From humble beginnings in 2001 as DoYourOwnSite.co.uk, Simon Kimber (LinkedIn profile here) has grown a fledgeling content management system into one of the UK's premier eCommerce internet success stories.
Create.net these days has a permanent staff of around 18 people with offices in Brighton and an impressive claim to having fathered over 30,000 websites. Interestingly their office building is made with local materials such as sweet chestnut timber cladding and East Sussex clay, powered by wind turbines, solar heating panels and collected surface water! If there was an award for “Green credentials” then Create.net have it on their wall!
When you register for a site, you'll be assigned one of three account managers, backed up by a customer team leader and that's a start bound to give you plenty of confidence. Too many website builder platforms leave you to your own devices and hope you'll muddle through somehow if you get stuck.
The platform claims to be powerful but simple to use, with prices starting from £14.99 per month – I put it to the test to see how well those claims stand up.
Sign Up & First Impressions
Add your email address, first name, last name and you are good to go. You'll get an email asking you to verify your email address and then a friendly follow up from your account manager asking if there is anything they can do to help.
I sent a reply asking if I could change the template after I'd started building my site and waited for a response.
I didn't have to wait long! I got an email reply in six minutes from Steve, the customer team leader telling me that Adam was out of the office but yes, indeed, I could change the templates whenever I liked. That should fill you with confidence if you think you may be reliant on a bit of hand-holding to help build your site.
Here's your dashboard:
One thing I would point out to the Create team is that it is a little bit confusing having two people offering to assist you. Adam introduces himself as your account manager, but then you also have Tara offering to chat with you. I would dispense with the chat and include a small “chat with me” button on the account manager profile to unclutter the screen a little bit.
The dashboard is nicely laid out, and I like the way the bright colours highlight the next step.
Themes And Templates
The Create templates are all fully responsive and recently given a makeover to bring them up to date, but I don't like the inclusion of “BETA” templates from the selection list. Should I use a beta template or not? Will it have bugs or not? Do casual users know what beta means?
Clicking on the BETA template reveals all:
This message shouldn't be here. Beta testing should be carried out by knowledgeable users and not offered to people who may be building a website for the first time. If something doesn't display or work correctly how does the user know if it is their fault or an error in the software?
After choosing your template, it is populated with your site name and areas where you can edit content are clearly marked. There is an excellent WYSIWYG editor with simple options for editing text.
One very neat feature is the desktop/tablet/mobile icons in the left-hand template editor which will show you how your site is going to look on all devices.
Choosing a template and editing content is a breeze.
Adding More Pages And Content
The content menu shows you the existing pages you have set up on your site, and one nice touch is the addition of a contact page with the form already set up for you.
To begin with, I was a bit puzzled as to where the categories were set up because it usually is the first thing you do before adding content pages but, rather cleverly, the developers have included category setup only when you want to add blog pages. This is a neat move as it is easily possible to get confused between adding static site pages that contain general information as opposed to blog pages with potentially many categories.
There are options to enable blog comments and hide or show email and website address fields, so blogging options are diverse.
There are also more advanced options for adding content like HTML fragments, Widgets and uploading images. Extra forms are supported, and pages can be hidden for access only by registered users.
Overall the balance between complexity and ease of use is nicely struck.
When I initially started looking at some of the sites that had been developed by Create.net, I was underwhelmed, but that's not a fault of the platform. It has some powerful features if you want to push it hard. It is only the nature of the beginner user that puts the restriction on design flair.
And that is the delicate balancing act between giving users who don't know a thing about HTML or CSS a product that doesn't involve code editing while at the same time providing the advanced option to the more experienced user. The more complexity you introduce, the harder it becomes to make it easy to use.
Interestingly there is a “Website Designers Kit”, a code editor for the create.net system which will let anyone with development knowledge create something that goes far beyond the simple templates.
The “Shop” menu tab is a pandora's box of delights and goes far beyond what I would call simple eCommerce tools. As well as standard product management there are also tools for abandoned cart management, discount codes, product promotion and sale offers.
In the main settings, you can configure payment gateways. “Create Payments" is the equivalent version of Shopify payments with a fixed 2.4% transaction fee but you can also add Worldpay, Barclaycard, Sagepay, Paypal, stripe, First data, No Chex and realex payments, so there is something for everyone here.
Apps & Tools
There is mention of an API but the current “Read Guide” produces a 404 error. A bit of detective work found the correct page here: https://www.create.net/support/an-introduction-to-apis, but I didn't find an App directory or mention of any support for third-party software like Kashflow.
The entry level Shop Builder looks good value for money, but then you notice that it is missing Abandoned Cart Recovery Tools which are an essential part of doing business on the internet. You may not know it yet, but a high percentage of your users are going to fill up their shopping basket, leaving, never to be seen again.
You need to know why this is or at least be able to do some detective work to see if you can retrieve some of these sales. It could make all the difference to the success of your store.
Then again if you are only expecting a few orders from known sources £12.99 would make financial sense.
The Shop Builder Pro is overpriced in my opinion. At £59.99 per month, you'd be getting enterprise level software from Bluepark.
But that's not the point of this product. Create is designed for single users or a team of a few people to put together and manage a site quickly and easily without the long setup routines that go with more advanced eCommerce software. At £29.99 all-in this would be a fantastic value for money product.
For people who want to sell on eBay then the £59.99 price tag for an eBay listing tool and Amazon order importer may clinch the deal because this is the only software I've reviewed that can do both.
Create.net is a well thought out product, and I'm pretty sure it has had some extensive user interaction testing to make it functional with such a depth of options.
The problem is that the finished website looks underwhelming and that's because you can't expect people without any design experience to produce great looking websites. It's an awkward position to be in where you are catering for the masses and ease of use and trying to balance that with great design at the same time.
In saying that there are some great looking sites on the examples page but for some reason, there are no links to them, so you have to use a search engine to find them.
Good looking design is why many companies offer premium themes or templates. Shopify, for example, charges £150+ for its premium templates and Shopwired and Bluepark upwards of £700+.
At £14.99 this is a great product, but you take off the shine when you see the abandoned cart saver tools are not included at that price point. At £29.99 and above Shopify, Shopwired, EKM and Bluepark all provide stiff competition although none of them can match the ease of use.
If Create.net could inject their templates with some real joie de vivre and make them come alive, then this would be hands down the best entry-level eCommerce platform available for UK users.