Selecting a Web Development Firm: Part 2

Last week we talked about the criteria to use to determine which developer is for you. We only got to number three before ClickZ kicked me off my soapbox. So this week we’ll finish up with criteria four and five and then discuss some of the things you should put into the contract when you seal the deal.

The Recap

To quickly recap the first three criteria:

  1. Size of Firm – unless you have a rich uncle, small businesses can really afford only small firms (20 or less people).
  2. Location – local firms are better, given all other qualifications are equal.
  3. Client List – active clients mean more than total clients. Make sure the projects they’ve done are similar to what you want them to do, and remember that it isn’t always the web design firm’s fault if a client decides to leave.

    OK, let’s bring this puppy home! Here are criteria four and five.

  4. Depth of skills

    Succeeding on the Internet requires three major sets of skills – design skills, marketing skills, and technical skills. In my five years of doing this stuff, I’ve come to the conclusion that technical skills are most critical. Here’s why:

    You can buy any one of a dozen programs that will let the novice generate a decent-looking site. You can buy any one of a hundred books that will teach enough Internet-marketing theory to launch a program that gets some results. But unless you have superhuman intelligence and a lot of time, there is no number of books or programs that can teach you to build custom web applications like a skilled programmer.

    And, frankly, people will forgive the way a site looks if it functions the way they want it to.

    So go with the folks that know how to actually build it.

  5. Organizational Compatibility

    And finally, ask yourself: “How much do you like these guys?” Anyone you are entrusting with the future of your online business needs to be someone who thinks like you do. If not, you’re going to have nothing but clashes. Remember, you are entering into a relationship.

Negotiating the Contract

So now you’ve made your decision, and it is time to sit down and negotiate the deal. Here are the terms you should include:

  • Pay half of the estimated costs up-front, and pay the balance on delivery.

    This is good for both sides. They get some cash right away; you get some leverage that the project gets done.

  • Either own all the content that makes up your site or at least be entitled to a royalty-free license.

    Many web development firms recycle software code. It is wasteful to start from scratch writing new code to solve a problem that was already solved for another client. And with all the free code floating around on the Internet, sometimes web development firms modify a free piece of code to do what they need. Given such practices, ownership is a thorny issue.

    The way it is typically handled is if the code can be reused for other clients, the web development firm grants every client whose site uses that code a royalty-free license – meaning you can use it anywhere, anytime, as long as you don’t sell the code by itself. An example of this would be a program that turns form data into an email message.

    If the code was developed exclusively for your use, and no one else can really use it, then you should negotiate to own it. An example of this would be a program written exclusively to generate a custom report for you.

  • The site should be portable, regardless of where it is running.

    Be sure that the site is designed in such a way that you can easily pick it up and move it to another server if you want. Who knows, maybe your web development firm gets bought by a bigger firm you don’t like, and you decide to move the site somewhere else. The last thing you want to hear from the firm is: “Oh, your site won’t work on another server because we used some wacky proprietary technology.” Get it in writing that the site will be designed in such a way that it can be moved somewhere else with only minor modification.

  • If the cost of any work exceeds 20 percent of the estimate, the web development firm needs to get approval before finishing.

    Costs for web development can be kind of hairy because sometimes no one knows the scope of the problem until they are in it deep. To protect yourself from a surprise bill, request that the web development firm notify you if it looks like the work will be more than 20 percent of what they quoted you. It protects the web development firm, too, because it forces them to audit the project.

In Conclusion

So there you have it – the basics of finding a firm and negotiating the deal.

Tune in next week when I’ll uncover one of the biggest scams aimed at small businesses online: auto-submission tools.

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