How to spot a bad website provider

Danger signs to watch out for

So you’ve decided to get your website set up by professionals. Web agencies design and build complex sites all the time: it’s tempting to believe that having your own site set up by experts will be a breeze. However, it’s an involved and time-consuming process. It’s not a matter of paying someone and then it’s done.

And then, it’s worth noting that lots of companies run into difficulties when dealing with web companies.

So how can you tell whether you’ve chosen your web designers and developers well? It’s not just a case of looking at examples of their work: often the problem is not tech-related at all.

We spoke with Ryan Notz of online marketplace MyBuilder.com, who had a bad experience with website developers. After a year of working with them, the people he commissioned to build his site abandoned the project and left him with nothing but a CD of HTML code. After such a burn, Ryan was keen to give us some tips.

The most important thing when dealing with your web provider, according to Ryan, is keeping lines of communication open.

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It was a lack of communication that caused his first website build to flounder: “I think the biggest problem was there wasn’t enough back and forth. They collected information from me and then they wrote a spec. I spent a week revising it but when I sent it back they said they weren’t changing anything.

“They said that was what they were going to build, and that they could sort out problems later.” This was a red flag for Ryan, who says: “You need to have discussion.”

In the end, Ryan’s developers felt they were unable to finish the project because the build required too many changes, which meant that it dragged on. It got to the point where they felt were losing money and decided to walk away.

If things are to go well with your site build, then you need to give your web developers a very clear brief upfront. A lot of time needs to be spent working out how the website is going to work and what the key goals are. You need to let your developers know your business objectives and what the consumers and users are like. And they must be willing to brainstorm and talk about possibilities with you.

Ryan says that being able to talk through the site at concept stage is essential, simply because it’s a lot easier to change things at spec stage than to attempt an overhaul once it’s been built: “The warning signs are there if they don’t want to communicate as much as you want to. Of course that costs money: if you’re running a development firm or even working as a freelancer, it’s harder to bill for time specifying requirements.”

Agencies manage multiple clients and you cannot expect the undivided attention of your design and development team. But it’s a bad sign if whoever is paying your agency the most, or shouting the loudest, gets the most attention. Because as a start-up, it’s unlikely to be you.

And the trouble is, if things go wrong and an agency leaves you half-way through your web-build, the work done may be useless to any other development team. This was so in Ryan’s case. He explains: “I had spent half of my budget, but I thought I had about three quarters of the site on the CD, so I didn’t think it was too bad. I thought I could give that CD to the next set of developers. I couldn’t.”

In the end, Ryan found a freelance developer who rebuilt the site. The new developer, who was paid at a daily rate until the project was finished, could only use around 10% of the other agency’s code.

Ryan is certain that the key to his site’s success the second time round was down to effective communication: his new developer’s offices were right across the street. The pair even became good friends.

Now Ryan’s business site, MyBuilder.com is going strong, and he has an in-house web team to support it. He’s says he’s able to see the good from the bad: “In hindsight I made a poor decision. But at the time I looked at lots of different companies, I thought they were alright and the price was pretty good.

“It just really went poorly. A lot of time needs to be spent working out how the website is going to work and so on. We just didn’t spend enough time on that upfront.”

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