"I just want a web site to do memberships, events, and e-commerce. How come you can't tell me how much it's going to cost? I just want to know the price, like when I buy a car."

That's the essence of the question I've heard from at least 3 or 4 customers or prospects recently. I don't know what it is about cars and web sites that make people think there is anything at all similar about buying them.

If you are paying for deliverables, you might think there's a fixed cost to delivering a set of features, but if you have anything to do with defining those deliverables, there simply is not. The key difference between the two is that a car is built, completely finished, and operational before you buy it. A web site is generally built to order.

But that's not the only big difference.

Most people can agree on what a car is. It has 4 wheels, it has a cabin people can sit in, it has seats, an engine, a transmission, a gas tank, brakes, a speedometer, and a bunch of other parts common to all cars. It has also passed a number of road safety tests, has been certified for use on roads in the country you bought it in, and a licensing agency will give you a license for it when presented with a title and an inspection.

What does any of that have to do with a web site? Really nothing. People can't even agree upon the fundamental parts of a web site, other than you can view it in a web browser.

A web site might have a place to log in and administer it. Or not.

A web site might collect customer leads, and act as a CRM. Or not.

A web site might have e-commerce, event management, membership, customer portal, secure groups, publishing workflow, and integration with back office accounting system. Or... you guessed it... not.

Even things that seem like a simple "feature" might have a huge number of gotchas that completely change the cost of implementation. For example, membership.

  • Is the membership paid for once, or is there recurring billing monthly, quarterly, yearly, daily?
  • If payment recurs, where is the credit card info stored?
  • If a member cancels their account, how does the recurring payment get canceled?
  • What happens when the membership expires? Does an admin have to manually remove the membership? Does it expire? Does it attempt to re-charge a credit card? What messages does it send, when, and to whom?
  • Does membership grant access to specific content, or all content of a particular type, or all content in a particular group?
  • Does membership affect product pricing, or provide a flat rate discount to products?

You can't take any detail for granted when planning any kind of complex site. Some approaches might be simple, trivial to implement but leave a management burden on the site owner, while others are expensive and complex to implement, but result in a site that does everything automatically. And both options might be summed up in a single bullet point, with vastly different cost to implement.

When you buy a car, you might get to choose between manual and automatic, and there's some surface level options you can choose from. But you can't choose to put the drivers seat in the back so the passengers have a better view, and you can't generally take a sedan and turn it into a convertable if it wasn't one to begin with, at least not while keeping it safe.

Really about the only thing comparable between web sites and cars is sometimes the cost. You can get a junker car for free, or a few hundred bucks, but if you want something reliable and presentable that you can drive yourself without breaking down, you'll probably need to spend a few thousand. And you can certainly spend in the 6 figures for both a car and a web site.

A far better metaphor for a web site is a building. How much does a building cost? Why can't you tell me what the building I want to buy will cost? I've told you how many bedrooms and bathrooms it has...

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