Why is building a website so hard?

I’ve been working in tech startups for the last couple of years and have been up close and personal with what it takes to get something designed, built and onto the internet.

During the consulting parts of my career I’ve helped build plenty websites for clients. But it’s a whole different thing when you are in-house and personally responsible for whether the site is delivering results. I’ve found that as soon as you’re responsible for the actual business results, your whole mindset changes. Personally, I’ve found that all of a sudden usability and simplicity become more important than aesthetics.

I’ve always been fascinated by how things that seem like a nice easy website project can become complex, stressful and expensive. It’s not just the normal “things take longer than you expect” effect from project management. Something more profound is going on when building digital products. There are several interesting issues that cause website projects to be harder than you’d expect:

1. Unknowable scope

You never really know in advance what you actually need a website to do. Even the best planning, user experience mapping and project scoping won’t capture all the possible things that users may want to do on your site or all the features that you may want to put in front of your users. In the world of construction and engineering they have a concept called a “change order” these are supposed to track changes to the scope, but in software development, it’s possible that the scope isn’t even known in the first place.

Mitigation: Taking an iterative approach based on lean startup, agile development and design thinking can help bite off small chucks to work on.

Code

2. Hidden dead-ends

A dead-end gremlin is when you get 90% of the way down the path with implementing a part of a system, only to find that there is an absolute block based on a requirement that the tool or module you’ve chosen can’t deliver. Often these gremlins show up as hidden systems that depend on each other to do something seemingly simple like send an automated email.

Email marketing and payment processing are the worst areas for dead-ends because everything sounds simple from the outside, but the reality of actually making it work can be very hard with multiple systems depending on each other.

Mitigation: Being as clear as possible about the mandatory requirements in advance can help, but the best solution is to find ways to prototype the idea so that you can test whether everything hangs together properly.

3. A beautiful unique snowflake

In the world of marketing and branding, it’s tempting to want to make everything unique, different and beautiful. This is a great way to create a unique brand, but it can be a terrible way to create a website. Good web design prioritises functionality and effectiveness over looks.

Ford Model T Dash

Before the 1940s, every car dashboard looked different and had different levers, dials and displays. After the 1940s, almost every dashboard from every manufacturer conformed to the same basic layout with a speedometer, rev counter and fuel gauge, which meant that any driver could drive any car without having to relearn everything from scratch. The basic design interface has stayed the same ever since because usability is more important than uniqueness.

Ford Deluxe DashStandardisation makes everything simpler for the end-user. The same is true in web design. We expect links to be blue and underlined, the scroll bar to be on the right, and the menu to be on the top (or maybe the left). Websites that break basic navigation conventions just to be different are making the medium more important than the message. It’s nice to be unique, but it’s better to be effective.

Mitigation: Using standard web development frameworks and content platforms can help make sure that a website is consistent and easy to use.

4. Testing and compatibility

Every website project that I’ve worked on started with great promises about compatibility and great intentions to test everything. In practise, too many websites don’t work on mobile phones or the wide range of browsers that are out there in the real world. Personally, I’m a fan of minimalism in web design. The less distracting fonts, animation and noise there is, then the more that the content can shine. Ironically enough, simple and minimal design is also more likely to work on a wide range of devices and browsers.

Mitigation: Make designs and code as simple as possible and don’t assume that every single person in the world uses Chrome.

How to get the most out of Startup Weekend

Startup Weekend Auckland is a full weekend event in which small teams come together and build an entire startup before pitching to a panel of investors and judges on Sunday evening. The teams don’t necessarily stay together after the weekend and usually the main benefit is the learning and the experience gained rather than any particular startup that gets built. The exercise of identifying a market problem, creating a solution and then packaging it all up into a website, mobile app and investment pitch is an adrenaline fuelled roller coaster.

Startup Weekend Logo
It’s amazing what you can get done with a highly motivated team in a short period of time and many successful companies have come out of startup weeekends around the world. But more important is that lessons that individual participants have taken back to their own startups or corporate jobs to make these organisations more flexible, agile and customer centred.

I was a mentor on the last Startup Weekend Auckland of 2016 and there are a few lessons that I picked up which could help you get the most out of participating in a future startup weekend. Some of these lessons are also equally applicable to your day job.

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Leaders Eat Last

Simon Sinek is a powerful author, marketer and public speaker. He now has one of the most watched TED talks in the world and his recent books are best sellers. But he wasn’t always this famous, I first came across Simon in a speech that he gave back in 2013 at the 99U Conference. At the time, he wasn’t that widely known, but I knew instantly that I’d found a kindred spirit and that he was going to be wildly successful. I’ve been a big fan of his ever since.

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Growth Hacking in New Zealand

Growth hacking is the application of the mindsets and tools of a computer hacker to the challenge of growing a company. Basically, growth hacking is what happens when software developers try to do marketing. The essence of the growth hacking mindset is the scientific method and an iterative rapid prototyping approach to marketing. This type of marketing can be faster, cheaper and more effective than traditional marketing so growth hacking is becoming popular in many industries.

New Zealand has normally been pretty slow to adopt global trends in sales, marketing and design. As far as I can tell, there are still only a small number of New Zealand companies such as Vend, TradeMe and 90 Seconds TV that are applying growth hacking techniques to rapidly expand their businesses. I’m hoping to find more people doing growth hacking in Auckland and the rest of New Zealand to swap stories and share lessons learned.
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The evolution of digital marketing in New Zealand

I have been away from New Zealand for over five years. Life in New York and London moves pretty fast, so coming home to little old New Zealand has been quite a shock to the system. But the country is waking up to a more global worldview and embracing design and creativity. It turns out that things in paradise have changed a lot recently. I thought I’d take a moment to share some of the biggest changes that have occurred in my absence.

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Why You Should Become a Mentor

The best thing I did for my career last year was becoming a mentor for 500 Startups. Mentoring is a great chance to give back and to contribute to your local community. I found that being a mentor also had some great side-effects such as exposing me to fresh perspectives, clarifying my thinking on industry issues, and building my professional network.

When I moved to New York, I decided that it was time to start giving more back to the startup community, so I contacted the 500 Startups team about becoming a mentor. 500 Startups is one of the leading accelerators and seed stage investors in the world. Their new marketing-focused investment fund is called 500 Distro (short for distribution) and they had a couple of new portfolio companies in New York that seemed like a potential fit, so I started mentoring one of them in February.

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Why in-house marketers are so different from external consultants

For the first half of my career I worked in professional services, first as a lawyer, then in management consulting, design, and most recently digital marketing. To be honest, all of these consulting disciplines blurred into one because the fundamental mechanics were so similar. The day-to-day issues like client management, project management and billing are the same in pretty much every external consulting firm. Even the larger issues are also pretty much the same, how to help the client sell more, connect with their audience, and build their reputation. But moving in-house to work in marketing was a rude awakening. In-house marketing as part of an internal growth team is very different from external consulting.

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What I learned about marketing from my first year in New York

I joined the SeedInvest team in New York just over a year ago. SeedInvest is an equity crowdfunding platform focused on angel investing and venture capital for technology companies.

When I first moved to the USA I looked at the West Coast online investing platforms like Fundersclub, Wefunder and AngelList. In the end, I chose to join SeedInvest because (like Seedrs whet I worked in the UK) they had focused on building a business that takes early-stage investing seriously and treats equity crowdfunding like a smaller version of high-end investment banking rather than a form of charity or gambling.

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Equity Crowdfunding is the Ultimate Customer Loyalty Program

Alex Tynion from SeedInvest and I sat down recently to talk through some of the things that we’ve learned from helping the first few companies who have “tested the waters” under the new Reg A equity crowdfunding rules. Regulation A is an equity crowdfunding rule that allows private companies to raise money from the general public. So far, we have helped three companies on SeedInvest to reach over $10M in indicated interest from over 2,000 people each.

There are some common mindsets and practices that we’ve seen across the companies that have been most successful with equity crowdfunding.

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The Moral Hazard Created by Abundant Startup Funds

I vehemently disagree with a lot of this article, but it’s so well written that I just had to share it. Murad Ahmed from the Financial Times neatly captures the changes that are happening in the London startup scene and the increase in angel investing and venture capital in Europe.

For 4 years I lived through the heyday of this boom in UK startup funding. But my experience was that to go along with the increase in investors, there has been a corresponding increase in startups so that the two have balanced each other out. The good startups that get funded by good investors are still dedicated, hardworking and humble.

I’ve reproduced the article from the Financial Times site below because the article is so important as a record of a certain time in London’s startup scene and it would be a shame to lose it. You can see the original article, if it’s still visible on the FT site.

Enter FT journalist Murad Ahmed

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