Just like a car, a web project could cost almost anything depending on your needs and budget. Your developer needs to know both.
“I want a car. How much will that cost?”
Web developers confront this question almost every time they talk to a client—except with “website” replacing “car.” They face the same choices as you would if asked how much “a car” costs:
- Give an answer that accounts for the enormous variability in the term “car.” (The answer for both cars and websites is about the same: “Usually somewhere between $400 and $300,000.”)
- Try to find the best way of presenting the honest answer: “Well, that depends. What do you need, and how much money do you have?”
Just like a car, a web project could cost almost anything depending on your needs and budget. Your developer needs to know both of these things in order to make a meaningful plan, because your budget determines what (if any) kinds of solutions he or she can consider. So once you’ve expressed your needs as fully as possible, the next question isn’t “How much will that cost?” Instead, it’s time to take a deep breath and start to discuss your budget.
“But I Can’t Tell Them My Budget!”
If you tell your developer your budget is $10,000, will you get back a $9,600 estimate?
Here’s where cars and websites are different: A given car on a given lot with a given set of features has a predefined price, and this price should be the same no matter which salesman you ask. But, web development being the jungle it is, it seems possible that you’ll get the same website, with the same features, for $3,000 or $23,000.
So because you don’t have good information on what development should cost, you’re hesitant to expose your budget. If you tell your developer your budget is $10,000, will you get back an estimate that “magically” costs, say, $9,600? Could you have saved yourself $6,000 by saying your budget was $4,000?
Yes You Can!
The question is never, “How much will this website cost?” but always, “How would you best address my needs, given a certain amount of budget to work with?”
These are very valid concerns, but there are ways around them.
We’ll get into specific tricks in a second, but first you should have the right general understanding of the nature of your discussion with your developer. The basic rule is: Exposing your budget should not happen in a vacuum: “I’d like to spend $10,000—can I get a website for that amount?” On the contrary, it should always be part of a shared process of information-gathering about your specific needs, goals, and constraints, with budget being one of many variables. The question for your developer is never, “How much does a website cost?” or “Here’s how much money I have, is that enough?” but always, “How would you best address my needs, given a certain amount of budget to work with?”
Tools for Your Budget Discussion
So to restate the above: signaling your budget should always be part of a shared process of learning and exploring the potential shape of the project, with budget as one of numerous variables that determine that shape.
Below are a few suggestions for approaches that may help you with this process, and should make sure that you’re gaining information at the same time you’re giving it. Adapt as needed—the goal that each of these tools aims at is simply to be smart and strategic about the process itself.
1. Start by Asking for a “Kitchen-Sink” Estimate
You can try to learn a bit before exposing your own hand by asking your developer, “If price were no object and you wanted to build absolutely the highest-quality version of this project given my needs, roughly how much would that cost?” Make this a very quick, informal exercise (as building out a full kitchen-sink estimate would likely be such an obvious waste of the developer’s time that he or she wouldn’t agree to it); just try to get to very rough figures for each major piece of the project. If the developer is willing to go with this line of questioning, you’ll know what ballpark you’re in—”how many zeroes” the full project is likely to cost if you go with this developer.
If the kitchen-sink version is inside your budget, you can adjust your hoped-for budget accordingly.
If the kitchen-sink version is inside your budget, you can adjust your expectations accordingly and reveal the adjusted numbers as your hoped-for budget: if the kitchen-sink version is $15,000, then say (truthfully!) that you’d really like to get the project done for $10,000 and see what the developer would need to cut out given that budget constraint.
If (as is likely) the kitchen-sink version is more than you want to spend, it’s time to reveal your budget more fully and start making choices.
2. Ask What’s Possible Within a Fractional Budget
It’s good if the developer isn’t immediately targeting the most you can possibly spend.
Let’s say $20,000 is the cost at which you’ll walk away: you just can’t spend more than that.
Tell your developer, “I’d like to spend $10,000 or less on this project; what’s possible for that price?” It’s quite possible you’ll get a solution that approximates the one $20,000 could buy you, plus some added features that could increase the cost. If you’re hearing that very little is possible for $10,000, you can tell the same developer a higher number—but it’s good if the developer isn’t immediately targeting the number that is at the very extreme of what you can possibly spend.
3. Ask for Multiple Package Tiers
You’ll very likely get a range of features you do need and a range you don’t, with some understanding of the cost and complexity of each.
Ask for multiple possible solutions for your needs, and to understand the tradeoffs you’re making and their impacts on the price. Ask, “What are the different ways of doing this? What is the cheap/temporary/barely-good-enough solution, and how much does it cost? What is the expensive/permanent/meticulous solution, and how much does it cost?”
Better yet, ask for three tiers. You can signal your budget during this process as follows: “Can you tell me how you’d do this project for $10,000, $15,000, and $20,000? My goal is to spend $10,000, and anything that costs more than $20,000 in total isn’t worth considering.”
You’ll very likely get a range of features you do need and a range you don’t, with some understanding of the cost and complexity of each. It’s also possible you’ll hear “$10,000 won’t start to touch this problem,” which should be very helpful to know, especially if you can get multiple reliable sources to say the same.
4. Segment the Project
Let’s imagine you’d like a website for your personal training business. Your first goal is to get clients, but eventually you also want to sell apparel, host a video series, start a fitness discussion forum, etc.
You are probably not best served finding someone who can budget out and then build all those pie-in-the-sky pieces for one large number, for at least two reasons:
- The larger an estimate is, the less accurate it’s likely to be, because the costs and complexities of a project are very difficult to predict until the developer has actually started to dig into the project.
- Your ideas and goals will probably change dramatically as time progresses, and especially as the first iteration of your site goes live. (What if people love interacting on your Facebook page? Now the discussion forum you were about to spend $6,000 on never needs to happen.)
Instead, how about getting the bare-bones site—a homepage with a signup form, an About page, a Contact page, and a blog—up and running first, for a number you’re comfortable with? Your developer can give you a second, more accurate estimate after this process, and meanwhile you’ve got a site to which you can drive traffic, at a price you can afford.
Suggest an initial budget, and see how far that will get you.
To do this for your own web project, suggest an initial budget that is a fraction of your overall development budget, and ask your developer how far down your full list of desired features that will get you. If you and your developer can find a good first milestone that’s attainable within your initial budget, implement that step first. At the end of this first project, you’ll be in a much better position to know what you need, how much it’ll cost, and how good a fit the developer is for you.
Exposing your budget is a tricky but absolutely necessary process. I hope this post has given you some ideas for doing it intelligently, in the correct spirit of collaboratively exchanging information about how to approach the project.
How do you handle this process? Any tips you’ve learned? We’d love to read them in the comments below!
Further reading: This post was partly inspired by a very good post on the same subject by a web designer. He also uses the car metaphor: he recalls his father wasting a car salesman’s time testing out a car he absolutely couldn’t afford. When the author’s father, embarrassed, finally disclosed his budget, the salesman said, “Why didn’t you tell me what you could afford?” The family ended up buying a car which suited them well—once the salesman knew their budget.