I started my web company about the time that Elegant Themes released Divi, early 2014. I had toyed with the idea of starting one sooner, but (4) things prevented me from actually launching it:
- I was always gainfully employed (I didn’t NEED the money)
- Building sites from the ground up took too long (I didn’t HAVE the time)
- Customizing pre-built Themes was super not fun (I didn’t LIKE installing pre-purchased themes and then inevitably customizing them when the client wanted that theme to be different than what they purchased).
- Do-It-Yourself builder frameworks like Squarespace, Wix and Weebly were emerging (I didn’t BELIEVE the product I’d delivered would be sustainable).
So while I always liked the idea of earning extra income by helping people with their website, it meant doing something I didn’t need, didn’t have, didn’t like, and didn’t believe in.
If that isn’t recipe for failure, I don’t know what is.
But then my wife and I wanted another baby (we had 2 at the time, but I knew we were going for 4).
So I needed (or wanted…both work for this story) more money.
And WordPress builder themes that made website design/deployment faster started gaining momentum, including Divi by Elegant Themes (I had been using their WordPress themes for several years already). This meant highly customizable sites could be deployed faster.
So I had time.
And pre-built themes were still a pain in the ba-doo-ska to customize.
So I just wouldn’t do this type of work.
And I re-evaluated my stance on DIY frameworks and concluded I was wrong— the advantages of a fully fledged CMS like WordPress combined with highly customizable and rapidly deployable builder frameworks was a sustainable business. Primarily because I believed I could built quality websites faster than most folks, meaning I could charge less.
So I became a believer.
All of a sudden the 4 roadblocks to starting my own web company came down.
But a new one emerged.
I didn’t have any clients.
My First Client
Then my phone rang.
Recently promoted to COO of a burrito restaurant, she was looking to update their online presence, starting with their outdated website.
I remember the conversation well:
“Logan! I need a new website, but the quote I just got was for $5,000…that’s A LOT of burritos, Dude. Do you know anyone?”
“Well, maybe. What are you looking for?” I quizzed back.
“That’s just it. Nothing big. Simple. Modern. Clean. A map and a link to the menus. Oh, and it can’t look like it was build in 1995.”
“Do you have any images? A color scheme”
“The colors are in our logo on the current site and we just paid a photographer to take a bunch of foodie pictures, so yes.”
“Ok. How about I throw something together tonight and you tell me if you like it tomorrow?”
“Wait, YOU build websites?”
“I don’t know, yet. Tell me tomorrow.”
My First Website
I hung up and got to work on a single-page site with 5 sections. Not because the client asked me to or because I went through a lengthy client on-boarding brief, but simply because I thought it’d work for what the client asked for.
It was simple, modern, & clean.
The sections I used were:
- An image slider (this was 4 years ago…don’t judge me)
- Links to (3) PDF menus the client sent me
- A map with pins to the locations and a phone number
- (3) blurb modules
- (4) testimonials (from their Yelp! page).
Now, today, with (a) the latest version of Divi, (b) my disdain for sliders (I would just use a single hero image), and (c) my builder package (my core set of tools I use on every build), I could knock something like this out in 4 hours top to bottom (including several coffee breaks and maybe even with Netflix streaming in the background).
But back then it was just the backend builder with Divi and so combined with my rookie-level skills it took me all night, but by the next day, as promised, I sent over the design.
And you know what?
They loved it.
The absolutely loved it.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was night and day better than what they had, which was really all they needed.
Now, like all projects, we still had work to do. We changed out a few images, updated copy, I had to learn about hosting, and how to migrate a WordPress site, and find plugins for backup and speed and caching, performance test, make a few CSS changes on various devices, etc, but all in all, I spent about 20 hours on the project.
That meant at my rookie rate of $25/hr the grand total came out to a bank busting $500.
It literally took me longer to get setup in their accounting system and get paid, than it did to build and deploy their website.
The Difference Between the Two
Now let me level set a bit.
Not all projects go like that. In fact, most of them don’t.
I’m also absolutely convinced the $5,000 site would have been multiple pages and with lots more copy and attention to detail. It would have slowed down the conversation and forced the business to address glaring holes in its marketing plan like a consistent color scheme and brand identity. It would have performed better because it would be substantially more optimized, and (I assume) it would have been more of a ‘ground up’ build then bolting on a theme package like Divi.
It would have clean organized code/markup and clear/concise product documentation.
It would have gone through the eyes of several professional and full-time employees, each bringing to the table a depth of skill and experience that I didn’t have.
…but it also would have have taken 10 weeks and cost 10x as much.
But does that mean the $5,000 site have been 10x better than my $500 one?
I don’t know.
Certainly in several of the areas I mentioned above like cleaner CSS and documentation sign off, but here’s where it gets interesting to me:
I doubt it would have been 10x as good in aesthetics and in performance — the two areas clients care about the most.
The site I delivered was beautiful and rendered in about 1.5 seconds.
It fell technically in between, but way closer to Beauty than the Beast.
And a 10x boost in performance is unattainable from a 1.5 second starting point. While 1s is the loose standard today, 1.5 isn’t the end of the world for businesses not ending in ‘Amazon.’
And that’s the bigger point here.
Without ever having the conversation, I believe the reason the client signed off so quickly on mine was they knew that while maybe that $5,000 site would have been even more beautiful and speedier, the gap between the two was more like comparing a 7 to a 9 or an 8 to a 10. An apple to another apple. Not an apple to an orange.
And my apple was provided literally a day after they asked for it with almost no requirements.
What Do I Do Today?
I don’t sell $500 websites anymore (well, at least, not outside of friends…and family….and the occasional really good cause…).
Even on the first one I sold, we circled back and changed a few things. We worked on speed improvements, setup analytics and reporting, configured email authentication, added a newsletter subscription, etc. In the end, I billed several more hundred, if not $1000, over the next few month.
But, in the end they spent less on the project as a whole, they received a tangible product faster, only paid for items they needed, and I was compensated fairly for the rate I was charging and the time I spent on it.
But I also typically don’t sell $5,000 ones, either.
Not because I don’t believe clients are willing to pay for it (they are, I have some) or because I do not believe there are $5,000+ projects out there (there are, I’ve done some), but rather because most projects I get do not actually require that many hours to develop.
Now maybe I work faster than most or maybe my rate is too low, but one thing I don’t undervalue is my time. If I think a project will take 60 hours, then I bid 60 hours.
If I think it’ll take 20 then I bid twenty.
All I’m really saying is that technology and tools have emerged which can save on build time. Clients know it and are increasingly expecting it and I believe will eventually will demand it, if they aren’t already.
If your work flow is such that you have to charge $5,000 to remain profitable on a commodity website, then you will eventually start losing those bids.
If you can charge less, but are still charging $5,000 because you can, then good for you.
Enjoy it while it lasts.