how to know if you need a custom website.
When you're considering your new or redesigned website, the variety of options can seem endless. Squarespace or WordPress? Infinite scroll or multiple pages? Custom or template? Web designer or web developer? A website can be a huge investment, but choosing the option that makes the most sense for you based on the stage of you business can make it much more approachable. The best thing about a website is that it is never permanent. True, this can also be the stressful part -- you never feel like you're done! -- but it can also put your mind at ease that if something isn't working, you can always change it.
The biggest piece of advice I can impart upon you is to get a good grasp on the purpose of your website. There is a wide variety of options because there is an endless number of goals for sites. Knowing the functionalities you absolutely need will help inform your decision. Not everyone needs a huge, complicated site; not everyone can get by with a simple one. Everyone does want a site that functions well and looks great, but there is more than one way to get there. (psst: check out my post on planning for your website design here if you need a starting place!)
Before we begin, I do want to mention a bit of jargon that will help you out. A web designer is someone who is an expert at designing the look, layout, and visuals of your website. A web developer is the technical person who actually builds your site's back end that makes it work using code. Two totally different skill sets and services! Sometimes individuals offer both services, but I personally prefer to be an expert at web design only, rather than stretching myself thin trying to keep up with the latest in two fields. You will need both services when designing a new website, so if you are going the custom route, make sure you either hire both or find a business that can offer you both services.
And now: what kind of website is right for you? My tips for each stage of your business:
For the new business:
The biggest factor for you is likely budget. You are working your tail off to get up and running, and you may not have the thousands it takes to build a totally custom site. If you are a service-based business, a blogger, a brick and mortar store, or something similar, you can likely start out with either something like Squarespace that easily lets you build your own site, or using a theme to build it in WordPress. (If you're an e-commerce site, see below!) I liken this to buying something off the rack and making it look fabulous with how you style the item.
Your website is obviously very important, but it won't be the sole way for your business type that people interact with you (or you don't need any out-of-the-ordinary functionality). You may meet people in person, connect on social media, or benefit from referrals. People will get information from your website and develop their initial impressions, but their interaction with you as the service provider or your space as the shop owner will be the deciding factor. A site that is easy for you to update and can adapt as your business grows is key here, and a totally custom site doesn't always work well for that.
The bones and structure will be there already for you in these options (and won't require any coding skills!), and you can simply make it your own with font, color, and graphic choices. You'll have to put in the time to make it great, but it can be an excellent way to help you understand your business more deeply. Keep it simple, clean, and easy to understand, and it will be a great place to start. If you opt for building it yourself, I do recommend at least investing in some visual branding. A designer can help you get a solid, professional look down, and you can use those guidelines as you build your site, or simply have them help you design a few key graphics rather than the entire site.
For the business looking to take it to the next level:
You've likely learned a thing or two since you started. You may have refined your offerings or expanded your team. Now, you're ready to make your website look more professional.
A great option at this stage is working with a designer and developer to customize a theme. The bones are already there in the structure for the designer and in the code for the developer, but then you take it to the next level to make it work for your needs. With those customizations, you can make your site look more like you want it to and less like a cookie cutter option. Using that custom code will take you beyond what you are able to change yourself in a drag and drop template.
Because you aren't starting completely from scratch, it is less work for your designer/developer, and therefore a more modest investment than a totally custom site would be. I liken this stage to buying something off the rack, but then taking it to an excellent tailor to make it fit just right. It is work to make the necessary changes, but you are able to pick and choose what areas need the work.
Another consideration is if you are expanding your site's power by offering e-courses, a downloads page, or anything else that requires more action, doing a theme customization for your site will allow you to have more control over how each aspect looks and is displayed. It will feel custom without as much work.
For the e-commerce site/advanced business:
For you, your website is absolutely everything. From first impressions to user experience, your customers' feelings about your website will either make them buy or run away. You also want to feel unique and make your customers want to come back.
A custom site is often the best option for you. You want stunning visuals that draw in your customers. You want clean, efficient code so that your pages load quickly and display properly. You want your site to be responsive so it looks awesome at every screen size. Investing in the help of website pros will make all these dreams come true for your website. This option is like commissioning a master seamstress to make you a dress from scratch -- no modifying an existing one.
If you go the custom route, it can also be beneficial to invest in copywriting services and your own photography. Design will make or break the experience on your site, but even the most beautiful website can't do a thing if the information isn't there once they start reading. I'm a huge believer in content first, and then building a site that best displays and delivers that content.
How do you feel about your website? Did you build it yourself or did you invest in some professionals? I'd love to hear about your experience and how you made your decision!