Weird Rules For Developers and Designers to Live By

Here are some of my odd rules for how to prevent angst in your web design business. Angst usually comes from billing and contract woes. There are the classic rules: work hard, design well, follow good practices, check out these sites, etc.. Those are all good practices. But here are some canaries in the coal mine of my experiences. Here are weird words about how I see the business of web design and the warning signs that appear by the side of the road.

A Contract Is More Important Than Money
An hour of work takes an hour for a surgeon, a ditch digger or a web designer. But some people have a weird dynamic with web designers-- treating them like something between a shaman and a vagrant-- not just a person with a technical command and creative spark. To normalize the situation draw up a contract for use. A contract is a nice piece of paper to have to spell out boundaries. It can be walked into a courtroom (see below). But more importantly, it’s a sniff test: if someone won’t sign a contract, then they don’t like playing by rules. Think about how a renegade will react when handed an invoice. Or if they pile work on you and spike the budget. If you can’t get them to sign a contract, you may find them unwilling to pay.

Never Do Business In An Apartment
As a gun for hire, you have to work in different places, meet in a variety of places and meet at a variety of places. I have met at coffee shops, people’s homes, company offices, cabins in the woods and apartments. The location can be a giveaway to who you’re dealing with. Homes say two things: I’m trusted enough to have a home and/or I may have enough money to afford a home. Offices are fine-- it’s all business. Coffee shops say, “maybe I don’t have it all together, but at least I know that.” An apartment may say a few things: “I live month-to-month” or “I don’t make a lot of money”. It could be baseless, but ask: do want to work with someone who makes short term commitments and doesn’t have money to spare? If your clients are new to you, you have to go by some slim evidence that verges on clairvoyance. I've found that deals done in apartments seem to always go south, eventually.

Don’t Walk Through The Valley of Death
Any bad debt is theft by a deadbeat. If they didn’t want to pay, they could have opted to not have the work done. Despite having worked for a thief, you have to be pragmatic about the debt. If someone doesn’t want to pay, they may be able to weasel their way out of settling up and the time it could take to recover your money could be huge. What are you: a designer or a debt collector?
There is the valley of death for financial commitments. When you do work, you need to either be able to walk away from the money if the bill becomes unrecoverable; or you need to be able to hand the bill to a lawyer for recovery. A lawyer recently told me that a demand letter and resulting correspondence would run in excess of $500. If I’m owed $400, there’s no point in siccing a lawyer on the guy. But, I can’t start missing $400 volleys of cash, either. So, the approach is to push bills out of that valley: too little to sue for; and too much to swallow. In my economy, those are bills from $200 to $1000. I can make up for $200 rogering but working harder. Likewise, I can pay for a small claims action on a $1000 debt. Those bills in between could really hurt a designer and you try to avoid them by either driving for a quick and inexpensive solution, or gunning for a larger volley of work.

Pass On The Savings And The Expenses
When I started doing designs, I had to craft the site from scratch. Fourteen years later and the game has gotten much easier. A CMS used to be very hard to pull off on the cheap. Popular CMS products make it very easy to install a full interactive web site and do so easily. With Facebook, you can get a “Page” for free in little time. Want a discussion group: make one at Ning. The day and age of getting a bunch of students to throw a site together for $5000 are over.
With Drupal, Wordpress, etc.. I can get to a “Hello World” of a web site in well under an hour. With templates and modules or plugins, a regular website can be turned out in 8 or 10 hours. The basic design should be charged fairly (eg. a low amount), then you can add on services that are harder to click and install: good copywriting; good graphic design; good navigation/architecture, custom coding; and good SEO.

Work On Your Own Million Dollar Idea For Free, Not Someone Else’s
I get this every couple weeks: “I have great idea for a website-- if you design and program it, I’ll give you 50% of the business.” No money up front. Imagine asking a carpenter to build a house for free.
This “It’s just a button” disease has evolved: recently, a designer was offered one of these projects but the designer had to give them the answer by the end of business if they were on board or not. So: you’re rushing me to take on unpaid work?
Sometimes you will find a guy who comes to table with something valuable-- maybe they’re a marketing genius with a long track record of success. You have to assess if a partner is worth teaming with. A million dollar idea that isn’t made is worth $0. If you are bringing that site into reality, your partner has to bring $500,000 worth of value to his $1M idea or they aren’t worth your time.
Here’s a little secret about most of the big websites out there: many of the big ones were built by techies on their own, then money people became attracted later. If a money guy is coming to you to build a site for no money up front that’s like putting the cart before the horse.
If you’re a professional, you should always get paid. I usually counter the “we’ll split it” with “it won’t be expensive to design, so getting the money should be easy, then you can keep most of your million dollars”-- after all, who wouldn’t spend $10k to get a million if they had a sure bet? The truth is, they want you to lose $10k in your billings so that they can reap a half million It's not a good prospect for you.