Thursday, August 26, 2010

So You Want to Hire a Web Developer?

I've been doing web development work for quite a few years and have compiled a list of the top things customers should do BEFORE they go looking for a web developer.  I mean BEFORE. As in BEFORE you even talk to one of them.  BEFORE you email or IM or strike up conversation at a party with one of them.  This is PART 1 of more to come.

Things to Do:

  1. Do Your Homework
  2. Decide What Exactly you Want Your Web Site to Do
  3. Determine How Much You Are Willing to Spend
  4. Determine How Much Time You Can and WILL Devote to Running the Site
  5. What is the Business Plan?

Things to Avoid Until Later in the Planning:

  1. Search Engine Bullshit
  2. Ads and Advertisement Sales
  3. Selling Stuff and Shopping Carts

Do Your Homework

What other web sites will you be competing with?  Don't you DARE say "None!  I have a unique idea!"  Bullshit!  There are no more unique ideas on the Internet.  Innovation is dead.  You have to find a niche and exploit it.  Even if it's very close to someone else's niche, figure out (exactly) how and what you can do different and (more importantly) BETTER.

Decide What Exactly you Want Your Web Site to Do

If you can't describe what your site will do in one short sentence, you have no direction or idea what you're doing.  Narrow it down.  Focus.  "I'm going to sell stuff" is a start.  Sell what?  To whom?  Where?  How?  Do you have the means to handle packing, shipping, order tracking, returns and customer support?  "I'm going to start a ___ community."  For whom?  Why?  Why would they drop the other sites to use yours?  You have to ask the hard questions up front to avoid dumping an enormous amount of money and time into a bad idea.

Determine How Much You Are Willing to Spend

If you can't invest more than a few hundred bucks in this idea, it's probably going to have to take the low road for phase 1.  Maybe rely on a canned, do-it-yourself path like WordPress, KickApps, Ning or whatever.  Whatever you do, do not just run out and buy a domain and hosting plan before you know what you're getting into.  It may end up bleeding you dry and you won't have enough left over to hire someone to help you dig your way out (and up).

Determine How Much Time You Can and WILL Devote to Running the Site

Almost everyone I sit down with to discuss helping them bring their ideas to life overlooks this key aspect.  I really don't understand why this is.  Standing up a web site is the START of the dream, not the end of it.  To me, this is like practicing for years to get drafted into the major leagues, only to get up for the first at-bat and then say "you mean I have to actually hit a ball now?!" (yes.  you do.)

Ask any person that owns their own business how much time they devote to it, especially during the first year.  They will almost always tell you 24x7.  Making a web site work is no different.  You can't casually throw it out there and expect it to draw in tons of followers.  If you have brand recognition already, then maybe you can.  But if you're starting from square one, you will need to make this project (your dream web site) priority #1 for at least a few months.  If after six months of serious effort and labor invested into this you don't see results, re-evaluate and adjust.

So, Now What? : Step 2 / Compiling Your Ideas

If you've already done all this homework and have your idea honed and you're still pumped and excited, there's still more planning and preparation to do.  This will save you a BIG ASS amount of wasted time and money hashing things out with a developer.

Sketch Out Your Ideas – Get a pad of graph paper (yes, you remember that stuff from Geometry class, don't you?).  Use a pencil and sketch out the rough layout of your imaginary web site home page.  Figure out where the navigation links will go.  Horizontal?  Vertical?  Static or dynamic?  Top or Bottom? Left or Right?  Somewhere unusual or diagonal?  Flash or HTML5 animation?  Keep in mind your budget limits.  The more fancy your animation and graphic, the more time and cost.  It will grow fast.

Suggestion: Keep it simple for the first phase.  Don't get mired down in animation crap.  Focus on making the idea work.  If the idea is selling a product or a service, and you waste all your time and money on dynamic whiz-bang menu graphics, you will almost certainly fuck up the main goal of your site because you're getting distracted.  Build the function first.  Then make it pretty.

Do users have to sign up?  Do you need to protect privacy?  Have you checked on the legal issues?  Will there be any minors using your site?  Just adults?  Will you need to support multiple languages?  Will you need to sell something in multiple currencies?  If there's a discussion forum, who will moderate the comments and keep the kids playing nice in the chat groups?  If there's a blog, who will be posting to it and how often?  A blog that gets updated once a year gets ignored.

After you scratch together all these ideas and concerns, stop and ask the questions again:  Why is this different?  What makes it different?  Why will this work better than other sites?  Who are my biggest competitors?  What are they doing?

Step 3 / Finding The Right Tools

So, all that's done and you have a pile of sketches and clips and prints, and you have notes and you know what you're aiming for.  The next step is finding a web developer.

Stop.

Do you really need one?  Did you really look at WordPress?  Did you check out SquareSpace, KickApps and Ning?  If not, do it now.  And you better take at least a full day (if not several) to really dig into them and use their free trial services to feel them out.

If WordPress is what you like, now you can focus your search on a web developer that has experience with customizing WordPress sites and plug-ins.  Same goes for KickApps, SquareSpace, Ning or whatever.  The main point here is that you may not need to build a web site completely from scratch.  If you have zero experience building one that way, it might be best to consider one of these other options instead.

But if you decide you really need to build your site from scratch, or maybe you have someone that knows how to build sites from scratch, you still need to keep your ideas focused and guided.  Nail everything down as much as you can early on.  The more you change things during the building phase, the more delays you will cause, which equates to more cost and frustration.  You may think it's great to change the shapes from squares to ovals, or the colors from purples to blues, or change the text fonts and sizes, but the developer is going to run out of patience eventually.  Remember that this is YOUR dream.  For the developer it's a project.  A job.

Summary

I have no intention of shooting down your dreams of building a wonderful web site.  But so many people come to me without having thought through their ideas.  If you can't hone and optimize your ideas, how can anyone else?  Especially a complete stranger.  You need to do some homework and piece your idea together.  You will amass a pile of crumpled paper and break some pencils.  You will fill folders with scratched ideas drawn up in Microsoft PowerPoint, Paint, PhotoShop, Visio, and just about any application you doodle with.  You will give up and start over.  Again and again.  But if you have a good idea and it survives your own research and planning, chances are it's worth pursuing.  But don't sit down with a web developer until you know what you want.  It will save you a lot of frustration and keep your costs and expectations reasonable.

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