It’s been about nine weeks since I got dumped, and duped.  I have never ever felt so betrayed, taken, mistreated and robbed. 

Robbed from the months of time and hard work I invested, robbed from my dollars spent and robbed emotionally.
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Nine weeks ago, I wasn’t ready to share my story.  I was too angry and upset, and knew any post that I would write to share with the world would likely be too emotionally charged.  But it’s now time to tell my story. Not for sympathy but so you don’t find yourself in a similar situation.  I simply want you to learn from my mistakes.

My Search for the Right Web Designer

After four years of being the “web designer/logo creator” for Cole Joseph Photography, Nicole and I felt it was time to hire a professional.  Someone who could give us a professional web presence that my novice graphic design skills simply couldn’t get us.  Specifically, we wanted to ditch our Showit website and transform our wordpress blog to a more complete “blogsite” (wordpress based).  Here are two of our initial logos that I created – 1 was on the blog and 1 was on the Showit website which was not very cohesive at all.
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Here is what our Showit site looked like – it was fancy looking and pretty cool, but not the best for viewing on mobile and SEO…

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We searched and searched and searched some more to try and find the “right” person for the job.  It was a frustrating process.  We struggled to find someone with the right style, someone with the right business skills (responsive via email), and someone within our $3,000 budget.

One of our wedding photographer husband/wife friends raved about the branding company they used and low and behold, the initial budget of $3,000 went out the window as we decided to really invest in our project and hire this very strong referral from our friends.  Our friends didn’t only have a great experience working with them but had developed a friendship with the designers too, so we felt we were in good hands.

Despite only really needing (or having the budget for) a new website, we had to first go through their “branding” package which would include a logo, tagline and renaming process (if desired).

The total damage? $5,719.  On June 25th 2013, we were on contract and underway with the Austin, Texas branding company.

The Process

I’ll spare you some of the more boring details of our long tedious journey but I can tell you that we were given massive amounts of homework to do with some pretty lofty deadlines to have complete.  This homework wasn’t easy…it dug deep and forced you to really examine your business – it was good info.  The tight deadlines made it tough, especially for people like ourselves who are working 5 days a week at a day job still but nonetheless we got all of the homework done on time.

A month later, it was time for our very first meeting! Over Skype of course since we were across states.  Until now, all communication had been solely through email with the assistant, not either of the owners.  That was frustrating in itself to not be able to send an email to one of the owners – who are actually doing the work, but what was more frustrating was the lack of flexibility that they had with scheduling meetings.  We were limited to 3 different time slots throughout the middle of the day, on two different days only. Period.  I asked if there was anyway that we could work out a time that would work for both Nicole and I and them, since I really wanted Nicole to be apart of the branding process and we were at work throughout all of those times, but my request was quickly rejected.  I had to leave work early for the early afternoon meeting, but I had no other choice.  The meeting went well.

Once we got the initial homework done for the brand strategy portion of the process we were moving on to the naming portion of the process.  Nicole and I never planned or even thought of changing our business name, but were open to the idea if we ultimately found a name that was fitting for us and made sense.  The branding company felt very strongly that no business should have their own name in it.  I understand the pros and cons of both options (business names with and without personal name) and as I mentioned we were open to the idea, but ultimately it would be our decision.  We had 3 different rounds of names to choose from and unfortunately, there was not one single name that was really close to being a winner.  Unfortunately, at this point, we had gotten significantly behind on timing I feel from the lack of timeliness with the branding company.  On October 30th, almost 4 months since starting, I emailed the team saying we have decided to continue on our branding journey as Cole Joseph Photography.

Next up? The tagline process.  After the renaming process and lack of viable options for us (that fit our brand and personality) we were concerned that the tagline process would be equally difficult.  Luckily, they had a different wordsmith work on our taglines and we got one we loved right away.  This took us to the end of November.

Our tagline: Unforgettable Never Looked So Good

Now we moved on to a new set of homework – for the design phase.  Nicole and I worked tirelessly finding design elements we liked for the website and logo, colors, textures, fonts – you name it.  We didn’t have a holiday break, because our days off were consumed with finishing our “homework” by the cited deadline.  Many emails were exchanged over the weeks and I’ll simply fast forward and say we got a final logo on February 6th of this year, almost 9 months after starting the project which to me,  seemed just a bit excessive.

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Woohoo!!! Finally ready to design the website!  The main reason we hired them in the first place.  At this point we had already given the colors, fonts, textures, ALL the words for website pages, the photos for the website and a sitemap for the website.

But before moving forward with the website, I received this in my inbox:

“The photos you gave us of you and Nicole don’t match up with your new brand, are you considering taking branding photos that will speak to your new brand and mood board? We’re very much on that train! 🙂 If so, and you’d like some ideas, please let me know!”

Nicole and I decided to take some new photos that we can use for the website that would be representative of us and give a cohesive look through the website.  So we dressed up, went to a place that had meaning to us and took some awesome photos.  We took our own photos, so we could take our time to get the specific look we wanted, have the photos edited in the same style that we give our clients and be shot in a similar style.  The shoot went well and we sent in our photos.  Unfortunately for us, these photos still weren’t good enough for them…

“These branding photos definitely do not match that mood board…The whole reason for creating the mood board is to help you keep your visual identity consistent. If we stray a little here and a little there, soon everything feels disjunctive and inconsistent.

We need to know what you’d like to do from here. We can use the images but if we create the design to match the mood board your content is going to clash. Or you could take new images that match the mood board (Your outfits, the location, the photo editing, etc). Unfortunately, it is too late in the game to go back and alter the mood board.

Let us know you desired direction and we’ll get on with the design. 🙂

Considering that we were given absolutely no guidance as to what they were looking for in “branding photos” you can imagine we were a bit shocked and frustrated.  And to actually suggest we take more, new photos?!  Here are some of the photos we took.

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My email response:
“Our brand is US as people, it’s our style of work (composition and editing) and it’s the intangible, the experience we give out clients.  This is Cole Joseph Photography.

Our photos we just took are us.  It’s what we wear, it’s exactly how we photograph our couples and how we edit the photos too.  Our goal was to have fresh, new, photos that are consistent with the style that WE photograph for our clients and a clear representation of who WE are as people.  Our photos should match/mesh with our portfolio work too (style/edit) and they will certainly do just that.

Cole Joseph Photography is a very personal brand and having a few select photos on our website that truly showcase who WE are is what we want.

My direction is to utilize the photos given within our website under the existing mood board color scheme.  I am not concerned with any color clash.  We love the color tones of the mood board and still want those colors incorporated in the site.”

Getting Fired

Despite being told in a previous email “let us know your desired direction and we’ll get on with the design :)” it was a lie.  The next day I was fired from the very company that I hired.  Why I was fired was the thing that I couldn’t quite understand.

“Hi Cole,

We have been giving a lot of thought to you project and unfortunately, we feel as though it would be in the best interest of both parties to cancel the remainder of the project.

We feel as though we have struggled to get on the same page since the very beginning. We have certain professional views that we believe lead to creating a successful brand and on these points we seem to have differing opinions. At almost every step of the process there seems to be friction as our opposing view points collide. We have made continual concessions in hopes of creating something that you’d love but we are regrettably at a point that we believe continuing to make concessions would have a negative impact on the success of your brand.

Because we cannot seem to agree on the definition or direction of your brand, we believe that we are not best suited to complete your project. We would never want you to feel as though you had run into a dead end with us so I am also including a list of our recommended designers that will hopefully be able to complete your website and any other design needs.

I realize that while our contract stipulates that no refund is required at this time, you have invested a lot in this project. For this reason I have decided to refund you $1,000 which you will receive via PayPal within the week.”

After reading this email, I was in utter shock and quite upset.  I spent months trying to find the right web designer, I spent thousands of dollars more than initially budgeted, I spent 9 months of time so far to only get as far as a logo.  We hired them to design for us.  That was the problem, they wanted everything, I mean everything, done on their terms.  In my option, they don’t work for their clients, their high paying clients work for them.

I actually crafted a very nicely written email asking them to reconsider and please continue to work the project to take the the finish line before we go our separate ways as it would be in the best interests of both of us, but was quickly turned down again.

Could you imagine if any of us quit on a wedding client, just because we had different “artistic” ideas?

A Tough Lesson Learned & Tips for Finding the Right Web Designer

If you’ve read my whole story, I commend you but now it’s time for me to share with you the lessons I’ve learned and give you some super valuable tips for finding the right web designer.  Here we go…

Contract Terms Can Bite YOU In the Ass! – As photographers, many of us are familiar with contracts (you should be) but despite me knowing the importance of a contract, I got bit by one.  There was a contract term:  ______ retains the right to cancel a project at any stage in the assignment for any reason deemed necessary by ______. If this transpires the Client will be notified in writing immediately. The sad thing is, I read that term and thought about it. I thought that it was an odd term and asked myself if I need to worry about that.  Considering that my friends, were good friends with them and they were very well referred and I knew I’d never be late on a payment or deadline – I didn’t think I’d ever give them any reason to ever even consider terminating.  Obviously, I was wrong.  A tough lesson in contracts…  My advice to you – don’t ever sign up to that term because it can bite you too and you’d have no leg to stand on.

Project Schedule and Timeline – I am the guy that busts my butt to have our clients wedding photos done within 3 weeks, when people ask how long it takes I have an answer for them.  When you are hiring a web designer – make sure a project timeline is included and it isn’t completely open ended, like it was for me.  Nicole and I simply couldn’t believe how long the process was taking them each step of the way.  There was no project schedule or timeline included in the contract and as such they worked on it, whenever they felt like it.  As mentioned, we spent 9 months of total time, only to end up with a tagline/slogan and a logo.  In fact, to finalize our logo, we asked for some very minimal design changes (space the lettering out farther and choose a couple different horse icons) and it took 3 weeks.  I am no designer, but I believe I could have done those changes in 3 minutes, not 3 weeks.  Bottom line, don’t sign up with a web designer that can’t include a timeline of sorts in the contract that is mutually agreeable to both you and them.

Communication Breakdown – When I first spoke with the design company I talked with the husband/owner on the phone.  We talked for an hour and it went great.  I trusted him and he called promptly at the scheduled time.  That all changed as soon as we signed the contract though.  From that point forward, all communication would be done via email, through their admin assistant (“the lead producer”).  I am sorry, but sometimes you need to talk on the phone.  Email communication can break down and be misinterpreted.  Over the 9 month period, I spoke on the phone with the husband/owner about 5 times on the phone (whenever we had a tough topic to discuss) and the wife (actual designer) about 3 times.  In multiple stages throughout our project there were serious misunderstandings of what direction we wanted.  Without a doubt in my mind this was from the communication breakdown in their process of having everything flow through an assistant, over email, before getting to the actual people doing the work.

In fact, to prove my point of this communication breakdown, a full day after getting fired, I got this email from the assistant:
“I just wanted to let you know that I’ve sent this, along with your other email, on to the team to discuss. 🙂 I’ll get back to you just as soon as I have their thoughts.  Happy Wednesday! 😀

So their “lead producer” didn’t even know that I was no longer a client of theirs, 24 hrs after getting let go and despite them all working in the same office.  Hmmm….

It doesn’t help that they only seemed to work Mon-Fri during abbreviated “business hours” in their time zone and if a call is requested you have to schedule an appointment days in advance.  My suggestion, make sure to find someone to work with that you are comfortable with the frequency of communication and mode of communication.  Doing creative work requires a tremendous amount of communication so being able to communicate effectively is paramount.

Asking the Right Questions – Expectations and asking the right questions are everything to the success of your search for the right web designer.  Unfortunately I didn’t know what the “right questions” to ask were and had an expectation of how the project would flow that ultimately led me down a very frustrating and very expensive journey.  Here is a list of some questions I’d ask future graphic/web designers:

  • Tell me about what your design process is like?
  • How long does the process take? Will you provide me with a sample project timeline?
  • Are you the one that does the actual work?  Are you available to talk on the phone if I have questions?
  • Do you work on the weekend at all or strictly during the week during “business hours”
  • Can I review a copy of the contract?
  • How do you handle revisions or design changes?
  • How do you handle any “creative differences”?
  • What are your payment terms? Are credit cards accepted?

The New Website – Who Did I Hire?

I was burned out.  Here we go again…do I hire someone else? How much will it cost me? Will it be worth it?  I obviously was a bit spooked to say the least after what just happened but I was back at the start.  Still in need of a new website, 9 months later and not quite as excited as before.  The good news?  I had all of the content all ready to go since I had done so much homework thus far.  I reached out to a handful of different designers some quoted me $3,000 and many quoted me closer to $5,000 which wasn’t even close to doable for me… so I did what I know best…

I did it myself.

Yep.  Sometimes you just got to bite your tongue and get er’ done.  I’ve been a happy ProPhoto Blog user before and now with their latest version of the blogging software they have some pretty neat features.  So for the cost of upgrading to the newest ProPhoto version ($80) and the cost of a template that I have modified to help make my own ($100) I have a pretty rad blogsite.  I did get some design help with the background from not only a super rad friend but awesome wedding planner, Marissa from Hitched with Huff.  Check out my new website for yourself right here.

My $3,000 Logo and Pricey Lesson Learned

Everyone who has heard my story so far always says the same thing.  “How can they not give you your money back?” “Sue them!”  Unfortunately, as you read earlier, I was on contract with them for a total of $5,719 which included the website creation/design and also their “branding strategy” which included a potential business renaming, tagline and logo.  So in essence, them choosing to give me $1,000 back when the fired me, put my total costs to roughly $3,000 – which is close to 1/2 of the total contracted amount.

Truth is, if they weren’t located in Austin, Texas, I would have sued.  But I don’t have the time or resources to travel to another state.  My argument would be: there was no grounds for termination as I was never late on a payment or deadline and when hiring a creative service, a “client” should not have to worry about getting fired if their creative direction differs from what the designer thinks is best.  Also – a logo and a tagline shouldn’t be worth $3,000 and I should be entitled to more money refunded back to me.

So as I like to say, I spent 9 months of time and $3,000 for a logo and a pricey lesson learned.

In addition to the lesson learned about what to look out for when hiring a creative service, I’ve been reminded that customer service trumps all.  Having a nice, awesome website is nice and even can help get you business, but for long term success, you need to work towards giving amazing customer service.  Make your clients love working with you.  Make it easy on them and you’ll have a fan for life.  On the other hand, treat someone badly, you can bet that word can spread.

This is one step closer to closure for me, knowing that I can share my story to help thousands of others ensure they do not follow in my footsteps and go through a similar situation as I have.  So please, help me share this story and tips for success…It is something I wish I had read online before picking a web designer.

Thanks for reading, if you have a question, thoughts or just want to say hi, I’d love to hear from you so leave me a note 🙂
Cole