One of my brethren at YCombinator sent out a request to the 2008 Winter Founders list a request for information about design services for his startup. He and his co-founder, like many YC founders, are hackers.
In my career I’ve been a web designer (although I’m only moderately good at it), I’ve hired web designers (for a consulting firm I used to run), and I’ve hired contract resources for design services. Recently, of course, I’ve been doing all of the design work for RescueTime (Time Management Software for Lifehackers, if you’re new here!). In most cases, I was generally dealing with extremely tight budgets (by Seattle or Silicon Valley standards), so I figure I’m uniquely qualified to answer his question. Rather than keep the answer confined to a relatively small mailing list, I figured I might open it up as a larger blog post. So here goes.
First of all, I should stress that I think a UI designer should be baked into your organization as early as possible. Most startups are building software for “normal people”– and programmers are notoriously bad about empathizing with how normal people interact with software. Hell, most of the designers I know are bad about empathizing with how normal people interact with software. If you’re one of the rare startups that’s building products for geeks-only, then you might be able to get away with limited designer involvement. But for most, the idea of “slapping a coat of paint” on an ugly application is a recipe for confused users and poor conversion rates (whatever your conversion event happens to be).
Second of all, I should stress that usability testing should be baked into your organization from day one. Watching people in your target demographic interact with your software is a priceless experience (and doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg). Most entrepreneurs get sensitive around their creation and find all sorts of excuses to avoid getting negative feedback about it– don’t fall into this trap.
Finally, let me emphasize that when I talk about designers, I am ALWAYS talking about UI designers, NOT graphic designers. Sure, pretty websites are nice… But artists are a dangerous breed, and are often tempted by the design equivalent to “guitar solos”: Swanky web forms that have so much CSS goodness that they no longer look like web forms, links that don’t look like links, buttons that don’t look like buttons, etc. Any chance to be unique is an opportunity to confuse users. At the end of the day, a lot of audiences don’t think web UI is actionable unless it’s a form element, a beveled button, or a blue hyperlink. You don’t want Jakob Neilsen designing your site, but you want a designer who will sacrifice aesthetics for usability if the need arises.
So, onto the resources.
As a startup, the first thing that you’ll need is a logo. I am a bit of a logo nut (and designed the RescueTime logo myself). I do believe that a good logo can be powerful, but when money is tight and time is scare, here are a few ways to get an interim logo:
LogoMaid – LogoMaid is a collection of 4400 watermarked logo templates. You can get non-exclusive logos for $25, and exclusive logos for $199 and up.
LogoMarker – If you’ve got to have a unique logo, this is your cheapest option. It’s basically an online logo construction kit– you can try it for free. $99 gets you the logo in a high-quality vector format.
LogoLoft and LogoWorks – Not custom enough for you? Well, LogoLoft and LogoWorks are trying to commoditize custom logo design. Presumably they have an army of underpaid designers ready to design to your specifications. Packages start from $99 and go up from there. The more you spend, the more designs you get to chose from, the more different designers get involved, and the more revisions you get… Basically, by spending more money you can reduce risk that you hate what they give you.
Custom development by a designer of your choice – Of course, you can always hunt up a designer of your choice… I’ve seen identity packages range from $1500 to $500,000, and your value mileage will most certainly vary (read up on the history of the Nike swoosh– quite a bargain there!).
Web Design Templates
Web design can be a bit spendier than logo design, depending on what you want to build. A lot of startups will need custom application design, but many might be able to get away with (or at least start with) a web template. Purchased templates usually consist of a layered Photoshop document, an HTML file, a CSS file, and maybe (god help you) a couple of SWF (Flash) files. Some will come with all of the necessary template files to play nicely with Blog/CMS systems like WordPress or Joomla.
TemplateMonster – TemplateMonster is the big boy on the template block, offering almost 13,000 templates that are searchable and sortable. Like LogoMaid, they offer a cheap version if you don’t want exclusive rights to the design ($50-70) and they also offer exclusive rights (which can cost you thousands).
Open Source Templates, Open Design Community and OSWD – These guys have quite a few fewer templates, but heck– they’re free… Yay for Open Source!
Custom Web Design
Custom web design work can range from cheap to ridiculously expensive. As programmers who are hopefully fairly familiar with web technology, you can probably get the most bang for your buck with an individual consultant rather than a firm. Of course, the more you need (graphic design, HTML/CSS, usability analysis, SEO, copywriting, etc), the less likely you are to find a single person who can TCB. If SEO is a big part of your marketing plan, make sure your designer knows enough about SEO to not paint you into a corner (send ‘em to SEOMoz for a primer).
Individual web designers with some experience under their belt can cost you $35/hr to $95/hr on a contract basis. If you are organized and can find a resource with vouched-for work ethic and responsiveness, you can do very well finding resources in secondary markets (midwest or southern USA) or offshore (eastern Europe or India). However, if you can afford it, a designer who is local and can/will meet with you is valuable. As a rule, the cheaper they are, the busier they are. You’ve got to sling a LOT of pixels at $35/hr to make a good living in most major markets.
Make sure you find someone who has experience doing what you need. If you need a complete application flow/design, finding a freelancer who has only built “brochureware” web sites is not your best bet.
SitePoint MarketPlace – The SitePoint marketplace is an excellent resource to find hungry freelancers. For $10, you can post an ad describing what you need and you’ll be buried in responses. The last time I did this for a designer (XHTML/CSS), I got 5 good responses for ridiculously low rates, and about 30 responses from people who either had higher rates than I wanted to pay or had crappy portfolios. Of course, I had two different designers flake out on me (one for a legitimate reason, one just fell off the map). That’s another risk of cheap individual consultants… They are oftentimes not very businesslike.
XHTMLized – If you find a good designer who has lackluster XHTML/CSS skills, these guys are a godsend. For $249 (assuming you can wait 7 days), they’ll take a Photoshop doc and turn it into GREAT front-end code. You can have them do more than one page, but it’s oftentimes good enough to just take a design that has most of the styles/elements you’ll be needing and turn them loose on it. There’s lots of competition in this arena, and Smashing Magazine has an excellent writeup about the alternatives.
Elance and Guru.com – These sites allow you to post a need and get a bunch of quotes from hungry designers and design shops (oftentimes offshore). There’s no obligation. It’s VERY important to clearly define what you want and what deliverables you expect to receive to make sure quotes are accurate.
This is the area where I have the least experience (at least in terms of markets like Seattle and Silicon Valley). From what I can tell, a FT web designer (Photoshop, xhtml, css) can run anywhere from $45k to $95k per year. Obviously, this can flex if you’re generous with stock options, which might be worthwhile for some startups.
I hope that helps some fellow bootstrappers out there. I’m a firm believer of taking the shortest path to testing your startup idea in a real market– these resources should get you there faster if you don’t happen to be a pixel-slinger. But at the end of the day, there’s no substitute for having someone on your core team be passionate about great user experiences.