5 ways to get a professional website on a small budget

Allen Buckley Law Home PageWhen you’re looking to have a website designed (or redesigned), having to rely on Google or Bing to find the right kind of help can be downright discouraging – especially if you add “affordable” to your search. When the focus is on the price first, it’s easy to settle for picking the best-looking contender out of what is, when compared to an experienced professional, a not-so-pretty bunch. But what do you do if you have a budget of only $2,000 – $3,000? Or even less? Anyone can build a cheap website, but what about one that attracts and serves clients because it’s well thought out and its design and content are appealing?

The good news is there are ways to get a head start on a well-designed website. If you have a small budget and don’t need anything complex, hiring an experienced pro will help get you the site you need in a timely fashion. If you have a budget too small for a reputable professional, the fourth and fifth suggestions on my list could help. If you’re considering hiring someone who offers you a lowball price, know that an unprofessional website can be more detrimental to your business than having no website at all.

OMG – WYSINAWYG (What You See Is Not Always What You Get!)

The proliferation of tools that enable non-technical folks to build their own sites has been both a blessing and a curse. I’m generally supportive of technology’s new place in the back seat, because it has seriously leveled the playing field for the local businesses I love. And on the non-business side of things, think of how much more great reading is on the web now that the nerds don’t have exclusive control!

Now about that curse; it’s twofold. First, there’s been an explosion of self-proclaimed designers or developers with little depth of website knowledge. Second, and worse, is the misguided notion that the creation of a website starts and ends with the technical stuff. I’m here to tell you: No, nyet, nope and no way.

Good design requires upfront work that can’t be downloaded from the Internet

As a book or brochure or signage is more than just paper or wood, a website is comprised of more than pretty pixels. It has the incredibly important purpose of conveying to visitors whether or not it has what they seek — quickly, before they click away. As with a book, there’s all that structure stuff: overall topic, main points, maybe sub-points, concise, intelligent writing. And, like a storefront sign, the site’s home page must interest people enough that they will be interested in what you have to offer. The layout and design must be attractive, and completely support the message, the whole point, of the site.

Message me when you find a WYSIWYG or do-it-yourself site builder that will do all that for you, and do it well.

Being creative and just a little geeky works well

If you were a good student and got A’s on term papers, and you have a strong sense of design and an aptitude for figuring out apps and various online things, and money is more important than time, go to WordPress.com and start playing. If you think you’ve got something, ask a couple of brutally honest friends to look at it and tell you if they’d buy what you’re selling.

You do not have to know how to write code to develop an effective website (though it does help). You just have to be a generally smart communicator and be willing to spend some hours learning. Let me be completely blunt: If you really are creative and kind of geeky and also kind of broke, I am 99.99999% sure that you will be able to build a better website for yourself than some doofus who charges $600 or less.

Hire someone for the heavy lifting

If you have even a small budget, however, I would encourage you to get help with the important things like the initial build, and get it from someone who includes training in their fee so that you can manage your site without having to go back to the designer/developer for every little thing. A good website consultant, whether designer or developer, will help you avoid (or at least plan for) many of the pitfalls inherent in website management. I say that in your genuine best interest and not because I want you to hire me.*

I have worked with more than one client who hired me after months of spinning their wheels trying to get their site underway. You can read the pre-A Fwarless Venture horror stories in some of my testimonials. Those people would tell you to let the web developer  do the nerdy things so you can focus on your business and the content that sells it.

*besides, I can’t possibly help all five of you reading this post…not at once, anyway…

5 ways to get a professional website on a small (or very small) budget

Except for Squarespace, *all of the tactics below are ones I have employed to create polished, professional websites for clients with small budgets. They should also prove helpful if you’re wanting to try building your own site.

*UPDATE: Since writing this post I’ve used Squarespace to build a handful of client sites, and more are in the works. It’s a good solution for smaller projects that need the option of e-commerce without the security and set-up hassles.

1.Use WordPress

WordPress LogoIf you read this blog at all, you know I’m a big fan of WordPress. But beyond my personal affinity for it, there are good reasons WordPress is appropriate for most small businesses.

Once you’re familiar with WordPress, it’s as easy to use as Facebook. If you ever need changes that involve digging into its more technical aspects, the fact that WordPress powers some 20+% of all websites means that you’ll have an easy time finding help. And the fact that the WordPress software is open-source and freely available means that others are constantly creating new things that plug into it and add useful features. Instead of spending dozens of hours – and hundreds or thousands of dollars – on custom programming, there’s usually an inexpensive plugin that will do the job. Create an event site, build an online store, create a members-only community – the possibilities are endless.

WordPress sites professionally built by an experienced developer usually start in the ballpark of $2,500 for simpler, non-custom sites. Complex features add to the cost, but they’re typically much more affordable and user-friendly when built into a WordPress site.

WordPress’s downside

WordPress’s ubiquity means, unfortunately, that sites running it can be easy prey for hackers and spammers if they aren’t well maintained and plugins and design themes aren’t carefully chosen. In my experience, the majority of non-technical owners of WordPress sites have a hard time keeping up with the updates that patch security flaws. That greatly increases their risk of getting hacked. Having seen this reality, I recommend using some type of managed hosting with WordPress, or having your site built on WordPress.com.

It’s also a challenge to navigate a world of anything-goes themes and plugins. Many of them are untested or outdated, and they won’t work as stated or cause glitches on your site. It takes quite a bit of experience to begin to be able to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff, and – sadly – there isn’t a line item for that on a resumé. But there should be!

A bright spot on the WordPress landscape

WordPress.com is a great alternative to dealing with the liability, expense and technical hassle of self-hosting a WordPress site with a regular hosting company. There’s very little worry about security as updates are automatic. A downside to WordPress.com for those with more complex needs is that you can’t add features like you can with a self-hosted WordPress site. But if you don’t need advanced functionality (e.g., taking credit card payments), a WordPress.com site may be a good fit.

With upgrades that allow you to use your own domain name and change the site’s CSS, it’s possible to build a professional business website at WordPress.com. The recently-launched High Cotton Wine & Cheese Co. website is one example of a customized WordPress.com site built with pro help. Budgets for professionally-built, semi-custom sites like this are in the $2,000 – $2,500 range, depending upon the market, the designer/developer used and the level of customization. WordPress.com’s Business Plan, for $299/year, covers hosting, a domain name, premium design templates and live chat support.

2. Use Squarespace

squarespace-logo-stacked-whiteIf you need e-commerce – or even if you don’t – Squarespace may be a good option for your business. Like WordPress.com, it’s an all-in-one platform, so hosting, a domain name and a template is included. The designs are clean and modern, but limited (25, as I write). Many are minimalistic enough that they could work well with the addition of a logo. Designer/developers for Squarespace help aren’t as commonplace as for WordPress, but Squarespace lists them on the site so you’ll be able to find help tweaking a site or getting a custom site built.

The Squarespace service costs $10 – $30 per month; less if you pay annually. Though options are limited, what’s there is good and you’ll escape the most of the security and technical hassles of a self-hosted site.

3. Go for semi-custom design

Custom design that fits your style and brand to a T is ideal. It makes your business recognizable, memorable and differentiates it from competitors. But on a small budget it can get pricey. A completely custom site built by an experienced designer/developer starts at around $4,500, depending upon the market, the features desired and the level of complexity.

Using a design template can save a lot of money, but it makes a site look very much like other sites that use the same template. Beyond looking like all those other businesses (or blogs), it’s unlikely a template will perfectly jive with your style and brand. But, it is cheaper to build a site straight from a template. I’m not sure what others charge; if I did it the fee would be $2,200 – $2,800 for self-hosted WordPress and $700 – $1,200 for a WordPress.com site. A stock template rarely fits a business client’s needs, but I did use that method to build a non-profit community group website.

Website Design For Charmaines Douglasville Hair SalonA route I take with small-budget sites I’ve done is to find a template that has the “bones” the client needs, and is stylistically close to their brand – the closer the better, budget-wise. I then customize the style with CSS. I took the semi-custom approach with the High Cotton Wine & Cheese Co site, as well as the website I did for Charmaine’s, Inc., a local salon. This kind of customization is something any good developer can do for you. While a developer could also make structural and programmatic changes, doing so may drive costs up to the level of a custom site.

4. Trade services

Drawings illustrative of Captain Cook's First ...
Maori bartering a crayfish
Photo: The British Library

Is there a designer/developer you know and respect, who knows, respects and needs your expertise? Try approaching him/her about a trade. Professional website design and development is expensive because of the expertise and hours involved – not materials costs. This makes trading more of a possibility than with businesses that have high overhead, though your potential trading partner must be able to dedicate the time to your project.

You still need an agreement

Even though you may be working with someone you know, it’s best to draw up a contract just as you would with any other client. Write out what each party will provide and when. And for goodness sake – don’t even think about doing a trade unless you believe the person’s expertise and experience are worth the equivalent in cash. The last thing you need when you’re trying to stick to a small budget is a website that costs you business because it doesn’t work well or looks unprofessional.

5. Make payments

Photo: Tax Credits

Most web designers/developers bill in increments based on completion milestones, so you don’t usually have to come up with the entire fee up front. I request half prior to the start of the project, 25% when design is complete (or 14 days), and the remaining balance when the site launches (or 30 days). I know of some developers who bill in thirds and others who require 100% up front. Just ask before you get started so there are no surprises on either side.

Bill Me Later

If the requested payment requirements are a problem but you want to work with the designer/developer, ask what forms of payment he/she accepts. If PayPal is an option, you may be able to pay for your site over several months by using their Bill Me Later service. Promotions occur frequently, so you may be able to finance your site with zero interest.

Credit Cards

Some designer/developers accept credit cards. While it’s generally not a good idea to use a credit card, if you are losing business because of your website it may make sense to bite the bullet sooner rather than later and use it to finance a small-budget site.

Keyword: Professional

People with very small budgets are more likely to deal with unqualified designers and developers, and don’t always know how to sort them from the good ones. If you’re hiring a developer, in addition to the suggested questions about terms and timeline, be sure to ask for references and check out his/her portfolio. Their website testimonials mean something, but they could be dated. Best to actually talk to people who’ve worked with the designer/developer you’re considering.

Did I leave something out? Let me know in the comments.