I fancy myself as a scrappy, creative entrepreneur. Throughout my career, I’ve always tried to find shortcuts and innovative ways to get 90% of the quality for half the list price. Alas, everyone has a bad day…or a bad year.
I took the marketing bait – hook, line and sinker. “Selling online is so easy even your grandma can do it!” Oh yea, if your grandma writes code.
Our business plan clearly outlined a commitment to the Lean Startup methodology, developed by Eric Ries in 2008 with tech startups in mind. The theory posits that new product success depends upon product-market fit, which can only be determined by real customers. This means entrepreneurs must temporarily set aside the “big idea” to throw up a minimum viable product (MVP) and get initial customers.
Aware that this approach was counterintuitive to me, I tried to drill it into my brain. I read the book, listened to the audiobook, studied presentations and memorized any eloquent and pithy quotes I could find.
Then my inner perfectionist took over. Lean what?
I had a vision. All I wanted was a flawless ecommerce site — an online experience in which the user interface (UI) was so captivating and the experience (UX) so engaging that visitors would practically throw money at us by the time they reached checkout.
Elegant site navigation was only part of my plan to acquire customers at a low price, so I was anxious to get the site up and move on. We assumed it would be a cinch, I mean don’t artists even sell online these days? It can’t be that hard.
We quickly learn that Shopify, the most well-known ecommerce platform, couldn’t handle subscriptions. Apparently holding a customer’s credit card on file requires a higher level of data encryption that wasn’t wasn’t available for Shopify in December of 2012. We needed help, so we get recommendations.
Our first programmer was a local firm who we’ll call Oakland. The account manager promised a working subscription ecommerce site for $2K in 2 weeks, which would allow us to launch a week before Christmas 2012. To keep the price down, Oakland proposed a WordPress site with a free ecommerce theme and Pay Pal integration to handle recurring revenue. They’d teach us how to do all the “easy stuff”, allocating billable time only for customization. We signed on the dotted line.
First we had to choose a theme, a pre-set template defining the look and functions of the site. We hit our first wall. None of the pre-set themes – paid or free – would work for a subscription products service. We tried to do it ourselves, but finally we acquiesced to hiring a designer for graphics, flow and color scheme. Oakland recommended a designer with whom he’s worked before, who we’ll call New York-O, a bicoastal team in NYC and Oakland. For a simple design and color scheme New York-O quoted $500 and one-week turn around. We get the design two weeks later for $1,000.
Christmas 2012 came and went and we moved our target to Valentines Day, the next irrational pet spending holiday.
By mid January, Oakland handed us an almost finished Web site with an invoice for $1K overage (total $3K), letting us know they were too busy to finish it and, “Since it’s not responsive, you should probably redo it anyway.”
(Note: January 2013 we have an almost finished MVP for which we’ve paid 5K. The story could have ended here, but then it wouldn’t be such a good story to tell.)
This marks our introduction to the word “responsive design”, a term that would come to haunt us almost every day for the next 14 months. Arguably, the term describes a site that automatically adjusts to any screen size, mobile device or operating system. Simple to say, hard to do.
We revise the RFP to highlight responsive design and called some small firms and local freelancers who once again quote 3-6 months and 10K-30K. Back to oDesk. We made the RFP even more specific in an effort to avoid the confusion we’d experienced to date.
For instance, to make the homepage dramatic, we wanted to use photos from our professional dog photo shoot. In one day, we made 26 dogs smile pretty for the camera in our makeshift studio, my living room. Imagine the fun of making 26 dogs smile for the camera. That photo shoot alone could have put me in the looney bin, but I wasn’t that lucky.
We’ve now learned that Web development requires a lot of distinct skills — a designer for the user interface (UI), a user experience expert (UX) for flow and a programmer to bring it to life online. We’d hoped to find all 3 skills in one person, but we were getting more flexible by the minute.
We found a Canadian freelance designer, Canada (I realize this is a country not a city), whose portfolio is gorgeous – sophisticated, yet simple. Canada offers two estimates 1) $2-300 for the dog profile 2) $2-300 for four additional page templates and he promises to finish the dog profile by Friday. After submitting a few odd interpretations of “sophisticated yet simple” we re-sent examples of sites we love and Canada copies one of them…almost exactly. We’re just happy he used our photos and at least we like the design. We thought the dark gray background was brilliant — unique and intense. It only takes a little research to discover that most sites with black background are pornographic or local business sites made by their kid as a school project.
We started with Canada at the beginning of February and received the dog profile Vector files mid March for which we paid $1,600, more than 5x the original estimate. Later we find out that high-resolution photo files with black backgrounds load very slowly, which could have explained our uniqueness.
By this time we’re trying to figure out how to make Saint Patrick’s Day exciting for dog lovers when really, it’s just not.
Since we’re so late, we decide to put up a single-page Web page to capture emails AND build excitement, just in case we’re not running perfectly by Valentines Day.
We’ve got the design, thinking we’re scrappy and smart, we figure we can do the UX ourselves and we just need a programmer to bring the site to life. We think **this** part will be easy. WordPress is supposed to be like Legos everything fits together — plugins, themes, widgets, etc. Back to oDesk. We quickly discover that people in non-English speaking, third world countries are far less expensive. Shocker, I know. Suppressing our concerns about the dramatic cost difference, we dived in. How much could really go wrong?
We found a Romanian developer, who we’ll call Romania, who said he could finish a splash page with our specs in 24 hours for $200. It seemed simple enough; build a single responsive Web page with an email entry field. I suppose we didn’t make it clear that the email capture should actually work.
A week later we had a working splash page. Little did we know Romania had created a custom theme on WordPress – a detail that later would create months of expense and misunderstandings. Apparently our insistence that the email capture actually work ruffled his feathers because Romania opted out of working with us any further. Feeling like we have no choice but to be better talent filters, we go back to oDesk, but this time we’re only going to consider English speakers in the same time zone – nuance and time matter.
Next Week: “I’m American, I do it all and I work fast, I promise!”