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Help! I’ve been trapped by my web design agency and I can’t get out!

Handcuffed by your web design agency?

It happens all too often. After selecting a (seemingly suitable) web design firm and committing to a project, you may find the company you picked was not a good fit and the relationship sours. Like an unhappy marriage, you want out -- and want to take what’s yours with you. You did after all, pay for your website.

Not so fast buddy.

Your contract says otherwise. That content management system you use that has ALL OF YOUR PRODUCT DATA in it? Yeah – you’re only leasing that from the web firm. That monthly fee you pay is for the rights just to use their “proprietary” CMS. Oh, I should mention that it’s written in a language that nobody else in town supports anymore. So even if you get out of your contract, good luck finding another firm to support the ancient technology. And just to put the icing on the cake, they bought your domain name for you (since you had never done it before) and you don’t actually own it! And you thought they were just nice guys looking to help you out back then!

So where does that leave you?

Sadly, it may leave you stuck between the Devil and the deep blue sea. You can suck it up, and stay trapped in your dysfunctional relationship or you can cut your losses (as painful as it may be) and (pay to) redevelop the site from scratch with another web design firm. And after the money you just shelled out for the website you have, neither option sounds all that appealing.

How did I get here? If only somebody would have told me!

So your unfortunate pre-existing condition aside, what should you have looked out for? How can you avoid getting hijacked by your web design firm again in the future? As a client, you may be at a disadvantage because you may not possess the technical expertise to wholly understand how all the parts of a website work together and how that firm handcuffed you to their solution.

Here are some guidelines and recommendations to avoid being trapped by your web design firm in the future (or those of you who still have time to choose wisely).

  1. Make sure you own:
    1. the rights to your design files and images
      You may in the future, wish to have your new web designer do some layout updates. There is a good chance he or she will want the original design files. We’ve also seen clients who didn’t realize they didn’t own the rights to all the images used on their website until they got an invoice a year later to renew the rights…to the tune of $50,000.00. Whoops.
    2. the rights to your source files
      If your new developers are going to add/modify/delete functionality to your .NET site, they’re going to need the VB project (not just the compiled code)
    3. all your domain names
    4. Analytics accounts
      You can replace the one they set up for you, but it’s just easier to own it yourself.
  2. Make sure they’re going to develop your site in a modern technology (that’s going to be supported for a long time)
    For example, I only know of one firm still developing in ColdFusion. If you wanted to leave them, you either redevelop in a new technology or sit tight with the functionality “as is”. Using a more widely adopted technology such as Microsoft .NET will make it easier for you to find a new web developer who can step right in and help.
  3. Read the contract carefully
    More importantly, have your attorney read it first.
  4. A “Proprietary” CMS with recurring licensing fees? Red flag!
    Firms who develop proprietary stuff don’t want the competitor you are leaving them for to see how they built it and they aren’t going to let you just take it.
  5. Ask “What happens if I ever want to pack up my site and leave you?”
    Keep in mind the points above when listening to their answer.
  6. Ask for some references and do some digging of your own.
    If they’re going to try and trap you, they’ve probably already done it to some other clients. And those people are probably more than happy to tell you their horror story.

Some web design firms simply are not confident enough that good work and top notch customer service will retain their clients, so they may resort to business practices that enslave their clients’ website…A content management system that you can’t keep, or a domain that wasn’t put in your name, the list goes on and on.

It’s a shame, but it happens. Just don’t let it happen to you.