In my last post about content being hard, I mentioned that I’ve had a lot of web projects that seem to take way longer than they should. Most of the time, it’s because content is hard.

One of the problems with projects taking forever is that at a certain point the extra time erodes the project’s profitability. And that’s just one of the things that can turn a project sideways.

The larger problem with “building a website” is that a good website is never really finished. Building a website is (or ought to be) an open-ended venture.

There is that intensive activity at the beginning when you try to guess how much of a client’s vision you can accomplish on the budget they present. But even when the “build” is done, there are inevitably more things the client wishes might have been. There is the ever-present question of maintenance. There is making sure content (there’s that hard part again!) stays up-to-date.

And, if the business is really a going operation, there is always change. Meaning the online strategy needs to adapt, and the website needs to adapt.

Site owners respond to this in different ways. Some just “make do” with the site as it is, shoehorning everything into what they’ve got. It’s a frustrating way to go. Many bumble along trying to make the changes in house for as long as they can manage it. Then a few years down the road they have a royal mess and return asking for a new site build or substantial re-build. That starts the cycle all over again.

The problem with both of these approaches is that site owners invest a significant amount of capital into a site that immediately, like driving a new car off the lot, begins to lose value. It loses value, but not for the same reasons as the car. With a car, its the use, the wear and tear, that eventually ruins it. With a website, wear and tear isn’t the issue. It’s that the moment you say “done” and stop development, it’s standing still in a world where everything else is moving forward at breakneck speed. Four years from now the website will perform exactly the same as the day it was completed. But 4 years from now, in comparison to what’s customers will expect and the business will need online, the site will be miles behind.

Nearly every client I’ve worked with has experienced this. The website I build for them is not their first. I’ll ask them about their current site, and they’ll chuckle and say, “Well, a few years ago we had some other site, but it wasn’t what we needed, so we got this one we have now, and it’s not really what we need now, either.”

Sad to say, I’ve built quite a few sites for clients in that position, and now a few years later, the site I built for them “isn’t what they need either.” It’s not that I didn’t build them a great site. At the time, they were thrilled with it. But once I turned over the keys to them, it froze in time while everything else kept moving. They need a new site again.

It’s because websites are mistaken so often for a one-off major expense like a car or a piece of equipment. Maybe like a computer. Businesses that are successful online, though, realize that it’s not a one-off. It’s something that has to be constantly in development. Amazon would be a distant memory today if it stuck with the website it started with. Think of the businesses you enjoy visiting online. It’s because their site is not the same as it was last month that you keep coming back.

Big businesses have their own web development department – often several departments – working for them. Most small and mid-sized businesses can’t afford that. But what they can afford and should invest in is:

Continuous Website Development

For most small to mid-sized businesses, a few hours of ongoing development investment each month is enough to keep pace with business and technological changes. For some very small sites, it could be as little as a few hours per quarter beyond regular content, maintenance, security and backups.

Putting this in the category of continuous development investment, rather than “we have a website and we’ll get to it when we have a chance”, ensures that the site stays continuously at peak effectiveness for the business, and over time is more cost effective too.

Cost Comparison – A Typical Scenario

Say you’re a smallish nonprofit or business and you ask me to quote you a website. We talk about all the things you want it to do for you, and I’m able to quote you a reasonable amount of what you want for within your budget of $8000.

We get to work. We start with the design, which goes through three rounds of edits and takes a few weeks to hammer out. Then I build out most of the site over the course of a few weeks, say three weeks. We have another couple rounds of changes based on the staging prototype, and that takes another couple weeks of back and forth. Then I ask you for content, and it takes you another (optimistic, because content is always the hardest part) four weeks to get that to me, and with the content entered you decide a few other things need changed before launch.

We’re now just over 3 months in and there’s nothing online yet. And that’s provided everything goes smoothly.

After the site launches, you discover that you really do need some of those other things you thought about at the beginning, but trimmed from the project to stay within budget. Or you discover, now that it’s up and running, that you never thought of something that would be ideal for your business to have. You have to decide whether to invest in the additional costs to add on, say another $4000, or to do without. If you’re cost sensitive, you’ll probably do without, and already your site has less value than what you paid – frozen in time, its decrease in effectiveness has already begun! Or you invest the additional money and sometime next quarter you have something closer to what you want. But by then something else has come up. At some point, you say, “enough.” Until 4 years later it gets to the point that you really do need a new website all over again.

So, divide that total $12,000 investment into 4 years. That’s $3000 per year, or $250 per month. For a site that for the first 6 months isn’t online – so, really divide your money into 3.5 years: that’s nearly $290 per month – and the rest of the time leaves you frustrated that you can’t do a lot of what you’d want with it.

Not to mention, it’s a big hit every 4 years or so to plan for a new $12,000 expense. Large lump sums are hard on small businesses. I know. I run one. If you’re limited to what you can raise in a lump sum, you’re naturally limited in what you can do in any given generation of your website.

Compare that to a continuous development scenario.

Say, again, you’re a smallish nonprofit or business and you ask me to quote you a website. We talk about all the things you want it to do for you, and we agree to a Continuous Web Development Retainer, where for $300 per month, you get 4 hours of consulting, design and development time, every month, from now until we decide to call it quits, and we’re going to determine together, as we go, what needs to be built and in what order.

In the first month, we spend 2 hours hashing out what your initial priorities and strategy are going to be. We spend one hour putting up a simple website with the very basics to get your presence online, and we spend the fourth hour looking at initial design considerations. Now, in the first month, your site is already up, is accurate, and you’re starting to get found online (or at least you’re no longer living with the embarrassment of that old site you’ve been cringing at for the last year).

You are online by the end of week 2!

In months 2 and 3, we spend less than an hour on planning, since we already have a plan, We spend 3.5 hours each month on design, A/B testing what you like and don’t like as we go. Meanwhile you’re adding content to the small initial site that immediately enhances your online presence. As you add content, you start to get a 1st-hand feel for what elements of your site are more important to develop sooner, and what can wait.

By Month 3, your site is growing, and the design phase is taking shape. At this point, you’ve spent only $900 of the $8000 you originally budgeted.

In months 4–6, we continue to develop the design. As different design components are solidified, we work them into the live site as we go. Meanwhile, because it’s on your front burner, you continue to add content that keeps your visitors coming back.

By the end of 6 months, your new site is still in its infancy, but it’s solid, it represents your business well in its design and content, and you have a very good feel for what needs to be added next. And you’ve only spent $1800 of the $8000 you initially thought you might need.

By now you can see where this is going. At the end of 3 and a half years, the same amount of time a one-off build would actually have been online, you’ve paid the same $12,000 you’d earmarked as that first lump sum, plus additional cost overruns.

The difference is you’ve had a site that has been an effective and growing part of your business. You’re not going to have to come up with another $12,000 wad to replace it next year. Instead, you continue to develop it, building on what you have. Getting better and better each month.

Having developed it in the direction it needed to go as needs arose, it long ago has become a monthly investment that more than pays for itself.

Look at you! Your business is actually making money online!

Granted, it’s not as flashy as a “big reveal”, but in websites, as in life, slow and steady wins the race. Drip by drip, month by month, without large outlays of cash, you build an asset that pays you back.