Is the internet a young person's game?
June 13, 2012 8:11 AM   Subscribe

Is my business future really all about the internet? (personal, technical, philosophical details inside)

Background: I own a small business which was successful, but lately seems to be losing ground to internet competitors. Six years ago ignoring the internet seemed to work, now, not so much. I am in my 40s with a bachelors degree in English.

The closest thing I have to a mentor has repeatedly suggested I get on board with the internet. I don't really have the resources right now to hire a professional web developer to get me up to speed, and I don't think I really have the tools to manage such a person.

Could I (a 40 something guy) actually learn Visual Studio, Expression Web,, and SQL and make a go of this. And if this particular small business didn't work out, would I have the skills to get a job here in the 21st century. Or am I just barking up the wrong tree filled with pipe dreams? Is it too late for me (due to age and number of similarly skilled people) to go down this road?

I'm not looking to be the next internet gazillionaire. Just looking for the path to keep working for the next few decades.

Bonus question: If I wanted to do this, where should I start?
posted by Classic Diner to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If I wanted to do this, where should I start?

I think that for anyone to be able to give you any sort of advice, you're going to have to be a little more transparent about the type of business and how the internet applies. Are you... just looking to build a website for a business? Become a professional .net developer? Use the internet to better market an existing, non-technical business? None of this is clear to me from your question.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:21 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are quite a lot of off-the-shelf solutions that can get you pretty far. I'm not sure what your business is, so I can't get too specific; but things like Shopify are great, credible solutions to the problem of getting a retail business online.

I hear the "where would I start" question a lot, and frankly I have no idea. I've been doing this for 14 years. If someone wanted to replicate my knowledge in a few weekends I'd be at a loss to tell them how. You could start at to get some background on where the technology is. I'd also say you'd need a account for all the questions you're going to have. Development will be much easier if you go ahead and get a MacBook and learn a bit about the command line. You may also want to either make friends with some designers (if you haven't already) or drop in on an AIGA meeting to try and get a feel for where interactive design is headed.

I'm hesitant to recommend you try this yourself if your business depends on it. I mean, you could, but you could also build yourself a car. Your list of technologies makes me cringe a bit, for starters. I also know lots of people who tried to go it alone and ended up further away from being online than when they started due to sheer frustration.

Having said that, a competent web developer doesn't have to break the bank and shouldn't require much management on your part. If they ask good questions, keep their deadlines and are available to answer your questions things should go fine.
posted by littlerobothead at 8:25 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

What does "getting on board with the internet" entail for your business?

It's easy to make a static web site, and not that expensive to pay a professional designer to make a static site that isn't embarrassing.

It's even reasonably easy to sell your wares online by out-sourcing the shopping cart and money-handling to Amazon or Yahoo.

However, it is not easy to make a web site that has any degree of custom programming. If you need any concept of user accounts, or online interaction with a database, or credit card handling --- you can't learn how to build a web site like that in a weekend.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:26 AM on June 13, 2012

Without revealing too much, what would you do online? Are we talking a marketing website or an entire web application to automate parts of the business?
posted by michaelh at 8:27 AM on June 13, 2012

Could I (a 40 something guy) actually learn Visual Studio, Expression Web,, and SQL and make a go of this

Whether or not that even makes sense to try highly depends on what specifically your business is and what you specifically want to do on the Internet. If you sell books, for instance, you are probably screwed in terms of being able to out-compete competitors on the Internet. Both brick and mortar stores and small book selling websites are getting crushed by big established sites like Amazon and alternatives like ebooks. In that case it would be like saying "My mom and pop store is getting put out of business by Walmart, can I learn things like negotiating with Chinese manufacturers and create my own national chain of big box stores to compete with them?" Not going to happen.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:29 AM on June 13, 2012

Google adwords. Huge for my business.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:31 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

You can get a hosting solution that supports a common and easy to use CMS like Drupal or even Wordpress would work (both free with tons of good documentation and super active development communitites). Hire some college teenager to skin it for you, so that you have your custom look. Shouldn't pay more than $500. Alternatively, you could google on skinning your own drupal site, and probably find tons of free aids, skins, etc. Get that set up, then it's all WYSIWYG. Just add in products, listings, maps etc. as needed. I'm fairly confident anyone could do this. It's just blog software. When you mentioned ASP, Visual Studio, SQL you were looking way too far into the harder tech bits. Most of the CMS's have taken care of all the hard parts. All you need to do is worry about sketching your site out on pencil and paper, which box goes where, what links to what, that sort of thing. Definitely don't go in for the hardcore ASP learning, that's overkill. my $0.08.
posted by halatukit at 8:39 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you have a technical bent, sure you can learn to make a Web site yourself, but it probably won't look as nice, or work as smoothly, or be as secure, as one designed and built by professionals.

Fortunately, you don't have to have one custom-designed for you; there are plenty of ways to get a pre-built site up quickly, even fairly advanced ones with online ordering and the like. Then things like security are someone else's problem, which you pay them for monthly.

If you do decide to do it yourself, I would recommend an easy programming language, such as Python or Ruby, and one of the many Web frameworks for those languages.

Back when I wrote my first shopping cart, we didn't have frameworks. I wrote it in C. To maintain state from page to page I had to use hidden fields (since cookies were new and not all users had a browser that supported them). I had to parse out the data from the query string and form submissions and unescape it myself. In, I remind you, C. Then I had to insert it into page templates myself. I also had to write my own full-text indexing and search. Again, in C.

I am sure that I made so many security mistakes that today that site would be easily hackable. Fortunately, a month after it went live, they had a server crash and didn't have a backup.

I could have done it in Perl, but I'm not sure whether that really would have been that much more productive, since I would have had to learn Perl and there weren't any Web frameworks for that, either. And on a 100 MHz 486, doing it in C made a noticeable performance difference.

Of course, back then, users had much lower expectations of appearance and functionality too.
posted by kindall at 8:39 AM on June 13, 2012

Could I (a 40 something guy) actually learn Visual Studio, Expression Web,, and SQL and make a go of this?

No. Doing that sort of work, to a degree of professionalism that will be meaningful and keep you relevant, is a full-time job that demands quite a bit of experience to do well.

There are better options for you here; you'll be far, far better off finding out what the off-the-shelf options and existing communities around your product niche are, and hook into those rather than trying to reinvent them yourself at the same time as you're trying to reinvent yourself.

Leverage existing tools for as far as that will take you before even you start thinking about making your own.
posted by mhoye at 8:54 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sorry for being so vague. I sell printed materials to a pretty niche market. I have a static website. I'm looking to sell online, interact with customers online, manage employees online without going broke. I'm not expecting this to be easy, or even fast. I worry about hiring a real web developer as I've watched terrible results from associates who either hire inexperienced kids cheaply, or are taken to the cleaner by dodgy professionals. I'm want to see if this is even possible, or if I am making buggy whips in a rocket car world.

Thanks for your answers so far. You've given me some things to investigate. My question was both about the technical bits of this and being generally worried / prepared for the future.
posted by Classic Diner at 8:54 AM on June 13, 2012

>I worry about hiring a real web developer as I've watched terrible results from associates who either hire inexperienced kids cheaply, or are taken to the cleaner by dodgy professionals. I'm want to see if this is even possible, or if I am making buggy whips in a rocket car world.

There are many, many people who successfully work with web developers every day. :-) Please don't let your friends' experiences stop you from asking for the professional help you need, when you need it. You are at the head of a long road, and a lot of people are just as happy to get referred to a web developer by a friend, delegate this stuff, make sure it's getting done, and carry on with the business.

If you still want to move on by yourself, you might look at a web content management system that uses a templating language rather than a programming language. Examples include ExpressionEngine, Webvanta, Textpattern, CMS Made Simple, and others. These are typically easier to work with for beginners, and when you're ready to use a programming language, building onto what you've already got won't be hard. Most of them include tools for selling online, interacting with customers, and managing employees / "users" (for most general meanings of "manage").
posted by circular at 9:10 AM on June 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think that there are actually 2 parts of your question, but here as a stab.

First, I'm going to mention some things that a good friend of mine did for his small business (he sells import items to larger businesses). A few years ago, he made $ (and paid a part time employee) but the work was seasonal (i.e his customers were in the states and bought around Xmas time, but the few months after Xmas, almost not at all). Now a few years ago (10 years+), - he hired someone who made a horrible non-functional web page, and then he tried to do it himself (he just didn't have the time). Most of his customers were through his paper catalogs or people that he built relationships with over the yrs.

In the last few years, however, he has acquired customers from around the world and there are no slow seasons. He has taken in much more revenue.I've discussed this a few times with him as to what he attributes this dramatic change and he cited the following things:
• He hired someone to make a web page for him (one that had shopping carts, etc.) For the web page, he hired a family friend who lost his job and was very good at this.(OP, Can you ask people for recommendations, etc.?)
• Google ad words. I'm going to elaborate as to what this can do for your business ...1) you can "buy" your way to the top of any search 2) if you have limited funds, you can cap how much you want to spend to see if you have results, 3) you can spend little to nothing and find out...what are the search terms for your industry, etc. By the way, my friend started using this because of the recommendation of the person who made his company web page...he also read a book about how to use this tool.

I'm going to also add this from something that I saw posted on another askme that relates to this topic.Some small business owners use blogs and put it on their works for them because 1) it can (at least in the past/don'tknow about now) increase SEO because it is a changing vs static web page and 2) you can attract the type of clients that you want. You could consider trying that on your company web page too.

Now the second part of your question (you didn't ask this but I think that it is underlying your current problem). It sounds like you are very afraid of spending funds and have the feast and famine mentality of running a small business (I hear you on this, by the way...I am in the same boat, as is that friend who finally paid for someone to do his web page). However, this is how I think about occasionally spending $ for a professional tool/service, etc.

How much is your work worth *hourly*? If you are planning to take in (I don't know what you budget/budgeted for salary, but) $100/hour, or $50/hour, or whatever it is....spending your time learning all these other things that doesn't translate into what you do reduces what you earn to $10/hour or something like that. Here is the example that I will use. How do you do payroll and taxes for your business? You can decide to 1) learn all the tax intricacies/forms/register and spend several hours learning it and then several hours per month doing this, OR 2) just pay a payroll service $50 per month to do it for you (and don't miss the deadlines, which can cost you $ in fines).

Why not do small experiments with your business? Why not allocate a small amt of time or $ to experiment with these things? So budget X/web page and $10/month for a google campaign and observe if it equals more business. If not,stop it. I will be honest and say that one yr I spent ~$1000 on an advertisement that turned into absolutely NO work...but I now know that my clients will not come to me that way...but I do know that other tools (sending them emails) works for me. But perhaps put a small amt of $ aside per year and try something new. Will need to put this on my list to do yearly, it becomes easy to just peddle along doing the same old thing
posted by Wolfster at 9:45 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I worry about hiring a real web developer as I've watched terrible results from associates who either hire inexperienced kids cheaply, or are taken to the cleaner by dodgy professionals.

A few thoughts on this...

1. There are "dodgy professionals" in any field. That doesn't mean there aren't reputable professionals as well. You need to do your homework and make sure you're hiring the right person/company.

2. I'm not sure why anybody who actually cares about the success of their business would trust an important part of marketing said business to an inexperienced kid. It should be no surprise that this scenario does not usually work out well.

3. Can you learn to do it yourself? Yes -- if you want to, and if you have genuine interest and aptitude. Your age has nothing to do with it. But if your real motivation is simply that you don't want to hire an inexperienced kid, and you don't want to hire a dodgy professional, then you probably aren't likely to have the dedication it takes work product to rise above the level of inexperienced kid or dodgy professional. So you've invested your time instead of your money, but the end results are pretty much the same.

In short, it takes time and dedication to master any new skill. If you want to learn this particular skill, I say go for it. But it also takes time and dedication to build a successful small business. And if that's really what you're interested in focusing on, then you should do that and seek a reputable professional to help you with the web stuff. There are only so many hours in a day -- spend them doing the things that you really want to be doing.
posted by spilon at 9:59 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and:

I worry about hiring a real web developer as I've watched terrible results from associates who either hire inexperienced kids cheaply, or are taken to the cleaner by dodgy professionals.

Hiring a good person is actually pretty straightforward. What you need to remember is: "Maybe" means "No."

Person doesn't have a portfolio? No hire. Doesn't have references you can call to talk to about their last five jobs? No hire. Contract isn't very clear about what's deliverable, on what date, or people don't get paid? You feel the least bit concerned about how that business relationship will go? No hire.

Do your homework, do it like your job and continued success depend on it because that's what's really happening, and you'll be fine.
posted by mhoye at 10:33 AM on June 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

You're looking in the wrong direction. Yes, you could learn all those skills you mention if you'd like to, but why would you?

You're a business, then people are already talking about you. Online. Find them* and listen to what they're saying. Once you've done that for a while, start to interact. Ask what they want, provide it.

The internet is another channel, that's all. If you've been successful as a business then you're used to listening to your customers and responding to them. You just need to get used to doing it in a slightly different way.

I suspect that a Facebook page or a Twitter account or a blog might do more than a website would do for you at this point but it all depends on where your audience live and what they want.

* google them, go to and search your company name, repeat for Twitter, repeat, repeat, repeat. If really desperate, offer customers some kind of offer to tell you where they spend time online the next time they buy a product from you.
posted by unless I'm very much mistaken at 2:25 PM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all your answers. You've helped me put some of this into perspective.
posted by Classic Diner at 7:04 AM on June 14, 2012

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