Why Web Developers Flake

"Flaking Paint" by Bart Everson

Whenever I speak to small business people, I always hear the same story – they found a web developer or web designer, contracted with them to develop their business site, then quickly became disenchanted with the results. Either the site took too long to build and wound up nothing like they had imagined, or the web developer simply up and flaked on them, never to be found again. This tale is almost always followed up by a request to take on whatever work the previous developer left behind. Never one to turn down money, I almost always used to accept.

I soon understood that I could take on this work full time and start my own business. In the Fall of 2006, I quit my full time job to start TechKnowMe: designing, developing, marketing and maintaining web sites for small businesses. Getting work was easy – I simply hit all of the local Chamber of Commerce mixers, introduced myself as a web developer and waited for the inevitable stories to be told. I marketed TechKnowMe as the company that would stick around. I was dedicated to building web sites for small businesses – nothing else. It wasn’t something I did in my free time; it was my job.

I soon found myself with far more work than I could handle on my own, so I sought the help of other local developers and designers to ease the load. For a while, things looked fantastic, and business was booming. But soon, due to a number of personal and economic factors – along with a rash of first timer mistakes I made – things began to fall apart. Before I knew it, the freelancers I worked with were no longer available, and I found myself stuck with half a dozen unfinished projects and practically zero cash-flow. With a new baby in our house, I had to improve our financial situation fast. I finally had to face the fact that I would need to take a full time job outside of TechKnowMe in order for my small family to survive. I explained this to my remaining clients and, though extremely frustrated, most understood and agreed to allow me to finish the outstanding work in whatever free time I had.

It’s been a year since all this happened and I’ve either completed most of that outstanding work or simply had to let it go. For some of my clients, I became just another guy who flaked on them.

Good Help is Hard To Find

The shame I feel for this is immeasurable. Cash-strapped small businesses don’t have many options when it comes to developing professional-looking websites and online marketing campaigns. They either must turn to a “build it yourself” service such as Homestead or SnapPages, or they must find someone affordable enough to not completely blow their budget who can also understand and address all of the business-owner’s needs. In both cases, the small business person must spend valuable time educating themselves on the intricacies of building and marketing a business online – a rather sizeable task, especially for the majority of non-technical small business owners out there. While several full-service online marketing and web development agencies exist, they’re often so focused on the big fish that small business owners quickly get left behind. TechKnowMe was intended to fill that gap by providing affordable full-service web design and development specifically to small businesses. I have not yet heard of any other company with the same goal.

If you live in a metropolitan area, you probably have hundreds – thousands, if you’re in the Bay Area – of talented, qualified web site designers and developers eager to help create your small business web site on a freelance basis. Filtering through these people to find the ones who won’t flake on you, however, is a challenge.

The simple fact is that too many web folks quickly get in over their head when they start working on a site. They may be able to design and build the pages, and they may even be able to apply some kind of off-the-shelf system like WordPress or Joomla to the final design to control the content. Beyond that, though, many get lost. What about SEO? What about online marketing? What about email newsletters and traffic building and conversion rates? The best web sites are developed by a team of people, led by a single person who controls the overall vision of the site. As a small business owner, that leadership position often falls on your lap. But maintaining a team of freelancers is sort of like herding cats – they don’t have any real loyalty to you, and they’re often working on several other projects at the same time.

Avoiding The Flakes

When you’re seeking a web developer to help you with your site, you should keep in mind that they can’t possibly get all of the work done themselves, and you shouldn’t expect it of them. If you’re talking to a programmer, make sure they know they’re not a designer, but have one they can work with. The same goes for a “web designer” – a title that does little to indicate that person’s level of skill. Are they a graphic designer with some web experience? Are they a programmer who’s tired of explaining the difference between programming and design? Are they someone who really understands functional design and the online user experience? You’ll have to suss these things out in your conversations with them to determine just how much they know and, more importantly, how they handle the areas where they’re out of their range. In those cases, Google is not the right answer.

There are several other steps you can take to reduce the chances that the people you hire to build your site will flake on you:

  1. Ask for referrals. If you’re looking for the cheapest option possible, you may be willing to take a risk on someone who has the skills, but has never developed a site outside of a professional environment. If that’s the case, this one won;t apply – they won’t have referrals – so you’ll have to rely on samples of their work. I suggest, however, that you don’t take this risk – find people who have been freelancing for a whole and have the referrals to prove it. Certainly, they’ll only give you the positive referrals. The fact that they have any, though, is a strong indicator not only of their professionalism, but their commitment to getting the work done and adding you to their referral list.
  2. Ask for examples of completed, live sites. You want to see a record of successful site building. Even if it’s just one site – even if it’s just their own web site – you want tangible proof that they have designed, developed and launched a complete web site from start to finish. As a bonus, ask if they’d be willing to share their traffic and analytics numbers to get a sense for how successful they are in driving traffic as well.
  3. Ask them to tell stories about their experiences. As you’re looking over their sample sites, ask probing questions: What challenges did you face when building this? How long did it take to complete this site from conception to launch? What can you as a customer do to ease the process? These questions should lead into a deeper discussion of their process and your expectations of them. It will also help to raise any red flags early on – for both of you – that can save you a lot of heartache in the long run.

Being a Great Customer

It’s unfair, though, to put all of the blame for flakiness on the web developers – your attitudes toward the people you’ve hired to build your site make a huge difference in their loyalty to you. I found it far easier to work with some clients rather than others and continue to work with them when I can today because I enjoyed it so much. There are a handful of things they do that make me eager to continue working with them:

  1. They treat me as the expert I am. If you’re hiring someone because of their technical expertise, you should be willing to accept their recommendations. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t question them or seek a second opinion from other experts, but if they stand firm on their recommendation, you should accept it as their expert opinion. More importantly, you should simply show them the professional respect you would to any expert in their field – the same respect you expect from others.
  2. They understand my human limitations. Deadlines are finicky things. It’s very difficult to estimate how long a technical project will take – especially one with a lot of custom elements. Experience helps in this area, but even the most experienced developers underestimate how long projects will take. I try to give as solid an estimate as I can before the work starts, but there have been several times when I have found myself half way into a project only to realize I had severely underestimated the effort involved. I try to compensate by overestimating the time before any work starts, but I have had customers who balked at such inflated timelines. More often than not, even after I’ve hedged and pulled back, the project took as long as my initial estimate. Deadlines are important – projects can’t go on forever – but be reasonable in your expectations, try to listen to your developer when they explain the deadlines they set and focus not on the time when things will be done, but on the set of deliverables expected at those times. It’s better to launch a bit later with a site that’s well thought out and developed than to launch with a half-assed, rushed site full of compromise.
  3. They listen when I tell them “No”. Again and again we’re told “The customer is always right”, that the customer should always get what they want. Sometimes, though, you just need to get the work done. I’m talking specifically about what tech folks call feature creep. I do as much preparation and planning as possible before starting a project, and base both my charges and my time estimates on what the customer and I have agreed upon as the set of work to be performed. For larger projects, I prefer to break the work into phases – Phase I contains everything necessary for a successful launch and nothing more; Phase II iterates on the work in Phase I and adds more important functionality; Phase III is usually where “nice to have” items are placed. But even after the Phases have been well defined, it’s difficult to imagine what the final product will look like until the first few prototype pages are built. At that time, the customer often comes up with several other things they feel they must have added right away. This is OK, and every once in a while something does pop up that got forgotten in the planning stages. But every little addition adds time and cost to the final estimate and pushes the deadlines further and further out. Usually, I put my foot down and simply say “Phase II”, meaning we’ll revisit adding the item later. The best clients understand that we want a finished, launched product, so they can prioritize accordingly. If you insist on getting your way, however, you should not be surprised when the costs and deadlines balloon out of control.
  4. They know I’m worth it. Nothing good comes cheap. With more than a decade of dedicated experience in web site design, development and marketing, I’m well worth the hourly price I charge. Truth be told, I don’t charge enough. When researching my pricing, I targeted an hourly rate that was higher than most freelancers to prove I was serious, but cheaper than many larger agencies so that cash-strapped small business owners could afford me. My customers understand that I’m an expert, they’ve seen the positive results of the work I’ve done and they know that my prices are more than fair. The only time I’ve ever gotten pushback on my prices is when I worked with small business owners who missed the other three items in this list. In other words, they were nightmare clients all the way around.

Remember that your website should never be a static thing. You want to build and maintain a solid relationship with you web developer and the team that gets your site up and running so they’ll be with you for the long haul. It’s a two-way street, and you can keep your developers from flaking on you if you develop an atmosphere of mutual respect from the beginning.

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