Author Archives: Jeremy Lichtman

About Jeremy Lichtman

CEO of Lichtman Consulting. Formerly CTO of MIT Consulting. Serial entrepreneur, software and web developer.

“Whole Life” Approach to Website Development – Part 3

Continued from Part 2 – http://lichtman.ca/uncategorized/whole-life-approach-to-website-development-part-2

In Part 2, we covered some of the stages during development and just after the launch of a website.

8. Operations

Image of a logistics provider's warehouse of g...
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I’ve frequently seen websites launch successfully, only to lose steam rapidly, once the obvious difficulties in actually running a web-business come into play.

Operating a successful web-based business can be a lot of work, no matter how much effort is placed on automation.

A website that sells a product can have a major time committment required in order to fulfill orders (i.e. package them up and mail them), or to answer queries.

Content-based sites can be even harder to maintain, particularly when the general public has the ability to participate in the content creation process – large social media sites often have a significant number of staff dedicated to removing content that contravenes the terms of service.

I’ve recently worked with several customers who have partnered with fulfillment centers in order to offload a portion of the order fulfillment process onto specialists. The websites have been designed to integrate with the fulfillment center’s systems in order to keep the order statuses current. I’ll eventually post an update here when I’ve seen how well this works in practice.

Creating a plan – possibly even as early as the business plan stage – for how operations will work, the amount of time needed to keep a website running, and whether any staff are required for this purpose (and particularly how much that would cost), is an effective way of making sure that the resources will be in place to run things after launch. It also gears owners of web businesses up for the long, ongoing task of running an online business.

9. Maintenance Cycle

Car Repair
Image by akseabird via Flickr

Most web developers approach the ongoing maintenance of a customer’s site as a form of additional revenue after a project has completed.

Few owners of websites appear to budget for ongoing maintenance related issues – which could include bug fixing or building additional functionality – before or during development.

For developers, there’s a risk associated with the maintenance cycle, given that an ongoing series of invoices (unless well justified) could result in the customer leaving for another development company.

Ensuring that new owners of web businesses understand what is involved (particularly with regards to costing) in maintaining a website over time will go a long way towards forging a better partnership between developer and customer.

10. Creative Destruction – When to Scrap It and Start Over

Wrecking Ball
Image by Editor B via Flickr

I’ve worked on a number of websites where the site had some initial success, which dropped off over time. Unfortunately some products are faddish in nature, which means that there is a very well defined life cycle for the product.

The products or services sold by a website may not be the only things subject to this inherent life cycle.

A website built today may not work as well in the future. Technologies change, people’s design taste changes, and websites do become outdated over time.

As some point in time, a decision may need to be made to scrap a site and start over.

This often seems to happen on an ad-hoc basis, where a customer becomes infuriated with a developer and leaves for another web development company; the new company will typically try to sell a complete start-over, as opposed to modifying somebody else’s work.

By ensuring from the start that customers understand that there are inherent lifespans involved in a web business (just like any other), developers can potentially develop a longer term relationship with their customers that lasts beyond a single project.

Conclusions

There are a few quick conclusions that can be drawn from all of this:

  • A web business involves a lot more than just throwing together a website and putting it up on the internet. If you ignore the fact that its a business like any other, you may be setting yourself up for failure.
  • Web development companies are only part of the “supply chain” involved in building a successful web business. Other companies that are often involved include: business consultants, accountants, lawyers, loan companies or investors, PR people, SEO/SEM companies, supply chain management or fulfillment centres, phone support companies and many more. It makes a lot of sense for web developers to cultivate relationships with each of these kinds of companies, in order to be able to provide a full “package” to their customers.
  • It takes time and extended effort to build a successful web business. Both you and your vendors need to have tenacity, because a lack of staying power won’t cut it. Despite anything you’ve seen in the news, most successful online businesses are the result of many, many years of hard work.

“Whole Life” Approach to Website Development – Part 2

Continued from Part 1 – http://lichtman.ca/uncategorized/whole-life-approach-to-website-development-part-1

In Part 1, we discussed that websites need to be viewed from the perspective of the business cycle, rather than as a simple project.

4. Design / Implementation

Travelstart Design Studio is officially 3 of u...
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There isn’t all that much I can add regarding the design and implementation phases of a web project. This is the technical portion of the project, and the business-owner is somewhat at the mercy of the skills of the people that have been hired to build the site.

Web developers can use this phase as an opportunity to obtain feedback from customers early and often, which may reduce the amount of time involved in the testing and “Beta” shakedown period after launch.

5. Testing

Vince and Larry the crash test dummies, who ap...
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I know of few web development companies that have a formal testing process in place.

Part of the problem is that testing is labour intensive, and requires a particular nitpicky mindset that developers seldom choose to acquire.

If web projects properly budget for the testing phase (including adequately estimating the amount of time involved), then more options become available, including hiring staff specifically for this purpose, or utilizing a third-party testing company.

This avoids the prevalent (I’m guilty of this too sometimes) practice of pushing a large chunk of the testing process onto the customer.

6. Launch

Launching of flight Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3),...
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Typically the launch of a website tends to be greeted with a lot of fanfare.

If the owner has engaged a PR company, there can be a significant buzz attached to the initial launch.

The critical things to bear in mind are that a) the buzz may not correspond to a significant number of sales, and b) there needs to be a committment to work at building the business after the initial buzz wears off (which it usually will).

I’ve seen a lot of sites launch well, only to founder later on.

Its critical not to confuse the big launch with the lengthy hard work of building an online clientelle, which may take years (just like with a regular “real world” business).

Tenacity pays off! Do not be discouraged if things don’t immediately work on launch!

7. Building Traffic – PR, SEO, Organic Growth and Networking

Stock chart showing levels of support (4,5,6, ...
Image via Wikipedia

There are quite a few factors involved in building traffic to a website over time.

A quick point before discussing this important issue: the “conversion” or “closing” ratio of your website – it isn’t any good to obtain a large amount of traffic on your website if you aren’t turning that traffic into sales (or some kind of revenue anyhow).

Keep a close eye on the closing ratio (i.e. percentage of visitors that result in revenue) over time, and don’t be afraid to change aspects of your website if things aren’t working.

I find that tools like the “Funnels” system built into Google Analytics do a great job of showing where a website is losing people.

I’ve seen a decidedly mixed bag of results in the past from both PR companies and SEO (search engine optimization) people. I’ve written a bit in the past on both topics, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here.

Generally the process of building a significant amount of traffic on a website boils down to continually promoting the site over a long period of time; this is particularly the case where a business is looking for so-called “organic growth”, which basically means people just finding the website randomly, due to it being frequently referenced elsewhere.

The process of building organic growth often is a result of “networking” with the owners of other websites. This takes both hard work and a willingness to give and take. Note: I’m not talking about lame “link exchanges”, but rather the more “blog oriented” approach where people discuss each other on their sites. An example would be somebody discussing how much a like a particular site, or how an interaction with somebody at a web-based company went. You can’t beat that kind of press.

As mentioned above, I’ve worked on a number of projects over the years where various PR companies were engaged in order to promote projects.

My experience has been that PR companies tend to have specific areas where they shine, and promoting websites isn’t something that all of them do well. Partially this is because PR is oriented towards short term promotion of products, or finding ways to plug something newsworthy (and hence time-limited).

If you can find a PR person who has staying power, and can keep doggedly plugging away at something long after it becomes boring – stick with them, as they are rare.

Its also been somewhat evident that there are many PR people out there who are primarily good at promoting themselves. I don’t have much ability personally to see through “BS” of this nature; my recommendation would be to get some references for previous jobs that are similar to yours, and take the time to call them.

SEO is also something of a mixed basket.

Search engine optimizers and marketers tend to specialize in particular areas, for instance Pay Per Click, On Page SEO, Organic SEO, Link Building, Social Media Marketing etc. I don’t want to go into detail on the topic of SEO, despite its importance to newly launched websites, since I’ve written frequently on this topic before.

The key with hiring an SEO/SEM company is a) check refences, and b) start with a small, limited scale project first, and don’t be afraid to drop them quickly if they don’t deliver.

As somebody who has worked in this field, I’m also aware that there’s a similar effect at play to PR people – over time the effectiveness of a specific technique may wane, resulting in a loss of interest on the part of the SEO people involved. When this happens, it may be time to move on.

To Be Continued…

“Whole Life” Approach to Website Development – Part 1

In my experience, small business owners tend to view websites as either a business card that happens to be online (i.e. excessively low expectations), or as something that is supposed to miraculously provide revenue the instant it is launched.

Master List of Websites
Image by anselm23 via Flickr

The problem is partially one of not taking a broader “whole life cycle” view of the website as a business in its own right. It may also be exacerbated by web developers who may be more comfortable with creative or software development, as opposed to a hard-headed business-oriented view of a site.

The issue is that a website is a business like any other, and that implies that there is more going on than its appearance or functionality alone.

Developers also need to resist the temptation to take the easy way out and just implement whatever the customer asks for. This may require developers to pick up some business-oriented skills in order to provide a more professional level of service for their clients.

A look at the full cycle involved in building a website – or more accurately a web business – gives a wider picture that may suggest both areas for improvement on the part of developers, as well as a more realistic set of expectations from business owners.

The “Whole Life” development cycle starts long before anybody discusses what a website is going to look like, and continues (often for years) after the site has been launched.

1. Concept

Lightbulb
Image by Martin Charbonneau Photographe via Flickr

Frequently, the initial concept for a website originates with the business owner.

In many cases, they take their flash of brilliance and immediately start trying to build it.

A quick feasibility study may be in order though.

This may consist of a quick Google search to see if there are competing products, or bouncing the idea off a trusted friend (I’ve encountered people who are incredibly paranoid about protecting their ideas, regardless of whether the idea is actually valuable or not).

Where web development companies come into this is in the area of professionalism: it isn’t easy to tell a potential customer that their ideas are terrible, or to try and make them modify their concepts in order to allow them to work better online.

Part of that is that developers and designers are by nature creative people, and we don’t like raining on somebody’s parade.

Part of it is also the risk of losing a possible customer.

Yes, this should be done tactfully (that could be a complete article on its own), but if we don’t address this up front, it creates a larger likelyhood of the project blowing up in our faces later on.

Attempting to adjust expectations mid-course isn’t usually much of a solution.

2. Business Model / Business Plan

Modern blueprint of the French galleon La Belle.
Image via Wikipedia

This is a neglected area with new web businesses, and one that could provide additional revenue for development firms that are willing to learn new skills – or work with other companies that have the skillset.

Frequently new websites are built and launched without a hard look at how they are going to make money. “Oh I’ll just build something and throw ads up on it” or “I’ll have a shopping cart so people will buy things” don’t hold water any more – if they ever did. I’m still amazed at how many people I talk to still think along these lines.

Want a successful web business? Start with a well defined model for how it will make money. Then put together a business plan (and possibly a marketing plan).

A well-crafted business plan can take a long time to put together (Factor at least 35 hours for a simple plan, and 6 weeks or more for a complex one).

If the web development company you are working with doesn’t provide this service (hint: my company does about 3 or 4 per month) then hopefully they have a relationship with somebody else who does.

The business plan may help later on as well, if you are seeking financing for your website.

3. Financing

If you are building a small website, the issue of financing probably boils down to giving the designer an initial deposit and then whatever you owe once its all done.

Money Back Guarantee
Image by Roby© via Flickr

Larger web projects, however, can be expensive, particularly when you factor in the labour involved in custom graphic design or software development. This means that you could potentially need to look at financing options, in order to complete your project.

Most web companies are far too small to be able to provide sophisticate financing options for web development projects, so it is possible you’ll be looking around for a different way to put together financing.

The current financial situation has resulted in difficulties in obtaining traditional sources of financing (typically loans) for web development projects. As of the time of writing, (tail end of 2009) the people I’ve spoken to have had little success obtaining bank financing for business development of any kind, including web development. It is unclear whether this source of funding is still viable for web projects.

I’ve recently spoken to people in the business of brokering small (i.e. under $100,000) loans, which are typically unsecured. My understanding is that this type of financing still exists, if one is willing to hunt around to find it, and it one is willing to accept the terms as-is. Secured loans on a larger scale can also be obtained for development projects, but again the terms may or may not be acceptable. Personally I haven’t had any experience actually taking out a loan of this nature, so this is mostly based on discussing the topic with people in that industry; I haven’t spoken recently to anybody who has obtained this kind of financing for a project.

“Angel” or “Venture Capital” funding is another traditional (at least in a Dot Com sense) way of putting together financing for web development. I also don’t have personal experience with going this route, although I’ve had “nibbles” from local angel investors that I know regarding specific projects in the past; none of those has resulted in anything to date… Usually people in either of those areas are looking to buy a piece of the equity of whatever it is that you’re building, so your track record is going to be important to them (hence the business plan!).

One unusual source of funding for web development (or software) projects can be equipment financing companies. Many of the “captive” financing companies for computer hardware manufacturers (one example would be IBM Global Financing, but all of the large equipment manufacturers have them) will finance software or web development projects, provided that you purchase equipment from them as part of the deal. So for instance you could buy the servers required to run your site, finance them, and then roll other startup expenses such as off the shelf software and custom development that are also required, into a single loan.

By cultivating relationships with potential sources of funding, web development companies can add a powerful sales tool into their “kit”, which will allow them to land larger projects. This kind of relationship could also be extremely beneficial for lenders and investors as well, since web developers are frequently the first line of vendors to see newly launched concepts. I’ve actively cultivated relationships with companies in these areas for years as a result, and I’m often puzzled when a VC doesn’t “get it” – in their position who wouldn’t want a steady stream of pre-qualified applicants?

To Be Continued….

Congrats to Sprouter.com

Its always good to see some local people make it. Today sprouter.com officially launched, and it looks like they’re getting a lot of media attention, including the National Post. For those who haven’t heard of them, they started off as redwire.ca, and have been steadily pounding away at things for the past year or so, which shows great tenacity.

Website Launch Checklist

A few websites that my company has been working on have launched in the past few weeks. I’ve got a few “secret sauce” activities that I do whenever I launch a new website, such as:

  • Setup Google Analytics
  • Install webmaster tools and sitemap for the site
  • Bookmark it on some social clipping sites
  • Tweet it
  • Create a ping.fm account and some of the key accounts that it supports
  • Try to create a few incoming links using free directory sites
  • Put out a press release

I’d be interested to heard what things you do when you launch a new website.

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PingPress back up

Thankfully the new server has a current version of PHP 5. As a result, I’ve been able to get my posts to ping.fm running again, via PingPressFM. That was an ongoing low-level annoyance, the past couple of months.

Microsoft – Twitter Deal

Nathan forwarded me this link from Mashable, with the subject line prefaced with the word “HUGE”.

From what I can tell, it looks like Microsoft is finally starting to put together the pieces of an overall web strategy: determine what Google would like to do and put roadblocks in their way. Hence the previous Yahoo deal.

Its obvious far to early to see if this helps them out. I’m fairly sure though that it means search engines will be displaying a lot more “current” or trending data pulled from profiles and micro-blogging posts.

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Update on Server Issues

The server on which our site is hosted was switched last week, resulting in some issues. I believe most of them have been sorted out at this point. If you notice anything broken on the site, please let me know though.

Coding Practices at Large Companies

I just had an interesting email exchange with one of my newer staff, a friend from university who worked for [insert name of company] for a number of years. Aforementioned anonymized company being a Fortune 500 company that is in the IT industry. I’ve got stuff with their logo on it in my office.

The conversation began when he asked if he could use a goto statement (in PHP code!) for error handling.

Bearing in mind that this is somebody who is extremely familiar with both Object Oriented and good coding practises, I realized that there must be an interesting story underlying this.

His response to my query for more info is informative:

Tease all you want — I’ll lean on the weight of nine years of experience at [big company name], where (gasp) gotos were ubiquitous (almost exclusively in error handling code, but still).

To clarify further: I actually wasn’t aware that PHP had a goto statement (see: php.net/goto – they have the nice xkcd cartoon in the comments). I’ve been coding in PHP for a long time.

There’s two methods that I usually use to handle errors in PHP code, in case you’re wondering:

1. Make sure that code that can crash is encapsulated in a nice neat function. Check return values of function calls inside the function. If necessary, stick an “@” before function calls that tend to crash in a messy manner. Then return useful info about the final state from the function itself, and check things out higher up in the stack.

2. Stick try/catch code around code that can crash. If necessary, subclass error classes and put in nice handlers for them.

In both cases, make sure that the error level for reporting is appropriate, and that we don’t output actual error messages back to the end user. Where useful, put in logging, and possibly put in code to email error reports back to admin.

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Google Wave Releasing Beta

Google Wave is releasing in Beta to about 100,000 people today. I have at least one staff member who is excited about this.