note – now that Microsoft Office Live for Small Business has officially launched in Canada.

Leading the charge are several Canadian small business operators who completed a pilot test program by creating their own online storefronts and e-mail based marketing campaigns.

OLSB, as the new acronym goes, is one of the first products of its kind to offer an affordable way to build and maintain a professional Web presence.

That’s affordable, as in free!

That a fair price considering the stakes: it’s a well-known fact that most of us use the Internet to learn about a product or service before making a purchase decision. Or to search out information about a company we may do business with.

Ironically and somewhat confusingly, nearly half of all Canadian small businesses do not have a website of their own!

According to the results of a recent Harris-Decima survey released by Microsoft Canada, “lack of time” is the number one reason for not having a website, small business owners say, with almost one-quarter of respondents saying they just don’t have the time to create one.

One-in-five think it’s just too difficult to create a website on their own. And one in six point to the cost of a website as the biggest roadblock to growing their business online.

While acknowledging the cash-strapped, time-pressed realities of most businesses today, Evan Carmichael, a small business and Internet technology consultant, says without qualification, “In today’s competitive small business world, having a professional Web presence is just as important as having a phone number. Being able to conduct business professionally on the Web removes the barriers of size and allows small businesses to compete more easily with big-name brands.”

New tools like OLSM also help remove the cost barriers: during a panel discussion with small business owners, industry analysts and web development consultants, Carmichael noted that it can take “10 or 20 thousand dollars to get a website off the ground.”

At those rates, it’s no wonder SOHO operators avoid hiring a web developer for their company. But they still need a web presence, one that can create impact and interest equal to those of bigger online players.

No matter the size of your company, it is always important to find new customers, and to maintain existing ones. That’s where a professional web presence comes in, acting on behalf of your company 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Little House Gains Big Impact with Website

That’s one of the benefits that Tina Haskim realized when she built her very first web presence using Office Live Small Business.

Tina is the owner/operator and lead instructor at The Little House of Yoga, based in Parry Sound, ON. It’s a home-based business right now, although individual and group classes can be conducted at a client location as well.

As she reviewed ways of getting the word about her company and her services out in the local community, she started with ‘word of mouth’ reminding her in-class students to tell their friends about her services. That helped, but in a slow and sporadic fashion.

Then, she made a few posters and pamphlets top hand out, but found “they get thrown out as much as they gave saved. Trying to give a marketing pitch in class doesn’t really work, either.”

Tina needed a more effective way to expand her business by sharing and showing her passion for yoga, health and fitness. She needed to reach outside her normal circle of friends and neighbours to build new clientele, but she also needed her regular time to conduct great classes while still maintaining a home and family life.

Enter the Web!

Tina was able to join a group of small business people who would learn about website design and maintenance by learning the software tools included in Microsoft’s Office Live Small Business. In workshop orientation sessions about the software’s features and functions, and working with website auditors to review and evaluate her efforts, Tina seemed to surprise herself as she built her own website.

“The package is so easy to use. Not just to build a website, but to update it and keep it creative. I can also do e-mails and newsletter blasts to my clients. I couldn’t believe it,” she said afterwards. “I was a little apprehensive at first, but it was easy once we started, I couldn’t believe how easy it was. I now have a website that can help me gain credibility in my field. It’s like, ‘I am a professional. I do this full-time, in many different situations. It is my business, not just a part-time interest.'”

Like Tina Haskim, users of the new Web-based software suite and hosting services from Microsoft can easily establishing a professional Web presence including, a domain name, Web hosting and business-branded e-mail and multiple business applications, simply by signing up.

Users can then tailor the service to meet their specific needs by adding premium services such as custom domain registration, and e-mail marketing.

Other free features include:

  • Hosting service lets small businesses either create a new site or transfer over an existing one
  • Up to 100 business email accounts and fourth level domain name registration
  • Up to 500 MB free storage space available for collaboration via Office Live Workspaces to share and transfer documents
  • Integrated tracking with Contact Manager provides unified analytics, as well as virtually seamless integration with Microsoft Office.

Some other ‘Do-It-Yourself’ tools are available as part of the solution, all geared to make sure that small business owners spend time on growing their business, not getting it online.

Company Heating Up with New Web Presence

Bruce Sinclair understands the basic needs and often the numerous complexities of successful small business growth and operation. He works today as an IT consultant and venture capital advisor on behalf of small business – but he comes from a high level business and technology career, having helped launch Dell Canada here in the late 1980s.

Today, however, his focus is on small business, and he’s helping build up a new Web presence for an Ontario small business involved with geothermal drilling.

Harnessing the heating power of the earth itself as a way to combat carbon emissions is a growing industry niche, but Sinclair still sees the need for small business to both build new clientele and service existing customers.

What’s more, he talks about “segmentation communications” as being crucial to any business, small ones included. The concept is to know your different audiences, your different market or customer types (in this case, say, domestic in-home versus large-scale industrial heating systems) and to communicate a good message appropriate for each.

Sinclair loves the newsletter function, and the easy customization and mass mailing features included in OLSB. He quickly demonstrated how a ‘branded message’ from a small business can be slightly tweaked or revised as a way to meet the needs of different audience members – and how it can be easily and inexpensively distributed online.

A small business that can speak directly to its customers will find it can offer expanded additional services to that customer more effective,” Sinclair says. “Branding is a key issue for small business, and it can be quite easily communicated, and differentiated, through a Web presence. Every company must have a website,” he says without qualification. “It’s no different than a phone number or street address.”

“Being able to conduct business professionally on the Web removes the barriers of size and allows small businesses to compete more easily with big-name brands,” agrees Carmichael.  As the small business consultant says, “If done effectively, in the virtual world, size doesn’t matter.”

As mentioned, most Web surfers and small business owners know this already. In those survey results, 91 per cent of respondents knew that a website could make them appear more professional. Almost two-thirds say it is critical for a business to have a website if it wants to be competitive.

“The survey reveals that many small businesses have been unable to take full advantage of online marketing due to a variety of reasons. Among those who already have a website, 60 per cent of respondents report they are concerned about enhancing their site and keeping content fresh and almost 40 per cent feel they simply don’t have the time or expertise to update the site themselves,” recapped Jason Brommet, Senior Product Manager, Microsoft Office. “That’s why we’re providing Microsoft Office Live Small Business to allow small businesses to take, promote and manage their business online easily – and at no cost.”

For more information on Microsoft Office Live Small Business, visit: http://smallbusiness.officelive.ca

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