You’ve found yourself with a going concern and need a home on the internet. Maybe your business is just getting started, or things are going well enough that you’ve outgrown your current online presence. Whatever the cause, you know that a website shaped thing is in your future. So now what?
A Website’s Purpose
People build websites for many different reasons, but sometimes they build them without knowing what the reason is. Here are a few ideas:
- To market a product or service
- To showcase writing, case studies, or some kind of portfolio
- To educate an audience
- To sell things (ecommerce)
- To be an online home
There are decisions you need to make at this point. What is your website for? If more than one purpose comes to mind it’s time to order them in order of importance. In the game of prioritization there can only be a single first priority, and other purposes need to be supportive. To do otherwise is to create a situation where nothing stands out because everything is trying to be the star. You can have multiple purposes for a website as long as one is primary.
How do you decide on the purpose of your website? Think about who you want to visit the website and the actions you hope they will take as a result. What do they want? How does what they want overlap with what you want? Look to your existing customers and customers you wish you had for inspiration. See what your competitors are doing and try to imagine how you can distinguish yourself from them. Don’t be afraid to give it an educated guess when the answers aren’t obvious. The beauty of the web is that nothing is set in stone.
Finding Someone to Work With
Once you’ve decided on your website’s purpose and priorities, it’s time to figure out how to build it. This will usually involve finding a partner who can help you get it done at a price you can afford. Let’s look at some options at a few different budget levels, keeping in mind that choosing someone to work with involves trade offs in cost, efficiency, and quality. You need to find a balance you are happy with because you can’t have everything thing.
The quality of self-serve, no-code website building tools has increased tremendously over the last several years. There’s never been an easier time to get a quality website economically or without learning to code. The obvious starting place are templated and hosted offerings like Squarespace (you’ve probably heard them advertised on at least one podcast). You may be happy with where a hosted, templated service gets you, but want just a bit more customization. There are professional designers and developers that specialize in just that. The cost for that type of work will typically be much less than building a website from scratch.
You may be tempted by more complex no-code solutions like Webflow, but you will likely need to hire a professional to make your vision real. Webflow may not require code, but that doesn’t mean it is not complex. This is a particularly good option if you have a marketing department with a designer on staff, but cannot invest in hiring a development team.
As I’ve built websites over the years, I have been approached by people who do not have the budget to pay a professional to build a custom site for them. I’ve typically referred them to templated tools like Squarespace and have sometimes walked them through how it works. If their business succeeds and grows, they will likely need a custom site at some point, and their budget will reflect that. In the meantime, they can have a quality website and get a feel for what they will need in the future.
When it becomes clear that you need a custom site, finding the right partner to help you build it can be confusing. I’ve worked in agencies that specialize in designing and building websites, and partnered with engineering firms who specialize in more intensive backend development. In my experience, design agencies are, appropriately enough, good at building beautiful websites and are not afraid to code novel experiences from scratch. Engineering firms will typically be more skilled at tackling heavy duty data problems and building performant web applications. Some larger projects can require a partnership between a design agency and an engineering firm, or hiring a larger services firm with both specialties in-house.
In higher budget scenarios like this, the process by which things are built can be more tailored to the client. You will likely have a project manager keeping your project on track and giving you visibility into how things are going. They serve as an ongoing bridge between you and the people designing and building your website. When you have a big budget, the sky is really the limit on getting something great built.
Mid Cost (the goldilocks option)
An alternative that I have seen work is hiring solo designer/developers. That’s what I do, and I have seen many people do this successfully. Typically, a solo builder will have a system that it is best to follow to get the best results. They will have preferred tools, technologies, and processes that have led to successful projects over time.
Clients can typically expect a longer term 1:1 relationship with the builder and to invest more of their own time in the process. As the website comes together, expect to come away from meetings with homework, like writing content or collecting photography. In general, this is a more collaborative process that can yield high quality results. Think of it like a house renovation. You can leave everything up to the builder, but things go smoother if you help clean up the worksite at the end of each day to make sure they can spend all their available time doing what you’re paying them to do. Likewise, being communicative about what you like and don’t like instead of waiting for them to read your mind and impress you is a good approach to your home and to websites.
Relying on a single builder can induce anxiety, as people’s life circumstances and availability can change over time. However, solo builders are often tied into a community of other builders that allow them to expand capabilities through partnership or hand off responsibility to a peer if their circumstances change in the future.
How to Build a Website
create a text file called
paste the following code into it,
<html> <head> <title>My Website</title> </head> <body> <h1>Welcome to my website</h1> <p>Happy to have you</p> </body> </html>
upload it to a server,
and point your domain name records to that server’s IP address.
So, which web technologies would be useful for you? It depends.
- Do you want to be able to quickly update the content of your website in a easy to use interface, or even create new pages and expand what your website offers? Then you probably want a Content Management System (CMS). Traditionally a CMS is bundled into a complete website package, but there are now services that allow you manage all your content separately from your website. This can be helpful if you want to use the same content on multiple websites or in mobile applications.
- Do you think you’ll need to update things less frequently and would prefer a professional does it for you? Then you likely would be happy with something like a Static Site Generator, which are easy to deploy and typically load very quickly without extra work.
- Do you have a team that is in charge of your website? If so, what are they used to working with? There’s an old saying describing how to choose a technology in the days before Microsoft ushered in the PC revolution, “nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM.” There is an equivalent to the safe choice of pre-Microsoft IBM in the website world. It’s called Wordpress. However, the priorities of your team may push you to consider options that give a better experience to the website administrator, like my personal favorite Craft.
- Do you need to take payments on your website or sell something that automates what you need for fulfillment? There are several ecommerce options out there for you, from the fully hosted behemoth Shopify, to commerce plugins like WooCommerce.
All these questions can lead you and then partner you work with to a variety of options. My advice is think about options that have a proven track record for people in similar situations to yours. Picking something meant for a much bigger company can lead to too much administration on your part, while picking something that is too simple can lead to frustrating limitations. A short digression can illustrate.
My advice is to pay enough attention to the technology to know whether or not you are being swept up in a trendy wave that may not serve you in the long run.
Get To It
So that’s my answer for what to do when you realize you need a website. If you’d like some help, reach out. Let’s talk about it.