I’ve been in business for nearly two decades now.
I can’t say it’s been a smooth ride. We’ve had our share of bloodied noses along the way. Mostly because of me.
Web design is a constantly evolving, labor intensive business that doesn’t scale well. What was popular and considered best practice three years ago is no longer relevant today. That makes our industry both interesting and frustrating.
In my next life, I think I will try to make one piece of cool software and sell it a gazillion times. Some kind of subscription based business model that solves deep issues inside enterprise companies. Like what Oracle does.
The good news is web development will become easier. I imagine a world where sites literally assemble themselves, based on the nature of your business, the scope of your brand and - of course - your budget.
There was a time when just getting something into print required dedicated specialists with expensive equipment. And then - seemingly overnight - publishing moved to the desktop and virtually anyone, anywhere can now produce content and share it globally. That was hugely disruptive.
In the same way, there are now several companies offering DIY web design. Check out Wix and SquareSpace if you need a brochure type site. Look at Shopify and Volusion for larger e-commerce sites. All of them offer good solutions.
But there is still a sizable and growing market for companies that need a more customized approach for their web properties. They tend to be larger, more mature businesses that know what they want and are willing to pay for it.
So what are the errors I’ve made over the decade and a half I’ve been working in this industry?
Going cheap. You get what you pay for. We hear that all the time. You would think we business owners would embrace that morsel of wisdom at the point of hire, but we don’t. We hope the best for the one who is least expensive. And eventually, it almost never works out well. Cheap is expensive. From coders to graphic artists to SEO gurus, the good ones cost more. And if you want to do quality work, you’ve got to be willing to pay for it. No more cheap geeks.
Hoping one person is sufficient. This along the same lines of the going cheap mistake. Instead of hiring 3 expensive geeks, you hire just one and expect that one person to be able to do everything well. The problem is web development is like building a house. You need plumbers, electricians, roofers, landscapers, etc. One person does not have all the skill-sets. It’s humanly impossible. The reality is the coder is good at hacking, but is terrible at graphic design. The designer can create stuff so attractive you will want to lick it, but knows nothing about writing code or optimizing sites for search engines. You need a team. Be prepared to pay for the specific skills required to get the job done right. Don’t expect a single superhero to do it well.
Farming it out. In the early days, I used freelance sites like ELance and ODesk (which are now one company called Upwork.). If you need to hire a very narrow skill, those sites might serve you really well. But if you want to build a thriving business and develop reliable talent, then freelance sites can be hit or miss. Dealing with unknown people across different time zones and cultures can add more friction to the development process than is necessary. I have developed several strong business relationships with freelancers via those sites. And I continue to work with them today. But outsourcing is not for everyone. I have lost more than one project hoping a freelancer would deliver - and never did.
Putting the talent on payroll. The really good geeks aren’t interested in a conventional, salaried position. Since their skills are in high demand, they tend to prefer an equity arrangement or just serve as a temporary gun-for-hire. If you’re the business owner, you want to procure excellent people. And by now you’re willing to pay for them. But unless work is steady and consistent, you will get hammered by overhead. Two slow months in a row will generate significant cumulative losses. It can kill your business. Instead, we have learned to retain and nurture a close circle of proven experts who can be hired on a project basis as-needed. This helps us manage our profit margins while delivering quality work at a reasonable price point.
Retainers. Retainers are one of those well-intended business relationships that actually have polarized values. The customer wants to be sure they will be well supported and the geek welcomes the residual income. But if you think about it, the customer wants to squeeze as much work as possible from that arrangement to maximize ROI while the geek wants to spend as little time as possible to preserve his/her gross profit. I learned the pay-as-you-go model is actually better for the customer and fair for all. What’s better for the customer is ultimately better for us.
Saying yes. My team is sometimes frustrated by my willingness to sell something first and then figure out how to deliver it later. This can-do attitude fueled our early growth but eventually lead to situations where we over-promised and under-delivered. Bad business. I’ve learned to keep the boundaries more aligned with our core competencies. If we want to do good work, then we need to say no to the work that can’t do well. Period.
Starting with ill-defined scope of work. Knowing exactly what a project includes and what it doesn’t include is supercritical to its success. In the early days we were so eager to make a sale we would close the deal before clearly outlining the scope of work. This lead to missed expectations, unhappy customers and the death toll of any software project: scope creep. It’s a nasty hole to crawl out of. All projects require phases, milestones, feature sets, delivery dates, and detailed descriptions so everyone is literally on the same page.
Believing if you build it, then will come. Building a website is actually the easy part of the success equation. To make an online site truly rock, there are several other aspects that need to be addressed. It doesn’t matter who covers those bases, but someone must. Otherwise, the site or app will fail. Here’s a neat infographic on how to build a killer app. A successful business launch requires several steps: research, development, testing, branding, marketing, etc. In the past we thought our only responsibility was to design the site or build the app. Now we realize our clients need help with all those other areas, too
Despite our failures (sorry past customers who will never talk to me again!), I really do love software development I view the advent of the internet and all things digital as one of those huge milestones in human history. It’s our generation’s gold rush. Five hundred years from now, people will look at human’s timeline of existence and mark the creation of the internet as a huge turning point, like fire, metal, agriculture, and industrialized production.
The key for us is to stay ahead of the curve, to do good work, and to continually strive to be worthy of success.