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How to Build a Quality Web Site at a Fraction of the Cost

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Mike Scanlin was a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley for 7 years. He invested $86 million of VC money into 10 high tech startups. He has a pretty good sense of what it costs to build a web site in Silicon Valley. When he left the VC world in 2008 to build his own company, he wanted to see if he could do it with less capital than was typical. He turned to Elance to get the job done, and here is his story and lessons learned.

In late 2008, I had a vision of a new information service business for investors that I wanted to try and build. The mantra in the VC community at the time (due to the economic downturn) was "capital-efficient". I wanted to take that to an extreme and see if I could build a company using outsourced providers.

By July 2010, I had built a complete site (www.borntosell.com) from scratch for less than $30K in hard costs. The same site using a traditional hiring model would have cost $500K to $800K, so I saved at least a half a million dollars.

My first Elance hire was Dec 8, 2008. I posted a proof-of-concept job to see if anyone would take it on, or if what I wanted was even possible. It was my first time outsourcing and I had no idea what to expect.

I received about 20 proposals (within 36 hours!), and after reviewing them I chose a recent college grad in Singapore to create my first web page. I wanted a backend MySQL database with server-side php talking to an Ajax front-end. I didn't know if my task was really hard (or even possible) or really easy. A day later my provider had a working prototype and I was hooked.

My first Elance lesson: If you post a job and are clear about what you want, someone in the Elance universe knows how to get it done.

After that, I spent a few weeks crafting the pages I wanted in PowerPoint (since I was the subject matter expert, this was something I had to do). It was a design document that showed the menu structure and which elements went on which pages. It was crude – I'm not an artist and have zero ability to pick colors or design elements – but it was important as a communication tool to give to the programmers and the graphic artists.

Like most new companies, the first thing I wanted was a logo. I wasn't sure which artistic style I wanted so I hired 5 artists for $50-100 each to come up with ideas. And with that, I found one that I loved.

Then I posted jobs for (1) web page design (graphic artist) and (2) web page development (programmers). I received MANY interested providers for both.

My second lesson on Elance: Be precise in what you want in your job posting. Sometimes it is helpful to say what you don’t want as well as what you do want, and be prepared to spend some time interviewing people – if it’s a big job, could take days.

On the graphic artist side, I ended up hiring four firms to do 2-3 pages each. I gave them the same pages to look at – a home page and a couple of interior pages – because I wanted to compare artistic styles as well as responsiveness and delivery-on-time before I gave anyone a 40 page site to design. Unfortunately, I didn't get any results I liked.

So I took a different approach: I found 8 web sites whose designs I liked and I posted a job that said "if you think you can design something with a similar flavor to these 8 (listed the URLs) then please bid." Results were much better. I found an amazing artist in Texas who ended up doing all the graphics on my site. I was extremely happy with the look and feel of the end-product, but it did take me several hires and test projects to find the winner.

Elance lessons learned: Give examples of what you like and give small test projects before awarding a much larger job to someone.

Next came programming. I posted a small programming challenge that I estimated would take 1 day to complete. I received proposals from many different providers that seemed qualified. I picked 5 and paid them each about $100 to do it. Two of the five stood out as the superior solutions, and they did it quickly. I then gave each of those two a second, harder test project and paid them each $250 for about 3 days work. The winner was a new provider to Elance with very limited prior feedback but he spoke very good English and did more than I had asked on the 2nd test project. His willingness to over-deliver made me award the site development project to him.

We worked well together for many months, and the site was coming along nicely. Unfortunately, he took off for the summer without telling me and I had to find someone else to complete the project. It was a set back and I’m partially to blame because I wasn’t on top of the code development as much as I should have been.

Elance lesson learned: Stay in constant communication with your providers. If someone goes silent for 2-3 days, then track them down and find out what’s going on. Project management skills are key to keep things moving.


Once the site graphics were done and the code was finished, I needed a whole new set of skills. First I hired QA people in India and Argentina to beat on the site. We used a web-based bug tracking system so everyone could enter bugs and post screen shots of the errors they were seeing. It worked well.

Then I hired SEO people to optimize my “Title” and “Description” tags. I also found a couple of IE7 experts to fix tricky IE7-only bugs. Then, I hired some research people to track down bloggers who write about my space as well as a lawyer to write my Terms and Privacy policies. And I hired a couple of PR people to write and review the press release announcing my new company’s launch.

Now that we’ve launched, I find myself needing marketing and lead generation help, so the Elancing continues.

Elance lesson learned: You can pretty much find ANY expertise you need on Elance. However, take time to interview carefully. and if the cost isn’t too high, consider hiring multiple people to do the same job and combine the results or just pick the result you like best.

Born To Sell is alive and well today, thanks to about 35 Elance providers in a dozen countries who had a hand in making it happen. I’ve made friends and have a list of contacts that I will use again when the time comes. Thanks, Elance!

About the Author:
Mike Scanlin is a Silicon Valley veteran and founder of BornToSell, a website of covered call investment tools and research information for self-directed investors. For more information, visit BornToSell.com.

Comments

We freelancers here at Elance do what we love the most! Happy to hear that you're delighted with your web site. Looks awesome!