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How to Hire A Web Design Firm

How to Hire A Web Design Firm

    How many times have you heard stories of people who hired web firms to design and develop their web sites and either got substandard sites or the developer ran off with their money? Or what about the entrepreneur who “hired” his nephew/friend/daughter to design the site for free, and the results were disasterous and this small business owner didn’t feel comfortable offering much constructive criticism on a job done for free?

    As a small business consultant, I’ve heard these stories so many times. And I go back and forth between feeling heartbroken and really angry on behalf of my clients, for what they endured before finally seeking help. That is why I decided to write this series of four articles on web sites for small business. Today, in the third article in this series, I’ll share with you my best tips for hiring a web design firm.

    When you hire a web firm, your job as a savvy consumer is to make sure your web firm has the right components as well as the answers to several questions before you give them your hard-earned money. Here are some things to look for and questions to ask, as well as a few red flags to watch out for:

    Look For This: A Real Business

    Your web design firm should be a real business. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they need a big office and overhead. What it does mean, however, is that you should probably avoid hiring your family members, friends, and “that guy you know from church” as your web developer. You need a business relationship with your web team for many reasons, including so that you can feel comfortable negotiating, providing honest and critical feedback, and being straightforward if there’s ever a time when you aren’t happy with your firm’s work.

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    Don’t be afraid to ask for references. You should be able to get a couple of client names and phone numbers so you can talk to real people and get a solid feel for what it’s like to work with this team.

    Look For This: A Web Site

    Your web firm should have a web site — a good one. It doesn’t have to be designed in a style that you like, but generally speaking, it should have the components I talked about in my last article. Don’t let any web firm tell you that they’ve been so busy working on clients’ projects that they haven’t designed their own site. If they don’t know that a strong web site is the calling card for their business, they probably shouldn’t be designing a web site for your business.

    Further, you need to see a portfolio of their previous work and it should be easy to find on their web site. Most of the porfolio sites should still be live. However, if you come across some sites have changed or that are no longer live, don’t necessarily hold that against the developer. In this economy, companies are going out of business right and left. Plus, companies often re-design their sites and may or may not use the same team to do it.

    Question to Ask: What are the components that my web site should include?

    If your web firm starts to answer this question without asking about your business, consider that a pretty big red flag and run the other way. There are some general components that most business web sites should have (print out my last article for easy reference), however when you’re working with a web firm, they shouldn’t answer this question unless they know more about what you do, what industry you’re in, and what you want your web site to accomplish for your business.

    Question to Ask: Will you design my site from scratch or use templates?

    A strong web design firm will design an original site for you. They won’t send you a site design that looks generic, or that is based on a pre-fab template. Price can be a good indicator for whether your team is using templates or original designs. If the estimate for your site is under $1,000, it’s more likely that you’re not getting an original design. However, I’ve seen several firms charge what I consider a ridiculous amount of money to provide a pre-fab template site.

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    Why is a template bad? You want your web site to stand out as original and distinct. Your site should be designed to carefully reflect your brand. How much can a template design represent your brand, if others around the world have the exact same web site that you have? What distinguishes you from them? Smart investing in your business makes sense, and for most businesses, investing in a solid web site that incorporates at least the elements I recommend, as well as embodies your branding, makes for a strong ROI.

    Question to Ask: How will you incorporate search engine optimization principles into my site?

    When you ask this question, if all they do is talk about meta tags and keywords, that’s a big red flag. If a web firm is serious about their business, they should know and understand principles of SEO and how these principles apply to the code, the copy, and all of the content of your site.

    If they talk to you about using Flash for your site, ask them if that will cause any problems getting your site content indexed. Take note of how they answer this question. The actual answer is murky and complex and they shouldn’t just say, “Flash isn’t a problem for Google.”

    Question to Ask: Do you work with or have a business relationship with any small business consultants?

    The best web firms often have business consultants on staff or have a relationship with small business consultants who can work with clients on developing business concepts that may not have been addressed previously. For example, if a client wants a web site that reflects his/her brand, but that brand hasn’t been fully developed, it helps the web team create a better site if a small business consultant is involved.

    But beware: the wrong consultant can muddy the waters, while the right consultant, one who understands both sound business principles as well as technical jargon and web lingo can often bridge the gap between developer and client, making the communication smoother and providing key contributions that make the end product much stronger.

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    In fact, you may want to look for a small business consultant first, before you hire the web team. A good consultant should have a relationship with designers and developers s/he’s worked with before. This is a great way to get the benefit of working with someone your consultant has already vetted, and your consultant can get better pricing than you’d get on your own. Plus, if you choose the right consultant, you can have him or her working with you and your web team as an intermediary, and s/he can head off any potential disasters, keep your team accountable, and manage the project for you so you can focus on your business.

    Look For This: Pricing

    Just like any other industry, there are those who will overcharge and those who try to undercut the competition. Your challenge is to find the pricing balance. If you pay too little in terms of the dollar amount for your web site, you may pay more in other ways.

    Several experts suggest that you can outsource your web design to overseas developers to get a fabulous web site for a very, very low price. While there are cases where this strategy can work, you must be cautious. There are many unseen costs associated with this kind of overseas outsourcing.

    First, if you don’t know how to find a reliable, high quality team overseas, you risk giving your money and/or sensitive personal information to unscrupulous vendors.

    Second, when you work with overseas vendors, you may experience language barriers that are difficult to overcome. This can result in disaster for your web site. Don’t get me wrong — there are some phenomenal web firms around the world, and you can get a good price, but road to finding these firms is littered with firms that will provide shoddy work or worse.

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    [Note: I’m frequently asked if Upwork is a good place to find a web design firm. On the whole, there are both phenomenal and terrible designers on eLance. You’ll find freelancers who are excellent at what they do, folks who are just average, unscrupulous people who will do poor work and run away with your money, and people who are just starting out and using eLance as a means to providing low-cost web sites in order to build their portfolio. Like eBay, you can check ratings and reviews from former clients, but in my experience, these reviews aren’t always accurate indicators of future performance. Can you get a fantastic price working through eLance? Sure. But you’re taking a gamble: you may ultimately pay a higher price if you don’t get what you want and can’t get your money back, then have to pay another designer to fix things. My best advice for working via eLance is to use the Escrow system. Don’t pay more than half upfront, and don’t pay for the completed design until everything is done.]

    The best solution is to work with a reputable firm with references that will take your budget into account and find high quality solutions that fit what you can afford.

    Question to Ask: Can you develop my site in a content management system?

    If you want to manage your site yourself without learning HTML or Dreamweaver, ask your web team if they can develop your site using a content management system. Within this framework, you should be able to manage your site, including editing, adding pages, deleting pages, and more, from virtually anywhere in the world that you can access the web via a browser.

    The Most Important Thing You Should Know:

    Your contact at your web firm should be able to talk to you in your language, but also be able to easily converse with the programmers. You need someone who can explain things that you don’t understand without being condescending, and make web principles you should know accessible. Customer service is paramount in the web industry, and you want someone who will return your e-mails and phone calls in a timely manner.

    Keep in mind that while the design responsibilities fall squarely on the shoulders of your web design firm, you have some responsibilities as well. Next week, in the last article in this four-part series, I’ll talk about how you can help your web design firm create a phenomenal web site for your business.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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