There is a WONDERFUL movie from 1948 called Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas. In it, Grant and Loy dream of leaving their cramped NY apartment for the wide-open spaces of Connecticut, where they plan on renovating an old farmhouse, but end up building. From the beginning, their best friend Douglas is the voice of doom and reason. At every turn, he tries to advise them against certain things, but they go off and do them anyway, always realizing afterwards that their friend was right. They have setback after setback, and each time the price tag on their dream house goes up, up, up. And every step of the way, we laugh our heads off at the stupidity and chagrin of Grant and Loy, as well as the wisdom and wise cracks of their friend Douglas. But the interesting thing is, Grant and Loy are right in the end.
Yes, they make a ton of mistakes and end up paying about three times what they set out to spend. But as their friend Douglas points out near the end of the film, what they end up with is beyond estimation. Often, in business as well as life, where we end up cannot be weighed against the price we had to pay to get there. If we had known in advance what we would have to pay, we would never have gone there. But now that we’re there, we can’t imagine being anyplace else.
This especially applies to building a web site, because building a web site is like building a house. If a house is your most important expense as a family, a web site is your most important expense as a business. The days of just having “something” on the web are gone. Today, the web drives business and your web site is your house in that ever-changing, and often stormy, environment.
So when someone comes to me and asks, “How much will it cost for you to build my web site,” I understand where they’re coming from. But it really isn’t that simple. As with building a house, the real question is, “What are your needs and how much can you afford?” Do you need and can you afford those four bedrooms and five baths that Myrna Loy tells her architect she cannot live without, even though she’s presently living in an apartment with only two bedrooms and one bath?
What are your needs and what can you afford – NOT what are your wants and how can you get them for next to nothing. Because, just as your wants can be through the roof, with your actual needs somewhere far below that; so can what you’re willing to pay be in the basement, with the legitimate costs somewhere on the first or second floor. There are going to be expenses that you didn’t anticipate. Be prepared to pay for them.
There’s a great scene where Grant receives a bill from the contractor that doesn’t make sense. He’s being charged for tearing out a good portion of the house. When he asks the architect about it, he can’t understand it either. So they ask Loy. As it turns out, all she did was ask the builders to take some left-over tiles and make her a dry floor in the pantry where she can arrange flowers. When she mentioned “dry,” they took that to mean she wanted a drainage system put in, and that meant tearing out walls, floorboards, etc. One little change affected a lot of other things.
So it is in web design. One little change, asked for too late in the process, can cost a lot extra because, to accommodate it, other things have to be torn out. So, if at all possible, know everything you want up front. And if you do think of something later, don’t blame the web designer if it costs more than you think it should. Remember: a web site is like a house – everything is interconnected.
Another great scene is when Loy is trying to explain the paint colors she wants to the contractor and painter. She goes through this elaborate explanation of four colors, basing one on a piece of thread, another on a piece of wallpaper, a third on the color of butter, and the fourth is a particular shade of white. Sounds simple, right? Not when Myrna Loy’s character explains it! When she’s finished and leaves the room, the contractor turns to the painter and says, “Okay. Red, blue, yellow and white.” The painter answers, “Check.” Even though it is a very funny scene, the truth is, it is not far from the truth. Clients often have very elaborate plans of what they want, while the reality of the business is a bit more down-to-earth.
One of those realities is that the web is a very complex environment in which there are very few rules. And the most shocking aspect is, many of those rules are imposed by users and apply only to their own computers – web designers have no control over them. Add to that the fact that there are multiple operating systems, multiple browsers, multiple email programs, multiple service providers, and all of them playing by a different set of rules – it’s a wonder anything on the web works at all. So, please be patient with your web designer and realize that perfection is unattainable, especially on the web.
Here’s something else you can learn from Mr. Blandings: when you’re building a web site (or a house), the details add up very quickly, and, once they’re on the table, they’re very difficult to remove. Grant and Loy realize this when they start playing around with the architect’s plans. That’s how they end up with four bedrooms and five baths that Loy couldn’t live without, a game room the size of a basketball court, etc. So, my advice to prospective clients is, 1) decide what you need rather than what you want, and 2) decide what you can afford rather than what you would like to spend, and be flexible on both counts. You can always add to what you need, and you can always subtract from what you can afford. But if you start out with a long list of things you want and a short list of what you would like to spend, you’re doomed from the start. Have few wants and deep pockets and you’ll never be unhappy. :)
Remember: your web site is your single most important marketing investment, so don’t be chincy. At the same time, a web site can be like a house – a money pit – so don’t be foolish, either.
Here are some final rules-of-thumb:
If all you want is a basic, cookie-cutter site with very little functionality, most service providers can give you one for under $1,000. That is like living in an apartment. Everyone doesn’t need to build, or even live in, a house. You can consider a blog to be in the same category, which many small businesses are finding sufficient for their needs.
If you want a site with e-commerce, data management, Flash animation, lots of content and a ton of bells and whistles, you can usually get the whole shebang for under $25K. That is like living in a small mansion with pool. Video, blogging, RSS feeds and forms are pretty much standard today, so those elements shouldn’t affect the price much.
Most web sites fall somewhere between the $1K apartment and the $25K mansion. If someone offers to build a web site for you for over $25 K – unless it is an extremely unusual site, has unusually deep content, or you are an exceptionally large company – run the other way. Just as there are contractors out there that will let you spend your last penny on a house, so there are web builders. Don’t pay more than you need to.
The way I typically begin with a client is to sit down and make a list of everything they want their web site to do. Then I give them an estimate based on an hourly rate. My rate varies, depending on whether the client is start-up (or not-for-profit), or if they are an established for-profit company. It also varies depending upon how much Flash animation and programming are involved, as I charge more for those services. There could also be some specialty charges, such as photography or illustration. I can adapt preexisting content for the site, or I can create new content from scratch. Besides content and functionality, I also optimize my clients’ sites for search engines (SEO), as well as other ways to attract visitors (Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in, email campaigns, etc.).
Building a web site should be like building a house – a lot of work; yet, you should have a great feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment when it’s done. Just as your house represents you, your web site represents your business. So it needs to be the very best you can afford, but it doesn’t need to be more than that. It is possible to get a beautifully designed, fully functional, engaging web site for an affordable price. And that’s why we’re here.
We’re Creative Sharks. Visit our web site at www.creativesharks.com
Waitsel Smith, April 14, 2011
Text & artwork © 2010 Waitsel Smith. All Rights Reserved.