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July 21, 2000

Is web site design really a business?

© 2000, Douglas E. Welch

Since the Internet has become a staple of the high-tech world I have been asked hundreds of times to build web sites for people or assist in their construction. To this day, I have made very little money by doing either; so little money, in fact, that I no longer even look for such work. The amount of time and energy required to create a business relationship for designing web sites often means that you spend more time making the deal than building the final product. For an independent contractor this means hours of unproductive work for a business deal that may never reach fruition.

No one knows

The main stumbling block to designing web sites for clients is their inability to communicate to you what that are trying to accomplish. Too many web sites are built only to "stake a claim" in cyberspace. These sites are often unsatisfactory to both you and the client, but the lack of a clear goal insures failure. The client will see custom-generated pages and decide that this is a #1 feature they must have. Next, they see audio and video on another site and decide they need this, as well. They can't vocalize any business reason to have these features beyond the fact that someone else already has them.

Such feature chasing can also spiral out of control into a project that is never completed. This is deadly to anyone who has set a fixed price for the web site. Unless tightly controlled and billed, change order after change order can quickly put a web designer in the red. If you are billing by the hour you may have trouble collecting your fee if the client begins to feel that you are taking too long to hit the target, a completed web site, that they themselves keep moving.

Finally, most clients have no understanding of what it takes to accomplish even the most mundane tasks involved in building a web site. They might naively request a logo change, not understanding that the change might cause the re-building, re-formatting and re-testing of hundreds of page. This lack of understanding often puts you, the web designer, on a constant defensive footing, always fighting to explain the time and cost involved.

Only for the big boys and girls

In most cases, the only players able to play the web design game effectively are larger companies where a sales force is selling the services and one project is not allowed to monopolize the attention of the entire company. The dedicated sales force allows them to not squander the time of the high-tech workers on chasing business, but allows them to concentrate on the work at hand.

Larger companies also have the money and time required to set up detailed business practices, contracts and billing procedures that web site design projects seem to require. Much of the non-design work is merely "riding herd" on the project itself.

Finally, with so many individuals hanging out a web design shingle today it can be very difficult to get a good price for your services. Too many clients have decided that their cousin Johnny can do just as good a job for 1/2 the price. Frankly, it isn't worth the time or energy for an independent web designer to go chasing after this type of work. In fact, most web design companies have a minimum project budget, whether it is $10,000, $100, 000 or more. They simply won't take on projects that don't show a large commitment on the part of the client. Coming from my shallow end of the web design pond I can certainly see why they have such minimums. Too many times I have spent discussing web design projects only to have them never come to a contract, let alone, fruition. Frustration comes so easily when working as an independent high-tech worker. You don't need to go out and actively search for it.

Simply said, don't depend on generating large amounts of income working as an independent web designer. You are far better off partnering with larger web development companies who need your particular skills. Spending too much of your time looking for that 1 project in 10 that actually gets developed is a sure road to frustration and poverty.

Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on Douglas' web page at:

He can reached via email at

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