We have a new President which doesn’t thrill me for a wide variety of reasons. Not least among them though is the fear that tough economic times are ahead, something that could potentially bode poorly for all of my businesses. Trump has shown a willingness to use his Twitter account to play God with the stock market, he has shown a willingness to act against the interests of the workers he promised to protect, he’s shown a willingness to gut the well-being of the middle class with skyrocketing health premiums and a tax strategy that appears to benefit people like him a whole lot more than people like me. No one knows for sure how all this is going to sort out, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried.
Politics aside, things appear to be going fairly well. We’ve being doing a great job clearing out our project logjam, and my to-do list no longer triggers a deep sense of fear and loathing. We couldn’t have picked a better time to catch up though as my junior developer has just left town for a one-week cruise. If that had happened a week or two sooner, I’d probably have been shopping for cyanide pills on Amazon. It’s been a slow sales week at the big store, but this is historically an up-and-down month there.
Yesterday afternoon I went to have beers with my outside sales rep and the owner of another agency who is looking to push us some website and marketing work. He invited a couple of current and former clients and we had a good time talking shop and discussing potential opportunities. One conversation, in particular, reminded me why I’ve stuck with this whole website/marketing thing for so long.
I’m never going to tell anyone that I’m perfect or that I have never failed in the service of a client. But I’ve also never deliberately screwed a client or took a project that I wasn’t qualified to complete.
One of our guests at the brewery was a man named Pat who had spent a considerable amount of time and money launching an exercise product that he was very proud of. I won’t go into detail, but he brought samples and I can honestly say it’s the first time I’ve ever done situps in a bar. Or while holding a beer. But he had questions about his website.
Pat hired a firm that he found online and spent $2,000 for the site, which is not terribly much. But he’s also paying $120/month for them to host it and for them to allow him to use their proprietary website management platform. This is where the trouble begins.
“Proprietary platform” means three things:
- Pat did not “buy” a website. Because it’s their platform, and because they won’t allow anyone else to host or develop on it, Pat is just renting his site from them. So he ends up locked in with them and if he ever decides that he wants to stop working with them, his only way out is to get a whole new website.
- The guys Pat hired are the only guys in existence who can work on the platform or hire outsiders to work on the platform. Anything Pat ever wants to do, he HAS to go through them and pardon the morbid thinking, but if these guys die in a plane crash on their way to a convention or something, Pat loses his site.
- There are a lot of website features that small businesses have come to expect should be “plug and play,” like basic ecommerce, control over indexing and metadata for search engine optimization, simple integrations with third party applications like MailChimp, Salesforce, and others. But that plug and play ecosystem doesn’t exist for a proprietary system, the only functionality that gets built is whatever a client happens to pay them to do and so the library of available modules and addons gets built very slowly. Tens of thousands of plugins exist for WordPress, because there’s a whole community developing them. Proprietary systems with negligible market share can’t grow that way.
For Pat, issue #3 especially is crippling him. He hired a firm to build him an ecommerce website to sell his product online. But it turned out that they didn’t have an ecommerce module for the platform. So they hired someone else to build it, and what they ended up giving him was extraordinarily feature-poor compared with what users of WooCommerce’s WordPress plugin get with a free download.
Every ecommerce site should be protected with an SSL certificate for data encryption. If you want to be technical about it, when you’re using a third party checkout like PayPal (as Pat is), you don’t “need” an SSL certificate. But it’s still important for customer confidence, and Pat launched his site in a time where Google is not only rewarding secure sites with search rankings, but will also start (we believe) penalizing sites which are not. Bottom line, in today’s web environment, EVERY site should be behind an SSL certificate, whether there’s ecommerce or not. But Pat’s web guys told him that securing the site would be an expensive endeavor.
Lots of ecommerce businesses like Pat’s start off using a service like PayPal which requires zero overhead and little expertise to set up. But many businesses graduate from that to a fully-integrated payment gateway like Stripe or Authorize.net because they offer a faster/superior user experience (and sometimes, better rates). But if Pat ever wanted to do this, that integration would have to be developed from scratch because, unlike established platforms, those integrations don’t yet exist on this proprietary system. Adding Stripe or Authorize.net to a WordPress site using WooCommerce site can be done for free.
Pat’s product is roughly the size of an old VCR and it’s relatively heavy, so controlling shipping costs is clearly going to be a concern for Pat and charging too much could be a dealbreaker for his customers. But on the system Pat bought into, he has only one option: to charge a fixed rate. But Pat’s actual shipping costs are variable based on where in the country you are so he is in the unenviable position of having to decide whether to undercharge for shipping for most of the country to discourage customers from abandoning based on high shipping costs and lose money, or to charge a rate that’s high enough that he won’t lose money transactionally on the shipping expense but will likely cost him customers. A shipping calculator that integrates directly with UPS or FedEx costs about $79 to add to WooCommerce, but Pat would likely pay $1000-$1500 or more in custom dev to get something that either comes with — or can be easily/cheaply added to — most ecommerce systems.
Business owners like Pat end up getting trapped by their websites. He needs a new website but likely can’t afford one until his product starts selling in decent numbers, but may not be able to sell in decent numbers because of his website.
The icing on the cake, as Pat explained, is that it turns out that this company didn’t even HAVE this lackluster ecommerce module built when they sold him the site — they hired another company to do that after the fact and when Pat calls with site issues, he can only get help when his company can track down the other third party developer to support the thing.
The thing with this situation that bothers me most is that this company was not qualified to build Pat the site he needed. They knew it. They knew that there was no ecommerce module and that they didn’t have the ability (or perhaps the bandwidth) to build it internally. They also knew that they wouldn’t be able to internally support the development of the ecommerce module that Pat was paying for even though he would never truly “own” the work.
They ripped this guy off, hindered his chances of success, and fastened a $120/month shackle to his leg.
I run into business owners like Pat almost every week and it makes me sick that folks like this have such a hard time finding honest help and it troubles me that reasonably smart people aren’t finding the resources they need to understand the buying criteria or signs of trouble in the qualifying/proposal process.
I’m pretty determined to get some education out there, but I haven’t yet figured out exactly how.