Many years ago I went out with a guy whose exasperating and ultimately pitiable dad was running a get-rich-quick scam on the side. Over the course of a few sunny afternoons I sat in the old man’s papasan chair pretending to read a book, all the while watching him “at work” on his empire, slobbering over the dollar signs in his eyes as he engaged with the equally greedy suckers who had replied to his ad. I cheekily refused to budge when he met with two sales leads in person on that sunny porch, trying to stifle my astonishment as he earnestly tried to persuade the couple to pay $3,000 for two 3-ring binders containing his “secret”. (It was not the first short-lived scheme the old man came up with, nor was it the last, and I understand he eventually made a hasty flight to a tax dodgers’ community in Central America.)
I will always be grateful for those lazy afternoons in the sun, as they provided me with profound insight into the ways, the means, and the comical daftness which fuels the get-rich-quick mentality. For those running the scams, wealth and fame are viewed as an entitlement and not a reward. For those who fall for them – some guilty of avarice, some not – the most basic standards of common sense fly out the window. Formerly decent people turn themselves into laughable cariacatures whom no one, not even their family members, can bring themselves to respect.
And so I could not help but feel a little schadenfreude when a contact made a startling confession to me during a meeting. He admitted that several years ago, during the boom and bubble years, he himself owned a web site design firm. He was not, and is not, a web designer. He had fallen for a popular scheme which, like most get-rich-quick scams, looks perfectly respectable on the surface: web franchising, also known as white label.
It works like this: the franchisee pays a large IT firm five figures – in this person’s case, £20,000 – to receive everything they need to start up a web design business out of a box, ranging from business cards to a phone line to a fairly decent computer. The firm trains the franchisee in sales and only sales, with not one lesson about what goes into the product they will actually be selling. The franchisee then competes in the marketplace to sell basic brochure web sites at rock-bottom prices. When a sucker buys a web site from the franchisee, the franchisee passes the order on to the IT firm, who then outsource the web site’s creation to countries like Pakistan, Thailand, or the wilds of eastern Russia. (He noted that the people creating “his” web sites did not speak a word of English). When the web site is completed, it is delivered to the client under the franchisee’s name, despite him not having done a click of work on it.
It should have worked so well.
Except for the fact that the franchisee took one look at the web sites the IT firm’s outsourcers had produced and declared “I cannot put my name to something that bad.” Ugly, inefficient, barely functional garbage. Kids playing with old copies of Front Page made better work than the “professional” output of the franchising empire.
As if the IT firm cared – they had his £20,000.
The franchisee was saddled with a turnkey business which produced cheap templated rubbish. He had no say in the products being delivered by “his” business. The only clients this business could hope to attract were low-budget, low potential, and clueless. His business reputation would be based on lying to your face and offering up second-rate work. Recouping his investment would take years. And he paid to have this position placed at his feet, under his own name.
And while the boom and bubble times are over, schemes like this still exist. One local scheme was recently exposed in a Scottish paper which has a long memory about its principal – a renown pathological liar whose last get-rich-quick scheme crashed and burned in spectacular style. His chief means of promoting the franchise scheme is spamming message boards, with the latter link being a great laugh to read. His sales pitch is utterly cringeworthy:
No Need to hire Designers, Developers, Account Managers & SEO Specialists. No Need to Buy Computers, Expensive Design Software and Servers. You just have to come up with the name for your business, we will do the rest. If we need to contact your clients we will contact them professionally using your company name. You sell the site and pay us a wholesale fee to build them for your clients.
To a professional web designer, those phrases are simply disgusting. I cannot conceive how a business relationship can succeed based on a non-English speaking coder on sub-minimum wage pretending to be your employee.
In recounting the story of his life as a web franchisee to me my contact kept using the phrase “selling web sites”. To the IT firm running the franchise scheme and (at the time) to him, that is what the business was about. Both parties viewed web sites as restricted, simple things which could be easily packaged, sold, and delivered. Order ‘em, whip ‘em up, ship ‘em out – an assembly line run on third world labour and blatant deception.
And that is why I am not in the business of selling web sites.
I sell relationships that create solutions to my clients’ needs.
You cannot package a relationship, outsource it, or sell it in a box. It does not have a beginning and an end, and it expects to adapt and change over time.
The relationships I sell are based on the ways I can help the client - not in the things I am trying to hide from the client.
The truly ridiculous thing is that I make more income from one ethical professional relationship than a white label middleman could make from thirty or forty “sales” of outsourced sites. If he had just resolved to do the right thing, he could save saved £20,000 and a lot of frankly pathetic play-acting.
But can a “web designer” driven by low-budget sales targets comprehend the level of accountability required to work at that level of income? Not even close. How do I know this? Because thanks to Copysentry plagiarism alerts, every month I catch web site franchisers and white label middlemen plagarising from my own web site for the text they want to include on theirs. These shysters can’t even muster the energy to write their own sales pitches or design original web sites – they have to steal them from a real web design business! Out of all of the plagiarisers that Copysentry has caught, all but one were white label outsourcers “selling” web sites, speaking in grandiose terms of “we” and “our team” and the “hundreds of web sites we’ve produced.” Meaning – the hundreds of web sites that a kid in Thailand has been paid $1 an hour to churn out.
And let’s nip this in the bud once and for all: the reason a third-world kid can charge $1 an hour is not because his national economy is backwards. It’s because the kid has no more intention of using original material than the anonymous franchisee he is working for on any given day. If all you did was surf, cut, and paste, you would be worth only $1 an hour too. Incredibly, one web designer I know defended this practice as providing employment to poor kids in poor countries, as if web design was obliged to be a social welfare service for poverty. Poverty apparently has good broadband. Other outsourcers will blatantly claim that third world plagiarism is a benevolent fairtrade operation, giving you the chance to be the Great White Hope to some poor wee babies via the creation of a copied web site.
Can I muster any sympathy for businesses who have fallen for a white label middleman’s smooth sales pitch? Absolutely not. A company which considers £99 a good price to pay for a professional web site is perfectly welcome to it. As I have previously written, these schemes have the perverse benefit of taking away the absolute bottom of the paying market.
So if you do not want your business to join the club of contempt, apply some common sense guidance to your meetings with potential web designers. If the discussion with the web designer is all about making the sale, ask yourself why that is. If the web designer boasts about having made hundreds or even thousands of web sites, ask yourself how that is possible. If the designer brags about having an extensive “team” but cannot tell you about their names, locations, or personalities, it’s time to worry. And if simple questions like “what happens if something goes wrong” sends the “designer” into a cold sweat, extend your pleasantries and take your business elsewhere.
Your business is worth so much more than a pathological liar’s sales quota.
Postscript: after reading this blog post, a contact sent me the link to a new web design company’s site which she viewed with suspicion, given what she learned here. In a bizarre coincidence, the web design site turns out to be the latest scheme of the very individual referenced in the newspaper article linked to above. The business web site features a picture of a well-appointed, bright, and busy professional studio with lots of designers hard at work. Yet the company’s portfolio features fewer than ten templated brochure sites. One of those sites is his own other company. The photo of the studio was plagiarised from a legitimate agency in New Zealand. The fake street address is Edinburgh’s most well known luxury department store.