This article is not an exhausting tutorial. There are many different ways to formulate and express your business plan. It will provide some thoughts and ideas that you need to cover before you hire a web developer to start building the site. Being not only a developer, but also a consultant and architect, I can meet clients very early in the process, and provide help in formulating ideas and requirements. Still, there needs to be some mental work even before that. Here are some key points and suggestions.
1. Formulate your business goal.
Website is a tool. Tools are used to achieve goals, and goals define those tools. Websites can meet many various goals these days. Business presence, commerce, information and search, education, persuasion, blogging, news, etc. The main goal will define the content and structure of the web site. Why is it important to have just one main goal? Because your site visitor's attention is a very limited resource, and you don't want other parts of the site to stand in the way.
2. Formulate, how your website will serve the visitor.
Having your goal is not enough. You never build a website "just to own" one. A website is an interactive tool. Thus, you will have a clear picture in your business goal, what needs of your visitors this site will serve and how. This may seem trivial. "Yeah, yeah, all this petty nonsense about 'serving the client'..." In reality, how seriously you take this point will define the language and tone of your website. Clients will feel it - whether the website was built for them, with care and thought about them, or whether the site was built with just the interests and ambitions of the owners in mind. A very well built, professional and complex website may fail, if the customer feels that it's just self-serving. On the other hand, I have seen some very simple and even primitive websites go viral, if they only did what the visitors needed, and did it well.
3. Think about a user story.
Envision the process of achieving your business goal. What do you want your client to do? Read something? Buy something? Find and order something? The easier it will be for the client to reach that goal, the more successful the site will be. The fewer click, the fewer distractions, the better the user experience will be.
Think about what a client will do - imagine yourself needing what your client needs and doing it. What steps of interacting with the site will the client need? Will he need to be able to search for your product? For a large shop, filter the parameters with easy filters? For an itinerary site, filter geographical locations, prices easily? Visitors may want to peruse through the options, just click around. When the visitors find find what they need, they are sent to a landing page with additional information and an action (purchase, save in favorites, ask a question). The simpler this process is, the higher will be the conversion rate.
4. Visit competitors websites, make notes.
If you have thought through your business plan well, you probably know your competition. You can find and evaluate their sites from a customer's perspective. Some of the larger and successful websites start adding additional functionality and grow far beyond usefulness. You can identify the useful functionality, and make notes of what you perceive to be their strengths and weaknesses.
Resulting should be a list of functionalities, that you consider most helpful for your business goal.
5. Think in terms of MVP.
MVP stands for "Minimal Viable Product". It's just another name for the "Pareto principle", or the "20/80" principle. Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian economist, who noticed, that 20% of people ended up owning 80% of land. Years later, statistics discovered, that this principle is extremely widely sprtead everywhere. 20% of workers do 80% of work. 20% of clients will bring 80% of profit. 80% solar system's weight is concentrated in 20% of it's planets (roughly, of course). And so on, and so forth. Now, what is important to us, is that the same principle has also been seen in software and web development. 20% of functionality will deliver 80% of the expected result. The idea is to identify the RIGHT functionality, that will deliver that main result.
When Google just started up, and created it's simple search page with just a text field and a button, the search marked was dominated by the likes of Yahoo, with walls of links, texts, and listings. Google realized, that if people needed search, giving them just that and making it work great is a much better idea, rather than overwhelming them with multiple buttons, listing, options, and "helpful" distractions.
A minimal viable product, an MVP, is that basic set of functionality that are vital to the web site's work, and that will deliver the most of the outcome. The best way to identify whether a functionality is part of MVP is to as yourself, "Can my site meet its goal without this?" If yes, then it's not an MVP.
MVP will open up two important routes. They will be covered in the next points.
6. Aim at Early Feedback.
With MVP, you can see if you succeed or fail early. In business, some ideas flourish, and some end up unprofitable and die out. Still, most good ideas need early and quick adjustments. Having an MVP allows you to start gathering feedback about success of your site yearly on. You get a benefit of modifying and adjusting the site, using the early feedback from the core functionality. Often, the same goal can be implemented in different ways. Trying different options and finding the ones that will bring most profit is easier, if you start getting feedback early on.
7. Aim at Iterations.
Second, MVP will allow for an iteration. It is impossible to build a perfect site once and for all. Ask the successful site owners, and they will tell you that the key is iteration. Those parts of the site that do not perform optimally conversion wise, can be iterated and corrected. This is another reason why MVP is a good way to proceed. You don't invest in building a complete building, only to realize too late that you would need to take bricks from the middle of the wall to adjust it.
8. Bring a Web Consultant Early On.
Unless IT is your main business, you may want to bring a wbe consultant like myself in early on. I realize that most businessmen "like to have their hands in it", but really - today's web has advanced so far technologically and behaviorally, that a non-specialist planning his or her site may in fact ending up doing more harm than good, for all the good intentions. Planning your website may not be very effective, if you don't have experience in web architecture and UI handling. Transforming the business goals into a list of web functionality is also a step, where a non-specialist can easily misjudge.Conclusion.
To sum it all up, before asking a developer to build a site for you, you should think well what your business goals are, and how a website will be instrumental in reaching them. The site is a bridge, where your goals and visitors goals meet. Think about what a visitor needs to see and follow through to carry out their needs. The easier the better. Expect to start with the core functionality, and then grow more muscle by adding additional features as the site develops, getting feedback as early as possible, and iterating on the features for better conversion rates.