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Cheap web designer disappearingEveryone loves cheap web design — until they learn that it takes far more than low prices and fancy graphics to build a business website that works. That can be a hard lesson about cheap web design risks, but it often gets worse. Because cheap web designers often disappear.

This can be a touchy subject though, so let’s be clear: most experienced web designers I know are talented people who only want to help. That said, experienced web designers are rarely cheap web designers.

Still, I have just spoken to yet another distressed small business owner. His cheap web designer had left him in the lurch with a broken website and no access to fix it.

Other business owners had told him this was “typical” of “flaky” designers. They all just assumed the worst of our entire industry. Even web designers rarely discuss it — after all, you get what you pay for. Still, this is predictable and avoidable.

TL;DR: Looking for the cheapest web designers is asking for trouble. Even those who genuinely want to help mostly don’t know how they’re getting it wrong.

How Do I Know Why Cheap Web Designers Disappear?

Well, I’ve been working in this field for over 25 years, and have specialised in providing affordable web design for small businesses since 2005. “Affordable” is still inexpensive, but cost-effective rather than simply cheap. Still, I know what it takes to survive doing that, and have seen many fail.

So having politely avoided the topic for many years, it’s time to explain. Partly to warn small businesses and startups, and perhaps to help some would-be cheap web designers avoid the pitfalls.

Sadly, yes, cheap web designers often disappear, giving the rest of us a bad name. So learn to spot the signs and don’t risk your business on them. Still, don’t assume malice, either. Very few really deserve that.

Who Are These “Flaky” Cheap Web Designers?

The backgrounds and motives of these web designers vary, but most think they are helping. They know many small firms aren’t very web-savvy. They know (or think) they are. What they don’t understand is business, or the need for ongoing support.

So most cheap web designers aren’t bad people, or typically flaky. Some are very capable web professionals — although those are often moonlighting, or between jobs. Either of which is a problem, as we’ll see.

Others aren’t so experienced. Sadly, many lack both website-building experience and business experience. They may have built a personal site or two (which are totally different), but still believe building a business website is just a matter of a few pretty pictures and a DIY website-building platform. As if buying a spanner could make them an engineer.

The key factor is that they think they can make a bit of spare cash as a cheap web designer.

…and there’s the problem. No commitment. To them, it’s a bit of spare cash, and “cheap” is all that matters.

This is especially true – and especially dangerous – when times are tough. Lots of people are looking for ways to boost their income for a while. Meanwhile, the sharks smell blood in the water and target small firms with cheap web design deals that really won’t help.

However, “cheap” isn’t all that matters. Cost-effectiveness matters, but that’s very different. After all, I’m keen on providing cost-effective small business websites. “Cost-effective” is an investment. “Cheap” isn’t. Anyway…

Why Is Cheap Web Design Risky?

Business sites aren’t like personal sites. They need to compete — and there’s a lot more to that than just pretty graphics. Professional web designers also consider things like SEO, site performance, security, conversion rate optimisation, legal compliance and more. Neither building a few personal sites nor a graphics degree teaches cheap web designers about these business-critical yet mostly invisible factors.

Of course, skipping those things lets cheap web designers undercut professionals — but the missed opportunities cost their clients more.

Even if you have a decent site though, the web isn’t a stable environment. Nor is business. Technologies, markets, security threats and design trends all evolve constantly. Your website is a marketing vehicle in an off-road race, and any vehicle needs maintenance. Otherwise, it will break. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll eventually want to make changes that you can’t do without help.

So you call your cheap web designer — but they’ve moved on. Not just to a skate park, though (unless you hired a real amateur or sought favours from friends or family).

So Where Do These Cheap Web Designers Go?

Most “disappear” to a new job, project or contract — which may pay more per week than they charged you for several weeks of site setup. Many earn over £800 a week as employees, or twice that as contractors. Plus they get stability, paid holidays, a pension, and no marketing or other business expenses.

Sadly, that means you just aren’t their priority any more. Possibly not even in an emergency. They’ve finally discovered the real value of their time, and have no interest in working for less.

…but they aren’t bad people. They feel guilty about that. So they “ghost” you. As if that helps.

Then you find you can’t even get enough access for someone else to take the site on. Even “your” domain name may not be registered to you. So you may end up starting from scratch on a less-than-ideal new domain name, building a site that will have to compete with your old one until the hosting or domain on that one expires.

Yes, that really happens. More often than you’d like to think.

How do I know this? Because I’ve helped a lot of small firms pick up the pieces. I’ve also mentored a lot of web professionals, and know some who have been tempted to do this.

How Cheap Is Risky?

Freelancers must cover minimum wage (£2k/mo.) plus running costs every month to be stable. Small business web design is not the mass market many assume. So sales and admin take time — starting two projects every month can be hard work.

Most firms take 1-2 years to break even and longer to become profitable enough to be stable. Less than 25% stabilise enough to last over 15 years. So under £2k is cheap; under £1k is risky, especially from less experienced freelancers — and you can’t expect anyone’s best work for under £2k.

How Can You Avoid The Risks of Cheap Web Design?

You can avoid these risks simply by not choosing your web designer based on price alone. So, don’t treat your website like a one-off, fire-and-forget cost-cutting exercise. It’s probably the most important marketing asset your business will have — and it will need ongoing maintenance. Take that investment seriously, and:

  • Pay a retainer for an ongoing support contract. If you don’t want to pay their rates for their time, don’t complain when they leave you.
  • Avoid those who won’t agree to a support contract. If your site is already live, get them to hand it over to someone who will support it before you lose touch with them.
  • Check how long they’ve been in business. Give newbies a chance, by all means, but have a “plan B” if you do. They may want to stay in business and support you for years, but very few manage that.
  • Ask if they can hand-code stuffHTML and CSS at least, ideally JavaScript and PHP too. Otherwise, you’ll likely hit problems they can’t fix at some point — especially if they use a platform that doesn’t give code access. It takes commitment and problem-solving skills to learn hand-coding. So if they can’t do that, they won’t provide decent support.
  • Don’t give them reasons to leave. They’re a vital, skilled business service provider, not your employee or a shop assistant.
  • Be extra careful about bespoke coding. We’re talking web programming here, not bespoke visual design. Supporting someone else’s code can be tricky. Sometimes it’s “spaghetti code” that’s hard to even read. This also applies if your developer has written their own web platform. You may well be stuck with them, so make sure you have their support.

Conclusion: Caveat Emptor!

Some cheap web designers may be upset by all this because they want to help, and think they are helping. So if that’s you, help those who need personal sites, or get serious and offer paid support contracts. Small businesses face enough risks as it is, and no matter how charitable you are, you won’t be able to give away your time to businesses for years on end. Trust me on that.

Others, as professionals, won’t want to accept that moonlighting makes them amateurs. If they provide adequate ongoing, paid support, it doesn’t.

Still, the bottom line is that those that won’t commit to ongoing support endanger the small businesses they “help”. They never mean to, but it’s rare for either party to forsee the risk.

So now you know. Even if your budget is tight, don’t just look for a cheap web designer. Find a cost-effective web designer who can reduce your risks and provide long-term support.

Are you looking for cost-effective web design?

Start here!

This article was first published on 15/08/2020. It has been updated to highlight that cheap web design still increases website project risks, especially in a recession.