Archive for January, 2009

What Does a Website Cost? (Part 4)

You’ve made it this far and are either interested in my advice or angry that I’m dragging this whole thing out. So I won’t keep you waiting any longer.

A website costs whatever you want to spend. Now this isn’t a cop out on my part. It’s actually an important fact. If you know what goes into building a website, you know your budget and you know what you’re looking for, you will be in complete control of the pricing process.

We’ll use my company, Just Imagine, as an example.

Customer calls on the phone and asks what I charge to build websites? I say, “that depends.” And then I launch into my standard talk about how I go about putting together a proposal. Now I’ve done this so many times that I have a pretty good idea after a 10 minute phone conversation what the quote will be. And since I’ve done this for different companies in different market segments, I’m pretty sure that most web services companies approach each project in a similar fashion.

The differences are the starting price point and hourly rate.

I tend to use $1,000 as a starting point for most projects. This represents, to me, a small, static website. A larger firm may have a starting point a little to a lot higher. This reflects the cost of turning on the lights and showing up for work. The bigger the firm, the greater the cost.

The hourly rate is also typically based on the size of the firm. Again, wages, benefits, etc. all go into determining what a company needs to charge for it’s labor. Our rate is $60 an hour. A larger firm may rate based on task – data entry, design, programming, etc. I think our rate is about in the middle of what firms charge for web services in the southeast US.

So what does it cost to build a website?

If you’ve found a firm or group of firms that say their budget sweet-spot is in line with what you’re thinking of spending, then final price will come down to how much you can help the developer/designer and how much the developer/designer wants your help. The more perceived help you can be to the developer, the less time he or she will have in the project, the lower the quote.

Let’s go back to a small website project. I’m thinking $1,000 minimum when I pick up the phone to answer your call. That works out to be about 16 or 17 hours of labor. Typically half of that is going to be in designing the site (colors, navigation, home page layout, etc.). If you know exactly what you want the site to look like and you know what pages will be required (and the type of content on those pages), then you can convince me that I’m going to spend less time than usual building the site. In other words, I might give you a final quote of $800 instead of $1,000.

If, on the other hand, you tell me that I’m the professional and I should tell you what the site should look like, I double my design time. Why? Because I’m going to sit in front of blank screen, come up with an idea, flesh it out and then show it to you, at which point, you may say you hate it. Then I’m back to square 1.

The same holds true for content and functionality. If you know exactly what you want the site to say and do, I’ll be much more likely to keep the quote down. Someone who is vague makes me pad everything because I’ll anticipate “scope creep” – even when the scope is spelled out in a proposal, I’m just too nice a guy to always say “no.”

To summarize

  • Think your project through from objective through content and longer term service needs (changes, marketing, etc.)
  • Call around to web services companies in your area (better to shop local, unless this if your third or fourth generation website) and ask them what size projects they feel most comfortable with. Also review their websites for philosophy, staff size, expertise and portfolio. Ask for references.
  • Call references and ask them about the process: how easy or painful it was, how timely were the responses, how close was the firm to delivering on time and, MOST IMPORTANTLY, how responsive has the firm been to problems/changes with the site AFTER being paid in full.
  • Get two or 3 quotes, but only after having detailed conversations with the principles. Make sure they are aware that you know what you want and that you are willing to play an active role in order to keep the cost down.
  • Compare quotes to make sure apples are apples. Ask questions.
  • Choose the firm that gives you best combination of warm feelings and low cost.

Then you will know what a website, at least your website, costs.

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What Does a Website Cost? (part 3)

Back about 7 years ago, while running a fairly large web services firm (27 people), we were asked to quote a web project for a local utility company. The parameters of the job were straight forward, as I recall. The project called or a new website that would provide utility customers with information from all departments. Department heads were to be trained so each could manage content for that department. This required a fairly robust content management sytem, which we had already developed. The site had to interface with the utilities accounting system so bills could be checked and payment made. And there were probably a few bells and whistles that I no longer remember.

If memory serves, we bid around $10,000 for the job (it would cost much less today). Three other companies also bid. One was around $15,000, another in the low $20’s and the last bid over $150,000. After demonstrating that we could do the work, we got the job and proceeded to make money, do a redesign for more money, etc. The client was happy and so were we.

The moral of the story, from the client’s perspective, is be careful who you ask to bid. In this case, the high bidder was a Midwestern IT consulting company that did work for large firms. Their proposal called for moving a team of 3 to Charleston for 90 days to “really” learn the client’s needs. Everyone else was just going to build a website. But the client did such a double-take on the range of bids that they began to question whether or not the little guys could do the job.

So before you send out your RFP or just start calling around, first ask the prospective vendors what their “market sweet spot” is. NOTE: it’s best to ask BEFORE you tell them what kind of firm or type of project you have in mind.

If you’re on a tight budget I would avoid vendors who talk excessively about your “brand.” Whether they know what they’re talking about or not, “brand” costs money and, in my opinion, rarely results in a return on investment. Let the big web services firms and their clients discuss the ins and outs of web branding. You focus on building a website that will accomplish your objectives and stay within your budget (development and marketing).

Also avoid designers who talk too much about their experience with Flash technology. While some Flash is fine, often designers want to build the whole website in Flash. This will help neither your budget nor your prospects for good search engine rankings.

If you’ve got $5000 to spend this year on a website, you want to hear someone talk about building practical websites for $2000 or less. It’s also nice to hear a vendor ask about the site’s objectives and tell you to make sure you set aside money for marketing. The last thing you need is to build a $5000 website and then have to wait until next year to market it.

So what does a website cost? I’ll finally tell you in Part 4.

What Does a Website Cost? (part 2)

Choosing a Web Developer/Designer

I stipulated in Part 1 that costs depend on things like functionality, complexity of the design and types of content. But more important still, your cost will depend on the type of developer or development firm you choose.

Now I can almost hear you say, “who I choose will depend on what they charge.” Fair enough. But notice I used the word “type.” Before you start asking for quotes you first need to decide who you’re going to ask. And I believe this is where the pricing problems and confusion begins.

There are five major types of people/organizations that build websites:

  1. Large web development/services firms
  2. Smaller web development/services firms
  3. Advertising Agencies
  4. Graphic Artists and Web Design Studios
  5. Hobbyists, trainees and non-professional freelancers

The keys to choosing which group to solicit bids from are budget size, website goals and the overall complexity of the project. So here’s how I position a project for each of the developer types.

  • Large Web Firms require big budgets because you are paying for their big overhead. If you have a development budget in excess of $25,000 and plan to spend several thousand dollars a month marketing your site, then shopping large firms isn’t a bad idea. A large firm will have more specialized staff members to handle your needs.
  • Smaller Web Firms, assuming they are full service, can do most of what a large firm can do, but they have fewer staff and thus a smaller overhead. Small firms rely on outsourcing parts of your project that require a different expertise. For instance, at Just Imagine, we outsource custom programming and design elements like Flash development. Remember, the smaller the buget the smaller the firm.
  • Advertising Agencies came late to the web party and, for the most part, still don’t get it. Personally, I would avoid going this route, unless you already have an agency for traditional marketing. Even then, I’d get outside quotes to keep them honest. There’s nothing an ad agency can give you that you can’t get, usually cheaper, at a large or small web services firm.
  • Graphic Artists and Web Designers are not the same, but I lump them together because they must be interviewed in a similar fashion. Graphic Artists and Web Designers, for example, are typically one dimensional. They make things look pretty. While I know that you’re looking for pretty, remember that the actual look of the site is pretty far down the list of what makes a website successful. So again, unless you run across someone who is experienced in all phases of web development, and just happens to be called a “designer,” I would gravitate toward a web services firm.
  • The final type of website player is one to be most cautious of. This is where the majority of client horror stories come from. “I hired this student but now I can’t get hold of him,” etc., etc. If you decide to go this route, almost always because of money, just know that you get what you pay for. Also know that building a website isn’t like designing a brochure. You’ll want to change the content on your website at some point. Then what?

So if you follow my advice, the first thing you need to do is figure out how much money you can devote to this project, making sure you leave enough for an ongoing marketing campaign, if leads or sales are your objective. Once you’ve got a general idea of your budget (under $1000, under $2000, etc.) then you can start making calls and interviewing vendors.

If you don’t work in this order, then you’re likely to get wildly disparate quotes that won’t allow you to compare apples for apples. For instance, the $2,000 web project at a very small web development firm is $3,000 at a slightly larger firm, and it could be $15,000 at an even bigger firm. In fact, the bigger firm may start it’s quotes at that level because they can’t feed their overhead for anything less.

I should also mention, because I know you’re going to ask, that there is no standard breaking point between big firms and small firms. It really depends on your market, if you’re shopping locally. A big web services firm in Charleston, SC, for instance, may only have half a dozen full time people. If you read part 3 you’ll at least be able to know ’em when you talk to ’em.

So what does a website cost? Read Part 3.

What Does a Website Cost? (part 1)

Of all the questions I get over the course of a month, this is the toughest to answer – at least to answer with a number. While I completely understand the importance of the question, and the earnestness with which it is usually asked, I can’t help but shake my head. I’d want to know. And I’d want to know without having somebody try to sell me something.

So my typical response is “it depends.” Depends on what?

Well, in point of fact website cost depends on the caller. There are many variables to consider when building a website – from functionality required to how intricate the design needs to be. The caller, though, is most attuned to the number of pages. “But I only need 5 pages.”

While the number of pages may have an impact, it is not really a quotable variable. For instance, 10 product or service pages, all with the same layout, won’t take nearly as long to create as the home page or a custom form. The subject matter of the various pages – and their layout requirements – is thus more important than the quantity of pages.

Design (the look and feel of the site), on the other hand, is a very important variable. How much Photoshop work will be required? Is there a Flash component? How about navigation? How many layers are to display at once?

Obviously, functionality is a big issue. If the website is required to interact with the visitors in unusual ways, that may mean custom programming, or off-the-shelf-customization. Does the owner need to be able to manage the content – requiring a content management system. How about a shopping cart for ecommerce?

Last, but most important of all, what does the website need to accomplish? What are the objectives? A lead generation or ecommerce site require a level of search engine friendliness that will dictate certain decisions. A sales support site or a website for internal purposes is not so restricted.

So what does a website cost? Call me and I’ll tell you. OR, you can read Part 2.

Web branding run amuck

This morning while I’m drinking coffee and reading the paper, my wife and partner in our web development company – Just Imagine, Inc., having just finished dealing with overnight emails, decides to check the menu of a Charleston, SC restaurant we’ve talked about visiting. Of course I didn’t know what she was doing when she started. But after a few choice words about Flash and FireFox, I had to look up.

Not only had she encountered a site with an elaborate (nice way of saying long) Flash intro, the site didn’t work properly in FireFox – 2 cardinal sins in the first 15 seconds. Now normally she would have been on to another site before getting upset, but she really wanted to see the menu of this fancy establishment. So she was forced to open IE – sin #3.

Now my wife is a pretty experienced web user, in fact she is webmaster to two sites – a Mayan Riviera travel site and her own group travel site. She knows all about user expectations and dos and don’ts of effective web development.

My question is (rhetorical, of course) why do THEY do it? Why do web designers/graphic artists insist on trying to turn our thirst for immediately accessible information into an irritating lecture on branding or some other such silliness? Why can’t a website be a website, a video a video and a brochure a brochure? Don’t they get that by alienating some large percentage of visitors that they do their client a disservice?

The answer of course to all of the above is they do what they do through the prism of design being a message, in fact THE message, unto itself. Certainly true in the world of print, where one has time to appreciate it. The web, however, has different requirements.