Know What You Need Before You Buy What You Don't!

blueprints of a house"How much does a nonprofit website cost?"  I think I've answered that question several hundred times in my career.  I've sat in on conference sessions with that title.  I've discussed it with colleagues and collaborators.  And now I can discuss it yet again.  :-)

I rarely participate in Internet forums these days, but I had to comment this week when I came across this NYTimes blog post about hiring a website development firm. The author, Jay Goltz, is a Chicago businessman with a portfolio of five companies representing a combination of traditional retail and e-commerce; Mr. Goltz recently hired a new web development firm to rebuild his web properties. I agreed with some things he had to say, but overall I don't think his approach is one I'd recommend to my existing or potential nonprofit or for-profit clients.  Some of my comments:

  • Author: "We want a great website. How much will that cost?"

    Me: "I want a great house. How much will that cost?" Well, you can buy an abandoned property in Detroit for $5,000 or a mansion in the Hamptons for $5.5 million. Oh, that's too big a spectrum to actually provide you with useful information to make your decision? 
  • Me: Work with a consultant to actually find out what you need before signing a contract (with them or another firm) to build what you think you need. A good requirements analysis would result in a spectrum of options, each with different investments and corresponding returns. My clients aren't web developers so I don't expect them to have a ready-to-implement web development plan when they call.
  • Author: "How [could we] possibly have a budget for something we know so little about?"

    Me: A little bit of research. I don't know anything about internal combustion engines, antilock brakes, or the domestic auto industry, but I know I can more easily afford a $20,000 car, not a $40,000 car, and also that either would suit my needs of commuting.

I have been recommending this approach to clients for a few years now and I'm certainly not the first.  It fits in really well with my favorite website development metaphor, building a house -- the preliminary engagement is similar to hiring an architect to create the plans before hiring a contractor to build them.  Plus, you can use metaphors like "You already know you want a purple shower curtain but you haven't even decided if you want one bathroom or ten!"  (In practice, most organizations seem to be comfortable enough with me and my budget estimates after our pre-engagement calls to just hire me for the whole thing, but that's either because I've got a ton of experience getting nonprofit websites built on typical NPO shoestring website budgets and/or I'm totally awesome. :-)

In my opinion, this approach is related to the "Step Away From The RFP" or "Win Without Pitching" approaches that Advomatic has hyped in the Drupal consulting community recently.  I can't even calculate the amount of time I've wasted responding to RFPs over the years.  There have been plenty of interesting projects that I've been invited to bid on but I just can't be bothered to put up with onerous RFP prep, especially when everything I want to say essentially boils down to "You obviously have only a superficial idea of what you want.  Write a real requirements doc and I can give you a real estimate.  If you don't know what you want, hire me to help you find out."  My favorite alternative, which I admit has obvious drawbacks and is not scalable, is to wait for nonprofit organizations to stumble across my website or my past work or a former client, learn more about what I do, decide I'm the right person for the job, and then call me to let me know they want to work with myself and my rad colleagues.  :-)