Small-business Web Design
May 13, 2004 7:57 AM   Subscribe

When my company discusses web design service with potential clients, they generally *always* balk and get ornery about the cost. Most of the time, we're working for small businesses, so understandably, $5-$10k is a substantial chunk of change for people to shell out. We don't get upset when we lose bids for being too expensive because we've always been taught that compromising our rate is not the solution... you simply can't meet everyone's budget. That being said, we turn away enough people who expect websites to cost $500-$1500 that I think there might be a market supportive enough to create solutions for. [come inside, won'tcha?]

That being said, we turn away enough people who expect websites to cost $500-$1500 that I think there might be a market supportive enough to create solutions for. The most important factor for us, however, is that it also be affordable for us to pursue as well, meaning minimizing deployment time and customer support issues (i.e. hand-holding).

In that light, we've thought about creating a template-based system that we could use to pop a company's logo in, change around the color scheme a bit, and add the site's text. We could then resort to a more "my nephew on geocities designs websites" tactic of charging for "website packages," like "4 pages, contact form, site statistics for $500," or "6 pages, news blog, contact form for $1000," etc.

As designers, we'd have to suck up our pride for not being able to put our custom design work to task, instead rolling out templates like a line-cook at Denny's, but I don't think we'd have a problem with that as long as it proved fruitful. Though perhaps preachy in perception, we fundamentally enjoy working with people and helping them solve their problems, so being able to help a wider audience without having to sacrifice our rent money is essentially the true nature of the beast. Additionally, it would allow us to improve our customer acquisition, which would benefit us in the long-term as well (selling to existing customers is easier than getting new customers).

Has anyone ventured into a similar pursuit? Would it be advisable to stick with the "less customers / higher-paying jobs" perspective, vs the "More customers / less-paying jobs?"

From a technical standpoint, can anyone recommend a good way to minimize the work at the development stage? I've thought about using MT and creating new blogs for each new client, but I don't know if that's overkill. Additionally, mambo & Typepad look like they would provide easier user interfaces for those unfamiliar to online publishing, but I'm not sure that either of these are the best for assembly-line site rollouts. Are there any CMS-like applications available to hosting providers that let them cross-sell web services along with hosting?
posted by Hankins to Work & Money (37 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you're dealing with small businesses, then most should balk at a $5k website. It shouldn't take months to get the site together and at most should run about $2k. You can still put together a custom design, using frameworks. Use the same layout, but customize the site with stylesheets for your client....think CSS Zen Garden. If you're charging per hour, then 25 hours should be enough for a simple site.

Movable Type (or would work well, add a blog per client and add the content in. Those are a lot easier than Mambo and Typo3. Use PHP to develop one dynamic template and base that template off of a stock design. Use a stylesheet to customize it for your client.

I'll send you my bill later ;)
posted by mkelley at 8:06 AM on May 13, 2004

Hankins, mkelley, shut up, SHUT UP. You're not supposed to tell everyone!

Aw, damnit, there goes my market.

Seriously, though, I think there is a huge demand (even if they don't know it yet) in the small business arena for not-shit, not-insanely-expensive websites. It pains me to see small business forking over hundreds of pounds (I'm British, sue me) for what is essentially a really crappy website, on a really flakey webhost, at a really poorly-chosen domain name. On the other hand, these businesses can't afford thousands and thousands for a big 'creative design process' when what they want is essentially quite straightforward.

Movable Type is definitely adaptable enough to manage the content for a small business website. I reckon that a crucial selling point will be your ability to sell a complete solution (design, coding, hosting, domain names) to your client -- your average small business probably won't want to deal with all these things separately.

My gut feeling would be to go with a custom installation of something like Movable Type on a generic webhost, rather than tying yourself into a particular service provider. Although you will have the initial work of setting up your own in-house procedure for {create website/install MT/set up templates/etc.}, subsequent new setups can just follow that plan. And you're leaving yourself with the flexibility to set up something more complicated if you find yourself with a client that needs a little bit more.

Of course, I have no idea what I'm talking about; I'm just an armchair businessman.
posted by chrismear at 8:31 AM on May 13, 2004

I think there is a huge demand (even if they don't know it yet) in the small business arena for not-shit, not-insanely-expensive websites.

I'm sure there is. But there's probably also a market for free, not-shit websites. I don't mean this to sound like it will, but I won't do freelance work for those kind of dollars. It's just not worth it after working 8 hours a day for companies that are willing to pay $10-500k for a site.
posted by yerfatma at 8:46 AM on May 13, 2004

One of the things you might want to consider is to offer the service under a different name so as not to dilute your current brand (this is what I do and isn't much more work).
posted by Mick at 8:47 AM on May 13, 2004

Let me say right off the bat that the idea is cool and there is a market. But...

My company did the template based thing. We developed our own CMS that included a storefront and included automatic email creation, etc. We ditched it all a few years later. We were constantly bombarded with tech support calls; people couldn't be bothered to read the manual (90% of problems were solvable by quoting the manual.)

We were also hit with constant requests to make the template more customized than the pricing allowed. No one was just content to have their logo slapped in and the graphic skin changed. No one.

It's been my experience that many clients who find $5k an incredible amount of money for a website will still find $500-$1500 to be extremely expensive, will nickel and dime you to death and will be the most vocal and insistent whenever a legitimate problem arises.

(I'm in no way playing down the importance of good customer service, but when a small businessman's lifeblood depends on his $2k website, he's going to interact with you a lot differently than a large corporate entity that regularly dumps $20k into experimental promotional sites. I try to put the $2k man first when I can because support is more important to him, but the $20k+ projects pay my bills.)

I would say it's not worth your time, but then, $5-$10k websites are no longer worth my company's time, either. Were we not as successful as we are now, I admit I might be answering your question differently.

Think long and hard as to how much company time will be spent on support and explaining to people what "template based design" entails. That was the kicker for my company - the template service was taking time away from larger projects. If that doesn't phase you & you can dedicate some employees to work almost fulltime on this venture (they may not need to, but be prepared for it anyway), then start with just a few clients to test the waters before you make it a regular service.
posted by Sangre Azul at 8:54 AM on May 13, 2004

I tried that approach, briefly, and found that in general the amount of hand-holding required made it very unprofitable: customers in that range tended to have unreasonably high expectations, and very little understanding of the technology. You wind up spending a tremendous amount of time educating the customer before you can even get started on the site.

I'm a one-person shop, so if you've got lower-salaried people who can take the time to explain to each client how works, and why they can't rearrange the template without going over budget, and that if they want to handle orders online that they'll have to be able to, you know, fulfill those orders, and why it might not be a great idea to put a 10 MB quicktime movie of the company owner waving "hello!" as the splash page1, and so on and so on, then it might be worthwhile... but I'd bet not.

1 True story!
posted by ook at 9:02 AM on May 13, 2004

I don't know how you deal with clients. But think about how you'll solve the issue of "never being satisified". When you're working at the cheap level, people demand a ton and pull out "nephew can do it cheaper" card a lot. And most of these junkyard dog businesses will also demand a lot more customization than you are willing to put forward. So basically they'll be perpetually disatisifed and your pride will force you to put 2x more work in it then you think you'll have to.

That being said, if you can totally detatch yourself from this, it can be very profitable. Your level of satisfaction will be low and integrity will take a hit and will always face nagging feelings of perpetuating crappy web sites. With that being said, if you create decent sites on the fly, and cheap, you'd probably hit a bonanza.

On preview: What Sangre Azul says.
posted by geoff. at 9:04 AM on May 13, 2004

Yes, I'll second and third most of what was said above. The education of the client is a big part of that- usually businesses or one-person shops who only want to pay $500-1500 aren't always sure why they should have a website. The answer usually is "Because everyone else has one."

That's really not a good enough reason anymore. Trying to tap that market involves a certain amount of work and commitment on the client's part to provide content. As noted above, minor little things like site updates, domain renewal, e-mail support can take up your time quickly. Unless you are willing to be as stringent as a lawyer when it comes to billing for time spent, then be very careful.
posted by jeremias at 10:08 AM on May 13, 2004

I'm not sure Hankins is suggesting the same use of "templates" that you describe, Sangre Azul. It sounds like you were trying to provide a publishing platform for your clients. I think Hankins is talking about just handing out cookie cutter designs. That is, Hankins has the templates and he customizes them for clients. Clients never necessrily know there was a template, nor do they get fancy publishing apps.

I can imagine rolling out a hosted publishing platform for small clients would be hell. I've tried and even failed to get people to learn how to use Blogger successfully.

One note on pricing. Although an experienced web designer will naturally balk at all the corny offers of "FREE WEBSITE WITH YOUR DOMAIN NAME" and such that you see around, inexperienced potential clients may not know that these are generally worthless gimmicks. They may genuinely not know why they should pay anyone $10K for something which they've seen advertised for free. Which brings you back to client education. But it helps to know where they may be starting from in terms of pricing expectations.
posted by scarabic at 10:48 AM on May 13, 2004

As someone else with a lot of experience wrestling with these issues, let me also echo the general gist here--folks who don't/won't spend several thousand dollars, minimum, for their own website are caught in a practical gap that's not going to go away any time soon. More importantly, for consulting outfits, pursuing the "more customers/lower cost" approach aggressively is an almost certain road to ruin. I know many smart folks who have tried exactly that approach--as small start-ups and as large agencies--and not one has managed to pull it off successfully, for some very clear reasons.

As we all know very clearly by now, it's not about revenue, it's about margin. I've been an executive at several interactive agencies, including one of the huge "i-builders" of the mid-90s, where we had tens of millions of dollars in revenue, but in the end, it didn't mean squat, because the company wasn't run profitably enough. If you look at the mechanics of a low-cost/high-volume services play, it becomes very clear very soon that not only is it hard to take home an attractive profit, but like a restaurant that's paying more per plate than it's actually charging, you have a real risk of going "upside-down" on your costs, and getting in more trouble with the more clients you have.

Beyond operational costs like overhead and developing your platform app, acquisition costs can really kill you with this model. If you spend one day, total, winning a client's work, then at $50/hr, that's $400 in the whole before you actually start doing any work.

That raises one critical point, that's really broken the smaller shops that I know that have tried this...never assume that your own labor is "free", or somehow fungible. ("I don't really pay myself money, so if I spend more time, it's not really a cost.") For a lot of reasons--beginning with the fact that every hour that you "give" a client is an hour that you can't charge to someone else, and ending with the fact that you will destroy your personal life--it's a very, very bad approach.

Your time is worth what you charge for it, and if you give it away for free, it's worthless. You can quickly end up sacrificing your weekends doing "line cook" work, for projects that are actually losing you money.

I definitely don't mean to discourage anyone from setting up shop doing web consulting--I'm just being very frank about a business model that doesn't work. It comes down to a very simple truism that every successful consultant has to adopt--we don't sell clients our "labor", we sell them our expertise. If your clients are judging what you offer by its cost of production, you're in the wrong business. (That's the general "you", not you in particular, Hankins.) Even more, if they think your labor is cheap, then they won't understand why you can't spend more effort on them, for little or no cost.

Any client who appreciates the business value of what you're providing won't worry if you're making a nice margin on the work--they'll be glad for you. Any client who's worried that you're making too much money "at their expense" is just not worth having (and is going to make a point of ensuring that you don't actually make a profit).

I know that feels like a very broad, "no-brainer" point, but it's actually the most robust argument against the "low-profit/high-volume" model. Why would you want to build a client base that doesn't think your work is worth very much money? It's not hard to guess what your life will be like if your business model is to have a lot of clients like that.
posted by LairBob at 10:57 AM on May 13, 2004 [1 favorite]

(Duh..."$400 in the hole")
posted by LairBob at 11:02 AM on May 13, 2004

It's been my experience that many clients who find $5k an incredible amount of money for a website will still find $500-$1500 to be extremely expensive, will nickel and dime you to death and will be the most vocal and insistent whenever a legitimate problem arises.

... the amount of hand-holding required made it very unprofitable: customers in that range tended to have unreasonably high expectations, and very little understanding of the technology. You wind up spending a tremendous amount of time educating the customer before you can even get started on the site.

This is true throughout the design field. This can be handled professionally and with a lot fewer headaches if you anticipate what you'll do in these situations. I would advise having a strict price menu and working out the details very early on in the process with these types of clients. It's the surprises and misunderstandings that will eat into your free time (and profits).

on preview: wow, LairBob. pitch perfect
posted by whatnot at 11:06 AM on May 13, 2004

I should say that LairBob just demonstrated the difference between implicit/explicit (economic costs vs accounting costs) perfectly. Maybe not perfectly but pretty good. The kind of thing that should be in micro books.
posted by geoff. at 11:14 AM on May 13, 2004

I've done some websites for smaller clients and charged in the neighbourhood of $1000-2000 USD per site.

For understandably smaller clients who just simply need a site to be designed with flat files and no scripting (maybe a simple CGI email contact form), you can give them Dreamweaver templates and a short document on how to create new pages and leave them to their own devices. This does assume a somewhat small understanding of HTML.

I've found that hiring cheap graphical underground talent (IANAWD - I am not a web designer) works remarkably well. I went back to my high school web page and looked over some of the more promising students and chose a few that are gems in the rough. I pay them about $200 for a photoshop template and then take care of the HTML myself. Seems to work out nicely for everyone.
posted by PWA_BadBoy at 11:18 AM on May 13, 2004

[WARNING: SELF-LINK OF SORTS -- I'm associated with this project.]

Practical CSS is a project that seeks to establish a baseline way to exchange CSS "templates." There's not much there at the moment, but the base HTML code provided there has been thoroughly refined to be optimized for full CSS designs without modifying the code.

I don't mean to pimp the project as such, I just thought that the HTML template established there might be useful for an endeavor such as this.
posted by oissubke at 11:22 AM on May 13, 2004

Can I just say that, as a student, I'm overjoyed to get a web design client that pays $1000 or so -- I'll gladly work on the site for weeks, do lots of custom code and design and all sorts. $1000 is a lot of money (to me, anyway).

I find that the problem is more to do with finding clients, really. Hmm... if you're deluged with customers wanting custom work for that amount, I'd give a lot of time and effort to it and throw you a cut...
posted by reklaw at 11:26 AM on May 13, 2004

Mind you, this is coming from a young guy who is struggling to make a few extra bucks here and there after work. It certainly is no way to get rich, but I'll fill the niche for now if it pays for my beer money on the weekend :)
posted by PWA_BadBoy at 11:30 AM on May 13, 2004

Some very interesting comments. I'm genuinely trying to get my head around this, and heaven knows I'm a naive little lamb. Maybe you experienced business people can help me.

Let's say you're bidding for a contract to do a large website for a major corporation, that will involve many rounds of close design consultation, custom development and content management, the whole she-bang. This is obviously a mega-bucks project. But don't you essentially base your bid, when you get right down to it, on an estimate of the man hours that need to be invested in this project, multiplied by an hourly rate that takes into account your business costs and overheads and profit? I mean, you're not just plucking a number out of thin air, are you?

Now scale that down. Let's say you're doing a website that is 'half' as complicated (whatever the hell that means). You're basically going to charge something on the order of half of the fee above, on the basis that it's going to take about half as much man power and time and resources to get the project done. Right?

Why can't you scale that costing model down to the time-frame and costs involved in making a simple website for a small business? I'm not suggesting that you try and sell quality services at a dirt-cheap fixed cost -- that's obviously not gonna work. I'm suggesting that you sell your services at an acceptable market rate based on the costs and time involved in each individual project. Sounds to me like it makes sense.

But everything I've read here seems to imply that selling these kinds of services on a small scale is doomed to failure. Can someone point out to me where my thinking is wrong?
posted by chrismear at 11:41 AM on May 13, 2004

Now scale that down. Let's say you're doing a website that is 'half' as complicated (whatever the hell that means). You're basically going to charge something on the order of half of the fee above, on the basis that it's going to take about half as much man power and time and resources to get the project done. Right?

Not quite. Let's say you've leased an office. You've purchased servers. You've paid for marketing info. You've got monthly bills for internet, phone, etc. You've purchased software licenses. etc., etc., etc.

(That's a theoretical example. If you're a freelancer, you might have warez software, free internet in your dorm room, etc., but you get the idea -- there's overhead.)

Once you've got that overhead established, the actual difference between 1 and 2 hours of work doesn't amount to much. You have to be making a certain basic amount of money to cover costs.

While you can cut your time in half, you can't do the same for those monthly or fixed costs.
posted by oissubke at 11:56 AM on May 13, 2004

Fair enough, but there's no rule that says you can only do one project a month. If you're doing projects that take half as long, in principle you can do twice as many of them. Yes, I know that's not how the real world works, but in a very rough sense why can't you can apportion your fixed monthly costs like that?

Of course there are fixed costs that are per project which you can't just halve, but generally you pass those on to the client, right? And they're probably quite small in comparison with the large ongoing business expenditures like office rent.
posted by chrismear at 12:03 PM on May 13, 2004

When I was research director at a company going bankrupt fast, I got together with my networking director and built a product for the $1K - $5K market that included registration, hosting, the works.

We also factored in a 20% commission for the sales staff, but their director balked for the reason cited above: the time to educate that demographic was more than any salesperson was willing to spend. He convinced the president that the commission should be 40% minimum, but the president refused to consider paying that much and that ended that.

Two weeks later, the entire staff except me and the networking director were laid off. I survived another 6 weeks, and the network guy 4 months after that.
posted by mischief at 12:05 PM on May 13, 2004


First of all, what oissubke said--there's concrete overhead in any business operation, no matter how small.

Secondly, there's also the fact that you're in business for a reason--to generate profit. More specifically, unless you're doing it for pocket money, there's a baseline set of expenses your outfit needs to meet for your to make it worth sticking to it--mortgage/rent, insurance, food, etc. That minimum requirement needs to be recouped across all the work that you do, and adds to the "baseline" fixed minimum that any project you do needs to cover.
posted by LairBob at 12:10 PM on May 13, 2004

Why can't you scale that costing model down to the time-frame and costs involved in making a simple website for a small business?

Because the client demands are non-elastic. People in this thread have done a much better job than I can of expressing it, but the tire kickers will wear you down. Like a drill on a tooth. See, to you there's a difference in the final expected product between a $20,000 site and a $2,000 one, but to the person paying for the $2,000 site the difference isn't very clear. Especially if you didn't ask for half the price up front. They have a ton of options; look how many people are in this one thread who build web sites on the side. You have no options; you need every client you find and one person smearing your reputation could be fatal. So once a client realizes that (or even unconciously), the feature creep doesn't stop until you've built the $20,000 site. And then they cut they check. Hopefully.
posted by yerfatma at 12:14 PM on May 13, 2004

mischief's anecdote also reiterates an important "per project" cost--acquisition costs. A 40% commission is enormous. In most professional service agencies, a 25-30% "internal" or "gross" margin what you shoot for, and a 50% internal margin is great.

Let's look at a $1K project in that model, to keep the numbers simple--if you commit to giving up 40% of that budget up front, before the project actually starts, then out of the remaining $600, you've got to be able to provide the actual project services for a total cost of what, $350 (35%) of the actual budget?

Keep in mind that that $250/25% margin in my example isn't pure profit--it's called an "internal" margin because it's really what the project contributes back to the larger company. That $250 has to pay its share of the overhead we've been discussing before what's then left over can contribute to overall "profitability".

On the flipside, you've paid your biz dev guy $400 for that customer. How many customers a year does he have to win to make that an attractive income? Even if you look at the top of the cited range, $5K a pop, that's $2K in commission--how long is that going to pay a mortgage and put food on the table for the family, after taxes? A week? Couple of weeks? Anyone who can reliably cultivate and close the volume of clients you'd need has much better ways of making a living (and a lot more money).

mischief, I don't mean this as a criticism of what you developed, because I've been down a very similar road several times myself, for clients, and for the various agencies I've helped manage. I'm just saying that it's hard.

Theoretically, if you could really deliver make the model work on a large-scale, the numbers work out positive. The problem is that the benefits scale much more slowly than the challenges. That means that (a) getting started is much more difficult than it seems it should be, and (b) even if you got there, it's not likely to be nearly as rewarding as you thought it might be.
posted by LairBob at 12:35 PM on May 13, 2004

Response by poster: Thank you for all the responses. I've had a poor batting average in stirring online discussions recently, so hopefully I've brought my game up a bit.

My inner conscious has always echoed what most are saying in regards to less-paying, more demanding clients. My intention with this idea was to develop a template repository, and sell it as extremely strict packages: 4 pages, minimal work, "look - you *ain't* paying for a $6k website, so stop complaining." But as mentioned above, I don't think that's the wisest thing to do in terms of providing an excellent customer experience, as it automatically places the customer in a position of limited satisfaction...

Sure, they're purposefully agreeing *not* to invest in a more satisfying solution, but anytime someone is dropping money on something, especially for smaller businesses who are rather affected by a $500 investment, I think they want to feel satisfied that they've gotten a great service, not some half-assed 5-hour's worth of template population. The challenge, and what I'm trying to determine for myself and company right now, is if there is a way to make a cheaper, satisfying solution for clients that still remains affordable and fruitful for us (even if "fruitful" is defined in the long-term as selling them additional graphic design work down the road) .

The education problem is one we've struggled with at all areas of the price scale. Whether a simple news blog setup or building complex CMS apps, I'm always amazed at how very little most people understand about the web. As ook shared about a client wanting a 10MB Quicktime Movie for a splash page, we often have to field such oddball requests by people who regularly get frustrated and upset when we advise them against ideas. In addition, there's always the client who demands a 30-page technical support manual for their custom CMS app and then never reads it.

I've helped produce 5 manuals in the past year that no one has ever read. In terms of doing the smaller, lowball sites, I'm almost of the mindset that even though there will be hand-holding, it won't be to the degree of frustration as having clients want to modify the flow of their expensive, dynamic application after it's gone into production. Instead, I see less-significant overhead that wouldn't tie up our programmers -- perhaps hiring a few interns or newbie HTML hacks to manage them might be cost-effective. Doubtful.

With all that said, however, I've thought on many occasions about getting out of the web aspect of creative design altogether. As LairBob discussed, it's all about margin, and in my experience (which could be completely flawed, admittedly), I've never found very large margin opportunities in web dev. From the overhead of education to the intangible costs associated with having to deal with socially inept clients, it just doesn't seem worth it most of the time. With the exception of a few clients who essentially place their faith and wallet on a silver platter, saying "Here - run with it," dealing with the clientele in web seems much more aggravating than the general design folks we work with.

Re-rendering a 3D montage can be pricey, but architecture firms understand that. Re-rigging a CMS application on the whims of some executive who doesn't regularly use teh intarweb can be pricey as well - the difference is that Tom Executive doesn't [want to/care to] understand why the hell it's going to cost an extra $4k in change orders to add features outside of the original scope... the architecture firms have a check in the mail the next day.

And maybe that's the key right there... stop thinking of clients as the benefactors for paying your rent, and screen them to make sure they're not completely unreasonable. (We've tried doing more of that after reading this article.)

The downside of shying away from web, from my experiences, is that nobody understands what "graphic design" means. When you say you build websites, people nod in recognition. When you tell people you offer graphic design or creative services, they usually return a blank stare. I generally toss in "...anything from branding/letterhead/business cards, to 3D rendering, to brochure design, to CD sleeves." While that usually bridges the gap, I more often than not hear "Oh yeah!? I do that for *my* company too - I get it all done right at Kinko's!" in response.

posted by Hankins at 12:55 PM on May 13, 2004

These guys wanted a website with a shopping cart for $500. They ended up having their nephew do it. I don't know if that decision saved them money, because they weren't equipped to do fulfillment, or cost them tons of sales.
posted by mecran01 at 1:03 PM on May 13, 2004

Not trying to be snarky, but why not use one of the many open source (free) shopping carts out there? I've seen $500 sites use em, with no problems.
posted by mkelley at 1:24 PM on May 13, 2004

Here's my take on things after 7 years in this particular line of work. As many people have pointed out, the biggest problems designers/programmers/project managers face are the clients themselves. And feature creep is one of the biggest things to battle against unless you pre-empt it. Another is finishing the project. How many times have I seen it where a site is complete but the customer goes AWOL for 6 weeks. Then they come back and argue costs and complain that the site is not exactly what they asked for. The technical issues are almost a non-issue - it's the customers!!

In my current company, we've built a whole framework of "how we work" to which we inform the customer from the very beginning. They actually like that we have a plan. They like that they get to sign off various stages of this plan, when they are satisfied. Basically we break the project down into bitesizes. Even before we begin a project, the customer signs off a concept and a function list (we do web apps) for the site. With official approval, we begin to build the site. Often a customer will see the developing site, and come up with a bunch of new ideas - these new requests appear mid-project and customers are desperate to have them implemented and shoe-horned into the current phase. If this is feasible (and time allows), we then draw up an "extras" sheet of the new functions they ask for to which they sign off. Again, a signed document means we can start. No signed document means we cannot. This signed document highlights time taken and expected completion date. We definitely don't work to impossible deadlines (we let the customer know these extras must be "phase 2" ones). We tell the customer how long it takes rather than the other way around. And we charge hourly rate.

Web design/web apps is not easy because customers kick the tires a lot (I like that one yerfatma!) and check the paintwork and demand and demand and demand, and pay late, or don't pay at all, and complain about the costs, and complain that the job wasn't done well or done on time (even if they are lying, they will use any leverage). By being quite strict on the customer and letting them know how you work and show them what they need to do throughout the project, you can actually create some kind of "customer obedience".

It's never easy though!!
posted by SpaceCadet at 1:31 PM on May 13, 2004

I had read that Inc article in the magazine a while ago, Hankins, but following your link, I found this comment that sheds an interesting light on Y2 as a "marketing" operation (and on the guy's approach).

Nevertheless, there's definitely something to be said in being selective about your clients--in the long run, a bad client is much, much worse than no client at all. (The rub, of course, is that "no client at all" doesn't keep you in business.)

Regarding the difficulty of selling creative services, I couldn't agree more. My partner is much more the MFA/design guy than I am, but teaching potential clients why they should hire you for any type of work is often more difficult than the work itself.

In the end, it comes down to a very clear set of rules that a very experienced veteran managing consultant I know used to use...

"There are three phases in the professional growth cycle of a consultant:
- The first is doing the work
- The second is to manage the work as it's being done by others
- The third is to sell the work"

That may seem mercenary, but it's a hard-won, crystal-clear reality in the "established" world of consulting--the Bains, McKinseys, BCGs, etc. When it comes down to it, it doesn't matter how talented you are, how eager, or experienced. If you can't convince clients to pay you for your services, you're not in business. That means that as a principal of any consulting outfit, you have two overriding responsibilities--getting clients to commit to profitable projects, and getting them to pay their bills when you're done.

Messed up as it might seem, everything else in between is secondary. (Sure, you can't sell or collect without doing good work, but without selling and collecting, the opportunity to do great work doesn't even exist.) What's finally sunk in after many years in this industry is that the core task of being in the consulting business isn't doing great work, it's selling great work. If you don't account for the overhead investment of selling the work and cultivating a good client relationship, it's hard to build a viable business.
posted by LairBob at 1:39 PM on May 13, 2004

Speaking as somebody who works for a small company, I'd say that educating business people about the value of good graphic design for web sites is the toughest nut to crack.

The perception seems to be "my 12 year old can put up a web page." In other words, the value of a web site can be distilled to an ability to write HTML, when IMO what sets a good web site apart is how it works AND looks.

I wonder if a big reason for this is generational. To make a broad generalization let's say the web isn't as integral in the lives of people over 40, therefore business owners of that age are more prone to put their marketing dollars into old media (print ads), leaving much less for new media.

Then again, maybe these business owners have a point, especially if their customers see web marketing the same way.
posted by SteveInMaine at 2:01 PM on May 13, 2004

What everyone has said here matches my experience as well. I avoid all of these problems by working as a subcontractor with development firms. What I'm essentially doing is paying a middleman to select clients and deal with them for me. It's win/win because they don't have to worry about the overhead of full-time staff, and all I have to do is the actual work.

And I can bill out much more actual work because I'm not spending time tracking down clients or listening to them complain about how even though they signed off on some feature they didn't really mean it, and wouldn't it be better if we made the whole thing blue and added a Flash intro, and how their brother told them that Access is a better database than SQL server, and so on and so forth.
posted by vraxoin at 2:15 PM on May 13, 2004

mischief, I don't mean this as a criticism of what you developed
No offense taken. Your explanation pretty much parallelled what transpired during that meeting. Of a staff of consultants, biz dev staff, sales and marketing, our idea was the best one presented.

The second best idea (from our veep no less) was to start a porn site! The network guru and I shot that idea down fairly quickly, however I then came up with the idea of licensing original images to existing sites. That actually survived three days until the pres started ranting up and down the halls, "What the hell am I thinking??? NO! NO! NO!" Two hours later, he fired the sales director. (My apologies for the OT, but those five weeks were definitely the weirdest time in my career. ;-)
posted by mischief at 5:04 PM on May 13, 2004

Wow, what a great conversation! I'd like to buy everyone here a drink . . .
SpaceCadet: Another is finishing the project. How many times have I seen it where a site is complete but the customer goes AWOL for 6 weeks.

Yes! You see, websites aren't a priority because their value is far from proven. If your shower drain is clogged and you can't fix it yourself- you'll pay a plumber to come in and do it immediately. If business is slow, getting a website probably isn't going to solve the problem.

No matter how much you'd like to stay "strict" in terms of what you're delivering, what you're looking for is an ideal customer that doesn't really exist. In other words you might think there's a large market for $500-1500 websites, but there isn't.
posted by jeremias at 5:57 PM on May 13, 2004

That's very funny, mischief, and it points up another hard-won lesson--you can't really just "make it up as you go along". I mean, just think about it...a bunch of folks sitting around a conference room trying to come up with an idea for what business they should be in. In hindsight, it's hard to believe, but when you're caught in the moment, it seems like your only option. (I've been there.)

The most eye-opening, and educational, experience of my career was when I joined a medium-sized firm, and I was just about the only partner who didn't come from a more traditional management consulting background. All of a sudden, all the loosey-goosey, flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants stuff that seemed so exciting when I was going through it at the i-builder seemed totally amateurish. It's not that we never changed course, but there was just a much more disciplined approach to things--that outfit ended up running into tough times as well (it was 2000), but we sold ourselves profitably to a much larger company before things really got bad. (And that took a while to make happen.)

I hated it at the new place, but at least the business got steered into a safe harbor--very few people lost their jobs, and anyone who did want to leave (like me) was able to do it on their own terms, on their own schedule.
posted by LairBob at 6:07 PM on May 13, 2004

That's not quite it, jeremias: we've established that there's a large market for $500-$1500 websites, but that the only profitable ways to mine it are to a) use an unsatisfying cookie-cutter approach, or b) be the 15-year-old nephew of a small business owner.
posted by ook at 6:12 PM on May 13, 2004

Refer them to me. I will pay you 30% of the cost of any completed job for the referral. You can e-mail me at ryryslider[at]
posted by banished at 8:57 PM on May 13, 2004

I've read this whole thing and I agree with most of it. The question to me is:

Where are the big money clients?

Really. Do they exist anymore? How does one go about getting in touch with them? I've handled $70k jobs before. I just figured they'd all disappeared post 2001.
posted by eljuanbobo at 10:24 AM on May 19, 2004

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