Working as a freelance WordPress developer in Los Angeles isn’t easy. To be fair, compared to other professions and places to work I have it relatively easy. The pay is good, there is lots of work to be done, and of course the weather is fantastic. But being a website developer has it’s challenges and Los Angeles is a place where many of those challenges are exacerbated by the local culture. I’m going to talk about some of the difficulties I’ve faced doing web development and also how those problems in part stem from where I live.
Web Development IS Rocket Science
One of the biggest challenges for a web developer is establishing trust with clients. A majority of clients seeking out independent developers are doing so because of cost. As with any good or service you get what you pay for. And many less-than-tech-savvy clients don’t know what to look for when seeing out a lower cost solution to their web needs.
Unfortunately it seems that a majority of those claiming to be web developers are under-qualified and dishonest. It is incredibly common for people to claim that they are a web developer simply based on their ability to install WordPress and set up a theme. Scammers like this may charge very little and be initially attractive to clients who see attractive theme based sites in their portfolio and assume they are competent.
To competent developers there is nothing more common that hearing from potential clients that they have been screwed over by another developer who wasn’t qualified and simply walked away when they couldn’t do the work. Equally as common is working on websites that are broken or poorly set up.
And this problem is particularly significant in Los Angeles where there are a lot of freelance developers and small development companies. Do a search for WordPress developers in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Silver Lake, or Downtown LA, and you will find hundreds of people claiming to do this work will. Many are not well qualified. And due to the number of those present it can be very challenging to find the right person to work on your project.
The fact is that WordPress is simply a framework you can use to manage websites, and free or commercial themes facilitate quick deployment, but fast and cheap does not generally provide a stable, professional, and effective website.
Effective web development, regardless of the framework used, involves a number of inter-related skills that are very important to the bottom line of a client. Usability, information architecture, user experience, market research, and SEO are all important concerns and capable developer, even working cheap, should know something of each.
Knowing those things and helping clients understand them and their importance are two very different things. Big development companies have dedicated employees who educate potential and current clients about the services they provide. They also engender a good deal of trust in simply being well established as a company. Finally, and unfortunately, people trust you if you charge more.
As a result, it’s particularly challenging for independent web developers to build trust with clients and help them understand what they need.
Los Angeles: The Land of Soft Deadlines
One of the big challenges of working as a WordPress developer in Los Angeles is the fact that many people here have a fairly relaxed attitude about business. While there are certainly no fewer hard working folks in this city, there are so many people that any developer working for freelance clients is bound to encounter many who seem to have no sense of urgency about their web presence.
Many web clients express a great deal of investment and urgency when they first contact a developer. People know they need a website and may be concerned about competition. Perhaps they want to compete for search rank and hope to find a developer with SEO experience.
Unfortunately, it’s incredibly common to find that once a website is ready to launch that the client has far less urgency when it comes time for them to do the work of putting together content, finding images, or writing blog posts. It’s also common for clients to sign off on a design and then become uncertain about what they’ve requested once the site is live.
While these issues certainly aren’t exclusive to Los Angeles, the experience of many developers seems to be that they are more common here.
Freelance Clients are Fickle and Impatient
Another experience common to independent web developers in Los Angeles is that clients can be particularly hard to please. Perhaps because it can be very comfortable to live here, many web clients can be very entitled when it comes to how much work they want done for the money and how quickly they expect results.
Working for larger companies there is most often a fairly formal process when it comes to scope, timeframes, and budget. But freelance workers with a more casual attitude often find that clients will take advantage of any lack of formality to be overly demanding.
It is not uncommon for web developers to be generous with clients only to find that they take it for granted. And while the client may not understand everything that goes into building a good website, they may be arbitrarily demanding based on what little they know.
Unfortunately, again, this often comes down to the fact that clients respect developers based on their rate. If you give a client a discount you must not be as experienced. If you are generous you must be desperate and not as capable.
Freelance Website Design Is Pulling Teeth
All the challenges of working with clients as a developer are most evident during the design process. As clients tend not to now much about the technical side of the process they often want to assert their ownership and investment over the design. And most often this has a negative impact on a site.
Particularly in Los Angeles where there is a strong artistic and superficial influence clients can micro-manage the design process without any real understanding of the ways in which the web is a unique medium. The default is to treat their homepage like it’s the cover of a flyer or a poster. The significance of the web being an interactive medium is often lost on them.
The results of this can completely undermine the effectiveness of a website. Clients have been known to get all the way to launching a site only to find that their nephew or brother in law doesn’t like the design, sending the whole site back to the drawing board.
This issue is particularly challenging for independent web developers who don’t have a team in place to work on design and are most often working at a tight budget. Many clients don’t want to pay extra for additional design work, looking at design as less of a process and more as a result.
And again, clients trust design firms they can’t afford while attributing less authority to workers who may have decades of experience.
A Freelance WordPress Development Horror Story
Last year I was hired by a well-established Los Angeles based company to work on their WordPress site. The client wanted some superficial changes made to the site and some added functionality.
Upon looking at the back and of the site I quickly realized that it was quite literally the worst WordPress installation I have ever encountered. The site was using a very heavily bloated commercial theme. There were 8 slider plugins installed. All were running and only three were in use. There were at least 30 plugins total and no more than half were needed.
The header file, which controls what the top of the website looks like had been heavily customized and was 3000 lines of code. Few of the sites I build have more than 100. Not surprisingly the site ran slowly and had stability issues.
It was clear that many people had worked on the site and that none of them had paid much attention to the structure of the theme or how the previous developers had worked on the site. As a result the theme was stuffed to the gills with unneeded code. BuddyPress and WooCommerce were installed on the site and running but not in use.
Finally, the site design was a mess. Irregular and inadequate white space. Tiny fonts. Elements overlapping and buttons inaccessible. Features look like they had been added with no concern for the present design. Really it looked like three people had worked on the site at the same time without any communication.
I quickly realized that any work I could do would take me three times as long as I should and also involve a lot of digging through code. I also realized that there would really be no way to clean things up and get the site running well.
I recommended to the client that they start over. Of course, that wasn’t a popular suggestion and the client wanted to pile on more code and pack in more features. I decided not to do the work and wished them luck.
Things I’ve Learned
The bottom line here is that doing freelance WordPress development in Los Angeles requires interviewing clients as much as they are interviewing you. You have to determine whether or not a client is able to respect your expertise and process. You also want to be very clear with clients about scope and timeframe so that clients can’t take advantage of your willingness to work in a casual way.
While growing up in LA has made me a relaxed person, I can’t do my business in a relaxed way. Some formality is required in order to ensure an efficient and effective work experience.