January 11, 2018 by Michelle

You (probably) Shouldn’t Hire A Web Developer

Not what you expected to hear from a web development shop? Fair enough. But don’t worry – we’re going to tell you why maybe you should hire a web development shop instead of an actual web developer.

Of course, this isn’t a one-size fits all recommendation. Some organizations (ours, for example) really should have at least one full time web developer on staff, and some should have many. Super big companies with complicated web systems that facilitate their teams’ work should have web developers. Large eCommerce operations that could lose significant amounts of revenue during short periods of downtime should have web developers. All sorts of exceptions – but really, they all just serve to prove the rule: Most organizations probably shouldn’t hire a full-time or even part-time web development person. But sometimes, even companies who do a lot of web work don’t need full-time web developers.

A Case Study

To demonstrate, let’s look at one of our favorite clients. We’ll call them Acme, since sharing some of how they pull off what they do in their industry might give their competitors ideas. We were introduced to them through one of our favorite Portland collaborators, Maggie Carter of Maven Solutions Group, a few years ago. It was an informal “get to know you” get-together over cocktails – Acme thought they might be wanting some assistance with a new project in the coming months, and they were looking for a development team they could actually enjoy working with. They had two full-time web developers on staff, but neither of them had the time or coding chops to pull off the upcoming project unassisted.

A couple weeks later, we got a call: Their senior developer had grown out of his job and moved on, and their junior needed a hand. Could we fill in a few hours a week for them with one of our team? Sure – of course, happy to help. And then? A couple weeks later we got another call: Their junior developer had also gone on to greener pastures. They were in a bind. One of their central products was a web product, and they couldn’t fulfill.

In order to meet their clients’ demands, they increased the hours they were contracting our team. Given that our hourly rate is far above the equivalent of even their (former) senior developer’s salary, we all were thinking this would be a temporary solution while they went through the hiring process. It wasn’t long, though, before they realized that by contracting a fractional web developer through our team, they were getting higher quality work done – and more of it – for less money. That’s right: More and better work on their product, for less money.

How is that possible? For these guys, it was that they were paying a couple of mediocre developers salaries that were slightly lower than industry standard (which is still a LOT of money), and then they filled up their days with meetings only tangentially related to the web product. Eventually the guys got better at their jobs and could demand the higher salary that a lot of other companies were willing or able to pay. Moving forward, they put one of their team in charge of communicating needs to our team – a few hours a week, I think – and then our team fulfills all the programming tasks in about 12 hours each week.

Four Reasons Not To Hire a Web Developer

Of course, that’s a really specific story: Not every company is Acme. So, what are some of the extractable lessons? How do you know if you (probably) shouldn’t hire a web developer? Let’s take a look.

Reason #1: You probably can’t afford a good one –
at least not full-time.

The inevitable result of hiring a super cheap web developer off of Craigslist. Shutterstock title: Three worried employees reading bad news together on line in a laptop at office.

Good web developers can demand a LOT of money. Trust me: we hire a lot of them. Salaries will vary from city to city, but a really good full-time web developer can easily command over $70k annually in most metro areas, and six figure salaries are the rule in some cities with robust technology communities. Add to that the cost of your benefits package, and you’re shelling out a ton of dough.

If you’re paying much less than the industry standard (I’m looking at you, nonprofits), you’re likely to end up hiring someone who is just starting their career, and if they’re good, they’ll outgrow your low salary fast and get a new job where they earn more. Replacing employees is super expensive – some estimates say it’s as much as 6-9 months of that employee’s salary. And if your developer isn’t good? You’re still paying quite a bit of cash for not awesome work, and that’s not awesome.

Reason #2: You probably don’t need someone coding for you 40 hours a week.
C’mon – you probably don’t even “work” 40 hours a week.

This is your full time web developer at every meeting. Shutterstock title: Sleeping at the conference. Tired businesswoman sleeping while sitting at the table with her colleagues

One of our favorite clients is a Denver-based nonprofit with an annual budget of around $5 million. They do great work, and they rely heavily on their website for their programming. They need a full-time web developer….. some of the time. Rather than pay a developer’s salary to have someone there when they need them, they pay our team to show up only when they actually do need us.  Again, development shops’ hourly rates may seem high, but if you’re only paying it for, say, 20 hours a month averaged out over the year, it’s a lot more affordable than hiring someone for 40 hours a week. And don’t forget the Acme example: They replaced 80 hours/week of in-house labor with one internal guy on project management a few hours a week, and 12 hours of coding from us per week.

Reason # 3: When you hire a web developer, all you’re getting is whatever they know.

Actual developer/designer/copywriter/SEO expert in her native environment. Shutterstock description: Unicorn Realistic Photography

It may seem like semantics to some, but web developers and web designers aren’t the same thing. A designer who can code – or a coder who can design – is such a rare thing that in the industry, we actually call them unicorns. No joke. Start talking about all the other skills required to make a website successful, like SEO, good copywriting, project management for larger builds, possibly photography, animation, or video, and I can all but guarantee you that you won’t find one person who can handle all of that for you. If you’ve found that person, please give them my number. If you haven’t, call it – 303-834-7425 – because we’ve found a bunch of people who are experts in those areas, and we bring all of them together to work on your project.

Reason # 4: They’ll probably dump you.

This tape is probably filled with REM and Alanis Morissette songs.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to a prospective client and heard some equivalent of “Well, our guy was really good, but he stopped answering emails.” Web development, with its low barrier to entry (some coding chops, a good laptop, and a wifi connection) and decent pay, is very well-suited to freelancing. I’ve worked with developers who live most of the year on a beach or ski slope, and then return to civilization to take on a handful of projects to fuel their wanderlust. If they’re really good and really committed, they can do this for years and years. But for a lot of developers, the shine wears off after a few bouts of lean months.

The predictability of a steady paycheck and the increasingly valuable benefit of health insurance often draws freelancers back into the 9-5 daily grind. They may hate it, but man – they just gotta do it.  And when that inevitable return to A Job happens, trust me – that freelancer is less likely to email you back about that upcoming product release you’re really eager to get a landing page up on your site for, or the new marketing strategy that will require some significant edits to your site, or…. Really, anything you care about.

When you hire a web development shop, that continuity of service becomes ours to worry about – not yours. If the developer assigned to your project quits working for New Why, then it’s our job to replace her for you.

So how does it work?

Any way you need it to. You can hire us for stand-alone projects, or you can hire us for ongoing maintenance contracts, or both. Those contracts can include web maintenance, SEO, graphic design, blog writing – all sorts of things. Tell us what you need, and we can probably find a way to make sure you get it. But only when you need it.

Ready to dive in?


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