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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, just pointing out that 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 This?

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 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 stuff — HTML 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.