How to make money from a $3000 website

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June 06, 2011

I don’t believe that the $3000 client is the lost cause we often think they are. Sure, for most agencies, a $3000 website is laughable; but I would argue that these clients present tremendous opportunities.

In particular, I think web designers can cash in on low-budget deals. I worked in the agency world for a long time, so it took me a while to fully accept this, but I think you will find that it’s possible.

The typical scenario involves a small-business owner interested in getting a new website. They’ll often have unrealistic expectations about how much it takes to design and build a website. Well, these expectations only seem unrealistic to us designers—I say they are undesirable, not unrealistic.

That said, the business owner might have budgeted only a few thousand dollars. Clients like this are frequently overlooked and turned away because they don’t seem to offer lucrative opportunities.

I think that a designer who works alone, or even in an agency, and has a solid system in place can make a great living working with clients just like this. With clear expectations and a rock-solid plan for getting it done, one doesn’t have to pass on such opportunities.

Why the designer?

Designers have a particular advantage with this sort of client. The reason is simple: sizzle sells. Yes, the occasional client will need some complex development work, but for the most part, these clients want something that looks cool, is easy to maintain and can be done quickly. This makes for a perfect designer-focused client.

Designers have a huge edge on development-oriented folks in this niche because they can appeal to aesthetics. Seeing something slick and modern is far more exciting than seeing some nice clean code. Most clients won’t understand why your good is good or your bad is bad, but they will know if they like how a website looks—and designers can appeal to that.

Now, if you happen to have the opportunity to pair a designer up with a developer, you might be in for some major success. This combo can work closely together and be very efficient.

Efficiency is key

Basically, it all boils down to efficiency. If you can find ways to be incredibly efficient at every step, then you can set up a system to churn out amazingly beautiful, low-cost websites.

Every step I outline below is meant to help you minimize the amount of time it takes to complete a project. If you line up all of these elements, you’ll have a system in place with which to address the low-budget client.

Build shells, not complete websites

The first step is to change what you’re selling. Don’t try to sell low-budget clients on completely polished, ready-to-launch websites. Instead, build a shell that they can fill; build a website with pages and navigation in place, customized for their brand. The client can put their content in and return to you for help when it comes time to launch.

A low-budget client doesn’t want to pay heavy maintenance fees to have their website updated; it’s in the client’s best interest to learn how to edit content sooner than later. Sell this perspective; help them see that you’re saving them money by allowing them to plug their own content in.

Develop a good system, built on a single content management system (CMS)—see below—and then build a library of tools to help quickly train new clients on the system. Add to your documentation whenever you train a new client, and over time you’ll develop a huge library of resources to help them get started.

Sell packages

If you’re going to target a low-budget project, be extremely careful to have a rock-solid contract. This is critical. Scope creep will kill you faster than you can imagine on a job like this, so don’t skimp on the contract. Don’t just sell them a $3000 website; sell them a $3000 website that clearly includes 12 pages, one contact form, an installed version of WordPress, one year of web hosting, a customized theme, one photo gallery module, three support tickets and two hours of training.

In other words, set up packages. Clearly define what a $3000 website comes with. Do this ahead of time so that the client feels like they are choosing from a menu. Every time they deviate, remind them that you’ll have to bill that portion separately as an add-on. Enable them to control the price. The more informative and clear you are about boundaries, the more likely they will play along. They’ll see that they can have the $3000 website they want but with limitations.

If you prepare templates along the way, you’ll develop efficiency. Create a standard contract for low-budget clients. This template should develop over time as you do more work. Every time you do a small gig, a new detail will come up that you can add to the contract. Constantly update and tweak your packages and contracts.

Another bonus: almost every job will require some element that is outside of your normal packages. This is great because you can add the extra cost to the project. When clients see that they are paying for exactly what they want, they are usually agreeable.

Develop a rigid plan

Another easy way to kill the margin on a job like this is to let the client drag their feet and extend the timeline of the project. When this happens, the client inevitably takes up more time than you budgeted for. Even worse: you run the risk that clear-cut boundaries will blur over time.

Include rigid and crystal-clear deadlines in your contracts. This protects both parties. The client knows exactly what will happen and when, and the designer gets to hold the client accountable to the timeline.

Plan, plan, plan… And plan some more

Skipping over steps such as creating the site map and wireframes might be tempting, but don’t do it. Careful planning is crucial, and these steps are vital to the process.

First, map all of the content you will be putting on the website. Map out every single page. For a low-budget website, there will probably be fewer than 20 pages, so skipping the step is tempting—but don’t do it; it plays an important role.

Secondly, create wireframes for key pages—at least for the home page and one interior page. These wireframes should not show rough ideas of what will be on the website; they should show exactly what will be on the website. Flesh them out as much as possible.

These two pieces of documentation will be your road map for building the rest. Finalize them with the client, and have them sign off on your work. Make sure they understand that these projections are exactly what they will be getting. If they don’t see some content or feature that they want, then they need to speak up.

As you dig into the project, draw on this documentation to build the website, and refer to it when the client asks for something new. Pointing out that a given item is not in the site map or the budget is so much easier than getting into an argument. Stop scope creep before it begins.

One comp!

When it comes time to produce a comp for the project, let your design skills shine. Allow time in the budget for just one design comp. You can easily sell the client on the savings. Why charge for three designs when they’ll use only one? Three would be a lot of wasted time. Instead, put in a little extra time with the client to make sure you know what they’re looking for and what their website should contain (i.e. during the site map and wireframing stage). With this information, your work will be on target.

This approach will scare some clients, but with clear communication they will buy in. Give them an option in case they hate the design you’ve come up with. For example, if they would like a new comp to be produced, charge an additional fee. This puts them in the driver’s seat and enables them to control the budget.

The argument for a single comp is controversial, but I have seen it work marvelously for low-budget clients. Here’s some additional reading on the topic:

But don’t take my word for it. Paul Rand preached the same thing decades ago. This point is easy to dismiss as being impossible at the outset, but think about it.

Choose an appropriate CMS

It’s almost crazy to think of building a website without a CMS these days, and it’s no different for low-budget work. Given that tools like WordPress are absolutely free, not using one would be crazy. The key is to eliminate as much extra time as possible. One clear way to save time is to choose the right CMS, and WordPress is usually the clear choice. Here’s why:

  • It’s free
  • It can be set up and installed in minutes
  • A vast array of plug-ins is available
  • Specialized help is available and cheap
  • There are countless themes and extensions
  • Using it and maintaining it is crazy simple

There is a lot of great content management systems, but few can compare to WordPress in effectiveness. It is massively popular, so you’ll have no problem finding tools to accomplish almost anything, including tutorials on setting up almost any feature set. And WordPress is totally open source, so if you want to extend the CMS, you won’t be locked into anything you can’t control.

Establish a plan for your WordPress set-up. Ideally, you’d have a hosting package set up and ready to go, so that you can easily add new websites. Identify the plug-ins and components that you’ll be installing on most websites. Some of this information will probably find its way into your planning and contractual stages.

Leverage ready-to-go templates

The thought of using an off-the-shelf template might make you cringe, but the truth is that a lot of amazing templates are available. The most important thing is for the template to already be integrated in the CMS you are working with, so that when you install the theme, you’ll already have the shell of the website in place.

My favorite strategy is to use a vendor such as Elegant Themes. Buy the $90 developer license and you’ll have full access to all 55 of its themes (as well as new ones that get released) for one year. This license allows you to use the themes for as many clients as you like.

Cut out a tremendous amount of development time by eliminating the task of integrating custom HTML cuts into the CMS. Integrating the HTML of a sliced design into a CMS is a time-consuming operation. This is a good area to save some time and money.

Instead of designing from scratch and having to go through the entire development process, simply re-skin by using the layout and structure of a pre-built theme. You can still produce beautiful work if you are able to adjust to the contraints of a system like this. In fact, there is no need to compromise at all on the quality of your deliverables.

WordPress themes are readily available, and the following sources offer membership plans, so you can get instant access to a lot at once:

  • Elegant Themes (one year of access for $89),
  • WooThemes (a variety of pricing options, starting at $70 for three themes),
  • Press75 (pricing starts at $75 for two months of access).

You can streamline your operation in a big way to suit a low budget using this approach. The client is able to preview the template to ensure that it suits their needs, and you can point out what will be replaced or changed. The template becomes a crystal-clear framework for building a semi-custom website.

Save time and money by sticking to the same vendor. The more you work with themes from one source, the more time you’ll save. Every theme shop takes a slightly different approach, and once you learn its ways, you’ll be able to quickly build websites with those themes.

Adjusting to the notion of re-skinning is difficult, but once you wrap your head around it, you’ll realize you can save big and take on low-budget clients.

That being said, if you do start re-skinning, you’ll probably have to reconsider how you approach wireframes. You may find that presenting the client with the template along with the wireframe is more effective. The wireframe should cleanly overlay the website, so you’ll have to leverage the underlying structure of the theme, while customizing the colors, images and styles.

Some big brands use off-the-shelf themes for their websites.

Benefits of low-budget clients

There are some big perks to this type of business.

First, small projects can be turned around very quickly. You won’t be churning away at the same website with the same client for six months. If you like variety, this is a great way to get it.

Secondly, you won’t depend on any single client to keep you afloat. For a shop that depends on huge projects, each one can be critical to keep the business going. Constantly hunting for the next $25,000 website can be stressful and difficult. If you crank out a bunch of small websites, even if some fall through, you will be just fine.

Work like this can be amazingly rewarding. More often than not, you’ll find clients who have yet to experience a satisfying development process. Helping them meet their needs by launching a beautiful website and watching their business grow is very fulfilling.

Clients like this often become clients for life. Most will recognize that you have helped them get what they need, and you will build a portfolio of customers who recommend you to others and return to you repeatedly for work.

Give it time

A process like this does not happen overnight. Building a system and getting it to work effectively can take a long time. I suggest you look for a way to knock a chunk off of your current price point, thus broadening your appeal to this tier of clients.

Say you usually build websites for around $10,000. How could you get that down to $7000 and attract a new audience? Take it one step at a time. I am certainly not proposing that you discount your current offerings. This is about expanding your client base to grow your business.

Written exclusively for WDD by Patrick McNeil. He is a freelance writer, developer and designer. He loves to write about web design, train people in web development and build websites. Patrick’s passion for web design trends and patterns can be found in his books on Follow Patrick on Twitter (@designmeltdown).

How do you handle clients with low budgets? Please share any tips or experiences that may benefit your fellow designers!

WDD Staff

WDD staff are proud to be able to bring you this daily blog about web design and development. If there's something you think we should be talking about let us know @DesignerDepot.

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