Website advice for small business owners: Make sure you have control

During the past few months, I’ve consulted several small companies who have left or are trying to leave their current web design company. I call them dot-refugees, and I’m always interested in finding out why they parted ways with their previous agency. They’ll talk, and I’ll listen. Sometimes it becomes apparent that the disgruntled business owner is at fault, and even the best web design company will fall short of their expectations. But others have legitimate complaints, and I do my best to steer them in the right direction. Now, assuming the business doesn’t owe the web design company any money, and the web design company doesn’t owe the client any deliverables, my advice is the following:

  1. Backup your website files, databases, and email.Your current website design company should be able to provide you with cPanel, Plesk, or some type of web-based admin panel for your website. From this panel, you should be able to backup all of your files, databases, and email. If your website design company doesn’t provide this service, then ask for a CD-ROM containing your files.

    Motionbuzz’s policy: We always give our clients FTP and cPanel access. We want to earn their business based on our high-quality service, creativity, knowledge, and good looks; not by holding files hostage.

  2. Get all source code and files.If your site uses Flash, ASP.NET, or other compiled / rendered formats, and you intend on updating your site, then you’ll need to get the source files. For Flash, you’ll need the .fla and any linked files. Get the Photoshop .psd and Illustrator .ai files for any custom art or UI design too. This can be a touchy subject since many web designers sell the final rendered code, not the source. If they don’t want to give it to you, then ask if they would be willing to sell the rights or a license to the source files for an additional fee. If they come back with an incredibly high price, then you might be better off building a new website from scratch.

    Motionbuzz’s policy: We generally use open source technology, so of course we give our clients the source code. We like Drupal, Joomla!, SugarCRM, and Magento. For our custom PHP-based shopping cart, we give 99% of the source code, and only a few files relating to the license are encoded with IonCube. For Flash and .NET projects, we price them so the source files are included. For design projects, we always include layered .psd and .ai files. We DO NOT include rights-managed fonts though.

  3. Own your domains.I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “the web designer said he registered my domain for me, and now he won’t give it to me.” If a design company offers domain registration, then politely decline and register it yourself. At the end of the day, this is the most important advice I can give you. Just go to GoDaddy (or if good-looking, enhanced women offend you, go to any other reputable registrar), choose your domain, and pay for it with your own credit card. And if you’re big enough to have your own in-house IT guy, and he registers it for you, make sure he uses your business credit card and sets you (the business owner) as the registrant. Lastly, get your registrar account login info, and file it for safe keeping.

    Motionbuzz’s policy: We don’t register domains at all. That would be like asking your interior designer to hold the title to your house.

  4. Consider getting your own web hosting account.Web hosting can be complicated and confusing, so it makes sense that many small businesses just let their web design company host their site. If the web designer is trustworthy and offers quality hosting, then it can be a good deal. For example, we host a few of our clients on our server at LiquidWeb, and we charge a relatively low monthly fee. However, when our clients grow and are able to afford their own VPS or dedicated server, then our system administrator at LiquidWeb will migrate them to their own account without downtime. The name of the game is to have a clear upgrade path. Also, if you have an eCommerce site, then I highly recommend VPS or dedicated hosting. Shared hosting just won’t fly for a serious web business.

    Motionbuzz’s policy: We’ll work with clients who have their own hosting as long as their server meets the requirements for the projects. Some of the cheap (less than $10/mo.) hosts are just total junk, and I highly encourage those who want their own hosting account to check out LiquidWeb. We always develop and test new websites in our own development environment. Upon completion, client approval, and final payment, we launch the site on our client’s server.

  5. If the designer provides stock photography for your website, get a copy of his receipt.This is huge. If you can’t prove you have a license to use certain photographs on your site, then DON’T USE THEM. The big stock photography companies will sue you if they find out you’re using their unlicensed photos. The best plan is to purchase the stock photos yourself. That way, you can legally use the photos for other marketing material such as brochures and ads.

    Motionbuzz’s policy: When we use stock photography, we always give our clients a copy of our receipt from the stock provider. We use iStockPhoto quite a bit. However, we prefer to shoot our own photos.

I’ll post more tips later. If you’re a small business owner or web designer, please feel free to comment. I’d like to hear other opinions.

About the Author:
Thomas is the ringleader at Motionbuzz.
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