By Andrew Neitlich

So is third-party web design a dead business?

By Andrew Neitlich

Many of your comments to the last blog were quite depressing. Most of you made one of two points:

1. Web design for clients doesn’t pay well. The only way to make money in this business is by designing your own sites and making money that way.

2. Most clients want a lot but won’t pay.

If that’s true, then there is no reason for web designers to do anything other than design for themselves.

But I don’t think it is true at all. I have always thought that most people think way too small.

I think one can design great web sites for their own purposes, and also get out there and market your knowledge and wisdom at a high price to firms and clients that will pay big bucks for the results you can get. If you don’t have all of the knowledge, you can partner up with others who do and provide a complete solution.

If I am wrong, and you are trying to market to clients who want a lot and won’t pay, get the heck out of this business! There are plenty of other ways to make an excellent living, and web design can be a hobby for you.

Otherwise, some of you need a major attitude adjustment, and need to start being more creative and seeing possibility and opportunity.

  • E-commerce is a five to six figure industry and you are speaking to a four to five figure audience for the most part at Sitepoint. I don’t see why you are so surprised by the comments.

  • aneitlich

    Not surprised. Disappointed. I was hoping for a more ambitious and inspired audience, not one that settles for 4 to 5 figures. I can only hope that the people who don’t post are the ones with less time on their hands because they are too busy trying to find the right models to make money.

  • My guess is that the majority of the people that made those “points” are kids who just don’t understand business or professionalism. I’ve been doing freelance design/development for quite a while and have found just the opposite to be true. I’ve got many very high paying clients and make a very comfortable living off of those jobs. I’ve also found with my clients that they are willing to pay for quality. If I feel like a potential client is interested in getting more than their money is worth, then I don’t take on the client.

  • I don’t think it’s a dead industry at all. However, as long as there is a mindset that it’s just a bunch of graphics and HTML – that it’s more “artistic” and based in graphic design than marketing and UI – then there are going to be inexperienced freelancers charging much less than they should be or websites that don’t convert visitors (whatever a conversion may be).

    I know of one developer who has carved a niche designing e-commerce websites for Yahoo! stores. He does not charge anything up front. Rather, he charges a commission on any increase in sales he brings the client. He very careully selects his clients, and chooses only the ones he truly feels he can help.

    He makes a killing, and because his pay is tied directly to performance, his cliens are happy too.

    There will always be designers and developers willing to build websites for others for money. Some will be good, some won’t. Some of the good ones will eventually move on to building sites for themselves or somehow leveraging their skills so they build a recurring stream of revenues because no one that smart wants to be making someone else money forever.

  • I don’t believe it is dead either. I will paraphrase one of Andrew’s previous blog postings where he asked people to think about if they are running a Web design/development business, or an advertising agency. My guess is that most of these people are thinking of themselves as a Web shop, and not as a full-service agency.

    Granted many people here are solo or small operations, and moving forward and towards greater goals, and at this time may not be there, but have the mindset to be on their way. And the ones that are complaining about their “cheap” clients should be looking for ones that go beyond asking about their billing rate and seeing value in their services.

    A client engagement should be a mutual, win-win situation. If you don’t have that with a client, fire them and move on!


  • There are some mindsets on both sides of the fence that need mending.

    Designers need to recognize the value solution they are providing, rather than task completion. If you are just “building a website,” well, that may be pretty challenging to charge a respectable amount for… after all, it’s essentially text and some images… can’t touch it, feel it, or hold it. So what value is it? So whether the industry is dead or not, maybe “that” isn’t the industry you should be in anyway.

    But it’s not about websites. Reality… no client wants a website. They do want to start a business, or grow one, maybe attract new customers, reach more people, spread their cause… whatever it is they do, and that’s the business we need to be in. Providing the solution to that need has value. Approaching the business with that fundamental mindshift changes everything. Sure, you still have to deliver that message, but there are a lot who haven’t even begun to grasp that. And yes, there are those who “hang out” a shingle simply because they created one atrocity of a website and now feel that makes them a web designer. But that’s where educating the client comes in. And after that, if they still insist on going with the lowball hack, consider it a blessing. And of all the businesses, this is probably one of the most ideal for aligning with others for needs you can’t provide.

    And yes, there needs to be a shift on the client side too, but once again, much of that is within the designer’s realm to educate on. What is a website? It’s a new store front, it’s extra sales staff, it’s customer service, it’s marketing, and much more. Let alone factoring all of that into one, or that it complements anyone of those aspects in their more traditional forms, but just take any one of those, and you can probably show more value in cost comparison. Cost to open a new store front? Hire sales staff or customer service? Just marketing alone… newspaper, magazine, radio, TV, billboard, any one of these will will cost them 4-5 figures for 1-3 months of placement just about anywhere. Put into perspective, it should help to make a difference.

    But if the designer or developer only sees a website as being worth $1-2,000, you certainly can’t expect the client to tell you any differently or to think otherwise.

  • I would also add that if the client wanted an end-to-end online marketing solution, he probably shouldn’t have hired a ‘web designer’ to build it. Web design is just a small part of the picture, so it’s not surprising that a group of web designers failed to impress the entrepreneur with end-to-end skills.

    Also, this blog assumes that the entreprenuer was a desirable client. Maybe he was looking in the wrong place, or had unrealistic expectations.

    The truly great web developers who really CAN provide end-to-end service are picky about their clients. The client you described doesn’t sound like a slam dunk by any means.

  • Its not a dead business, except from the point of view of people who got into the web design business and have seen their business dry up through an inability to attract new business or an inability to adapt to a changing market etc (which pretty much agrees with RockNRollPig).

    I see this problem from both sides, as on the one hand I am head of IT for an international SME that both commissions websites/applications for projects and also builds them in house. We have a current project in the pipleline which is being out-sourced to a 3rd party in the high 5 figures. Over the past few years I’ve commissioned a large number of sites with 4-5 figure price tags and also built some of the sites/applications in-house. In my experience there is no shortage of high-end development companies willing to take these kind of projects and often work to very tight timescales (at extra cost). Fewer and fewer of the commisions are flat brochureware with limited interactivity as we move to fully interactive e-commerce systems across all our future projects. Which means that our projects are moving away from smaller ‘Web Design’ outfits, to bigger companies who have the design knowhow and the application development pedigree to guarantee the job is done.

    On the other hand I also own a web development company which builds custom web applications for selected clients, this company regularly does small projects for 4 figures, and has done 5 large 5 figure sums in the past. Because we work for this company in our spare time, we pick the projects we want to work on and that fit into our schedules. One of the simple lessons owning this company has taught us is that we get the bigger projects when we go out looking for them, and just occasionally customers find us either through word of mouth or having seen something we have done before.

    In conclusion, there is plenty of work out there you have to go and find it. If you don’t want to chase new business all the time, develop another revenue stream, or get a job with a salary and do the web business on the site. Speaking as somebody who commissions sites, if you as a web designer/developer thinks its (yours is) a dead business its unlikely that you’ll be the right person for the job.

  • The current state of web design/development is somewhat saturated. I am not surprised at all by what readers are saying. There is tremendous pressure from outsourcing and competition (remember there is no degree requirement, professional licensing, etc to be doing this type of work). The pressure is not only on the development side, but the design side as well.

    I come from a programming background but I have thorough knowledge of design principles. Just a few years ago I used to contract out work to local developers and designers, but with the decreasing price of PCs and broadband, I feel that people overseas are catching up. Nowadays I outsource 90% of my development AND design work. I do agree that you need to have at least one architect or design lead perhaps locally, but either way, well paid. They will tell these outsourcing companies exactly what you need to do. All low/mid level stuff can be done for cheap.

    What does this mean? It means we all will have to work harder for our paychecks. Especially if you are in the area of providing services. Competition is fierce. Global pressure will only increase. You will need to put your time in learning new technologies before cheaper labor sources do the same. Take for example AJAX, you don’t see that being outsourced as widely. Flash video is another. Stay on top of it! Become an expert on any viable technology when the opportunity presents itself.

    From my experiences consulting, I also think that a web developer/designer can no longer focus on their niche. They need to understand all aspects of eBusiness. This ranges from server side technology, to design, user interfaces, information architecture, SEO, web marketing, etc. You may not need to actually code all of this, but you should be able to articulate it to your clients.

    Finally, the most important thing that I will stress is a sense of professionalism. When you walk into a room and look like a seasoned veteran, you will be paid as such. This means the whole 9 yards. Meet your clients on time. Dress well. Come with a laptop to take notes and show samples. Bring a nice pen (not a free pen you got at a career fair). Speak with authority. Research your client thoroughly before any contact (phone or in person). Always know your client’s competition.

    Your work flows will also have to be professional. Use client questionnaires to lift requirements, present your client with a versioned requirements doc, build a wireframe, construct page flow diagrams, build design comps, build a technical design doc, plan for a test phase. Also be sure to present your docs in a professional manner. Use headers, footers, labeled diagrams, and a table of contents.

    I have been consulting on and off for 4 years now. From 2002 to 2004, I would just build sites and not worry so much about client interaction, process, or methodology. Back then I only put just what I needed into web marketing and spend my time on technology. My success was limited. I would spend months without any clients or work. In 2005, I decided to change my approach and focus more on my client. This also made me focus more on process and bringing a sense of professionalism to everything I touched. It was a helluva lot of work in the first few months. Lots of Visio, Power Point, UML diagrams, etc. But after a while it got easier, not to mention I had quite a nice repository of documents I could reuse for other projects. I also planned better for outsourcing or bringing on help. As soon as you have a requirements document, you should know at what steps you will have to bring in outside resources. I wouldn’t wait until coding has already begun. Plan early and often. Finally, rather then having several small clients for 1-4 month projects, I focused on 2-4 small/midsized business for which I was the driver of all eBusiness activities. I started going for the long term relationships as the sole solutions provider. The end result is that my gross profits profits have gone up nearly 10 fold in a year and a half.

    I know that things may sometimes look tough. I have been there myself, but I know that everyone on here is motivated. After all, you would not be reading Andrew’s blog if you were not. The bottom line is that you will probably need to work harder. There is still a lot of opportunity out there. Maybe some of what I said above may help you. Good luck!


  • I just want to say something about outsourcing. I get contacted all the time by firms wanting us to outsource our work. We do outsource some, but I think there is an important distinction between these companies and us.

    First, they’re just development firms. Give them a spec and they design or develop it. They usually lack knowledge in conversion, usability, accessibility, etc. That’s my job. I get paid not to design the website, but to solve a problem.

    As long as you’re just getting paid to design a website, write a program, etc., you’ll be competing with the lowest bidder somewhere else in the world. You have to go above and beyond the task and look at the goals – what is it the client is trying to achieve by contracting your services?

    I rarely find out they just want a website. Most of the time they want to increase sales, reduce customer service costs, generate leads, or cut printing costs by providing valuable information on the web. At any rate, it’s rarely just as simple as designing a website.

    As soon as we stop focusing on the HTML and design and start focusing on the goals of our customers, then the price issue goes out the window. If you can take a client from $10,000 to $100,000/month in sales, what do you think you could charge them? $25,000? $100,000? More? I don’t want to get into a value-pricing debate – it’s not about that. You could just change your hourly rate to reflect your expertise. I’ve seen consultants that charge $500/hour and more.

    But whatever you do, stop focusing on the actual end product and look at the problem it’s supposed to solve. That’s where you’ll differentiate yoursel and rise above the rest.

  • Brian

    This profession is NOT dead. Even in the smaller/local areas of web development/design there is alot to be done. With the advent of web standards, your local businesse’s table based brochure site will eventually need to be redesigned/realigned to compete with others in the area and brought up to speed. As most of the comments stated, gone are the days of, “wow! that looks cool!” Its time to design to solve client problems, not make it look pretty. Its all about the clients users, and you need to explain that to a client who has no clue. In other words, even the small web “shops” can make an excellent living if they keep up with the times and constantly learn new ways to keep their smaller clients on top of the game.

  • As you pointed out and I can see the same way of thinking with Brendon Sinclair maybe the issue here is that there are two types of web designers:

    1- The one that just makes a good design and thinks the customer will see that, therefore pay for it.
    2- The guy that designs and markets and has an extra to sell those designs.

    If you have the customers, the trust you can even sell a not so eye candy desing at high prices since you know it is worth it and you know how to get the right amount for it.

  • ASJ

    I have to say that this is one of the best blogs that I’ve read in a long time. Not only Andrews section post but the overall responses by the members on this site. I was a little thrown back by the last post myself and feel rejuvinated by the replies that I’ve read today. Thank you everyone. It is good to know that there are true professionals in the field still.

  • oadage

    I think you missed the point of some of the comments to your previous post. The way I read it is that the potential client is looking for agency level services at solo designer/developer prices. Let’s just take one item from your list:
    “- Tested navigation flows that convert visitors to customers” Does your client’s budget include the $7k-8k (minimum) that this one aspect of the project will cost?

  • My original point was not that you have to design you own sites to make money. Rather, that those that do have a much better understanding and mastery of what really makes a website that brings in the conversions. If they understand that, there is not a whole lot of motivation, monetarily, to build sites for other people.

    I have spent the last 2 1/2 years obsessing about websites that make money. This was a process that led to things like living on several hundred dollars a month and dropping out of college — a path I would recommend to very few.

    During that time I did a handful of jobs for other people, consulting and designing. I quickly realised that for me personally it was a better choice to forgo the immediate income.

    Professional web designers have two things to focus on: selling to their clients and building websites to sell. I decided I would prefer focusing on that second part.

    Should everyone do that? Absolutely not. Supply and demand evens it out very nicely. Toss in the psychological factors of being broke and a real pyramid evolves.

    Many web design companies that are successful at selling to clients outsource the actual design work. In that sense, perhaps the classical web design company is dead.

  • Roman

    When I speak with my potential client I seek to quickly find and simply explain that I will make them a web site that will help them make or save money. There is no other reason for business to have a web site. When I don’t see a way to make more money by using the web site I will tell them just that and pay for their coffee. When I do find a way, I don’t give away all my ideas, but do make sure that they understand that most other “web site folks” out there are not like me and can’t deliver the way I do.

  • The last part on Andrew’s ‘comment’, I agree with 100 percent. Classical web design ‘firm’ is dead, or almost dead. Currently, I feel ‘success’ in web design as a full time bread earner is through ‘consultancy/facilitation’ of web design rather than a bunch of designers sitting together to code and get clients, code and get client. a company specializing in not web design, but in ‘client relationships’.
    thats my $0.02 ;)

  • It’s all about developing re-usable solutions. If you create a software base that can be used for any run-of-the-mill site without re-coding it every time and is easily extended for unique requirements then you can typically cut your development time in half if not more. You can usually still charge the full-price for the development as you have already put a lot of man-hours into developing this solution that lets you deploy the clients site a lot quicker.

    It’s also about after-market services. A lot of our work comes from training/consultation and building a relationship where you hand-hold a client throughout their on-line transition. Not only do you get continued revenue from support but you’re first in-line whenever any further development work needs to be done.

    A lot of younger startups also seem to forget that _all_ the time that you spend on a clients project should be chargeable. If you have a large project and you need to spend a week just getting a detailed spec put together, make sure the client is paying for that – treat it as a seperate job from the actual development and quote/invoice accordingly.

  • Drew

    I have to add almost all the people on this blog are connecting and I’m going to repeat you are selling a business to people. Web and creative types have to now look ‘coperate’ not ‘chic’ or stylish.
    A sharp business suit will get you more jobs than ‘geek chic’ and that’s not to say it’s not up to you what you look like but if you don’t look the part you will not be a part.

    Business people do business with business people whether they look cool or not but it’s human nature to be more receptive to your preconcived notions on what a busisness man looks like.

    Continuous development of self is another tool stay ahead of the game do not pigeon hole yourself if you need more programming education go and get it. If you need more graphics knowledge find a way to expand on what you have. The only barrier between you and your next big client is your view of yourself and what your skills are worth. If someone doesn’t want to pay for the full monty give ’em as much as you think they paid for. Wet a persons appitite if they see the potential they will go for it regardless of their previous estimation.

    Finally ask for help if your only companions are pride,arrogance and ego then make room for their cousins poverty, misery and depression.

  • Edman

    I think one can design great web sites for their own purposes, and also get out there and market your knowledge and wisdom at a high price to firms and clients that will pay big bucks for the results you can get.

    Why bother marketing your knowledge? Why bother building a good site for other people when you can build it for yourself and take 100% of the profit? Not only do you enjoy being your own boss, but you also reap all the rewards for your work.

  • Edman, quite simply, no matter how good at designing and building “great” websites you may be, you still need a great idea. Otherwise you haven’t got a business, and without a business there is no profit to be had and at the end of it all, all you end up with is a “great” website and 100% of no profit.

    Put simply, there are more potential and actual businesses out there already that need the services of a good web-builder than there are “grest” stand-alone money making ideas floating around in the average developers head.

    Unless you have the next MySpace ($550m exit sale in 18 months) its probably best to use your web-building skills to realise some other peoples ideas until you do.

  • Again, the search for the ‘sure shot’ thing continues… the search for hard and fast rules;

    if web designer then {
    *insert stereotype here*
    PLUS some ‘new’ thinking of
    doing everything at the “f”lick of his left
    mouse button. }
    else if entreprenuer {
    *insert stereotype here*
    have your own myspace or nothing else.
    a 1.6 billion youtube or mytube or anybodystube
    would also do fine.
    else if dude {
    *insert stereotype here* (never ever
    forget te stereotype).
    watch ‘the big lebowski’ over n over.
    go bowling. shoot your friend.

    what’s wrong with having no hard and fast rules? because there aint any rules. period. how about an enterprising web designer who is a millionaire? how about a businessman who hires web designers skilled to the hilt, and still barely makes it through the month? anything is possible. It is a matter of choice. You can stick to stereotypes for all the ease in decision that they provide, or you can break-some and go live.

  • My sign-off comment was a little bit edge case :) basically what I was getting at is you need a good idea if you’re going to build yourself a money making site (does more than pay for its hosting and development time). If you don’t build sites for people who want to pay you for it, and perhaps you’ll eventually come up with that idea. The bonus is that you keep your hand in the game and get paid to boot, while you are looking for your idea.

  • I really don’t see it as a dead end business. Many companies still consider the services of outsourcing — especially those who wants to expand and concentrate on the core of their business without the hassle. In fact, it’s one of the bread and butter of most outsourcing firms in the Philippines.

  • RIP Webdesign
    Just Kidding

    Most of my clients want web design, web development, search engine optimization and search engine marketing to drive traffic and create leads and sales. Just part of the whole package.

    Long Live Web design.

  • It’s certainly not the end of third party web designing. There are still lots of companies in India and Philippines who take up web designing and development projects from US and UK. Not all clients pay less, some of them really pay well by judging the quality of the work. While asking more pay during the development of project is justified if the requirements of the client increase.

    I guess this should be made clear in the very beginning before the start of the project that if the requirements increase during the course of the project which would involve more than the specified no. of hours, the designer or developer should be paid more.

    Designing your own sites and promoting them doesn’t necessarily mean that you are going to earn more money. Earning money from a site involves a lot more effort than just building it and making it available online.

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