If you’re reading this post, it’s because you’ve decided to hire someone to create a brand strategy, brand design and build a website for your business. But who should do it for you? A solo freelancer? A small web design studio? Or a big agency?
Really, who you choose to invest in comes down to a variety of factors, like your unique business goals, the type of website you need built, and even your personal collaboration and communication preferences.
Today, we’re going to take a closer look at what to expect when you hire a professional web designer or small design business to build your brand.
If you’re on the fence about hiring a smaller design business vs. a big agency to handle branding and website, here are 8 reasons why bigger isn’t always better.
When you spend money on your business, you don’t typically throw money at a bunch of random, one-time solutions. You look for smart investments that will enable your growth and success over the long-term.
Your brand strategy, brand design and website could be one of those smart business investments. It all depends on what you consider to be a good value.
For instance, you could hire an agency and spend upwards of $30,000 on a single website. Sure, it’ll be beautiful and chock-full of bells and whistles, but that’s not really what you’re paying for. You’re helping to cover all their overhead — tons of office space, a huge staff, enterprise-grade software, loads of hardware, etc.
Or you could hire a smaller digital marketing studio. You won’t spend nearly as much as you do with an agency and you’ll get far more than a website.
When I worked with SPEDfisc, for instance, we focused on developing a comprehensive and cohesive solution for their business. In the end, we did:
As partner of SPEDfisc Dave Hesketh explains:
“We have worked with various designers in the past from the low-cost overseas teams to the higher-end professionals and you truly get what you pay for.”
You don’t want to hire someone only to babysit them or someone who’s going to keep you out of the loop, giving you no say over the outcome of the project. You also don’t want to go to the extreme where you’re roped into a weekly call to discuss the same things over and over again (both our time is valuable!)
This is probably starting to make you feel a lot like Goldilocks. You want that level of communication that’s just right. 😂
To be fair, everyone’s comfort level when it comes to communication and collaboration will be different! I’ve found that most entrepreneurs and business owners prefer something in between – a sweet spot.
Here’s what I know will likely work for you:
You want a web designer who is an effective communicator. Someone who is transparent and sets expectations from the beginning.
They engage with you when they have something new, exciting and relevant to talk to you about or share! And they keep you up to date with any major changes or challenges.
That’s something you’ll really only find when you hire a smaller company. They don’t need to have a million meetings to justify the high price they’re charging you and they won’t ghost you while they work. It’s really the perfect balance!
This one goes hand-in-hand with communication. Think about it like this:
During your onboarding call, you tell Sarah the Senior Web Designer what sorts of logo and brand styles you like. You even take the time to show him the websites you found them on. However, when David the Junior Designer shows you what he’s drawn up for your business, they’re a twisted version of your original design. Whoops!
The game of telephone never works.
You’re busy trying to run your business. You shouldn’t be forced to play the game simply because your agency has a hierarchy of people you have to interact with over the course of the project.
It’s not like people who work at agencies are all ineffective communicators or bad at customer service. It’s just that, when you have that many cooks in the kitchen, wires are bound to get crossed. I’ve even experienced this when hiring agencies myself in the past.
If you’re looking for someone who’ll provide you with dedicated, empathetic, and personalized care as well as great attention to detail, you’ll need to hire a smaller studio.
Ideally, look for one that won’t pass you off to different team members.
For example, when it comes to my business, I’m personally invested in every project I take on. If you invest with me to build your brand, then you can expect to work with me throughout the entire project!
And when I say the entire project, I’m talking about the foreseeable future. Marketing is never a one-and-done kind of thing!
For example, I’ve worked with Lesley of Baila Studio for more than 10 years. Over the years, I’ve helped evolve her brand as her business has evolved and the market has changed!
In fact, I recently helped her launch a rebranded version of the site.
Even if you’re currently focused on getting things up and running for your new brand, at some point you’ll start thinking about ways to grow it. Imagine how much easier it’ll be if you have a digital marketing partner who understands your vision just as well as they do their own! 🙌🏼
One of the problems with web design today is that it’s become too automated and too dehumanized (Ahem, Chat AI!). There are so many popular website builders that promise to make it fast, easy, and cheap to create your own website. But there’s always a tradeoff for free. Always.
I’ll let you in on a little secret:
A lot of big agencies go the automated shortcut route, too. They might be charging you an insane amount of money, but they’re pocketing a whole heap of it thanks to the pre-designed template they built your website from. They simply brand their services as “custom” because they swap out all the colors, fonts, and content. This is not custom design! And, honestly, you’re getting taken advantage of.
There are literally billions of websites online today. If you want to stand out in this congested digital market, you need branding and a website that’s unique to you and isn’t even compariable to anyone else.
Take StudiOH Scoop, for example.
I worked closely with Katie to make sure that I fully understood the unique vision and goals she had for this site.
Compare it to other review sites and blogs you’ve visited recently. It doesn’t look anything like them, right? That’s because no modern cookie-cutter template could fully encapsulate the style and tone of StudiOH Scoop. Only a 100% custom design could. StudiOH Scoop is not only custom designed but custom to who Katie is!
You, of course, need to be careful with this when hiring a web designer. Before you sign any contracts, make sure you read their Google reviews to see what others have to say about their work or speak to a previous client.
See the below example of one of my past clients, who shared how her experience was after a prospective client reached out!
🚨 Spoiler alert 🚨 She’s now a client! 🙂
Also, you can straight-up ask them what tools they’re using. If their answer is something like WordPress or Wix, ask questions! While you can design custom sites on those platforms, it tends to be more theme-based. Instead, look for a designer who uses tools like Illustrator, Photoshop and Showit (just to name a few!)
Now, there’s a big difference between a generalist who does custom design work and a specialist.
It’s a lot like going to First Choice Haircutters (or whatever your budget hair salon chain is) to do your hair on your wedding day vs. going to a beauty salon that specializes in wedding hair and makeup. First Choice Haircutters will do an okay job. I mean, they work with hair all day long. But being able to craft that perfectly dreamy upswept hairdo? Might not be ideally what you expected.
You’ll find something similar when you hire an agency or designer that caters to everyone.
Agencies can certainly offer a wide array of services because of the volume of staff they have. However, anyone who’s telling you they can craft branding and a website for every type of business is wrong.
Some agencies will go that generalist route. In which case, you’ll want to avoid them. Others only go after the big fish — the industries with tons of money to burn. So, if you’re not a major retailer, restaurant chain, bank, healthcare company, tech startup, or something like that, forget about trying to hire them.
Web designers and smaller design studios tend to be specialists. They either have first-hand experience working in the niche they serve or they have a serious passion for it! Either way, they’ve been emersed in that space for decades and know the ins and outs of it.
Clearly, I am only speaking from personal experience, you’re going to get the best results that way! 😌
As an entrepreneur myself, I know all about the challenges and stressors that come with starting a business and building personal relationships with clients.
I also recognize that it’s not only your business at stake, but your own name and reputation!
That’s why I work with like-minded entrepreneurs. I can do a much better job translating their goals and vision into a pixel-perfect website and successful marketing strategy because I’ve been in their shoes.
This is something that big agencies don’t typically have a good understanding of. They’re focused on generating sales at any cost and scaling up businesses rapidly. Those simply are not my values! When you run your own business and have a small team around you, it’s not about being the fastest or the largest. It’s about making a meaningful impact and delivering real value. And most importantly cultivating a connection that is ever-lasting!
One of the mistakes I see entrepreneurs make when starting out is to focus on just their branding. They hire one agency to handle that piece, only to realize later on they need a professionally built website in order for any of it to be effective. So then they hire a different designer or agency to handle that task. And when web traffic is slow and leads are non-existent, they figure they need to hire someone else to do some marketing for them. 🤦🏻♀️
That’s one way of getting it done. But it’s not the best way.
Every time someone encounters your brand — talking to you on the phone, interacting with your website, or visiting your social media pages, for instance — it should feel like they’re engaging with the same person/same business. That’s not an easy thing to pull off when you’ve hired multiple parties to piece together your branding!
Unfortunately, something similar happens within bigger studios. While they might brand themselves as a single entity, they’ve hired people specifically for designated roles.
Finding a single partner (a unicorn really – which are hard to find! 🦄😉) to develop everything you need will lead to more consistent implementation of your brand identity as well as higher quality results.
In my marketing studio, for instance, I do all of those roles at a more compact level. That’s because there’s a huge difference in the end result if I work as a branding expert/designer/developer vs. if I pass off my designs to a different developer.
Not to get into the technical details of it all, but it’s basically a language barrier.
When designs have to be translated into code by a developer that didn’t create them, things get messy. The code is bloated, designs are inconsistent, images lack optimization, and the site simply doesn’t load. The project gets dragged out for months (even years) because it takes forever to clean up the issues and costs get inflated exponentially (this is why agencies can be so expensive to work with!).
To be clear, I don’t do everything. If a client doesn’t have their own website copy, for instance, I have hand-selected partners I call on for help — like copywriters. These aren’t random Joe Schmos I found on Upwork either. These are people I trust and who are in my corner. Literally. Before I allow anyone to work on any of my clients’ projects, I use them in my own business!
When you build a digital identity, you need more than just a website!
You need modern, attractive, and memorable branding that communicates who you are, visually. A website that’s set up to work for you and make your life simpler. You need marketing channels that look and sound like you. And it all needs to fit together seamlessly.
Haute Melanin Culture is a great example of this.
You probably wouldn’t see an online shop like this if you hired an agency though. The second you mention that you’re selling products through Shopify, they’ll go straight for the template option.
There’s nothing custom or special about that.
While it might’ve been quicker for a designer to build this shop that way, what does the project’s timeline have to do with the website’s viability?
A website should be designed to help an entrepreneur build a future for their business, not constructed based on whatever the cheapest tools are and fastest turnaround time is.
That’s a recipe for failure and I just don’t work that way!
Smaller design businesses get this.
They’re thinking about how to help that brand succeed. Speaking for myself, I truly care about my clients’ success as business owners, too. That’s why I ask very personal questions to get to know them!
If you want a more customized and careful approach to building and future-proofing your brand, a professional personable web designer will be in a better position to help you.
Big agencies tend to be hyper-focused on the details of the contract. Whether it’s the timeline, the budget, or a little something extra that needs to get added, they’re going to be paying close attention to what they do for you in exchange for how much money you give them.
“We’re to do X, Y, and Z. Adding a YouTube icon to the social media links in the footer was not included in those terms. So we need to revise the contract, redo the timeline, and add $X to your invoice.”
You’re not going to experience that sort of rigidity with a web designer. While it’s important to have a contract in place that protects both parties, it should never be weaponized against you as the client.
I think most if not all business owners would agree with that. It’s just not something they consider until it happens to them.
When it comes to how I run things here, I know I am very flexible and adaptable!
For starters, we’re all human. 🙏🏼 Things come up in life! Maybe a client is experiencing a family emergency or they’re busy putting out a fire in their business. If the timeline needs to be adjusted, then we’ll make it happen (with open communication of course!)
I’m also willing to work around your availability. I believe it’s important for entrepreneurs to be involved in the crafting of their digital branding. So if you need to meet after hours to go over some mockups, for instance, I do my best to make it work.
Designers that care about the end results vs. boosting their own profitability will find ways to be flexible with clients. Whether it’s in terms of timelines, payment terms, or making small deviations from the project scope, what matters most is the client’s satisfaction.
There are plenty of reasons to hire a smaller design studio to develop your digital identity. But are there any reasons not to?
Here are some things to think about:
If the 8 reasons above connect with you, then a smaller web design company is probably the best option.
Think of it like walking into a dress/suit shop. You need something very particular for a themed party you’re going to. You don’t see anything that fits the bill, yet the sales associates keep telling you, “Oh no, we totally have something for you.”
Do you want to be sold on a one-size-fits-all solution that doesn’t actually fit you, just so the agency can make a sale? Or do you want to find a true collaborator and partner who will help you see that vision through to its ultimate true potential?
Bottom line: Before you hire anyone, really think about what your goals and expectations are.
The clearer you get on that, the easier the decision will be in terms of who you hire: a long-term business partner vs. a one-time vendor.
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Ashley Gadd is an award-winning business brand strategist, website designer, and educator who helps clients turn their ideas into captivating and strategic brands that convert. Blending her background in nonprofit marketing with her education in design, Ashley offers customer-centric brand experiences that connect the visual and strategic dots providing her clients the tools to build a sustainable and profitable business they’re proud of.
Brand Strategist - Website Designer - Educator
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