In the many years I have followed American entrepreneurs, I have observed countless small business owners taking upon themselves the task of developing the company’s website. While some have successfully accomplished their objective by producing a usable online presence, the large majority ended up either abandoning the idea or seeking professional help. All of them, though, had to confront sleepless nights, intense frustration, and an incredible investment of time.
Small business owners often consider their time a no-cost element, of which they can freely dispose. On the contrary, in most cases it is the most valuable asset: nobody can replace the expertise in the mind of founders, owners. That is why they should focus on what makes the business truly move forward and outsource or delegate every time-consuming, non-revenue generating task.
If you think about it, it takes only about one hour to learn how to change the oil in a car, and the average person will have to take care of it well over 50 times in a lifetime. So why do most people opt out of learning how to change oil it and doing it themselves? Because it is cheap, more convenient, faster, and safer to have a professional do it.
In the same respect, why would a small business owner want to invest more than 400 hours to learn how to develop a basic website once, may be twice in a lifetime, and never reach the results that a professional, budget conscious, outsourced approach would yield? Well, there really is no intelligent answer to that.
Seeking professional help to develop your business site today is definitely the right way to go. Web development skills are readily available and a lot cheaper then they used to be. Quality design, programming, e-commerce setup can make or break your online image and operation. Save your time to guide a professional to achieve your online objectives rather than learning skills that have nothing to do with your core business competency.
Finding the right candidates
The design of your website should be a direct a result of your business goals. If you have not yet done so, now might be the time to write them out in a Request for Proposal (RFP). This is a document used to solicit formal proposals, in which you state in clear language what you intend to achieve through your site, your technical requirements, ideas, aesthetic preferences, timeline, and possibly your budget.
This document will allow you to present your needs and goals equally to all candidates and obtain comparable responses. You can forward the document to a number of firms, developers, or even post it online on sites such as Craigslist.com and request a formal response. The style, depth, and quality of the responses will be very telling, and will allow you to perform a first screening of your candidates.
With or without an RFP, before you confer with your prospect website designer, you should do a little homework:
- Determine the type of website you wish to build.
- Imagine the look and feel you wish to present to your target audience.
- Find existing examples of websites that you would like to emulate and note their URL address.
- Design a preliminary site map that shows your designer how you wish your site to work.
- Gather samples of the content you wish to post, including major text sections and pictures.
This approach will enable you to get a more accurate estimate of the designer’s contract cost and will allow you to better test its skills as they relate to your needs.
Selecting the right developer
Since basic HTML, the main language used to develop websites, and basic graphic design are not too difficult to learn, many people have picked up the skills and call themselves developers. Like a dentist right out of dental school, they may have the rudimentary knowledge of what needs to be done, but you would probably prefer to have a seasoned professional working on your teeth. Often times to save money, people will solicit a less experienced developer and later find themselves needing to have their site redone within a short time. Additionally, sites created by inexperienced developers may not be scalable for the future needs of your company and hard to maintain.
In general, when looking for website developers, make sure that they meet the following criteria:
- Have at least two years professional experience
- Have a portfolio of currently active sites available for review
- Have at least three references (and do check them!)
- Provide a development schedule and keep to it
- Respond to the clients needs
- Provide consistent, professional service
- Meet or exceed expectations
- Provide solutions at the agreed upon price
- Are geographically located in the same region
- Are willing to work for a fixed price instead of an hourly rate
- Are willing to sign a contract
To increase the reliability of your project, I also advise working with small firms rather than individuals. Design firms with at least three employees are more likely to deliver on what they commit to and are more interested in cultivating a happy clientele. While there are some talented and professional individual developers out there, generally it is more likely to stumble upon people in between jobs or with limited level of professionalism.
No matter how large or small the firm, always interview at least three good candidates, after sifting thru at least five or six options.
Remember, it is your company site, and nobody knows a business better that its owner. Focus on contributing to the development at a business level and ensure that the final product will truly contribute to the prosperity of your venture.
Andrea Peiro is president and CEO of the Small Business Technology Institute, a non-profit organization created to foster the adoption of information technologies among small businesses.