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In today’s world of business — no matter the industry — an online presence is essential to gaining traction with customers. But what’s the real value behind a custom-made website? Why shouldn’t we use free sites? Or even build-your-own-site platforms? Most importantly, at what point does your business need to invest more in it? I sat down with Pavel Ganapolsky and Brennan Baker, two of our Web Designers and Developers, to talk code (not literally).

Break down web development in laymen’s terms for me.

PG: To put it bluntly, web development, and programming in general, is just the means of communication between human and the computer.

You write the code, it turns it into binary, and the computer renders it — binary is like the bridge between code and computer speak.

BB: The easiest analogy of a web developer is an interpreter. The computer needs to be told in its language what to do and then what you see on the screen is the computer interpreting it into something visual.

Why would businesses need a custom website vs. free website?

BB: It all comes down to language — business language and what your brand speaks. The number one question I have for all of my clients when I’m building a site is, what do you want your users to get out of your website?

Most people are focused on, what they want out of their website. “I want my website to look professional.” The best question to always ask is, “What am I going to give my customer?”

The best way to create value for your customer is by going through the steps with a developer and a design team — it’s almost like an extension of branding, or an extended form of an engaging advertisement.

In simple terms, what does that do for the business?

BB: With a custom site, you really get to tailor that experience to your exact message and your exact objectives. If you’re going to use a free site, you are making a glorified business card. If you are to tailor it, the web is so much more. It’s a giant opportunity to do a lot for your customer.

Plus the more engagement you have, the more opportunity you have for learning about your customer. And that data is worth a lot.

PG: When you go for something like a free site, I think it works for people with very small businesses that have a lot of overhead within their own business so the budget that they have to spend on a developer isn’t much. They can go to something like Wix or Squarespace, and it will give them a glorified business card because, at that point, that’s really what they need.

Once they start wanting to grow as a company, one of the best metrics is online. You get information like: how long are customers spending on a page, where customers are going on the site, what information they want, and whether content is effective.

Knowing your audience and how they are going to work with the website — that’s such vital information to actually make it successful. It’s a chance to constantly monitor growth and build upon success.

At what point does a business need to invest in a custom site?

PG: Once you want to start growth. You can get growth by asking your customers how you’re doing. But I think that only goes as far as customer experience and customer satisfaction.

You might be totally alienating a potential audience. How are you supposed to know that without some metric system? Maybe there is a complete other segment that is using your service that you don’t even know about. A website can provide that information to you.

And you don’t just know that from Googling it, you need to spend time learning from experience. That’s why you spend your money in places like Agency because it’s an investment in marketing and an investment in the potential growth of your company.

Especially if a business is new and just starting off. They might not have a lot of experience in business marketing which is the foundation for being a designer and a developer. It’s not just painting pictures — we’re making things look nice but there’s always a reason for it.

As a self-taught coder (Pavel), what is the best way for someone to learn?

PG: I have a strong belief that within the next generation, they’re all going to know how to at least see code and understand it to some degree.

But in terms of business owners and entrepreneurs, I think self-teaching is one of the most common ways to learn how to code. A lot of people that I know learned it from the MySpace/Tumblr era because everyone wanted to customize things yourself. So you needed to look at the code and use a lot of Googling. And I think it’s the best way to learn because it’s experience, you have a goal for yourself. And now more than ever, you have all these resources to learn for free.

You could go to school for it — I think one of the greatest things about going to school is learning from people who have a lot of experience and have made mistakes. The biggest value out of it is saving time.

BB: I think the most practical action, from the perspective of a small business owner, is to take a look and get familiar with the landscape. They don’t have to know how to code a site from front to back but to be able to determine the basic parameters of any website — like what’s HTML, what’s CSS, and what’s JavaScript? If they can identify that, when you are shopping for a developer, you’ll find your search a lot easier — and be happy with the end result.

With everything moving digital, the web is like one of your battlefields. The more you know about the field, the better you are equipped to deal with it.

To see a little more of Brennan and Pavel in action, check out some of their projects here.