Whatever happened to good ol' fashioned website design and development shops?

December 5, 2018

My now-defunct business, Subvert Marketing Inc. used to build a lot of websites. Looking back at our eight-year history of projects, often more than 70% of the company’s annual revenue came from website design and development work.

We designed and developed websites, then directly supported their owners with ongoing advice, technical upgrades and feature improvements. They were many, many other shops like ours that operated during the 15-year period between 2000-2015.

Erskine Design website in 2010
Erskine Design website in 2010

In the last couple years of Subvert's existence, an increasing amount of our time was spent on product development - software as a service (SaaS) and mobile apps - and user experience consulting but building websites remained the key revenue stream. The sites we made got more and more complicated, but they were still just websites...that stood alone.

If Subvert was operating today, this would not be a sustainable business model. I'm sure we could get by, but it would be an ongoing struggle to make ends meet.

Why? It's simple. Websites are no longer the center of the internet experience.

As culture and technology have changed, so have the needs of clients who used to hire firms like Subvert to build their websites.

We've moved from standalone sites to interconnected products, networks and experiences that rely upon and relate to one another. Tools and processes have gotten more advanced, powerful and complex. People expect different things that than they used to.

All of these components and touchpoints - both external to customers and internal to staff - still need to be designed, connected and managed. The shops that want to stay in business need to be experts in helping clients do this effectively.

So, whatever happened to good ol' fashioned website design and development shops?

The march of time, apparently.

Speaking as someone who's been absent from this world for nearly four years, I look at today's industry landscape and see a much different place.

Today, an evolution of the business model for these types of companies is to work as technical partners for marketing, branding and communications agencies. I think this is a good fit and makes sense, given the client need for interconnected products, networks and experiences.

Some companies like Good Work (formerly Erskine Design; see above) sell this type of partner service as one of a family of offerings, while others make it their only offering.

As Masuga Design who offer it as one of several key services, states:

The agencies we've successfully worked with typically have a stable of clients for whom they perform a number of services, but they don't always have the technical know-how or resources to execute what the client needs done for development. Agencies might not have in-house developers, or they might have a team that is simply stretched too thin.

To those of you who started website design and development businesses during the same time that Subvert existed but still operate today, I commend and respect you.

You did something we did not, and that was to see the change coming, react quickly enough to alter your course and then stay afloat, heading in a new direction. That is an achievement worthy of much applause.