Code Ninja

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When you own a web development platform, you meet a ton of business owners interested in creating a site, all with varying levels of technical knowledge, from expert programmers to the computer illiterate. Those that exist on the latter half of the spectrum generally fall into two categories: owners who understand that good, revenue-generating websites are built by skilled technologists (who charge industry standard rates) and those who flat out don’t get it.

My interaction with the second group is compounded by my involvement in the startup scene, where some people think the mantra of “minimum viable product” means everything should be quick and dirty. There are moments at events where it seems everyone I meet is searching for some sort of silver bullet for website creation. They’re usually disappointed at best, rudely dismissive at worst, when they find out PencilBlue is a development tool for those skilled technologists and not an “instant website” kit.

There’s no such thing as pointing and clicking your way to a site that’s just as powerful as a developer could make it. Whatever a layman’s platform can do at any given time, the full range of technology available to developers is always greater. This mythological toolkit, where you can build a website as modifiable and full-featured as any developer could without having to code, could never exist. Despite this easy-to-understand fact, a week rarely goes by without someone requesting I build that product in some form.

This misconception isn’t limited to the inexperienced. One of the top venture capitalists on the East Coast, with primary investments in household-name startups valued in the billions, unabashedly professed to me his belief that no web development platform gains adoption unless it “makes developers obsolete”. He might be shocked to learn that professional web design and development is a $20 billion dollar industry and, as Yahoo Finance puts it:

“More than 70% of websites are created in a professional process by developers using pro-developer platforms.”

The truth behind the “development without developers” myth is that the majority of people who act upon it are simply looking to justify their own unwillingness to spend money. They may be legitimately cash-strapped, but that doesn’t mean they can circumnavigate the unwavering reality of getting what you pay for.

Even in its most basic form, a company site is a marketing channel, no different or any less impactful than more traditional ones. Nobody in their right mind would pull out the family camcorder and attempt to film a television spot, so why would you do the equivalent with your website?

When it’s that cut and dry for promotional sites, no company that intends to derive its primary revenue through a custom, consumer-facing web application can excuse not having a full-time professional developer on staff. Yet, at every event where I promote PencilBlue, I’m approached by at least one startup that has attempted this, and the owners always complain that their website doesn’t do enough for them… well, duh.

Would you open a coffeehouse without baristas? Would you start a taxi company without drivers? Would you launch a law firm without attorneys?

When someone tries to create a web-based business without a web developer on staff, that person makes the same level of mistake.

There’s no “but” to this. If you think web professionals, at first glance, can’t tell if your site was built by a pro, if you took the lowest bid from a contractor, or if you just filled in the blanks on a pre-made theme, you’re dead wrong. If we can immediately spot a cut-rate site, your potential customers can tell after a few minutes. They may be leaving out of frustration from a degraded user experience.

Can you not tell the difference between a commercial made for national television and one made by the local cable company? Don’t expect your web application to make significant conversions or gain national attention if it wasn’t build by top class developers. There’s a reason the adage of, “you have to spend money to make money” is considered a business truth, and it doesn’t go away when business moves online.

Now would normally be the point in this type of an editorial where a positive spin is made, with several key points about hiring the right web developer, but I don’t think that’s relevant to people in this situation. It would be a distraction from the immediate need of just hiring someone who can do the job. Any experienced developer will be an improvement to your current situation. If you can’t afford to hire somebody, find a business partner that has senior level development experience, preferably with small businesses.

This isn’t something that you can get away with not doing because you’re “outside of Silicon Valley and have to work with what you have”, which is the top excuse I hear (in one form or another). Off the top of my head, here are the companies I know have gained national attention in the last year as “up-and-coming Raleigh-Durham startups”. Without exception, all of them have technical executives.

  • Automated Insights - CEO Robbie Allen has a BS in Computer Science
  • Windsor Circle - CTO Chris Humphries
  • WedPics - President Idan Koren is a web developer
  • Groundfloor - VP of Software Chris Schmitt
  • Validic - CTO Drew Shiller

There’s no silver bullet. There’s no workaround. There’s no option that’s both low-cost and professional grade. You can count the total number of successful web and mobile startups without a C- or director-level technical cofounder on one hand. If you’re starting a tech company as someone who isn’t a technologist, the odds are so stacked against you it’d be crazy to not start your business with someone who’s a subject matter expert in your main distribution channel.