Almost every business today can be considered a digital business. New fashion brand? Don’t neglect the importance of e-commerce. Nonprofit looking to empower young women? You have to go to where your audience is. Health coach? You need a strategic way to market your services.
Websites are the 21st century’s storefront, the place where you hang out your shingle and tell the world (and we mean it, the world) you are open for business. Today there are 2.4 billion people using the Internet, and that number is expected to grow by a billion by 2016. Your potential market for clients is endless. And since your website is the first impression you’ll be making, I think we can all agree that having a great one is imperative to the success of your business.
Building your site can be a serious investment. You wouldn’t jump into a store renovation without knowing the difference between wood and linoleum flooring, and the same goes for your website. Before investing your time and money, you’ve got to know what you’re buying.
I started my company, Skillcrush, because I know from experience that having technical skills is almost like having a superpower, and I am committed to helping as many women as I can take hold of that potential. But before I became a teacher, I ran a digital agency where I built websites for companies like The New York Times, ProPublica and MTV.
Back in my Web agency days, I was working with a startup on a limited budget. Because of their financial constraints, we negotiated a special deal with them: We would deliver a completed Web application, but their team would be in charge of launching it.
Just days before the scheduled launch, I received a flurry of emails from the company’s main developer. It appeared that not only had this developer never launched such a website before, he actually didn’t know the programming language we had written the Web application in. Alarmed, I reached out to my client and asked why he had hired a developer who didn’t know the programming language for this app. In response, my client asked why we had built the app in a programming language his developer didn’t know.
Unfortunately, this story doesn’t have a happy ending.
My client realized that he couldn’t have his developer trying to write in a new language, and he had to make a difficult choice: Throw out the work my firm had done, thereby flushing thousands of dollars down the drain, or fire his developer (he picked the former). Now, the problem here isn’t that one programming language is better than another. But we were speaking French to someone who spoke only Chinese, and our client, who had orchestrated the talks, didn’t know enough about either language to know the difference. A few hours of prevention is worth weeks of scrambling for a cure. And fortunately, avoiding mistakes like this is easier than you think. Here’s how to make sure your finished Web product is exactly what you need.
Tech jargon can be intimidating, but it’s easier to understand than you think (I promise). Learn the difference between a website and a Web application, and make sure you are ordering what you really want and need. Find out what distinguishes frontend and backend development. Learn what a programming language is, then familiarize yourself with your options: PHP, Python, Ruby and Ruby on Rails. Read up on Open Source and see if there is an open-source project, like Wordpress, that you can use to get started.
Then, if you come across a new term you don’t recognize, remember...
Ask Tons of Questions
The smartest technical people I know ask questions all the time. How do you think they got so smart?
I am not saying that you turn your Web development agency into your personal tutor, but you should never be afraid to ask a contractor what something means and why they have chosen to use it. Ask questions with class (no hedging!) in the spirit of true learning, and they will love you for it.
Code It Yourself
If you’re short on funds, learning to code your own website can save you thousands of dollars in development costs (plus tons of aggravation when your developer isn’t responding to your emails), but it has the added benefit of being the best way for you to understand how all of this technology comes together. It’s also a great way to make sure your website aligns with your company’s needs.