Startup makes creating professional Web pages a snap

Monday, November 24, 2008

snappages1.jpgOut of desperation, I recently sought a trainer for Joey, our terror of a rat terrier.

Google dutifully produced a list of Web links, and I checked out a dozen or so sites. I was struck by the range in design quality: Some were helpful and easy to navigate; others were cluttered and confusing.

No surprise — I’m following up with the trainer whose site I liked best.

Designing a brochure-style Web site in 2008 seems like it should be cheap and easy. But when it is, the result is often clunky and unpolished, and visitors don’t tend to stick around, said Steve Testone, founder of Austin-based SnapPages, which has developed software that lets nontechies build Web sites that look professional.

"It only takes a few seconds on a site to form a strong opinion," he said. "If someone is looking at three competing sites that offer the same services and one really stands out, the thinking is, ‘This looks like they spent more money, so they must have a better product or service.’ "

Testone, who has a background in advertising, began designing Web sites for small businesses in 2002. Through his clients, he learned what a challenge it is to build and maintain an affordable yet professional-looking site.


"They have limited budgets, so they’ll hire someone for $500, and then end up with something that has a low-end feel to it," he said. "Then the designer disappears, and they can’t even make updates or changes to it and it gets stale.

"But if you hire a big firm, it takes a long time, and it’s expensive. And every time you want to add a photo or change a number, it’s a minimum of a couple hundred dollars. It’s like someone is controlling your life."

Watching that struggle, Testone saw an opportunity, and two years ago began designing tools for people who have never written a line of software code. In September, he launched SnapPages, which lets users build a site by dragging and dropping blocks of text and photos and videos onto a page.

The key, Testone said, is limiting design options and not giving users too many choices on elements like color and layout. When SnapPages users build a page, for example, they are forced to organize it in neat columns so it doesn’t end up looking chaotic.

As Testone puts it: "The simpler it is, the less you can mess up."

The premium service, which includes hosting and unlimited updates, costs $50 a year, and a limited version is available for free.

Testone has plenty of competition, with a long list of build-it-yourself rivals, such as SynthaSite and Weebly, both of San Francisco, and Wix and, of New York.

It’s the final look of a SnapPages design that sets it apart, said Reid Funderburk, who has invested about $250,000 in the company through his Austin investment firm, BTI Inc.

"A lot of the other Web site creation tools just remove the need for a programmer. They dump the tools in your lap and say, ‘There you go, build a Web site.’ What you end up with isn’t something you’re going to be happy with," said Funderburk, who became an investor after hearing about SnapPages from a friend and using it to create a family Web site.

"I’m not computer-savvy, and I never thought I could actually learn how to do this, but the result looked great," he said "I thought, ‘If I can do it, just think what groups like nonprofits, soccer clubs and small businesses could do with it.’ As big as the world market is, if you had a half of 1 percent of it, you’d be in very good shape. There could be thousands of people making Web site development tools and it’s still a huge market."

The company, whose sole employee is Testone, has spent little on marketing. But thanks to positive reviews by bloggers as well as technology Web site TechCrunch, the company has signed on 15,000 registered users in two months.

"It doesn’t take but a few bloggers to recommend it to get a huge response," Funderburk said. "When we got good reviews by Brazilian bloggers, we had thousands of sign-ups there."

Back to my dog-training quest: Talking with Testone has given me more understanding of why Web design goes wrong.

So while Joey continues to devour toys and bark incessantly at anyone who walks down our street, I’m going to revisit the original list, this time paying more attention to the trainer’s experience than to how good the Web site looks.

Unless anyone out there wants a rat terrier.

Lori Hawkins covers startups for the American-Statesman.; 912-5955

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