Preparing for the Initial Meeting

A cheat sheet, just for you.

By: Russ
Estimated Length: 9 Minutes

Meeting with potential web people to help you bring your site to life is one of the first big steps in the process, and it’s often one that many go into without a plan. After many years of having these meetings, I can tell you in all likelihood the only two things on your mind are “how much” and “when”. Mostly the first one. There’s actually many more things worth considering that will give you a much better lay of the land.

This step is a pretty big one. Getting things wrong out the gate is like building on an uneven foundation. What’s off by an inch on day 1 will be off by a mile by launch, so let’s do everything we can to start on even ground.

Think about what you’d like your site to do

Start thinking about a website like you might a vehicle. There’s no one right fit for anybody because everybody has different needs. Do you value an efficient way to get from A to B? Is it important that you be able to haul heavy things all the time? Do you have a desire to project a certain something about yourself? Those are very different vehicles.

And so it is with your site. Do you just need a “here we are, here’s how to contact us”, or do you need something more significant? Some people want their site to be a brochure about their store, some people want it to be their store.

Consider some common features on websites and ask yourself which of them you might like to have:

  • photo galleries
  • maps
  • calendar
  • event registration
  • sellable products
  • subscription content
  • staff management

Having a list ahead of time of features you’d like to see on your site will definitely help everybody get onto the same page.

Think about what sites you like and why

This is a funny one because it’s a fairly important question you’re likely to be asked, but everybody answers it the same way, and in the end it’s not actually what they want. It’s a bit like asking people what they want in a coffee. The majority of people claim they want a strong, dark roast, when statistically most people actually want their coffee to be relatively weak and milky.

Let me guess… Apple because it’s clean.

Everybody answers this question that they want their site to be like the Apple website, and they want it that way because it’s “clean”. Much like the coffee, there seems to be a fundamental blindspot around why people like the sites they like.

It’s not coincidence that people are keying in on the most recognizable company on the planet. They’re not saying they want their site to be like Apple’s as much as they’re saying they want their company to be like Apple. It’s completely understandable–who wouldn’t want that?

But that’s not the question, is it? Let’s dig into it a bit so that we can answer it a little better. That’s the thing about good design. If it’s done properly you don’t necessarily know why you like the thing, you just do. We can stick with the Apple site as an example because it’s done well and it’s highly recognizable. What is it doing that makes you like it so much?

There’s an obvious hierarchy. It isn’t 50 products all given the exact same spotlight (which would be overwhelming). It’s scannable, which means you don’t need to read in detail all that much. Their goal (sell you stuff) is clear and nothing gets in the way. There’s no value statement or board of directors… the menu is literally a list of their products. You like the Apple website because it gets out of your way and lets you do the thing you want to do.

Words like “clean” are great, but it’s been used so often that it’s become a buzzword. Hospitals are clean, it doesn’t mean everybody should give off that hospital vibe. A word I might suggest as a replacement is “clear”. A close cousin of “clean”, but it’s going to take you a lot further. A clear hierarchy is going to help people intuitively move about your site and end up where you want them to. An obvious path is going to be pleasant for them. A predictable structure is going to decrease the load on their mind and keep frustrations low.

Another way this question is often answered is with the site of a competitor. Again, be careful with this one. It’s not that it isn’t the right answer, but ask yourself why you like it. Is it legitimately a good site, or are you annoyed by them and want to do what they do, only better? Check in with your ego here and make sure it doesn’t have control of the entire wheel.

Ask for questions ahead of time

It’s easy to forget this meeting will (ideally) be a two way street. You’re interviewing the contractor, but they’re also interviewing you to ensure a good potential fit. A lot of people come into these looking for that one main answer (how much), but they don’t give a lot of thought to the fact they’re about to be peppered with questions.

Most of the questions you’re going to receive in the initial meeting are fairly straight-forward, but every meeting has one or two that cause people to stop and reevaluate. This is a wonderful thing, and these are the questions that adjust the course towards something more interesting, but you’re probably going to wish you had a day or two to chew on it before the meeting.

There’s no rule that this needs to be a grand reveal shrouded in mystery. Ask for a rundown of what you’re going to be asked. Worst thing they’ll do is say no, which would be super weird.

Have a budget in mind

It is now we enter the seductive dance of business. A communication so standardized by this point its flow can be predicted before the meeting even starts. Here’s how it looks from both perspectives:

You: I don’t want to give my budget because if it’s too high, I’ll get screwed.
Web Person: They’re doing that thing again where they claim to not have a budget.

We can just not do this. It’s not particularly helpful on either side, and starting any kind of relationship off at this level of secrecy is probably a bad place to begin from. The point of this meeting is to determine fit, and sometimes in order to do that we have to lay some cards on the table.

It’s understandable you’re concerned you’re getting screwed over, and in fact not getting screwed over is a big goal of these meetings. That’s why you won’t be having this meeting with just one person. Have 3 of them at minimum to determine if the price makes sense. It’s like anything you’d hire a contractor for… shop around for the best fit.

If you’re still not comfortable with this, here are some questions you can ask:

  • I really like the following projects from your portfolio, can you tell me what they cost and why? (the “why” part is key as not all scenarios are the same and two sites that look visually similar can vary in price drastically)
  • What would you say the average cost of your last 10 projects was?

I can only speak for myself and those in my immediate radius, but here’s some inside baseball: if your budget is less than $3000, be up front about that because you’re probably flirting with it being an immediate pass. Most sites I’ve seen in the industry land around $3500-$20,000. If your budget is somewhere between those two figures, approach with honesty and demand the same in return. If you’re unclear where in that range you should land, take a look at this post on what a website costs and why.

Have a timeline in mind

Timeline is a big driver when trying to find both fit and a ballpark budget, so having one in mind is going to help clear up the cloudy waters. Oftentimes two sites that look and feel quite similar can vary quite a bit on cost, and timeline is a huge factor. There’s a reason it’s one of the three choices, of which you get to pick two (quality, speed, price).

Merely tossing out a date and getting a thumbs up needn’t be the final answer on this one though. It’s completely reasonable to ask how the web person is going to work with this timeline. Ask for a sample rundown of a typical project that outlines the tasks and time associated with each one. This can be very helpful in not only understanding all the moving parts and why things cost the way they do, but it’s also helpful to see where your potential deliverables might fit in. For instance, if you want a site within 2 months but also have to create content for 15 pages, this step may help you see how much time you have to complete those 15 pages, and it might encourage you to make a course correction.

What kind of person do you want to do this with?

Cost seems to be the primary factor for most people in the process (as I’m sure it is for basement developers, roofers, or any general contractor). While cost is certainly important, keep in mind you will be spending considerable amounts of energy and time with this individual or team. If they’re coming across as a poor communicator or perhaps somewhat brash, consider that this interaction is likely to be the most frictionless of the entire process. It’s like dating somebody who kinda sucks. Having a baby with that person is unlikely to improve the situation a whole lot.

If you are planning to rely on this individual or team post-launch, you’re going to want to make sure it’s an enjoyable time in some capacity. Even if you’re not planning on relying on this individual or team post-launch, there will continue to be interactions. Things will break every now and then and the developer will need to be contacted. I can tell you many of my clients come to me with a very similar story: I had somebody build me a site, but now that I need adjustments or fixes, and they won’t answer my calls.

Don’t be afraid to either ask for references or simply fire an email over to a person who works at a company in their portfolio. Find out how the project went and how it went post-launch. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure at this stage.

Questions for you to ask

This meeting is a critical first step that almost nobody uses efficiently. A lot of the learning seems to happen after the first invoice is paid, and I’m telling you, that might not be great. Here are some excellent questions I wish potential clients would ask me:

How long does it usually take to complete a site similar to what we’ve discussed today?

Just like budget, timeline can vary considerably. It’s not only how complicated your site is, but how busy the individual or group happens to be at the time.

Who would be my main point of contact?

You may be speaking to a person who’s sole job is talking to clients and your main point of contact may be somebody you don’t jive with.

What do you do to ensure the project stays on budget?

Flagging that something is getting out of hand and is taking longer than expected is painful for people, and not everybody is good at it. Sometimes they just squint and hesitantly deliver you an unexpectedly large invoice at the end and that will suck. Scope creep happens often enough that all companies have a process for handling it, so ask for theirs.

What do you do to ensure the projects stays on time?

Same idea as scope getting out of hand, timelines can fluctuate too (unfairly, life does happen sometimes). Same deal–ask for the process of what happens if the unexpected should arise on either side of the table. This can be a biggy as some companies will actually restart a project (new budget and all) if you slip on your deliverables. It’s an unfortunate part of business and not meant to be malicious. If your 2 month project becomes 5, it can throw an entire company into turmoil.

What does our working relationship look like after the site launches?

Usually there’s so much focus on launch, the post-launch gets ignored. This is unwise as things continue to happen. In almost all circumstances the needs will be light, but they’ll be needs all the same. What if a design needs to be tweaked? What if users aren’t getting a certain thing? All companies deal with these sorts of things differently (some actively dislike them), so it’s best to figure out where this particular one lands.

Would you be able to send me a short video of a site you’ve made being edited?

This will be an entire post all its own one day, but this is a big tip (and a fun reward for making it to the end of this post). Nobody–and I mean nobody ever asks to see what a site looks like from the other side. As the person editing the site, that’s going to be the side you spend the majority of your time on. If it sucks, you’re going to have an uproariously bad time. Request a 30 second screen recording of them editing a site that would be similar to the one you might end up with. Add a team member, make a blog post, adjust a banner image… anything really. It’ll be enough for you to feel a green light or a massive red one.

Now go rock that meeting

If you follow these tips, you’re not only likely to have a productive meeting, but you might shine a light on some things that you hadn’t thought of yet. These little insights are where the magic happens, so do everything you can to find them. Learning that a fit isn’t great at any point beyond this stage can be annoying and costly, so treat it with the attention it deserves and you’ll have smooth seas ahead.