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 320×480 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.