Five Ways Web Design Has Changed To The Advantage of Small Businesses

Bruce Balmer Calgary on RailsEditor’s Note: We’re very pleased to bring you this guest column from guest blogger Bruce Balmer. Bruce shares the five ways website development has changed dramatically in the past six years. According to Bruce, these changes add up to great advantages for small business owners, making the development of a professional and well-functioning Web site well within your reach.

By Bruce Balmer

Web design has changed significantly. What are the changes, and how can you to take advantage of them? Let me tell you a story.

In 1999, the Internet bubble was at its peak. New companies — all planning to become “the next big thing” — were launched daily. These companies were famous for two things — thinking BIG and massive “burn rates.” “Burn rate” refers to the rate a company goes through money. They were spending hundreds of thousands on programming to produce web sites considered mediocre by today’s standards.

Early in 2000, I was in charge of a substantial Internet project of a similar scale to what these companies were doing. I bought the computer hardware we needed for proof of concept $10,000 (US $8,861), the software $5,000 (US$4,430) and the first round of programming $80,000 (US $70,884). To my thinking, there was no need to spend millions on a “proof of concept.”

By the time we rebuilt the web site in 2003, the hardware cost less than half of what it did in 2000. Our software costs had gone to zero. It’s called Open Source, and if you don’t know about it, you need to. The programming cost $40,000 (US $35,442), and building it took half the time it did in 2000. Today, with all the recent advances in programming languages, I can program the same product for about $20,000 (US $17,721) — half the 2003 programming cost.

It used to be that having colossal cash for a web site was a huge competitive advantage. So, of course, the big players dominated the field. Not any more. The playing field for web site development has been leveled dramatically, and it’s a whole new ball game. With money no longer the Holy Grail, David can take on Goliath and win.

Today, small business owners can build their own site, if they wish, for one quarter of the cost in 2000. That’s a huge advantage.

Here are five important changes that have occurred on the web-building front:

  • Hardware cost is no longer an issue. A medium-traffic web site with a few thousand hits a day requires less than $2,000 (US $1,772) in hardware, a price easily in reach of small businesses. Furthermore, if you have a low-traffic site, you don’t need to spend anything on hardware. For $20 (US$18) a month, you can host multiple sites at a reasonable level of performance. 1-0 to small business
  • Ditto for software costs. Open Source is a huge phenomenon and gaining steam all the time. I can get a better database free today than I was able to buy for $5,000 to $15,000 (US $4,430 to $13,291) six years ago. 2-0 to small business
  • Recent advances in programming languages — such as the arrival of Ruby on Rails — means that programmer productivity has shot through the roof. What used to cost $80,000 (US $70,884) and take six months to build a few years ago would cost only $20,000 (US $17,721) today and take six weeks. Increased programmer productivity. 3-0 to small business
  • Tracking visitor behavior is all about finding out what is and isn’t working for you and enhancing your web site in response. Ten years ago, tracking systems used to cost big bucks, and only the big guys could afford it. Now, tracking systems can be implemented for less than $1,000 (US $886), well within the reach of small businesses. 4-0 to small business
  • The Internet is undergoing a massive revolution. Web 2.0 (Ajax) provides new ultra-slick interfaces that make the Web more like desktop applications. Again, only the big guys had access to this because of the cost. Today, it’s easy to build a Web 2.0 interface. The result is that your site can have all the polish of the giant corporations. 5-0 to small business

The bottom line? Money is no longer a barrier to entry to get a professional, attractive and functional web site. In fact, the advantage has shifted from those with money to those with creative ideas, an understanding of their customers, decisiveness and speed.

With these terrific tools at your disposal, you are in a very strong position indeed. Seize the opportunity.

* * * * *

About the Author: Bruce Balmer is a principal of Calgary On Rails ( Calgary’s premiere ruby on rails development house.


14 Reactions
  1. This is an excellent article about the how the web development has transformed over the year. It is a must Read!!!.

    -Ganesh – Leading Online Event Management portal.

  2. Bruce,

    Great note about how it was/how it is, where can I get an open source database program for free and is it customizable like MS Access?


  3. Bruce’s point number 4) tracking software. This is available for free as well. Subscribe to google adwords and put your spending to a minimal amount. apply for the google analytics software which they give out for free. It comes with a load of stats infomration.

    Matt, just type in open source in google and you will go to source forge where you will find the gamut of applications.

    Our tips to bring in repeat business can be found at

  4. Bruce, I couldn’t agree more. I direct a web design and marketing agency in San Francisco and the affordability of programming is critical to my clients (and my business-model.)

    We provide content management systems in PHP/MySQL that enable my clients to update their sites themselves, and we can do a lot for less that $10,000. Our clients don’t have a need for Ajax an ROR…yet. Wheel Media provides high-end brochure-ware, and soon they will ‘outgrow’ me and work with Calgary on Rails.

    Thanks for championing the SME!


    LeverageBlog: Exploit the Web

  5. Great post! This type of information is exactly what Small Businesses who once kept away from a website because of cost. Times have certainly changed, and website resources are now affordable and sometimes free for businesses with small budgets.

  6. To answer Matt’s question – there are lots of alternatives. My preference is for MySQL. It is a database engine and being a more “pro” product than access (which I have used and loved) it does not have a gui built in. You use it with some other thing such as ruby on rails or php or whatever takes your fancy. It’s a great product and even better is that they have a fabulous on-line manual at There is a bit of a holy-war which goes on between those who favour MySQL and those who prefer PostgreSQL. You may wish to expore postgreSQL too at

  7. I guess, AJAX is new name for the good old technology xmlhttp…
    It’s pretty powerful..

  8. Hi Bruce,

    We’d love for you to write a guide to open source software for small business at


    Shara Karasic Community Manager

  9. Very well written article. We have had a similar discussion about website design the other day. It was interesting to see several business consultants describe the same as you have discussed in this article. Cost and project time had decreased significantly in the last few years due to open sources and lower hardware cost.

  10. Thanks for writing this, I was searching everywhere for something similar, but this is just as helpful.

  11. Do you ever think of writing a new article since web design has changed over the past 4 years? Sort of evolving your thoughts or ideas on the matter?

  12. When you want them to be able to see the benefits immediately but still code HTML, check out the tutorials on I use that site and their tutorials for training my new staff.

  13. Great post! This type of information is exactly what Small Businesses who once kept away from a website because of cost. Times have certainly changed, and website resources are now affordable and sometimes free for businesses with small budgets.

Win $100 for Vendor Selection Insights

Tell us!
No, Thank You