Clutch spoke with Marty Vernon, the co-founder of EDUCO Web Design, as part of a series of interviews on the different options for building a website.
Please introduce your company and your role there.
Hi, I’m Marty Vernon. I am one of the co-founders at EDUCO. I work with our clients to help develop the strategy and setup the measurement goals for the sites we build. I’m also involved in the overall general operations of our company and the business side of the web projects.
We are a user experience web design firm. We specialize in building websites in Drupal and WordPress. We build sites that are secure, scalable, content manageable, and mobile responsive. We also plan out each client’s goals and objectives so that there’s a clear path to measuring the performance of their website once it's live on the web.
We also focus on educating and empowering our clients to make sure that the system is usable for their specific needs.
Web Design and Development Options
What business objectives does a client need to define before selecting how they should build the website?
It is really important that they think about their business, about where it’s at in the present day, and where they might be in the next one to three or even five years. Whether that means, possibly getting acquired, or launching new products/services next season. Being able to speak to those things would help drive the platform selection.
In addition to that, it would also be helpful if they thought through what the website means to their organization - why does it exist?
- Do they just want the website to look “cool” and by extension make their company look “cool” too?
- If they‘re interested in driving more traffic how do they plan to do this? Will they be publishing more content, hiring a search marketing firm...etc?
- Are they more concerned with supporting current customers with a robust backend that features resources and other client specific materials
- Do they want something that is more of a sales engine that drives top of funnel traffic and better converts visitors:
- For B2B organizations this might mean a site that drives more leads
- For ecommerce sites this would mean something that better converts visitors to orders
- Do they have 3rd party software that they want to communicate with the website like a CRM, marketing automation, email marketing, accounting or some other software that needs to be integrated?
- Do they need a solution that can scale with their business?
What features are associated with choosing Drupal to build a site on, rather than WordPress?
Here are some of the reasons our clients have selected Drupal:
- Drupal is highly scalable and customizable
- It is the Gold Standard for website security
- It has a strong community of users and developers
- It’s powerful, providing granular control over your content management
Why does scalability matter? If a site is scalable, that makes it a great candidate for what we’re trying to build today, but also what we’re going to be building in the future. This also ties into the fact that there’s a really robust developer community that’s working to expand the capabilities of Drupal.
It can handle what we’re looking for today, but it can also handle what’s coming down the pipeline in the future.
Why does security matter? The security aspect of Drupal is something that people talk a lot about. It is one of the most secure content management systems from my experience, but that’s not to say it’s invincible. There are incidents where Drupal or any other CMS based sites have been targeted and compromised, and that’s just a matter of plugging and patching the vulnerabilities.
For the most part it is very secure, whitehouse.gov uses it, which says something about Drupal since it has passed the US Government’s rigorous standards for security - one of the leading organizations in security. That’s a testament to Drupal being a secure platform, but there’s definitely no right solution that’s going to be able to be 100% secure all the time.
I’m not a hacker, but I know that they’re ruthless and relentless. They’re eventually going to find a hole in any website, in any platform we select. So, while it is important to have a secure platform it’s just as important to have a team that’s dedicated and that can respond and plug our vulnerabilities in a short amount of time.
Why does a strong developer community matter? That’s good for scalability, but it’s also good for another reason, because that means it’s transferable. There’s a transferability factor that I think should go into the decision-making process.
The client should consider ‘If we select this platform, are we then beholden to this new web company forever? Or could we easily take this same system and take it to a new company that might be in a position to support us, if that former company dissolves, is acquired, or changes in a way that is not beneficial to our relationship?’
The fact that Drupal is highly transferable is another really good feature.
Why is granular control of content important? One of the most unique things about Drupal is the way it treats content. Each piece of content in Drupal is referred to as a node or an entity rather than as a page or a post (like in WordPress).
This changes the way we can think about the content on a website and what we can do with the content. Content becomes much more customizable and eliminates the need for duplicate entry/management of the same content that appears on multiple pages or in multiple places.
There are definitely more attributes and features that Drupal users tout as Drupal being really good for, but those all really stand out in my mind as being attractive when considering Drupal.
Can you think of any examples of when you would choose WordPress to build a site, instead of Drupal?
Broadly speaking, WordPress is great for informational, brochure, or content rich-type websites, where the primary focus of the organization is marketing/content publishing, and that’s really all the site ever needs to be. Also, if the site is editorial in nature, WordPress works well.
That’s not to say large companies don’t use WordPress. There are enterprise organizations that use WordPress to build their websites, like CNN, Time, New York Times..etc. But mostly these sites are editorial or focused on publishing content.
WordPress is a good candidate for those that need to present general marketing information about their organization, receive contact email forms, present a portfolio about their company, or feature some of the products and services they provide. WordPress is also good for publishing regular articles, whether there may be hundreds a day or hundreds a year.
Do you still build some simpler sites using Drupal or are they all more complex?
Sometimes we build simple websites on Drupal. It really depends on what the client needs. Here are some common client needs that lead us to recommending Drupal:
- They want to take a phased approach to building their website
- They’re doing it strategically, they want to see the value that they get from the organization, the website, and the money that they’re investing
- Or their interested in having a scalable solution, that appeals to them
Even for a simple site, Drupal is great for saving management time. It’s not just about building a site that’s measurable for our organization, usable for our front-end users, or scales with our company.
Those are important, but it’s also important that it saves our client’s time. From an administrative perspective, it’s crucial that we’re not having to double enter content all over the website and that we don’t have to think everytime we create a new page ‘how does this one need to be styled’.
We’ve also built smaller sites for organizations that are already familiar with the benefits of Drupal, and that just need a little microsite. Sometimes it is part of a bigger ecosystem of digital properties.
Have you found that there are any limits to using Drupal? Are there any custom requests that you haven’t been able to create?
Generally speaking, where we’ve run into problems building in Drupal is for tech start-up companies that are building a SaaS (Software as a service) product, and the website that we’re building is the product.
If there is a clear path for the how the product needs to function Drupal is great, but if that structure is constantly changing without a well defined plan, that will be problematic.
If we are just using Drupal to build a minimum viable product then it can be a great solution, but we have to go in with that understanding that this is a temporary solution. Usually what happens is, very quickly, within a year or two, if the startup has healthy growth, we start getting to the point where our clients begin having very custom (and also frequent) requests of the platform. This can cause stress on the system if these new requests are not evaluated and planned into the overall system.
Costs of Building a Website
What are the key drivers of cost in building a website?
I would say:
- Very specific features
- Technical Specs
- Excessive Revisions - Rework associated with bad information and assumptions, or lack of clarification on either side
Content refers to written words and images that are on the site. If these are constantly changing or not available/understood at the time of the estimate, that can impact the budget. Also, completely new content requests custom icons. It is best to have content ready and organized to help avoid incurring surprise charges.
For features and specifications, the primary cost is development hours, which also includes technical planning.
Often times there will be a module or plugin (depending on whether we’re talking about WordPress or Drupal) that’s already been developed and can accomplish that feature or the function we’re looking for. Which means we don’t have to reinvent the wheel for each feature.
It starts to get costly if we want to be highly specific and detailed, for example, if instead of buying a website we were buying a house. We can find houses of any type. We can find modular houses that have been prefabricated that are inexpensive. But if we want to be very specific, like, ‘We want our house to run on solar power, and we also want it to filter rainwater so that it is ready for human consumption,’ then we’re going to have a very expensive modular house on our hands.
Technical specifications matter and it is crucial for all sides to understand key technical aspects of the site. Is there software it needs to integrate with or are there things the site needs to do. The more of these new technical items that crop up after the initial plan the more likely we are to start bumping up against the budget.
Excessive revisions or rework can be costly because it essentially negates the initial work and then requires a whole new set of work. Imagine you were building a house and putting tile in the bathroom. We say, ‘Okay, let’s tile the floor with a basic ceramic tile,’ and the contractor uses a tile that was in the same vein as the colors that were approved. However, there was no real specificity.
But, when we see the finished product, not only do we want a different color, we want a completely different type of tile - actually we want something more in the vein of travertine or marble.
The time to lay the tile in the first place doesn’t just go away. That still needs to be paid for, depending on where the misunderstanding originated and what the cause was will help determine who is at fault.
Often times both sides will concede a little. Either way, the original work needs to be paid for and the second set of work needs to be paid for as well.
Could you speak about the maintenance costs, the training, support, updates and follow-up with clients?
I would say Drupal sites tend to need somewhere between 36 - 100+ hours of support a year. Depending on the web design firm, that can cost $2,400 to $10,000+/yr to support a Drupal website.
That can involve regular backups of the site and upgrading the CMS once a year to keep it secure, or that can involve more proactive conversations about improving site conversion/performance. For clients on the higher end of that range (above 36 hours a year) that will also leave support time for other site updates.
The number of backups we do each year will be correlated with the amount of fresh content that’s being updated and altered on the website. Content that is being updated more frequently will tend to require more regular backups.
We’ll also do CMS upgrades with that to ensure that we’re leveraging that key feature of Drupal, which is that it’s secure. It’s only secure if it’s on the most recent version of the software. Depending on the amount of support hours that we have left, we’ll want to help out with other initiatives that the organization has.
If a client wants to spin up a market-specific landing page, or if they want help with a more robust blog post, or if they want to alter the layout or structure of a previously designed page, we’ll help out with other website changes.
Depending on how much time we have left after that, marketing-savvy organizations will look at things like analytics, to find opportunities that we could be leveraging better. We also have clients who have much larger maintenance agreements and those include a different class of projects. Broadly speaking, those are some of the areas of support and maintenance.
We look at training separate from maintenance. Training is really a part of the initial project. In the beginning of the project, we try to broadly define some of the terms to get our clients familiar with Drupal.
Drupal actually comes with a robust new vocabulary, so we try to start introducing those terms early on. Then, when we’re doing final QA and launching the website, we are in a good place where we can start training them on how to use this system and these terms are no longer foreign.
We do occasionally have refresh training sessions after launch, but our training documentation is so thorough, it is not a big focus of our maintenance agreements, but it is included.
Do you think there’s a higher learning curve for training clients to use Drupal versus WordPress or another CMS?
I’ve used both systems, and I’ve watched people learn in both systems. I would say they’re both equally easy to use. We’ve built over 360 websites since 2007, and each year I speak with somewhere between 300 to 500 people about their website (roughly 2,400 people to date).
Of those, there’s maybe a hundred that I have serious meetings with. Over the course of eight years now, I’ve seen people come to the table with previously conceived notions about WordPress being easier to manage and use than Drupal and all around that Drupal is really complicated.
That misconception comes from new developers trying to work with Drupal and referring to the fact that Drupal is hard to develop in, and it is. It brings a new way of thinking about a website and how a CMS should be structured.
People in general often hear something and use that one piece of information to determine their perception, but really, both platforms are quite usable. I would say Drupal is slightly more usable for non-technical users, because at the end of the process we have these highly planned out types of content/pages.
In WordPress we’ll have a post type, and that post type is going to be universal for every single person using that CMS. In Drupal, we can highly customize each field that’s going to exist in a pages content or any other page type.
We’re going to have headers and body copy, but we’ll also have things like the number of images that this content type is going to have. Is this content tied to a testimonial? Is this content tied to an author? Some of those things exist in WordPress, but its not something that comes naturally to WordPress. The degree and that granular control that we can have over each of these different types of content is much more customizable in Drupal.
Planning like that makes the site more relevant to the end organization that’s going to manage the system because it’s been thought through and planned with their custom needs in mind.
These are some of the common complaints we see from clients who have been using WordPress for their website and come to us looking for a redesign:
- ‘It just doesn’t seem like WordPress is doing what we need it to do anymore.’
- ‘We’ve sort of frankensteined it (WordPress)’
And that’s not the case with Drupal. We can change things pretty significantly without compromising the CMS. The problems we see with clients who have a previously built a Drupal site tend to be more like
- 'We have a hard time updating the website content'.
Often this is the case because the previous company did not know how to build in Drupal, or the firm intentionally set it up so the client would rely on the web design team.
How does your company go about pricing products and charging clients?
Our pricing is pretty clear. We charge for the time it takes to complete a feature request multiplied by our hourly rate.
But I feel like there is a deeper issue with pricing and that is estimating.
Estimating is not easy. Clients often come to us and they want an estimate for something they don’t fully understand and we want to estimate something we don’t fully understand. And often something we, collectively, won’t understand until we plan out the project (roughly 25-30% of the way into the project).
I think the best value, which more clients should consider, is doing paid discovery. For a flat fee it’s possible to hire a web design team to come in, and get started planning the website. It’s a one to two week long session.
Kind of similar to hiring an architect to create blueprints.
At the end of that discovery, we'll have a very clear understanding of both the blueprint to build the website and what it will cost. With the key features understood, we can more accurately estimate what similar features have required in the past.
Its not an exact estimate (because we can’t account for assumptions, bad direction, or completely new items that come up after the plan is approved), but with paid discovery we get a chance to see what it is like to work with the web design team and a very clear estimation of what our project will take.
However even when we do paid discovery, it’s not necessarily the end-all-be-all of what the project budget is going to be. That’s because new requests/features almost always inevitably come up.
It’s kind of like if we were gutting a house and we thought, ‘We always had carpeted floors, there were never hard-wood floors put down. Let’s install hardwood floors. Or let’s rip up the basement floor and make it lower so we have higher ceilings.’ New things will inevitably come up with each project that were not accounted for by either party. Paid discovery will help limit the number of big surprises.
When new features come up, it’s important that they’re called out and that they’re talked about. Sometimes we can accomplish them within budget, but usually when we start bumping up against a few things, like:
- Lots of new features
- Content that needs reformatting
- Rolling revisions throughout the design and development process
- Having to do rework due to assumptions
That’s when we start to call out new items about the potential ROI of a new feature. Is it worth it? Can it be phased out? That is a pretty robust answer for how we price projects, but also how we recommend getting an estimate.
Do you require a minimum budget to take on a new client?
I wouldn’t say a minimum budget, because we have current clients who will reach out to us for small initiatives throughout the year, that are either outside of the support agreements or that are something completely different.
I would say for us to build a completely new website, it is hard for us to do something under $15,000. With that said our projects tend to range between $25,000 - $100,000. Those are websites that we’re really experienced in building.
Benefits of Hiring a Web Design and Development Company
What are some of the benefits of hiring a web design company.
A lot of the sites that come to us are needing to be rebuilt due to poor planning and often the client is only a year or less out from launching this brand new site. When you hire the right team, you can save money by doing it right the first time.
Again this depends on the company, but the idea is to hire a team of people that are thoughtful and have been doing this for a while. If that is the case, for as long as we’re paying them, we have a team of really conscious individuals who are going to think about our audience and the way we speak to that audience online in a very critical way.
These insights are key.
For the businesses that we work with large and small. They often don’t think about their audience or empathize with their issues on a day to day basis.
But, when we take the time to do these exercises during our strategy and planning phase we get newfound perspectives, and I feel like those perspectives are where we always have room to grow and improve. I think that’s a real benefit, that we get these newfound insights on our own organization and on our audience.
Lastly, and often most importantly, I think that if we need to build a website, we want to do it with people who have done it before and who have failed. They can catapult us past that learning curve and right into making money and making a return on this product and our investment.
What unique value does Educo provide?
Our business changes, our clients change, and the value that we bring is different for each client. Broadly speaking, there are six reasons that people usually come to us and that we can help make a real difference.
Sometimes we’re solving all 6 of these, but often the client is only really aware of three that are really causing them pain. We bring value to clients with the following needs (whether they are known or unknown needs):
- A website that fits with their brand identity
- Ongoing support from a reliable, trusted partner
- Ability to add, update and manage content regularly
- Ability to engage with their audience, and measure that engagement on site
- Ability to generate web leads for their sales team
- A website that can scale without compromise
I would say that those are the areas where we bring value. Those, and the fact that our approach is unique. Budgets and timelines are secondary. We look at both ourselves and our clients as educators and we look for people with a common trait i.e. really good communication skills.