Web developer costs drop in towns

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For the third consecutive year, prices for Web site development have dropped off substantially outside major U.S. markets.

In NetMarketing's annual survey of "college towns," a small site can be developed for less than a quarter of the median cost in the monthly major-market Web Price Index. Medium and large sites also price far lower than the most recent Web Price Index.

But the difference between college-town developers and their big-city counterparts is more than price. The major difference is attitude. Has your Web developer ever cooked you dinner?

Small-town hospitality

Away from the world of Silicon Alley and Valley Web shops that are backed by venture capital and doing initial public offerings are companies that still do business with a handshake, even if only a digital one.

Steve Crisp, founder of a suite of Web-related companies in Raleigh, N.C., once asked his lawyer to draw up a contract for his client. He was advised by his attorney: "You have a contract. What you need is a memorialization of the deal you already shook hands on."

Matt Brown, creative director of ProMotif, says his Boulder, Colo.-based company "made a conscious decision to stay small." Had his company been located in New York, Mr. Brown says, "we would be larger and we would have more nationally known clients."

When looking for Web services, those markets are the first place Fortune 500 companies will turn, he said. "Compared to Boulder, [New York] is a very foreign landscape," Mr. Brown says.

"A very strong component of the price differences is cost of living," said Mr. Crisp, "but also cost of presentation of the business itself. Things are more laid back in the hinterlands."

Visiting executives aren't likely to find Web developers in expensive suits and offices in the hippest parts of town. Mr. Crisp, for example, happily works out of his home.

Which isn't to say shops in smaller towns don't understand the business landscape. Mr. Crisp began his Web design shop with his wife in their living room but has built that into an eight-person group with three separate businesses: a design firm, PagePlan; a hosting firm, PagePlop; and a software development company, PagePlanet.

PagePlanet was born from the realization that all the Web development software he and his staff had developed for internal use could be easily spun into a commercial package. The package, MGI, helps keep costs down for PagePlan customers, as well as companies that buy just the software.

Meanwhile, ProMotif took full advantage of its university setting. It has leveraged some initial work for the local schools into several other contracts, and now universities nationwide make up a core part of its business.

"It takes awhile for the word to get out in the university community, but it does get out," Mr. Brown said.

From local to global

Does location matter? For customers, it can, but not necessarily in ways they expect.

PagePlan worked with a local company that manufactures misters, from small sprayers for house plants to equipment for sports arenas. Not only did the company forget to account for the global economic climate when it created its Web presence, but it also didn't account for the global climate itself.

"When it's winter in North Carolina," Mr. Crisp said, "half the world is dry and sweltering. Once they built their site, winter didn't have to be a dead time for them in terms of cash flow."

A business that didn't even know how to do international shipping suddenly took off with year-round global sales.

On the developer side, Mr. Crisp has customers on every continent, including a hosting customer from Antarctica, and admits he's met maybe 1% of them. Sure, sometimes one of them will be on vacation and will stop in.

Visitors get something that is less customer service and more good old-fashioned hospitality. "We fry 'em up some rib eyes and shrimp," says Mr. Crisp.

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