Spoiler Alert: The Price of a Website is Shocking

Author: Ben Buie Ben Buie | 3/11/15

UPDATED (2015.03.13) based on comments, again (2015.06.30) for clarity, and again (2016.04.28) for pricing.

I  have an interesting power as a web developer, with mere words, I can give people a horrifying condition called sticker shock. If you’ve never felt it, imagine a mix of the feeling that someone is trying to steal your money and the feeling of disappointment when a solution to all your problems exists but you can’t get it.

I’ve decided to not be hesitant with my new-found ability. Hesitation usually wastes my time and theirs.

Truth is, most people have no idea what a website really costs. They’ve heard stories of the wonders and affordability of hiring developers in distant lands OR they’ve seen the tech giants give away amazing technology for free and they think that this stuff must come easy. I know because I was once a rookie too.

A rookie question I often get is, “how much would it cost to build a site like [insert the name of a famous tech company]?”

When asked this, I realize that people usually aren’t thinking about the fact that these tech companies are created using hundreds of very pricey software engineers over long periods of time for millions of dollars.

I’ll admit that even the least tech savvy among us intuitively understand that technology is scaleable, you code it once and then benefit an infinite number of times at very little additional cost. That said, the “coding it once,” usually comes at a high cost. Why?

Technology isn’t cheap because the value it provides is enormous. This will always be true.

So, pretty much every time I get the rookie question, I hesitatingly use my new-found power. Unfortunately, it sometimes ends the conversation, but I’m OK with that. I’d rather have happy clients in the long run.

The rookie usually has someone else build the site for cheap and then comes back to me in 6 months to fix it. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t. One thing is sure at that point, the client is in crisis mode, they’ve loss lots of business, they’ve wasted money on development, and it is a much less pleasant experience for the both of us.

Cost of a Website

cost

In an attempt to reduce the sticker shock of my future clients, I’ve included some numbers below. The following estimates aren’t meant to include outlier developers; you know, the shops/freelancers that price themselves far above/below the general market for one reason or another. Typically, outlier developers have a very unique niche OR they are about to go out of business.

Here is a table of site developers (Dev Shop, Freelancer, etc.) and the types of sites I typically see (marketing, eCommerce, mobile, etc.). Keep in mind, prices vary widely depending on (1) the number of templates, (2) the types and complexity of custom functionality, and (3) the technology you choose, but these should give you a good idea.

Edit 2016.04.28: I lowered some of the following prices because the original article took design into account. I also added mobile app since I’ve done a couple of those now.

Projects Dev Shop Freelancer Overseas Beginner
Simple templated marketing site with some customization: N/A $1.5k $7k $.5k
Custom marketing site with multiple pages and some custom business logic: $20k $10k $5k $2.5k
eCommerce site with some custom business logic: $25k $12.5k $6.25k $3k
Custom website or web application (no cms*): $60k $30k $15k N/A
Custom mobile app: $50k $25k $50 N/A
Per hour (highly recommended): $2000-$100 $130-$50 $60-$25 $30-$10

If you’re looking to get a more accurate estimate, feel free to reach out, we have a quick proprietary way of estimating projects that turns out to be really accurate.

From an hourly perspective, you’d to pay higher in the range if the developer specializes in the technology you’re working with and less if they’re willing to learn it. You’ll also pay a higher rate for more experienced developers because an efficient developer at a high rate can often outperform a slow developer at a low rate.

So, who should you choose? I can’t answer that for you, but I can share some thoughts that may help you decide.

*cms stands for content management system like WordPress, Shopify, etc.

Dev Shop (or Agencies)

freelance

Although I’m not an expert on agencies, I did work for an agency for 2 years and while there I also worked for several other agencies. They are definitely the most expensive solution, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t right for your project.

Some of the increased price is due to overhead  and some is a premium you pay for strategy, experience, and speed.

Shops often do great work. The code you get is usually well documented and eloquent and you can bet they won’t take on your project and then just disappear a month later. They also offer a cohesive team, all focusing on your project, which can reduce some of the risk of launching a new technology.

The only real downside to working with a shop I can think of, besides price, is they’re less invested in your project. The developers see hundreds of sites like yours a year and the minute your project is done they move onto the next.

A lot of people ask me if Buink falls into this category. We do call ourselves a dev shop, but our business model makes us more like a freelancer.

Freelancers/Independent Consultant

freelancer

An established freelancer with a good portfolio and a work history will offer many of the same benefits that a shop will. The difference in price is because they typically have very little overhead and are not necessarily profit driven.

A good example of having less overhead is the fact that freelancers typically don’t have project managers as middle man. We talk directly with the client which saves time and reduces communication gaps. In other words, the client doesn’t have to pay for the project manager to learn what they need, then pay the project manager to communicate that to the developer.

Freelancers are also more invested in your project. You’re not just one of the many clients, you’re one of the few. Through time, they become invested in your business and have more personal incentive to do good work.

Hiring a freelancer may not be all kittens and memes, however, there can be some downside. Freelancers typically have less bandwidth than a shop and it may take longer get to market. This is only typical of projects more than 50k.

Also, freelancers generally have less credibility than a shop. Sometimes they’ll take on work they can’t complete and they may just disappear on you if they don’t like the project. Make sure to get good contact information for them just in case you run into a problem later on down the road.

As I mentioned above, we consider ourselves at Buink more like a freelancer than a dev shop, really we’re a hybrid that overcomes some of the issues of both.

Read more of the benefits of working with contractors/freelancers.

Overseas

offshore

Hiring an overseas developer is one of the cheaper options for a website. The price is an obvious plus and if you can find the right developer, you may have no problems at all. Unfortunately, this isn’t my story or the story you often hear.

In 2011, I outsourced the initial development of one of my startups. At the time, I didn’t think I had the experience to build it myself and I didn’t have the time.

I contacted some local dev shops that all quoted the project at ~$25k.

I experienced a little sticker shock myself.

My budget was significantly less than that, so I found a company that worked with developers overseas and they quoted me $5k. The site took forever and ended up costing $10k. Looking back, I’m not surprised. Tech often takes longer and costs more than the original estimate whether you use overseas developers or those near home.

When I finally got access to the code base, I had more shock than just sticker. The site didn’t meet my specifications, it had ton’s of security flaws, and it had misspellings in functions and variables names that were very difficult to correct. In addition, it was very difficult to communicate with them. In short, I got what I paid for. If I had more capital and time, I would have re-written it from scratch, but I just had to go forward with it.

This is a huge reason to decide early how much you want to invest in your website. If you decide to go with cheaper options thinking that your website isn’t a big part of your strategy, you may have to totally re-write your site if that changes.

I have friends who swear by working with developers overseas but, in my experience, they are the exception rather than the rule. Also, checkout this article I wrote about the pros and cons of offshore development and what you can do about them.

Beginners

Everyone starts somewhere. If you find a diamond in the rough, you may want to invest in the person long term. They’ll start out slow and their code won’t be great, but it will probably work as long as you don’t start growing gangbusters.

Do-It-Yourself-ers

You may have noticed that I didn’t include the cheapest way to build a website in my table above, building it yourself. Technology to help you do this will typically cost you under $200 and a lot of your own time.

I was once in this group myself. I built my first website with a builder (Web.com), my second website on an open-source platform (Magento), and I currently own an eCommerce necktie site on Shopify. Today, there are some pretty credible platforms that help you build a decent site with no knowledge of code: Shopify, Bigcommerce, WordPress.com, ect.

These sites are great for getting started, but if you want to keep growing, your customers are going to expect a more professional, custom looking web presence.

In Conclusion

The price of a website is usually shocking. There are cheaper solutions, but they all come at a cost.

I had a conversation last night with a good friend and very successful business man (I think he’ll be a billionaire some day, seriously). He told me how he worked for years with a freelancer at $70 an hour. He was happy with the work but then brought in a more experienced freelancer at $120 an hour. He found that the more experienced freelancer could do the same work 3 times faster and deliver better code. Turns out the more expensive developer ended up being cheaper. Price truly signals quality.

Hope you enjoyed the read! May the price of your next website be a little less shocking.

About The Author

Ben currently works as a senior developer and technical business consultant outside of Boulder, Colorado.

More about this author

About Buink

Buink Web Development is a development shop founded in 2009 by Ben Buie. For years, Ben built and modified web assets for clients in Utah. In 2011, he moved the company to Colorado and in 2015 he started taking on new clients full-time.

Buink’s Core Values:

  • Cost effective technology (with business strategy in mind)
  • Eloquent, maintainable code
  • Responsive and transparent communication
  • Quick project turn-around
  • Less code, less bugs
  • Start with responsive styles

Read more about Buink’s core values

Read more about Buink

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  • Daniel Zacek

    Great article! This should be required reading for all clients before an introductory meeting!

    • benbuie

      Thanks Daniel. Feel free to book mark it. Any thoughts you have on ways to improve the information would be much appreciated.

  • Lexi Steele

    This post is right on point and I hope you don’t mind if I share this link with my clients, too! I worked at a dev shop for 3.5+ years, saw clients try to outsource project overseas, and now have broken off and started my own freelance firm. Ben, you are definitely right about the issues with overseas devs… I’ve had clients come in and hire my team after spending tens of thousands of dollars overseas, much higher than they were quoted, only to never receive an acceptable deliverable – most have to start all over again and their overseas efforts become a waste. It is ironic how the higher the hourly rate, the lower amount of time it will take, ultimately usually resulting in a more affordable product. If there’s one field where it definitely makes sense to do it right the first time, it is technology. Great post!

    • benbuie

      Thanks for the comments Lexi. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one with a bad experience overseas.

  • Overall a good top-level view, however, I do feel that you underrepresented the cheapest options. There are so many great platforms out there where you can build the site yourself, or have somebody build the site for you on the existing platform, which will dramatically reduce the cost of a site.

    I also don’t believe that these options require “a lot of your own time”. They definitely can, for sure, but there are experts that specialize in Shopify, Squarespace, BigCommerce, among others, and you can hire them to get you setup at a fraction of what it would cost to build a site from the ground up. I’ve put together a Squarespace site in less than a day, even though I had no previous experience with Squarespace. I was surprised at how many compliments I received for that site, since I had spent so little time putting it together.

    A smart business person wants to maximize value, which means they should look at the options where they can get the most bang for their money and time. Obviously, developers have their place, and for custom projects, you will almost always need a developer. However, there are a lot of great options out there for businesses just starting up, or for businesses on a budget, that definitely don’t require a developer.

    • benbuie

      Aaron, I added a little more depth to the do-it-yourself section, but you’re right, there are a lot of good cheap options out there.

      That kind of falls into the Rare Development Event. Some businesses will have a rare development event where the platform and template has everything they need.

      It may not be so rare for someone needing a simple brochure website, but most customers I talk to are asking for much more than that.

  • David Parker

    Nice post Ben!

    The one thing I think you left off, and I’m not about to ramble all the tiny minutiae, is that of maintenance. I think that’s where the real expenses really start to rack up.

    tldr;
    For example, if you have a good enough idea behind different tech stacks going into a project (which I think every business person should, at least on a surface level), then you’ll know which ones to use or avoid. This can help lead to good decisions with a freelancer, consultant, etc. Once the proper stack and frameworks are in place, then hopefully the next team/freelancer/whoever who needs to maintain the project (or add feature XYZ) will be able to easily pick it up and do it.

    As to Aaron Anderson’s point, I think it’s super great to get started on the lowest/easiest common level like that. Unfortunately, those platforms all seem to fall apart once you want custom development- which always seems to be the case for projects I’ve seen (though they’ve all been web “applications” not websites / simple CMS / simple e-commerce sites).

    • benbuie

      David, thanks for your comment.

      You’re right, I only breifly mentioned that I almost had to re-build the website that I outsourced, but I just went back and added a little more depth.

      Also, my experience has been the same with the do-it-yourself customers. They put a ton of time into building their site only to find out they have to move it to a new platform if they want to add anything custom.

  • IamFace

    So very spot on. Something all clients need to understand. Good read.

    • benbuie

      Thanks for the comment. How did you find the article?

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