December 8, 2023

You’re the Boss: How We Hired a Web Developer

Thinking Entrepreneur

Several months ago, I wrote about my revelation that I needed (as opposed to wanted) to redo all of my Web sites. Two are e-commerce and three are informational. Like many companies, I have tried to keep up with the Internet revolution, and I think I’ve done O.K. My revelation was that O.K. is no longer good enough if you are in an industry that has seen shopping behaviors change because of the Internet. Are there any industries that haven’t?

I have had enough experience building and maintaining Web sites to know that this is trickier than it might appear. I am not looking to make my Web sites better; I am looking to make them great. Why? Return on investment. I am confident that a better Web site will pay for itself, either in increased traffic or higher conversion rates. It can be easy to be intimidated by the price of a new site, but if you spread the costs over four years and consider the potential return, the numbers start to look different. Also, I  have concluded that hiring the wrong firm to build the sites would be a very expensive and disruptive experience that would dramatically affect the performance of my companies over the next year or two.

Before we embarked on this initiative, I made a commitment to myself that I would be far more careful, deliberate and thorough than I have been when hiring important vendors in the past, whether it was choosing a bank, an accountant, or an advertising firm. Not only is the cost of a mistake with the Web sites much harder to fix, the product and services that we are looking for are more complex and intertwined with the operations of my company, from marketing to production to sales to accounting. That is the hard part of hiring a Web designer.

The easier part is having something to compare, contrast and analyze. For example, I have probably interviewed 40 or 50 accounting firms and banks over the years. They have their pitches down. The banks tell you that they are into relationships. The accounting firms say they do everything, including hand holding. What else can you look at when interviewing them? Their office furniture? The vault? Their calculators? Their season tickets at the baseball stadium? I can tell you from experience that there can be little relationship between a good sales pitch and a good bank or accounting firm. An advertising agency can show you great ads for other clients — and then be clueless when it comes to creating something for you. But Web development companies have fewer places to hide.

It starts with their own sites. If they’re not done well, that’s not a good sign. And then there are the sites they have built for other companies. Do they have any clients with goals that are similar to yours? Do they normally do sites for much bigger companies? Or for much smaller? Do their customers speak glowingly about them and say things like, “they don’t nickel and dime you. They communicate clearly. They are very direct when they think you are wrong. They are quick to resolve problems.” Do you like the sites they have shown you? And how do they react when you start asking questions?

We always had plenty of good questions — my employees include an interesting mix of people with different backgrounds, experiences and expectations. The person in charge of my biggest Web site had all kinds of insights that you can only gain if you are in the trenches everyday — like concerns about how to handle back orders or how to update products. My chief financial officer had his own expectations of what the software was going to have to do to interface with our accounting software, and my vice president still has open wounds from trying to fix our existing software and is determined to tame this beast and enjoy the benefits.

We started the search process by asking people we know for recommendations. That netted us three candidates — two local and one out of town. In addition, my Internet director did some research on the best shopping-cart software and came up with a company in Boston that had an impressive portfolio. From the start, the local vendors had an advantage because they were local. It is not only nice to be able to have live meetings, it saves the cost of occasional travel.

We got quotes from three of the four companies. The fourth was eliminated because it gave us bad information about the software, and we didn’t like its own site. All of the trophy accounts it showed off were divisions of big companies, which didn’t impress us. There were no “hip”smaller sites. Eventually, one horse in this three-horse race pulled ahead. And then won by a mile.

It was the Boston company. It had better answers and a more thorough understanding of what needed to be done. And the team it sent did not consist of sales people. That’s right — they were not sales people, which might have made them the best sales people of all. As it happens, the Boston company’s quote came in much higher than the others’. We asked why. And they explained. First of all, they said they do market analysis before they start building a site. That made sense to me. They also explained that there was no way the other quotes we were getting could include everything that they believed we needed. We checked, and they were right.

When told that he didn’t get the job, one of the candidates complained that he had been misled because he had asked early on what our budget would be. Our manager had guessed, and he guessed wrong — by about 100 percent. I wasn’t involved at this point, but if I had been I would have asked how we could possibly have a budget for something we know so little about. We want a great Web site. How much will that cost?

Perhaps Sales 101 suggests asking a potential client for a budget. I would argue that Being Professional 101 includes solving the problem. Doctors and lawyers don’t ask about a budget. They tell you what it is going to cost to solve your problem. While price is always an issue, it shouldn’t be the main one for hiring someone who is as important as an accountant, lawyer or Web developer.

We flew four people, including the president of the company, into Chicago to get all of the background, details and expectations fleshed out. It went well. I only spent about 30 minutes with them, but I did what I believe to be my part. I told everyone in the room that if something wasn’t going right at any point, it needed to be addressed and fixed. On both sides. No politics. No not wanting to get anyone in trouble. No nonsense.

I made it clear that my people would do whatever they were supposed to do to keep this project on schedule. But if they don’t, call me. I don’t want to hear excuses later. The president said that this is exactly how he operates, and we all sang Kumbaya. All right, we didn’t actually sing it, but we did eat pizza. In Chicago, it’s practically the same thing.

It is now a couple of months later, and things are going well. We feel confident that we made the right choice, and we are looking forward to finishing the project, which will take many more months. I will follow-up later in the year.

Jay Goltz owns five small businesses in Chicago.

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