When I was a sophomore in college, I joined the triathlon club. I’d been looking for a new active hobby, and triathlons had that allure that you only get from something that’s both exciting and terrifying. Unfortunately, triathlons are expensive because they require bicycles that can cost thousands of dollars. I was a college kid, so I didn’t have the money to invest in a hobby that I wasn’t even sure I would like. I went to Target and bought a $200 hybrid bicycle instead. If you can imagine an entry level road bike, this thing was about two levels below that. I’m sure other cyclists were laughing at me and my dinky toy bike from their $4,000 carbon tri bikes. But you know what, that dinky toy bike got the job done.
(I promise, this has something to do with websites. Thanks for your patience.)
If you’re going to do a triathlon, you need a bike. If you’re going to run a business, you need a website. But just like I got by without a fancy bike, you can get by without a fancy website. For now, at least.
A lot of business owners buy into this myth that you have to have a custom website from the get-go. That you’re not a “real” business without one. They look around at what their peers are doing and what the leading brands in their industry are doing, and they want to follow suit. The thing is, sometimes what you want isn’t the same as what you need. Custom websites are expensive. This expense can be a fantastic investment when your business is ready. If your business isn’t, it can be a waste of time, money, and resources.
Sometimes all you need is enough to get the job done. When you’re in the early stages of starting a business, pre-made themes can be a great solution. (After all, Groupon started as a single page WordPress blog.) They don’t offer the infinite flexibility that comes with a custom design, but they’re less expensive and have a quicker turn-around time. They’re the perfect “Target bike” to ride around on until you’re ready to upgrade.
I rode that Target bike for almost a year before needed to upgrade. By that point, my Target bike was falling apart. This was partially because it wasn’t a high-quality bike and partially because I didn’t know a thing about bike maintenance and kept it chained on an outdoor rack to rust. I spent $1,500 on a Specialized Allez–still a modestly priced bike by most standards, but a bike that would last. While the Specialized bike was fundamentally the same as the Target bike–they both had two wheels, a seat, and pedals–the Specialized bike weighed less, was better built, and looked liked a “real” bike. I was able to ride faster and more efficiently–things that didn’t matter to me when I was first starting to ride but became important once I was no longer a beginner.
Eventually, your business will outgrow your starter website and you’ll need something more customized. The key is not to jump the gun. So how do you know if your business needs a Target bike or if you’re ready to upgrade? Head these four warning signs that a custom website isn’t right for you.
1. You’re just starting out
It’s easy to get over-excited when you’re starting a new venture. You want the logo, the website, the business cards. The whole shebang.
Trust me, I get it.
I fell into the same trap when I made the leap into self-employment. I wanted it all, immediately. I spent weeks creating a logo, a website, and branding materials. I designed business cards, then went running to MOO and ordered 200 of them. I didn’t even have 200 prospective clients to give these business cards, but I was caught up in the stuff. (Plus, I’m a sucker for a sale, and they were 30% off).
Don’t get me wrong, the business cards came out beautifully. I absolutely adore everything that MOO makes. But I didn’t need them. I got so wrapped up in the things I thought I needed to be a “real” business that I wasted a lot of time on things I didn’t need yet.
My time would have been better spent if I had spent a week putting together a simple logo and a starter website. My business would have been up and running much sooner, and I could have spent that time doing creating other people’s dream websites (and getting paid for it).
Moral of the story: don’t worry so much about the stuff. You don’t need all the fancy stuff right away. In fact, there are very few things you need to be a “real” business. When you’re just starting out, it’s important to focus on your business first. Choosing a pre-made design that allows a quick turn-around–instead of a custom website, which takes weeks–will give you more time for your business.
Once you’ve got that figured out, then you can splurge on the fancy website.
2. You don’t know who your audience is
It’s so so important that you love your website. But at the end of the day, your website isn’t for you. It’s for your customers. Your visitors. Your audience.
Your website should speak to your audience and appeal to their tastes, so you have to know who that is. If you’re a blog, you have to know who you’re writing for. If you’re an online shop, you have to know who you’re selling to. You can’t build a website for a mystery audience.
You may have an idea who you want your audience to be. Often, as website owners, we blog with a specific reader in mind or hashtag our Instagrams to target a specific type of person. But that doesn’t mean that’s who’s listening to us. The internet is a weird place. Sometimes, the people you think you’re talking to are not the people who are listening.
Not knowing your audience goes hand-in-hand with “just starting out,” because it takes time to figure out who your audience is. You might find that your business evolves over time and that you discover your audience as you go along. I’m a big believer in adapting to the audience that’s already listening, instead of sitting around hoping that your ideal person eventually finds you. With this approach, the audience you’re talking to a year from now might be completely different that the audience that you’re talking to today.
Do yourself a favor: give your business some time to evolve. Make sure you know who you’re talking to–and who’s listening–before you invest in a custom website that’s designed for a very specific audience.
3. You don’t have a brand
Your brand is your identity. It describes what your businesses is and what it stands for. It’s a consistent look, feel, and voice that you present to the world.
A logo is the face of any brand. It’s the piece of branding that will resonate with your audience long after your interaction ends. I don’t have to have a pair of Nikes in front of me in order to visualize the iconic swoosh. I can picture Coca-Cola’s logo even though I haven’t had bought it in months. If I even see an apple with a bite in it…you get the idea.
But a brand is more than just a logo. It’s also a combination of things like color scheme, typography, writing style. Having this defined before you invest in a custom website is crucial, because they set the tone for the entire website.
Is your brand bright and colorful or is it rich and sophisticated? Is it illustrative and playful or bold and authoritative?
A great website will compliment your brand. But in order to do that, you have to define the brand FIRST. You can do things out of order and still end up with a beautiful website. But it’s likely that, as you define your brand, your website may not fit the mold your website has created.
As a word of caution, I wouldn’t jump into a web project as soon as you invest in professional branding, either. Spend some time with it, and make sure you love it. Not like it, love it. Once you design a website around it, you’re stuck with it for a while, and you don’t want to get sick of it.
I designed my brand and website less than 6 months ago. Fast forward to today: and I’m already questioning the color palette. Granted, I’m a professional web designer and developer, so I can work and rework my site for no money. But it’s costing me hours of time. Time which, if I were paying for it, would be costing me thousands of dollars. Not everyone has that luxury. That’s why I’m here, sharing the mistakes I’ve seen others make AND the mistakes I’ve made myself so you don’t have to make them.
4. You’re not making any money
Let’s face it: websites are expensive. A custom website will run you several thousand dollars.
Now, I 100% believe that the cost of a custom website is an investment. And I believe that it’s an investment worth making. We live in a web dominant world where your audience is likely to interact with your website before (and more frequently than) they ever interact with you personally.
A custom website can illustrate your brand. It can increase traffic. It can lead to more calls, emails, and sales. You know how people say that you have to spend money to make money? It’s true.
Let’s say you run a daycare that charges $200 per week per child. If a new website could help you gain just 2 new kids, that website would make you $20,000 in the first year alone. Spending $5,000 to make $20,000 is a pretty solid investment.
But. And this is a big but. You have to have money to spend. I would never recommend spending $5,000 on a custom website to a freelance writer who made $15,000 last year or a blogger who’s yet to monetize. You have to prove your concept and make sure your business is financially viable before you start investing in the big stuff.
A great website can help a business grow, but it can’t make a business survive.