There’s a saying that goes “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur”. I’ve always liked it. It’s not all encompassing, of course. Sure, you might get a cheap deal from an expert, but the chances of that are fairly slim because typically you get what you pay for - and in the software and creative industries that’s usually for a good reason.
The problem with justifying the price of software, web development or design work to those who aren’t practitioners themselves is that traditionally, all of the aforementioned are fairly intangible products. You can’t touch them and you can’t immediately quantify your handsome investment against the effect that it might have on your bottom line over time - which means that putting thousands of pounds on the table might not be at the top of your current (and probably, growing) list of priorities. Often, the real value is an ‘accrued’ value - in the positive impact that your new digital product (whether that’s a website, software system, or logo) has on your reputation, the efficiency of your operations and positioning in the time after its been launched - and the monetary value of the ongoing opportunities that it creates. If done well, your money will be returned a number of times over - but it can sometimes be difficult to see that.
As a result, it’s not unheard of for clients to balk at prices that run higher than they were expecting. The shock can sometimes lead those same clients towards looking for cheaper solutions. And that’s okay - because not everybody is in the enviable position of having a huge budget to work with. However, sourcing cheaper solutions does come with the caveat that the decrease in price is often related to a decrease in quality. If you’re serious about sourcing a cheaper service, you’re going to need to be serious about lowering your quality expectations.
So, if you’ve ever heard, or said something like: “It probably shouldn’t take too long - it’s really just a database and a front-end.”
(Well, fine. But with an attitude like that, so is Facebook. Or Google.)
Or: “It’s just a quick logo, my neighbour’s son is pretty good with that ‘Photo Chop’ and said it’s not a big job.”
(Yeah? That’s just swell. How’s his insight into your company’s market position?)
Then this article is for you.
As part of deconstructing those examples, there are a number of reasons that great work comes at a cost, some of which are obvious, and others which are not so.
The first, and arguably most obvious argument, draws down to technical skill. Those companies that carry out high quality, complex work to short deadlines, need to have real technical skill at their disposal to remain competitive in their respective marketplaces. While it might be the case that designing a logo doesn’t require the same sort of neural activity as rewiring the internals of a Boeing 747, graphic design is a multi-faceted, skilled discipline that when properly done, takes its cues from art, culture, science and marketing - among others. It’s often bolstered by being an expert in industry standard tools, which help to turn out work quickly, and in useful, common formats. This technical skill is also responsible for enabling the choice and deployment of good technologies, not least because it’s professional (and profitable) to stay on the cutting edge of such a quickly moving industry.
Knowing what works
It’s not just skill that is written into the cost - it’s experience, too. Those book-learning years in art school, university or on expensive professional courses drive the theoretical foundations of building great products - but it’s stacking real, commercial experience of top of those that compounds the chargeable rate. Those years spent learning, designing and building merge to create a skillset that can cater for new requirements quickly and with agility - with results that are based on a catalogue of empirical evidence, rather than just hunches based on whatever it is that Apple are currently prescribing.
Further to that, doing paid work for serious clients really helps to amass an understanding of what is required to allow a new digital product to succeed within a digital marketplace. I’m not talking about granular market analysis or business consultancy really here - that’s usually a separate job - but I am talking about appropriately scoping and contextualising the brief against the market (however large or small), it’s major players, their behaviour and its current and historic design trends. The importance of those things should not be underplayed. In basic terms, the way that you work, the appearance of your brand, and the way that you communicate your message all feed directly into how successful you are at making your money.
If little Johnny from next door can do all of that, then I salute him. He may be the next Zuckerberg. But he probably can’t, and that’s why he thinks building your website/brand is a ‘quick job’.
Want, need and the eternal time vs. budget decision
Products live and die based on utility. If it’s not usable and if it doesn’t answer the main questions laid out in the brief it’s unlikely that you’re going to find any joy in rolling it out across your operation - whether you’re a one-man plumbing operation, or a 10,000 strong engineering firm.
A good digital partner will advise you on whether or not the good ideas that you’ve come up with are actually ‘good’ ideas. You might want it - but you might not need it - and if that’s the case, it could be a waste of time and money. It might be the case that your idea is just actually a really bad idea that has already been tried and failed catastrophically. You don’t need to be threatened by that - it’s actually very helpful to know that before you drop a lot of coin on it. What could an extra £500 be doing in your business? What about £5,000? What about an extra £50,000? Regardless of the size of your business, cash is cash - and it can usually be put to better use than spent on dead ideas. It sounds strange - but trust me when I say that you want to hear your digital partners saying ‘no’ sometimes. Not all of the time, obviously - there is a difference between constructive advice and unhelpful obstruction. Ultimately though, good business advice and honesty is what will keep the cost of your project down and keep it from turning into a monolithic burden that you and your employees are afraid of, and nobody likes.
Practical problem solving
Any creative worth their salt should be asking thorough questions at the very beginning of the design process - not just about the brief, but about any related problems you need to solve, and how best to use your time and your money to hit your targets. They should then be working from agreed documentation, based on parameters that all parties have been collaboratively involved in.
If you’re not getting that sort of feedback, well, at best, things could get expensive. At worst, it could be an absolute disaster. It’s a broad statement, but luck very rarely plays any part in the success of your launch. Strong design, robust development, built to an unambiguous technical and creative specification is a much better bet than hedging it all on a cheap imitation of the things that should be underpinning your business and its future. Luck is not a reliable, reproducible metric. It is not welcome in the design, development or deployment process.
The value of the team
Now, it’s certainly not always necessary to pay an agency for their services - because sometimes a great freelancer can do exactly what you need, for a lower cost. Agencies generally charge more than freelancers. Not always, but mostly. Overheads are higher, the wealth of experience and skill is usually larger, and there is greater access to the tools and infrastructure needed to get a high quality job done quickly. Collectively, the resources available to your project are usually greatly increased. Further to that, there is also a key element that is sometimes overlooked, and that’s the value of the team. Having access to more than one mind - particularly on large, complex problems is huge - and putting them all in a nice environment together can generally be conducive to great work. A qualified team can usually identify strengths and weaknesses faster than one lone ranger (unless they’re a complete and utter rock star - and that comes with its own set of problems) and apply a variety of skillsets and experiences to a rational, well-rounded final product.
Putting your investment to work
So, that’s a fairly high level view of why good creative development costs money, and hopefully goes some way into explaining how a professional creative or techie puts your money to work behind closed doors. While initially it can be difficult to compare your spend against the final output, there is a lot that goes on under the hood of a good creative development process. The success and the future of your brand is worth investing in. It’s usually much more expensive to rebuild a broken product than it is to build it well in the first place - so if you’re going to be spending the money, make certain to spend it right.