The following article was published in:

Marketing of High-Technology Products and Innovations
by Jakki Mohr, Ph.D.
Prentice Hall, 2001.

Two Common Pitfalls
in Developing A Web Site

Mark Hair Mug Shot
Mark Hair
Project Manager / Developer
BaseCamp Interactive, Principal

A Web site is a company's window into the Internet economy. How well the site represents that company or fulfills the functionality intended defines that company's prospects in the new economy. There are two mistakes I see happening consistently for those hoping to outsource a well-designed Web site:

  • Underestimating the cost, and
  • Failing to align the site properly with business plans.

The number one mistake people make is to underestimate and fail to plan for the cost. Though it is still possible for the little guy to put up a site along side the big guy and publish to the world, the bar has been raised dramatically in terms of content quality (a.k.a. production values), site interactivity, and application functionality, in addition to the major cost and effort in getting customers to view a site.

Many people seem to believe that with a few thousand dollars, they can throw up a respectable Web site and people will come flocking to it. This mistaken belief arises in part due to the industry's low barriers to entry in which, like desktop publishing, it started as a cottage industry with some practitioners of dubious skills.

Suffice it to say, even small sites can require substantial budgets. The reason for this is that all sites must follow a well-established process known by many names, but for clarity, let's call it the software and content development lifecycle. Many tasks in this lifecycle, such as concepting the site, don't scale with the size of the site. Therefore, such overhead tasks—any tasks that are global in nature—will add the same cost to a small site as to a medium or large one. In addition, it is well established in software engineering that mistakes caught and corrected in the first tasks of development, such as requirements gathering, can cost up to 100 times less to fix than those caught in the latter phases—one of the many reasons for following such discipline. Production economies of scale contribute to this as well. These and other factors must be conveyed to clients in explaining why a small site often is not that much less expensive to build than a medium-sized site.

To avoid the mistake of under-funding a site, start by choosing a quality developer. The developer should be able to articulate the lifecycle of Web development to your satisfaction, and should insist that you follow this lifecycle. The lifecycle should be iterative, and tailored to the size and complexity of the project. With a little education on the importance of these tried-and-true software engineering principles, clients understand how following the process can actually enable the realization of the vision for their Web site most efficiently, thus reducing costs.

Further concerning cost, consider two words—"intellectual capital." Not only is the Internet economy a new business paradigm, it's a constantly changing sea of technological innovation. It draws from a workforce whose knowledge of their industry is made obsolete annually or sooner, requiring them to constantly reeducate themselves. This demands driven, academically-minded, creative and technical talent. They must be bent on reinventing the future of interactive media technology, and be willing to spend their "free time" studying new programming languages and developing leading-edge techniques. Rates are necessarily commensurate with the effort and cost in acquiring and maintaining these skills. How a developer attracts top talent can vary dramatically. BaseCamp Interactive employs the concept of collaborative virtual teaming, meaning we maintain a core team for creative and technology direction, management, and core development and production, and subcontract other expertise project-by-project as needed. The advantages of such a model are low overhead which translates to lower cost for the client, and the utilization of experts who are self-employed and highly skilled and motivated in their craft. Moreover, we work via the Web (surprise!), which allows people to create in their most productive environments, their own studios or offices. Collaborative virtual teaming is a business model whose time has come.

What can a company do when the estimate for the Web site is substantially higher than their budget? They must either find the necessary funding, or narrow the project scope to meet a pre-established budget. Which course is more prudent depends on their expectations for the site, and how well those expectations align with their business plan, as discussed below in mistake number two. The bottom line is, to attract the eyeballs of a target audience, the bar is high now, very high.

The second most common mistake, in my opinion, is not putting one's Web site in proper perspective—that is to say, treating the Web site as if it is either:

  • a) an afterthought, a necessary evil for being in business these days, or
  • b) the only truly important aspect of the business where, say, 80% of newly acquired capital should be invested.

Generally, a Web site should be neither.

To be more specific, taking approach "a" above, means not fully understanding the significance of a Web presence. How a company is perceived directly along side its competitors on the Web will make a huge impact on how it is perceived overall. In fact, the Web site will often be a customer's first impression, especially for the most motivated "pull" customers who seek out a company even before it seeks them out. Don't underestimate the value of the Web site in forming your company ethos.

In approach "b" above, the naive company puts the majority of resources into its site, but underestimates the cost and complexity of its fulfillment systems, distribution systems, and marketing. The lesson here is that whether or not a company is a Web-oriented business, it still has the same challenges businesses have been solving for decades.

The Internet economy is not a re-write of traditional economics. It is only an extension, and one should neither expect it to bring fabulous wealth just because the Web site "is there," nor should one give it the "quick treatment" with a skeptical eye. Don't leave business fundamentals at the door!

In today's Internet economy, a Web site must be fully integrated with the business plan. Make the Web site spending and emphasis realistic and congruent with the business plan. The site should fulfill the goals and requirements targeted during the initial phase of the development lifecycle, and utilize a bit of Internet-economy savvy.

Final Thoughts: Choosing a Web Site Developer

Choose a developer based on reputation, not based on the bid, unless the bid seems to be outside industry norms. Be sure to compare apples to apples in terms of the quality of developers you're soliciting, or their bid range will vary wildly and be confusing. Once chosen, make that developer a partner in meeting your goals, a much more positive approach than working as an adversary.