The Challenges Of Building a Site For a Friend

I often receive referrals or friends asking me to set up a WordPress website for them.

  • It’s usually something fairly small – such as a 5-page business website or a simple magazine website.
  • They are close friends of mine or have been recommended through my network.
  • They have received some offers, but are looking for a reliable solution instead of a shady freelancer or a random website building company.
Costs vs. Value

Generally speaking, I usually price services based on one of these two approaches:

  1. Free help for friends and family for trivial tasks and general guidance.
  2. High-profile work for customers – the one that includes everything that I believe is right for a professional solution and have built a team of 30+ to reinforce it.

There’s a fine line between both, and if my rough estimate crosses a certain number of hours, I just let them know that this would take too much time and we’d rather stop there. Not to mention that estimates are just insanely random. I can’t afford to spend weeks on charity work multiple times a month. And our retainers in DevriX generally start from $40K/year which isn’t a good fit for starting businesses.

However, I’m comfortable with people starting with a basic or simple solution when they are just laying the foundations of their business (or it’s in their initial phase). Once they get some traction, they could invest in a professional website and the right business growth strategy that would justify the investment.

If I decide to engage in a side activity for a friend, I face a few specific challenges. I’ll list the major ones further and explain how I deal with them.

Building the WordPress Frontend

Choosing a WordPress Theme Framework - from WPMU DEV
Choosing a WordPress Theme Framework – from WPMU DEV

I have a technical background backed with business and marketing know-how, I don’t specialize in design and frontend work. Since it’s a pro bono work, I have to pick a UI-driven solution for them that is good enough but doesn’t take forever to build and set up. There are few possible options for small sites:

  1. Custom design + Theme
  2. Use a theme framework
  3. Get a premium template
  4. Build a child theme for a free WP theme

Custom Design From Scratch

Building a good looking and mobile-friendly website from scratch is not trivial and usually takes more time than I would like to invest for a small site for a friend. We’ve spent months working on UX and UI alone with over 400 hours refining design elements for certain clients before starting the front-end development work at all.

So I usually rule this option out unless they could really afford it.

WordPress Theme Frameworks

Using a theme framework or a base theme is somewhere in the middle. It includes some basic library or sets the general structure, but the design is far from complete and requires some work – unless it’s an existing theme based on a framework, of course.

I’ve experimented with a bunch of these but it simply doesn’t work out. They are either bloated or require more or less the same amount of work. Underscores is a good barebone theme, but it’s not much different than starting from scratch. We’ve built our DX Starter theme based on _s while including a set of libraries and helper functions that we’re using across customer projects.

Premium WordPress Themes

Lately, I’ve been fairly disappointed by the majority of the premium themes that I’ve tried out – often the worst picks coming from the popular marketplaces. I usually disagree with their development strategy, the way they build their page templates, the architecture of their theme options or something else.

I also have various ideas in the MVP phase that I’d like to quickly push and try out in practice before there’s any need to invest in a better scaled and automated option. However, our main requirements are conventional and compatible code and clean look and feel, and it’s incredibly hard to find something good looking that isn’t bloated and doesn’t take forever to configure and set up.

Child Theme

What I usually end up is a WordPress.org theme that is extended through a Child Theme. I could easily try it out with some sample data, the code has been reviewed by the WPTRT and it’s a great start for everyone. Over the past year and a half a number of freelancers and agencies have contributed appealing and even functional themes that are light, extensible, well-coded and easy to use, which is a great start for a small business or trying out a business idea.

Here’s the free WordPress.org theme directory.

Standard Plugins vs. Custom Solutions

Each website is unique in its own way. Sometimes an integration with a given 3rd party service is needed, or simple components such as a contact form, social media box, stats engine or so forth.

Some of them may be available in Jetpack or another WordPress.org plugin (or affordable premium solutions). Occasionally, the difference between the off-the-shelf option and what a client wants is notable.

In this case, I have a conversation with my friend discussing the pros and cons of both options. If a good, well-coded plugin exists that does 80% or 90% of the work, we’ll use it. Otherwise, a custom plugin would have to be coded, which would cost a lot, so it’s up to them whether they really depend on that feature when going live.

They usually don’t. Especially comparing “free” to “free + $2,500 for two specific features that are to be added into the existing plugin X“.

I also don’t allow the usage of any bloated and poorly coded WordPress plugins. Often it’s trivial to find security and performance issues in the first 10-15min of browsing the code, and different deprecated or incompatible functions that would cause problems later on.

I’ve been maintaining a list of common scalability problems with WordPress websites which keeps growing as we get contacted by various businesses constrained by their existing site.

Marketing Strategy

Building a successful business is a combination of a high-quality service + marketing and sales efforts. Even if your solution is the best out there, it means nothing if no one has ever heard of it.

The HubSpot Inbound marketing methodology

But it also requires continuous work and effort in order to bring it to the larger market. Even if advertising is not on the table, there are things that could be done from the clients’ perspective that could boost a business with zero investment (or at a small cost). And if you could earn $5 for each dollar you invest in, you’d be more than happy to invest a thousand if that results in $5,000.

My main go-to resource is KISSmetrics’ list of 35 Growth Hacking Tools for non-coders. The list includes different marketing tools, social media automators, email capture forms, advanced analytics, landing page builders, polls, email newsletter services and more. The list allows my friends to dig more into the power of the Internet when it comes to promotion, inbound marketing and conversion rate tracking, which is a great start for their selling strategy as well.

If you want to take a sneak peek at growth strategies in some of the hyper-growth companies, Robbie Richards got you covered. He has conducted a detailed research of 77 successful companies such as Airbnb and Evernote and compiled the following free article: Growth Hacking: Strategies & Tactics Learned Studying 77 Hyper-Growth Companies.

Preparing the Copy

Sitemap and copy for the average website
Sitemap and copy for the average website

Copywriting is a pretty specific craft.

Let’s face it – in theory, everyone can write content. We learn that at the age of 4, 6, 7, but at the end of the day, all of us are capable of producing some text that makes sense.

It’s not the same with design, programming or anything else – writing a page is doable by a first-grade student as well.

That’s why people assume that writing copy for their site is straightforward. But it isn’t. I’ve seen plenty of ugly websites with engaging copy that converts much better than beautiful websites with poor copy.

Which is why I forward Copy Hackers, copyblogger and several other resources to my friends. It’s their niche and they should know their target audience and buyer persona. They know what people look for, what they desperately need, and what’s in for them.

I help them with some basic copy based on the theme that we pick, and point them to some of their competitors for ideas and inspiration regarding the copy style and what would they need to cover.

Hosting Setup

Hosting is essential for every single website out there. I tell my clients that it’s their website’s house – you can live in the suburbs, in a dangerous neighborhood where everything could happen to your website, or in a comfy and convenient house with a great balcony. When people visit over for a dinner, they would rather go to a beautiful place in a safe hood instead of a dangerous and half-broken house.

Which is why I set up my friends with SiteGround as a viable alternative to low traffic and affordable monthly fee. They’ve been involved with the WordPress community for quite some time now, and I know most of the technical folks there – some of them contribute to various open source platforms including the Linux kernel itself. Their starter plan is under $10/month which is a good fit for a starting business, allows for growth later on and includes SSH access and other important features out of the box, which makes the deployment and maintenance a bit easier.

Combined with CloudFlare, Sucuri, and a good set of caching layers, things get much better for a starting business on WordPress.

Ongoing Support

All of the above could be done in a matter of hours, or a weekend (realistically) without too much trouble. However, supporting a WordPress website may be a challenge.

Speaking at conferences and teaching people at courses over the past 10 years, I’ve been noticing a growing trend affecting users being unable to work with WordPress. What we find trivial – such as editing a page, adding a menu element, uploading an image or changing the permalinks – seems to be quite a challenge for new users.

A while back WordPress was the most usable platform in comparison to its competitors; however, with Wix, Squarespace, Tumblr and other blogging/website platforms, people got used to clean and simplified interface, fewer options, lesser menus and simplified process overall.

Projects such as Gutenberg (still a plugin) aim to bridge that gap soon. Until then, we’ll end up spending a good chunk of time onboarding non-technical customers and holding their hands for weeks, if not months, until they get comfortable with the platform.

In addition to the large number of free plugins adding more and more options and the process of updating WordPress, it gets challenging for people.

So I do several things to help them start:

  • Install Video User Manuals inside of their dashboard – a collection of 80+ videos for starters, which seems to save a lot of time and teach users on WordPress basics
  • Set them up with ManageWP or automated backups with BackUpWordPress
  • Add an UptimeRobot monitor for website availability and possible site issues

At the end, I sign them up for our Webmasters newsletter on DevriX that teaches newbie users the basics of user experience, SEO, the difference between a “lego” website and a custom solution, caching, security and more. The newsletter is sent once a week, which doesn’t waste too much of their time, but helps them to learn more about the craft, why some websites cost hundreds of thousands (or millions) and how is that related to a successful business.

From there on, once their business gets some traction, they could appreciate the value and invest in the right solution that would automate their process and grow with their business.


 

So, what type of setup do you use for your MVPs or how do you build your friends’ ones? 

14 thoughts on “The Challenges Of Building a Site For a Friend

  1. The majority of people will not recognize the need for a custom website. Even if you build a great website and devote a lot of effort and time in the process, they won’t appreciate it. They will just compare the look of your site to the look and feel of a premium or free WP theme and judge your work based on this comparison. That is why it is very important that your clients are informed on what work is involved in the development of a custom site/theme and why it is necessary for them to choose a custom solution.

    I recently read a discussion on the matter of building a WordPress site for a friend. What most people agreed upon in this discussion was that friends usually expect you to lower the price for what they need from you, but instead of doing that, you should offer them an extra feature or service.

    1. I agree on informing the customers what’s the difference and everything. I had a client asking a few agencies for a pretty large project (multisite with hundreds of subsites) and none of the other agencies mentioned staging environment or deployment strategy. They felt as if we were cheating in order to get more money.

      I had to give a practical example on what happens in practice. That was pretty frustrating since it should be mandatory for all service providers.

      As I said about pricing above, I’d either charge the full suite (which is not affordable for most clients) or do a free work for close friends, that’s all. There are plenty of freelancers and agencies building cheap solutions, and sooner or later those clients reach out to us or a serious provider for a REAL solution. At least they can see why their cheap thing didn’t work out.

  2. Mario,

    You’ve made a very interesting comment on people not being able to do basic things in WordPress, e.g. editting a post.

    But, I’d assume it does need a bit of training to get them there. Although WP today is a lot more bloated that it was a couple of years ago, I think the core functionality still remains. For a new user, it is probably easier to suggest that they steer clear of the advanced admin functionality.

    However, that’s where charging to maintain their site would probably come into the picture.

    1. Hey Ajay, the main problem here is that there are plenty of systems for small businesses that are incredibly simplified (admin-wise), or include front end editing that is straight forward for the webmasters. Since this is drastically reducing the learning curve, larger businesses that have 10-30 authors find it much easier to use a similar solution since the training efforts are multiplied by 10, 20 or 30 and you can see how this becomes a very expensive investment.

      And there are still small businesses – like local newsletters or blogs – that are fairly profitable and sell advertising space or premium posts, and have large teams of authors and editors. It’s probably not the largest audience ever, but this is a great potential client for a WordPress-driven website that we don’t serve in the best possible manner by default.

  3. Great article, Mario! It actually makes me rethink my own approach which. Tbh, I’ve come to avoid working for friends altogether. Instead, I rather forward them to other friends whom I consider WordPress professionals.

    I’ve done quite an amount of work for friends in the past, both free and paid, and I’ve found it didn’t do well to the friendship part always. Basically, there were 2 types of issues I kept running into:

    I kept calculating way too “friendly” when money got involved, ending up delivering professional results for a price far below of what I would have felt comfortable with.
    When I had calculated more realistically, we were often dealing with numbers that would put my friend under a lot of pressure. Spending a couple of thousands for a website turned out a real challenge for some of them.

    Pressure tends to bring out the best or worst of a person—more of the worst, I’ve found, when money’s in the equation. I would find myself in situations where I had to deal with somebody I considered a friend who all of a sudden started emoting all over me like I was ripping them of.

    Meaning to rather keep a friendship by not making my service available, I finally stopped working for friends. Which of course doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do anyone a favor. I do! I just avoid having money involved. As you say, if pre-calculation reaches a certain number of hours (in my case usually anything beyond of what I can do on a Saturday afternoon), or if I don’t feel comfortable doing it, I tell them I won’t do it and forward them to somebody I know they’d be in good hands with.

    1. Hey Caspar,

      I totally hear you. I’ve been there and I know the drill – and unfortunately at some point of time you need to become the “bad guy” and start saying “NO” a lot. You may seem arrogant at times, but it’s unrealistic to be able to satisfy everyone.

      Over the years I’ve spoken in front of tens of thousands of people at training courses, conferences or other events. I get at least a few questions/requests a week for different things related to WordPress. They vary from: “Why does this function fail on my website”, to: “can you build this small plugin for me” and I’ve completely given up on helping these personal requests.

      I let all of them know that given my network of thousands of people (or more) contacting me several times a week, I’m not able to assist everyone without turning that into my full-time job. So I usually link some support forums to them in one of the groups/communities I am a member of. This way people with more spare time and motivation can help them, and I can still take a look should I find some time before I go to bed.

      It’s similar with my peers – I can quickly help them if it’s something small and I happen to have some time, or I simply refer them to someone else. Our pricing is transparent and available on our website, so I ask them to understand that we’re fully booked with clients who actually pay our rates. This means that we’re super busy and our services cost quite a lot, so they can contact someone else.

      One key thing that I do and I haven’t mentioned before is that I offer some free review or advise if they reach out to someone else outside of my referral list. Usually their main concern is “quality of the end product” and “cost that justifies the quality”. Therefore I offer them two quick sessions (email or a quick call):

      1) Reviewing the potential service provider and their quote (whether they’re experienced and/or whether their bid matches a given set of quality standards)
      2) Reviewing the work at some point of time – very quick code review and test of the website, in order to validate the quality again and send some tips for improvement, which may also include UX, caching tips, security issues, some vulnerable plugins or whatever.

      That usually takes up to two hours of my time which is totally fine for close friends and family. And I “certify” their solution so they feel assured that the end quality would match what’s been promised by the service provider.

      I feel that it’s a polite and yet very effective way to help without ruining your relationship or harming your business.

  4. Mario,
    Good stuff! We all run into that, I think.

    I had not seen a couple of those resources to refer them to, thanks especially for those!

    I almost tanked a friendship once: a very creative guy, but who could not accept the fact that a WYSIWYG editor would not make someone with zero art experience into an artist. Actually, everyone thinks that WYSIWYG will confer them with magic powers! Pretty funny.

    So like you, I scaled that way back. I’ll do it under conditions… I will offer them a few choice free themes, and will provide minimal updates and a child theme. I do frameworks, too, but even that’s too much time for a freebie. If they want any more, I’ll refer them. Hey, possibly to you. 😉 Or I can scare them away with a price!

    Thanks, Dave

    1. Absolutely, Dave – it’s a tricky thing that could lead to endless hours of explanations or pro bono work for a friend, due to false expectations at first.

      That’s why I make sure to outline what’s included for free and what they get at the end. And provide them with the paid options which are much more sophisticated – so if they opt-in for free, they’ll get something clean and simple to start until they can afford a good solution.

      1. Mario,
        That’s very smart expectations management, I will take that advice. 🙂

        As it was for a friend, I just winged it rather than declaring some terms and goals… huge mistake. After some increasingly contentious emails, I finally put the brakes on and stopped the project. Even though it wasn’t going to be a freebie, I didn’t want the aggravation or the relationship destruction.

        Luckily, these days we’re still friends!

        As they say in a variety of jokes, I was young, I needed the money. (which I didn’t get) 🙂

        Dave

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