Building a website for your small business is a lot like breathing.  It’s an essential.  If you read my last post, you heard about my unpleasant experience with building my own site.  My experience was an extreme one.  Still, almost every small business owner will tell you that finding a reliable person or team to execute your dream website is not an easy task.

Now, you can go with a high-end design/development team (I love the brilliant Jennifer Elsner of Viewers Like You, for example) and guarantee an amazing working relationship and end product.  This option requires a notable financial investment, too.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, with products like WordPress, we now have DIY, drag-and-drop websites at our fingertips.  There are lots of great (free!) DIY tech tutorials out there, as well.  If you’re willing to apply yourself a bit and if you’re comfortable with a slightly more straightforward website, you’ll save yourself time, money, and the potential anguish that can come with working with the wrong development team.

If you’re like most starters, however, you’ll likely end up somewhere in between.  Building a dream website for your business is something you’d like to delegate, while being mindful of cost.  In a dream world, you’d like the relationship to be a positive one, too.  If you fall in this category, here are five important steps to choosing the best design/development team for your small business:

1. Make a spreadsheet of referrals

When it comes to hiring designers and developers for your small business, any old Google search will not do.  Rather, you will be best served by connecting with designers and developers who come highly recommended by people you know and trust.  It is important, too, that the recommendations are based on personal experience.  Seek out at least five solid recommendations.  Create a spreadsheet so you can take notes on each person based on what you have been told about them and what you learn from your informational interviews (see step 2 below).

Bonus: Create categories on your spreadsheet of qualities and characteristics that are important to you (creative, outgoing, insightful, etc.). These intangibles often dictate whether a working relationship will be a good one. 

2. Conduct informational interviews

Next, conduct detailed informational interviews with each recommended designer/developer.  Input the information into your spreadsheet.  If you are interviewing someone who does both design and development, you will want to know about their expertise as a programmer and as an artist.  If you are speaking with a designer, you will want to know whether they work with one designated developer or whether they are open to you choosing your own developer.  In any interview, you will want to let them know you are interviewing a number of people.  Ask specific questions about pricing, whether they work with a project manager (and if this will cost extra), what time management systems they have in place, and how quickly they can complete your project. You will also want to see a portfolio of their work, as well as obtain two or three client referrals.

Bonus: Rank each designer/developer on your spreadsheet as you interview them.  If you are unable to work with your top choice, or if your top choice is not a good fit, you can go back to your notes and easily discern your next best option.  

3. Communicate your expectations

As you connect with designers and developers in the pre-hiring stage, it is important to communicate your expectations for your project.  You will want to describe your project in clear, exact terms, including any firm deadlines.  And, everything you describe should be reflected accurately in the project proposal—so be sure to obtain a proposal from each prospective designer/developer and review it carefully.  Let the prospective designer/developer know your preferred method of communication (phone, email, Skype) and how often you would like to communicate.  If you make your intentions known at this stage, your working relationship going forward will be stronger.

Bonus: If you can prepare detailed wireframes (rough sketches of how you envision each page of your site) and other design and development concepts for your site in advance, this will make the proposal process, as well as the hiring and delegating process, run more smoothly. 

4. Read (and re-read) the contract

Most designers and developers have a form contract they use for their projects.  It will be your job to read the contract carefully and make sure you are comfortable with every provision and every term.  If there is something you do not understand or that you are not comfortable with, address it up front.  Even if it feels slightly awkward to do so, I can assure you it’s much less awkward than any conversation that might arise on the back end when things go wrong.  Consider engaging a lawyer to review the contract as well.

Bonus: Dedicating some part of your budget to having a lawyer on your team is central to your business success and wellness and can potentially save you a lot of money in the long run.

5. Manage the project

Even after your contract is in place and you’ve begun working with your designer/developer (or design/development team), it is your job to ensure that the project is being completed according to your expectations.  While ideally you will not have to micro-manage the project, some level of management or involvement by you will ensure your project is done in a timely manner, and in a way that works for you and your business needs.  Show that you care deeply about the project by staying involved – this in turn will inspire your team to care deeply about the project, too.

With these five key steps in mind, you will be well on your way to working with an amazing design and development team for your small business.