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Fed up with sky-high quotes for reinventing the wheel, I chose to develop my own mobile site. £200 and a couple of months later, we were live and taking orders.

I was quite excited at the birth of the smartphone, and the pending delivery of my very first one. Manufacturers had got it bang on, no messing around with new languages or protocols, these phones were designed to accept and display data in the same way your household PC does.

Essentially, my 2004 Sony Ericsson P900i was a mini-laptop, a small internet browser. We didn’t have to do anything to make our website work through smartphones, it just did.

However, visitors from smartphones just didn’t convert.

What I hadn’t reckoned on was the two-fold bandwidth issue.

  1. 3G coverage and speed isn’t great, and it's only getting worse with age and popularity.
  2. Websites are getting bigger and bulkier as users demand high quality images and video.

It quickly dawned on us that as our mobile user base was increasing, their conversion and bounce rates were steadily worsening.

While the 3G networks were getting busier, we were pumping more bandwidth down them, slowing our load speeds on mobile devices and turning customers away in their droves as they got bored of waiting for the next page to load.

So as an avid fan of Econsultancy, I kept an eye on the goings on in mobile commerce and picked what I deemed was the right time for us to invest in a mobile optimised website back in late 2009.

By this time, our business was five years old and we’d had quite a lot of experience working with external agencies to fill the gaps that our team couldn’t manage.

We’d had a few great experiences and a few terrible experiences. We were prepared to pick the right people for the right job, and make a really good go of this mobile project.

We went to tender with a simple brief, to design and code a mobile version of our website with the ability to search, browse, add to cart and checkout. The website should fit within the 320x480 confines of an iPhone display and should contain only web languages supported by 95%+ of the UK’s mobile market.

My favourite two quotes:

“We’ll perform user workshops, we’ll implement an in-depth study of your demographic, we’ll analyse your users’ browsers and screen resolutions, we’ll re-invent the wheel.”
“OK, how much”
“All this for just £20,000”

“You need an app”
“What exactly would the app do over and above a mobile website?”
“I don’t know yet, but you definitely need an app”
“OK, how much”
“£40,000”
“!”

So hang on a minute, I’m asking a web design agency to make me a watered down, 320 pixel wide, seven page version of my existing website, and they want to charge me the best part of an annual salary of a good designer AND a good developer? This can’t be right. Either I’m missing something or they are!

I used to write school web pages in the early 1990s, when screen resolutions were tiny and bandwidth was 28.8k at its fastest. You really couldn’t do anything clever, everything had to be basic, slim and functional. This is exactly the same ethic that we needed to make a cost effective, functional mobile site. 

So I set about mission number two. Scrap the tendering; we’ll learn how to do it ourselves.

I approached my local university, UWE in Bristol. They had a graduate internship scheme to place recently graduated students. Employ a graduate for two months at a salary of £1,000 per month, and UWE would subsidise this salary by 80%.

So we hired a very bright computer sciences graduate at a cost of £50 per week.

On his first day, I presented Scott with the Econsultancy Mobile E-commerce Best Practice Guide. On his second day, I introduced Scott to our graphic designer, Simon. On his third day, the three of us sat down and specified a functional mobile e-commerce site.

That was that. One month later, Scott had finished the project and proudly came in to show me the first test order, live in our database. It really was that simple.

OK, so our mobile site might not be as pretty or functional as the bigger players in our market, but our mobile traffic is converting five times better than before.

We’ve taken £70,000 in just over a year. I’ve been asked to speak at loads of events to tell this story. I still don’t really get it, it was an easy decision followed by an easy implementation. If this big-eared West Country chump can do it, anyone can do it!

Be your own Development Director…

When I first started my business in 2004, the only way I could get a transactional website up and running was to do it myself. I had no money and no developer friends to bribe with free t-shirts.

So I spent a good few years forsaking sleep and learning the ropes. Google will teach you, just ask it nicely! In the space of a month I went from being a kid who could write a table in HTML to a kid who could install, modify, upgrade and tinker with PHP/MySQL/Apache software.

If you can’t afford to take on a full time developer, or can’t afford a UK agency, try tools like vWorker and CrowdSpring. These have been hugely valuable to us.

Much like eBay for coders and designers respectively, you upload a job specification then watch as hundreds of skilled individuals from across the globe bid to deliver your project. Each has their CV available, examples of previous projects and a feedback system, so you know you’re hiring the right person for the job.

If you’re going to pay an agency £25,000 to design and develop a website in a couple of months, could you not hire your own developer for a year for the same money, and do ten other projects for the same budget?

Read lots of blogs and use services like Econsultancy. I’ve used tonnes of the Best Practice Guides for various development and marketing projects. Most members of my team are daily subscribers and most will have a copy of at least one report printed on their desk.

Use local resources. Universities, schools and colleges are teeming with bright talent, eager to experience real world commerce.

Of a fifteen strong team here at TruffleShuffle.com, we’ve hired five directly from the UWE Graduate Internship Scheme. Contact your local hotspots and see if there’s anything you could get involved with together.

Pat Wood

Published 18 October, 2011 by Pat Wood

Pat Wood is MD at TruffleShuffle.com and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

1 more post from this author

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James Young

Great case study, I'm a big believer in simple solutions that do the job well and you certainly look like you've got one that works for you and your product.

I think in the interests of avoiding some poor sucker being conned out of money, you should name the agency/developer who wanted £40k for an app but couldn't explain why. That's simply fraud!

J.

almost 5 years ago

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Innes

It has to be said, this has certainly got my attention. What I cant believe though is the 40k the agency wanted; that is crazy money to say the least.

almost 5 years ago

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John Griffith

For info, I got my mobile site up and running in 15 minutes from www.movyloshop.com - seems all aspects of tech development are getting cheaper, easier, faster to deploy. Could this be moore's law in extremis?

almost 5 years ago

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Andy

So all we need to be successful is cheap labour and healthy subsidies? Sorry I'm not convinced this is a sustainable model or indeed acts as any kind of practical advice.

almost 5 years ago

Mark Selwyn

Mark Selwyn, eCommerce and Multi-Channel Retail Consultant

I disagree with Andy - the student now has a fabulous CV which he will use to walk into any number of retailers looking to develop a mobile site.

almost 5 years ago

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Andy

Mark - or alternatively those retailers can turn to UWE and get a much cheaper solution.

almost 5 years ago

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Colin McDermott

What Pat has shown here is the 'skunk works' approach - which I'm an avowed advocate of ... so well done to him.

He also got a sale out of me because I went on and bought something off his site via my Blackberry.

I only bought at 'tiddler' product just to test the usability really: my feedback ... it worked OK, not the most elegant solution I've ever used: but Pat doesn't proclaim it so to be.

However, must say that my own preference is for 'responsive' web design.

almost 5 years ago

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Andrew

Going with a reputable company means they put their name on the project and take responsibility. You can hold them accountable (more easily).

A company is less likely to 'disappear into the mist', compared to a single individual working on a project.

Crowdspring, etc are great resources. If you get a good developer.
The "worst" thing with software is when many hands have been over a code-base, it starts to turn into a "big ball of mud" due to a lack of consistent project management.

So, be careful with over-using those resources :)
They're very helpful - but just be aware of future implications (time and cost) on maintenance of the project.

almost 5 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Andy I think, as Mark says, the student in question has some great experience, and a much improved CV as a result.

This approach may not be for everyone, but it does prove that, if you follow basic best practice and produce a simple, usable mobile site, it can work.

almost 5 years ago

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Serhiy Kolesnyk

Great case, indeed. I've just tried browsing to your main site from my Android -- it detected mobile browser correctly and forwarded to mobile version of the site. Nicely done!

I wonder if you developed and tested it on WAP1.2/2.x phones.

There're several open libraries available (like WURFL) with which one can develop mobile browser detection and content adaptation. So kudos to you for not being afraid to experiment.

20K for a mobile site seems quite steep indeed. Was this the lowest bid offered?

almost 5 years ago

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Andrew

Comments with valid advice from a seasoned developer being removed...just because they're not 100% positive of this approach?

Let me make it positive then:
"Great article! Software can be made very cheaply, just be careful when if you end up using unqualified or inexperienced developers.

If you need more work doing in the future you can use the crowd-sourcing style sites to get more dev work done cheaply. Nice idea.

And you'll save time and money on project management too, plus no pesky coding standards to bother you too".

No. Sometimes stories like this work out OK, especially if the person in charge of the project has some technical knowledge.
You're probably in the lucky 10% for whom this approach works very well.

For most clients, this type of 'skunk works' approach often ends in tears - which takes more time and money to sort out.

So, be careful if using considering approach or recommending it to others.

almost 5 years ago

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Nigel

I think that the approaches suggested are flawed in a variety of ways. By taking on an "intern", the moral ground is in question. As long as the person is paid at a reasonable level, then it is fine in my book, but interns are often not paid. Then there is the quality of the work by the intern. To suggest that the intern knows as much about the full requirements as an agency does is laughable. They don't. At best they need support and guidance and not many companies have the internal skills to make up for the shortfalls of the intern. If they did, they would probably just get on and do the work. Surely the problem with the "simple brief" that was given to the agencies in the first place was possibly a lack of budget? By providing an agency with a budget a lot of time and energy is saved for all parties.

In my opinion, outsourcing development work to overseas suppliers in order to reduce cost is usually full of problems and the outcomes are frequently poor due to a variety of factors. I work for an agency and we are very frequently approached by businesses who took the cheap option by going to a novice in the UK or a and got what they paid for, something that doesn't work or didn't do what they wanted it to do. They then need someone to fix it!

I am not sure that in life there are shortcuts, but I do think that a clear project specification and budget will help everyone know where they need to be.

almost 5 years ago

James Docherty

James Docherty, Consultant at ePro

A great example of the ‘can do’, pragmatic attitude of most (all?) entrepreneurs. What I’m most impressed by is how Pat’s using this story as cracking link juice.

In terms of the story, it seems slightly over-hyped (for obvious reason - no one wants to read about “the guy who made £3k a month by investing a few bob” and being creative). However, I’d be interested to know what the difference in conversion rate was from users on mobile devices before and after the site went live. Surely the mobile (iOS/Andriod) audience would convert without a mobile specific site (even if very poorly) so all the £70k can’t be attributed to the mobile version. Let’s pessimistically say he doubled mobile conversion rates which would make his earnings from the mobile version actually £35k in the first year.
Then let’s say other people in the business (Pat himself + a designer) spent a day or two on it (call it 5 days @ £150) that would be £750.
Of course the eConsultancy report is £250 (or part of a £300 membership). So it seems to me the actual cost is likely to be closer to £1200. Still a very impressive 29x return so I don’t see the need to exaggerate.
I imagine if Pat had used Magento though he could have just popped along to the community and downloaded a mobile theme for a lot less. But of course that wouldn’t be such an impressive ‘advert’ for eConsultancy and he wouldn’t have got such great link juice!

almost 5 years ago

Mark Selwyn

Mark Selwyn, eCommerce and Multi-Channel Retail Consultant

Agencies frantically pressing the Dislike and -1 buttons on this blog......

almost 5 years ago

James Docherty

James Docherty, Consultant at ePro

OK before everyone starts telling me, I've just noticed that Pat's post mentions the mobile conversion rates are 5x what they were before. So it looks like a £60k difference from a £1200 investment. A very tasty 50x return! No doubt it'll be even higher now as people check out the process - I'm sorely tempted by the "Abe Froman" t-shirt!

almost 5 years ago

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Ian Weatherhogg

If you'd spent the £20k with a professional developer, you'd have had LOADS more time on your hands for marketing and might have taken £700k instead of £70k.

Just because you CAN build your own website, doesn't mean you should. Focus on what you're good at, and pay pros to do the rest.

Some people are good at t-shirt marketing; some are good at building websites. One in a million is good at both, but even he/she doesn't have time for both.

almost 5 years ago

Ed Longley

Ed Longley, Head of Direct Online at Hiscox

What a great case study and an example of adopting a really pragmatic approach to a familiar problem. I imagine there are many people who will read this and wish they could do the same.

I find the thinking very refreshing. The analogy to an earlier point in time could be an example to lots. It can be tempting to get bogged down in the all-singing-all-dancing approach, rather than getting something "out there" and seeing what happens.

Is this the right approach for all brands and companies in their lifecycles? Probably not.

Are there risks and issues associated with the approach? Probably.

Hats off to Truffle Shuffle.

almost 5 years ago

Pat Wood

Pat Wood, MD at TruffleShuffle.com

Hi All,

Thanks for the responses, interesting to see people's thoughts.

@Andy - it wasn't just the subsidies and cheap labour that made this project viable - as James has commented later on, even without the subsidies, the project would have only cost £1k-£2k, it still would have provided a very positive ROI. Compare this to the £20k quote I was given to have the same task performed externally, and you can see that there was still a 90% saving to be had had I employed a full time junior developer, subsidised or not.

@Mark - you're bang on... the intern in question has gone on to a senior IT role in our local police force and I hope that the experience with us on his CV would have helped.

@Andrew - Agree with your points - after 8 years of constant development, we're getting close to that "ball of mud" stage - probably need quite a large rewrite next year, but managed well, this should not cost the earth.

@Serhiy - I had to weigh up my options, and making just this one version of the mobile website would mean that I had 99.7% of my visitors' browsers supported. The potential uplift in conversion to develop any further versions was not deemed commercial.
From memory, I think there were two further quotes, one around £15k and another in the twenties. This was for a full design, build and test project.

@Nigel - internships provide valuable skills to the recently graduated. I don't think there should be any moral concerns if you are helping an unemployed talent with the valuable experience they need to secure full time work. It's hardly slave labour - most of my recently graduated friends are desperate for paid or unpaid internships in order to kick start their careers.
Our intern didn't have full set of skills and knowledge that an entire agency would have brought to my company, but the point of the article is that he brought the skills required to execute the project for a tiny percentage of what an agency would have charged, and thanks to this, my company has made an extremely positive ROI. If we'd have paid an agency to perform this work, we'd not have turned a profit on this investment for over twelve months.
Choosing an off-shore developer can be risky, but vWorker's feedback system means that I have been able to make telephone reference calls to other SMEs who've used the same vWorker developer before.
I've had 2 UK based digital agencies go bust on me in the past, with wads of my company's cash disappearing, leaving projects half finished and zero accountability. Last time this happened, I flew my vWorker developer over from New Zealand to fix the mess the bankrupt agency left us in and restart the project for 25% of the original agency cost. There are risks wherever you choose to buy resource.

@James - I hadn't thought of applying my annual eConsultancy subscription to the bill for this project, hopefully I won't have to as I'M HOPING BY BEING AN AMAZING GUEST BLOGGER, GRAHAM WILL REFUND MY SUBSCRIPTION (!)
OK, so delve a little deeper, and yes, it did cost more than the £200, perhaps not as much as you have calculated, but a 50x return is the end result in a worst case scenario - chuffed with that!

I really wanted my blog post to make the point that any sized business can afford their own developers and run these kinds of projects relatively cheaply if the management are willing to project manage and take on board the risks of hiring an inexperienced or offshore developer. Some SME's, like my company, cannot afford to have every development job specced out, developed and tested by a highly qualified and experienced UK based resource.

Thanks again everyone. Good to hear from you all.

Pat

almost 5 years ago

Pat Wood

Pat Wood, MD at TruffleShuffle.com

@ Ed - many thanks for your kind words. There certainly are risks associated with this approach, but it's kept us going for eight years and we've been highly profitable since day one, hopefully partially down to my reluctance to part with cash to pay for things we can do just (or almost) as well ourselves!

almost 5 years ago

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, Mobile Interactive Group

Interesting comments. What the above highlights is that you can put together a simple mobile site using CSS style sheets relatively cheaply, albeit you have to pay that student £20K a year but I’m sure he’ll be up for it. Alternatively, retailers looking to create an advanced user experience with drop down menus using HTML5 and a fully mobilised “one click” checkouts, will know that a student is going to struggle all year long and while he's figuring it all out, conversion rates will be close to what they were before. For a big retailer that’s millions of pounds of lost revenue. My advice is if you’re currently transacting more than £1 Million on-line, please get it done professionally, the ROI is immediate.

almost 5 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Andrew Sorry about the first comment not showing. It had been picked up by our Akismet spam filter (for reasons I cannot fathom) and I published it as soon as I noticed this.

almost 5 years ago

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Tom Doyle

The new mobile site looks great - my only issue with it is when you add something to your shopping cart or go to the checkout, you get the main website.

I personally would have abandoned my cart at this stage and went looking elsewhere for a better user experience.

All in all though, the sentiment of the article is good. Too many companies are ripping people off on mobile sites because it is the latest craze.

Most companies will only need a very basic mobile website and it shouldn't take more than a day or two to complete (if the brief is tight).

What a lot of eCommerce sites are having a problem with is that their shopping cart systems don't have the ability to offer a different layout for different devices and therefore the wheel has to be reinvented.

But in saying that - anyone asking you for £40k for a mobile site is quite simply ripping you off.

almost 5 years ago

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Colette Percival

@ Pat - Hello! I stumbled across this and am really pleased you're spreading the word about the internships scheme and also that you explained these are not 'cheap' or unpaid labour deals. The intern is not there to undercut a professional.

Often the businesses we work with are growing and developing themselves, which is why UWE provides support services for small businesses. Then with the right support and training, an intern can add huge value to a growing business, as Pat has shown.

That is why UWE is continuing to invest in this scheme; encouraging growth within local and national businesses means we build strong partnerships with employers and we are providing structured, paid and valuable experience for our unemployed graduates to start their careers.

almost 5 years ago

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Taz

A very good article. We are in the process of building our mobile commerce site through a third party. For humour I have sent a link to this article to see what they think.

almost 5 years ago

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Mark

This is a good example of not letting 'perfection be the enemy of good' - how many times are you hearing that in seminars lately? Pat you have gone and done it, well enough.

almost 5 years ago

Sonu Sayeed

Sonu Sayeed, Marketing Director at Volusion (UK)

Great story but a little out of date as the moral here seems to be DIY is more cost effective than outsourced through an agency. What wasn't considered was the hosted saas solution. These days one can have a transactional site up and running on Mobile and the Web for £15....sorry about the plug but here is the resource to do just that www.volusion.co.uk

almost 5 years ago

Sonu Sayeed

Sonu Sayeed, Marketing Director at Volusion (UK)

Great story but a little out of date as the moral here seems to be DIY is more cost effective than outsourced through an agency. What wasn't considered was the hosted SaaS solution. These days one can have a transactional site up and running on Mobile and the Web for £15....sorry about the plug but here is the resource to do just that www.volusion.co.uk

almost 5 years ago

dan barker

dan barker, E-Business Consultant at Dan Barker

I love this, and it seems to be a 'win/win/win' for the company, the student & the university.

...The Company:
Got the functionality they needed quickly & cheaply.

Who knows, if they'd done it for £40k, they may have brought in £XXXk more in return, but doing it in this way lets them test it & scale up/'finesse' if need be.

I don't think any agency/company is out of pocket here, as the option was "we'll do it cheaply, or we won't do it yet". Not "we'll do it for £40k, or we'll do it for £1k".

Having worked on 'mobile' projects >£100k and <1k, I think there is plenty of space for both, and reasons why you'd do one or the other in particular situations.

...The Student:
Got a fun project, got paid, got experience, at a time when it can be so tough to find a graduate job that many have given up (eg see: http://www.google.com/trends?q=graduate+jobs,tesco+jobs&geo=gbr&sa=N )

My first job from university, I built an email marketing system, developed websites & web-based apps for multinationals, rebuilt the company's accounts system, etc. I dare say I got <20% of the going rate for that kind of thing, but I am extremely happy that they let me do it, because it was great fun & I learned totally different skills than I ever could in university lectures.

...The University:
Got a student far more prepared for work than otherwise, got a great case study, and an increased "found a job within a year" rate for former students.

Nothing to complain about here!

dan

almost 5 years ago

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Offshore Development

Thanks for sharing the information. It is useful. Look forward to your next post.

over 3 years ago

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