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Starting a "Dot Com"? Don't.


I met a young group of student entrepreneurs today who came to me for some basic advice on how they can start up a new online video portal. Their idea was to open a niche video portal and cultivate a community around it - in the process helping content owners / producers with the technology and sharing revenue with them. The idea wasn't unique but one of the co-founders had a good insider connect within the artist community which he hoped to use in content aggregation and building audience. They had identified a team of programmers in Hyderabad who would be able to do all the "coding" for their video portal, and they would do the groundwork.

My immediate advice to them was - don't create a website! Counterintuitive as it may sound, the time for starting websites and portals from ground up is long over. The time now is to start 'services' and not 'websites'. The web has come a full circle, from the days it was a haunt of Geeks, to today when every business has a web-presence (even if it means having an implicit presence in form of the proprietor's Facebook / LinkedIn accounts).

The web has evolved in the past 2 decades in many ways but one of the key aspects that has changed is the emergence of platforms. Until the mid 2000s, if you had a new business idea you had to create (read: code) your own website, get SEO done for it so that people could find it when they Googled for it, and only when you had customers coming to your website would you start thinking of 'customer service' - starting from having a help email all the way to starting a call center if your service needed so. 
But between 2005 and 2010, the web underwent a transformation which was initially called web2.0 and later gotten to be termed as Social Media. In essence, the web saw certain platforms emerge - Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, Slideshare etc - you no more needed to dabble with technology. For example to create a website, you don't need to know HTML, just create a Facebook page; if you want more flexibility in design, use blogger or Wordpress; in any case you don't need to "code" your website from scratch.  
The same goes for creating a product curtain raiser - when we were doing Bloozle, to create a product demo we had to take screenshots of webpages and arrange them to look like a screencast. Today, for any new product - IT based or physical - you just need to create a 5-10 minute video and post it on YouTube and share it on Facebook with your friends! Not just existence of YouTube, but the acceptability and access to web-platforms like YouTube is the big change that all startup ideas need to embrace. 

So, in today's context, a website is neither a novelty nor an evidence that your business works! And so, its pointless to waste time creating a website if you can start your business without creating one. It's like preparing for an IPO and creating an annual report for your company even before you have a customer :-).

On the other hand, with website creation becoming so simple, other aspects of business - how well you connect with customers, how you find customers in the first place, how you resolve queries, how well you price your product, how does it differentiate from competition and how you iterate to improve your product / service - have gained more importance.

So, your Facebook page might be a replacement for your website, but you need to have a help email from the beginning (heck even a dedicated help/ customer service twitter account) and you need to be proactive monitoring them 24x7 and respond to your customers with a sense of urgency. In some ways, the business world is getting back to basics where not technology but customer connect and service have resumed their place in the pecking order.

Unless the USP of your business idea is grounded in a revolutionary new technology which requires you to write the website code from scratch, as a new startup you should just create an online presence on Social Media (aka Blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube), buy a domain name and redirect it to the most used Social Media platform (mostly Blogger/ Wordpress or Facebook). 

And this is what the student startup did - their website - TenCoVid.com - is just the landing page with embedded YouTube videos. You can like them on Facebook or connect to them on Twitter. They plan to buy a premium account on YouTube to host their videos and earn from them helping young filmmakers market their videos through the power of Social Web. 

*Flickr Photo credits to zzkt

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