Glass Art at Indy Art Center

In the beginning was the <blink> tag

In 1997 I co-founded a company whose business model was based on the value of building highly customized websites for our clients.  Those clients often didn't know (or want to know) much about the inner workings of HTML, Photoshop, hyperlinks and web hosting, but they knew that the World Wide Web and the Internet represented a new era of marketing and communications, and it was worth paying someone else to figure those details out so that they could be a part of that in some form.

And so in a time before content management software, Google, PayPal or GoDaddy, we - like other web development companies starting to pop up around the world - built websites, online stores and interactive community tools from scratch.  At first we hand-coded sites in HotDog Pro or BBEdit, and then later used Dreamweaver and Fireworks.  We created complex software applications using Perl, and others used PHP, Python, TCL and C.  We tested for compatibility with Netscape and Internet Explorer, and we submitted links to AltaVista for crawling when we were done.

That model evolved as we went and worked pretty well until around 2008, when we saw the maturity of many new "software as a service" offerings and a bunch of off-the-shelf tools and programs that often made custom website development unnecessary, or at least seen as too costly in the eyes of clients who once had few other choices.  We also saw the focus on developing an online presence shift away from "doing it right" to "doing it quickly" - edgy, authentic and in-progress began to trump polished and highly produced.

There's an app for that

So instead of hiring us or another firm to build an online store for you, you could just sign up for Yahoo! Small Business or plop a PayPal button on your site.  Instead of having us create an administrative interface for updating your web content, you could just install Joomla, WordPress or Drupal and do it yourself.  And instead of investing in professional graphic design, a $35 cookie-cutter design theme or a mashup version of your cousin's sketches and some photos you found online would do just fine.

We shifted our business model accordingly.  We were still website developers, but instead of even suggesting that clients pay us to invent something new for them, we built value on top of these powerful existing tools.  We could do more for our clients at a lower price point by installing and customizing a WordPress or Drupal site to their specifications.  When a client needed some functionality that was a little special, we could use our knowledge of and experience with third-party services to recommend just the right one.  And when they still needed something that didn't quite exist yet, we could use our expertise in building things from scratch to create just the right solution, be it a custom "theme," a new plugin or an entirely new piece of software altogether.

Almost the end*

Here in mid-2013, I think we're approaching the point where we can declare the end of website development as a profession.  There are now so many off-the-shelf tools and third-party services that it's rare we encounter a problem space that doesn't have some kind of existing solution we can point a client to.

Then Now
We built and refined wireframes and information architectures for a new site. Everyone can log on to a collaborative prototyping tool like InVision, Easel or Mockingbird.
We worked with clients to painstakingly organize and collect the content for their new site. Use GatherContent to get everyone on the same page (pun intended).
We spent hours creating and building out custom graphic designs that reflected the unique character of a business or organization. Buy a beautiful, modern, responsive and customizable design theme from ThemeForest or MojoThemes for under $100.
We carefully consulted with clients about SEO strategy and implementation, and constantly refined strategy based on emerging search engine practices. Write good, descriptive content that is actually useful to users, and the Google SEO gods will smile on you.  If you need more, use Upcity, SEOmoz or one of the many other SEO analysis and management tools. Oh, and it's called "inbound marketing" now.
We built customized online shopping carts with a variety of cart management, checkout and payment options. Use Shopify, Woocommerce or one of the many other tools available.  Use Square or a similar app for retail POS.
We offered tailored training and consulting services to help clients make the most of the web and understand best practices. Find a YouTube video about it.  Subscribe to Lynda.com.
We explained or just handled the complexities of web hosting, DNS, FTP and email management. The need for stand-alone hosting is probably declining as people turn to all-in-one services like WordPress.com or Squarespace and become more comfortable routing their email through Google or Microsoft's offerings in some form or another.  (But Summersault still offers it.)

 

And so on.

More and more, people don't even bother asking a professional - they know with a few quick Google searches or a pointer from a friend or colleague, they can find a tool that will do what they want.  In fact, even for more complex needs, they'd almost prefer crawling for hours through forum posts and how-to articles over paying real money for help.

As websites and related tools become commodities, I think the notion of website development as a profession is fading away.

Most of the companies that still promote themselves as "website development" firms are trading on the value-added services they can bring to those situations.  Don't have time to configure a WordPress site yourself? We'll do it for you!  Don't have the patience to read up on the latest search engine optimization best practices? We'll take care of it.

But these are often one-off projects focused on speed and the lowest price, not necessarily quality and long-term relationship building. The conversations I had in the past with prospective clients about how they're looking for a trusted partner have now morphed into intimations or outright requests that we need to compete with the folks down the street or around the world who will do what they see as the same work for a third of the price.  And with less repeat business, the "sales overhead" to being a website development generalist becomes higher, sometimes prohibitive.

The trend for small to mid-size agencies is toward a specialization of some form or another - WordPress experts, SEO experts, Social Media experts, and so on - so that they can distinguish themselves in a crowded playing field.  Larger agencies can still offer "the whole package" at a premium, but as the average Internet user becomes more tech savvy and less willing to pay for services they expect to be free, the projects that actually demand a dedicated, specialized team of website developers with a broad range of skills under one roof are becoming more rare.   And if that project is to build a new specialized "software as a service" tool that others can use, then that's one more problem space that's "solved" for now.

Being a "local" presence or contact on a project used to matter a lot more than it does today.  Internet users have warmed to the risks of dealing with a previously unknown vendors or services, and have largely accepted that the benefits of being able to find the fastest, lowest-priced option from a global marketplace outweigh the uneasiness of not being able to shake someone's hand or see their brick and mortar operation.  As screen sharing, file sharing, collaborative online brainstorming and video chatting tools become more prevalent, for the average website development project the concept of an in-person meeting almost becomes about quaint observance of tradition rather than about adding efficiency or value to the process.

Urban landscaping

What's left?

The asterisk in the post title is meant to qualify the idea of a true ending of this particular profession.  Many people who in the past may have called themselves "website developers" will go on doing similar-looking things under a different name, such as some of the areas of specialized expertise I listed above.  For better or worse, there are also still a lot of businesses and organizations that are willing to pay for low-end, fast and cheap websites without without regard to best practices in accessibility, mobile-friendliness, scalability, maintainability, etc, because they don't care or don't know any better.  I'll be the first to admit that if a $12, 5-page website from GoDaddy gets your information out there, it could be pretty hard to justify paying $500 or $2,000 for something that, to the layperson, might feel only moderately more polished or effective.

I think there are two primary areas where there are continuing business models related to website development that will carry on for some time now:

1) Marketing and branding consulting so that you know what the website should have on it.
So many of our clients over the years came to us looking for a website when what they actually needed was help figuring out their message, their brand, their story and how to share those things with their target audience.  That basic strategic need has been around for a long, long time and it hasn't gone away now.  Just because the media available for telling your business or organization's story have changed - websites, mobile apps and social media posts instead of print newspaper ads, TV commercials or radio spots - it doesn't mean you can't pay attention to marketing strategy.  Yes, there are now online tools for helping you figure out what your marketing strategy should be, but I still don't see any replacement for a competent, experienced and creative marketing professional who can help you discern your unique selling propositions and rise above the noise.  If they happen to offer website development services on top of that, great, otherwise they can farm that out to someone who does - it doesn't matter much any more.  But the firms and consultants that are going to be worth hiring in this category are going to be people with real training and backgrounds in effective marketing and communication, and all of the trade craft that goes with that.

2) Website content maintenance and software updates.
Just because someone can get their own WordPress or Drupal site up and running in a weekend doesn't mean they'll have the time or patience to maintain it.  It doesn't mean they'll pay attention to the security update notices in their admin interface or that when their mega web host borks their MySQL database that they'll know what to do about it.  These needs are still particular to each client and each site, and I don't see any automated solution meeting those needs any time soon.  The challenge is that the work is so unpredictable and often comes in such small chunks, the high volume and low overhead needed to make it profitable may be outside the reach of many service providers.  Not to mention that when a client perceives their website as having been initially created "for free," the maximum amount they're willing to pay to have someone update it is relatively low.  Perhaps this is where the lone techie sitting in his or her home office can still shine.

There may be other related models I'm missing.  And even these are vulnerable to fast-moving changes in the online world.  As Facebook works on blurring the line between paid corporate advertisements and amplified brand endorsements from trusted friends, some kinds of marketing is going to become irrelevant.  As the kids who are growing up now with smartphones and social media from a young age become interns and then employees and then managers and leaders, the idea of needing to hire outside help to update a blog will seem laughable.

So wait, what are you going to do now?

I've tried to make most of these reflections about the profession of website development as global as possible, even though they're heavily informed by the way my company, Summersault, has done things since we started almost 16 years ago.  But the reality is that my thinking about this comes at a time when as a firm we are intensely working to once again reinvent a  business model adapted to (and perhaps even helping to shape) the way things work today.

After a couple of attempts over the last few years to change course while maintaining our existing offerings, we recently decided  that we couldn't continue to take on new cargo in the form of general website development projects AND boldly sail in a new direction.  That's not to say that other website development companies aren't totally viable in some form - we know there are still plenty that are - as long as they mind the above trends.  But for Summersault, at our size and in our geographical location, we know that it's time for a transition.   We have a number of special projects and service offerings (like our web hosting) that will continue as they have, but we're also refocusing on how we can best live out our mission of building community using Internet technologies, while remaining a sustainable and thriving business.

I'm excited about what's ahead, and privileged to have the opportunity to once again be in that position that entrepreneurs love: asking what itch I can scratch in a way that will do something good and useful for the world, while allowing me and others to make a living and have fun along the way.

For other people out there who do website development in some form, I hope you can keep on keeping on, and I'd love to hear from you about the trends, shifts in business model and other changes you're seeing and experiencing as the Internet changes the world around us.

ADDED 5/20/13 at 5:23 PM: I've really appreciated the conversation about this post today on Hacker News and in the comments below. The feedback I've gotten prompts some clarifications:

I probably should have used a question mark in my post title instead of an asterisk. I don't claim to know the future and I get that I'm talking about an industry and an area of tech that's unpredictable. I've no need to be "right" about this and am just glad to have started some conversations.

I probably also should have referred to something like "generalist retail website development for the masses" instead of just "website development." One part of my current company that is still going strong is a business unit that's performing hundreds of hours per month of custom software development, database management and consulting for a client pioneering a unique problem space where no off-the-shelf tool is going to do the trick. We just had challenges replicating that scale of project within our company, but that's been more about roadblocks to growing the way we wanted to than it has to do with the nature of the industry overall.  I fully agree with the commenters who note that at the higher end of client and project requirements when it comes to creativity and complexity, there's still a great need for professional service providers with a broad range of experience and deep knowledge. As I tried to say in my post, I think the folks working with bigger budget clients and projects will have plenty of work for the foreseeable future, even if under a different name from "website developers."