The Hidden Cost of Free
I’ve been involved in the open-source software movement since there was an open-source software movement. Over time I’ve seen the perception of it change. In the beginning, there were a lot of people writing software and contributing because they could. It made them feel good to give to others.
Users of open-source software recognized this gift they were being given and respected it and the talents of those doing the giving. Many users contributed back to their favorite projects by way of code, documentation, advocacy, and sometimes even money.
Over time, things have changed. These days I see more people using open-source software because they think it’s free. They think that because they didn’t have to pay a programmer for their efforts they are getting away free. Sometimes, this is true, sometimes you can install a piece of software and just start generating value from it. WordPress used to be like this.
These days, however, software, even open-source software, is complex. Yes, WordPress used to have the “5-minute install,” and yes, you may actually still be able to install WordPress in 5 minutes. However, if your goal is to do anything more than write your own blog, you are going to need to add a few hours, or days, to that number.
These days software is complicated. WordPress themes used to be pretty simple. Now, they are complex beats with settings pages and many configuration options. Options that, if you aren’t familiar with the theme, can be difficult to navigate.
This is the hidden cost of free. These days, this is the high cost of free.
Many plugins are “free” these days, but they require you to subscribe to their underlying backend service. Technically they are free, but it is still going to cost you. Other plugins offer you a free version but lock the best features until you pay. Again, technically free, but if you want them to do the cool stuff, you are going to have to pay.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that all software should be free. As someone who earns their living writing code, I strongly advocate paying developers. It’s just that as a non-technical site owner, you have to understand the cost of “free.”
Be prepared to hire someone to help you. In most cases, you will need:
- A project manager. We used to call these “implementers,” but these days, I think that term has fallen out of favor. This is a technical person but may not be a programmer. They understand WordPress, plugins, and they know how to make them work together to get things done. They also know when a developer is needed and usually know a couple they can call on for help.
- A designer. You will most definitely need someone who can make your site look good. Bonus points if they are also a User Experience (UX) expert so they can make your site easy to understand and use.
- A copywriter. (You thought I was going to say developer, didn’t you?) Yes, you are going to need a copywriter — someone who is a wordsmith. You want them to look at every word on your site and make sure that what you are saying is clear and easy for your user to understand.
- Optionally you may need a developer. If you do, your project manager will know this and should know who to hire. Don’t go around them and hire your niece and put her on the team. Let the experts do the job you hired them to do.
Once you’ve got your site up, it’s still not free. Make sure you are hosting it with a reputable host who understands WordPress. It may come as a surprise to some of you, but I have sites that are not hosted at SiteGround. Some of my WordPress installs are hosted on a virtual server that I manage myself. I understand what needs to be done, and I understand the risks of managing my own server.
The projects I host myself are fringe projects with special requirements that many hosts won’t provide out of the box. While in a technical sense, yes, each additional site I spin up on my virtual server is “free,” it’s also one more thing that I have to worry about. My time is not free so hosting sites on that server turns out to be very expensive.
For all my sites that do not have very special requirements, I use SiteGround. After 25+ years of managing web servers and 15+ years of managing WordPress, I know what I need in a web hosting partner, and SiteGround ticks every box.
Free and Open Source (FOSS) software is awesome. It literally powers the world we live in. But a lot of times, free only applies to the price you pay for the code itself. When you are preparing to launch your next site, factor in more than just the cost of the code. If your site is going to add value to your enterprise, prepare a budget that will let you do it right. Don’t forget the high cost of free.