Michael Macrone

Giving the Web a New Spin
(Contract Professional, March–April 1997)

By Steve Alexander
Contract Professional cover

Henry Stapp’s “Culture Zone” Web site features animations.

Mike Fisher’s “Lightning” site has striking photos and audio of lightningstruck survivors.

Michael Macrone’s “Atlas” Web site plays rhythmic electronic music while the colorful graphics are painted on the screen.

All three are experienced designers of sites on the Internet’s World Wide Web, a growing field of opportunity for contractors. Today that field is largely populated by “companies” in which a handful of friends join computer and graphics talents to bid on Web design contracts.

But those already in the Web design business say that as Web sites become more sophisticated-going well beyond HTML programming—the door is wide open to experienced programmers who can bring traditional skills in fields such as client/server computing and database integration.

“A person with a programmer’s background would be well-off in this business,” says Mike Fisher, president of EmeraldNet Inc. in Tucson, Arizona, which designed the “lightning page” for National Geographic. “The move to Java will make C++ programmers more desired and valuable in the market. Also, being able to understand the integration of databases and Web sites will be important.”

Macrone, the technology director at one-year-old @tlas Web Design in San Francisco, agrees. “At this point, the only people who are making a lot of money are hardcore programmers who really can get their hands dirty with things like databases and complicated scripting and programming languages.” In addition to producing its own magazine-like Web site, dubbed “Paradise Online,” @tlas has created Web pages for LivePix, a manufacturer of photo manipulation software.

Stapp, technical director and cofounder of Los Angeles-based Red Channel Interactive, says increasing price competition at the low end of the Web design market is making it all the more important for designers to emphasize their computer programming skills at the high end.

“We concentrate on high-end Web sites where we do streaming audio, Shockwave multimedia animation, and software front ends for databases,” says Stapp. Red Channel’s “Culture Zone” site is a Web-based magazine about fashion, music, and film. Its Web design clients include the California K-9 Academy, a dog training school.


Much of the Web still looks like it was designed by a bunch of college kids armed with HTML editors—and it was. Programmers have the knowhow, and increasingly, the tools, to update that novice look. Highly skilled programmers are creating everything from database linkups to Java applets for real-time data feeds. Their programming tools include database development kits, CGI and PERL scripts, C++ compilers, and Java tools.

Slicker graphics, such as spinning logos and GIF format character animations, are already changing the look of many pages, notes Jim Callahan, a partner in Web Design Associates of Hazlet, New Jersey, a three-person firm created last summer. But more ambitious Web pages will require programmer skills for things such as interaction between visitors and Web page operators using three-dimensional representations of people called “avatars.”

“What counts now is the more complex CGI [common gateway interface] or JavaScript programming, plus how you do the finer things in artwork and graphic design,” says Cort Allen O’Neil, chief executive officer of five-employee Gaeanet Design Corp. in suburban Cincinnati. “Anybody can smack out some HTML on a keyboard using the new design programs.”

Programming expertise will also be required to use new Web technologies—such as those developed by Marimba, a California firm that split off from Sun Microsystems’ original Java development team—that allow a user to get constantly updated information from a Web page downloaded to a PC.

Scott Fisher, Sunnyvale, California-based author of Creating Dynamic Web Sites: A Webmaster’s Guide to Interactive Multimedia (Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.), cites an example of how that technology can be used. “Suppose you run a software service that publishes the latest tax information for accountants. This is constantly changing, so you might run a Web site where you have both researchers to keep track of tax information and programmers to write Marimba-based software so your customers keep getting the latest information on their PCs. Your customers would pay you not only for your PC tax software, but also to have that software always be in sync with the information on the server for your Web page,” Fisher explains.

A recent report by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Forrester Research outlines productivity tools that programmers looking toward the Web will begin to encounter. These tools will streamline two major tasks: database connectivity and Java applet creation, according to the report, “Interactive Technology Strategies.” Forrester projects that database programmers will look to HAHTSITE, Macromedia Backstage, and NeXT Web Objects. For Java developers, the report says, “Microsoft’s Visual J++ will bring the maturity that current tools are lacking.”

Experience Counts

There is general agreement among Web page designers that the technical aspects of design pay $50 to $100 an hour, with an occasional designer with a reputation earning $125 an hour. Beginners in the Web design business may have to settle for about $30 an hour.

In most cases, Web design firms bid on design projects based on the number of hours they believe it will take to complete the job. For example, O’Neil says he usually gets $50 an hour out of Web design projects that he bids at $800 to $5,000. “You have to hustle to get the higher-priced Web site design jobs. You work the 80-hour weeks and forget to sleep for a while.”

The experience of computer contractors would appear to give them a substantial advantage in a Web design market that today is served largely by self-taught programmers who lack traditional data processing experience. What’s more, qualified programmers will find it easier to enter the world of Web design than they may think, because the Web itself is a repository of useful information.

One thing beginner Web developers can do to learn the business is save some of the code on existing Web pages for their own use, says Jessica Keyes, author of How to Be A Successful Internet Consultant (McGraw-Hill Inc.), and a partner in New York technology consulting firm New Art Communications. While copying someone else’s entire Web page isn’t advisable, reusing bits of computer code for tables, columns, and colors is no different than what an object-oriented programmer does when he or she reuses fragments of code in writing a new program, Keyes says.

Once programmers learn the basics of Web design, they can differentiate themselves from other Web developers by doing more elaborate work, such as integrating databases into Web pages, installing Web servers, or hosting clients’ Web pages on their own computers, says Keyes. “This database stuff and the actual server administration are two things the typical HTML person can’t do.”

In addition, programmers can offer additional Web-related services, such as helping client companies evaluate what type of Web servers they should buy, says Keyes. “The big money is to be made by going to the same kinds of companies that contractors always have gone to, the Fortune 1000 companies that need help.”

Professional programmers also have an advantage in Web design because they “have learned how to understand user requirements and turn them into specifications,” says Keyes. That will result in Web sites that meet customer needs, not ones that simply demonstrate proficiency with technology.

Keyes cites a mutual fund Web site she recently visited that required the customer to play a skiing game in order to find out what his or her mutual fund was worth. “It was very cute, like a CDROM for a five-year-old. But I had to click on the skier and stop him by a signpost to read the information, and if I missed the signpost I couldn’t back up. So whoever designed that site was not satisfying customers,” she says.

Getting Noticed

Contractors who enter Web design soon will discover that one key to success is shrewd marketing. Getting noticed amid all the competition is one of the major challenges facing today’s Web designers, says Macrone. His solution is to have a cool Web site as a sort of Internet billboard for his firm’s talents.

“I suppose some client companies are convinced by something on paper, but in general you’re dead in the water if you don’t have something to show on the Web that is professional, proves you can do something beyond the basics, and has design sense to it,” Macrone says.

EmeraldNet also has relied on Web pages that demonstrate its skills. By being one of the first to use on its Web page the “frames” technology incorporated in Netscape Communications’ Web browser, EmeraldNet received favorable publicity in The New York Times. That in turn helped Mike Fisher’s firm land several high-profile clients, including National Geographic, RCA Records, and Atlantic Records.

But EmeraldNet is rethinking the word-of-mouth advertising strategy, now that it has grown to 10 employees from its original two. “Increasingly, I think that word of mouth is no longer enough. There is a lot more noise, a lot more

competition in the marketplace, and it’s time for us to take a more aggressive approach. We’ll probably do some print advertising, and we’ll probably be taking part in more music industry and technology trade shows this year.”

O’Neil, of Gaeanet Design, agrees that a promotional Web site is no longer going to take the place of other types of salesmanship. “As a designer, you have to have a quality Web site representing your company, but you’re kind of preaching to the choir if you only advertise that way. While our Web site does bring in some business, we can’t count on it to be the only source. Our most effective advertising has been in a local weekly business newspaper.” Gaeanet Design gets most of its business locally, but also has done Web page design jobs for firms in New York and Atlanta.

Another marketing strategy is to look for customers outside your immediate geographical area—although that requires a heavy commitment to business travel. Fisher’s three-year-old firm quickly saw the importance of seeking clients outside of Arizona, where the Web design opportunities are limited.

“We came into this industry with the notion that technology and talent would transcend the distances,” says EmeraldNet’s Fisher. “That has proven to be the case sometimes, but not other times. There have been a few cases where, if we had been in New York, we probably would have gotten work we did not get. The trade-off is that the quality of life is better here.”

Better at home or not, Fisher’s on the road these days. “We spend a lot of time in New York and a fair amount of time in Los Angeles, because the clients we want to meet are there. This year we plan to open a branch office in New York.”

Stapp, of Red Channel Interactive, which has restricted its Web design work to the Los Angeles area, agrees that face-to-face meetings are the key to getting business. “In conversation you get more signals about what the clients really want. Often they can’t put it into a coherent sentence, so you have to pick up on what they are trying to tell you,” Stapp says.

But while they try to present themselves as companies, many of the Web design firms are more collections of independent contractors than corporations. All five members of O’Neil’s firm are working out of their homes today, and he’s not sure it would be wise to rent office space. “We battle with this issue often. We would increase overhead if we went to an office, but I’m not too sure it would pay in terms of increased productivity.”

Stapp and his partners also lack a conventional office, and he says it has taken a toll on his home life. “Our home office started out in a spare bedroom, but it’s taken over the whole house. I don’t have a dining room table or a den or a living room or a breakfast nook now I have a bedroom, an office, and a kitchen. It’s a less-than-ideal situation because I can’t go anywhere in the house without being confronted with work. There’s no escape.”

But Olivier Laude, another partner in @tlas Web Design, says the three partners are planning to move into an office after a year of working out of their homes. He believes having a central office can be cost-justified. “We will cut down on misinformation and confusion,” he foresees. “And when we’re together, we’ll be able to talk more about our ideas.” 

Steve Alexander is a Minneapolis-based writer and technology editor of Contract Professional.

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First published in Contract Professional (March–April 1997)

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