Note: This post was updated July 2014.
Have you ever had a great idea for a website? Are you at a loss as to how to build it? Is it even a good idea in the first place? Who should you hire?
It’s one thing to have an idea for a site. Turning that idea into an elegant, functional and user-friendly website is another monster entirely.
The best way to take your idea from conception to completion, and make sure your site gets built as close as possible to the way you envisioned it, is to know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.
1. Determine What It Is
The point at which “It’s a website” isn’t good enough anymore.
Start by making sure that the idea you have in mind is a practical, solid one. Some good questions to ask yourself include:
- How is building a website going to benefit my business? My art? Myself?
- Is the internet a medium where my idea can thrive? (Hint: not if it’s a 500 page novel!)
- Is my idea original? (If you don’t know, research it!)
- What problems will my idea solve for people?
- Who are my competitors, and how is their business doing?
- Will people use the site?
In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a lot of crap on the internet. It’s mostly crap, in fact. If I had to estimate the amount of crap on the internet like a jar of jelly beans, I’d say that 95% of websites on the internet are worthless crap. And that’s me being generous.
Another common misconception: “I need a website!” We’ve all heard this from clients, and when web tinkerers ask their clients questions like “Why?” and “Where’s the content?” and “Who are your customers?” they often get a blank stare in response. Don’t be that person.
2. Outline the Goals
Where’s the finish line?
Every project has a desired outcome. Once you figure out what the website is, you have to figure out what it’s going to accomplish. Ask yourself a few more questions:
- What actions will users be performing on the site?
- How often will users be visiting?
- Do I need a blog or other regularly updated content?
- Do I want to sell products on the site?
These are the kinds of questions we ask our clients. They help us evaluate exactly what our clients need out of their website, what the end goals are, and what needs to be built. That should help get you started.
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Trying to compete with a behemoth like Amazon by creating an ecommerce site without any unique spin on it is a sure path to failure. Not that you can’t compete with them: but know what you’re up against.
Also, if your idea can be built off an existing platform, then let that platform do the legwork for you. It will save you lots of time, money, and headaches. A lot of app ideas start that way. Facebook apps, for example, are built off of an existing platform and they have seen a lot of success.
This flowchart is also a savvy litmus test for your website idea.
3. Figure Out How It’s Going To Be Built
Learn what tools you need and define the scope of the project.
Websites vary greatly in the amount of time, effort, and money it takes to build them.
A photography portfolio is on the lower end of the time/effort/money scale, for example. They are not typically too complex, and the web has been around long enough that free, customizable content management systems are available in abundance that are adequate to get the job done. Same with blogs. You can use an existing platform (like Tumblr or Blogger), or you can download WordPress and install it on your own server.
Not every website is so easy to create. Web apps are more complex and costly due to the necessity for back-end development (read: complex programming for customized functionality). eCommerce sites can be a massive drain on time and budgets simply because of their sheer size. Adding all the products, descriptions, a checkout system, user login, a settings panel, etc., and keeping everything up-to-date requires a lot of time and human resources.
The scope of the project is like its blueprint: what’s being built, what it needs to do, all the features included, et cetera. If you’re not sure what your scope is, an experienced design and development agency can help you define it during a paid discovery session. Once that’s done, you can get a fairly accurate estimate of the time and cost of completing it.
Underestimating what it takes to build a website is a very common pitfall with uninitiated entrepreneurs, and can become a point of contention if these issues are not cleared up early in the project.
Web Style Guide has a great article on scope, risk assessment, budget, and much more.
4. Find Someone to Build It
Do it yourself? — or hire a pro?
Now that you know what kind of website you want to build and how much work it will take to build it, you have to decide whether you’re going to build it yourself or hire someone to build it for you.
If you are comfortable with computers, and the idea is pretty simple (a blog, for example), then you might well be able to do it yourself. But there is a lot to learn if you’ve never tried building a website before. Even with all the free, customizable software out there, delving into the coding side of things can be extremely frustrating for first-timers. Let alone metrics and marketing, social media, and professionally tailored design. Learning these skills takes time and you may be better off investing some money to have a group of professionals build it for you.
This is especially true with web applications, which are notoriously more complex than your standard website. For these you often need a design and a development team.
There are many design and development teams out there, and they all produce different work in different ways, and many only take on certain kinds of projects. For example, at The Phuse we offer design, development and strategy through an iterative process—meaning we use a constant feedback loop to move work forward. We prefer projects with budgets of over $10,000. This way, we get to work on cool websites and applications from the ground up and we’re much more involved in developing the product, which we enjoy.
Do some research and ask friends/colleagues who they’d recommend. Choose a team that works best with you and you trust to make your idea a reality.
5. Find The Time and Money to Build It
… and come prepared!
Even if you decide to use all free software (i.e. a WordPress blog with a free theme), and do it all yourself, time is money, and the time you invest into building the site is time that could be spent creating content or marketing it.
Which brings us to another point: make sure you have valuable content ready before you launch the site. That means investing time and effort.
There is nothing more wasteful in the web design business than a pretty site with zero content value. Think Traffic has an excellent article on the value of epic content with specific examples from successful websites.
Whether you do it yourself or hire someone to build it, everything costs time and money. When you’re doing it yourself, hosting typically charges per month and domain names charge per year. Web development companies either charge hourly or a flat fee for the whole project. There are benefits and drawbacks to both ways that we won’t go into right now.
Website projects cost anywhere from $500 to over $50,000. It would be impossible to list all the different possibilities. If you aren’t sure, crunch the numbers yourself or (once again) get a professional estimate.
Don’t have a lot of money?
That’s okay, many entrepreneurs don’t! Here’s what we recommend:
- Learn about pitching to VCs. Contrary to popular benefit, venture capitalist investment is about more than money—it’s about creating partnerships that can grow and sustain your business and keep you accountable.
- Start going to accelerators and meetups where you can meet like-minded people. This might be events in the industry you want to break into, or pitch/entrepreneur meetups. When it comes to accelerators, Startup Weekend is a really valuable experience in sketching out ideas and leaving with stellar prototypes.
- Consider crowdfunding. If your idea is really fantastic, create a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign to get started. Just make sure that you’re prepared to fulfill those perks and bring your idea to fruition!
6. Make Sure You’ve Got The Follow Through
Follow through is everything.
The biggest killer of good website ideas is a lack of follow through. Make sure—before you start—that you have the nerve to see it through. Overnight successes are the exception, not the rule. Sometimes new brands and products stagnant for years before they find success. But then, that’s true about many things in life, and if you’re really serious about your idea, you already knew that.
Once the site is built, your job is far from over! The type of follow up depends largely on what type of site you’re running. With a blog, for example, nearly all of the time and effort are put in after the site launches. Content continually needs to be added.
If you built a portfolio, it’s important to keep it updated and relevant. Last year Google added a relevancy factor to its search rankings to improve the quality of results.
Cameron Kellogg also has some good advice about follow through from a business standpoint.
There are many opportunities out there for a successful website, whether it’s a business or a blog. Yours may be the next big thing!