We get an email about once a week from a friend, a friend of a friend, or an Escape the City member asking for advice about websites.
The general gist of the request is usually: “I’m looking for a website designer to help me get my idea / project / business online.”
It is soooo easy (that easy yes) to spend money you couldn’t afford and time you shouldn’t have wasted over-complicating your online presence.
I’ve written this post to try to save you some of that time and money (and to save myself from writing the same email once a week).
So where do you start?
You’ve probably considered one of the following:
- finding a student developer to code your first version for free (good luck!),
- finding a technical co-founder to join you (desirable but very hard),
- outsourcing the build to India (doable but incredibly frustrating and risky).
You may think that you can just pay a web development agency or a freelancer to build you your website and then you’ll be done. And you can, up to a point.
The problem is that you’re going to need hundreds of shots at getting your platform right, not just a one-time purchase. If you take this route (outsourcing your core product), be prepared to be the owner of a platform that does about 10% of what you now know you need it to do (once you’ve used it a bit) and the payer of expensive fees for tweaks / changes.
The two best ways to build your product are:
1) build it yourself
2) work full-time with top quality developers who are bought into your vision.
The problem with 1) is that you don’t know how to code. The problem with 2) is you can’t find them and you wouldn’t be able to afford them (or persuade you to join them) if you could find them.
This is all unhelpful I know… so where do you really start?
A distillation of advice for building your website:
1. Don’t code a single line
Really assess whether your idea needs anyone to touch a single line of code to get it off the ground. You can go a seriously long way with a free WordPress blog, customised to your heart’s desire. Check out ThirdYearAbroad, check out Opumo. No doubt many of you will know other platforms powered by wordpress (please add in the comments). The wordpress plugin directory is incredible – job boards, forums, surveys, subscriptions, shops etc.
2. Use existing tools
Educate yourself about the raft of other services – free and paid – that will allow you to pimp you online presence further but without having to build the next Facebook from the ground up. Google Forms or Jotform for surveys or orders, Eventbrite for ticket sales, Mailchimp for newsletters, Shopify for e-commerce, etc. Again, please add your best tools in the comments.
You can do a lot of the above by reading blogs, buying how-to / for-dummies guides, and going on the odd (short) course. Check out http://wpcourses.co.uk/.
3. Outsource design?
If you think the above sounds like a sensible way to start getting your idea online then the one area you might consider paying a third party is design. You can hang an awesome front-end off a wordpress platform. Get someone to create you a quality landing page with clear prompts and a beautiful logo.
3.1. Know where to find developers
4. Beware custom built, outsourced
Be very wary of paying a third party web developer (especially a company as they’re usually quite expensive) to build you your all-singing, all-dancing website. Unless it is a static (brochure) website, you will want (need) to change its functionality 100s of times till your product does what you want it to do. You will run out of money and patience doing this with a web development agency unless it is a very off-the-shelf solution. If it is an off-the-shelf solution… don’t get someone to custom build it!!
5. Know what type of business you’re building
Be very clear on whether you are building a tech-enabled product or a tech-tech product. Tech-enabled – think e-commerce, publishing, coffee subscription services etc. Tech-tech – think software, Basecamp, web-based products and services. If your idea is tech-enabled… follow the minimalist advice in this thread. If it’s tech-tech you’ve got a whole other raft of challenges.
6. Beware the early-stage cycle of doom
If neither you nor your co-founders are technical or can code you are really going to struggle getting traction with a vision for a tech-tech product.
The contradictory hoops you’ll have to jump through include:
- Paying a freelancer or an agency to build you a prototype that gets you enough traction to raise investment, get revenues, and/or hire a team.
- But outsourcing your core product means it’s that much harder to iterate to the way that works, to get traction, and to build something impressive.
- So ideally you’ll build a really impressive product in-house.
- But to build a really impressive product in-house you need good developers…
- To get good developers you need money (either from investment or revenue).
- But you’ll really struggle to raise investment, especially without a startup track-record, if you don’t have an impressive early product.
- And you won’t be able to make enough revenue to afford good developers without a really impressive product…
- But guess who you need in order to build an impressive early product?!?
So you’re stuck in this early-stage cycle of doom… trying to hustle your way to i) building something worth investing in in order to ii) hire the developers to actually build it and iii) make the revenues that would have made i) and ii) easy if only you didn’t need them in order to make iii) happen in the first place.
I know this sounds like an impossible situation, an impasse, classic chicken-and-egg. It basically is. The amount of tech products that ‘make it’ are so few and far between (and the ones that do are usually built by experienced technical teams working full-time on the startup) that you’ve got to wonder why anyone like you or me (commercial backgrounds / generalists / non-techies) would even bother.
Why do they (we) bother? Because the prospect of using the internet to build something that you’ve created is so incredibly seductive. Independence, creativity, and a chance to put a ding in the universe. Besides, although it’s hard as hell, the web has massively democratised the process of starting your own business. It is worth a short.
The only way through this is a mixture of luck, patience, blind optimism, naivety, careful marshalling of resources, working with the right people, stubbornness and graft. Starting a business is like alchemy. You’ve got to create something of value from constituent parts of far less value. You can read the Escape website story below… but please, try and do it more sensibly than us!
7. Learn to code
If you are building a tech-tech business… Learn to code. See what Dom has to say about it here. Even if you don’t build your product yourself you’ll be able to speak the language, know what is possible, etc. It’ll be that much harder for developers to mess you around and you’ll have much more of an idea of what is possible and what isn’t. You are the founder, you need to own the vision for the product. Therefore, you need to understand how to build a product. You need to know about code.
8. Keep it simple as hell.
Your idea will stand the best chance of success if you can strip out 90% of it. Those ideas you’re really excited about in the shower? That feature that your mates think is awesome? Throw them all out. 99 out of 100 cool features fail. Yours will be no different. Build basic technology to do one thing incredibly well and take it from there.
9. Get with the programme.
Learn everything you can about Product Management. You will be the product owner until your business gets sustainable enough to hire product managers and, even then, you’ll still really be the product owner. Don’t know what a product manager is? Find out before you even consider building a web-based business. Also learn about MVPs, Lean Startup techniques, Metrics for Startups. Really learn about them. We didn’t at the beginning and it cost us.
Read everything you can about Customer Development. Stop developing your Product, start developing your Customers. Don’t start building ANYTHING online until you know what we mean by this.
10. Go manual to start with.
What does this mean? Imagine you’re building a matchmaking service for freelance chefs and private households for dinner parties. You’ve imagined this incredible algorithm that matches people based on location, ingredients, cooking styles, budget etc. You’ve been quoted £20,000 for your basic website. You’re anticipating waiting 12 months before you can even try and make your first match. Stop planning, stop building, get your product / service out there right now.
Be the man/woman in the box.
Create a basic site (pay no one). Explain what your product does (to both sides of the equation). Ask people to email you if they’re interested. Do the matching yourself. Check out what our friends have done with v0.0001 of Role Models. Offer customer service that is completely unsustainable once you’re further down the line. Fight your natural perfectionism. People are forgiving. They love honesty, a story and being in at the beginning.
James Altucher puts it like this: “first see if manually your product works. Then think about providing it as a service. Then productize the commonly used services. Too many people do this in reverse and then fail.”
11. Learn it the hard way.
No matter how many times you read the kind of advice above you’ll make the same mistakes as the rest of us. You’ll think your case will be different (we did) and you’ll learn the lessons the hard way by wasting time, money and energy on doing it wrong (we did this too). You’ve just got to hope that you’ll figure out the right way before you run out of rope. I wish someone had sat us down to tell us this stuff x4 years ago and now here I am sharing it with you having learnt it all the hard way.
The story of our website(s)?
It’s early 2009…
We start working on the idea for Escape the City. We start a basic blog and mailing list in Sept 2009. We launch our first custom-built platform in March 2010, built by Buckle Consulting, a year later we rebuild the entire platform in Rails (it had been in PHP) with a London agency called New Bamboo (much more expensive than BC). We run out of money on the New Bamboo site and complete it over a series of months with freelancers (one introduced by NB and one we met in New Zealand through a flukey contact).
Fast forward to the end of 2011 and we’re spending what little spare cash we have on tweaks with freelancers. Progress is slow, morale is dropping. We’re aware that to fulfil the potential behind the idea for Escape the City we are going to need to work side-by-side with developers who care as much about the product and the vision as we do. However, although we have respectable revenues at this stage, they aren’t enough to support us (three founders) and a team of 2-3 developers on market-rate salaries. We need to raise investment.
2012. All the while that we have been trying to build an impressive product (since 2010) we have been fortunate that our community keeps growing, employers keep paying us for exciting job listings, and we are managing to create momentum and buzz around Escape. This proves crucial when it comes to pitching to VCs and eventually raising £600,000 from our own members by crowdfunding.
Finally we are in a position to hire full-time developers and build the platform that Escape deserves. It has been the best part of three years getting to this (relatively early) stage. The plus points of the delay have been that we have managed to create proper momentum on our agency-built websites and we’ve learnt a lot about the potential direction for our product (things we didn’t know when we started).
The downsides? We’re still not hugely strong at ‘product’. When we do hire full-time developers we initially are working across three timezones. Communication is hard. We’re not technical ourselves. Things get lost in translation. Product releases take too long. We over-complicate things.
Slowly but surely (by making mistakes in-house) we realise that we’re going to have to properly educate ourselves on product management strategies, learn the basics of code ourselves, and hire developers to work in the same offices as us and give them equity. It is now 2013 and we are well into the 4th year of our startup. Many businesses never make it this far.
We are fortunate that – through a combination of hard work, respectable early revenues, an idea that is too good to give up on, and of course our amazing crowdfunded investment last year – we have been able to learn these lessons and make these mistakes without our business dying. We’re still very much cutting our teeth in terms of building excellent web-based products in the right way.
We’re now working with some real pros (Chris, Stefan) who are sitting round the table with us. We’re having a blast, we’re optimistic, and we’re excited about what you’re going to see next from us. But wow has it been a ride to get to this stage.
So, do yourself a favour. Keep it simple. If you’re not technical and want to build a tech-business be brutally honest that you know what it is going to take to pull it off. Know that it’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done… take a deep breath, and dive in…
(12 months later you’ll message me and say you thought it was going to be hard but you didn’t know it was going to be that hard!).
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