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How To Turn Small Projects Into Big Profit – A Case Study

In the Web world, hearing businesses and freelancers alike complain about low-budget projects is not too uncommon. Let’s say that a local coffee shop needs to update its Web presence and contacts you for a redesign. It also requires a blog so that it can announce new coffees, events and so on. However, during the course of the first meeting, the client mentions that they don’t have a budget.

Being the inquisitive businessperson that you are, you say, “Well, we work with budgets of almost any size. What price range were you thinking of?” The owner of the coffee shop reveals that he has only $1500 to spend on the website. Thinking it would be a waste of time, you walk away.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

This is where our design studio found ourselves. We had potential projects all over the place, but the budgets were all smaller than we thought we could handle. In the Web world, demand for small websites is up. There are always start-up companies and small businesses around that need some form of a Web presence. And, as a Web design community, our job is to answer those needs in the most utilitarian way possible.

We began questioning our business practices. We knew that there was money to be made on smaller projects, but it wasn’t until we sat down and did some simple math that we realized the business opportunity we had been missing.

Here’s the simple premise on which we began to transform our business: if you turn away 10 to 15 small projects a year at $1500 per project, that’s declining between $15,000 and $22,500 every year.

Small budgets add up over time
Any amount of money adds up over time.

Our company was a start-up business once, too, and it still is. Perhaps we were delusional in our belief that big projects grow on trees. We were struggling to find work. It became clear to us that we needed to take a serious look at our business practices, our development and design processes, and ourselves. We needed to find a way to make money. Let’s take a few minutes to discuss how we overhauled our operations and started making a living off of small projects.

It’s All About The Process Link

As a Web community, we are well equipped to handle any low-budget projects that come our way. We have more frameworks and streamlined solutions than we’ve ever had access to in the past, such as WordPress, HTML5 Boilerplate and ThemeForest. Learning how to leverage these tools is key to understanding how to make money on small projects. And mastering these tools gives us the flexibility to stray from cookie-cutter solutions.

However, before you decide to take on a workload filled with small projects, let’s stress a key point. Some clients are extremely demanding about their design process and the functionality of their websites. Be careful to set clear boundaries with the client so that you don’t end up working for less than minimum wage. We’ll cover a few techniques for this below.

Over the years, we’ve picked up knowledge from many different sources. One of the best summaries of how we try to systematize our own workflow comes from Bill Beachy over at Go Media. He recently released a short podcast episode5 discussing business systems, which I strongly encourage you to check out.

But first, let’s look quickly at the various methods we use to cut down on our website build time.

Write Down Your Processes Link

During the course of working on projects, we’ve developed a master document that we call the Low-Budget Guide. It details every single step of building a website on a budget. We have sections on the fastest ways to deploy a test WordPress installation on various hosting providers, documentation on common WordPress settings, plugins and problems, as well our standard step-by-step process. We’ll review this process in a case study later in the article.

The Low-Budget Guide helps us address several important aspects of our work. First, it prevents us from forgetting to do anything. Having a step-by-step guide eliminates any errors that might cost several hours of development time.

Map out your processes
Mapping out your processes can save a lot of hassles down the road.

Secondly, by having the Low Budget Guide, we’re able to review which processes are efficient and which are time-consuming. Using this standard, we can minimize build time by adjusting our processes in certain areas. We’re basically fine-tuning ourselves into the fastest website builders we can be. And lowering build time directly increases the profit margin.

Finally, it ensures quality. Having a repeatable process means that every time you follow the guide, you become more proficient. This not only increases the speed at which you work, but decreases deviation from a tried and true standard. Practice makes you a whole lot better.

Choose a Framework Link

… Or choose several frameworks and tailor them to specific website types. For example, if you want to quickly implement a custom design on a WordPress website, check out Carrington JAM (short for “just add markup”). It’s a blank slate for custom WordPress themes, with a lot of the heavy lifting already handled. I personally use a version of Carrington JAM that I’ve converted to HTML5.

If you’re not using WordPress, I would recommend looking into the HTML5 Boilerplate126. If you’re adventurous, you can apply the Boilerplate to a Drupal, Joomla or ExpressionEngine theme. Then, when you deploy the content management system, your front-end framework will already be in place. Django is another fantastic and fast framework, if you’re familiar with Python.

Use a Theme Link

There’s no shame in using a pre-built theme to construct a website for a client. In fact, you should be proud of doing so if the budget demands it. Using a theme can cut build time by at least half, if not more. Instead of spending 30 hours coding a website, you would be spending 15 hours fine-tuning a theme, tailoring it to your client’s branding and inserting content. At $1500, you’d be getting paid $100 per hour. How, from a business perspective, would turning an opportunity like that down be considered a good decision?

That being said, always follow the licensing agreement that comes with your theme. Honest people put hours of effort into building themes. Never, never, never break the copyright, and always adhere to intellectual property laws.

Work in a Modular Fashion Link

What exactly is modular coding? Looking at various websites, you’ll see that certain areas are common to all of them. WordPress serves as a good example of breaking a website down into “modules.”

At our studio, we have built a code library around modules. We have custom Twitter and Facebook widgets, custom post templates, image gallery widgets, the list goes on. When you write new code, think of it as a module that needs to be flexible enough to function on other websites with as little customization as possible. For example, instead of having to write an image slider from scratch, we’d be able to pop in a tiny PHP function, pass along a few variables, set a few styles in CSS, and we’d be done in less than 20 minutes.

Building a code library over months and years enables your business to cut down on major coding time. And if you refine the module every time you use it, you will ensure that the product grows ever higher in quality.

Get Familiar With Less Link

Less7, in simple terms, makes CSS more like a coding language. We could argue whether style sheets should even do that, semantically speaking. But the fact of the matter is that it has shaved off at least 10% of the time that I spend writing CSS.


Perhaps one of my favorite features of Less is Mixins. These allow you to embed the CSS from one class into another. You can also use them as functions and allow them to take arguments. An example of this from Less’ website would be:

.rounded-corners (@radius: 5px) {
  border-radius: @radius;
  -webkit-border-radius: @radius;
  -moz-border-radius: @radius;

#header {

#footer {

Preventive Measures Save Time And Money Link

One of the bigger issues that we frequently ran into with clients was diverging expectations of what their money would get them. Business owners need to be honest and up front about everything, which we were.

Yet something still wasn’t clicking. We were seeing scope creep, delays in communication, hold-ups in payment, and clients who just weren’t satisfied. I was kept up nights thinking, “Is this seriously what the business world is like? I can’t do this for the rest of my life!”

And then I realized something: if this was a recurring problem, chances are it wasn’t the fault of my clients, but that I was to blame.

So, I started thinking. How could I prevent these problems from coming about?

Simply put, preventative measures turned out to be the key. Standardizing basic business practices for all of your clients will ensure that your projects run smoothly. By avoiding these headaches, businesses will be able to dedicate their time to what actually brings in money. The less time wasted on dealing with scope creep, bickering over payment, and addressing client dissatisfaction means more money saved and also a more enjoyable working environment.

Show Websites With Similar Budgets Link

This is one of the best ways to give clients a good idea of what their website will be. I’ve found that this method, more than any other, is the best way to prevent trouble down the road.

Have the Client Prioritize Link

During your initial meeting with a client, help them to list all of the functionality they would like to see on the website. After the list has been generated, put each feature into one of three categories: “Essential,” “Highly desirable” or “Bell ’n’ whistles.” This way, you will be able not only to determine what needs to get done, but to trim the project to fit the budget.

Tell Them What You Can’t Do Link

Be honest with the client. This will save countless hours of frustration if the client keeps changing their mind about a font or background color. Tell them up front that you cannot include a photo gallery for such a low price, or that a blog would simply take too much time for the budget. By stating it from the beginning, they won’t think they can just add it later on.

Sign a Contract, With an Accompanying Scope Link

Just. Do. It. By detailing what you will do and how long it will take, you’re again setting realistic expectations. A contract protects both you and the client. We strongly suggest “lawyering up” before you have to. Even if the lawyer is expensive, preparing a solid contract should cost between $300 and $1000. That’s a heck of a lot less than court fees; and having a lawyer on your side from the beginning tends to keep you out of court in the first place.

Charge for Missed Meetings Link

Ever since we started stating this clearly in the contract, do you know how many meetings our clients have missed? A grand total of zero! Over the course of six months, not a single person has missed a meeting. No more headaches, no more lost time. To top it off, our clients are even happier now because we’re not hassling them for having missed meetings. All we had to do was put a fee in the contract. It doesn’t have to be much: we charge $50 for the first missed meeting, and $100 for every one thereafter.

Handle Payments Better Link

For small projects, I strongly recommend requiring a down payment. Clients who have made a down payment are much more apt to pay on time and pay the right amount later on in the project when you’re hitting your milestones. So, save yourself some headaches and get a deposit.

Secondly, be clear in your contract and invoices about when payment is due. Inform clients of what will happen if they neglect to pay on time. Charge a late fee if a payment doesn’t come on schedule.

We strongly recommend late fees. However, if you do charge them, give clients a courtesy phone call a week before the due date to remind them of both the payment and the late fee. The fee doesn’t have to be much: ours is 10% of the remaining balance on the invoice.

Case Study: Menno Tea Link

Several months ago, we were approached by Hans and Niles, the founders of Menno Tea9. Menno Tea is small tea company based in Goshen, Indiana. Hans and Niles came to us looking to redesign their bottle’s label. They were in the process of expanding their market and were ready to develop a more consistent brand. In working with them, we eventually developed a new bottle to fit the feel of their tea, as well as more solid branding that could be applied to other areas.

Menno Tea's new bottle design

As soon as the bottle was designed and the labels were off to be printed, we realized that the updated brand needed to be applied to Menno Tea’s website. They were running a standard installation of WordPress with a slightly customized theme.

It might be helpful to see the final website10 before reading this case study.

Planning Phase Link

Hans and Niles requested that we look at their website and make a recommendation. They asked, though, that we keep the price relatively low. Being college students, Hans and Niles didn’t have much cash lying around for an extravagant solution. What they needed was a solid website that reinforced their brand’s identity and that provided key information to visitors.

Step 1: The proposal
Our final proposal was for a five-page website that adopted the new branding requirements. After some negotiating, we settled on a final cost of $2000. At our standard rate of $100 per hour, that gave us 20 hours in which to complete the project. However, because Menno Tea was a frequent client of ours, we decided that we could provide up to 30 hours of work for $2000. We informed them that, beyond this number of hours, we would have to start billing above our estimate of $2000.

Step 2: The contract and down-payment
After we agreed on the cost of the project, we pulled out our Low Budget Guide. Our first step was to sign a contract with Menno Tea and to get a down payment on the project.

Contract sample
A snapshot of our standard contract.

After the contract was signed and the down payment was processed, we headed off to start the design. We explained to Menno Tea that, because the project’s budget was low, we could offer only two conceptual designs, with one round of revisions. Hans and Niles understood our reasoning and were even pleased that we were going so far as to provide two concepts. This goes back to the main point of this article: be clear with your clients. By setting limitations and explaining constraints, you will avoid giving clients unrealistic expectations that lead to headaches.

Hours spent on the planning phase: 3

Creative Phase Link

Step 3: Mock-ups
After three hours of work on Menno Tea’s design, we developed two significantly different directions.

The first option provided to Menno Tea
The first option had horizontal navigation.

Menno Tea's second design option
The second option had a vertical navigation banner and emphasized key messaging.

After presenting these two options to the client, they took some time to review them. We had some free time every so often over the course of the project while waiting for feedback. During that time, we scheduled several other projects, so that we would have very little downtime.

We found that by scheduling projects asynchronously, we are able to fill our days with work. Some businesses work better by having fewer, more spaced out projects. We’ve discovered that we produce higher-quality work when switching between projects during the week, because it enables us to draw inspiration from all of them.

Step 4: Address feedback
After a few days, Hans and Niles provided some feedback. They wanted a mock-up that combined the horizontal navigation with the key messaging from the second option. We always ask our clients to provide specific feedback so that our changes are efficient and to their liking. Here’s an example of the type of feedback we require:

I really like it! Here are some thoughts:

  • Do we want the background to be that dark? What is your thinking behind that color gray?
  • What will those ticket stub-shaped buttons be used for?
  • Will our biographies be on the home page below the header? Or is that just an example of what the text will look like there.
  • Would putting the Facebook, Twitter and RSS feed buttons at the top or bottom of the page be better?
  • I like the format. Very fluid.
  • I’m pleased by how all of our marketing is coming together.


Having gotten all of the feedback we needed, we opened Photoshop and started working on the mock-up. In an hour, we produced a happy medium between the two designs.

The selected mockup for Menno Tea11
This was the design chosen for Menno Tea’s home page.

The folks at Menno Tea reviewed the design and asked for a few minor changes, which took only a few minutes, and then we were on our way to code.

Hours spent on the creative phase: 5

Development Phase Link

Before moving into the development phase of the project, we sat down with Hans and Niles for a brainstorming session to determine what the rest of the website would look like. We sketched out the pages and determined every last piece of content that would be needed for launch. We provided them with the list of content and let them know that the website would be ready for the content in less than a week.

They started assembling the content as soon as we started coding. By doing this, we avoided any lag from having a coded website without any content. The process became even more streamlined as Hans and Niles provided us with content consistently throughout the development phase.

Step 5: Set up a test environment
For test environments, we simply create subdirectories on our local server. Because Menno Tea’s website was built on WordPress, we used our standard framework, which consists of Carrington JAM integrated with the HTML5 Boilerplate126. We also uploaded several theme test packs so that we could test the blog quickly and easily. You can use the test pack provided by WordPress13 or the one developed by ThinkDesign14. In addition, we use a set of reliable plugins to simplify common tasks, such as Contact Form 715 and WP-Blocks16. Then, we go through and create the entire site map in WordPress’ Pages.

Code, code and more code

We did all of this — deployed a flexible framework with all of the required plugins and test content — in less than 45 minutes. This used to take us several hours just a year ago.

Step 6: Code the entire website
The next step is fairly simple. We code the website in its entirety, checking cross-browser compatibility fairly often to avoid major hang-ups down the line. To save time, we always install the wonderful IE9.js17 by default. All of the pages are coded from top to bottom, and the client is notified once every page is complete. We ask that clients notify us of requests during this step of the process only if the changes are big. In general, we ask that they make a comprehensive list of all of the changes they would like to see and then send it to us at once at the end. This cuts down significantly on email and on time spent opening and closing files to make minor changes.

Menno Tea - Our Teas18
We coded the entire website in under six hours, except for the blog, which took another four.

Step 7: Address feedback
As mentioned, we ask clients to request revisions in bulk sets to save time. Hans and Niles loved the work we had done. Luckily for us, the revisions were small and cosmetic. We addressed them rather quickly, as well as a few typos and content-related issues.

Hours spent on the development phase: 13

Launch and Test Phase Link

Step 8: Cross-browser and mobile compatibility
As we geared up to deploy the website, we needed to ensure compatibility with most browsers. Obviously, on smaller projects, not as much time is available to ensure pixel-perfect rendering, but we try to get as close as possible. We had a minor hiccup with the top banner for the menu being too wide on tablet browsers; we ended up just setting the banner as a background image, which we should have done in the first place. As part of the process, we always have fun looking at our websites in Internet Explorer 6.

How Menno Tea looks in IE 6
Needless to say, we did not support IE 6. Oh, the horror…

Step 9: Deploy the website
Deploying websites is something that we’ve streamlined fairly well recently. We always back up the client’s current system. Luckily for us, in this case, Menno Tea was running WordPress. We backed up the current theme, their database and all of their WordPress posts. After updating their installation of WordPress, we moved the new theme over to their server and activated it. We already had a list of all of the plugins being used on the test website, and so we promptly installed them, configuring each one as we went. As soon as everything was set, we activated the theme and tested everything.

After an hour of testing in all major browsers, the website was ready to go live.

Step 10: Write the documentation
We feel that documentation for our clients is extremely important. If we’ve given them a content management system, they will inevitably have questions on how to use it, even if we’ve trained them. Over time, we’ve developed a solid set of instructions on how to use various aspects of WordPress. We’ve found that this works much better than just pointing clients to WordPress’ website. Now, we just go into our repository of instructions and pull out everything we need. For a small website running WordPress, we generally have to write only one or two paragraphs in addition.

Menno Tea's documentation19
A quick shot of the documentation for Menno Tea. If we have time, we’ll match it to the client’s branding.

Step 11: Provide training
Training saves time with clients who are not on retainer. And for small WordPress websites, it doesn’t take more than an hour. We go through our documentation step by step with clients and address any questions they have on the spot. Ever since we started using documentation and providing comprehensive training, our support calls and emails have dropped by over 80%. That amount is significant; I can’t believe we took almost 10 months of operating the business to figure that out.

Hours spent on the launch and test phase: 5

Case Study Wrap-Up Link

With the launch and training wrapped up, we declared the project finished and archived our files in case we ever needed them again. This process was fairly typical for our studio, but we still had a blast designing the website. With a total of 26 hours spent on the project, we came in under our 30-hour estimate. And if we hadn’t given the frequent-client discount, we would have made more than $100 per hour. With the discount, it worked out to $77 per hour — still not too shabby for a small project.

So, what did we learn from this project?

  • Custom design can still be done on small projects, but only if the client’s requests are minimal. This might not work with every client, so discuss it up front.
  • Good communication is the key to making rapid changes. We used bullet points in our emails with Menno Tea, which made discussions easier and faster.
  • If the client is able to, get content from them as you’re designing. Working a design around existing content is much easier than guessing what the content will be. This streamlines the process and makes it simpler and faster for everyone.
  • When sent in batches, revisions move along more quickly.
  • Designing on a budget can still be a ton of fun. We loved this project and can’t wait to work with Menno Tea in the future.

Final Thoughts And Considerations Link

Obviously, we found these methods to work for us. Every project, client and situation is different. Use your judgment, and develop practices that fit your business’ style. If you’re a freelancer, do what fits your personality. Nothing is worse than trying to fit into someone else’s shoes.

Problems With a Streamlined Design Process Link

Needless to say, this particular approach to streamlined design has plenty of problems. Our biggest concern is that it takes a lot of the personality and art out of the work. Our passion for design is what drives us. Small projects tend to be much more rigid in their process, and we have to supplement them with work that allows our creativity to breathe.

With this process, we could also encounter issues with addressing the particular needs of clients. With budgets that are so low, not much time can be spent identifying the target audience, developing a unique design for the brand, or addressing any other things that are particular to your client’s situation. But we have found that, in most small projects, the client is never so demanding that you don’t have at least some time to address their concerns. In the case of Menno Tea, we had plenty of time to address their particular needs.

Finally, by no means do we wish to represent Web design as a cookie-cutter process. We hope this article serves as an overview of ways to cut down on cost and time, but never sacrifice too much of the organic and innovative processes required to be a quality Web worker. Whatever you do, don’t strip the soul out of design. Do what feels right. If you don’t feel right about your processes or feel confident that the client will be getting the quality that they’re paying for, then chances are you’re doing something wrong. After all, in order to succeed, you have to be true to yourself.

What Are Your Thoughts? Link

More importantly, what do you think about small projects? Are they worth taking on, or are they just too much of a hassle? How does a business handle a budget that isn’t ideal? And do you believe that providing low-cost solutions cheapens our work as designers and developers?


Footnotes Link

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Jon Savage and Simon Birky Hartmann are design professionals, collaboratively running a curious design studio named Studio Ace of Spade. Both having graduated from Goshen College, their skills cover four areas: Computer Science, Design, Business Information Systems, and Business. With backgrounds in project management, video games, and craft beers, they are building quite the interesting design business. Check out their work on Flickr, Dribbble, Behance, and Twitter.

  1. 1

    Nice article. I can relate to the idea of using good process to save time and money on small projects having been stung more than once when running a small web design business.
    Far from restricting you, good processes will free you and allow more time for the “fun” aspects of web design/development.

    • 2

      I agree with Paul, I like the idea of having protocol so save time and money.

      I am a freelance and I’ve burned once or twice for not having protocols, and it is more fun to create when you have an organized processess.

      Great post…

  2. 3

    I can relate to this article as most projects I work on are smaller in scope. I have definitely been trying to speed up my initial process with a default project set-up and a select set of tools to speed up the development process. Very rewarding to read your account of the Menno tea and thanks for the WordPress tips.

  3. 4

    Very nice case study!
    But in case of some clients, they are sometimes so slow in bringing the desired content to designers. How should we count hours in those times, when we can’t move on because of client?

    • 5

      Hey Simon from Studio Ace of Spade here. I’d say that the most logical thing to do is to put the project on hold and move on to something else. Don’t waste your time.

    • 6

      I also would advocate for putting the client on hold. It always helps to discuss this sort of thing with the client before the project begins. We usually let our clients know that we can’t be responsible for their lack of involvement. Deadlines can only be met if both parties are working in tandem.

      When that doesn’t happen, let the client know that the project is on hold and move onto another project. That said, we also schedule multiple projects at one time. Since clients tend to get information to us asynchronously, we rarely (if ever) are not working on some form of paid work.

  4. 7

    I completely disagree – I spent last year taking on projects that had much lower budgets, and productized (sort of) my design/development services. What I found?

    People that spend the least, want the most.

    even though I was clear in talks and the proposal what was and wasn’t included, the clients that had the smallest budgets were the pickiest about *everything*.

    I’m lucky enough to be constantly busy with clients that pay my full rate, so I killed my budget service – in the end, it wasn’t even about money – I have more fun working on projects where I can actually spend time exploring and problem solving.

    • 8

      I second that.

    • 9

      As Megan said just below guys (Paul and Sanchit), it’s a double edged sword. This process works for us, and we managed to make it work after some bad experiences and we still refuse some projects that fall into that category.

      One of the warnings that should have come with the post is: gauge your client well. Make sure to put everything in writing. The second warning should be: this works for us, not necessarily for everyone.

      Thanks for your insight and feedback non the less!

  5. 10

    It’s a double-edged sword. If you’re just getting started as freelancer or a small company, most likely you will need to start somewhere. You can’t expect to get huge budgets all the time with no history. It also opens the door for client growth and building successful relationships and possible bigger projects in the future. If you can pull it off, for sure, bread and butter pays the bills. But it can be heartbreaking and does not provide the creative outlet designers need to create amazing work.

    It’s really important to stay away from low-budget clients that have unrealistic expectations as well. They send red flags early on and should be avoided; ie. design by committee projects, hired a company before and it ‘didn’t work out’ for whatever reason, they once had aspirations of becoming a designer, or their nephew knows Photoshop. Those are the really scary ones…

  6. 11

    We actually started our business with this model and it was great for building a clientele and reputation, but after a while it became rather tiresome and dreary. We found with a plate full of low-budget sites we were constantly limited in the amount of time we could spend doing really good design, and we became more of a production house than a design studio.

    Additionally, the lower budget sites seemed to continuously draw the wrong type of client, namely those who were much more controlling and picky, who would ultimately insist on their way rather than finding compromises or letting us do our job. The result was a large but unimpressive portfolio.

    By making the transition to larger budget sites (not huge, just 2 or 3 times what you are talking an out here) we found ourselves free to do really great design, and to explore and grow as a company rather than simply becoming hamsters on the wheel.

    I think it ultimately comes down to why you are in business and what your end goal is.

    • 12

      Agreed. It’s great to figure out the secret to the quickest build possible. But once you’ve figured that out, it will get pretty boring quickly when you implement it a few times.

      So this should be considered as a product to offer, than a sole business plan for every job. Otherwise you’ll wind up going postal, and complaining about clients with low budgets (probably not in that order).

  7. 14

    I just checked. It seems to be alright for me. Do you think you could explain what’s going on so we could address it?

  8. 15

    Great article. I’m currently working as an in-house developer and plan to go freelance. This has been very informative and I will use it as a guideline for dealing with such situations in the future. Would like to see more of this from SM.

  9. 16

    Very nice article. As my business is still one of the smaller kind, I work mostly on low-budget projects. I’m always trying to get to a more efficient workflow and your case study was really helpful. Thanks.
    Is there any chance to get a view on your “low budget guide”? I’m working on my own one and could use some extra ideas and inspiration (I don’t want to copy it ;-) ).

  10. 17

    Guilherme Fonseca

    December 19, 2011 8:42 pm

    Great article, great story. Makes us think about the small projects and big opportunities we miss.

    Very good to see someone sharing the process.

  11. 18

    I’m a beginner but this detail is really instructive. sometimes i get tired of getting requests from low budget clients but i find out that they are the only ones looking for a website, especially from a beginner.

  12. 19

    After all it is like the difference between a Fiat Uno and a BMW 5 series. Both will get you from A to B, but …

    As far as I am concerned, I am not into this budget thing and don’t want to because this would limit us in spending time for the details – our process is focused on the result, not the budget. That’s why we don’t accept projects below 5.000 Euros.

  13. 20

    Thanks for the insight into your business processes – its always interesting to see how other people do what you do.

    It’s interesting that I use most of the same practices for these types of low budget builds, the only major difference is I always do a single concept with a bolt on cost for additional concepts. I figure it saves on wasted time, the client doesn’t need to pay me for something they won’t use.

    I am also very careful with which of these types of clients I will take on, as other comments have mentioned in a lot of cases they can be the most picky and unrealistic in their expectations. I usually get them to set out a briefing document for me and that tends to be a good indicator of the type of client they will be and whether I want to work with them or not.

  14. 21

    I LOVED this article!! I really loved that you gave a “case study” and showed the process step-for-step. Currently I am working on a low-budget project that is taking me much more time then I had thought I would spend, from here on out though I will have some better planning ideas thanks to you!

    I am very interested on how to merge html5 boilerplate/the carrington jam theme and WordPress together ?


  15. 22

    This was great article, but it sounds like Hans and Niles fit into the “dream client” category… I’d be interested in hearing your worse client story and how you handled it?

    And I am in the camp of small sites can make money…

    • 23

      That is exactly my thought … the case study involves a relatively civilized client. The problem is the most clients who fit into the lower budget category are often the exact opposite. They need a lot of hand holding and have unrealistic expectations. And while you can cover the proejc scope in your contract, the clients often claim ignorance and say they didn’t realize something wasnt included.

      Nowadays, I currently only accept clients that around $3k and up, but have been toying with the idea of offering a streamlined $1,500 budget website using some of the methods you have mentioned. I think the key to success is making sure that you can quickly identify the “red flag” clients that will cause you nothing but headaches.

      • 24

        It’s also about “weeding out” the bad crop I guess. If after the first meeting we don’t “feel it right,” we just go back to the client and say something like, sorry, but this is what we’ll offer for that price. If you want this, you’ll have to put down a bit more. Or sometimes refuse to take the project on altogether.

        • 25

          Great article, but as mentioned above, clients are rarely this easy to work with, especially the budget clients. AND, this example had a client show up with a professional, well-developed brand. Makes the design process markedly easier. Most clients in that budget range have a semi-professional logo at best, and a self-made logo at worst.

          Long story short, we are doing almost the exact same thing as Ian — sending away projects under $3-4k. It seems like a waste, but the small ones simply take (almost) as much energy as the larger ones, and they are often less rewarding.

          • 26

            Very true. However, we worked with Menno Tea prior to the site to develop the branding. We strive for getting clients that are looking for a bottom-up approach to their design/marketing needs. Doing a holistic identity review and addressing the needs starting at the simplest level (branding) allows for a strategic and effective rebrand/site build/everything.

            We try to be discriminating with our clients, also – if they have poor branding and aren’t open to reworking it, chances are they’re going to be more difficult to work with.

    • 27

      Our worse client? Oh boy. I’m not sure it’s a good idea, because we’d do name calling and it won’t get us far :-) But long story short, after realizing we were being played by someone who thought he’d be the smartest we ended up firing the client. And moved on to better things.

      And yes, Niles and Hans indeed fall into the “dream client” category, with an amazing product and an education about design that makes them understand the value of what we do.

  16. 28

    Great article Jon! Some really good points in there.

    But what do you think of rapid prototyping and skipping Photoshop all together? Wouldn’t that cut out a huge chunk of time from the development phase?

    • 29

      Hey there, Simon here. Design straight in the browser is a question of habit I guess :-) I think good planning and thinking ahead saves a lot of headache and time down the road, so I’d rather spend the time designing in Ps first, to see if the design holds together and make a rough assessment of potential dev problems before starting to write code.

    • 30

      We rapid prototype web applications, and at the same time design elements for it in Photoshop. RAD works only so well with design, or maybe I just really need to review our processes for doing it. At some point though, Photoshop will need to be opened.

  17. 31

    Thanks for the great article!

    Can you (or someone) tell me what font (the lowercase one) you’re using in the image of your contract?

  18. 32

    Only $2000 for a site like that? Holly smoke! It should be 4k-5k at least.
    Design is super cool and it seems well coded! So good job.

    26 hours is a good timing, but the $77/hour resulted splitter to the both of you it is only $33/hour person, which is not a lot for somebody who offers this type of quality.

    I’d say if you’re not too busy, better that than nothing!

    • 33

      Well, that’s true :-) But also, as I wrote above in a reply, Niles and Hans fall into the “dream client” category: amazing product, interest and awareness of the value of what we do for their product and brand… So in the end it’s worth it. Almost just for the satisfaction alone.

    • 34

      Quick clarifying point – the 26 hours was the combined time that it was worked on between two people. For example, if person A worked on it for three hours and person B worked on it for five, I counted that into the total as eight hours.

      Thanks for the complements on the site, too!

  19. 35

    Great article. I make a living off of small projects. For me it’s more about the fact that I am freelancing part-time (while I have young kids) and don’t want to take on huge projects with tight timelines. People with lower budgets, usually are more flexible with your time.

    But, you guys mentioned some plugins you use: have you heard of or use Advanced Custom Fields by Elliot Condon? Seriously. Amazing. Would replace WP-Blocks, I think.

    I use it to create all sorts of custom, easy to edit data in various places. For any WordPress developer who needs short cuts to create super easy to use backends that are really flexible for the client, check out this plugin. I’m a huge fan.

    Google it.

    • 36

      I just checked it out – seems we may be soon integrating that plugin into our workflow! Thanks a bunch!

    • 37

      Can’t agree more – only discovered Advanced Custom Fields recently but man it makes life so much easier – and the admin interface so much neater.

  20. 38

    I love this case-study! It is very interesting to see detailed description of the process.Thank you, guys! Keep up a good work!

  21. 39

    Great article! Enjoyed reading the case study, giving a detailed in-sight of working with smaller cilents.

    Have experienced the situation whereby clients with lower budgets seem to expect more … still haven’t quite worked out why? Definitely think the steps you have stated would help manage the clients expectations.

    Once again, great article!

    • 40

      In my opinion, it’s about an education on the value of what we do that’s lacking. If you manage to convey that, and to explain that no, just spending 10 minutes on a logo to cut cost is not an acceptable solution, I think it should go smoothly.

  22. 41

    Nice article to profit for small business.

  23. 42

    Great article…I will apply these to my future work. Thanks a lot.

  24. 43

    Thanks a lot for sharing your ideas.
    I know those clients being especially picky when investing an rather small budget (and having those unrealistic expectations). I think, there is a reason for that: People just don’t understand that 1500$ or 2000$ is a small budget. It appears huge to them. They do understand the difference between a Fiat Uno and a BMW 5 – sure they do. But they just don’t know what a webdesigner costs.

    There is a small customer behind the small project. The one who pays the bills with her personal money with no big company for backup. Those people are not used to deal with designers’ fees. They feel that 1500$ is a really big pile of money.

    The “unrealistic expectations” issue, isn’t it somehow inbuilt in small projects?
    I think that the case study tells a story of an exception that proves the rule.
    You can streamline your process, but you can’t change peoples’ perception of price and quality.

    I think, clients like Niles and Hans are hard to find.
    So lets talk about the red flags. ;o)

    • 44

      A post about preemptively assessing clients might be a good idea. I’ll have to look into it.

      The thing that really guards us is that at Studio Ace of Spade, we don’t take it personally if our clients cancel mid-project. Our clients make down payments on smaller projects, and then we clarify the terms of moving forward. For example, if we say we do one design with one revision before code, we’ll stick to that. Otherwise, they will be billed more. If they don’t want to be billed more, they have two options: stop the project or stick with the design. Since we’ve been paid and they’ve agreed to the terms ahead of time, we rarely (almost never) have problems.

  25. 45

    Seems the spamfiter has killed my comment.
    Oh no. There it is. Sorry!

  26. 46

    Robert Greenwood

    December 20, 2011 4:10 pm

    Thanks for sharing this with us. I’m going to try to follow your advise.

  27. 47

    Excellent article. This is helping me decide whether or not to take on a low-budget project I’m thinking about right now.

    On a different note, I noticed your PNGs on that site aren’t optimized – one of those 135k header images can be squished down to 37k with ImageAlpha + ImageOptim with pretty much no quality loss. 72% file size savings for the win.

  28. 49

    Rick Whittington

    December 20, 2011 5:18 pm

    I thought this was a nice article and case study. Several of the techniques you mention are valid and can help others turn these smaller projects into profitable projects.

    The reason we have a minimum price on projects, though, is because of opportunity cost. If we were to take a small job, then land a big one, the big job gets top priority. To me, I’d rather refer the small ones out to another firm because they tend to take more time, require more hand holding, and simply can’t get as much attention as the larger projects.

  29. 50

    This is an interesting article, and one that I can really relate to. I am just getting into web design, so all of my clients have been small companies with smaller budgets. I’ve had to figure out ways to maximize my work hours while still delivering a high quality site. I’ve used some of the techniques here, like reusing small bits of code, but I definitely learned a lot in this article and will put some of these techniques into practice.

    Thank you.

  30. 51

    I agree with some points of this article specifically having a process, using things like themes, plugins etc. But what I don’t agree with was the execution of the project especially things like designing a homepage without any content (using lorem) and the seemingly lack of importance placed on content. No wireframing? No content strategy? Seems like not doing these things only adds more time and headache in the end and usually results in a poor web experience.

    $1500 maybe be enough for a small web team of 2 or 3 people to charge but my company employs about a dozen people (including sales people who will take a commission on that $1500) it’s just not worth it. We’d rather spend the energy trying to get 1 $15,000 job and deal with 9 less clients (9 less headaches).

    • 52

      If you’ve got the man power (and more mouths to feed), I would definitely agree that you should be bidding on larger projects.

      And to clarify, we did sketching/wireframing, we just didn’t include it in the post. As far as content strategy, we addressed it during the branding and bottle development phase that occurred before we started designing the site.

      As far as Lipsum goes, I’m awfully torn – on one hand, you’re just making pretty things if you’re not designing for content. However, on the other, it can be easier to plan content with a rough idea of what the site is going to look like with key messaging and branding in place.

  31. 53

    Jon and Simon,

    Terrific article!

    Our biggest issue is project slowdown from lack of content delivery from clients.

    How do you guys deal with this????


    • 54

      Schedule multiple projects asynchronously so that you always have something to work on. What I mean by that is stagger your project start dates. Ideally for us, we start a new project every two weeks even when the others aren’t wrapped up. It keeps us fresh, and prevents work stoppage.

      Best of luck!

  32. 55

    Get a nice DV server at MediaTemple and talk the smaller clients into hosting with you. My company has found that we can get premium monthly rates for hosting the site and email (we include monthly backups too) because we have already built trust and a partnership with them. Getting that extra $30 a month adds up when you have over 100 clients. And these sites seldom overload our server.

  33. 56

    Great article, really interesting to see the ways you can squeeze out work and make a profit from these smaller clients. I read some of the posts above and I definitely agree with a good portion of what others are saying. Many of the smaller sized projects have very demanding customers, simply put I let them know from the beginning that their budget will reflect the amount of time and energy put into the project since we are a service based industry. I also will not start any project without a down payment usually 50-60%, I do not care if the project was $10. I have learned that many people are not to good for their word and simply do not like to pay, just look at our economy. I usually will not take on a web design project below $2500-3000 and even then I mention that they cannot expect a large amount of work to be done.
    One thing that many people need to realize is that a website is a reflection of their business and since most people are on the web first they should really pay close attention to this. Usually when I mention this they seem to understand the cost. Its funny because if a business owner needed to replace a heater they have no problem paying the price but when it comes to design work, they do not understand usually or they do not take it seriously this is why we have these problems. No one would walk into Mercedes with $20,000 and expect to get an S Class, we need to develop that sense of justification to our working rates.

  34. 58

    What if you are using Templates how do you incorporate mockups? Do I get more than one templates for viewing?

    • 59

      I’m not sure if I understood your question, but about mockups and templates, we try to stick to templates that offer the code but also the PSD, like that we can still do a preview for the client. Or sometimes, we set up a test server and they can preview it live. Worst case scenario, you can either give them the link to the website where you’re getting your template from, or just take a screenshot.

  35. 60

    Great article!

    You mentioned using pre-built themes from somewhere like themeforest but all the themes I see on there have a licenses that say you can use the theme to resell. If you customize the theme a little bit would it be ok because you are not using the theme in it’s purchased state?

    Any comments from anyone on this would be welcome!

    • 61

      Well, I’m not a lawyer but:
      – I sincerely believe it would be okay if you do some customization. But that’s my point of view, and most of the time shooting an email to the theme author might solve a lot of issues.
      – Also, in our process it’s the client that buys the theme, not us. Or us in the name of our client. So technically, we’re not reselling it.

  36. 62

    As a one person operation, this is exactly the model I have adopted for myself in the last year. I built my own wordpress framework and have really streamlined the process. I can crank out 2-3 websites a month, plus, in the down time I will code other designers PSDs into themes. Like others have said, it is very important to screen clients and be aware of red flags. The beauty of this for clients, is they are getting a solid website for a low price, and there is no shortage of people with small budgets who need websites.

  37. 63

    Really good article! I wish I had read this a year ago. I’ve been coming up with some of the same ideas as I’ve realized that efficiency is the name of the game.

  38. 64

    I had the same problem when clients would ask me to build an online store. I couldn’t help them out for let’s say 1500€. Building and securing and continuously updating an online store would just take up too much time to do it within the budgets that smaller businesses normally have available. We decided to build our own hosted e-commerce platform that we now opened up to web designers around the world (if interested to give it a spin, to build out unique professional online stores. Building websites with templates has never really been the kind of business I want to be in, but I get that it’s a solution for many businesses out there. Thanks for sharing guys!

  39. 65

    Great article, I was just wondering how many hours in your average day do you tend to spend on chargeable work? And how much on R&D updating your plugins/code library etc?


  40. 66

    Awesome article.
    Thanks for sharing it.

  41. 67

    Carlo Rizzante

    December 22, 2011 8:06 pm

    Very nice article and inspiring. Thanks, guys.

    I would add as category of clients to avoid the ones who make strange eyes when you pronounce words or concepts like WordPress, Open Source or plugin… those who expect that for 500 euro you will design and code everything from scratch and even offer them coffee at every meeting in a cafe. I met quite of them and now I just turn down them as soon as they show any of the symptoms ;)

    Thanks again for the article.

  42. 68

    Maybe I’m off here, but lets do some quick math.

    Lets say we take this approach to website design using pre-made templates (slightly customizing them) and charging roughly $1500.00. Your team consists of 2 people and you get around 50 clients a year doing this (Avg. 4 a month). You gross 75k (a year) and end up splitting $37500 a piece (before taxes!). Lets not forget cost of living, and well those pre-made templates aren’t always free so that cuts into your budget.

    Now at the end of the year you would *roughly come out with 30k.. ish. Doing this on the side would be a great concept! (Full-time…Ah not so much.)

    Let us not also forget, 50 clients in a year is some serious market hustling.

    • 69

      Nick – your math assumes they are only doing small sites like this. Interesting point though. I find myself doing a lot of small sites like this. I have to say, getting paid in this economy is better than not! I am thankful to have work!!

      • 70

        ‘In this economy’ being used by anyone in the technology field is a little rash. I think within this downturn our market has grown, if anything.

  43. 71

    I want to ask simple question, but, maybe will be useful for me.

    First, have more then 3 pages, layout each other is different, how to manage those pages?

    2. Using visual or html editor in wp-admin? how if user need to update a page, but don’t know ID or CLASS?
    example in this page :

    3. can you tell me how to create a special page for the Blog?

    4. do u make a user guide for user?
    and the last question, do you maintenance mennotea website for next 3 or 6 month?


  44. 72

    This hit some great points but the most important is that you really have to have your process down to a science and you have to be strict with the clients. I noticed someone else mentioned that the clients with the smallest budgets often want the most. While this is sometimes true, you have to be firm from the get-go about what their budget will actually buy them. I liked turning it into hours and stating that their budget will only buy them so many hours work. Any additional items will be additional $. While I don’t believe you should be so strict as to charge for every time you do a small chance that only takes you a few minutes, you still have to inform the client that it is a change from the original scope and that you can only do so many of the small changes before there is a charge.

    Smaller projects definitely fill our work queue more than the larger projects but just like Studio Ace of Spades we rarely lose money on the small projects because of our process.

  45. 73

    Nick – very true – thankful for that as well. I am just saying that it is great to have work lined up when others are out looking.

  46. 74

    Don Joseph Grafix

    December 25, 2011 8:52 am

    How do you guys import the “draft” WP site into the “live” WP on the host server? Do oyu add all of the content using WP Default theme, run the test, and than activate? If so, you just saved me a major ongoing headache. I am 75% html/css and 25% php/WP modifier, so my server and language skills are rather poor! Thanks for the excellent article and case study!

  47. 75

    Brilliant article and interesting to see how a rigorous process have allowed you to address a new market.

    “After the contract was signed and the down payment was processed, we headed off to start the design. We explained to Menno Tea that, because the project’s budget was low, we could offer only two conceptual designs, with one round of revisions.”

    Didn’t your contract specify the number of designs/revisions? Does your process include talking your client through the contract pint by point. If it does not, it might be worth doing to avoid any misunderstandings. Do you have a standard approach to completing the contract (e.g. a form that makes sure you have collected all the info necessary to complete the contract?

  48. 76

    Nice article and very useful. This is the article, I’m looking for. Thanks ^^

  49. 77

    Terrific article—after my last site I’m convinced this is what I need to do. And your CSS for Menno’s site is humblingly beautiful! Thanks for all the good tips.

  50. 78

    Harmony Steel

    January 1, 2012 11:45 pm

    Absolutely brilliant article! Well written, well thought-out, and very well documented with practical examples. Thank you!! I hope you guys get the chance to write more articles like this, much appreciated.


  51. 79

    Beautifully written with example nearest to the actual situation I encountered in past. I made some important notes in my book to follow some of the approaches which are mentioned in the article. Thanks a ton.

  52. 80

    Todd Christensen

    January 4, 2012 8:50 pm

    $1500 Website? How can you even do decent copy writing, content strategy, and SEO for an entire site for $1500? You can’t process templatize that very easily. This trend worries me.

    We’re a team of four (granted in a much larger market) and we could never produce a content strategy or copy writing draft for $1500. And frankly I never would. IMHO there is simply no way to sustain competitive quality without working yourself to death for peanuts.

    The design and dev quality of the example was damn good. And I’m very impressed with the processes outlined. All the more reason you should charge more.

    I get the labor of love concept. And even working in trade-out for low budgets. We’ve done all that. But volume design is primarily only a way for a freelancer getting their start, but it’s certainly no sustainable model to plan on pumping out $1500 websites (what 5-6 a month or more)? Boggles my mind why you’d want to work so hard for less than 40K a year. Maybe I’m just lazy.

    I’m going to come right out and say it, and I’m sorry if this sounds unduly harsh, but: This is a race to the bottom and will not end well for the future of the industry. You have real valid valuable skills. They are worth something. People should pay for them.

    The pattern is this: In order to grow more, eventually you’ll find yourself hiring overseas outsourced dev teams or exploiting kids right out of school.

    See. Eventually people will only want to pay $1000. Then less. And less. Eventually your clients will just go to somebody even cheaper. Hey? Why not download free templates off the web?

    If you’re happy with (you or your employees) not having healthcare, not being able to afford to send your kids to college, not being able to save for a retirement, and being in competition with $250-$500 template services in India—then by all means discount your skills for 40K per year.

    Like I said: a race to the bottom.

    Man. I didn’t intend that sound so… bitter. I need my coffee.

    • 81

      I understand what your saying, but is there enough market for 10K websites? Well, I live in Portugal and have a small company that develops from scratch (we don’t use wordpress, but have our own framework) and sometimes we ask for 1500$ for a website, with store, editable pages, etc, and the customer says it’s too high.

      So, what to do? Be out of work, or accept small budget sites?

    • 82

      The process that was shown in this case study is great for the design and development process. I do something very similar actually. The links given for the wordpress resources were great. I will check into some of them. But what I’ve found, a lot of the time, is that the content and SEO could not be done within a budget of $1500. I tried relying on clients for content and just about every time it became the bottle neck that stalled the project. What I do now, is have a relationship with a SEO content writer and calculate the content and SEO strategy are part of my estimate. Every company wants their site to move up on Google on Bing…in order for that to happen there needs to be relevant and quality content. Most CEOs and owners of companies are not writers and know nothing about ranking on Google. Great article, but I think that this piece is missing. I agree with Todd in that aspect.

    • 83

      Thanks for your comments.

      I think that most people do not want a cheap website. They want a great website for not a lot of money.

      If a client says they will hire the first person who agrees to $1500, then go for it. Not us. That’s not why I got into design. Life’s too short.

      The art of the business is getting people to see that quality is important and should (and in fact must) be paid for. If you are not good at that, or worse don’t want to get good at that, then you need to get a staff job at the client side or an agency. You can work in silence and have no client contact and go home.

  53. 84

    Francis Boudreau

    January 5, 2012 5:40 am

    Thank you for this great article on a great subject that we all are confronted too. I actually took some notes to apply it to my workflow. Thanks again!

  54. 85

    Loved the article and was wondering if you would consider writing another piece about how you manage your documentation repository and the modules? Thanks!

  55. 86

    We have to understand that most of the time the small budget client usually pays with his own money, that´s why he always will think that any price is too expensive. If the client is a medium or large business the money is from the business and you always going to have less problems. In our web studio we don´t take any webs under 3.000k and we use any tool under our control, sometimes even WordPress themes that we tweek, we don´t really care as long our client is absolutely satisfied with the web.
    Sometimes even some business have troubles during this times. In this cases we take a 30% first payment as we do with all our clients, and the rest on a 12 monthly payments.Yes, we take the risk.
    In my opinion many small clients dont need a 3000k websites ( the small bar next door for example), but if they want it is better for them and for us that they get a do it yourself method or find somebody else to do it. We know this by experience.
    Get paid for your work, don´t go to the bottom.

  56. 87

    Nice case study – thanks for the article!

  57. 88

    This is a perfect scenario, which is only 10% of the new clients. Small new clients could be a big loss if you do not have the business experience. Alot of us are in for the money, we have families, bills and what not. I would say there are three type of clients, the ones with money, the ones who do not have money, and the ones you know since day one could be a pain. If you learn to identify them you will be very successful in this business. Listen to what they ask for, how they ask it and the words they use to convey the idea. Big words mean they do not know. Big comparisions mean they have no clue and money. Stick my people that are somehow involved in the day-to-day graphics/web field, getting a PO approved and dealing with marketing departments is the ultimate goal…these are really hard to find, but once you are in, you are in…

  58. 89

    Good to see that you guys shared your experience and process as well … thanks

  59. 90

    Chris Olberding

    February 21, 2012 6:19 am

    Disagree on a lot of points. But charging a 10% late fee (assuming that’s not annually assessed) is possibly not legal, there’s usually an upper limit to the amount of interest/penalty you can charge.

  60. 91

    Michael Pingree

    March 26, 2012 7:44 pm

    Here is a video of Bill Erickson talking about how he manages his design process and many of his client sites are in the $2000 range. He does three to five jobs per week. Very detailed video discussion of of how he has automated the process.

    • 92

      Ashif Sayani

      May 29, 2012 9:44 pm

      Do you have the link to the Bill Erickson video? You didn’t put it into your comment.

  61. 93

    In the few times we were able to get good small budget projects, we have done four things:

    1. Get them to understand and accept just how small their budget is. Critically important.

    2. Get them to commit to a very, very short turnaround. If possible, measured in days, not weeks.

    3. Get at least 50% up front.

    4. Get paid on pre-set dates, not according to “progress.” Regardless of whether they think we are done or not. We will help set their content deadlines, but we won’t sit and wait for a check while they find the time to write content.

    On Point #1, we’ve found that the key to working with clients that have small budgets is to first get them to understand they have a small budget. This is very difficult in most cases, but we have found it to be the only basis on which to successfully complete small website projects and not work for minimum wage…or worse.

    The problem is, clients that have small budgets have no experience in doing anything on a larger scale. Otherwise, they would know how absurd their budget is. So, every time you talk about something related to their website, they want you to explain everything “so they can be educated.” Well, our job is not to educate you. Our job is to create your website. You must establish this as early as possible, even in the very first meeting.

    If they insist on hour-long meetings in which absolutely nothing gets decided, you know you are dealing with someone who, literally, does this for a living and knows no other way. (Can you tell i am in the middle of just such a situation right now?)

    We have gotten much better at recognizing these time wasters early on, and just cutting the cord. I doubt we have ever actually cost us business.

    Anyway, this is a good article and one that needs to be readdressed from many angles. My biggest disappointment is the fact that, honestly, we are not the ones who need to understand these things, and there is no real training for clients to learn how to hire a design firm.

  62. 94

    Eddy Drummond

    May 22, 2013 1:22 am

    What are your opinions about using Yahoo’s Sitebuilder to create low-budget websites?


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