Bean-counting powerhouse Intuit ( INTU) is prospecting for Web development gold. Big companies are bending over backward to serve smaller ones: Monsters like Google ( GOOG), Microsoft ( MSFT) and IBM ( IBM) are offering full lines of small-business products. Basic website development is near the top of the list. With 20-million-plus small businesses out there, even a couple of bucks from each makes for a nice piece of bread. Even accounting heavyweight Intuit is jumping into the Web-development fray. The Mountain View, Calif.-based accounting and business software company bought startup Homestead for roughly $170 million in 2007. Intuit made Homestead founder Justin Kitch its chief growth officer. Homestead's Web site development service enables not only design, but also e-commerce and search engine optimization support. Considering that Intuit is the last small-business accountant standing -- Microsoft announced recently it was stepping back from its Money software line - Kitch's product is central to Intuit's future. My assistant and I used Homestead to build a test Web site for a new sports technology radio show we're developing. While Homestead requires some tinkering, it provides decent results. We made a simple Web site in three hours. What you get: A reasonable Web site design tool for about $25 a month. Homestead offers basic packages that start at $5 a month, but I don't recommend them because you only get five pages. The most expensive package gets you more pages, support and tools for $50 a month. Homestead offers you three basic modes for Web development: design, edit and upgrade. The design software offers 2,000-plus templates, most of which are pretty bland. There are categories like services, hospitality and personnel. The service also provides a downloadable design tool called SiteBuilder, which you can use to develop sites from scratch.
SiteBuilder offers sophisticated options like guest books, e-mail links, chat rooms, hit counters, PayPal options, Google's search and even some nice charity buttons like the AIDS ribbon or similar. Homestead also provides phone and e-mail support. Each new user goes through an extensive welcome process and gets to pick a domain. In an afternoon you get not only a Web site, but the tools you need to make it a real business tool. What you don't get: A trouble-free system. Homestead still takes a deft techie touch. For example, laying out photos and logos was extremely difficult using the preset templates. Any real editing had to be done using the SiteBuilder tool. We spent an hour and a half figuring that out, and then we had to go back and redo our layout, which was frustrating. More importantly, Homestead is not as cheap as it sounds -- $25 a month for the cheapest package worth using totals $300 a year. But Web sites have become such a commodity. Google Sites, as awful as it is, is free. So assuming you stay a customer for even five years, that $300 becomes $1,500 and that starts to look like real money. And here's the real rub: It's hard to tell how much you're making off the clicks of your Homestead-made Web site. And that makes it hard to evaluate its cost. Bottom line: Homestead performed well in our small test. And it should be on your short list if you want to upgrade your Web presence. But making a case for this code is a far different, more complex problem.
I am dubious when it comes to Intuit products. From QuickBooks to TurboTax, Intuit's strategy is to lower the cost of entry and then jack it up for long-term use. Try buying business checks for QuickBooks and you will see what I'm talking about. I can't help but suspect that if I put Homestead to a long-term test, I would be jammed with all sorts of restrictive policies that would boost the $300 to something far higher. Give Homestead a try, but be prepared to back away: This product could get pricey fast.