Your Website – To Be or Not To Be, That Is The Question
Similar to many other people, I had an idea for a business that meant that I needed to delve into the world of websites, or more accurately, the world of web designers. Furnished with an idea and lots of enthusiasm, money is spent to create the website of our dreams. For some that happens without a hitch, but for others the dream turns into a nightmare of delays and broken promises. I am a paid up member of the latter club, and I am writing this article in the hope that it helps someone else avoid the pitfalls that I have personally experienced, so they can navigate their way to a speedy and successful launch.
Setting up a web design business
I decided to explore how a web design business can be set up and the accountability to their clients. What I discovered is that there doesn’t appear to be a regulatory body to approach, so the freelancers and companies seem to be a law unto themselves. Anyone who knows how to build websites can set themselves up in business. True, if they aren’t very good at it then they will be unlikely to attract much business, but even they could leave a few disappointed customers in their wake.
‘The thing is, web design is a problematic industry. There’s a pretty low barrier to entry, in that you can become a web designer with very little outlay. It’s open to anyone who can teach themselves the tools of the trade. But at the lower end of the spectrum, there are many, many companies fighting for the same small amount of work. It’s an easy market to enter, but at the same time it’s quite difficult to make a success of things. “It’s a different industry now to ten years ago,” Andy Budd of Clearleft explains. “Then, the industry itself was quite immature, so you could get a foothold really quickly. Now, the quality of design work is so high, that you have to be really, really good to actually get work.”
When it’s time to consider your options
If there has been a slowing down on the website build, things aren’t going quite so smoothly and excuses are frequent, it might be time to consider your options. The delays I have personally experienced were, I was told, due to family circumstances, long term sickness, unannounced holidays, lost mobile phones (no new number was ever provided), errant employees and a recurring computer virus.
‘It’s not normally reasonable to wait a long time because a trader has taken on more jobs than they can manage or because a trader has poor time-management skills. These are things that are within the trader’s control. If a trader has not carried out a service in a reasonable time, you can take steps to make time of the essence. This gives the trader a deadline to keep to. If they don’t keep to this deadline, you can stop the service and claim back any money already paid.’
The fact remains that this is a business arrangement and contingency plans should be built into the web design business so that clients aren’t impacted by any of the above circumstances.
When deadlines slip or are ignored, your calls aren’t taken and your emails are rarely answered, then it’s time to take action. Threats of legal action can get work started again for a short period, but be prepared to go through with it if work again comes to a halt when the dust has settled. Actions speak louder than words, and being told that your website is their top priority doesn’t mean that it is. The fact remains that web designers need to bring in new clients all the time in order to stay in business, and your website will be less appealing to work on as time goes by, with all the exciting new projects coming their way.
What you can do to protect yourself
There are obviously no guarantees, but there are a number of ways that you can protect yourself. Here are a few suggestions, some gleaned from my own hard earned experience.
- Talk with a number of web designers – don’t take the first one you talk to because they sound good.
- Ask around for recommendations – you are more likely to find an ethical company or individual if someone you know has had a previous rewarding experience.
- Check out their website – if there are mistakes on their own website then question whether they will make mistakes on yours.
- Check out the individuals you are dealing with online – I found LinkedIn particularly useful. Their website will be unlikely to uncover anything detrimental about them.
- How recent was their last testimonial – if it was over six months ago, has the company deteriorated since then?
- Insist on a face to face meeting if possible in order to establish a place of business, and an address that you can visit if need be. Be extra vigilant if your website is being built outside your own country.
- Don’t be seduced by deals – if you never get the website you won’t have saved anything.
- Don’t pay in advance, and if payment is in instalments, don’t pay the last instalment – no matter what apparent trust has been built up – until you have the completed website ready for launch.
- Be wary about your website being held on the web designer’s server. ‘Web site developers and designers can move, switch jobs, or change careers. Sometimes they just seem to disappear. If you depended on your developer to maintain your site, this can be a real cause for concern.’
- Buy your own domain and know where it is hosted. ‘Quite often, victims of deadbeat webmasters often have no idea where their website is hosted or who their domain name registrar is.’
- Be prepared to move your website if you aren’t getting the services you agreed to.
- Educate yourself about the whole process of web development so you have an idea what to expect.
I read an article recently about vulnerable people who become targets of unscrupulous individuals who strike up a friendship with them, often through dating sites, and then profess to have fallen in love. The target is often identified through their own profile indicating whether they are bereaved, lonely or divorced, and because they are vulnerable at that time in their life, they start to believe that they are indeed loved, that they have another chance of happiness. Then the requests for money start coming. When we read these stories we are often amazed at the naivety of the person, how could they ever have fallen for that scam – but the perpetrators are skilled at human psychology and they are more than a match for a person who has a need for human connection and to be loved.
You might wonder what this has to do with the subject of this article, but I think there is a very strong parallel. Substitute love for business. Haven’t we been conned into paying money for our love/business – and don’t we feel betrayed and foolish when that love/website is withdrawn, or doesn’t materialise?
I don’t for a minute think that the majority of the unfinished website incidents are intentional – I believe that a lot of the problem is due to a lack of clear and honest communication. Either a client that doesn’t know exactly what they want and keeps changing their mind, or a designer who tries to build a website beyond their capabilities, or has underestimated the time and cost involved. Where it breaks down is when either one or the other of the parties disappears – either the web designer loses a client and has worked for nothing, or the client loses the website when the designer terminates communication.
I am sure that none of us would go into a shop, buy a washing machine and accept it arriving in an incomplete state so that it isn’t functional. The same applies to services – when services have been paid for then we should be able to rely on the delivery of those services. Therefore, the onus is on the web designers to deliver the websites for which they have been paid, and the client to pay for the services that they have received. If the situation becomes untenable, then either party has recourse to legal advice to resolve the matter. There is absolutely no excuse for either party to stop communication and not hold up their end of the bargain. This is a business arrangement, not an argument with family or friends.
I think that if your website is reasonably straightforward and doesn’t have to be ‘all singing, all dancing’ – then taking the option of building your own should be strongly considered. There are a number of step-by-step tutorials online which demystifies the whole process.
If you do need something a bit more complicated, then hiring a professional is probably the only option. I believe that if everyone relied on recommendations from trusted friends and associates, the unethical companies would gradually run out of steam.
My final recommendation is communicate, communicate and communicate some more! The web designer is making your dream a reality. Be as clear as you can as to exactly what you want in order to make his/her life easier.
Web designers – if you don’t have time to personally contact your clients, then hire an admin person for a few hours a week to make those calls, so that your clients don’t feel abandoned and disconnected from their businesses.
If all else fails, consider contacting programmes such as ‘Watchdog’ and the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (in the UK), or a legal firm in order to bring closure to the situation.