Websites: The $60 question

Can a site that costs just £35 be any good? Clint Witchalls outsources his home page - and is surprised at the results

Computers defeated me. After 15 years of frustration and boredom, I finally abandoned my IT career in March 2002. I had lost. The machines had won. I vowed never to attempt to program one ever again, not even a two-line macro.

I took to writing about them instead. The only applications I'd use would be a word processor, e-mail and occasionally a spreadsheet - just to please my accountant - but that was all. No more monkeying about with code. But then people started asking me what my web address was. When I told them I didn't have one, they were incredulous. A technology writer who didn't have a website? What kind of strange beast was I, they wanted to know.

Shamed by my lack of HTML skills, I told a friend, who'd launched several unsuccessful e-commerce ventures during the Nineties boom, that I planned to build my own site. "You don't want to do that," he said. "You can't even program your washing machine. You should outsource." I reminded him that I'm not a multinational PLC. I'm one man with a very tight budget.

That's when he told me about personal outsourcing. Apparently, it's possible to pass on the teensiest IT problem to a third party in the developing world. It's all done via a website called www.rentacoder.com - you write down the details of the program or website you want developed, post your requirements on Rent A Coder, and wait for bids.

On Sunday 18 September, I wrote a simple request for a personal website. I thought it best to give the bid process 21 days, to give the developers enough time to prepare their pitches.

The following morning, there was an e-mail in my inbox from the Rent A Coder facilitator. She said: "Hi Clint, I have good news. Your bid request has been approved for posting. Your bid request is now: 1) Available to 115,007 programmers for viewing..."

Following that were 63 bids. The first message was from Florida. It said: "Hello, i can do your work what you want. i have very good work experiance in Flash as well as Html sites and logo designing." She offered to do the work for $100 (£58). Someone called "Babe" offered to build the entire site for $10. Her message enigmatically read: "When can we start. Cursed." Most of the messages were equally strange. A guy who bid $17 wrote: "Is there anything else an amateur journalist could do for a pro, just send him a reply!"

The e-mails ranged from the technical - "I am hardcore programmer into asp, visual basic, xml and Ms-sql" - to the bizarre - "I, Shine caprio, is Ranked No 13,244 out of 115,483 (higher than 88.53 per cent of my peers)" - to the barely comprehensible: "sir I'n make you one only on html." Someone called Osama offered to do the work for $800. He advised: "As a journalist you need a blog to post your articles in it and get comments from the public on it."

The e-mails arrived faster than I could process them. I decided to go cheap, but not too cheap (what could I really expect for $10?). I settled for a company, eNFINITY, which said they'd do the job for $60. I assumed eNFINITY was based somewhere like Manila or Guangzhou, but it was from New Mexico.

At first, I was nervous about paying a company on the other side of the world for a website I'd only very loosely specified. Luckily, it wasn't much cash, but in any case, the whole process has been carefully thought through. The funds are held in escrow and only released when you're happy with the work. If you're not satisfied and can't settle things with the developer, Rent A Coder conducts an online arbitration to settle the dispute.

Shortly after I accepted the bid, I had an e-mail from Luke at eNFINITY. He said my request was basic and he could get the whole thing done and dusted very quickly. It was at this point that I realised I didn't have much content to give to the developer. I grabbed a few bits, scribbled some text (I could always change it later), and sent them to Luke.

A couple of days later, I e-mailed Luke to see how things were going. No reply. Damn! I knew it was too good to be true. My $60 would be locked in escrow in perpetuity. Then an e-mail arrived from eNFINITY to say the site was done and I could take a look (www.clint-witchalls.co.uk).

My expectations weren't high, but I was impressed. The site isn't going to win a Webby, but at least I have something to build on, and when I finally decide on some proper content, I know there's a company in New Mexico that can help.

My last e-mail from Luke said: "Hi Clint, I'll write you a little tutorial on how to update and add to your site. Of course, if you ever need any assistance with this at any time, you can contact me directly via e-mail and I'll help ya out. I can send to your e-mail directly or on here if you want. Let me know. Thanks, Luke." Now, that's what I call service. I paid £35 and he's still offering to do more work.

I asked Pedalo Limited, a London-based web design agency, what they thought of the site. Their marketing manager Beth O'Connor sent a written reply: "It is obviously a very basic design, likely to have been designed from a template as opposed to a bespoke design. Even with a small budget, the agency could have added a splash of colour."

She went on to say that "the simplicity of the site's design and functionality suggests that it was delivered on a very small budget". Too right. "We would not consider delivering a site of this quality, with our author clients generally investing between £1,000 and £5,000 for the development, hosting and promotion of their personal websites."

For development and hosting, I paid the grand sum of £75. It's horses for courses, I guess, and my old pony will do me just fine.

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