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The Cobbler's Children Have No Website: What Every Client Should Know About Building a Website

Row of bare feet in grass

I’ve been designing and building websites since 2001, probably crafting several hundred sites over the past 12 years. So I know what it takes to build a site, or at least I thought I did. Earlier this year, we decided to build a new site for our company, but like any work you’re not getting paid for, the project has languished because it has taken a back seat to client work. Like the old trope about the cobbler whose children had no shoes, 4Site  is figuratively barefoot.

Over the past decade, there have been half-a-dozen iterations of our website. Check out our first site from 2001, our my favorite, our flash site from 2006. Most of these sites I built myself, or I worked on directly. It was always a hands-on approach. And usually it went quickly. This time is different. For this project, I wasn;t the designer or the developer, I was the “the client.” Our team was to follow the same processes we use with our other clients when building a site, with me acting as the client, setting the requirements and signing off on deliverables. Management of the project fell to our Director of Digital Strategy and Marketing, Riche.  

From the outset, Riche did a bang up job. He created a content plan and then handed everything over to our designer Alexis, who created the initial mockups. And then they waited from me to review and approve. And, they waited. And, they waited.  

Flash forward six months and we have completely re-thought how we are going to build the site. The homepage is now dominated by an implementation of our custom video player, and we’re in the middle of producing a feature video that’s going to be really cool. But its been half a year, and we still have not implemented the site. And we busted our initial budget of $50,000!

What Went Wrong?

If I had prioritized the website at the very beginning, and coordinated my wishes with the team’s effort, the new site would have been up by now. Don’t get me wrong, I really am really happy with the new direction. But it comes with a price, an additional $25,000, if not more. How’s that for an expensive pair of shoes?

The interesting thing about this is not that we are a website company that doesn’t have a website which reflects our talents, it’s what I’ve learned over the past six months about what it takes to build a site, from a client point of view.  Below are the lessons I have learned the hard way. I’m sharing them with you so that your own children don’t go without shoes.

Be Specific About What You Want

I told Riche to build me a cool site. I did NOT tell Riche to feature our video player on the homepage, or to re-organize the way we talk about our products and services. I should have, because those two things are business priorities, but that was not clear to the team when we started. If you are building a new site, spend a lot of time creating the RFP. Hire a consultant who knows something about building sites, and let them guide you through the process. This is when you will need to articulate to yourself, your stakeholders, and ultimately your vendor why you need a new site. These business objectives should drive every decision.

Plan, plan, plan

The web can be a forgiving medium. And sometimes its even more efficient not to plan before you build. This can be the case if you are actually building the site yourself and using a flexible CMS like Drupal or Wordpress, and the site is primarily content. But if you are working with a team or implementing advanced functionality, the planning is THE most important part of the project. Most people who don’t build sites don’t fully appreciate this. And many who do build sites, like myself, don’t either apparently. When you have five people working on a site and there are interdependent tasks, the hours rack up quickly, resources and people have to be available when you need them, and there has to be a shared vision.

Make it a Priority

This is probably the hardest thing to do, because its a directive that is at the mercy of external forces. Ultimately, it’s about sacrifice. Forgo a lucrative job, put that other project on the back burner, skip the happy hour. Once the project starts, your biggest enemy is time. A website that takes a month to complete will cost half as much as the same website built in three months. Administrative costs and meetings are incurred just keeping a project open. Once a developer dives into a task, its best to keep them there until its done. Spreading one tasks over several work sessions takes a lot more effort.

Budget for Cost Overruns

Projects are budgeted to be run as efficiently as possible. That’s how contracts are awarded. But let’s be honest, its rare that technical roadblocks don’t rear their ugly heads, or that a board member doesn’t arbitrarily decide that she doesn’t  like the background color of the site, or that your project lead gets pulled into another job. Budget for 20% overruns, but don’t tell your website development vendor. Keep the pressure on, but don’t let re-contracting delay a hiccup and make it worse.

Accept Good Enough

Don’t accept bad, but accept good enough. Especially when working with non-profits, there are a lot of people who need to provide input. You need to be firm in standing for what is important, but don’t sweat it if one of your program director’s just has to have something above the fold.  You can always remove it later after the site is launched :)