Strange Nerd in a Strange Land: Approaching Small WordPress Client Projects

Today, I’m exploring the contrast between how WordPress developers offer value to small clients, and how developers are paid.

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the strange and wonderful world of WordPress small client work. (In general, I’ll define this as work for clients whose overall budget is $5,000 or less.)

Today, I’m exploring a major contrast in this work: the contrast between how a good WordPress developer offers value to the client, and how that developer is paid. I’ll look at the origins of this contrast, and offer recommendations from my own experience.

To start off, let’s look at a developer’s most important function—not touching code, but providing guidance:

The Importance of Guiding Projects to the Right Solutions

The right solutions that will make a web project a success are not usually the solutions a client would find by herself.

It’s worth remembering that the right solutions that will make a web project a success are not usually the solutions a client would find by herself.

In fact, the largest, best-known, best-marketed web hosts and WordPress themes tend to be the least well-targeted to an individual client’s needs, precisely because they appeal directly to a mass nontechnical audience.

The Right Solutions: An Example

Here are two screenshots from a site I’m about three hours into working on:

WooCommerce Site

Click to enlarge

WooCommerce product page

Click to enlarge

These clients need a basic e-commerce site with a clean, simple design. I looked through WooCommerce themes from my favorite theme vendors (the one I succeeded in getting my clients excited about is by the outstanding Solo Pine), set everything up, and the site’s almost done. It needs their logo and maybe four additional hours of tweaks.

For small clients who need mostly informational sites—assuming minimal custom design and no “out-of-the-blue” feature needs—a site should take from five to twenty hours to develop. My current clients needed a dead-simple WooCommerce site, with no needs not covered out of the box, and so the project is zooming along.

Getting in Early

This budding success story depends on something crucial: I got in early in the project, and was able to guide its course to the right solutions.

My clients didn’t make a lot of decisions before meeting me. They did choose a large shared host that is one of my least favorites, and so the site is pretty slow. However, they didn’t:

  1. Buy a proprietary “online store” solution through their host
  2. Go with a good but too-limited hosted website builder (they need to list hundreds of products with complex attributes)
  3. Choose a badly built, overstuffed “do everything yourself with a page-builder” theme
  4. Layer numerous plugins in search of solutions that a developer can implement simply and robustly

My clients had been strongly considering many of these possibilities! However, I was able to build trust with them and get in early in the project. This let me steer them toward clean solutions and away from time-wasters.

It’s hard to overstate the contrast with projects that do suffer from bad prior decisions: rickety or misconfigured themes, heavily layered and fragile plugin solutions, and so on. In these environments, I’ll often spend three hours trying to solve one problem, and support costs quickly approximate what the client would have paid to have the site built correctly—an extreme case of technical debt.

Hourly Billing: Giving Away the Meal, Charging a $90 Tip

Around eighty percent of the value I provide across the entire project comes in the first 45 minutes of conversation with a prospective client.

Because it’s so important to steer a project early to the right solutions, I generally find that around eighty percent of the value I provide across the entire project comes in the first 45 minutes of conversation with a prospective client.

During this time—the time during which I’m trying to build trust and formalize the partnership itself—I:

  1. Teach clients the words they can use to understand their own needs, like “e-commerce” for “I want to move off Etsy” or “content management system” for “I want to be able to change things myself.”
  2. Steer clients away from good-looking but bad solutions, from large shared hosts’ proprietary site builders and e-commerce solutions to overstuffed and fragile “everything” themes.
  3. Introduce good solutions and clear up doubts and misconceptions related to them.
  4. Map out exactly the client’s needs, the business case for each need, and which “needs” might be able to wait or disappear.

This work is the most important piece of my profession: knowing and communicating exactly which solutions will best meet a given client’s needs, based on years of steady learning and dozens of prior projects. This is the part of my job where I save clients thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of frustration per hour of my own time.

In theory, once I’d gotten my current client on a decent host, excited about using WordPress and WooCommerce as opposed to all the worse alternatives, and clued into a selection of well-built and therefore obscure themes, a very junior developer could wire everything together rather quickly.

In general, though, I’m never paid for this work, because clients get most of this guidance while they’re trying to conclude that they trust me enough to commit their budget. (In my experience with small client projects, it’s usually neither pleasant nor possible to charge for initial consultations.)

Tip Time!

Hourly billing gives the strange feeling that you make less money the better you are at your job.

The part customers will pay for is hourly development work: the manual process of enacting all the solutions you’ve guided them toward. (Value pricing is a good alternative, but, in my experience, much less cleanly applicable to most small informational sites than to large projects; I cover this later in the article.)

Hourly billing is strange for at least two reasons:

  1. It doesn’t capture the primary value you provide, which is knowledge and guidance at the project outset
  2. Because it reduces the need both to reinvent the wheel and to hack on bad solutions, proper project guidance results in fewer billable hours

These strange contrasts leave you with some upside-down feelings: that you make less money the better you are at your job, and that the crucial moments in which you save your clients thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of frustration are permanently unbillable.

My Best Advice for Approaching Small Client Projects

Below is my advice, from my own experience, for working with value and billing in small WordPress projects:

1. Get In as Early as Possible

Position yourself as someone who finds solutions rather than simply builds things.

If you care about getting people to a product you’re happy with, your focus should be during the agonizing-decisions phase of their search. Is their giant shared host’s $5 monthly “Online Store” upsell really right for their network of several hundred Etsy products? Try to be the person who provides the answer!

Position yourself as someone who finds solutions rather than simply builds things, and make it clear that the time to contact you is when the client doesn’t know the best way to reach her goal.

This feeds heavily into my next point:

2. Give your Knowledge Freely to Establish Trust

For me, becoming a “consultant” alone—meaning paid initial consultations, plus development work if the client turns out to want it—has been a nonstarter among small clients, for three reasons:

  1. Small clients come to you because they don’t know whom to trust. I establish trust through communication, so putting my communication behind a paywall means there’s no clear way in.
  2. Small clients have limited budgets—and, even if they don’t know it, they typically have simple needs. This means that that most paid consulting projects are either far too expensive (say, 25% of the client’s budget for the total project) or consist of one-sentence answers like “use WordPress and WooCommerce.”
  3. Most importantly, I want to help! I’d much rather guide you to the right solutions than toss you back into the sea of slickly marketed wrong turns.

If you’re like me, I’d advise you to offer free initial consultations, capped time-wise, during which you focus on clarifying as many client questions and confusions as humanly possible. The end result should be a client who trusts you to implement the solutions you’ve sold her on, and who is willing to pay you hourly if she has further fundamental questions at the end of the consultation.

People who trust you, and to whom you’ve given something important right off the bat, are by far the best clients, the best sources of referrals, and the best writers of testimonials. Focus on trust and adding value right off the bat.

3. Bill Hourly, and Charge a High Rate

If you’re knowledgeable, experienced, and consistently delivering immediate value to prospective clients, your rate should be at least $100 per hour.

Hourly billing is weird, and so is life. We park on driveways and drive on parkways, and our clients pay us less the cleaner our solutions are.

Put on your beret, light your unfiltered cigarette, shrug—and charge a high rate. It may seem odd to make $300 installing WordPress and WooCommerce on shared hosting in a third of an afternoon, but remember that that money needs to cover everything else you do, including learning the technologies themselves, marketing yourself to clients, completing initial consults, and so on.

What’s a “high rate”? If you’re good at your job, knowledgeable, experienced, and consistently delivering immediate value to potential clients, your rate should be at least $100 per hour. If clients really trust you, they’ll pay it—just as you would pay an expert electrician who volunteered his time to offer key insights on your home’s wiring.

On Non-Hourly Billing

A couple of alternatives to hourly billing include per-project pricing and value pricing. In long experimentation, I generally haven’t found either of these approaches ideal for small WordPress clients. Per-project pricing works great, but it’s quite hard to standardize what you offer people unless you have a very defined client population (say, “family-practice dentists”).

Value pricing is time-consuming and tricky when you’re trying to build trust with a client who has very little overall money to spend—and it relies on metrics, long-term tracking, and business acumen that you may not be in a position to provide, even if the site itself will benefit the client overall.

Go Forth and Offer Value

Thanks for reading! I’ve been thinking a lot about this stuff recently, and it’s good to have my approach out on “paper.” I’d love to hear your contrasting opinions, suggestions, frustrations: whatever you’ve got.

Also, if you’re curious about our work for clients, have a look at Press Up, David’s and my boutique consultancy. We’re always happy to help—and your initial consultation is free!

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