I often receive referrals or friends asking me to set up a WordPress website for them.
- It’s usually something fairly small – such as a 5-page business website or a simple magazine website.
- They are close friends of mine or have been recommended through my network.
- They have received some offers, but are looking for a reliable solution instead of a shady freelancer or a random website building company.
Generally speaking, I usually price services based on one of these two approaches:
- Free help for friends and family for trivial tasks and general guidance.
- High-profile work for customers – the one that includes everything that I believe is right for a professional solution and have built a team of 30+ to reinforce it.
There’s a fine line between both, and if my rough estimate crosses a certain number of hours, I just let them know that this would take too much time and we’d rather stop there. Not to mention that estimates are just insanely random. I can’t afford to spend weeks on charity work multiple times a month. And our retainers in DevriX generally start from $40K/year which isn’t a good fit for starting businesses.
However, I’m comfortable with people starting with a basic or simple solution when they are just laying the foundations of their business (or it’s in their initial phase). Once they get some traction, they could invest in a professional website and the right business growth strategy that would justify the investment.
If I decide to engage in a side activity for a friend, I face a few specific challenges. I’ll list the major ones further and explain how I deal with them.
Building the WordPress Frontend
I have a technical background backed with business and marketing know-how, I don’t specialize in design and frontend work. Since it’s a pro bono work, I have to pick a UI-driven solution for them that is good enough but doesn’t take forever to build and set up. There are few possible options for small sites:
- Custom design + Theme
- Use a theme framework
- Get a premium template
- Build a child theme for a free WP theme
Custom Design From Scratch
Building a good looking and mobile-friendly website from scratch is not trivial and usually takes more time than I would like to invest for a small site for a friend. We’ve spent months working on UX and UI alone with over 400 hours refining design elements for certain clients before starting the front-end development work at all.
So I usually rule this option out unless they could really afford it.
WordPress Theme Frameworks
Using a theme framework or a base theme is somewhere in the middle. It includes some basic library or sets the general structure, but the design is far from complete and requires some work – unless it’s an existing theme based on a framework, of course.
I’ve experimented with a bunch of these but it simply doesn’t work out. They are either bloated or require more or less the same amount of work. Underscores is a good barebone theme, but it’s not much different than starting from scratch. We’ve built our DX Starter theme based on _s while including a set of libraries and helper functions that we’re using across customer projects.
Premium WordPress Themes
Lately, I’ve been fairly disappointed by the majority of the premium themes that I’ve tried out – often the worst picks coming from the popular marketplaces. I usually disagree with their development strategy, the way they build their page templates, the architecture of their theme options or something else.
I also have various ideas in the MVP phase that I’d like to quickly push and try out in practice before there’s any need to invest in a better scaled and automated option. However, our main requirements are conventional and compatible code and clean look and feel, and it’s incredibly hard to find something good looking that isn’t bloated and doesn’t take forever to configure and set up.
What I usually end up is a WordPress.org theme that is extended through a Child Theme. I could easily try it out with some sample data, the code has been reviewed by the WPTRT and it’s a great start for everyone. Over the past year and a half a number of freelancers and agencies have contributed appealing and even functional themes that are light, extensible, well-coded and easy to use, which is a great start for a small business or trying out a business idea.
Here’s the free WordPress.org theme directory.
Standard Plugins vs. Custom Solutions
Each website is unique in its own way. Sometimes an integration with a given 3rd party service is needed, or simple components such as a contact form, social media box, stats engine or so forth.
Some of them may be available in Jetpack or another WordPress.org plugin (or affordable premium solutions). Occasionally, the difference between the off-the-shelf option and what a client wants is notable.
In this case, I have a conversation with my friend discussing the pros and cons of both options. If a good, well-coded plugin exists that does 80% or 90% of the work, we’ll use it. Otherwise, a custom plugin would have to be coded, which would cost a lot, so it’s up to them whether they really depend on that feature when going live.
They usually don’t. Especially comparing “free” to “free + $2,500 for two specific features that are to be added into the existing plugin X“.
I also don’t allow the usage of any bloated and poorly coded WordPress plugins. Often it’s trivial to find security and performance issues in the first 10-15min of browsing the code, and different deprecated or incompatible functions that would cause problems later on.
I’ve been maintaining a list of common scalability problems with WordPress websites which keeps growing as we get contacted by various businesses constrained by their existing site.
Building a successful business is a combination of a high-quality service + marketing and sales efforts. Even if your solution is the best out there, it means nothing if no one has ever heard of it.
But it also requires continuous work and effort in order to bring it to the larger market. Even if advertising is not on the table, there are things that could be done from the clients’ perspective that could boost a business with zero investment (or at a small cost). And if you could earn $5 for each dollar you invest in, you’d be more than happy to invest a thousand if that results in $5,000.
My main go-to resource is KISSmetrics’ list of 35 Growth Hacking Tools for non-coders. The list includes different marketing tools, social media automators, email capture forms, advanced analytics, landing page builders, polls, email newsletter services and more. The list allows my friends to dig more into the power of the Internet when it comes to promotion, inbound marketing and conversion rate tracking, which is a great start for their selling strategy as well.
If you want to take a sneak peek at growth strategies in some of the hyper-growth companies, Robbie Richards got you covered. He has conducted a detailed research of 77 successful companies such as Airbnb and Evernote and compiled the following free article: Growth Hacking: Strategies & Tactics Learned Studying 77 Hyper-Growth Companies.
Preparing the Copy
Copywriting is a pretty specific craft.
Let’s face it – in theory, everyone can write content. We learn that at the age of 4, 6, 7, but at the end of the day, all of us are capable of producing some text that makes sense.
It’s not the same with design, programming or anything else – writing a page is doable by a first-grade student as well.
That’s why people assume that writing copy for their site is straightforward. But it isn’t. I’ve seen plenty of ugly websites with engaging copy that converts much better than beautiful websites with poor copy.
Which is why I forward Copy Hackers, copyblogger and several other resources to my friends. It’s their niche and they should know their target audience and buyer persona. They know what people look for, what they desperately need, and what’s in for them.
I help them with some basic copy based on the theme that we pick, and point them to some of their competitors for ideas and inspiration regarding the copy style and what would they need to cover.
Hosting is essential for every single website out there. I tell my clients that it’s their website’s house – you can live in the suburbs, in a dangerous neighborhood where everything could happen to your website, or in a comfy and convenient house with a great balcony. When people visit over for a dinner, they would rather go to a beautiful place in a safe hood instead of a dangerous and half-broken house.
Which is why I set up my friends with SiteGround as a viable alternative to low traffic and affordable monthly fee. They’ve been involved with the WordPress community for quite some time now, and I know most of the technical folks there – some of them contribute to various open source platforms including the Linux kernel itself. Their starter plan is under $10/month which is a good fit for a starting business, allows for growth later on and includes SSH access and other important features out of the box, which makes the deployment and maintenance a bit easier.
Combined with CloudFlare, Sucuri, and a good set of caching layers, things get much better for a starting business on WordPress.
All of the above could be done in a matter of hours, or a weekend (realistically) without too much trouble. However, supporting a WordPress website may be a challenge.
Speaking at conferences and teaching people at courses over the past 10 years, I’ve been noticing a growing trend affecting users being unable to work with WordPress. What we find trivial – such as editing a page, adding a menu element, uploading an image or changing the permalinks – seems to be quite a challenge for new users.
A while back WordPress was the most usable platform in comparison to its competitors; however, with Wix, Squarespace, Tumblr and other blogging/website platforms, people got used to clean and simplified interface, fewer options, lesser menus and simplified process overall.
Projects such as Gutenberg (still a plugin) aim to bridge that gap soon. Until then, we’ll end up spending a good chunk of time onboarding non-technical customers and holding their hands for weeks, if not months, until they get comfortable with the platform.
In addition to the large number of free plugins adding more and more options and the process of updating WordPress, it gets challenging for people.
So I do several things to help them start:
- Install Video User Manuals inside of their dashboard – a collection of 80+ videos for starters, which seems to save a lot of time and teach users on WordPress basics
- Set them up with ManageWP or automated backups with BackUpWordPress
- Add an UptimeRobot monitor for website availability and possible site issues
At the end, I sign them up for our Webmasters newsletter on DevriX that teaches newbie users the basics of user experience, SEO, the difference between a “lego” website and a custom solution, caching, security and more. The newsletter is sent once a week, which doesn’t waste too much of their time, but helps them to learn more about the craft, why some websites cost hundreds of thousands (or millions) and how is that related to a successful business.
From there on, once their business gets some traction, they could appreciate the value and invest in the right solution that would automate their process and grow with their business.
So, what type of setup do you use for your MVPs or how do you build your friends’ ones?