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The Business of Web Development


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I posted a (rather lengthy) comment about some of the ways I work with my clients. I'll be posting some of that here where reading it in context can help the message as a whole. I've been a web designer/developer for ~15 years in many capacities like freelancing, in-house employee, and now at my own one-person company (I'll get into why that's different than freelancing). I've been the new guy on the bottom rung of the ladder, and a director at an ad agency. I don't think that I'm special or that I have it all figured out! I feel this comes from a culmination of experience, long hours, mistakes, and trying my best. I'll group some topics together and give some briefs on each: on being a web professional, building value/client relations, and yeah things don't always go well.

Building skills in these areas may help boost performance in things like getting clients on board with ProcessWire, differentiating yourself from other web services, being confident in what you charge, and building both a great reputation and long-term relationships. Get on the bus, we're leaving our comfort zones.

Here comes the disclaimer. How and where you work matters. The market you operate in matters, competition, local economy, etc. That's why I'm not going to say "here's how to come up with what you should charge" or "this one neat trick will change the game". These are my experiences, I think some of what I share will be things you can implement yourself, some may inspire you to think of something different, and other stuff might just be rubbish. I also think that knowledge unshared is knowledge lost- so please share your critiques, experiences, and suggestions below. Your opinion and experience matters! Onward!

Note- my language will tend to lean towards freelancers and individual operators but if you're a formal employee this all 100% applies to you as well. Take a moment to envision the company you work for as your client. It becomes relevant very quickly.

On being a web professional

Being a web dev isn't easy. Taking anything you love (going to make an assumption there) and doing it professionally means doing what you like and slapping on a bunch of stuff you don't to make it work. It also means you need to up your game in places that involve things that "orbit" web development. It is always a good idea to break focus and bring in new skills that complement and increase your expertise. This is necessary so you can be more than a really good developer- you can become an expert. An expert professional proactively learns as much as possible, they can speak with authority in many areas related to their work through verifiable fact and with consideration for others and their needs.

A professional works to be good at what they do but also has skills in multiple areas that allow them to do that. It means the difference between building a website and building an effective website. A professional values:

  1. Being a clear communicator. Always #1.
  2. Being an educator
  3. Being a solution
  4. Being a student

Some of those seem obvious, so let's unpack 'em.

Being a clear communicator means more than speaking well. It means conveying your ideas in a way that others can understand and appreciate. It also means working to understand others because that will affect what you say next. Communication requires translating your technical knowledge into layman's terms and rather than stop at stating a fact or good idea, following up with why. This helps others value things as much as you do and shows respect for others in that you believe that they deserve to know. You are a translator you modify your attitude and approach based on how other people are engaging you by being aware and paying attention.

Being an educator means bringing others in on your knowledge. Education helps avoid arguments and shows that other people deserve to know more about what you do. I told a client the other day that there are a lot of people who do technical work that don't take the time to educate those around them, that means what you're doing is just a black box of mystery to them. How can they value what you do if they don't understand it? People have become comfortable with "well I'm not smart enough to do that" or "that's too complex for me", I start with the idea that everyone is capable and it is up to them to find their limits. We aren't teaching them how to program, but we should let other people in on things they might care about. This has to be done in a way that the person you are talking to feels like they are being elevated and not become embarrassed or have feelings that they are ignorant for not knowing something. Example:

  • A client in a meeting started reviewing the mockup and picking it apart. "I don't like the color of that button, and why is it located there? Maybe we should move X above Y. I want the form over here not at the bottom."
    • I addressed each of their concerns. I explained that the button is located there because we know from studying user behavior that it is more likely that people will engage.
    • The color of the button is also a UI strategy, if you look across the entire site you'll see that buttons that do something we want them to do are the same color. The "Menu" button is the same color as the "Sign Up" button, we'll have encouraged interaction by normalizing the experience and by mentally associating that color with action.
    • The background of the call to action form at the bottom of the page is the same color as the button- because it indicates an action that you should take.

Being a solution means either providing the solution, or if it isn't possible, brainstorming an alternate option. My least favorite situation is the "yes or no" decision. I try to provide a "yes or yes", where we have two options that can address a concern- even if one isn't as good as the other, or isn't what someone had in mind- you have shown that you are here and ready to work on overcoming a challenge. That makes you and your client a team. A "yes or yes" situation means that you have "become the solution", because that's how people will think about what you bring to the table. This one is worth an example from an experience I just had the other day:

  • The client puts together events and sells tickets online. It's a reasonably large event that means a lot of people buying tickets. A lot of people were buying at the last minute, tickets sell out, and people rushing to buy may need help under pressure, both mean unhappy customers. This means a big influx of customer service requests that are difficult to handle. So:
    • "We are trying to think of a way of how to change the shopping cart system to fix this issue but not sure how."
      • Yes/No - "We could work on that but it may be complex work and will be a challenge to solve the problem by the next ticket date. It's up to you whether that's worth it."
      • Yes/Yes - "Yes it's certainly possible to work on the store, we could also consider having an email sign up form on the website and then send an email when tickets go on sale, then reminders so that it can make it easier on everyone to space out the purchases and prevent last minute pressure. I'm open to both, what do you think?"

I worked on a Yes/Yes solution, and they felt a lot better, and they no longer have to worry about it. I also communicated and educated by pairing my suggestion with a clear "why it's a good idea", and then I invited their input after sharing. They're signing a retainer contract with me this week.

Being a student seems obvious, but it means being an effective student. We learn how to code better and try new things but it's important to get out of your box. This allows you to be more of an authority on web overall and others will see that as something they can and should trust. It's easy to study what you like, but sometimes you gotta take the classes you don't like to graduate... Here are a few:

  • Get to know how to design websites that work. Learn UI best practices, learn about what parts of web design actually drive conversions things like speed, the number of fields on a form, effective calls to action, the difference between a web developer and a web professional is knowing how to merge what you build with what it has to accomplish.
  • I don't do SEO services, but I have taken a lot of time to study it and understand how my work can be the absolute best when it comes to future performance. It goes beyond semantic HTML. Be familiar with what Google ranks by, the things that matter, and understand what is more important than others. It will affect the structure of the site, it means you will be doing things like creating pages that you probably wouldn't think to.
  • Be good at technicals! Sure you've got a good looking site, but have you truly taken time to study typography? Off the top of your head, do you know what the most effective width of paragraph text on a page leads to more reading by visitors? Do you know an effective length of copy?
  • Learn human/web psychology. How do colors affect perception? What if animations aren't just for making things pretty and cool. etc.
  • Read and study stuff from great people like Mike Monteiro's "Design is a Job" because it will open your eyes a lot to the work you should be doing to support the work you're already doing. Also go watch his video titled "F*ck you, pay me" (spoiler: bad words)
  • Before every project I assume that web design changed and it's up to me to check in on the latest information. Google "web design best practices 2023" before designing, head over to Stitcher.io to check out the latest that PHP has to offer and great tips- using new features may save you time, make your code ready for the future, and keep from using something that will be deprecated (WHY IS MY SITE BROKEN? YOU JUST BUILT IT!).
    • I'm serious. Every single project. I assume my knowledge is out of date in some way.
    • Remember: being honest and saying "you know, I'm not sure but I'll research that and get back to you" or "I'm unfamiliar but that's not something I can't figure out" is a hallmark of a trustworthy professional. Do not be a snake oil salesman, do not lie to get the job, don't be a know-it-all.
    • Learn to defer to others who have more experience than you, for me those are SEO specialists, SEM specialists, and sometimes graphic designers. This shows respect for the work others do and you may get some partners to work with in the future. I have SEO and SEM people I trust and can recommend at the drop of a hat. This also makes you a solution, because you have others ready to help you solve problems.
    • If you get caught BSing your way through something, you won't get away with it. Eventually they'll find out and you won't work with them again. I know people who have dropped off the map because of their arrogance or inability to be humble, you know who gets the phone call for work? Me, not him- and some of the people I work with have known him longer.

Building value/client relations

If you've made it this far in this ridiculously long post, you'll guess why this section comes after being a web professional. Using communication, education, solutions, and a student are pretty much the only way you can build value. Building value validates your hourly rate, or the price for a project. Those skills create intangible value, "my web person is more expensive, but they're honest, open, and always works with me to get what we need done even when I'm not sure what to do." Be mindful that if you wish you could charge more, consider starting from the basics and build more value.

Keep in mind that your clients have a job. They have a business to worry about, they probably need to go pick up their kids from school, payroll is due, and why are sales down this month?! Doing your best to make their experience working with you low stress and relieve them of extra work is invaluable.

To build value and establish strong client relations you have to stop thinking like a developer and start thinking like a business- PLOT TWIST: not your business, your client's business. Your work needs to reflect that this is more than a website or web application, it's going to solve problems and be a net gain for their organization. You need to think as if you had an office down the hall, act as if their deadlines matter, through the way you work with clients they should feel like worrying about a website is off the table and they can get back to what their real job is. You know what matters to you? Their profits. What else matters? Their employees effectiveness, their customer satisfaction, etc. Your website/app may highly impact all of those things (and probably will). I had a manager tell me after a presentation for a new product page on a website "I was really impressed, you think like you own a business". Mission accomplished. My response? "I really appreciate the compliment, but it really is a culmination of the work you, me, and the rest of the team have done. I really appreciate you helping move the project forward."

Most of the following about initial client meetings and writing a proposal is taken from my other comment so you can skip it if you've read it already.

Building value starts from the first time you talk about a website. When we first meet I work to lead the conversation in a way that gets me as much information possible to do the best work I can, to let clients know that I'm here for the "big picture", and to get them to think about what their next website means for them and how much it's worth. In my initial meeting I type a lot of notes and I always discuss the following 7 topics:

  1. This may sound odd, but what does your business do? I've looked at your current website, but would like to hear that from you. (There's a chance they haven't updated their current website due to reasons we've talked about here, or that the content doesn't do a good enough job).
  2. What are your plans over the coming year? Do you plan on expanding to new locations? New products/services? (Not always, feel the client out to see if they're positioned for this- it also lets you think about whether you need to consider this for the site architecture/code)
  3. What do you want visitors to do when they get to your website? What does success look like? Filling a form? Calling? Getting them to your online shop? Visiting your location in-person? Stick around for ad revenue? Explain that websites are supposed to do things with purpose.
  4. Open up the conversation about how a website is not a brochure, it's a live business asset that establishes brand strength, is often first impression of a business, and because we just discussed what conversions look like in the previous question- a tool that works 24/7 on their behalf.
  5. What do you like about your current site?
  6. What don't you like about your current site?
  7. Is there something that you want your website to do now that it doesn't now? Get everyone in the room to think about how this isn't a replacement website, we're leveling-up here and it's time to get strategically creative.

You'll see that all requires communication, education, solutions, and a being a student.

After this, I talk about my values and what is important to me when working with clients. Think about the typical idea that "programmers are hard to work with" or "the IT guy is a jerk and is abrasive". We need to overcome that with new potential clients because it's safe to assume that they've had some not-great experiences. I talk with them about these things that matter most to me:

  1. Communication. Always #1. They already know that I've taking the time to communicate, now they know that it's my priority and it makes them realize how much we've been talking about them. This is another thing that I can almost guarantee has not been said to them.
  2. Ownership. Businesses/people should own their properties and assets. True ownership means being able to use and update it. If there are services along the way (like maybe Google Tag Manager) or a new hosting company then it should be an account their business owns and I'll guide them through any process to do so. If I were to be unavailable someday- you won't be stuck with a website that was dependent on me.
  3. Performance. Re-iterating the need to aim for conversions. Adhering to accessibility rules for legal and user friendliness reasons. Making the site 100% (like Google Lighthouse 100%) SEO ready when it comes time for a specialist to optimize.

These questions almost never fail to get potential clients to go wide-open with you. Every single thing we have talked about has now built value and price follows value. This is where we end the first meeting and I tell them that I want to review my notes and put a proposal (I never call it a "quote") together for them and that we can meet/call next. This first meeting usually ends up taking 1-1.5 hours, an initial meeting I had last week took 2.

My proposals run 2+ pages. The opening paragraph is the introduction to the project and the approach- if they said they want to expand then the website "will be built with your goals for expansion in mind". The next are bullet points that now re-iterate much of what we talked about in our initial meeting (the 7 questions). Next I talk about timing, to head off "how long will it take"- that this project is a collaboration where we depend on each other to get content, approve designs, consider the features that the website is going to have, etc. We're all in this together, and I am invested in this with them. You're now thinking about their concerns before their questions and you've worked to control that conversation. If I'm asked for more detail, I say that we will set timelines for each stage when we get started- so when design starts the timeline is X, when that is approved we set the next timeline, etc.

Then comes the price but I close with the terms of payment. It's usually 40% to get started, 40% on design approval when we go to code, and 20% on launch. Now the client is looking at the price in terms of affordability over the coming X amount of time.

Here's what this process has done: my language says "I'm an agency" not "a person who does websites". The client has probably talked to me more than they ever have to other web people. They've shared the good and bad, we have a relationship, and now you have absolutely everything you need to do your best work and they know that. They probably also haven't encountered someone who wants the website to achieve conversions. They now know me as an expert.

When you establish relationships with clients consider these items:

  • Don't talk about other clients too much unless you're building rapport and talking about wins before they sign a contract. After that it's like a husband talking to his wife about his girlfriend.
    • You can break this rule if you're talking about a success they've had that you want this client to have and correlate- because you're making it about the client you're talking to.
  • Don't let a client feel like you're too busy or rushed.
  • If an existing or past client needs help with something and it's small- consider what's worth more to you: the money you can bill, or the value of a client relationship. Only consider this if it's small and you can afford it- there is never anything wrong with billing a client.
    • Be selective of who you do this with, don't do it often. Don't create a pattern and expectations.
    • If you do this, be explicitly clear in an email (document it) with something like "I took care of that issue. This on is on the house so we'll skip the bill on this one. Let me know if you need anything else!"
    • Make sure these are small, it makes a client feel like you aren't nickle and diming them.
    • Do not overdo this. Don't do this to win over a bad client. Keep it for your best customers.

Yeah, things don't always go well

If you're still reading this ridiculously long post... Sh!t happens. You miss a deadline, you got a flat tire, your dog ate your homework. You misconfigured someones DNS and took their site down. Whatever.

I would argue that if something goes wrong it's almost always the best opportunity to show how good you are. The only thing that people remember more than a problem is how you handled it. Be honest about it, admit fault, own it. If it was due to an error on someone else's part, I generally try to stay tame on blame and explain what went wrong rather than who did it- unless it was a) something egregious, or b) the person that did web work for them previously. You're not trying to dunk on them (be diplomatic) but you are there to solve problems and making sure they understand why you're now working with them and the other person isn't can be positive.

Did a potential client reject your proposal (surely you aren't calling them quotes, right?) Try to negotiate if you're in a position to do it. If you've built value and it really does come down to cost, then look to have the value you've built help in negotiating.

Etc.

Random stuff

  • I don't send invoices, my billing platform does.
    • Built in document emailing, automated reminders for late clients, time tracking, reporting, expense tracking, customer portals, online payments through Stripe (and others), customizable branding, etc.
    • If you don't have one, check out InvoiceNinja. It's open-source, built on Laravel, has an API, and you know how to put stuff on a web server, right? ?
    • Create a subdomain like billing.yourdomain.com and it's pretty much ready to go.
  • An update email describing less progress on a project than a client may want to hear is better than saying the same thing after they had to ask because they haven't heard from you. Keep communication open and going, let them know that you are thinking about them.
  • Consider offering web hosting to clients when you feel like it's a good fit.
    • Easy and inexpensive, I use StatusCake to monitor all the sites I host so I know if anything goes wrong. So my hosting is "private, exclusively for my clients, and monitored 24/7"
    • Spin up a VPS at a reputable place. For managed hosting I use Dreamhost, for unmanaged Digital Ocean. I have a Dreamhost VPS and a separate managed MySQL DB VPS
    • It's not really an "income source", you don't have to charge much, but it pays for all of my hosting and domain fees (including for my billing platform). They're happy, I'm happy.
    • Very convenient to work on client sites when you don't have to juggle passwords for GoDaddy or some service they've set up.
  • Should you be a company or a freelancer? Up to you.
    • Historically I was a freelancer, then this year I formed an LLC. You don't have to do it but there are benefits
    • Professional image, taxes, a more formal business interaction, legal protections
    • Shows my clients that I'm as serious about what I do for my clients as they are.
  • Consider creating a "marketing deck"
    • Agencies create these to display their services and offerings.
    • They're usually tailored to a specific client, but having a general one to provide people I'm interested in working with is a great professional document.
    • Make it look nice, you don't have to print it, just create a PDF to have and mail.
  • What else can you do? Can you offer more services beyond websites?
    • I provide "web services", so design/build new websites, update/maintain/optimize existing websites
    • Offer building integrations between platforms, provide CRM work where needed if possible
    • Analyze business practices to help optimize workflows
    • Research and provide recommendations for software that solves problems
    • Help manage existing platforms, and train others to use them
    • Think about how a developer gives you the tools for analysis, problem solving, and fast learning. You may learn software faster than other people- I've offered to learn software and then teach it to people who already use it.
    • Think about what you can do that solves a problem while at the same time lowering the bandwidth for employees at a company.

This went on waaaaay longer than I thought it would but I just shared whatever came to mind. If you are interested in seeing the deck I put together for my services (and have a reputable account with a history here in the forums) PM me. I don't want to share it in the open since it contains PII.

If you found any of this useful, shout out to @kongondo for encouraging me to share. Would love to hear everyone's thoughts, critiques, and suggestions! As always, I am 100% open to being wrong about things that someone else could help me be right about.

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10 hours ago, FireWire said:

the difference between a web developer and a web professional is knowing how to merge what you build with what it has to accomplish.

Love that quote, thx again for sharing all that with us ? 

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