Let’s say you are just starting out with a new business, or you’ve been running your business for a while, but know you need to get online, or improve your website. You might be offering music lessons, cleaning services, gardening, or maybe you’re a writer who wants a nice place to promote your work.
You’re good at what you do, but you have no idea how this web stuff works. You start searching online for ‘web designer’ or ‘web developer.’ You find someone who seems nice and ask them how much your new website will cost. Hopefully they ask you some questions first, but eventually, they come back with a number and it’s MUCH higher then you expected.
Who knew websites could cost thousands of dollars? Why on earth are they so expensive? And how are you supposed to get something decent on your $500 budget?
This is a scenario I see play out all the time, both in my own business and with other designers, developers and agencies.
When it comes to buying just about any service, you can have two out of three: cheap, fast, or good. Sometimes new clients come to me having paid thousands of dollars for their site, and I look under the hood and find a hot mess with a good paint job. The client isn’t able to make even the simplest content updates without calling on the developer, who then charges a premium hourly rate.
What is an entrepreneur on a budget to do?
So now you’ve recovered somewhat from your sticker shock, but you still need a website, and it’s the middle of winter, so your money tree isn’t quite producing the way you’d like. What are your options?
Cheap and Fast (Probably Not Good)
There are many players in the cheap, DIY website space: Wix, Weebly, Squarespace, GoDaddy Page Builder etc. They offer the ability to build your site without having to know any programming by offering drag and drop layout builders, and pre-made themes.
Some even offer mobile responsive sites, although with Wix you have to build a completely separate mobile site and it doesn’t update when you update your regular site. So now you have to build and manage two sites, because ignoring mobile traffic when it’s nearly grown past the level of desktop traffic would just be silly.
Here’s the problem with drag and drop, no-code DIY websites. You still don’t know anything about what makes a good website. Chances are, your site will turn out to be as effective as if I ordered a build-your-own-car kit on the internet and tried to put it together. Sure, I drive cars occasionally, but for the majority of my life I haven’t even owned one. I know they have four wheels and a steering wheel, and they go when you push on the gas and that’s about it.
So you putting together your own site from scratch when you know little or nothing about how to market on the web, probably won’t turn out much better. User Experience (UX), design, layout, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), copywriting…these are individual areas of expertise that professionals study for years in order to do well.
It may not surprise you hear that I think you should use WordPress. Specifically, I think you should use WordPress.com, the hosted version of WordPress. Hosted means you won’t need to buy your own server from a web hosting company and you won’t need to worry about keeping the code updated and your site backed up. WordPress.com takes care of all that for you.
Here are some other reasons I think WordPress is the best choice for many people who need to create a site on their own:
- It’s free. You can get started with nothing other than sweat equity. Later on you can pay to add features such as using your own domain name, but setting up your website is absolutely free.
- It’s user friendly. One of the core tenants of WordPress is to democratize publishing on the web. That means it was created from the start to be easy for non-technical people to use so that you can focus on what you want to say, not the technical aspects of getting it on the web. The software has only gotten better over time. Adding things like images, video, contact forms and links are well within the abilities of anyone who can read and follow instructions.
- It’s popular. Literally 20% of the web runs on WordPress. That means a huge community, which makes it easier to find help if you do get stuck. The WordPress forums, Stack overflow or just a search of your exact question is likely to yield quick answers.
- You can grow up with WordPress. A year goes by and your business has taken off! When you’re ready to go to the next level and create something more custom, a developer will have no trouble exporting your content and importing it into a self-hosted WordPress install on your own server. Now you have the freedom to do anything, but not the technical debt of trying to get your content out of some proprietary system.
Less Control is Better
When you don’t know what you’re doing, constraints can keep you from making a mess of things. That’s why we have coloring books with lines in them, paint by numbers, and train tracks. These tools give you guidelines to reach your goals.
WordPress.com has thousands of themes to choose from. There’s one out there that will be suited to tell your story and I’ll talk about how to choose one in a minute. Many of them are free and every theme in the WordPress repository has to meet certain standards to be accepted.
You are not allowed to install plugins on WordPress.com sites. Plugins are software that can be added to self-hosted WordPress installations to add functionality. Instead of Plugins, WordPress.com users get Jetpack, a supercharged suite of functions that should really cover all the basics your site may need.
Putting It All Together
So, WordPress is taking care of the theme, plugins, code, hosting, and is great for SEO out of the box. That leaves you to focus on the thing you know better than anyone else: your business.
Even if you use a theme that thousands of other people have used before, the thing that will make your site stand out is YOU. Your story, your business, what unique value you bring to your audience, or the audience you are trying to create. So you should now direct all your energy to figuring out how to express those things.
Before you look at themes, before you even sign up for a WordPress.com account, imagine that your website is a new employee that you are hiring and spend some time thinking about these things:
- What is the purpose of your site?
- How does your site fit into your overall marketing strategy?
- What are the three most important things that someone should learn in the first few seconds of their visit?
- What action do you want your visitors to take? (Donate, buy, sign up, make an appointment etc).
- What does success look like?
These are the same sorts of questions I ask every potential client to answer. I used those same questions to redesign my own site last year.
Next, use the answers to those questions to figure out what pages you need to create for your site. Write all the copy and collect or create the images and assets you want to use.
If you did everything above, hopefully you clarified some of your goals and gained some insight into the message you need to send.
Now, you can sign up for your account and begin looking at themes. Knowing what your message is going to be and what sorts of visual assets you have will help you envision your content when you’re looking at different themes.
If you’re starting a photography site, you’re going to want something that has excellent support for displaying images in different ways. On the other hand, if you know you’re not going to use images much, getting a photo-heavy theme will just look sad and naked when you put your image-light content into it. Instead focus on excellent typography and readability.
This is where I would encourage you to spend some of that small budget on two things:
- Buy a premium theme (usually around $79)
- Get a custom domain name ($13 / year)
Buying a premium theme assures you of a certain level of support that can be lacking with free themes. You’re also getting the benefit of all the design and development expertise that you would pay thousands of dollars for in a custom theme for less than $100 bucks! If that’s not using your money wisely, I don’t know what is.
And since you still have 80% of your budget left, you can probably afford to pay a professional for a consultation. It’s worth sitting down with someone who knows what they’re doing to share your ideas and make sure you’re on the right track.
Even on a small budget, taking the time to build a solid foundation will make your site (and therefore your business) more successful and save you time and money in the future when you're ready to scale up.
Update: I learned about some great resources for non-profits today so I'm adding a resources section and will update as I find new things.
- Dreamhost will give one free shared hosting account to US based 501(c)(3) non-profits.
- Modern Tribe, which makes one of, if not, the best events calendar plugin available, will give both the free and pro versions to qualified non-profits in the U.S. and internationally.
Need consulting or ready to scale up? Get in touch!