Start-ups vs. Web Developers – 10 Rules to avoid bankruptcy

Interwebs might cost you your sanity

If you’re setting up your own company you’ll inevitably find yourself playing a game of tug of war with a web developer and your wallet. It’s a stark reality that any business needs an online presence, but trying to get your website up and running on time, on budget and to a good standard is akin to breakdancing in a minefield – Risky even if you’re an expert in both breakdancing and mines.

Having been through this process, I did what I do best – discovered the pitfalls, at full speed. With my face. With Cuckoo Vine I spent about £6K on a complete false start, and after 8 months, had to start from scratch. Remember these guys typically charge £45-65 per hour so if it starts going wrong it’s a fantastic way to accelerate your route to the dole queue at Jobcentre.  Hopefully if you read the 10 Golden Rules below, you’ll take a few things away and maybe save yourself a lot of time and money.

If you’re starting out on your website, do the following in this order:

1) Put together a brief – A completely thorough project brief is essential. You need to explain EXACTLY what you want the site to do. Provide examples of sites you like, say why you like them, describe what you don’t like about sites, mockup some pages, explain where every link will end up. It sounds like a big job because it is, but it dramatically reduces the risk of disappointment. A wise architect once said to me ‘the solution to a problem is only as good as its definition’. 

2) Keep some cash as contingency – Projects NEVER get cheaper, they only go up in cost. Even in £100m construction projects it’s common practice to keep 20% of the funds back just to cover the unforeseen costs. With a web project, the closest I’d cut it would be to disclose two-thirds to the developers, and squirrel away at least a third of your savings for the inevitable cost increases.

3) Get web developers to quote – This is your opportunity to speak to them. Make sure your contact picks up the phone when you call, they can be notoriously elusive creatures, and when the going gets tough, being able to talk is essential. Remember they must be enthusiastic and should straight away come up with some fresh ideas and pertinent questions. That’s their job. If they don’t sound keen on day one, then move on.

4) Vet them – Don’t just read the testimonials on their website. These are obviously only going to say how fantastic they are. Have a look at their client list, pick up the phone and call one. Don’t ask permission, just do it. Make sure you speak with whoever was the main client contact and ask all about their experience with the company you’re vetting. Do this to at least 3 of their clients at random.

5) Visit them – Make sure they’re not based in their mum’s garage or a caravan. This one’s important, you’ll get a feel for how professional they are and they’ll put a face to the project so you’ll be much harder to ignore if things don’t run smoothly.

6) Appoint formally – It’s got to be in writing and if you can get a completion date on the contract then great. If you can get a time penalty clause (e.g. £50 discount for every day of overrun) then even better. This will probably cause them to increase the estimated project duration by 30% but it’s worth it just for the security. This will only stand up though if you stick to the agreed brief

7) Stick to the brief – There’s nothing worse for the health of a project than ‘Creeping Brief Syndrome’. Cost and time will sky-rocket if you keep changing your mind and your relationship with the developers will suffer accordingly.

8) Don’t try to screw them – You need to make sure your web developer is making money out of you. It’s CRUCIAL that they turn a profit from your project because as soon as you become a loss making activity you’ll go straight to the bottom of the job-list. Once this happens you can wave goodbye to any hopes of completion within 12 months. The best way to ensure this is through sticking to well disciplined ‘change control’.

9) Change Control – Controlling changes to the brief must be formal. Don’t email over little changes one at a time in separate emails. ‘Can you move this box?’ ‘Can this bit be blue?’. Do it in big lists and if you know what you’re asking for is outside the brief then admit it and ask for a quote. Don’t try to sneak it under the radar. I found (after making a complete hash of it) that you can do this very efficiently by using a collaborative document online like a spreadsheet in google docs. This enables all parties (client, account manager, coder, designer) to see what is outstanding, sign it off when complete and make any notes or action points.

10) Get to know them and stay in touch – Chat to them, they’re people too, and if you form a pleasant relationship it makes life run a lot more smoothly. Say ‘thanks’ and as always if someone does some good work, give it the praise it deserves. If your website and business is a success these guys might be long-standing business partners, so be upfront, honest and nice and hopefully they’ll do the same in return.

After learning the lessons above, and emerging somewhat financially battered and bruised, I managed to get it right. I organised my brief and fortunately chose a great web developer here in the South West called Createanet. If any startups out there need a steer or some advice, feel free to drop me an email and I’ll try to offer what advice I can.

Good luck!