Recently I have had clients get in touch with me to ask me to “fix” their existing websites. I have clicked onto their website while we’ve been on the phone and seen in one case a half-functioning site, and in the other a functioning but oddly complicated site that didn’t do very much, and all sorts of other unexpected things.
Curious, I always click on View -> Developer -> View Source expecting to see something familiar, but often there is no WordPress, no Squarespace, no Shopify, no Magento jumping out at me. What is going on here?
In some cases, the developers had custom coded a simple ecommerce site from scratch (or more likely, repurposed the code from a previous site, which usually results in the site being binned – sorry) and in one other recent case the site was built using self-hosted ecommerce software that was astonishingly expensive – all for a site that WASN’T EVEN AN ECOMMERCE SITE.
In each case, the client was an intelligent, educated woman with an established business, an outstanding (often luxury) product and heaps of experience – but none had been able to predict the problems they would run into with a developer who was going “off piste” with their platform.
What’s So Special About A Mainstream Platform?
Internet fashions change, but some platforms have really stood the test of time, and WordPress is the big player here, powering 26.4% of the websites on the internet – and with good reason. WordPress is robust, powerful, incredibly well supported by both the WordPress team themselves and the thousands of developers all over the world who create software and plugins exclusively for WordPress websites. It might not be as simple to get started with as Squarespace, but the power it offers – FOR FREE – is astonishing.
The other two platforms that you might be considering – Shopify and Squarespace – come with monthly fees, but are also very simple to get to grips with and the ease of admin definitely makes their monthly fees worth while, especially for an ecommerce startup. You can also get your Shopify or Squarespace site up and running in less than a day if you have some nice photos and use one of their fabulous themes (some paid, some free) – this can be a great way to get up and running and get a feel for what you want out of a website – front and back end – before you part with the £££ for a pro site.
If you need something more hard core for ecommerce, you might want to consider Magento, but be prepared to invest heavily in it.
Occasionally a client comes to me and say “I don’t want a WordPress website with a theme – I want a custom site” but it almost always turns out that they had the wrong impression about WordPress and thought it was “just” a blog + a $50 skin from Themeforest with a $5k price tag, instead of the powerful engine that sits behind brands such as The New Yorker, TechCrunch, Sony, Disney and Playstation – and, well, this one too. 🙂
If you want to have a go at your own site on WordPress – and you totally should – it’s not that hard, once you have a great theme or pagebuilder on your site – have a look at the Divi theme from Elegant Themes. It has a fantastic page builder and if you go through their blog, lots of page templates that you can apply to your site for instant swish, as well as great support and advice on how to get certain effects on your page. If you use this link here – Divi from Elegant Themes – it costs exactly the same, except I might get a small commission. I build this site in Divi, as well as some *really* high spec sites in my portfolio, and I can’t recommend it enough.
This is not to say that ALL projects need to use one of the major platforms, of course – lots need and deserve custom written material and a unique approach that doesn’t rely on the potential limitations of sticking with a mainstream platform. Many projects need something that has been specially written for them, but I believe that a straightforward business or ecommerce site that doesn’t need to do something special or enterprise-level (like Treatwell or Airbnb, for instance*) should only ever be built on a mainstream and highly accessible platform, with as little custom code as humanly possible.
A website should not need special training – or payments – to edit or update. If your hosting has an automatic back-up and restore function (such as WP Engine offers) then beyond a bit of housekeeping a few times a year (updating plugins, fixing anything that might not be compatible with a new update – a good reason to avoid too much custom code) any competent business owner or VA should be able to manage most elements of maintaining and updating the site herself, and only need to call in pro tech support if she wants to redesign a page or page element (i.e. the footer or header) or introduce a new visual or functional feature, or suite of features i.e. for a new marketing campaign with sign-up forms, popups and opt-ins.
With WordPress or Shopify, even if your original developer has vanished in a puff of smoke, a quick Google should be enough to answer most questions you might have about making simple updates or edits, and if you need a responsible adult to help you with something you don’t feel confident doing, then literally ANY half-way competent developer should be able to see what’s going on reasonably easily if the original developer did her work properly.
I am a strong believer in keeping it simple. A stunning and engagingly designed business or ecommerce website does not need complicated custom code, and should never lock you into a long-term relationship with a particular developer.
On The Other Hand…
If you have a vision for a highly functional, enterprise-level site, with a complex client management platform, it might require some cold, hard code, and that means money. I have had potential clients vanish into thin air when presented with quotes of £50k+ for projects that I strongly suspect they thought could be done for a few hundred. Pro tip – if the online platform you want to clone has more than 50 full time people on their tech team, I probably can’t do it for £1k. I’m good, but I’m not THAT good!
*Technically you can use WordPress to do almost that Treatwell or Airbnb does, of course, but if you’re at an enterprise level and have the budget, it will be faster, lighter and more robust if it’s custom built.
So – What Should I Take Away From This?
Explore WordPress, Shopify and Squarespace. Look at their websites and see what they offer. Do you have a feel for which one matches your needs yet? Check out the themes on offer with Shopify and Squarespace. Does one of them match the sort of thing you had in mind? It’s worth having a go at pulling something together one one of these two platforms first – it’s free to get started anyway – because you will start to understand a bit more about UX and the sort of elements that a page should have, so even if you decide to go with a pro web designer in the end (hello!) you will be coming to that conversation well informed and prepared.
Good luck, and let me know if you have any comments or questions below!
PS. If you are thinking of hiring a developer, check out my upcoming webinar on Outsourcing Mastery and this blog post on building a good relationship with contractors and freelancers from the very outset.