biz ladiesLife & Business

biz ladies: hire a designer or DIY your website?

by Stephanie

Today’s Biz Ladies post comes from Stephanie Peterson, founder of the web design/development company Fairground Media. Stephanie helps small businesses build their online presence through content-based and e-commerce sites. Today she offers some valuable advice for deciding whether to hire a web designer to build your site or to go the DIY route. Thanks, Stephanie, for this very helpful post! — Stephanie

Read the full post after the jump . . .

Hey there, I’m Stephanie Peterson. I’m the founder of Fairground Media, an e-commerce web design/development agency. As an entrepreneur, I know that one of the hardest decisions is whether to hire a web designer/developer or build your own website, particularly when you’re just starting out. It’s clear why: Web services are expensive. Still, creating your own site can be tough and can lead to a sub-par result.

The fanaticism on both sides doesn’t help the confusion. This issue, oddly, is a real divider of people. Most anyone you ask will SWEAR up and down by one or the other.

So as someone who offers website design/development services, what I’m about to say may surprise you.

When you’re starting out, DIY-ing can be the right thing to do.

Here are some reasons why:

  • Most businesses fail (unfortunately); we hear it all the time. So maybe a domain name and web host, WordPress installation and simple pre-made template are all you need website-wise to start testing the waters. Get the word out. Score your first customers.
  • Putting off the investment of a professional website gives you time to step into your business. Perhaps the branding you first had in mind will change once you start to interact with customers and get a feel for their personalities. Or perhaps you set out to be a virtual assistant and then decide to become a life coach. These things happen.
  • Building your own website conditions you to actually USE it. People who build their own website starting out are likely to feel comfortable making updates. It doesn’t matter that updating is simple (I only build websites that are super-easy for clients to manage); doing “website stuff” can be intimidating. Having DIY-ed in the beginning means you’ve already beat the fear.

When should you hire a web designer/developer to build your website?

  • When you’ve gone all in. You have a reason to believe your business is sticking around, you know what type of customer/client you’re targeting and you know the direction you want your business to go in.
  • When a pre-made template is no longer enough. You’ve begun to realize ways in which customized functionality could serve you — slick tweaks to your clunky shopping cart, having your opt-in box react to clicks, etc.
  • When you’re ready to take your business to the next level. You want to join the big leagues. You need a website with laser-sharp branding and messaging all your own, with strategy behind it, and all the tiny designer-y details that make you look like a million bucks.

Let me leave you with an analogy: Being a web designer/developer these days is a lot like being a makeup artist.

Almost any woman can buy some cheap tools, follow some pre-made guidelines and learn how to apply her own makeup. It will feel intimidating at first, but she can put more time into it and get better. Invest in better tools and pre-made guides, even.

Let’s say you’ve got the basics down solid for doing your own makeup.

But imagine now that you’ve agreed to do a televised interview for a viewership of several million people. In HD.

Chances are, you’re opting for the makeup artist. And a hair dresser. And a stylist. I mean, sure, you can pick out your own clothes just fine. But when you have to look absolutely top-notch, you’re calling in the professionals. You can recognize the difference it makes.

It’s all about you.

I believe that building your own website can be a smart move as you’re starting out in business.

I also believe that hiring a professional web designer/developer or agency to build your website can be a highly profitable investment when you’re ready and can take your business to new heights.

Take stock of your own business and understand where you’re at before deciding to hire professional help (or not). Only you can make the best decision.

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  • Great analogy! I think you could apply (pun intended) that to so many professions as people DIY through life. Sometimes you just really need a professional.

  • Amazing advice. I’ve been mulling over this question for the last few weeks as I get ready to launch my PR business. I built my own portfolio site (alyssavandeleest.com) but that’s about the extent of my web design talents, and I want something REALLY professional, so I’m going to skip the DIY for my biz site. Can anyone recommend other design firms (in addition to Stephanie’s) that are on the affordable side and used to working with creative small businesses?

  • Great article! I struggled with this myself awhile back. I couldn’t afford to have a pro design it, but standard formats for ecommerce were just not what I wanted.
    Depending on who your site is through (big cartel, shopify, etc) there are people out there who design templates that you can plug in yourself, but give your shop a different layout at a fraction of the cost as well (theme fiend, tonka park). Sort of the best of both worlds for businesses that are not at the level where they can afford a custom designed site yet.

  • Great advice Stephanie but it is all about affording to do these things. I would love a professional blog and website makeover! Just a blog banner is way beyond what I can spend. I do try to do my own though, but you can tell.

  • I love that this post works for someone just starting their web presence or the entrepreneur who is almost ready to hire. I have to admit, I completely judge a website’s authority and information based on its look before I even read it … if it doesn’t look professional it must not be. While that may not be the right way to think, I know I’m not alone. It’s also where I’m at in my process. Thank you for the information, helps me understand where I am and where I am not.

  • Such good advice here. From a website designer’s perspective, I always enjoy working with people that have gone with a DIY approach in the beginning. Typically, working on a site yourself, you really hone in on the sort of information that is most important for your customers. Then, when you do work with a designer, you have more confidence and a stronger sense of what you want.

  • We designed and created our site all on our own with the help of Cargo Collective . There are a lot of great site like Cargo Collective that give you a framework to then add content to.

    It involved using these following programs

    -limited html knowledge, which was mostly looked up on the web

  • So many spend money on websites, but can really do it themselves. I think this was an insightful article. I came here to see stuff about interior design, but this was a good change.

  • This is very helpful! We’re in the planning process of a potential home-grown business, and this was on my mind. I have HTML experience with my current job, but I wasn’t sure if that would be enough to take on a project on my own. Now I realize I’ll be just fine with some of the tools mentioned here. Not only was your post helpful, but I love reading all these comments! Thank you!

  • I appreciate this post. I’m currently grappling with whether I should move from Blogger to WordPress and I was tempted to hire a designer for one or the other. I made some tweaks myself and am satisfied for now. Would love to splurge on a designer when I’ve grown my readership.

  • This is great advice and I agree! I do my blog all on my own but it’s simple and doesn’t use much HTML, mostly just CSS. One day, I’d love to get more professional help. :)

  • Thanks so much for the feedback here, guys! I’m really glad this article has been helpful. If you have any specific questions on this topic that I might be able to able to answer, feel free to drop me a line! stephanie at fairgroundmedia dot com

    For those of you who’ve mentioned being on a shoestring budget, there’s a DIY website course by Tara Gentile that starts next week. (http://websitekickstartcourse.com/register.html) for under $300. Personally I suggest going the DIY route over paying someone to design a site for you on the cheap; just for all the reasons I cited above. You’ll likely get a similar outcome quality-wise, but without the awareness and skills you’d have otherwise gained.

  • Love the make up artist analogy! Actually learning html and doing it your self to begin with can really pay off. There’s a friend of mine who sells his art and promotes his gallery through a really great looking website he made. Now when things are slow sometimes at the gallery he makes extra cash by designing websites for other artists.

  • Great advice! I have now had three sites designed and my third is finally working and now we are re-doing and tweaking some. I have learned tons by doing the wrong things but still have a lot to learn. If only I read this a few years ago but it can be very intimidating I am now trying to get more familier with blogging and how to use the one attached to my site (word press) as well as really utilize all if the social media more for my site. Each one seems to be a different creature and takes a lot of time in addition to everything else I need to do to run my business. I look forward to hopefully hearing more tips and advice from you!

  • Hi, the male counterpart of The Twisted Tine here.

    You really bring up some good points, and you are awesome for that. If we ever decide to take things up a notch, I’ll have to bookmark you to see if we can use your services.

    We recently (as in, yesterday) started our own small business venture of selling marshmallows as a quasi-hobby and thought a bit about the best approach for our web presence. Obvious, we wanted our own domain, but we didn’t want to throw a massive wad of money at it when it came to hosting and getting it full-on-created.

    While I would like to get some professional services done at some point, we really are just testing the waters. I found a domain company with rave reviews, NearlyFreeSpeech.net where we were able to snag our name for dirt cheap. It’s a neat setup in that you only pay for what you use, after the initial ~$9 registration fee.

    I then hooked up with Weebly.com and set everything up over the weekend, linking it back to our domain, utilizing Google Wallet for our transactions. Total upkeep cost of this? About $.02 a day, plus an initial investment of about $15 for the domain.

    In the end, our decision to get bona fide professional will be determined on if we can build a customer base, but aside from that, your DIY info was spot on. Thank you for the post.

  • I started my own business 6 months ago and made the decision to re-design my own site using WordPress just recently. My old site was built by my brother who soon became far too busy to help me maintain it- so to know now that I can update my site when ever I choose is such a relief!! Very important when you are just starting out. My site is still being worked on but doesn’t look too bad http://www.imogenheath.com – with a bit of patience there is a great deal of help out there to do a DIY job- and will save you a packet!!

  • I’ve used WordPress (thanks to DesignSponge’s great tutorial on setting up a website in a weekend!) with a paid but cheap theme, and although I’d done a wee bit of website stuff in the past updating a template website for a previous job, I found it quite a learning curve. I wouldn’t be without that knowledge though, I’d say it’s well worth learning the ins and outs so when you can afford a designer you know what you need. I just hope I can afford a revamp in a year or so, and then I’ll be looking for some professional help if only to speed things up.

  • Awesome advice! I totally agree with all you said, specially about the “all-in” aspect of it. If you’re going to dedicate yourself fully to this business and are confident that it will stick, it makes no sense to spend tons of time (for a non-professional it does take tons of time) dealing with an aspect that is not your expertise. Focus on the parts of the business in which you excel and leave the other tasks to those that excel at them, in this case, a web designer. Thanks, Stephanie! xoxo

  • I am so thankful for this incredibly timely article!!!! I’ve completely outgrown my google site and its lack of options for customization and while I have the skill to design a new site, I just don’ t have the time. This was a great kick in the pants reminder that it’s probably time to pay someone else to do what they do for a living and focus on getting paid for what I do for a living.

  • Stephanie – As a designer/developer who works with mostly startups/smaller companies, I whole-heartedly agree with your position — not everyone needs a professional. There are a lot of services (Cargo, Squarespace and others) to accommodate those who need to get something up on the web but might not have the funds, or may not be ready to hire a designer.

    I would only add that another reason to hire a professional is if you are looking to launch an integrated web experience (website, social media etc). Coming up with an online strategy is something that is included in every web project I work on. The added value of hiring a professional is not just in the elevated appearance, but the overall effectiveness of your online presence.

  • I found this really helpful. I’ve been wondering if I should (finally) hire a professional web designer and the answer is YES. As a professional image and wardrobe stylist, I also really appreciated your analogy. :-) Thanks!

  • I can’t believe this was posted today! I have been dying to have a better site than what I have now. I kind of put mine together but I didn’t have the time to really get into it, and there is just SO much I need to pay attention to (like, the actual things I’m selling!), that I couldn’t handle all of it. So I took the plunge and I’m paying for someone to design my site. So glad to read this because I AM ready for the next step!

  • This was a wonderful post! I’m on the fence right now about my personal business site for jewelry. Although I know the back end of WordPress like the back of my hand, I’m struggling to find the time to actually tweak, create and photograph all of the imagery (this is due to the other part time jobs and full time gig that I have going on… all in the hopes to become a store owner one day…. the things we do for LIFE) ANYWAYS. This was really helpful and I think I am going to go for it in regards to the designer route. Thanks for the nudge. I appreciate it!

  • it’s also worth noting that branding/logos, photography, and packaging should probably be dialed first – but keep your website in mind to collect the assets you need to populate your site at the same time. especially if you are doing it yourself.

    i’d invest in branding though – it’s hard to change them after you’ve hit the ground running. a lot of studios (like us) offset the bigger clients with small business customers to either barter or just contribute back to the little guy! never hurts to ask. we’re working on trade for a great local company (that showed at the portland bazaar) right now.

  • As someone who is fairly new to the web design business, I found this article and the comments really interesting! My interest in web design started because I wanted to redesign my blog- but then I realized that it was something that I loved! There are a ton of DIY sources out there (www.makincuteblogs.com is one of my favorites!) but there is definitely a big learning curve, and if time is money I think a lot of times the better value is in hiring a designer. There are also a lot of really affordable blog designers out there (maybe not as much if you’re talking about full web designs, though.) Thanks for posting about this!

  • I have been hemming and hawing over making this jump for the last month. This should put me over the edge and make the commitment. Thank you for the help!

    I’m an architect and artist who somehow cannot quite wrap her brain around what aesthetic I want for my blog. I vacillate between very natural, then very bold and graphic, then hand drawn. These all say what I want to say at one time or another.

    I checked out Squarespace last night, not sure I can do it (limited time, kids up in my Kool Aid all the time). If I would’ve been easily able to find a great web/blog designer who is reasonably priced I would’ve jumped already. I struck out searching for one on google.

  • Your customers come to you to buy your wares because they can’t do as good a job themselves, they don’t have the time, or they simply want to invest in the services of other artisans and experts like you would hope for. So I think the same applies to website design – use an expert who has the experience in their field and free yourself to get on with your day job.

  • My analogy to my potential web clients is that when I need a root canal I do not go to a hardware store and buy a really teeny tiny drill and start drilling. I go to a dentist. I build, design and code simple and elegant websites for small businesses as well as very sophisticated and more complicated websites for large organizations.
    Good article, thank you!

  • Great advice, thank you Stephanie!

    My website has been finished recently, the design is awesome, I love it! I hired a professional, coz i wanted my webpage to look unique.
    And thanks to wordpress, i can easily edit it, post videos and blogs by myself.

  • Perhaps I am stating the obvious, but you can use a WordPress.COM blog to practice building your own website (lots of customizable templetes there where you can add a banner and background image of your own design… just password protect it so no one sees your HTML/CSS diasters). THEN when you are ready to burst onto the world and take the next step, sign up with a web host and download WordPress.ORG. (I use 2Mhost.com – super cheap, VERY reliable and they will even download WordPress onto their servers for you. (I get no money from them)

    Both versions of WordPress (com/org) will host your domain name, but the .com version has restrictions on ads). I have a blog on both and have also customized both myself. No need for expensive Adobe design software: tons of free things on the web.

    BTW: If you want to get the basics of HTML & CSS, graphic designer Jessica Hische is “teaching” a free (and easy to understand) web design course over on: Don’t Fear the Internet:


  • Great article. As a web/graphic designer I often have people ask me why they should hire me instead of using a cheap template, and sometimes the answer is they shouldn’t. Your analogy is spot on. I’ve even turned the question around on potential clients and asked why I should use their business instead of someone else’s? If they get it, they’re often ready to hire a professional. Keep in mind too – professionals like myself are often willing to work within a budget. We all have to start somewhere and if I get to work with someone who is passionate about what they’re doing, it’s a lot more creatively fulfilling for me as well.

  • It might sound funny to say it on a site called Design Sponge, but it’s not all about the full “designed” package. It’s more important to get the bare bones of a site working than worry about a layer of designer sheen on top. Concentrate on your content, navigation and a site thats easy to use. The rest is just window dressing, which is nothing on its own, and can equally well put people off if it is wrong.

  • I just had a professional design my website. I was wildly busy with a project that was going to bring me a lot of attention, so time was a factor. But I also know my limitations–I am not a designer, and I tend to get very cranky when working on things I’m not instantly good at. It hurt to kick out that money, but it needed t0 be done.

    The results are fine, but I wish that I had had time to be a bit more involved in the design. The good news is that it’s nice to have a consolidated location to send clients (blog, Etsy shop, other services) and it is WordPress so I can earn to make changes at my own pace (or hire the designer again).

  • Great post. Thought I’d share a recent experience : My husband and I design and produce deco products; we’ve been in business 9 years and sell (via resellers) in 23 countries. We already have an informational website, but recently decided to add e-commerce to help boost business in a tough market. Given our needs, we assumed a wordpress or hosted solution wouldn’t be sufficient (or pretty enough) so we looked to a programmer for a custom site. He quoted us 40K. seriously. 40k. haaaaa haaaa haaaa. We have a healthy business, but com’on. Not only was his estimate completely out of our budget, but he didn’t consider that it would have been a bad business decision to add this tool at this price. Not to poo poo programmers of the world, but for most small to medium-sized companies, I don’t think it’s necessary to reinvent the wheel – or go into debt. We’ve opted for a fully customizable hosted solution that will be a sliver of the price – AND it will launch in a month vs. 6 months. We had some minor design constraints we worked around with a professional graphic designer (recommended) and the company’s in-house programmer, but in terms of the functionality of the e-store + the support they offer and ease of updating, for us, a customized template/hosted solution was a no-brainer.

  • You are totally right! The first design and logo someone chooses will soon be updated, which makes it easy if you did not paid for it. Creating a website by yourself is actually not as hard as it looks like. You got WordPress, a lot of free themes (I love the ones from WP Shower). Nest step is firebug, you can start editing a lot on your site, without really changing the code. So you get an feeling, which code changes what, you gain confidence. If you want to make major changes try xamp – its a free tool for using WordPress offline. WP-Beginners are great for explaining lots of widgets and plugins. And finally just google your problem and you will for sure find an answer!

  • WordPress is a great choice for building a website, especially for people new to website creation and design due to it’s highly intuitive interface. Also it’s good to be aware that WordPress.org is what you need for your website, not the WordPress hosted blogging site WordPress.com.

    Great to see a professional and talented designer such as yourself being so honest and sensible. I run an elearning company where we teach people how to build, manage and grow their own sites through step by step videos. But this doesn’t mean we negate or are against designers. Quite the opposite!

    If you pay a website designer for the expert level stuff, the fine tuning and adding the real value of their talent and expertise and not for the basic stages that you can learn to do rapidly, then you’ll be far better positioned to get the most out of a professional designer.

    Thought it absolutely correct and accurate what you said about people who take the interest to start building their own sites use their sites far more, more as a dynamic tool than a static thing. I’d add that they often have a much clearer idea about what they want on their site and are better able to communicate that to professionals like yourself, gaining more benefit for you and your client. A large amount of client meetings are to try and work out what the client actually wants or doesn’t want. When people have an idea of WordPress as one example, this frustrating stage is vastly reduced.

    If you can create the basics with the free WordPress software you can then better use your resources and theirs in adding value to your website, in the form of clear calls to action, good design and most crucial of all, quality content to better engage with your viewers. That’s where professional designers, copy-writers and talented people like Stephanie come in!

    Thanks & Great Post!


  • FYI. I know of some designers, architects, etc. in the Portland, OR area going with minimize.com for professional web design help. Very sleek. Check it out.

  • Well put. And if you are just starting out, WordPress IS a good option. There are many terrible do-it-yourself templates out there that will work against you for SEO. If you don’t know anything about SEO and coding, you would never know it. They look sleek and pretty. They are NOT functional.

  • Great advice. I didn’t do this the first time around and regretted it. With my second business I did and now that it’s going so well I feel comfortable hiring someone to expand on what I’ve built. Plus I was able to learn a lot from the 1.0 version of my site.

  • as a designer, I tend to approach other forms of expertise as valuable, because I see the value in what I do and know. that said, if you do smartly invest (and it can be a very smart investment) in a web designer/web developer, then you are tapping into expertise that is just as valuable as what you are offering your customer. If your only presence is on the web, then hiring someone who knows the internal in’s and out’s of the web (SEO) and getting your site at the top and functioning at it’s best is priceless for your business. Some good guys to check out: http://www.thefutureforward.com

  • I totally support shopify as a web hosting store, you can design your own online store with ease, and it look professional, well design, and very practical. In my opinion, after spending thousands on web designer, save your money people! Use shopify!

  • I started my blog a year ago using Blogger because it integrated well with other Google services. While I think blogger has been great, I want to move away from the ‘blog’ look as my homepage for creating a professional website. I have considered Wix, but I don’t know anyone who uses it to get their advice. What are some DIY-friendly website hosts and builders that you recommend?

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