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  1. #1
    Spirit Coder allspiritseve's Avatar
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    Custom development vs. open source

    I've done custom PHP apps with a company for the last couple of years. However, lately I have become frustrated because I feel that many of the clients we work for would be better served with an open source application like Wordpress. It's free, it's packed with features, and it has great community support. Contrast that with our CMS which is custom, extra features are charged at an hourly rate, and nobody at our company seems to want to maintain it besides me.

    I'm currently taking a break from this company, so I'm looking to do some freelance PHP work on my own. However, I'm at a crossroads. Should I embrace the open source apps (even though I feel they are coded poorly) and start offering my services as a Wordpress developer? Or should I start trying to market myself to higher end clients who really need custom work (and actually have a budget for it)?

    How do you justify your custom work in an age when there are plenty of free, "good enough" apps out there that do virtually the same thing?

    Any advice would be very much appreciated.

  2. #2
    SitePoint Guru bronze trophy TomB's Avatar
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    Imho, it's a fine line that you need to tread very carefully. If you use wordpress and the client suddenly wants to do something beyond that which wordpress (or joomla, or whatever) can handle, you'll likely need to spend several hours more developing code for it than you would extending a piece of software which was well written to begin with.

    I guess the question is, how likely is it that the client will require something that the CMS can't offer?

  3. #3
    @php.net Salathe's Avatar
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    I'm not really sure why (or what) you're asking here. This is a very, very subjective topic and only you can really make the choice of which direction to take your work.

    As for open source versus custom development, I'm not really seeing the opposition. You can (and I would go so far as to say, must) mix open source with your own bespoke work to get the best from what is available. If you're seeing the situation as a choice of one or the other, I think you need to step back a while and reconsider the problem.
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    Spirit Coder allspiritseve's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TomB View Post
    I guess the question is, how likely is it that the client will require something that the CMS can't offer?
    Probably depends on the client, but I currently can't even determine that since I don't have much experience with open source apps. I don't know their limits, but I know the majority of what we do can be done for free w/ Wordpress.

    Quote Originally Posted by Salathe View Post
    I'm not really sure why (or what) you're asking here.
    I'm asking here because this is a question specific to the PHP community, and I know I generally get great answers from the people who post in this forum.

    As for what: I guess I'm mostly wanting to know what other people have done in this situation. Of course the answer to what I should do is subjective-- I'm not looking for advice specific to me, but advice in general on how to treat open source as a custom application developer.

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    Really interesting question - how about using an open source CMS that is not coded poorly? Or more importantly using one that is flexible enough to grow with client demands?

    Your comments on Wordpress are entirely justified and I frequently find it difficult to understand why it is praised so highly. It's a great blogging engine, with wide spread support, but that is all it is.

    DM

  6. #6
    Barefoot on the Moon! silver trophy Force Flow's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DangerMouse1981 View Post
    It's a great blogging engine, with wide spread support, but that is all it is.
    It started out as a blogging platform, and its primary use is for blogging, but it's easily adaptable to fulfill the role of a CMS. In fact, most sites I've worked on in the past year or two are using it as their primary CMS. It's very flexible and has a huge selection of plugins that can add functionality or modify the way something works. For instance, there are 3 e-Commerce plugins I can think of off the top of my head, so wordpress can essentially be used as a storefront.
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  7. #7
    SitePoint Enthusiast jameso's Avatar
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    Using an open source package such as WordPress can be a great way of doing things.

    It allows you to take advantage of the hundreds of developers who are contributing to WordPress, and the thousands of available plugins/themes.

    You can easily write your own plugins/customisations on top of WordPress if you need to.

    The main thing to look out for is which license applies to the open source software. For example, WordPress is GPL (which is a "copy left" license), which effectively means that anything you write that interacts with WordPress (eg a plugin or a theme), if you distribute it to others, it must also be under the same GPL license. Other licenses such as BSD or MIT don't force you to use the same license for your own code, but the GPL does (if you distribute your work).

    Ps, I'm not an expert in software licensing, but that is my interpretation of it.

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  8. #8
    SitePoint Wizard bronze trophy
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    WordPress is a global glorifying nightmare to work with from a programmatic standpoint. You either sacrifice the quality or your code and best practices or move on to something with more effort and quality put into the programming. Joomla and Drupal, while not perfect are much easier to customize from a programmatic stand point than WordPress. Facebook could probably have been built on WordPress, or even Amazon, or even … but, they know better. Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Picking the right tools for the job is important. Most people who use WordPress for everything only know WordPress and couldn't program themselves out of a box without it. WordPress dependency is an epidemic, not something to supported. its a great, cheap, quick way to get blog or small site up and running, but anything beyond that there are more appropriate tools. As a programmer you can't honestly look at the code and think, its good, its horrible, its the kind of code you just trust and *hope* that works. If the creator had put as much effort into appealing to programmers as much as designers, than it may be a different story.

    Quote Originally Posted by DangerMouse1981
    Really interesting question - how about using an open source CMS that is not coded poorly?
    Please do tell. I've worked with the major players WordPress, Drupal, Joomla – none of them are programmed all that well. Some are better than others, but they all exhibit decisions which would make any programmer cringe. My preference for code quality is Joomla, but Drupal is more flexible due its implied global procedural nature. Drupal is probably the closest to working similar to a desktop application considering its clever, hook based augmentation system. Drupal is very clever, if you don't like dealing with or debugging clever code your probably better off with Joomla, which is a little more stupid, in opinion. If you like dealing with a god awful but popular mess – WordPress.

    Quote Originally Posted by allspiritseve
    As for what: I guess I'm mostly wanting to know what other people have done in this situation. Of course the answer to what I should do is subjective-- I'm not looking for advice specific to me, but advice in general on how to treat open source as a custom application developer.
    There is still a place for custom development. The thing is, most websites out there exhibit a similar structure and don't have a huge budget. In that case something like WordPress or Joomla is perfect. Drupal, itself isn't really a system which you can bet up running from the get go. Drupal provides a nice back-end user interface out of the box, but still there is a quit a bit of customization involved. I would compare Drupal to the framework of a house while Joomla and WordPress are an empty yet completed house.

    However, if WordPress would fit the bill for most of your clients needs, than perhaps it would be a good choice to use it. On the bright side it is well supported, has a huge following and extensive documentation. Not to mention the abundance of open source and low priced design work.

    Unless your working on something that needs to be very customized, needs to scale well I don't think its unprofessional to use open source software. I myself prefer to build everything from scratch, than again I'm in this business to make money and grow. Open source is here to stay, so people might as well embrace it rather than fight it. Just because a open source solution is programmed poorly doesn't necessarily mean you should never use it or be afraid to. Its all about picking the right tool for the job. If you say WordPress would suite your needs well, than use it. What WordPress lacks in programming quality it makes up in community. Similar can be said for the others mentioned also. Its a give and take.

  9. #9
    SitePoint Wizard rguy84's Avatar
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    While I am not a WordPress fanboy, can somebody explain why they are saying it is crap? The only thing I can think of is functions change a lot, and some don't make sense. I haven't coded wp in a while, so I can't give an example.

    But to be honest, allspiriteve, how much of your stuff is really custom. I mean if I say give me a CMS, do you start with a blank slate, or do you have a function file that does all the grunt work, and you just throw in a company name and color scheme?
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  10. #10
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    Lightbulb

    The best thing to do is to use open source technology, and make your own updates whenever necessary.

    No matter how many open source applications are out there, a client will always come along with something that just doesn't exist. One such example is a client of mine who needed a shopping cart with referral based pyramid stuff built in. For this project, I took an existing open source MIT based shopping cart, and added in a backend for clients to setup their accounts, view referrers, and calculate income.

    Sure, I didn't get to charge for the development of the shopping cart as a whole, but the modifications I made were of course billable, not to mention cart installation, server setup, database imports and development, you name it.

    It's also very common that a client will want two applications which both have the required functionality to be 'glued' together, such as a video hosting script and a forum to share a single user management table.
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  11. #11
    I Use MODx kenquad's Avatar
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    I know I tend to plug endlessly for MODx, but you really should check it out if you haven't already. It is part slick CMS and part highly extensible PHP application platform. The latest version, "Revolution" (2.0), was two years in the making and is very well thought out. Not sure what you would think of their programming standards; my own skills are not far enough advanced to critique theirs. I know they have done things like using xPDO for maximum flexibility.

  12. #12
    Non-Member Musicbox's Avatar
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    open source might not be best all the times but if you want to freelance you might visit these websites http://www.vworker.com or http://www.elance.com

  13. #13
    SitePoint Wizard bronze trophy bluedreamer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by allspiritseve View Post
    Probably depends on the client, but I currently can't even determine that since I don't have much experience with open source apps. I don't know their limits, but I know the majority of what we do can be done for free w/ Wordpress.
    Remember only the source code is "free", as soon as you do any customisations that starts to incur cost, eg your time.

  14. #14
    SitePoint Mentor silver trophybronze trophy

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    @allspiritseve

    We had a similar problem. You basically have to see what benefits your client.

    Charging your clients 80 euros per hour per developer is not something that should be done likely. I hate to say it but most of the things you require can quite easily be found on one of the three open source popular content management systems (WordPress, Drupal, Joomla) for free.

    You will find that 90% of the time, an open source CMS would do just what you want. For the other 10% you can either write your custom code or get somebody else to write it for you.

    We were in a situation were our in-house CMS was so bad we could not compete with open source. Eventually the company had to plunge their content management system and use Joomla. The funny thing is their CMS cost well over 3 million euros in salaries alone.

    Should I embrace the open source apps (even though I feel they are coded poorly) and start offering my services as a Wordpress developer? Or should I start trying to market myself to higher end clients who really need custom work (and actually have a budget for it)?
    Would you say the Whitehouse.gov, or the Onion newspaper, or even The Economy are small clients? All of these people use an open source CMS. In fact there are few people out there who want complete custom solutions because they want to save money and trust open source more than in-house.

    Cheap and cheerful sites can get you constant work, but if you want to offer professional sites you will have to go for the mid-range sites. I have produced some cheap and cheerful sites (not proud of it). The only problem is most people don't want professional solutions. Many just want to spend 400 pounds and get their site. The ironic thing is those clients try to save money by buying their domain and hosting packages, but they have no idea what to do with them .......
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    Not sure if someone else mentioned but you can easily convince your client to use open source CMS just by saying "Cheaper! Faster!". If it's a typical site that looks boxy then you could fulfill all kinds of requirement. Also, from what I remember good CMS allows you to have extentions or plugins. Honestly, if the client wants to have custom CMS then just charge him arm and a leg.

  16. #16
    SitePoint Mentor silver trophybronze trophy

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    Quote Originally Posted by sg707 View Post
    Honestly, if the client wants to have custom CMS then just charge him arm and a leg.
    The company I was last at charged 100,000 euros for a custom CMS, and open source was still better. This is not always the case, but it certainly was for in this case.

    Open Source is always a cheaper option, and in my opinion it's better. Not sure if everybody feels the same but this is what I think.
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    SitePoint Guru Chroniclemaster1's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Salathe View Post
    I'm not really sure why (or what) you're asking here. This is a very, very subjective topic and only you can really make the choice of which direction to take your work.
    If I can take a moment to defend the questioner, I think that's exactly what makes it the perfect question to ask here. If it was a yes / no, true / false question, you could look it up online or in reference documentation. The entire point of forums is to help fill in the gaps when those resources fail or your question (just like this) is subjective.


    Quote Originally Posted by Sega View Post
    The company I was last at charged 100,000 euros for a custom CMS, and open source was still better. This is not always the case, but it certainly was for in this case.

    Open Source is always a cheaper option, and in my opinion it's better. Not sure if everybody feels the same but this is what I think.
    I think in most cases you're absolutely correct. Open Source software has its share of quirks and sometimes isn't as stable as I would like. However, in general the open source projects which grow large have done so because they're well built and "on target" with useful features. In contrast, Microsoft may be the most successful for-profit software company, but look what the last several versions of the .NET framework have brought us... several major advances have been web server controls which are supposed to replace XHTML and LINQ / EF which are supposed to eliminate the need to write SQL. REALLY? That's what the think the development community is looking for? Screw new features, just change the way you do things and call that progress? If the web server controls gave you more power and control than just manipulating XHTML with C#, I might be on board; but what a complicated mess that is.

    I would just point out that this isn't what allspiritseve was asking. Purchased software can frequently be inferior to open source software, but virtually all packages, purchased AND open source are not aimed at developers. They're aimed at people who can't build their own websites... that's what makes them the major players because developers are such a small audience. We know what works well for developers. I've heard a number of guys in PHP rave over CodeIgniter. An XML specialist I know swears by oXygen. If someone took away my Notepad++, I might go into sales and marketing I'd be so depressed. But the big packages necessarily automate a lot of stuff and take control away from you, they do things for you, they "make your life easier". And if your part of the mass public then having the CMS do all those things for you is an acceptable loss of control, since you couldn't do it yourself. But for a developer, they're a pain in the backside.

    Quote Originally Posted by jameso View Post
    You can easily write your own plugins/customisations on top of WordPress if you need to.
    I would take issue with this point. While there are things that CMS systems do well, this is certainly not one of them. Just because you can jury rig a customization, doesn't mean the system performs well. Developing CMS plug-ins takes much longer than producing equivalent functionality from scratch. The advantage of 3rd party software in general is that it eliminates construction and gives you functionality with only setup time instead of coding time. The price is that customization and maintenance are a @#^@#$%. And unfortunately this is the most expensive part of development though it's spread out over a much longer time. That's why typically CMS systems usually perform best for non-developers who can't produce funcationality themselves. For a developer, it increases the time and complexity of virtually every task you do because you have to work inside the sand box you're given. And while I haven't worked with Wordpress specifically, I think I just just cite...

    Quote Originally Posted by oddz View Post
    WordPress is a global glorifying nightmare to work with from a programmatic standpoint... I've worked with the major players WordPress, Drupal, Joomla none of them are programmed all that well. Some are better than others, but they all exhibit decisions which would make any programmer cringe. My preference for code quality is Joomla
    to demonstrate that I'm not the only one who's found CMS systems ridiculous to deal with. Here's just one example that's not even a complicated coding / customization / plugin issue. If I want to change the font on an entire website that I've created, it takes me two minutes in a stylesheet: one minute to change, one minute to upload. The other day a client asked me to fix one particular webpage on a Joomla site so it would display one consistent font throughout. It took me an hour to get all the adjustments right, and there is still an inconsistency that causes FF to display one paragraph in bold. And I can't even tell where it is because the XHTML output is such a mess.

    As a developer looking for 3rd party material, I want to build my code base not glop together a bunch of incompatible packages. So I gravitate to things which do that. jQuery is a code library, it adds to my code base. I can use it to execute a solution but it doesn't get in my way if I need to do something outside it's built-in capabilities. The .NET framework (as much as I bash it sometimes) let's you ignore all the garbage and use the good parts that work for you. As long as you work programmatically in your language of choice, there's not really any limit to what solutions you can create or how you can go about doing them. That's what makes a code library and some frameworks different from a CMS which takes control away from you and makes you do everything through an interface. For someone who doesn't know anything about web development, that may be really helpful, but by the time you learn CSS, it's pretty much just getting in your way.
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  18. #18
    SitePoint Mentor silver trophybronze trophy

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    @Chroniclemaster1

    We used .NET, and many a-time the developers used ready-made components which really did restrict us. Don't ask me how many CSS hacks I had to pull off to get the thing working. I stood no change in validating my CSS. We used .NET because it was the easier thing to do. Nearly everybody in computing has had some experience with VB Syntax, so it became the best solution.

    Microsoft Training Centers really help companies embrace .NET as it's easier for them to train their staff, since they do not have to do this alone. Having said that the licenses they wanted were out of this world, something which a small web designer could not afford.

    Open Source opens the door for new businesses and allows people to compete on a knowledge level and not on a "who can afford Microsoft's licenses" level. Since this is the case we have seen almost a decline in what web designers are charging. Those .NET developers still have to pay them licenses though. So in my opinion keep things simple and use open source.
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  19. #19
    SitePoint Addict Shaydez's Avatar
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    i was going to open up a similar thread... What is with Open-Source vs Custom Coding.. I prefer to custom code; and use my own application and software for projects, you know your own ****, you don't need to wait for community support and the hours spending on research, adapting to the software learning the screwed up hacked job of coding, you can just end up building your own application.

    I work for a marketing company and they had me work PinnacleCart which they purchased for $900 + source code. I could've built an eCommerce site with more features and better coded in the time i spent trying to figure out their system.

    As a programmer... Its better to custom build your own application and focus on the clients that will pay for the service. Alot of clients out there are only going with the marketing they hear wordpress so they say they want it, but don't know what it is nor will they ever use it. Once you install that application and set them up; they're going to want a bunch of crap the Open-Source app doesn't have. that's real life experience. I couldn't tell you how many times i installed an open source app and or even a purchased app and the customer wanted something it didn't have. BAM 20hours of research and testing, and waiting on the community board to answer my question.

  20. #20
    SitePoint Guru Chroniclemaster1's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sega View Post
    @Chroniclemaster1

    We used .NET, and many a-time the developers used ready-made components which really did restrict us. Don't ask me how many CSS hacks I had to pull off to get the thing working. I stood no change in validating my CSS. We used .NET because it was the easier thing to do. Nearly everybody in computing has had some experience with VB Syntax, so it became the best solution.
    Quote Originally Posted by Shaydez View Post
    I work for a marketing company and they had me work PinnacleCart which they purchased for $900 + source code. I could've built an eCommerce site with more features and better coded in the time i spent trying to figure out their system.

    Amen to that. Have you read Steve McConnell's Code Complete 2? He doesn't make a big deal about it, but he clearly identifies the problem with this kind of thinking. 3rd party software replaces construction time with set up time. That would be great if Construction were the phase that ate up your time... but 90% of the time (and I'm being generous) Maintenance is the development phase that eats up vast amounts of your time. "Saving" time during construction to screw yourself during maintenance. Would you "save time" when building a house by running water pipes half way through the yard, and then go outside every morning to bring your bath water into the house bucket by bucket?
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    SitePoint Zealot Roar's Avatar
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    Open source can make you more money.

    From my experience, I have been able to leverage the 'open source advantage' in sales efforts. By going into a bid boasting the fact that your solution is based on free and open source technology, it differentiates you from competitors using a proprietary CMS'. And I would argue that it gives you a huge advantage.

    At least 2 big jobs I've been awarded the client told me specifically they felt more comfortable with open source vs locked into a proprietary CMS (in part because I educated them during my sales pitch).

    This isn't 2002. Drupal, Wordpress, and other open source CMS are more robust and flexible than ever.
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    SitePoint Addict Shaydez's Avatar
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    I see what you're saying... any you're absolutely right this isn't 2002; however developing proprietary application saves us web developers alot of time and we can answer YES, that is possible to our clients with confident; other than thinking 'ummm i think so...maybe if the application can do it.. and hope there is a posting in the community forum'. But on the other hand your right about clients being more comfortable about having an open-source application or just an application that is familiarized in the market.

    So i guess that's where i find my self (i'm sure most of us). Just need to come up with a happy medium; give your client some options ... you can have open-source application (WordPress, Joomla, etc...) or you can have my Proprietary software which gives you more flexiblity..

    so i guess it really depends on the client and the situation.




    Quote Originally Posted by Roar View Post
    Open source can make you more money.

    From my experience, I have been able to leverage the 'open source advantage' in sales efforts. By going into a bid boasting the fact that your solution is based on free and open source technology, it differentiates you from competitors using a proprietary CMS'. And I would argue that it gives you a huge advantage.

    At least 2 big jobs I've been awarded the client told me specifically they felt more comfortable with open source vs locked into a proprietary CMS (in part because I educated them during my sales pitch).

    This isn't 2002. Drupal, Wordpress, and other open source CMS are more robust and flexible than ever.

  23. #23
    SitePoint Guru bronze trophy TomB's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Chroniclemaster1 View Post
    Amen to that. Have you read Steve McConnell's Code Complete 2? He doesn't make a big deal about it, but he clearly identifies the problem with this kind of thinking. 3rd party software replaces construction time with set up time. That would be great if Construction were the phase that ate up your time... but 90% of the time (and I'm being generous) Maintenance is the development phase that eats up vast amounts of your time. "Saving" time during construction to screw yourself during maintenance.
    Couldn't agree more. This is the exact issue I have with using open source software, wholly because the standard of code and common requirement to trace through line by line to find out where something is happening just make maintenance a nightmare.

    Also, would you charge your client a modest fee to set up wordpress then charge them probably close to 3 times that to add any non-trivial feature 3 months later? I don't think the client would understand the price difference.

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    Also, would you charge your client a modest fee to set up wordpress then charge them probably close to 3 times that to add any non-trivial feature 3 months later? I don't think the client would understand the price difference.
    Charge them a normal web development rate per hour. I hate giving hourly rates, mainly because clients hate them too. So I just estimate and give them based on a rough hourly rate.

    so i guess it really depends on the client and the situation.
    ... and their budget :P
    follow me on ayyelo, Easy WordPress; specializing in setting up themes!

  25. #25
    SitePoint Guru bronze trophy TomB's Avatar
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    Charge them a normal web development rate per hour. I hate giving hourly rates, mainly because clients hate them too. So I just estimate and give them based on a rough hourly rate.
    Exactly, so wordpress set up may take 6 hours including theme installation and a few bits of misc config, then implementation of a non-trivial feature into it may take 16 hours. I don't think some client's would appreciate why the "whole site" costed 6 hours while a comparability smaller feature costs 16.


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