You’re good at running your business. You probably wear a few hats and do a lot of juggling. You know what your customers want and you know how to give it to them.
But you’re not a web developer.
The problem is that you’re bombarded day in and day out with DIY tools – from WordPress to random company’s “website builder” to that book you bought that promised to teach you to build a website in 21 days.
But you’re still not a web developer.
You’re (probably) not a plumber either. And though you may own a wrench and occasionally bang it against a water pipe, I bet you do what I do and “call the man” when something major leaks. I bet (admit it) that you’ve broken something at least once. Or spent all day trying to get that %#$@&!! part to fit.
Building a professional quality website is no small undertaking. It requires time, planning, design skills, coding knowledge, an understanding of search engines, sales funnels and user experience among a laundry list of other things. You can bang the pipes and get something online but if you want a site that represents your brand and works for your business, chances are you’re going to want to “call the man”.
Getting a professional involved will let you focus on doing what you do well, and that’s running your business. Instead of spending your time and energy trying to figure out what the heck a mail server is, you can focus on growing your business, closing sales and meeting your customers’ needs.
But… and it’s a big but… how the heck are you supposed to know who to hire?
There are plenty of developers to choose from. Lots of them have pretty smart sounding blogs. Their portfolios look good. They all sound quite reasonable, whether they’re quoting you $500 or $5,000 – sometimes for the same job.
One way or another you’re going to cough up some cash, maybe a lot of it. So you want to be reasonably assured that your investment will be worth it.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a web developer to know how to vet one. Here are a few tips to tuck under your hat and pull out when you’re interviewing someone.
1. Don’t Be The One Asking All The Questions
Remember that small detail about you not being a web developer? That means you probably don’t know what you don’t know. Which means you don’t even know what questions to ask. Instead of wracking your brain, throwing out some lingo to see what sticks, or following some lame advice to find out if your prospective developer can hand-code HTML, shut up and wait. See what happens. Pay attention to the types of questions you’re being asked.
After all, this website is about you and your business. Not about how fast someone can hand code. You want to listen for questions like:
What’s the goal of your website?
How do you generate leads/sales?
What’s working/not working for you now?
Be sure your developer is asking about your business and not doing so much talking about his. Once you get past “and we’ve been building websites for ten years” you should expect the conversation to revolve around you and what your business needs.
2. Beware “Other Developer” Bashing
There are always two sides to a story. For every outraged client is a developer somewhere who can’t believe how difficult some people can be to work with…
You may have a “that last guy I worked with really sucked” story but your prospective developer should never jump on your bandwagon.
Maybe that guy really was a jerk. Or maybe there’s more to the story. It doesn’t matter because whoever you’re considering hiring should be professional enough to stay out of it.
More importantly, that person should be professional enough to take the opportunity to learn from it. Why didn’t that relationship work out? What went wrong? What could have been done better? Those are good questions to help set the groundwork for a new and productive relationship.
3. Watch Out For The Inexpensive Option
It’s true, prices can vary wildly and that can leave you feeling wary. Should you trust the guy charging a little, or does he not know what he’s doing? Should you believe the guy who tells you it’s expensive or is he trying to hose you?
It’s tough terrain but you should navigate away from any “too good to be true” pricing.
The cost of a website should sound at least a little expensive. And by expensive I don’t mean holy cow, they want what?? I mean it should sound like an investment, not something you pick out of the lint in your pocket.
While you’re at it, be wary of the developer who undercuts another by a few dollars just to get the job. You can avoid this by not sharing your quotes with anyone outside your organization because otherwise you could be setting yourself up for an iffy relationship based on resentment, wheeling and dealing and anything but getting the job done.
4. Run If There’s Any Mention Of Flash
At this point, anyone who develops in Flash just isn’t paying attention. I’ll repeat what I’ve repeated numerous times on this blog: Flash isn’t accessible on iPhones or iPads. Goodbye chunk of your audience!
There’s no need for Flash on your business site. Beyond losing some of your audience, it’s expensive to develop and costly to maintain. You can get some pretty cool effects with a ton of other budget- search- and mobile-friendly options.
5. Run Faster If There’s Any Mention Of Technology At All
If your potential developer mentions Flash that’s a bad sign. But it’s also a bad sign if your potential developer mentions any technology.
A website may be built using fancy-sounding programs, tools and programming languages but your website has nothing to do with technology. Your website is a marketing tool.
The most cutting-edge technology on the planet won’t do you a bit of good if it doesn’t meet your business and marketing goals.
Your goals are probably more like “sell more stuff and make more money” or “get more leads and make more money”. The technology will follow the goals. A good developer will use the right technology for the job and never lead with it.
6. Be Sure Your Goals Are Discussed First, Last And Often
Any reasonably intelligent and motivated person can learn HTML and CSS, figure out a few things about building templates or themes and construct a website.
But building a website is only a fraction of the project.
You need someone who can account for your marketing goals, who will discuss them with you and brainstorm ways to help you use your website to meet them effectively.
Why are you building a website? What should it do? How is it going to do it? What happens when it doesn’t?
Your goals will have a lot to say about the colors you use. The layout you choose. The content you create. The sales funnels and processes that your website supports.
Goals should be part of the conversation starting with “hello” and never ending throughout the life of your website.
7. Pay Attention To Chemistry
Sometimes you just don’t like a person. I had this conversation with a friend recently about a web team he was interviewing. On paper this team sounded fantastic. They had an impressive client list and portfolio. In meetings things went well. Questions were answered. Expectations were set. Goals were discussed.
But my friend didn’t like the team. Whatever the chemistry, he wasn’t happy with the idea of working with that group of people on his passion project, for an extended period of time, at a relatively significant investment.
Personality trumped qualifications.
We can’t help it; we like some people and don’t like others. There doesn’t need to be a fantastic reason for it, either. But if you’re not comfortable hiring a person or a team – no matter how theoretically wonderful they are – then you shouldn’t hire them.
You’re going to be working pretty closely with your developer and probably for a long time to come. If you don’t click or aren’t comfortable with the relationship, you could be sabotaging your project before it starts.
8. Find Out Who You’ll Be Working With
Development isn’t an isolated discipline. There is usually a designer involved, or a project manager, perhaps an SEO consultant, a UX specialist, or a programmer who knows one or more specific languages.
It’s important to know who’s on your team and who you’ll really be working with.
Someone I know once declined to hire a web team because his sole point of contact would have been the project manager. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it didn’t make my client comfortable. He wanted access to the developers, designers and programmers directly.
You have to know what makes you comfortable. If working with a single point of contact is your style, then having a dedicated project manager will be a positive. But if you like your hands in all the pies then look for an open team where you can speak with various people directly. Neither is right or wrong, but knowing your preference and how your team operates will save you a lot of grief later.
9. Ask What You Get – And Understand It
The proposal from your developer should be clear but not so specific that if you should decide on a different path or option later, you’ll be locked into doing something less effective just because “it was in the proposal”.
Sometimes you don’t know what direction you’re going in until you get there. Take the technology example. I can’t (or more likely won’t) tell a client that I’m going to build them a jQuery photo slider because if, two months into development, we find a better option, I now have to back out of something I’ve essentially committed to in a proposal. Or what if we do some discovery work and decide not to use a photo slider at all?
A proposal is not a specifications document. So it’s never going to have a granular level of detail. But you should know what you’re getting and perhaps more importantly, what you’re not.
You should be able to answer important questions, like…
Who will be writing the copy?
Who will be doing the data entry? (If you have a large product inventory… will your developer be doing that or is it up to you?)
Will your site be custom-designed?
What about mobile? Is a mobile site/responsive design included?
If your site relies on key components such as an event calendar, shopping cart, photo gallery, blog or other feature, is that included and to what extent?
Will someone be retouching your photos, or will they be used in the dingy, weirdly composed way that you hand them over?
What about SEO?
Will it be tested? In what browsers and on what devices?
It’s not merely enough to know the answers but you must understand them, too. If someone includes “canonical URLs” in your SEO package, and you have no idea what that means, don’t let it slide just because it sounds important.
10. Consider Geography
Along with chemistry, geography can also trump qualifications. These days, the internet gives us access to the whole wide world. We can work with and get to know people from China, India and Australia just as easily as those who are in our New Jersey backyard.
But some people like to do business face-to-face. The nice thing about doing business locally is that you can meet someone, look them in the eye and sit down over a cup of coffee in a way that you can’t with someone online.
The not-so-nice thing about doing business locally is that you’re limiting your applicant pool.
This is another area where you have to know yourself. Some people are perfectly fine doing business long-distance. Others want to be able to meet over coffee.
However fantastic a developer or team sounds, if you’re not comfortable with the logistics, you could be setting yourself up for stress, frustration and disappointment.
11. Ask Who Owns It
One of the more common problems I see in the web business is when clients come to me and tell me they don’t have access to their website, don’t own it and can’t use it outside of their developer’s ecosystem. Sometimes this even happens with logos and branding materials.
You should also be sure that you own your domain. This is perhaps an even bigger problem. Many web companies will register the domain for you, which sounds like a real joy until you realize they registered it in their company name. And without ownership, you can’t use it, move it, or do anything about it.
Tread carefully if your prospective web developer talks about using proprietary software or anything that isn’t a common and standard web tool, platform or language. When in doubt, get a second opinion.
12. Follow The “What If You Get Hit By A Bus?” Rule
If your developer falls off a cliff, gets eaten by wild boars or absconds to a deserted island with his riches, what happens to your website? Do you own it? Can you access it? Or will you be left stranded and starting over?
Hiring a good developer is no small task. If you’re under the gun and need your website next week, then resolve to miss your deadline because hiring fast and under duress is a recipe for disaster. Take your time, get referrals, talk to other people who have been through the process.
Interview different teams, ask questions and choose the one that is the most qualified to do your project, within your budget, to your comfort level.
Have you worked with a developer and learned some lessons along the way? Do you have an “I wish I knew then…” story or perhaps a great tip you picked up from your own hiring process? Let me know!
Join the discussion 14 Comments
Bravo – great article!
As someone who develops websites as a supplemental income, I like to lay expectations both from the client, AND from myself, on the table as early as possible. The most important part of a website is accomplishing the clients goals as effectively as possible. You’re creating a business tool, not ‘art.’
Ben, you brought up a great point that can drive me nuts when working with some designers – it’s all about the art! if it’s not :award winning” it doesn’t get out the door. But at the end of the day awards don’t pay the bills. A site must meet business goals and certainly not be an art project!
I think you might have had me in mind when you thought,of this topic and wrote about it! Meaty!
Donna, it’s funny but I had this on my editorial calendar since last month. Our conversation did give me a few things to think about – in fact, you mentioned the geography and working with someone local and I thought that was a great point!
I like to think of websites as visiting someone’s business office or home office. I often tell my clients when we are planning their sites to think of how you network when you meet them live and let’s share your warmth or things that feel inviting, stay awhile. Your post is an excellent guideline, I hope more people read it prior to hiring someone!
Thanks, Michelle, and I love your perspective. Too many people take this “corporate” view of a site and they suddenly get all stilted and awkward. It SHOULD be like a welcoming room. Invite your prospects in to sit a while, get to know you and take a look around!
Great article in terms of a general overview. I do slightly disagree with some of the absolutes like never using Flash and not talking about technology.
I’ve never before used Flash (aside from things like media embedding) and find it unlikely that I’ll ever use it in my life, but I’d hate to dismiss an entire technology just because most people use it the wrong way. You never know, there may be a situation where the use of Flash is warranted.
In regards to talking about technology, I’ll never bring it up first but you better believe that if a client asks (I’ve had some clients who are extremely tech savvy) then I’m going to answer.
I’m being a little nit picky, though. Again, great overview.
Thanks Patrick, and I do agree with your points. I don’t have a problem with talking tech, but I do have a problem with LEADING with it. I get prospects who start a conversation by saying “I want a Flash home page” and that’s the wrong way to approach the site. It has to be about goals first, and finding technology that supports the goals. Almost always, they have no idea why they want it or what it means except it’s something they’ve heard of.
Flash has uses, but unless you’re a gaming company or something quite specific, there are options that can serve a business better.
And of course, if a client wants to talk technology, I would agree that’s perfectly fine. Just going back to the point that technology shouldn’t be used for its own sake.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
Man, I’m SO glad I don’t have to worry about another site at the moment. Okay, I will be creating a product this year so there will be another site in the future so just thinking about all that’s involved gives me the creeps.
Thank goodness I have plenty of friends who have already been down that road so they can point me in the right direction and to people they’ve trusted and used in the past. That’s what I prefer doing, going upon someone else’s recommendation of course.
It’s a lot of work and time consuming so you definitely want to hire someone who will do you a good job. It is your baby after all and how people will think of you in the future.
It’s great to have recommendations and to be able to rely on other people. Sometimes that’s all you need. A good referral is worth a million interviews and questions!
Good luck with your product site! It’s definitely a lot of work. You want it to be great and really bring people in and make them buy, so you have to spend time thinking about how to do that. A lot of the work is in the planning.
Thanks for stopping by and I can’t wait to see your new product 🙂
This is not only a very education post, but a very smart one as well as it tells the reader and potential client how knowledgeable you are (you and your team) as a web developer.
I’d love someone that would ask me about MY business and not talk so much about theirs indeed.
I agree that it’s not smart to be bashing your completion even in the event that you wouldn’t like them at all.
Chemistry goes a long way, and I’d rather work with someone who knows less and willing to learn that I like than someone who I can’t stand no matter how good they are. If it doesn’t click it doesn’t click.
There’s a lot to think about more than just who has the best price and sometimes people get stuck thinking of only that and end up working with someone they’re not happy with.
It’s definitely important to ask about someone else’s business! How else would I know what to do for them? And it definitely has to click or you won’t be happy.
Thanks for stopping by!
Great article. One way to assure that you own your site is to set it up yourself, with your own hosting account and domain name, and then get your developer. This is very easy with WordPress and if you follow the “never use flash” and “RUN from excessive technology” rules, WordPress is the way to go (I have a feeling you would agree about WP).
The great thing about WordPress is that you can always get someone new to step in and you can probably do simple edits, posts, and changes yourself (even if you are a novice). And if the web developer gets “hit by a bus”, you know how to access your WordPress dashboard and hosting account control panel. And you OWN it.
We have a simple guide to show newbies how to start their own self-hosted WordPress website or blog: http://wpsetupsteps.com . Follow the steps and you have a simple WP installation on your own account. Setup a few things and call in the expert when/if you need to. But you can TRY it yourself first.
I do like WordPress! And that’s an interesting take on ownership. Yes, you would certainly have no doubts about ownership if you buy your domain and set everything up yourself on your own hosting account. It’s also true that anyone can get into WordPress and pretty much pick up where someone else left off, which is not the case in a lot of situations with other types of apps or coding.
That may be a good option for someone just starting out or doesn’t mind having their site developed on their domain. But I know from experience that a lot of people can’t even get that far (or don’t want to) – so just knowing and being able to ask the questions and be assured of the answers is a good place to start!