Back in January of last year Vicky and I decided to throw our lots into building a new travel website – TripGoggles.
TripGoggles was supposed to mirror the success of sites like FoodGawker but for the travel niche. There are a lot of travel bloggers out there writing about different parts of the world and most of that content goes largely unread since it is difficult to find/see unless you are following that blogger at that moment. Most bloggers, except for the really prominent ones, don’t rank particularly high in search engines.
The idea was that TripGoggles would function as a niche search engine, where bloggers could submit articles and readers could use a filter to find exactly what they were looking for. Ideally, it would draw from a pool of hundreds of relevant bloggers who were writing quality, up to date stuff. At the time, there really weren’t any sites like it. Nowadays, there are some similar ones, such as Expedia's ViewFinder and a few others. We figured, with our connections in the travel niche from running a travel blog for nearly a year, we would be able to get a lot of people on board in the early stages to help lift the site.
As far as development was concerned, our demands were straightforward, since we just wanted a custom site like FoodGawker, but with a few tweaks to make it ready for the travel niche and to not be a straight copy.
I went to eLance to search for a developer. We had a relatively tight budget of $650 as we did not want to over invest in the project and weren’t making that much money at the time. Many people were quoting me around $1k, which I thought was too much. The site seemed relatively basic to me and there was a perfect template to go off of. Then again, I had never paid for a site to be built before.
After considering the proposals we finally found a team of developers who could accommodate our budget and seemed to address our needs. They were highly ranked and submitted some preliminary designs, which seems to show an understanding of the project. The project was slated to take about 1 month at $650. So with a start date of January 24th, we should have had our site up and running by then end of February.
Before long, problems began to arise.
Originally it was little things, mostly poor communication and some oversight. For example, I would ask the developer, to include XYZ in the filter and he would only include X and Y. Or, we wouldn’t hear from him for a few days when he had told us to expect an update the following day.
Here is some insight into the conversation (which spans 310 messages from January 24th to June 12th). It mostly highlights replies from the developer in response to my inquiries as to what was going on and why we were not on time. I have drastically shortened it to just take the most telling parts. Mind you, this was supposed to be a 3-4 week project.
Jan 24th - project begins set for 3-4 weeks at $650.
Feb 3rd Developer- Yes sure. We'll most probably have the working site ready by 16th Feb.
After not hearing much and not seeing my emails responded to I expressed my discontent with the progress.
Feb 7th Developer –
I am sorry that you are not satisfied with the speed of the work done so far. And I admit the progress have been slow so far, and there is a reason for that.
I don't believe in making excuses for the delay of work, that's why I didn't earlier share the problem with you. Actually last Friday my designer's parents had a sever accident, and the designer had to leave for his home town the moment he heard the news. He is still not back and according to the phone conversation I just had with him, his mother will go through operation tonight again. As we cannot proceed with the rest of the website without having the design of the pages done first. So the whole progress on the project have been halted.
Still I take the responsibility of the delay and I am sorry to know that you are not satisfied with the work. So, there are two ways I propose in which we can proceed.
1- As a token of our excuse for the delay in the work, we can offer you $150 discount in the project fee. And we'll delay the project delivery date from 14th Feb to 22nd Feb. My designer might have to stay at his home town till Monday, but he'll work from there on his brother's PC.
2- We'll cancel the project right here. I'll refund 100% of your amount. And as a compensation for your time spent with us, I'll send you the complete source files of the work we have done so far, so that you could use that with any other developer.
P.S: You said in your last message that I didn't reply to your message. I did replied, may be it didn't appear in your elance. I have attached the screenshot of the message I last sent.
Again let me stress that in usual circumstances, you wouldn't have faced such delay. It was these extra-ordinary circumstances that caused this delay. I hope you'll understand.
At this point, I chose option 1, because I felt that we had already put in some work (how little did I know how much was left) and was happy with the $150 discount. However, after missing another deadline I reached out to express more discontent
Feb 27th Developer - I'm well.aware that project.is exceeding its time. We are trying hard to have it complete asap.site is 90% complete you can check the progress so far at:
March 4th Developer - Anyways, whatever the cause of delay was, I take the blame and full responsibility of the delay in project. I know you are not satisfied, and you have all the right for that. So, I propose two ways forward.
- We cancel the project right away. You'll get full amount refunded, plus all the design source files, and development done so far. You can ask any other developer to complete this.
- Second way is that we'll reduce the price of project further $150. So, you'll get the project for approx half the initial price of $650. But please opt this option only if you are comfortable in getting this project complete in next 7-10 days, and you are happy with this deal. Because I cannot afford the cut in price and a bad feedback, both.
Again I decided to take the $150, I felt we were getting a deal and that it was best to stick with the guys we had started with.
March 8th Developer - Yes sure, I'll send you the files at the end of our office hours to apprise you about this week's progress. And yes we are on track on the 7-10 day completion track.
March 21 Developer - I admit it was my mistake. During the work on other components, i overlooked that specs. We'll implement those, no problem. And sorry for the misunderstanding.
What followed was a series of quality and assurance testing that literally spanned March 21st to June 12th. We continually went back and forth with the developer having to make correction after correction.
June 12th Payment made project “complete”
Eventually, although the site was still not where we wanted it to be, we took the finished product and decided to move forward with it. We would try to find another developer to make the finishing touches.
Unfortunately the entire site ended up being a complete flop for several reasons.
Why It Failed
The Early Bird Gets The Worm - During all this time one or two other similar websites started popping up and we lost that “new” factor that we were going for. Had the site been on time we would have beaten the rush, but instead we came in when everyone else did.
Couldn't Find A Competent Developer - Once the project had been handed off there were still a few bugs that had to be fixed. We wanted to find someone who could help as we had some money left over from the original project. Unfortunately, it was hard to find another developer who could finish the work for us. We actually tried another one who was referred to us, and he completely disappeared after a few weeks.
Lost Steam - We just lost steam on the project altogether. We we're incredibly demoralized about everything that happened with the developer. I was working on the project all by myself without much help from Vicky. There were a lot of bugs in the "finished" website and we couldn't find anyone to get them fixed within our budget.
Of course, an experience like this does not occur without some serious lessons learned.
You Get What You Pay For – If this phrase isn’t always true, it is definitely true in the developer world. You have to be very careful with who you hire to build a website or software for you. Trying to cut corners/cost can be a really bad idea on such a delicate project. Working with people who do not speak English as a first language can also result in lots of communication errors, which is why it can be additionally worthwhile to hire a westerner even though it will cost significantly more.
If Things Start To go Sour, Get Out – Most people don’t get second chances to walk away. I got two, and I decided not to take either of them. When he offered me a complete refund AND all the source files I could have went straight away to another developer and probably had the project completed for not much more than I would have been paying this guy on account of having the source files to work with. Instead I stuck around like an idiot, happy to take $150 in discounts and completely missing that I was throwing the entire project away.
Always Buffer In Extra Time – If this had been a project I actually needed done on time, it would have been an even larger mess. It’s definitely important to buffer in some extra time, especially with the QA phase. Even a good developer is not necessarily going to finish a project on time - things happen.
Be Clear Up Front – Certainly some of the blame is on me for apparently not being clear up front with what we wanted. Of course, at the time I thought I was being very clear, but you have to remember it’s your vision, not theirs, and you have to be incredibly specific. Always have a document that can be referenced by both parties so it is clear what is stated and when it was stated. A message history is a pain to go through. Get a Google Doc going with the various tasks that need to be done, prioritized and all.
In many ways this is similar to my story about a nightmare client, in that you have to think about the big picture and not get ultra focused on money saving/making. Think about communication, fit,, and everything else that really matters in a business relationship.